2011-12-30

A Colorful Hotel

I decided to stay in a hotel at Newark instead of driving 2 hours on with my family and then after breakfast driving back to Newark (add an hour for rush hour). I chose a hotel a bit further away from the airport (Fairfield Inn) than the expensive in-airport hotels. But they have a bus shuttle to the airport, breakfast is included, and they have free Internet.

Sure, I wasn't served at breakfast - had to get my own coffee in a styrofoam cup (and it wasn't bad, for American coffee), had my oatmeal in a plastic bowl with a plastic spoon, and the place was crowded, but breakfast was actually better than that fancy place in Mars. And they even have a swimming pool, although I decided I was too lazy to use it.

The most noticeable thing about the hotel is that there are people of color here - many people of many different colors and nationalities. Not just the people working here, the people staying here.  It is a truly diverse crowd, and not just all foreigners. Most speak American, they just didn't want to spend twice the money on a room in New York or at the airport.

As a middle-class girl I am used to the segregated society that still exists in the USA. The church we attended on Christmas Eve was 99% white. The neighbors are 99% white. The shoppers at Trader Joe's were 99% white. The clerks and the cashiers tend to be a bit more diverse, and of course, and the cook at the Japanese place (more about that in the next blog entry) was Japanese.

I really like not being in the majority - it is the way I think Things Ought To Be.

You have mail!

We were to be heading back home after breakfast this morning, when the telephone rang. It was the Butler post office calling - Daddy had arrived and was on the delivery truck! But we couldn't get it, as it was addressed to the funeral home. Should be delivered by noon.

A short discussion later we delayed the return trip in order to complete the burial. We headed for Starbucks, one brother taking back breakfast for the princesses and my sister-in-law, the other riding out with me to dig a hole. We had breakfast in the car, while driving. I had a cinnamon bun about the size of 8 Swedish kanelbuller, that should be enough calories for a day or two.

There was a light snow, and these Pennsylvania curves are treacherous. My cousin remarked yesterday that they just let loose a snake in Pennsylvania and the paving machine follows right behind. And the hills - oh my, my stomach recalls exactly the rhythm of the hills leading down to the farm. We passed the old Brownsdale store, long out of business, and drove past the old farm house. We pulled into the driveway of the neighbors - they seem to be thankfully not at home.

We chose a spot up at the top of the lot with a good view both of the house he built himself and the house his mother and sister had built when they sold off the rest of the farm. Looking back one can see the woods behind the cornfields. The top of the ground was frozen, but the shovel quickly bit through that, the rest was not frozen. We took turns digging. There was just a bit of topsoil, then lots of clay and stones that were not easy to get out. While I dug, my brother looked for stones; while he dug, I made a cross out of sticks and some ribbon that was among the flotsam on the floor of the car.

We got a nice deep hole dug and headed back to the hotel. The princesses were enjoying the swimming pool, we had them get out and get packed. We packed up the car and headed back to Butler. We know the way by now without the GPS system. At the funeral home they had us sit down and wait, while they looked. Yes, the mail had come. Yes, there was a box for us there. The postal worker had forgotten to ring the bell, the registered mail thingy was still attached to the box, unsigned. The box was postmarked December 21, the cremation was December 13. Where did he spend that week? How on earth an registered mail that was supposed to be sent overnight took more than a week to get from Florida to Pennsylvania remains a mystery.

We signed the forms, declined to buy an urn, and headed back to the lot. I rode with the box on my lap, a very strange feeling. This, then, is all that remains of a person: about 2 kilograms of ashes, in a box. As we came down towards the village I had my brother take a short drive up and down Main Street, a sort of farewell to the church, the school, and the train tracks. Then we made it up the hill and parked.

I had prepared a short ceremony that we followed, lowering the box into the hole, pouring a bottle of good red wine in on top, and then everyone taking a turn at putting the dirt back into the hole. We tamped it down, lay the cross and the stone down so we can find it to plant a dogwood tree there in the spring, and we found that it was now good. The spot was just perfect for him, and we all felt a sense of relief, a feeling of closure, that we had completed the mission.

Rest in peace, Daddy!

2011-12-29

A Proxy Funeral

"I've been in the business 29 years," the funeral director said, "and I have never had this happen before."

Daddy didn't make it to his own funeral. He died over 3 weeks ago in Florida and was cremated 2 weeks ago there. He was to be sent certified mail with the grand and glorious United States Postal Service to the funeral home in Butler, PA, where the funeral was held today. Apparently, the funeral home in Florida didn't put him in the mail right away, but there is proof that he was handed over. But the USPS has no idea where the ashes currently are. They are not in Butler. They are not in Pittsburgh. They are not in Jacksonville. They just don't know. Call again tomorrow. As they have been saying for days.

This would have irritated Daddy no end, as he liked to be on time. Luckily, we had a poster board with a lot of pictures so that we at least had something. And the obituary had been printed in the local newspaper as planned, although we did rather think it would be a waste of money. Imagine our surprise, when in addition to the children, grandchildren and cousins two neighbors of my grandmother came, a good friend of my aunt with her husband, and two guys who knew Daddy in grade school and high school.

So we held a memorial service, with music, even though no one sang much except "Amazing Grace" at the end. I gave the eulogy, one brother read the poem "Flare" by Mary Oliver, the other told some good stories, and two of the granddaughters also stood up to say something, which pretty much had everyone in tears.

And then we were at a loss. We had planned on taking the ashes in the car to the little village where he was born and scattering the ashes on the acre he still owned there. But there were no ashes. We decided to drive out anyway. We parked at a neighbors and walked around the wet and snowy field. We reminisced about the place, and then drove on in search of lunch.

The first place was closed, but the municipal airport hat a little eatery. We all had typical local food (I had a Rueben sandwich with some really good coleslaw) and a good visit with the cousins. After lunch they headed home, and we drove around a bit more. We drove slowly past the farm, and the house I grew up in. We toured the village down by the creek, me hopping out to make pictures. Then we climbed the hill on Meridian road and headed out to look for our grandparents' graves. We found the cemetery, and there was even someone there to give us the exact coordinates. The graves were covered with snow, but we found them.

I was struck at how much this part of the world resonated with something deep inside me. This is the place I come from, my home country. There is something here that is me, even though much has changed since I lived here. I even find myself slipping into the local dialect: "yinz", "root-8" (for Route 8, although I of course say "rout 66"), "spigot", "sahrkraht". Oh my, there's even a Wikipedia entry on the dialect! And a page dedicated to Myron Cope, the sportscaster I loved to listen to, on Pittsburghese.

So if Daddy ever gets found by the post office, I'll be back home for burying the ashes.

2011-12-27

The Boxing Day Reception

The day after Christmas is generally a normal working day in the US, but in England it is called Boxing Day. My brother and his family attend an Episcopalian church, which is rooted in England, so their rector has a Boxing Day reception. I tagged along as sister-of.

The parsonage was packed with people when we arrived. The rooms were filled with Christmas decorations and knickknacks galore. The dining room table groaned under plates and plates of food, and there were stashes of bubbly and beer in each of the rooms. I collected some pink bubbly and a plate of food and first stood around being the sister-from-Germany.

While foraging for a drink refill the rector introduced me to a guy standing next to him, and we started to chat. He's one of those hedge-fond guys who are selling European debts short and are, in my opinion, responsible for much of the current mess. Instead of asking me about the European situation, as a guy at dinner last night did, he told me about all that Europe is doing wrong.

Another guy joined us and they carried on a bit about the European Problem. Then they started talking about the Stratfor hack by the Anonymous group (NYT report). I found it mildly amusing, because they tried to explain to me what the group was and what they were doing. They had not yet asked me what I do, so they didn't know that I know a tiny bit about the Internet. I wondered what I would do if I were a member of Anonymous, how I would keep a straight face when people discuss this and have so much information wrong. One Anonymous annoncement denies that they are responsible for this hack on the open source intelligence agency, although there is a link to the announcement from an Anonymous Twitter account, and there they deny that they are not responsible. Whatever, there are lots of links posted.  

