Shortly I'll be heading off to pick up our rental car, and then Shelby, Scout, and I will be heading off into the wild blue yonder (okay, grey yonder -- this is Hamburg, after all!) for our aforementioned five-day trip through southern Germany.
Sorry for the less-than-exciting blogging lately, but life has been busy, and I leave for this trip feeling that, yes indeed, I certainly need a vacation. I'm sure that I'll have plenty to talk about once we come back!
No Mercy For A Small Dog: Scout had another vet appointment yesterday morning; she still has enough of evidence of her injury that they want to see her one more time -- she got one more injection, a take-home baggie of steroids (a micro-dose, 2.5 mg, of Prednizone every morning for the next ten days), and instructions to come back on June 5th.
She's had her range of permissible activities expanded slightly. She can take 30-minute walks now (slow walks, no power walks, the vet took care to emphasize; not a problem with this dog) -- but she's really starting to lust after forbidden things; I've caught her casting a longing glance at the couch, and last night she stood at the bottom of the (blocked-off) stairs, scratching at the railings and looking upwards.
Six Feet Under, auf Deutsch: We watched last night on VOX. It was mostly understandable to me, not so good for Shelby -- but we'd seen this episode before, so we both knew the broad outlines of what was happening, and I could come in with translations of some of the finer turns of phrase. David's voice was all wrong -- kind of a generic "husky guy" voice, not the slightly nasal/whiny voice that fits his character so well. This episode suffered from a problem we've seen in many originally-English-language TV shows dubbed into German: they have to make the (usually longer) German phrase fit into the same space as the original English dialogue, so everyonespeaksreallyquicklysothattheycanfittheirentirelinein.
Everybody's Working For The Weekend: We're off (Scout, too!) on a small vacation trip on Friday morning, hitting some of the highlights of southern Germany. We'll be spending a night along the Rhine at the Hotel Landsknecht in St. Goar, a night in Baden-Baden (with a day at the Roman-Irish Bath), followed by a couple of nights in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It looks like we'll be in Rothenburg for their yearly Meistertrunk Festival -- no wonder we didn't get our first-choice hotel room!
THINK . . . About Shoddiness: My laptop, an IBM Thinkpad T40, has been having "issues". First, the driver for the (Cisco) WiFi card seems to have some kind of problem with the (Cisco) VPN driver that I use to connect to the corporate network from the outside world, so I can pretty much count on one major-league, blue-screen-of-death crash whenever I try to do anything work-related from home. I've become very blase about seeing the "Your system has recovered from a serious error" dialog box after I start up my machine.
But worse than that, my hard disk has started making the noises of a disk that's having trouble finding things that it knows it put away somewhere around here. Usually, it's most pronounced during startup -- click ... wait ... click .... wait ... click ... wait ... Eventually it clicks its way into loading Windows, and after that, everything seems to be fine -- but that isn't very encouraging, since these are the exact symptoms that the first hard drive in my last Thinkpad showed just before it died. I bought a ten-pack of CD-R's during my last trip to Saturn; I'd better hurry up and copy over everything I care about, while there's still time ...
I don't treat my Thinkpads harshly, but this is the second one I've had that seems to be heading for a major failure after about a year. Whenever people get into a "what kind of laptop should I buy" discussion, somebody always holds up the Thinkpad line as an example of uber-engineered bombproof quality. Ha! My Powerbook is a year older than this Thinkpad, without a single problem to date -- and the Toshiba that Shelby's using now has been cruising along for almost five years (I bought it before my first stay in Hamburg) without a hiccup!
Something I forgot in my entry for this past weekend: we bought Scout the coolest dog treat ever! You may already know about "Kinder Eggs" for children -- a hollow chocolate egg with a toy inside. Crack open the egg, eat the shell, and play with the toy.
This dog treat operated along similar principles -- a "surprise bone" for dogs! The outside of the bone was cast out of some hard-yet-chewable material; with sufficient chewing (and Scout is a pro at that), the shell broke into two halves and two soft chew sticks fell out of the hollow center. Once Scout discovered and devoured the treats inside, we thought that she was done with the outer shell, but later in the day she came back to that, too. Now, after a few days of determined chewing, both halves have been almost whittled down to nothing. Fun for the whole family to watch and lasting chew-value for the dog -- we'll definitely be buying this treat again.
The people behind the Glidehouse (previously mentioned here) have now, a few weeks later, unveiled a two-story version. I can't say that it strikes me as an improvement; if anything, it amplifies the flaws of the one-story version: a lack of "useful" storage (can you find a laundry area on the floorplan? I guess if you're young, hip, and living in the city, you go to the laundromat, or buy new clothes each week), and an obsession with bathrooms (three toilets in a three-bedroom house; I think that the architect must've grown up in a family where she always had to wait for the bathroom).
It does have the absolute best feature ever, though: a staircase that's entirely lined with bookshelves!
The people who are behind the house are rapidly backpedaling on how much is included in the $110-$120/square foot base price. First, the foundation and site prep were included ... now they're not. Originally, the house came with aluminum-frame windows standard, with wood as an upgrade -- now, you get vinyl, with the chance to upgrade to aluminum or wood. The base-level countertops, which were made out of some super-environmentally-conscious engineered material, are now "laminate".
Still, no matter how many extra costs they slap on, something like the Glidehouse might still come out ahead of the chilling alternatives ...
It was a busy weekend.
We started on Saturday by trying to fulfill a quest of mine. I've been looking for the unique yet definitive German article -- some kind of souvenir or collectible that we can take back with us when we return to the States, polish up a bit, and then place on (or hang over) our mantelpiece. It will make houseguests oooh and aaah; it will subtly and warmly remind us of our time in Germany each time we look at it. Problem is, I'm not sure what "it" is yet, so I'm always on the lookout. Earlier in the week, I'd seen ads for a flea market at the Museum der Arbeit (Museum of Work) -- not just any market, but one with Kultur! Antik! (Antiques!) And held at a museum, to boot -- if I was going to find something classy and distinctive, no doubt I'd stand a good chance of finding it here. So relatively early in the morning, Shelby and I rode out to Barmbek, another ten thousand stops (or so it seemed) down the subway line.