Anyway, the guy was saying that credit card numbers were posted on the Internet. Well, kind of. They are posted, but are encrypted, as they should have been at Stratfor. Apparently, a few pictures were posted with credit card transactions, and there were social security numbers posted. As I was defending the action, he went ballistic. These guys are criminals who need to be arrested and punished. He was frothing at the mouth, so I kept feeding the fire, saying that a company that keeps credit card numbers online is inviting trouble. "Well, what if I say that you are really bad at self-defense and so I smack you in the mouth to prove it? Huh? Huh? Is that okay?" He was really agitated, I guess he was afraid his credit card number might show up.

His wife came to collect him, but on the way home he apparently ran into my brother and chewed his ear off. I got asked what on earth I had said to him ;)

So what do I think of the action? It's a bad idea for the organizations getting the money if the credit card companies fight back and charge the recipients 35$ a pop for "fraudulent transactions". But judging from this guy's agitation, that hit him where he will pay attention. Don't know if it will change his attitude, though.

2011-12-25

New York, New York

It is a tradition in my brother's family to spend Christmas Eve in the best city in the world - New York. So we did an early run to get fish for dinner, I stood in a long line at the French Bakery to get croissants and baguettes, and my brother got coffee at Starbucks. We gulped down breakfast and got into the car with the princesses and drove down to New York.

At that hour of the morning you can make good time, we pulled into the parking garage of the Museum of Natural History just after it opened. And the first order of business was to open the trunk for inspection. I asked why, apparently they are looking for "bombs". I said, that's crazy, if I'm bringing a bomb in, it's under the seat, not in the trunk. Why do they put up with that? Oh, it's only 30 seconds, and it makes them feel good. Before you approach the cash register you have to go through "security". There was a long list of things not allowed, like my Swiss Army Knife. Luckily, the guard was pretty much asleep, and we distracted her with questions about the lost and found (we found a sweater on the parking lot), so I got to take my knife in with me.

We spent about 2 hours in the museum, seeing the Origami Christmas tree with dinosaurs folded out of paper.  Then we went to see the real dinosaurs. Of course, the dinos in Berlin are much better and bigger than the ones in New York, but they kind of like them. And there is a little rotunda in the dinosaur department that has a nice view of New York, looking out over Central Park. Yes, that's me and my camera reflecting in the window. My picture taking skills need polish.

We went to Virgil's Real Barbecue for lunch - a heavy lunch, although we only had sandwiches. It was full southern BBQ furnishing, and the menu was calorie-laden. Salads? You have to be joking. I had a mixed BBQ sandwich and burped it all afternoon. Not my favorite kind of food. Then we walked to the Rockefeller Center in the bright sunlight.  The streets are full of yellow cabs ferrying people to and fro, but the walk was very nice, even if we did have to keep the princesses locked into an adult hand apiece so as not to lose them in the crowds. There was a tree at the Rockefeller Center - I've seen worse in Berlin. All tinseled up and with a big crowd pushing through to see it.

There was a tiny ice skating rink in the middle of the plaza that was crowded with people, and a Santa Clause lazily skating around. All around the plaza there were flags hanging from the buildings. This is something that still unsettles me, the sheer amount of patriotic flag-waving that goes on in the US.





On the way back to the car we passed the New York headquarters of the IRS, the tax collectors of the US. They have a sign out front with the current national debt on it:


Bill Clinton balanced, the budget, remember? And Mr. Bush, Jr. pushed that up to 15 trillion (!) with his war in Iraq. We got into the car (parking in New York is exorbitant, I think my brother paid over 70$ in parking fees alone!) and headed back to Connecticut. There we got ourselves prettied up and made it to the family church service at 5 pm. It was a 2-hour service, there's a lot to get in and the place was packed.

Then home for a Seven Fish Dinner (we gave up after six, there was just no way that anyone was going to be able to eat another bite): Braised tuna with sesame and poppy seeds, clams, mussels, grilled salmon, scallops in butter and parsley sauce, shrimp in garlic sauce. Add champagne and French bread, and it was just marvelous!

We managed to get the princesses to bed after reading the "Night before Christmas" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". I have tried to talk the princesses until waiting until 7.30 am to wake us. Fat chance that will work, but I tried.

Merry Christmas!


2011-12-24

The Elf Party

For the last appearance of Elf on the Shelf we decided he needed a pool party:


Yes, that's the Mermaid Barbie I gave to one of the princesses for her birthday. That elf looks pretty wasted. I wonder where Ken has been all month?

Merry Christmas!

Deck the Cars

No, it is not enough that people decorate their trees, here. Nor their houses. They also decorate their cars. Antlers and a red nose.

My sister-in-law says that there is an Easter version as well. Glad I'm not here for that.

Most of the houses are relatively decent in their decorations. A wreath on every window, a Santa on the roof. The public decorations are prolific, but non-religious: wreaths, snowmen, red bows, glitter, tinsel, flashing lights, trees.

There is a big fight about a nativity scene being held on public property. Since there is separation of church and state, there can be no religious matter on public grounds. But the Knights of Columbus have a special dispensation, that if they pay rent for the property, pay for the scene themselves, and have guards on duty 24/7, then they can have a nativity scene set up.

The prize in the department I-Don't-Want-Your-Electricity-Bill is:


The whole entire house is draped in lights. Blinking lights. Colored lights. There are creatures on the lawn. They blink. I would not want to have to live next to this.

Elf on the Shelf

I've been hearing about the trials of having an "Elf on the Shelf" from my sister-in-law's Facebook page, but I really didn't understand what this was about. It seems, however, that this is all the rage here this year. The princesses were telling me excitedly about all the other kids they know with their own elves.

It is a doll, dressed up like an elf. Apparently, he listens to the kids in the house, trying to find out what they want. The kids can talk to him, but not touch him. He flies to Santa's place every night, to tell him what the kids want, and he's in another place the next morning when the kids get up.

A spa day for Rudolph and Barbie
That's the challenge, finding good places to put him. My sister-in-law has been setting up "dates" between their elf, named Rudolph, and some of the assorted Barbie dolls found around the house. The princesses find this scandalous, although as I pointed out, Rudolph didn't actually marry any of them, so he is free to go on a date with a different Barbie every night, if he is so inclined.

Last night Rudolph apparently returned from Santa pretty wasted, so he treated himself to a spa treatment with the Barbie of the night, including real cucumber pieces on their eyes. Everyone had a good laugh about them.

While we were shopping in the morning, the dogs managed to jump up and eat the cucumbers, luckily Rudolph survived. We look forward to seeing what he will be up to tomorrow, when he gets back from Santa again.

2011-12-19

I know you!

I was accompanying WiseMan to a Christmas party in his department that one of the postdocs was hosting. The postdoc had also included families and kids that their kids knew from school and kindergarten, so there were quite a lot of kids milling around.

After most of the kids left and we were able to enjoy the punch in relative quiet, the woman sitting next to me stood up to gather up her kids. She stared at me, and then exclaimed "I know you!" I'm used to people kind of knowing me, so I just smiled, as I had no idea who she was.

"You were my advisor for my thesis!" Oh my. I just counted - I have had 145 theses that I have advised over the past 18 years. When she said her name, I recognized the name, but could not remember the topic. But I asked what she was doing, and was very happy to hear that she had a great job at a largish company here in Berlin. And we connected up on a possible project with another professor in my department.

Berlin ist ein Dorf, as they say here, Berlin, this place is a small village. That's one of the things I like about this city.

2011-12-18

Why are all these people here?

We had the service of lessons and carols this evening at our church. We normally have about 20-25 people at service, often 3 of them kids. This evening there were about 130 people and a dozen kids, people come for the Christmas carols.

One of our regular kids, Leonie, age 5, grabbed my hand as I was collecting the offering. "Why are all these people here this evening?" She was seriously irritated. I explained quietly that since we had a choir, many people wanted to listen to the choir and sing with us. "But there's no place to sit!" We had many people who had to stand in the back, as all the chairs were taken. "Why don't they come every week?"

Kids are very observant!



2011-12-11

No more midnight calls

There's a strange feeling about this evening. It's Sunday night, time to connect with the family night.

For years, my mother wrote a letter to her parents every Sunday evening while watching TV after dinner. When I moved to Germany, I got a Sunday letter every time the German post office was so moved to deliver the letter. Sometimes I got them 3 days later, sometimes 8 days, sometimes 2 weeks later. I tried to get into the habit of writing as well, and rescued a big pile of my letters when we were cleaning out their house in 2004.

As telephones from Germany to the US got cheaper, I couldn't be bothered writing anymore, and would just call. After putting the folks in the home in 2004 I made sure to call every Sunday at midnight (6 pm their time, just after supper). Daddy would pounce on the phone at the first ring.

Every now and then I would forget (being busy with something or other), and he would be so sad that he had missed me. So I tried to call from where ever I was in the world. Skype was wonderful, I got the call out so I only needed Internet to be able to reach him.

I'm glad I tracked him down last week. It had gotten difficult because you had to find out in what hospital he was in that week, and talk a nurse into holding the phone in his room to his ear. But we got it to work last week, and so I had a last, short conversation with him.

This week - deafening silence. I feel the need to talk to someone, manage to find my brother for a short chat. I'll miss the calls, terribly.

2011-12-06

Sad Nikolaus

Strange - when I got dressed this morning I somehow couldn't bear to have color on, although it was our grand foundation laying ceremony. Black was the only thing I felt comfortable wearing, with a grey and black coat. Someone remarked that I was all in black and I noted that at least the top button was in the school color.

It was a rough day, for other reasons. I got home, wanted to just sit down and listen to the music, but the phone noted that there was a call on the answering machine. It was my brother. Calling back, I knew what he was going to say before he said it.

Daddy died today. He had a good breakfast, then had trouble breathing. They called the hospice worker, she came and gave him morphine. He fell asleep, and died in his sleep. He didn't get to see Mommy again - that will have to wait.

We're going to bury his ashes on that piece of the farm he refused to sell, to keep the buyer from putting in a street to his housing development. It's next to the house Daddy built with his own hands. I'll fly over and we'll do a service in the village church and the burial between Christmas and New Year's. Let's hope the snow stays away.

Thanks Daddy, despite everything, thanks. And say "Hi" to Grandma, Grandpa, and Aunt Jean.

2011-12-03

Daddy's dying

My brother flew down to see what was up with the parents, the rehab clinic had insisted that he come, and come soon. I've been having trouble reaching him, he's been whisked off to this hospital or that rehab, but in general I've been able to track him down for our weekly call.

He's dying. We've known that for years, no, decades. He spent the longest time trying to drink himself to death, but when we put them in a home in 2004 he perked up, actually got his drinking under control, and enjoyed life! The hardest thing he had to do was put Mommy in the memory care unit. I was in Iceland, and we spoke by mobile phone, it cost me a fortune, but it was important to be speaking with him that night.

I left home at 19, put an ocean between me and my folks, that was the proper distance. I wrote letters every week, and called when I could. I have always been an expert on how to organize cheap transatlantic calls, and have tried out many schemes over the decades. Once it got cheap enough, I would call every Sunday evening. The midnight call (6 pm for them) got to be a very regular habit that I have continued over all the years. The past few years he would pounce on the phone, pick up at the first ring, so I tried to be punctual about calling.

He was always a busy man. When I was very young he was working as an engineer, working on a Master's degree in industrial engineering, and building a house for us with his own muscle power. He was just like his mother and dad, farmers who were in constant motion from the moment they hit the floor in the morning until they said their evening prayers. We moved around from job to job. He used to joke that he had to move when he got a house perfect so there was nothing else for him to do. My best childhood memories are of going to the hardware store with Daddy on a Saturday, and helping him with the weekend project. I still love hardware stores.

He was often away on some building project or other, he built or managed railroad systems. Westinghouse; Union Railroad; P & LE; Washington, D.C. Metro; some strange desk job in Atlanta managing the American Institute of Industrial Engineers where he drank heavily with the heavy-drinking top manager; the "Tijuana Trolly" in San Diego; The San Francisco BART system; car production for subway systems; a number of other jobs after I left, the last for Matra, designing systems for Kuala Lumpur and the driverless people mover in Jacksonville. His heart broke when Jacksonville decided not to continue building the people mover. He made a proposal for Pittsburgh, that didn't get accepted either, and he retired to a life of hard drinking.

They made it over to Europe a few times, especially after there was a grandchild. We were in Berlin in August 89, ventured over the wall into "Commie-Land", visited Sweden. They loved Sweden, you could buy milk with a credit card and no one batted an eye, not like that horrible Germany where they rolled up the sidewalks Saturdays at 1pm and you could starve by Monday morning if you hadn't managed to lay in food for the weekend.

In his younger years he was, like his sister, a lay preacher in the Methodist church. In older years he served in other capacities, often as an usher. He was so proud when I got my lay preacher's license, I taped my sermons on my iPod and sent CDs over to him to listen on his CD player.

He was horribly right-wing, politics was not a topic we could discuss in civil tones, although time and again I would raise an issue and we would fight it out. I remember their first visit to Kiel where we were fighting about the issue of handicapped-accessible public transport. He felt that was a waste of money, I felt that handicapped have the right to be able to use public transport as well. I'll never forget the look on his face when he was faced with a train station in Berlin pushing a baby carriage. "How the hell am I supposed to get down here?" he hollered. "It's not handicapped-accessible, Daddy you put it under your arm and carry it down, or you ask for help!". You could see the wheels whirring in his mind. He finally understood. His next station, in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, was a skater's dream - not a step in the place, only ramps.

He would listen to that horrible Rush Limbaugh every day. On my last visit I would get so angry at the nonsense that Limbaugh would be spouting. But Daddy was adamant - although he now needed Medicare, he was 100% against "socialized medicine". So I talked a lot about the weather as I waded through the piles of bills.

After he had Mommy put in the Memory Care Unit, as they euphemistically call the Alzheimer's ward, he would visit her every day, even after he was confined to a wheelchair. That was something to do! Now he himself lies unmoving, unable to carry on a conversation, unaware of people around him, waiting to die.

WiseMan already lost both his parents - his father in 2006 (Blogposts:  1 - 2 - 3 - 4 ) his mother in 2009 (Blogposts: 1 - 2). Things change when they are gone. You are now the oldest generation. And there is now no one around who played a part in your childhood memories. I find it hard to work today, my mind is flooded with memories, pictures, voices, smells.

Daddy - I hope you find your peace with the world.


2011-12-02

Carnage

We went to the local English-language cinema this evening to see Carnage while munching proper salted popcorn. The theater was pretty well filled, but we had good seats, i.e. the tall guy sat down just to the right of me.

Oh my, what a funny play. Ingmar Bergman would be proud of all the shifting alliances, the deep-seated emotions, the allusions to deeper problems. And Christoph Waltz plays the nasty lawyer perfectly. How does he manage to do all of these evil guys without cracking up? Jodie Foster is beautiful in wrinkles and Kate Winslet, well, Kate is just stupefyingly beautiful - and a beast when drunk. John C. Reilly was just like the dad of my best friend when I was little.

What happens? Well, one couple's kid knocks the other couple's kid with a stick and injures him. They are talking it out like civilized people. Not. 

The US-fake-niceness was so hard to bear at times, I facepalmed with my scarf. The barf scene - worthy of a Monty-Python-Award - was, I hope, the reason for all the 2D and 3D artists.

It was a different sort of movie, we laughed a lot - worth seeing!

2011-11-15

Kafka "Das Schloß"

WiseMan reminded me that I had promised that we would still go to the theater even without a subscription and it was already November and I work far too much anyway. So we got tickets to the last performance of Kafka's "Das Schloß" at the Kammerspiele of the Deutsches Theater

When we were let into the room, the play was already in progress. And they were fighting about how to start off. There was a nasty scene with one cantakerous guy and everyone else voting that he bugger off that really reminded me of many, many meetings I have been to...

There were actually many scenes like that. The brown-nosers, the we-have-to-follow-the-rules crowd, the mindless belief in the people in the castle somehow being "better", the disappointment that people do not live up to non-voiced expectations, etc. etc.

It was hard to follow - this is an unfinished novel that was adapted to play form. I found myself drowsy at times, probably from all the meetings I attended that day. But it reminded me that I had wanted to read more Kafka after visiting the museum in Prague earlier this year, so I had better get on with it!