Well, that was a bust. The museum-sponsored flea market, with its promises of culture and antiques, held just about the same collection of ragtag junk as any other market I've been to here in Germany. There was one vendor selling fountain pens and ephemera; Shelby spotted a cast-metal pen stand that would have been perfect for displaying part of her blown-glass dip pen collection -- until we turned it over to see the 105 Euro price, that is. Oops!
We headed home. While Shelby napped, I rode the bus a short distance over to the University to check out another flea market advertising similar promises regarding culture and antiques. This market did seem to have a better class of junk -- but it was near closing time, so half the vendors had already left, and those that handn't were packing their wares into boxes. The University flea market happens every Saturday, so I'll have to check it out again some other weekend while we're in town.
When I came back, we went out again, this time to the Hauptbahnhof in search of haircuts. "Get a haircut" had been on our list of things to do for quite some time; while our German has seen us through some harrowing situations -- a hospital emergency room, four trips to the vet, everyday shopping -- we both had an irrational phobia about getting our hair cut, afraid that we'd make some imperceptible misstep or ask for the wrong thing and come out of the experience with our heads shaved bald. Our theory was that if we got our hair cut at someplace frequented by international travellers -- say, the train station or the airport -- they'd be more likely to have a fluent English speaker on staff, we could make our desires clearly known, and there'd be no risk of baldness. So we went to the train station. Our theory was more-or-less functional; our requests ended up going through a single polygot hairstylist who translated to the stylists who were actually cutting our hair, and we both ended up with decent haircuts. (In my case, better than the haircut I usually get back in the USA.)
While I waited for them to finish Shelby's haircut, I read auto motor und sport, the most manly magazine available in the waiting area. I didn't learn much from the articles -- but in the advertisements, I did see, apropos of the TV discussion at last Thursday's expat gathering, that VOX has started showing HBO's Six Feet Under at 11:10 PM on Tuesday nights. These are all episodes that we've already seen on DVD, so maybe this will be another good chance for us to practice some German.
After the haircuts, we walked around and did a little non-essential shopping. On the Mönckebergstraße, we visited the Bären-Treff store, something that may have been there for years, but that I only noticed last week. I'd read about Bären-Treff before -- they're something like a snob gummi-bear retailer, with some claiming that their bears taste better and are made with better ingredients than those of Haribo, the gummi maker of Europe whose products are found in every corner store. Many different varieties were available; we bought a simple 1-kg bag of basic gummi bears for test purposes. The bears were good . . . but were they better than Haribo? Hard to tell. They were certainly fresher than Haribo, leaving me to wonder what a bag of Haribo Happy Cola (my favorite) would taste like if obtained straight from the factory.
Sunday was more laid back. I spent the morning working my way deeper into Ian McEwan's Atonement, the book-of-the-month for our book club back in San Jose. In the afternoon, we went out to Abaton-Kino, one of the two cinemas (that we know of) that regularly shows English-language movies in Hamburg, and saw Touching the Void, a documentary/renactment about seven days in the lives of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson, two climbers who suffered a spectacular accident (compounded through poor planning and additional misfortune) while climbing in the Peruvian Andes and who both still made it out alive. Simpson, in particular, showed incredible superhuman endurance and determination in making it down off the mountain. It was an extremely well-done, entirely riveting, edge-of-your seat film throughout -- I don't think that I relaxed throughout the entire movie, always cringing in anticipation of what would come next.
The American expat meet-up last night turned out to be a lot of fun! It was a small crowd -- us, Dave and Frank, and three other people completely new to us, Neil, Bill, and Mark. It was a little hard finding the group at first -- there were no tables were obvious signs or banners, and the meetup directions were a little vague ("meet at the entrance"). But Shelby and I ran into Dave and Frank, and our group of people obviously looking for something was then big and noticeable enough that Mark came over and asked if we were looking for the expat meetup. (Unfortunately, somebody else wasn't so lucky -- later a waiter came over and asked us if we were the American group, and then told us that a woman had spent a while looking for us, but she had just given up and left a few minutes ago!)
Everyone was friendly and talkative, with a wide range of interests, and everybody liked being in Germany -- a relief, since the few expats I'd met during my last stay in Hamburg seemed rather bitter about the whole thing and what seemed like a nice meeting quickly degenerated into nothing but a complaint-fest. Shelby and I were the "short-termers" of the group -- Mark had been living in Hamburg for four years (finding a German girlfriend will do that to you), and while nobody else had been there that long, they were planning long stays, ranging from eighteen months to indefinite. Towards the end of the evening, the conversation turned to television, and I gave silent thanks that we hadn't become addicted to any particular American program, because everyone else had expensive or convoluted strategies for staying current, from buying pay-per-view satellite subscriptions or DVD boxed sets to having relatives tape and ship the latest episodes as soon as they aired. (We'll just be happy if HBO ever gets around to putting out the second and third seasons of Six Feet Under on DVD, so that we can get them through Netflix after we come back to the States ...)
Things broke up around 10:30 PM, and we all went away with good wishes, swearing to meet up again sometime soon.
This morning was Scout's second vet appointment. Dr. Bielan and his assistant seemed pleased by her rapid progress -- they had her walk around the room a couple of times so they could study her gait, then they had her up on the table so that they could palpitate up and down her spine, and rotate each of her back legs through its full range of motion. She still twitched a little bit when Dr. Bielan reached the injured point on her back, but her motor response was that of a dog on the mend, rather than indicating a more serious spine injury. She got two more injections, and directions to come back on Tuesday for one final round of inspections and medicine. She got her mobility upgraded, too -- now she can go for light walks ("just don't go taking her out for any hour-long walks yet"), but still no climbing stairs or jumping on the sofa.
This morning the vet's office was busy, so we had to wait a while -- ahead of us we had a Border Collie (who had muddy paws from going walking in the lake this morning) and what we call a "Deagle", a Dachshund/Beagle mix. Coming after us was Daisy, a 13-year-old Chihuahua with back problems and some eating issues (she looked like a little beer keg on legs; her owner was very chatty -- once I divulged Scout's recent back injury, she saw us as kindred spirits) and a cat in a carrier, miaowing in distress at being the only cat stuck in a room full of dogs. The poor very elderly Deagle wasn't doing well at all; he came into the waiting room and flopped on his side, the same position that Scout uses when she wants us to scratch her tummy -- how cuuuute!, I thought for the briefest moment -- but he then gave out a set of loud unearthly tortured howls and threw up, proceeding to lay with his head in his own vomit, panting heavily, until his owners moved him and tried to clean things up. Judging from the amount of time they spent in the treatment room and the owners' glum faces on their way out the door, I don't think that they got good news.
In a little while we'll be going off to a "meetup" for American expats in Hamburg, a monthly event that Shelby found through meetup.com. It's not clear how many people will be there -- six RSVP'ed online, but one of those people is Shelby, and another seems to be a German who just likes talking with Americans.
Even though they're not "officially" signed up, we know for sure that Dave and his (German) spouse Frank will be there, since he and Shelby went through an "I'll go if you'll go" process yesterday in deciding whether or not to show up. So at least we'll be guaranteed a couple of interesting people to talk to.
And what will a bunch of Americans living in a foreign country talk about when they all get together? Tell stories of fevered, restless dreams about driving to an air-conditioned grocery store late on a Sunday night, where the aisles are never-ending, the scales measure in pounds and ounces, and there are at least five or ten product choices in every category? I'll let you know later tonight!
Yesterday was quite the day. Fortunately, to make up for it, today's a holiday -- Christi Himmelfahrt, or Ascension Day; it falls on the fortieth day after Easter, commemorating Christ's ascension into heaven. For living in an essentially non-religious society, we sure do get a lot of time off for obscure Christian holidays and feast days that even your most hard-core American Christians would be hard pressed to name and explain, let alone celebrate.
So what happened yesterday?
Poor Dog! (Part two): Things started with my taking Scout downstairs; usually, this is the last thing I do at home in the mornings before I head off to work. For the past few days, it was clear that Scout was sick with something, but we weren't sure what -- she was eating normally, but was otherwise lethargic, refusing to go upstairs, acting totally unenthusiastic about going outside (usually the high point of her day), and generally choosing just to lie in her crate or in her bed by the window. We went outside, and then climbing the stairs to the elevator on the way back in, Scout made a sharp yelp of pain. I looked back and she had started limping along, carrying her left rear paw up in the air. Even after we rode the elevator back upstairs, she was still holding her paw and generally looking pathetic; she was having trouble even sitting down. It was clearly time for another visit to Dr. Bielan, the vet -- and since Dr. Bielan and his assistant don't speak English, I'd have to take her. So, after a quick note to my boss (nobody at work has ever seen Scout; hopefully they don't think these dog emergencies are just something I invent when I don't want to come in to work in the morning), I carried Scout off (literally!) to the vet.
Dr. Bielan diagnosed Scout with a slipped disc that was pinching the nerves leading to her back legs. (She "presented" very well, with a loud yip when he found the offending place on her spine.) For starters, she got three injections (three injections seems to be a magic number; that's what she got on her last visit, too), a mix of painkillers and an anti-inflammatory. She goes back on Friday for "therapy"; it's not completely clear what therapy is, yet, but I figured it'd be simpler just to come back on Friday and see it happening than to have him explain it to me. Since back problems are a constant worry for Beagles, I asked Dr. Bielan if this could be a sign of a chronic condition, and he said no, it was a one-time injury, and she just needed time to recuperate. Her recuperation instructions were pretty much the equivalent of full bed rest for dogs: no jumping, no climbing stairs, and a minimum of walking. (Thank goodness Scout isn't a Great Dane, I wouldn't want to carry that up and down the stairs ...)
By late afternoon, she was already doing much better: no limp, no problems sitting or laying down (she even did a few full-body stretches), and she had to be discouraged from jumping up on the couch. Today, she's a little more impaired -- she seems to be slightly favoring her problem leg -- but she's still nothing like the dog of yesterday morning. And I just had to change position to stop her from trying another jump on the couch. We like Dr. Bielan!
Before coming over to Hamburg, we spent all of our time worrying about what would happen if Shelby got sick; after all, she's the one who was a hairsbreadth from being placed on the heart-transplant list. But since getting here, it's our poor little dog who's had of the bad luck!
A Social Afternoon: After the vet, I judged it was better to spend the rest of the day working at home, just in case any heavy Beagle-lifting was required. Since we got back just before noon, I got to tag along on Shelby's previously-arranged lunch with fellow American in Hamburg Dave Oeskovic, who Shelby met by hunting for other Americans on meetup.com. It was my first time meeting Dave in person, and I'm pleased to say that he was as humorous and interesting in the flesh as his blog would lead you to believe (and yes, Dave, that's a compliment ...)
[By the way, don't miss Dave's rundown of the Eurovision song contest. This one is truly the best-ever.)
We met for lunch at the Maggi Kochstudio, which was truly wierd -- Maggi is a big manufacturer of premade soups, sauces and cooking mixes, and this was a little restaurant/cooking school/shrine, where everything involved Maggi products. You could order yourself a pasta plate, and take away with you a recipe sheet describing how to make what you just ate, using a combination of Maggi products and a few other ingredients. Along one wall was a shelf about twelve feet tall, with what seemed like every single Maggi product (and there are a lot) available for sale. It was as if Knorr or Campbell's Soup were to open up a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles ...