2011-11-12

Munch's Hus

The past 10 days or so have been exceedingly chaotic and stressful, I've pretty much just been using the apartment as a place to sleep, change clothes, get a cup of coffee and go on to the next thing. So when the person we had invited to dinner this evening begged off at short notice, we decided to have a nice dinner on the town.

WiseMan had been to Munch's Hus before, as they do the catering at the Nordic Embassies. We made a reservation for early evening - and were glad we did. When we arrived they were busy on the phone, telling people that all the tables were taken but they could come have a drink at the bar if they liked. When I made the reservation and gave our name, the guy asked "Is this Famous-Person-with-the-same-last-name?" Uh, no. And if you want to have people like that in your restaurant, you need to be very discreet and pretend they are just normal people - but treat all guests like royalty.

We started off with "Elk Blood", a wonderful aperitif of vodka and blueberry juice. I'm addicted to anything blueberry, so that was a great way to get started. WiseMan chose the porcino soup and I had a lovely salad with crayfish tails and a wonderful cured salmon steeped in aquavit.

The main dish was of course fish, I had a spit with salmon, a delicious white fish, scallops and Greenland shrimp, on top of delicate pea pods with some rosemary potatoes on the side. We had white wine with the fish, just an open wine, good for washing it down.

For dessert I had a pancake with - you guessed it - blueberry sauce. I wanted to wash it down with a Linie aquavit, but the aquavit and the espresso came quite a long time before the dessert, and both needed immediate attention.

It was a delicious evening, even if it was rather crowded. If they manage to serve the dessert together with the coffee that would have been just the crowning touch on a lovely Norwegian meal in the middle of a Schöneberg wasteland.

2011-11-04

DJane WiseWoman

My ears are still ringing, and I had earplugs on, industrial ones. But I had a good time!

Back in the summer I got an email asking me if I would participate in Professorennacht, a special disco night where professors DJ with their favorite songs. Since I normally just get asked to speak on one topic and one topic only, I thought this would be nice to try out. And I've never been a DJ before.

I sent in a selection of songs, which the DJ pared down to just 4 on account of them being so long. We only had 15 minutes, and that included 3 minutes for the introduction. I had a number of very strange songs, so I submitted a few more.

I was picked up in a nice black rental car with more buttons and dials than the cockpit of a 747 at 8.30 pm and driven to the club, Fritz Club at the Postbahnhof. We were let onto the grounds and went in a side entrance. We were greeted by the first group of journalists right then, they were out in droves. It was fascinating seeing how all sorts of press reported on this in advance - the B.Z. chose me to portrait, the other local newspapers chose different professors.

We were shown around the backstage area and given passes and T-shirts. Then we were given a crash course in how to DJ. There were two DJs there, as there were two rooms being played. They had a smaller one for the first "fight" - two professors playing back to back and the cheering being registered on a decibel meter. The last three were in the larger room while the smaller one was played by a regular DJ.  DJ Caniggia was my teacher, a fun guy who had done this in Tübingen many times before and had exact ideas about how he wanted the show to go.

They have turntables and you pretend to be using vinyl records - but they are only speed and direction input devices, the music is played digitally from a Mac. Apparently, previous professors have been a bit afraid of these things with all the dials and knobs. I kind of like pressing buttons, and I can do a drag & drop on a Mac, so there was really no problem.

Then we just sort of hung out until the party started, which was not to be until about 23.00! We had a backstage "lounge" with some grotty couches and two tiny tables with some cups and a well stocked refrigerator. The journalists and quite a number of random people who did not seem to have any job to perform other than making out on the sofas quite enjoyed the chips and peanuts and drinks.

The first group of professors chatted a bit and the journalists poked us to come up with cool sayings or to explain why we chose the songs we did. The opponent for the colleague from my school was a mathematician, and he knew the first song I was playing, we actually sang the refrain together for the cameras.

Our set, the second one, was finally on just before 1 am (my normal bedtime). I started off with Lobachevsky, a song Tom Lehrer wrote about plagiarism. I was planning on killing this one off and going right to my second song if people didn't find it funny (and they didn't) by stopping and saying something into the mike - but I couldn't find the mike and couldn't get the DJ to find it, he liked the song. Finally I just cut over to Pink with Get the party started, and they liked that much better.

It was very funny, seeing all those people out there moving to the music I chose. I couldn't make out any faces beyond the first row, but I could see them dancing. I started dancing a bit myself, and then Caniggia joined in, that was really funny. Third up was Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. This is actually a political song about the Vietnam War, but people just enjoy the refrain.

I closed with Shakira's Waka Waka, and the DJ and I really bounced around to that one! I only got 106 dB, however, and the computer scientist from the TU Berlin I was up against seemed to have brought his entire Intro to Computing course (400 people), so they ran up 112 dB. So all he got was a trophy, I got a nice bottle of Rotkäppchen Sekt. I much prefer that ;)

There were more interviews after that, we had to do one down in the crowd, I honestly did not understand the questions the interviewer was screaming into my ear. The place was crammed - they must have done okay at the box office. I walked around a bit, there were people standing outside, still waiting to come in, although it was full!

I went back stage again to see the rest of the acts. I was very glad there were bouncers there when the professor for sports was up - a bunch of his students rushed the stage. The bouncers appeared from nowhere and got everyone back down on the dance floor. A Swedish professor at the Charité had the DJ play his music, which started with Abba. He pulled out a Swedish T-Shirt and Viking horns, and danced up on a little stage. Then he threw the T-Shirt into the group, they thought this was wild. He pulled up two women to dance with him, everyone was screaming with laughter at that. But he lost to the sports guys, although I thought they had the worst music. They were just the loudest.

Shortly after 3 am they asked if I wanted to leave, as one of the professors who lives near me wanted to go. I said sure, gathered my stuff, and was whisked off through the empty Berlin streets getting home just before 4 am. I'm sure glad I don't have to teach at 8 am today!

I look forward to reading what the press has to say - I enjoyed myself, but I don't think I want to take this up as a second profession.





2011-10-25

Lux Mundi

I was at the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall Tuesday evening to hear the world premiere of John Allison Campbell's Lux Mundi. I've known John for many, many years. He's American, from the wrong side of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) and was living in Friedenau. I was American, from the right side of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh) and was living in Friedenau. We met at the little Methodist church in Friedenau.

Composers are kind of crazy. Kind, but crazy at times. We took to celebrating Thanksgiving together - one year at his place, with his tiny oven and the beautiful formal dining room with old china and glassware and linens; one year at my place with the monster oven and the ragtag assortment of chairs, linens, eating utensils, and attendees.

I've tried to attend as many of his concerts as possible, although I am not really a musical person. Those genes all went to my dearest brother, the musician. I couldn't really connect with much of what he wrote. The clarinet stuff was okay (although the double tonguing deal was kind of kinky), but the piece he wrote for 5 bassoons and some other instrument was just awful.

Just the same, we had him compose a piece for WiseKid's baptism as a challenge to dearest brother, who declined on short notice. We managed to get another organist to try it out, and he bravely put it on, although he messed up in the middle, stopped, and restarted the piece. After the baptismal service a professor of music who was attending to hear the presentation went up to the organist and tapped him on the shoulder. "Young man," she said, "this is modern music. If you make a mistake, don't stop, just make up something and get back into it. No one will notice!"

Back to Lux Mundi, the light of the world. Here, someone would notice. I don't know if it is because John is mellowing, but this is quite an enjoyable symphony for orchestra and choir. There was a 50 piece orchestra playing (including a great woman on the tympani) and a 50+ choir of 50+ people, including John. I asked him after the show what it was like to be in the middle of your own music, singing along, while it is being performed around you. "It's what I've been dreaming of for the past seven years," he said.

The piece is built around a five piece Russian icon from the 15th century in Nowgorod. It starts with John 1,1 ("In the beginning was the Word"), although he uses a German translation "Am Anfang war das Wort", I've learned that the translation is "Im Anfang war das Wort", meaning not at the start, but inside the starting moment.

The second part is the Magnificat from the Gospel according to Luke, the third is taken from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, and the fourth is a veneration of Mary, closing with the Lux aeterna, the eternal light. During the introduction that was given in the foyer before the concert John explained that the veneration of Mary was the strangest part for him as a Methodist, as we have no truck with the Catholic cult of Mary. But, he said, it is fruitful to go into something foreign and discover important new things.