I render an important service: Later in the afternoon, I went out shopping. The vet had suggested that we buy an infrared lamp for Scout; I couldn't find one at Saturn (shock of shocks!) but I found one next door in Kaufhof's housewares department. Kaufhof's basement also has a grocery section with a pretty good wine department, so I ducked in to get a bottle.
In the wine department, a sheepish-looking woman came up to me, with eyes downcast: "Excuse me, but do you . . . know anything about wine?" I volunteered that I did (while secretly afraid she'd ask some complex question about Chianti, or something else that was out of my league). It turned out that she was simply looking for a sweet white wine. Boy, you're living in the right country for that, sister! After ascertaining that German wine would be okay, I quickly guided her to a bottle of Riesling that we'd tried and enjoyed a couple of weeks ago. She went home happy -- and I did, too, warm with the glow that comes from helping one of my fellow human beings with something so important as wine selection.
(And it took Scout a while to get used to the heat lamp -- she was more than a little disturbed by the red glow -- but now she curls right up to snooze underneath it, our little lizard in her cage.)
Just in time for the whole personal-housing-crisis-maybe thing, I was led to this link a few days ago (by BoingBoing), where I found out about the Glidehouse, a modernist-style prefab house that's just entered production. Here are some pictures of the first Glidehouse (along with some other information), assembled and on display at Sunset Magazine's Celebration Weekend in Menlo Park. The one built for the Sunset exhibition only has two bedrooms, but three and four bedroom models are available.
I'm intrigued -- just ask Shelby how much time I spent talking about it after I got home Tuesday night. It has the modernist lines and large-windows-and-courtyards emphasis of the Eichler homes we like -- but can no longer even hope to afford, thanks to the price inflation of things that are hip. (And frankly, despite the stigma attached to prefab homes, it's undoubtedly far better built than the now forty- to fifty-year-old Eichlers, with modern energy-efficient construction.) It also reminds me of our current apartment -- light and airy with skylights and walls of windows.
There are a couple of downsides. The first is finding a place to put your house. There isn't much of a chance for infill; empty lots in existing neighborhoods in the cities we're interested in seem to be few and far between. For the few lots that have map locations and pictures, it looks like maybe the house that used to be on that lot burned down in a gang war. Still, there are some standouts -- a lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Pasadena, or a mysterious $6500 lot in Rancho Palos Verdes (this particular lot may not have any access to the street). We could move into the hills, but the super base price of the Glidehouse ($110-$120 per square foot) assumes that you're building it on a basically flat lot.
The second downside is the wait -- four to six months from order to move-in. But maybe we're humoring ourselves anyway when we think that we can come back to California, find a house we like at a price we can afford, and move in, all in short order ...
When we came to Hamburg in February, our plan for life was fairly certain. Before we left, Shelby had applied to seven MFA programs in Creative Writing: we would come over here, stay for six months (you can stay in Germany up to six months per year without paying German taxes), and then return to the States, where we would choose the best school out of Shelby's acceptances, and then move off to some quaint college town in time for the beginning of the academic year.
You can tell we're optimists and dreamers, because we didn't plan (or even much talk about) what would happen if Shelby didn't get into any of her schools. (Seven choices -- one has to say yes, right?) And of course, that's exactly what happened. You can beat yourself up forever over the whys-and-howcomes of why something like that happens, and we were both pretty disappointed and depressed for a couple of weeks, but I think that Shelby's greatest "sin" was simply applying to nothing but small and selective programs (I think her best hope had a couple hundred applicants for ten places!) during a down and depressing economy.
[I mean, if YOU were a newly-minted English BA with stellar faculty recommendations who'd won the departmental Richard J. Snodgrass Memorial Prize for four semesters running, would YOU want to graduate and enter the job market (for English majors -- ha!) right now, or would you want to run back into the fully-funded warm embrace of graduate school for a couple more years? Now take that guy a thousand times over, throw in all of the tech writers/copywriters/editors who have been laid off over the past few years, and you've got a pretty formidible pool of competition.]
We both know what we'll do next -- Shelby will damn the academy and proceed full speed ahead with her writing (you don't need formal credentials or academic approval to be a writer!), and I'll, um, pretty much just do what I'm already doing. The question, then, is where we'll do it. Thanks to the nature of my job, I can pretty much work anywhere. To my co-workers in Hamburg, once I'm back in America, I'm a remote voice on the phone; as long as I get my work done, it doesn't matter whether I'm speaking from an office at corporate HQ in San Jose or from a log cabin in New Mexico.
We discussed making a dramatic change and moving to someplace completely new and different for the both of us -- say Seattle or Boston -- but decided that we'd like to come back to California. We could settle in the north -- the SF Bay Area, home to my current work (and good prospects for future employment elsewhere) and the friends we've made during the years we've already spent there. Or, we can come back to the south -- Los Angeles and Orange County -- where both of our families and another big group of our friends live, and the prospects for employment still aren't too shabby.
On top of that, we'd like to buy a house. Which pretty much knocks the Bay Area out of serious consideration -- prices there are still insane, and getting insaner. Prices in the LA/Orange County area aren't all that great either, but there's just enough of a difference that buying something decent is still within our reach. Looking through the home listings on realtor.com is fun and exciting -- our own house! -- but still, the thought of home ownership also puts The Fear in me. Until Shelby scores a massive advance for her debut novel, we'd be carrying the entire thing on my single income -- how will we make $2,500 monthly mortgage payments if I get laid off or run over by a bus? What if housing prices (and interest rates) keep going up while we're over here, high enough that we get back to find we can't buy a house after all? Our whole down payment pretty much depends on my seven years of collected stock options -- did I miss my last big chance to sell a couple of weeks ago, and is the company's stock headed for the toilet now?