I had the feeling that the piece was well centered, going out to experiment with something - church bells! a piccolo! Bassoons (luckily, only 2)! But he kept coming back to this point of repose. My mind took me to a kitchen, reading on a rainy day, dancing around a maypole (!) and then off on a whirlwind tour of some of the churches and cathedrals I have visited, dwelling longer at the church in Magdeburg, where I had participated in a Catholic service involving Gregorian chants.

The piece ends very softly, very small, depositing me back in the here and now. Of course, someone had to clap the split second they felt it was over, but hey, you can't have everything.

I enjoyed the Turkish Sufi music that was performed afterwards, but was just too tired for the second half, so I enjoyed my Philharmonie champagne and headed for the bus. I hope this gets made into a CD, I'd like to hear it again!

2011-10-20

Seek and ye shall find

I had a strange call on my answering machine. One of my doctors wanted me to please call back when I have time, she had a private thing she wanted to discuss with me about a patient.

Strange. I'm not a doctor. But whatever. She was still in her office when I got out of the dentist's chair this afternoon, and she was happy to see me. She has a patient, dying of a seldom cancer that is not treatable. She remembers, back when she was a resident, that there was a patient with just this kind. And her boss had found a treatment in a journal that was unconventional, but they gave it a try. And their patient had survived for much longer than expected.

She wanted to find the article, since the hospital had just sent her patient home to die. She had tried to look herself, but given up. She had called the local research hospital and asked them if they knew about this. No one had ever heard of it. They pretended to look, but didn't find it. I was her last hope, because I "knew the Internet".

So I fired up my laptop with the stick, and we called up MedLine. We ticked a few boxes, put in the name of the cancer, and there were only 139 papers that came up. We started with the oldest, and sure enough, after a few pages she jumps on a title - that sounds like it!

We pull up the abstract, and she is all excited - right, that's what we used! She is sure she knows what to do just by reading the abstract, but I want to go a step further. We write down the journal name and the issue and page info, and I google the journal. Still in existence, and they have back issues online. And they even have this old stuff available for free!

They have an error on their page - you click on an article and get the next article as a pdf. So I click on the previous article, and the one we are looking for pops up. She remembers the picture and is practically dancing! I download it onto a stick (she is not sure that her computer has a USB, but of course it does) and I show her how to print it from her machine.

It is like I am a magician, materially pulling something out of the foggy corners of a past remembrance, making it appear before her very eyes. I have an invitation to dinner for this ;)

It shows me that research in the age of the Internet is something that has to be taught - and trained.

2011-10-15

Copenhagen to Collect Personal Travel Info

The Danish newspaper 24timer reports (http://www.e-pages.dk/24timer/3009/, page 7) on October 14, 2011 that from the first of the year you can only purchase a public transportation pass (Rejsekort) with your social security number, name, address, email, and bank account information. The transportation company is planning on registering individual travel in order to "optimize" their network.

If you must travel anonymously, you can purchase a Rejsekort Anonymt, but this is 60% more expensive and doesn't offer discounts like the normal one does. All the older Klippekort and other tickets will no longer be valid.

It seems the Danes, long used to using their social security number for all sorts of things, have no idea what privacy is. If they just want to know the traffic patterns, they can issue cards with numbers - they don't have to connect this number up to a person. I find this very scary. If the data is there, the police will soon want to know the names of all the people who were in a particular vicinity when something happens.

2011-10-03

Margin Call

The German press is panning it, but we gathered the usual gang of suspects and headed out to the Hackische Höfe to see Margin Call in English with subtitles. Or rather, it was in Financialese with a lot of f-words thrown in and some really outstanding German titles that transported the essence of what was being said, not just a word-for-word translation.

Okay, the movie theater is on the top floor and there is no elevator, but I just love the restored Art nouveau style. 

It is a day in the life of some bankers, the ones who rather tried to ruin the world. As the tweet went yesterday, there were no bankers arrested for wrecking the financial system, but 700 people in New York for protesting against them. And we can figure out which bank is meant, even if everything is of course fictious.

There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.
Ya. I guess that kind of sums it up. It was supposedly shot in a Wall St. high-rise, but when I visited my brother a few years ago in his Wall St. office, all the chairs had fanny packs attached to them with water bottles, masks and band-aids, in case another airplane decides to mow the high-rise down.

Anyway - I really liked the movie, Kevin Spacey is really great, and since Mark Chu-Carroll explained how the banks cheated us (What is tranching - Credit Default Swaps - Shocking Fraud from the Financial Scum), I did actually understand what they were saying, and it seemed correct.

2011-09-06

Election shorts

It is election time in Berlin, and the local parties are given time on the local radio and TV stations to promote their platforms. They don't have to pay for it like in the US (they can buy more, of course), so all the parties get at least one TV and one radio spot.

Oh, and they are often soooo funny, as they don't really have a budget to hire professional producers. Someone writes a script (sometimes) and there's a guy with a camera and a mike, and they put something together.

My favorites to date:
  • The "Mountain" party (Bergpartei) in Kreuzberg: There is nothing said the entire spot. First one guy stares into the camera. Then the next one. Then a third, then the first guy again. And that's it. I think that sums up their platform perfectly. They also put up large signs "bicycles don't burn", alluding to the "sport" in Kreuzberg of lighting up luxury cars with a little tea candle on a wheel. It takes long enough to ignite that the arsonists are safely away. There have been > 500 cars burned in Kreuzburg and elsewhere in Berlin this year, this is a very serious problem.
  • The "Party" (Die Partei): It has become popular in Europe for joke parties to get enough signatures to get on the ballot. In Reykjavik, Iceland, the "Best Party" (Bestiflokkurin) actually won the election and so the comedian who was the party leader actually became mayor - and not a bad one at that! This German group around the satire magazine Konkret Titanic has some very, very screwy stuff going on, including a "Panic Officer". Anyway, in one scene here one of the party guys in a suit helps a dog owner by picking up the dog shit and putting it in his own pocket ...
The worst spot to date is by the FDP ("Fast Drei Prozent") "Bildungsvielfalt statt Gleichmacherei" - educational diversity instead of making everything equal. They don't want their precious kids going to school with the riff-raff. This film has as much content as the Berg-Partei, although people are saying stuff.

2011-08-28

Roadside Crosses

The back cover of Roadside Crosses starts with:
"On the Internet, you can never be sure who is listening. Anyone can discover your secrets, you deepest fears."

Okay, another scary-internet mystery. Politicians suffer a lot from Scary Internet Syndrome (have a read at Lauren Weinstein's Why governments are afraid of social media while you are at it). But it's a Jeffery Deaver story, so I dive it.

The stuff you would expect: minority people doing great jobs, incompetent bosses, an irritating blogger, drinking teenagers, game-playing teenagers, plots, lots of people dying before the mystery gets itself solved. The minute the heroine, Deaver, asks for the IP addresses I'm sure the thing is doomed, but the blogger refuses to give them up (at first). The plots thickens and twists and turns to an unexpected end.

It is very hard to address a technical topic such as social media without boring half the readers - either the ones who know about and use social media, or the ones who have no interest in them at all. They tried cross-media, putting up a "real" blog: The Chilton Report. Okay, it was built with NetObjects Fusion 11, but nothing is linked, you have to have the links in the book in order to see the pages. I did spend most of yesterday just sitting there, reading, however. A good vacation read, especially when it rains most every day...

2011-08-21

Miss Wyoming

WiseMan found this for me at that strange little bookstore, a book by Douglas Copeland that I hadn't read yet. Oh my, I do like how he writes, I've been hooked since I got my mitts on "Microserfs".

Miss Wyoming is no different. Once you get down into this zany story, you have to keep reading or you will lose all of the many threads that are flying around, still unresolved. There is the occasional pink elephant (or in this one, a giraffe) that suddenly shows up and disappears, but still the mad flashbacks from all the different perspectives is fascinating. You look at the story from all sides and just want to KNOW how each person thought and ends up.

So for the past few days I've been "busy". I read until 2 am last night, was not a brilliant conversational partner at breakfast and even made us miss one train because I JUST HAD TO FINISH THIS.

The story deals with Hollywood, the beauty pageant circuit, love, dysfunctional families, the tabloid press, and a search for the meaning of life. And a giraffe.

Loved it!

2011-08-19

Dalby

On our way to Genarp the other day our friend pointed out the Dalby church. "You've been to see that, of course." Uh, no. We've never actually been this way. Is it nice? Well, it's the oldest stone church around here and there used to be a bishop there and it has a great view and ...

So picking up another friend after work in Lund today, we suggested driving out to Dalby. We had packed a picnic coffee time just in case (we are sooooo Swedish), as we had tried to find a cafe in Dalby using both Google and the Lund web site. Google suggested that the nearest cafes were actually in Lund, and the Lund city web site is a navigational maze with unhelpful search function. It is not made for tourists, but for people with an intricate knowledge of the structures of the city government.

So we headed out for an adventure. Dalby sits up on a hill with a very wonderful view - we could see clear to Malmö! The church is really fascinating - it looks big on the outside but is actually quite small on the inside, as it has bits and pieces tacked on all over the place that are not really part of the sanctuary. We dragged open the inner massive wood doors - and discovered the organist practicing. What a wonderful way to explore a church, with great music being played!

We headed back out into the lovely, sunny afternoon and joked about now exploring beautiful downtown Dalby. We just headed out - and landed at a coffee and tea shop across from a restaurant. There were even a few shops around - there was, indeed, a downtown. The coffee and tea shop had a few chairs outside, so we hoped to get a cup of coffee and climbed up the steep stairs.

Inside "Bönor och Blad" (Beans and Leaves) there were all sorts of foreign and Swedish delicatessen foods, tons of licorice, great cheeses - and a truffles collection to melt a chocolate lover's heart. We hemmed and hawed about what we would be having when the owner pointed out that she had cookies too and that there was a garden if we would like to sit out in the sun.

A garden? We checked it out: green stuff, sun, chairs, tables. Yes! We ordered coffee and goodies and sat out in the sun. Every now and then an airplane flew over, but other than that - it was lovely.

After coffee we shopped at the local Konsum and then drove on to the nearby national park. We pulled out the picnick stuff and headed off down the trail. I was worried that I didn't have my hiking boots on, but this was the trail for wheelchair-bound people - 1.20 m wide planking all around. After a bit there were some seats and a little table, bathed in sun. We sat down, broke out the cheese and crackers and coffee, and declared this the loveliest place to be right now - until the mosquitoes chased us away.

We drove back to Lund and walked around, finding nothing interesting, other than groups of foreign students walking by in droves trying to figure out the town. Dalby wins today, hands down.

2011-08-18

Sound of Noise Again

We so liked Sound of Noise when we saw it last year in Lübeck and had noticed that it was being shown for one night only at different small towns around Skåne. Tuesday night finally fit into our schedule, i.e. we had time and there was not a monsoon expected. We had a great dinner with friends in Lund and one of them accompanied us to Gennarp.

Genarp, pronounced strangely enough as jenarp. Never knowingly driven through the place, although it has a church and a castle and a library. But we found it, even without a GPS. As our friend said: it's an adventure to drive without GPS, just for the sport of it.

There was plenty of parking at the swimming pool - just a few cars there. We walked in and saw this screen set up. It was hung from a cherry picker, held by guy wires against the wind, with loudspeakers on either side.

There were two groups of family sitting around, huddled under blankets. And two trucks sort of blocking the view of the screen. We organized a patch of cement, and turned to look at the trucks. And then we saw why the trucks were there - there was a 35mm projector, bolted on to the floor of one of the trucks. The other probably had the cherry picker and the screen tucked into it. They had electricity coming in from the ice cream shop, and were getting setup. We scored real chairs from shop and set ourselves up for the film - also wrapping ourselves in the blankets we had brought to sit on. About 2 dozen teenagers showed up, and as soon as it was dark, the show began.

The film is better the second time through. There are lots of little jokes we didn't get the first time. Political things even. And it is just plain fun.

As the credits rolled, everyone took their chairs back, and the full moon suddenly appeared above the clouds. And then it began to rain. Great timing! Kör vi! Ett-tvo-tre!

2011-08-14

How about this book?

We decided to spend the day in Lund because it was raining so hard. We split up, WiseMan taking the bookstores and the DVD collections, and me checking out the clothing situation. We met back at a book store not far from the Parkhaus.

We browsed around, speaking German with each other, and then went to the cash register. I had a Douglas Copeland I had somehow missed, and WiseMan the usual collection of history books, including one comparing Hitler with Stalin.

Behind the cash register was a wizened old woman (not a WiseWoman!) who spoke with us in German. Many elderly Swedes had German instead of English as a foreign language in school. She adds up the pile and then turns to pull a book out of the shelves behind her. "Would you be interested in this?"

It's a 1933 edition of "Mein Kampf" in excellent condition. Only 500 SEK (a bit more than 50 €). We had a look - and then handed it back. We don't need one. It's boring anyway.

But it was a bit shocking in this part of Sweden - the extremist right-wing party got over 10% of the vote last time down here - to find books like this on sale.

2011-08-11

Juno

You know that you are seriously behind in film-watching when you find a film you were planning to see on the El Cheapo racks at the supermarket. Especially when it even got an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

So we popped in Juno after starting in on Mel Brookes' "History of the World" and deciding after 10 minutes that a better use of the DVD that film is on would be as a coaster. Or in the cherry tree to ward off birds. I had no recollection of why we wanted to see the film, or what it was about, so there were no great expectations.

They speak American, dude. American slang. Modern American slang. I was soooo happy there were Swedish subtitles so I could pick up on the meaning of some of the sentences for which I had understanding of the individual words, but not of the sentence.

A young girl who does not really fit in an American High School (man, I can relate to that) but is a very talented, funny, sharp girl, ends up pregnant. She decides on a rather unconventional way to deal with the pregnancy. And the film teases us, we are expecting a typical ending, and it does not happen that way.

Ellen Page as Juno is just amazing - she is just so totally a 16-year-old pregnant girl who doesn't give a shit about fingernail polish or cheerleading. I thought I recognized her from somewhere, she played the daughter of the main character in ReGenesis, a Canadian series that we watched every single episode.

Look up the quotes section at the IMDB - they have tons of great stuff there. But the best - and truest - is this short exchange when Vanessa gets the baby:

Vanessa Loring: How do I look?
Bren: Like a new mom. Scared shitless.
It's a very good film, but don't take little kids to it if they understand English, unless they already speak like this. 

2011-08-05

Super 8

Since so many people are talking about it, we decided to have a look at "Super 8" this evening. I don't want to give away cool things about the film, but it is sort of a mixture of "Die Drei Fragezeichen", "E.T.", and "Romeo and Juliet". Well, okay, E.T. if the kids hadn't found him and sent him home, but the military had gotten their fingers on him.

There was always a kind of rumor going around that the military had caught some guys from outer space and their flying saucers.....

Anyway, the film opens to a suburban area that gives me quite a shock, as it looks just like where I grew up. We had houses like that, that exact same door with the three windows in it, and the hills looked very much like that. Officially, the film plays in Ohio, but it was filmed in West Virginia, on that little panhandle that sticks up between Ohio and the part of Pennsylvania I am from. The downtown shots were just so authentic, the cars, the middle school. Gave me a bit of the shivers.

Anyway, these kids love to make Super 8 films, and the actors are quite something. Alice is only 13 in real life (looks older than Joel) and has a filmography other actresses would give their souls for. And she really does a good job, as does Joel, although it gets corny in the end.

The fx, however, got on my nerves. It was like they wanted to get just one more stupid flying burning thumping groaning thing in there, and then another and another. It didn't fit the plot, many were quite senseless. And silver is not magnetic, but I can't really say more on that.

I really felt the fx to be quite overdone, that detracted from the story that was meager to start with. And the translation was painful, if you go see it, try and get it in English. There were strained translations all the time, but when Joel asks the driver for a crowbar, the German translation is rendered "wagenkreuz" instead of "brechstange", which does not even fit to the pictures, much less what they are doing there.

It's not the film of the year, IMHO, but if you do go see it, keep you seat when the credits start to roll, or you will miss the absolute highlight of the film!