To throw something else into the mix, my manager asked me last week if we'd considered staying in Hamburg. (He's kind of like a Border Collie or a mama hen; he feels better when he's got all of his charges herded together where he can keep an eye on us.) We hadn't, really. We certainly wouldn't be opposed to the idea, but it all comes down to taxes. Right now, we're pretty much living high off the hog, with my earning a Silicon Valley salary and paying only American taxes; getting a lower German salary and paying higher German taxes could mean a significant cut in our income. We wouldn't want to spend extra time in Europe if we didn't have enough money to enjoy it! Of greater concern, though, is whether or not extending our stay would make us retroactively liable for the six months of German taxes we're not paying now -- and, if I sold all of my stock options, whether Germany would tax the sale, even if it occurred during our current "no taxes" period. We put together a list of questions/concerns for the HR guy here; we'll see what answers he comes back with. Maybe we won't have to worry about finding a house in California right away after all.
(If you haven't already, you can read what Shelby's written on the matter over here.)
Last night was die Lange Nacht der Museen -- "the long night of the museums" -- where 42 museums across Hamburg stayed open from 6 PM until 2 AM. Each museum put on an assortment of special events -- lectures, tours, food, music, dancing; six special bus lines (and a boat) ran between the various museums on 10-20 minute intervals. Being museum junkies, we had to take part!
We'll begin the story with some pictures ...
|Alpenhorn players at the Altonaer Museum.||Shelby (and two total strangers) inside an Alpine snowglobe in the Altonaer Museum's "Heidi" exhibit.|
|The Martin Parr exhibit at the Deichtorhallen; a little too crowded to properly appreciate the photos ...||Inside a crowded bus on its way to the Abwasser- und Sielmuseum, around 10:30 at night.|
We started the evening in our neighborhood, at the Museum für Kommunikation Hamburg, which covers the many various ways people have communicated across the miles -- post, telegraph, telephone, radio, via satellite and undersea cable, the Internet . . . they really try to cover everything, and mostly do a good job at it; I think the museum has expanded to twice the size it was when I first saw it four years ago! We browsed the exhibits, tried our hand at writing with quill pens -- their special activities centered around "postal art" and various communication games -- and then moved on.
After the Museum for Communication, we went across town to the Altonaer Museum. We were drawn by the posters they've had up around town for a special exhibit, Heidi: Mythos - Marke -Medienstar (Heidi: the Myth - the Brand - the Media Star), a retrospective about Joanna Spyri's children's book Heidi, and all the things that have grown from it over the years. I didn't realize that Heidi was such a global and lasting phenomenon; apparently there's something of a Heidi cult in Japan (she made it big there after they produced some anime films based on the story), and you can visit "Heidiland" if you go to Switzerland.
Most of the Altona Museum's special activities were Heidi-related; they had a pair of alpenhorn players, and booths giving out Swiss tourist information and samples of Swiss cheese. We had dinner at the museum's restaurant (I'm always impressed by how many interesting restaurants in Germany are shoved into unexpected, out-of-the-way places; in America, you'd be lucky if a museum that size had a cafeteria), and then moved on, resolving to come back and spend more time visiting the Altonaer Museum on a "normal" day.
Our next stop was the Deichtorhallen, a set of large halls that display international modern art and photography. The Deichtorhallen was the hub of the Lange Nacht -- all of the buses to the other museums arrived and left from there -- so it was completely packed. We walked through one of their exhibits, a retrospective on the work of Martin Parr, a British photographer, but it was far too crowded to properly appreciate the photos.
After the Deichtorhallen, it was about 10 PM and Shelby was done with museums for the night. I walked her back to the main train station and she took a U-Bahn train for home. After that, I walked back to the Deichtorhallen and caught a bus to my last objective for the night, the Abwasser- und Sielmuseum -- the Waste Water and Sewer Museum. This was the most frustrating line of all; because part of the visit included a tour through the adjacent sewage-treatment plant, they were only taking twenty visitors at a time. The line stretched down the block; I got in, and waited, and waited, without moving very far. Around 11:15 PM, I was ready to give up and call it a night -- but just as I was about to leave, a man with a cart came up to our section of the line and started handing out hard hats from the cart. I got one -- and of course, then I had to wait, because who wants to leave after they've given you a yellow plastic hardhat?
Even after the hardhat, it still took about a half hour longer to get in, but I was glad I did, because it turned out to be very interesting. For the first part of the tour, a guide took us into the museum, which consisted mostly of things found in the sewer over the past 160 years -- a collection vast enough to defy description. There were toys, jewelry, license plates, hubcaps, a pile of wallets and purses (and in another room, a wall of drivers licenses from an assortment of countries, ID cards, passports, transit passes, credit cards ... they said that when it comes to ID, they give back everything they can, but considering the source, most people must not want it back), a wide variety of womens' undergarments, tools, street signs, a few bicycles -- a real cross-section of life!
After seeing the museum of collected items, the sewage-treatment plant was almost a letdown. This part of the tour was relatively brief -- only a few rooms -- but we did get to see a section of the old sewer feeding into the plant, which looked suitably Gothic and theatrical -- big brick archways with a river of muck flowing through, the walls stained with the effluvia of years. To get to this section, we had to go through an airtight door; there were signs on the door warning of the risk of explosion and telling us to turn off all cell phones and other electrical equipment. The employee who opened the door was holding some kind of air-quality meter; I guess that it'd look bad for the sewer authority to aspyxiate twenty citizens taking a tour of the premises ...
When I got out of the sewers, it was fifteen minutes after midnight. Having had enough museums for the day (and not being hardcore enough to last until closing time at 2 AM), I walked to the nearest S-Bahn station and rode home, sharing my train with the last of the drunken revellers from the Eurovision Contest.
The End of the Landlord Saga: I finally wrote up the end (hopefully) of the story of our struggles with our ex-landlord as an addendum to my last landlord entry. Long story short: he "only" bilked us out of $1307, as opposed to $3782 (the total of his spectacular first attempt). Our resolve to buy instead of rent upon our return to the USA is even more increased.