2011-07-31

The Princesses in Barcelona (Part I)

Every other year we meet up with the princesses - now 6, 8, and 10 - in some European country for a family vacation. This year, we met with them in Barcelona, and took WiseKid and WiseKidGirlfriend along.

WKG was very anxious about this - she would have to speak English all week. But a week of sun in Spain together with WK was very, very promising, so she came along as well.

We had a lovely house with lots of room (and 4 bathrooms!) in the north of Barcelona, easily reachable by train. Unfortunately, that train seemed to run through the living room - the track ran just by the house, and there was a train approximately every 5 minutes...

We thought we'd take a taxi, and we did, but he lost his way (despite TomTom!) and then he couldn't find the street. We had him dump us at the station (and I haggled with him about the price, not wanting to pay for the way from one highway exit to the next and back when he got back his orientation), and then we were lost.

We finally found someone who spoke a bit of English and showed up the correct house. The princesses were sooooooo happy when we walked in the door! They immediately showed us the pool - a small, 2x10m dealy - and jumped in.

PrincessPapa had a rental car, so we went off to load up on some food. We had to first go south through a tunnel, then back through this tunnel and the next to get to a large food store. Did I say large? Huge! We picked up a lot of stuff and then headed back for dinner. While the teenagers joined the princesses in the pool, we put together plates of this and that as is the custom in Spain. And opened a bottle or three of cava. Very good stuff, the local bubbly.

The princesses are getting so big - Princess 1 is heading into fifth grade, Princess 2 for third grade, and Princess 3 will start big girl school in the fall. But luckily, we still get hugs and kisses at bedtime!

2011-07-16

A Day in Leipzig

We got a monthly train pass in order to see the Women's World Cup games (that blog post is still missing....). It still has a few days left on it, so we decided to take a day trip today. Leipzig is only an hour away by high-speed train, and I've never been there. WiseMan was there once before the wall came down and once just after it came down, but that was 20 years ago, so it really was time.

We got up, had breakfast, and drove to the train station - lots of free parking on the street on a Saturday. We hopped a train - they run every hour - and even scored table seats. We just barely had the newspapers read when we pulled into the Leipzig train station.

Grand Central Station is puny compared to this station! Not only are there a gazillion tracks and gorgeous open spaces, it is also a megamall. We wanted to check out the times for the trains back, it seemed to take forever to find the travel center.

We then headed over the tram tracks to the downtown area for a planless day. Leipzig was and is a trading center. The downtown area is mostly a pedestrian area and is quite similar to Prague in that it has lots of roofed over shopping passages.

Ceiling of the St. Nicholaus Church, Leipzig
We first stopped off at the St. Nicholas Church. This is where the "Swords to Plowshares" (Schwerter zu Pflugscharen) movement started, and where the Monday demonstrations grew out of the Monday evening prayer group. Johann Sebastian Bach also played here (the registration of the organ is on the German page). We browsed the bookshop and listened to a choir singing before going on.
Swords to Plowshares, the original poster


WiseMan was hungry and decided we would have ice cream for lunch - but there didn't seem to be any ice cream shops around. We finally found one - and discovered after ordering that the scoops in Leipzig only cost half of what the cost in Berlin, but are twice as large! That was a meal and a half!

The streets seemed to be full of tourists, beggars, and musicians. It was nice, strolling in the sun and hearing all the nice music, although the begging was a bit much.

We did some window shopping (and got some presents for the Princesses, whom we will be meeting next week!) and then headed on to the St. Thomas Church. THE St. Thomas Church, the one of Bach and Boy's Choir fame. There's a a large statue of him outside the church with a little organ behind him.

The gift shop was open, and you could have pretty much anything you wanted with Bach on it: chocolate, key rings, flashlights, T-Shirts, schnapps. I got an outrageously priced CD with the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes (Leipziger Choräle) on it, performed by the current Master organist of the church.

And they were selling tickets to an organ concert to begin in an hour and a half. We got two tickets - when do you have a chance like this?

We had a coffee at the little Cafe Gloria next to the church and did some more shopping around. Then we saw the Maggi shop. One needs to know that WiseMan preferred Maggi cubes (boullion) to chocolate as a child. If we had been there by car, we probably would have taken one of everything they had. As it was, we just got some modern soups and then he had some soup while hurried to the church to get good seats.

New Bach Organ

Old Bach Organ
The concert was the first one of a summer series of women organists. Johanna Lennartz (Dresden) played a number of pieces (including one by Bach) and the Australian Chamber Choir Melbourne sang some beautiful old chorales and a horrible Australian one by Philip John Nunn that sounded like a bunch of bush animals fighting over a meal.

The music director joked during the introduction that this summer they would be investigating if you can hear the difference between a woman and a man at the organ console: You can't see who is playing, just feel the music creeping up on you and at times filling the church to the rafters. J. S. Bach looks down from his stained glass window and seems to be happy that people are still playing his music - no matter if a woman or a man. The director did note, however, that her husband was also an organist that that he would be "pulling her registers" for her. Seemed a bit off-color, the joke.

The seats in the church are not the most comfortable, but they rewarded us afterwards by serving everyone who presented a ticket with a glass of champagne outside in the courtyard. Not a plastic cup - a real champagne glass, with Rotkäppchen, the DDR champagne in it.

We meandered on through town and discovered that we were really tired. We had a table booked at the Champion's Sports Bar in the Marriott in order to watch the Sweden-France soccer game for third place in the Woman's Soccer World Cup. So we headed to the Marriott - and the place wasn't opened yet. We chilled on some leather chairs and read a newspaper until they finally opened, just before kickoff. We had the best seat in the house, best view of the largest screen. There was one other couple, another one came at halftime, and a few people drifted in and out for a beer.

It was more like private viewing with room service than public viewing, but at least the couple that came at halftime was half Swedish and had a Swedish flag along. It was a nail-biting game, and Sweden managed to squeak through on a bad call that gave Sweden a corner - and a goal.

But since there was no overtime, we got a train back to Berlin quite early and had time for a Krimi.

I wish the Bahn had monthly tickets like this all the time - we had one once as students and really enjoyed traveling throughout the republic.

2011-07-14

Ringo Starr

Oh dear. Has it really been a month since I last wrote? Women's World Cup, WiseKid moved out, VroniPlag - I've barely had time to sleep, let alone blog. And I don't answer all my emails any more.

But I had this post in my head the whole way home, so I need to get it written NOW!

WiseMan picked up the notice a while back that Ringo Starr was going to be touring Europe with a new All Starr Band. And he was going to be in Berlin.

Now, you need to know that WiseMan is a BBF - a Big Beatles Fan. His favorite Beatle is John Lennon, but he has all the records (LP and CD), he has posters and books and stickers and DVDs and who knows what. Did I mention he seems to have all the books ever published? Well, maybe not every one. We went to the Beatles' museum in Prague and he drooled over all the Czech stuff they had there ;)

Anyway - I said: sure, get us tickets, and he managed to get two seats booked in the Tempodrome for this past Tuesday! 

The 'drome was sold out, some were begging for tickets all the way up from the S-Train station. There was a standing room part in front of the stage, and seats for us old people up and around. I think the average age was about 65 - not bad, since Ringo Starr is 71 himself.

And I want to be able to jump around like Ringo Starr when I'm 71. Goodness, I'm sure he works hard at it, but coming down the steps he was like a gangling teenager. He doesn't really have a great singing voice, but he sang some stuff from his own albums and ones he wrote for "my other band".

And each of the other musicians sang two of their own hits. These were all ones we knew, so it was rather a "sing along" evening. Ringo played the drums for the other's hits. His drumset was the focal point, to his left was another drummer, a bit lower, who kept absolutely synchronous time with him, was a great feat!

The music was lovely, stirred up so many memories. And imagine, after all these years, seeing a Beatle live on stage! I mean, I even think I remember the Ed Sullivan Show they were on, we used to watch it every week. But of course, I've seen it so many times since then, I might just be thinking I saw it.

2011-06-25

Incendies

WiseMan asked the usual suspects over dinner last night if any wanted to come with him to see Incendies (in German: Die Frau die singt - the woman who sings). Since I have spent far too much time on plagiarism recently and not on being social, I agreed to join in, even if I knew exactly zero about this film which just opened in Germany and was an nominee for the best foreign film at the Oscars.