Scout The Brat: Scout has developed a disturbing new habit: instead of only scratching at the door when she needs to go outside, she's started scratching at the door -- sometimes quite frantically -- whenever she wants to go outside. So one of has to put on our shoes, a jacket, find our keys, the leash, and a just-in-case plastic bag, and head downstairs with Scout so that she can . . . sniff around until she decides that she's had enough. In a related newly-developed bad habit, she'll go downstairs at 7 AM (or in the afternoons while Shelby's taking her nap), decide she wants company, and will start to scratch until somebody wakes up and comes downstairs. Bad dog!
Eurovision Song Contest: Since we were out at the Lange Nacht der Museen, we missed the other major cultural event taking place last night -- the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest! I think that the Grand Prix is something that you have to be European to fully appreciate (or understand). Countries from across Europe enter a single musical act into the contest and vote on the other countries' performances; the winner receives continent-wide fame and adulation until, well, next year, when the next contest rolls around (although some Eurovision winners have gone on to more lasting fame; ABBA won the Eurovision prize in 1975). Last night was the final, held in Istanbul, with a field of 24 countries. Max, Germany's entry -- sounding to my ears something like a male Nora Jones with a light vocal jazz number -- got trounced, ending up in 8th place. Ukraine (in only their second year in the contest), took the prize.
Were we not out at the museums, we could have joined one of the many Eurovision parties across the city -- the largest being down at the Reeperbahn (Hamburg's entertainment/red-light district); it was the location the TV broadcast cut to when it was time for Germany to cast its vote, so a lot of people wanted to be part of the crowd.
Shelby's college friend Dave, watching in Paris, gives a good English-language blow-by-blow of this year's event -- start here and read up.
Well, our manager brought us together for a meeting where we all explained ourselves (in a face-saving way), made up, and swore to communicate with each other better in the future, using whichever language is most comfortable and appropriate at the time. So the potential confrontation and nastiness I was dreading got neatly defused.
Also, our local subway station has started playing classical/instrumental music (I guess in an effort to chase away the younguns and vandals, who only hang around transit stations that play edgy punk rock) -- as I was riding down the escalator this morning, I heard a familiar tune, and realized that they were playing our first-dance wedding waltz! That was a nice way to start the day.
(The Lovers' Waltz, written and performed by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, if you're curious.)
This week started out well, but quickly became frustrating. On Wednesday, there were a number of conversations with my co-workers over work I'd recently completed where it felt like dense, technical, rapidly-spoken German was almost being used as a weapon -- eventually, I broke down and said that, look, if you want me to completely understand you, and especially if you want to ask me to make any changes, I'm sorry, but we need to switch to speaking English. So I switched to English, but everyone else kept speaking German! (I know, I know, I'm in their country and all that, but they've been speaking technical English for years longer than I've been speaking any German. And it's not like I usually act like the Ugly American -- these days, I rarely speak any English in the office, unless someone chooses to address me in English first.) And then we went on for quite a while like that. Argh. I was feeling shaky and sweaty by the time it was all over.
Yesterday, I was looking at the lists of files that other people have checked out of our version-control system, and one of the co-workers from yesterday's conversation seems to be taking it upon himself to rewrite the two weeks of work that I'd checked in the day before. I don't know whether he's just frustrated from not getting his point across yesterday, and feels like he can make the changes he wants in less time than it would take to explain them to me, or if he feels my work is just total garbage, and only he can write the code as God intended it to be written. Either way, it's the ultimate passive-aggressive response -- I pretty much ignored it yesterday, but I think that I need to say something today, because not saying something in similar situations has caused problems in the past. (I don't know if it's a cultural thing, or just a matter of the people in our particular workgroup, but people tend to not say anything for the longest time, until the lid blows off of a situation, when addressing a problem early would have left us all happier and healthier. My all-American workgroups have been much more direct.)
To top it all off, one of my expense reports -- the company is paying for our household goods to be stored in a storage locker in San Jose while we're here in Hamburg -- has been working its way through the system and this week ended up in front of a vice president, who had two questions: "Why is this expense report late? And what are "storage fees", and why is our company paying them anyway?" It looks like everything will work out fine -- payment for storage fees is in my relocation contract, and I've now been given the okay to submit a printout of the Web version of my credit card statement as the "official receipt" that accompanies the expense report (rather than waiting for the charge to show up on the monthly credit card bill, waiting for that to be forwarded to us here, and then mailing it back to Accounts Payable in the States, which is what always made my expense report late). And as my stateside manager pointed out to the VP, even with storage fees, our six-month stay here in Hamburg is still more productive and cheaper for the company than the average marketing guy's or UI designer's one-week stay at the Park Hyatt Hamburg.
Still, you only want the corporate higher-ups to pay attention to you for the good things ...
Waggy Tail: This morning I was sitting on the couch, and Scout was curled up on a pillow next to me, asleep. Often -- usually daily -- she has "active" dreams, where she seems to be chasing something: her legs twitch, and she makes a funny stifled noise we call "the underwater bark". This morning was a different kind of active dreaming: the rare and elusive waggy-tail dream. I'm sitting and typing when all of a sudden, I hear a thump thump thump off to my right-hand side -- and there Scout is, totally asleep but obviously happy, wagging away. This was a long waggy-tail dream, too; usually it's only a few thumps before she's inert again. Happy dog! I always wonder what it is she dreams about ...
Technology Corner: Last night Scout and I were out walking, when I glimpsed something curious through a window of an office building. It looked like the bastard child of an elevator and an escalator: two side-by-side vertical shafts, with a stream of continuously moving cars -- up in one shaft, down in the other. No buttons to press, or waiting for the single car to come to your floor -- just step onto the first empty car in the direction you want, ride it until you reach your floor, and step off. After we got home, I did some research, and found that the thing I'd seen is called a paternoster, or "cyclic elevator":
Throughput-wise, the design makes a lot of sense, but it seems that the few remaining paternosters are being gradually phased out, mostly for friendliness to the disabled -- it doesn't look welcoming to the slow-moving, and to a wheelchair user, it might as well be a set of stairs. The Wikipedia article has a link to a list of remaining paternosters in Europe -- there are surprisingly quite a few in our neighborhood, mostly in government buildings. I'll have to go ride one to see what it's like.
To end today's media roundup, don't forget to purchase your copy of The Complete Peanuts: 1950-52, the first volume in a 25-volume, twelve-and-a-half year project to publish the complete fifty-year run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts.
Also newly-published and available at the bottom of the page is Charles M. Schulz: Li'l Beginnings, a complete collection of Li'l Folks, the comic strip that Charles Schulz drew before Peanuts. (Look at the proto-Snoopy on the cover!)
While the rain beat against our roof this past weekend, we passed part of the time by listening to selected episodes of This American Life. TAL is a program from Chicago Public Radio that enshrines American-slice-of-life moments that would traditionally be ignored -- interviews with normal people about ordinary things that happened in their lives that later turned out to be hilarious or profound (or often, both), and segments on historical or current events that you've never heard about before -- or, at least, not heard about from the perspective that TAL has to offer.
Everytime I hear This American Life, I think that it's just about one of the most perfect programs on radio. When we lived in San Jose, I actually didn't catch TAL on the air very often, because KQED broadcast it at some bizarre time -- but thankfully, the program has a very complete episode archive available over the net.
Our first listening choice, Desperate Measures, was a classic -- stories of people (and institutions) forced by seemingly impossible problems into trying out-of-the-ordinary solutions. The first segment was a story told by a therapist at a mental institution who had problems with a patient who thought he was the Terminator -- he kept breaking out because (like in the movie) he had to rescue John Connor; sometimes, he took other patients along.
Noboby could think of what to do with this guy -- until one day, the therapist remembered a story of another case, with a patient who thought he was Jesus Christ. His therapist sat "Jesus" down one day and said "so ... I hear you're a carpenter." "Jesus" admitted that yes, he was -- and so his therapist put him to work, building bookshelves for the hospital. In a few months, the patient was cured and out of the hospital -- and had left having learned valuable carpentry skills to boot!
This therapist turned over that story in his mind, looking for similar leverage he could use against "the Terminator". Finally, in a session, he asked the man:
"Are you really the Terminator, or are you Arnold Schwarzenegger?"
"How did you know? You're the only one who's figured it out!!"
. . . "Arnold" is then asked to take on his most difficult role yet: that of a cooperative mental patient -- a role that he pursues with gusto.
As already mentioned, we spent much of our weekend visiting the Hafengeburtstag and trying to dodge the rain. My favorite sight of the weekend actually didn't have much to do with the ships, but was in the middle of the festivities -- on Sunday, we took our first trip under the Elbe River through the Alter Elbtunnel, a wonder of early 20th-century engineering. Here are some pictures from the weekend, with a little narrative.
Other than that, there wasn't too much of note -- Shelby and I went a book importer's store just off the Mönckebergstraße and went crazy, buying four (English-language) books -- she bought two novels, I bought a couple of histories (one of candy, one of the Tour de France).
I don't think that I have what it would take to become a permanent resident of northern Germany; living in California has bred me for more predictable weather. Our visits to the Hafengeburtstag this past weekend were cold and rainy -- and, of course, not too soon after we got home, it stopped raining and the skies cleared (or at least turned from dark gray to light gray).
This morning, it was sunny with visible blue sky, and warm enough that I decided I didn't need to bring a jacket. About an hour after I got to work, the clouds came in, and it started to rain -- horizontally! Now the rain has stopped, and we're being treated to thunder and lightning.
At least I brought my umbrella; putting it in my bag whenever I go out has pretty much become a reflex action. And skipping my jacket didn't even mark me as the most hopelessly optimistic person in my office ... I feel sorry for my co-worker who decided to wear shorts and a short-sleeved shirt today!
Yesterday at lunch I had my first Spargel of the year . . . and it was horrible. Like many other dishes I've eaten in our office cafeteria, it was prepared indifferently and in a hurry, which in this case meant undercooked, crunchy-chewy asparagus.
Resolving to do better myself, last night I purchased some Spargel of our own, to be cooked tonight. Stay tuned for the results. (It may not be clear from the photo that these things are big, fatter than my thumbs -- no pencil-thin sticks of asparagus here!)
In other news, big sailing ships were coming into the harbor all day long yesterday for Hafengeburtstag; a few of them docked right next door to our office. One of the ships, a two-master, appeared to be crewed by a family (or a couple of families). Their children, who couldn't have been older than seven or eight, were up in the rigging, swinging Tarzan-like from one yardarm to the other -- starting out about ten or fifteen feet above the deck, arcing out over the water, then coming in over the deck again to land perched on the yardarm attached to the other mast. There was nothing keeping them from a nasty fall other than their two hands on the rope, of course. Swinging out there did look like fun -- but at the same time, I couldn't help cringing each time they did it, because it looked a lot like little kids tempting crazy death, too.
It's been busy over here, so just a few quick things:
Hafengeburtstag: The yearly "birthday party" for Hamburg's harbor takes place this weekend. The harbor is considered to have been "born" on May 7, 1189 (the day when Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa granted the people of Hamburg an exemption from tolls for their ships traveling on the Elbe River between Hamburg and the North Sea), so it'll be turning 815 this year. On the water will be ships of all types -- tall ships, steamships, fishing boats, an icebreaker, police and fire boats -- docked and open to visitors. On land will be a giant party along the riverbank -- kind of a DOM on with water, with food, music, booths, and rides. The party officially begins on Friday afternoon with a church service (!) and a parade of ships into the harbor, but preparations began in earnest yesterday, with all kinds of booths and tents being set up within spitting distance of our office (and with my bus stop being $%^!&@ out of service until Monday, since they started shutting down the neighborhood streets last night). It'll be hard to concentrate on Friday with festivities in sight out of the office windows ...