As it opened, I realized it was the Middle East (the film was shot in Amman, Jordan) and Canada. There was some fancy "hard math" at the beginning - the Collatz conjecture (which I enjoyed playing with as a young student) and Euler's theological discussion with Diderot "Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists". This seemed to just be there to impress the innumerate, although the film does end with 1+1=1, which is true if + is interpreted as "or".

Anyway. Horrors. I think I have ignored the Middle East because I do not understand why they want to kill each other. I don't understand the Madonnas on the rifles, the fire and rape and shootings, the retributions, and the questions of "honor".

The film is long, but not over long. It is not a happy end (but I'm not going to give it away, because if you know the ending you spoil the suspense that very slowly builds up). I understand that if you speak Arabic it is pretty horrible because the actors speak with so many different accents that, as one reviewer put it, is like watching a film on the American Civil War shot in Brazil with actors speaking with Australian and Indian accents.

2011-06-17

Oh, sorry

I was getting my lunch in the Mensa. I had a large cup of water and one small salad on my tray and was getting a second. For some bizarre reason, two small salads - which have more contents - cost less than one large one, so everyone who wants a larger salad gets two. I had the tray on the counter and reached over to fill the second bowl.

A male student reached over my tray to fill his bowl, and dumped my cup of water - all over the tray, the counter, me, and the salad. "Oh, sorry," he says. And walks off.

I call him back - "Excuse me, but this needs cleaning up!" "Oh, that's no problem, they have people to do that. They saw it."

I turn on the Ice Queen voice: "Could you at least get me a fresh tray and some water?" He frowns, trudges off slowly to get me a tray, no water. And hurries off.

So I get my water, loudly complaining to no one about the gall of some people. The cashier hears - and sighs. "We get that - and worse - all the time. One wonders about people's upbringing anymore."
And this is a university, not the local pub.

2011-06-14

Lost Luggage

Try googling "SAS Lost Luggage" sometime. It seems that SAS losing luggage is the norm from Kastrup, not the exception. Maybe it has something to do with their fully automated baggage handling system? No wonder people don't check stuff and try and get all their stuff into the overhead bins!

I had flown up to Copenhagen and actually got my bag in time to get an earlier train over to Sweden - which then didn't help, because the Öresund trains now don't stop in our town anymore, so I had to get off in Lund and wait for the milk train....

I dropped WiseMan off in Copenhagen yesterday for a simple flight to Turku for a conference. Get on one small plane to one small destination; get off; get suitcase; attend conference was the plan.

The first two steps were fine - but the third didn't work, although WiseMan had borrowed my shocking pink suitcase. That one can be spotted a mile off to make sure they are loading it, for picking it out of the pile of dark suitcases, and whatnot. And no executive in a suit would dare lug a pink suitcase by mistake.

He got to Turku okay, but no pink suitcase. So he filed a lost luggage claim, and they told him: you can buy toothpaste and what you need and keep the receipts to send it for reimbursement.

Okay - so he got some toothpaste and underwear at the airport and went on to the hotel and sent me an SMS. I tried to get information, but it was the second day of Pentecost, a holiday. No dice.

Today the online systems says: "RECEIVED AT AIRPORT / DELIVERY PROCESS INITIATED" Well, that's promising. But there has been no progress on that all day. So after teaching I started calling around. I "spoke" with call centers who could not help me and with press-one-for-whatever voicemail tangles in five languages, only four of which I understand. I was given numbers to call that are not in service any more. I was told to register online. I was told to go away, SAS chose to use some other ground service and that's not her problem.

Then I had a wonderful mistake. While clicking through some Finnish pages I landed on a lost luggage page for some provincial airport. And an English-speaking human answered! She checked the system: yes, the bag is in Turku. But she can't see if they are in the process of delivering it. But she will check this out and call me back.

She didn't call back. But 2 hours later the bag magically arrived at his hotel. I prefer getting the bag to having her call back and say she can't find it!

Just for laughs I checked the modern, online "delayed" baggage system. It is still listed as being at the airport. I think they could learn a lot from FedEx, and maybe even save a few Kronor to boot.

Booch Pencils

I am doing an exercise with my first semester programming students today on CRC cards and we are using the Booch Method to find the candidate classes. This involves underlining nouns in a printed version of the specification in one color and underlining the verbs in another color.

I have a bucked of felt pens I've used over the years for this exercise, but they have all dried up. So this morning I needed lots of pens, fast. First stop was the Chinese nickel & dime. They have all sorts of stuff, but no pens.

Next stop the drug store which just opened up shop for the morning. I asked the woman: do you have pens and pencils? She answered, just this stuff left over that no one wanted that was on sale. And what was it? Bi-colored pencils, with a different color on each sharpened end. Exactly what I want. I gobbled up four packages and was off on my merry way. They are using the pencils while I write, and it is very effective to just turn the pencil, not put it down and grab another.


If these were marketed as "Booch Pencils" they would cost 3,99 € a piece. I got a package of 10 for 1,99 €.


2011-06-11

Let the Games Begin

Anja C. Wagner writes "Let the Games Begin" in her edufuture blog:
Mein Eindruck in Zusammenarbeit mit Studierenden ist schon lange, dass
viele ihr Studium als schlechteres World of Warcraft ansehen: mit
Missions (= Kurse), Tasks (= erforderliche Aufgaben für Schein),
Zeitdruck (vor Abgabe oder vor Klausuren), (Credit) Points und Scheine
als Badges, die mit Bachelor, Master, PhD als Bonus winken.
Yap. Exactly. But even if there is a parallel - that doesn't mean that we have to set up every bit of learning as a game in order to appeal to the younger generation. There's some serious stuff out there, like learning the safety regulations or understanding cultural hegemony that doesn't rather fit into a task that has a beginning and an end, but is rather a continuous process of reaching understanding.







2011-06-07

Madame President

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was in Berlin this evening, answering questions posed by Andrea Fischer (former Minister of Health from the Green Party and candidate for local mayor in one of the boroughs here) about her life. The occasion was the publication of the German translation of "Frau Präsident", a biography of the life of the first freely elected female president in the world.  Halldór Guðmundsson, an Icelandic writer who used to lead the largest publishing house in Iceland, Mál og menning, did an excellent job of translating.

Vigdís, very chipper at 81 years old, speaks very good German, but she was convinced that it was rusty, so she stuck to Icelandic and let Halldór translate. It was a very good exercise for me to hear her stories first in Icelandic, try and piece them together, and then listen to the results. I found her very easy to listen to, only a few jokes I didn't get until they were translated.

She spoke of the Icelandic women's strike in 1975, and the search for a female candidate for the presidency in 1980. She was then head of a local theater company, having formerly worked as a modern language teacher in school. People were joking - Vigdís, you do it! What made her decide to run was a long telegram she got from a fishing boat kindly requesting her to please run for president. She said: When the fishermen ask you to do something in Iceland, you listen!

She was elected, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the taz on my way over to the States, although the article never appeared because the revolution broke out in Danzig and revolution was much more important than wimmin's stuff. Anyway - it turned out that she is the godmother of the friend I was staying with, so I not only got to interview her in her presidential office but also visited Bessastaðir, the official residence. I interviewed her 20 years later when she was in Berlin after leaving office - she was reelected 4 times - for Nordeuropaforum.

She refuses to talk politics - deftly avoiding Andrea Fischer's questions about the kreppa and other remotely political topics. Fisher remarked over wine that she didn't even start into her questions about whether Iceland wants to join the EU, as it was clear that she would get no answer, but a charming smile and another story.

She spoke at length about identity and language, and language being the glue that holds society together. The only mildly political statement was: "They can take away everything from you except the language in which you think."

Afterwards she signed copies of the biography, having each person sit down with her, tell her a bit about them, have them write out their name, and then she wrote a dedication in each book. Sure, I stood in line, too. Spoke with the consul from Bremerhaven, and got my autogramm - and I very proud that I managed the whole thing in Icelandic.

This is going to be a great year - Iceland is the partner country of the Frankfurt Book Fair, they already have a web site up (Fabulous Iceland) and are churning out German translations by the boatload.