The "Alice" mystery solved: Just in time for Hafengeburstag, the people who plastered the city with the mysterious "Alice kommt" ads last week hung a giant (at least 100 meters long!) new "Alice" ad from the side of one of the floating drydocks along the river. And it looks like the people who guessed that this had something to do with some kind of new DSL service (like the "Alice" services being offered in Italy and France) were right, since this ad explicitly mentions the Net. I lose! (On the other hand, just being one of the first people to mention www.alice-kommt.de on my blog has really driven up my traffic -- around a hundred people have come by in the past few days, trying to figure out what those ads are about.)
More Museums (also part of "there's something interesting every weekend" file): Next weekend is the Lange Nacht der Museen -- "the long night of the museums", where 42 museums will be open from 6 PM Saturday night to 2 AM Sunday morning. Most of the museums will be hosting special events -- films, lectures, music, dancing, food -- in addition to their regular exhibits. 10 Euro buys you a combined admissions ticket and transit pass. How many will we be able to see? (For those who wimp out early, the admissions ticket is also good for regular hours on Sunday as well.)
The Horrors of LA: Tuesday at lunch, I was asked what Shelby and I planned to do after we returned to the US; I mentioned that we might go back to San Jose, but we might move to Südkalifornien instead. "Oh, LA?" (All of Southern California is LA, except for San Diego.) Ja. "Wow, you'll have to be a movie star or a musician to live there, won't you -- or a porno star!" Well, no, I think I'll keep my job here, thanks -- but we'll just buy a giant SUV and then we'll fit right in. Kein problem! "But then you'll have to get your SUV armor-plated so that you can survive all of the freeway shootings!"
Thing is, I'm not entirely sure whether they're joking or serious. I've already had to explain that just because I grew up in Southern California, that didn't mean that my friends and I went surfing every day after school and held bonfires on the beach every weekend ...
I particularly like Hamburg's history museum, since I come from a region that more or less ignores its own history -- only a few rooms of post-Indian Los Angeles history at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, or even worse, the abomination that is Bowers Museum in Orange County. Bowers dumped its focus on the history of Orange County to become a "museum of cultural art". There are hundreds of better museums to see art in -- many of them in Southern California! -- than Bowers can ever aspire to be, but there's pratically nowhere else that could have provided a better forum for local history, and they've almost completely turned their back on that. (And what the heck is cultural art, anyway? What do they consider to be non-cultural art? Comic books?)
Also, Arts & Crafts: someday I'd like to open a Museum of Arts & Crafts that contains what people first think of when they hear the phrase "arts and crafts". We'd have displays like "Popsicle-Stick Art: A Critical Re-evaluation", "100 Years of Macrame", and "Leatherwork, Lanyards, and Basketweaving: Selections From Our Summer Camp Permanent Collection". I think that the only museum I've seen that even comes close to this is the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.
(I believe it was the connection between "arts and crafts" and "popsicle sticks" in many people's minds that caused the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland to change their name to the California College of the Arts: people weren't taking them seriously enough. And yes, I know about the Arts & Crafts Movement, William Morris, and the like; I may be irreverent at the moment, but I'm not a total cretin.)
This past weekend was a little more ambitious than last weekend. We started by going to a street festival in St. Georg, the neighborhood on the other side of the main train station from the Mönckebergstraße. Hamburg seems to occupy its time after the DOM ends for the season by having one or two street fairs a weekend until its time for the next DOM. (I'm not complaining.) We walked the length of the fair and looked at all the booths, had our obligatory grilled mystery meat and beer, and then made our way to our next destination, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (or in English, the "Museum of Arts and Crafts").
The museum was about what I expected: an interesting collection of 20th century graphic arts and design -- the part I was most interested in -- sitting on top of several floors worth of porcelain and Baroque furniture. Unfortunately, we spent too much time down in the silverware and teacups, because Shelby started getting tired out by the time we got to the 20th century floor. I took a cursory look around the exhibitions there, and then we headed for home. We'll (or at least I'll) have to go back sometime -- not only to look more carefully at the modern floor, but also to see the other half of their collection of antique musical instruments, and to see their typography and book arts collection (which we somehow entirely missed!)
On Sunday afternoon, we went to see a another museum, the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Museum of Hamburg History). Hamburg's history museum is organized on the "Grandma's Attic" model -- if it's got something to do with Hamburg, it's in there! It's four floors, jam-packed with everything -- case after case of models and dioramas, paintings, statues and sculptures, curios of all sorts, Victorian womens' underwear, and pirate skulls nailed to a board with giant spikes (yes, really). This museum didn't make us work too hard; much of their signage was in German and English! At the back of the museum was a new exhibit on Hamburg in the 20th century which I thought was particularly well done. (Hamburg's been through a lot in the last 100 years ...)
On the top floor of the museum is a large train layout that's fallen on hard times since Miniatur Wunderland came to town: they used to bill themselves as the largest train layout in Europe, but now they only claim to be "the largest No. 1-gauge layout in Hamburg". The layout was completed in the 1950s, and it doesn't look like it's had a lot of updating since then. Still, I'm glad to watch model trains anywhere, and they had a rack with pamphlets from other train-related organizations that I'll have to visit later (maybe when Shelby is in San Francisco for her friend's wedding next month ...)
And now, it's another week of work. Yesterday felt kind of strange -- last week, many of my co-workers were in San Jose for the company-wide "Tech Summit"; combine that with my recent vacation time, and I've had three weeks where I haven't spoken all that much German. Returning to the normal lunch-table conversation made me feel very rusty. I think that I'll spend some time this week watching TV and reading, so that I can polish up my basic comprehension skills a bit.
Now I'm going to go out grocery shopping, so we can have fun later this afternoon.