So what is it, you ask? Think of a "checkerboard wafer" cookie with a marshmallow on top, all covered in chocolate -- they're good!
She got back around 2 PM. From what she told me during the taxi ride back from Hamburg airport, apparently the trip was a success; the wedding was wonderful, and it was nice to be back in America and visit with friends. Her trip back home couldn't be called uneventful, though, as there was a full-on is-there-a-doctor-aboard-this-plane medical emergency on the flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt.
Once we got in the door, she headed upstairs to bed, and she's been asleep since then. Downstairs is a suitcase full of dirty clothes and Velveeta macaroni-and-cheese dinners (yes, I know you can buy Kraft mac-n-cheese at any store with an "American food" section, but you don't understand, it's just not the same ... you'll have to ask Shelby).
Scout and I are both very glad that our pack is once again all together in the same place.
Last night, Scout and I went down to the Stuttgarter Weindorf for our final night of bachelor eatin'. This "Stuttgart Wine Village" is a temporary complex of outdoor restaurants that's been set up on the plaza in front of the Rathaus until July 10th; if you're so inclined, you can go back night after night and sample different southern German dishes -- and, of course, all kinds of wines.
Scout was the belle of the ball. Everywhere we turned, different people were making tchk-tchk-tchk come-here noises to attract Scout's attention. Once we selected a restaurant and sat down, the proprietress came out with a bowl of water, bent down to pet Scout and call her sweetie, and started talking to me about her Beagle. A younger retarded man came over to pet Scout; things started off well; he gave her a piece of Wurst (with permission) -- but then he started trying to get her to play by grabbing at her paws, and it was all over. Scout doesn't even like us touching her paws -- Spielende mit den Pfoten ist stark verboten! -- and she was getting visibly uncomfortable, so I asked him to please not touch her paws, and he went off in a huff. I slipped Scout some Käsespätzle (baked noodles with cheese) to make up for the injustice.
This is pretty much what German life is like for Scout everywhere she goes; she gets plenty of attention from strangers (sometimes accompanied by treats!) and there are always lots of interesting things to sniff out. I think that out of the three of us, she may well like Germany the best -- however, she's the most poorly assimilated. You can still tell that Scout is definitely not a German dog.
For example, once I sat down to dinner Scout stayed up and about, sniffing as far as her leash would let her, making hopeful eyes at people passing by, and tying herself around the legs of my chair. Telling her to Sit worked for about a couple of minutes at most before she was sniffing around again. I had to keep her on the shortest leash that I possibly could without choking her, lest she walk out into the aisle and trip someone. Contrast this with the other dogs at the fest, big or small, who were napping under the table or their owner's chair until it was time to get up and leave.
When you go shopping at a big store, there is often a small group of dogs clustered by the front door; their owners have gone inside to shop, telling their dogs to wait there until they come out. Many of the dogs don't even have leashes -- but despite this, they sit in their assigned spot, ignoring the other people going in and out, ignoring the other dogs, focused completely on the front door, waiting for their person to come out again. We're not talking thoroughbred dogs in front of chi-chi boutiques, either; this is a scenario you'll see played out every day in front of Wal-Mart by working-class mutts.
We tried this once before going to Germany, and afterwards resolved never to try it again. We were in Carmel (one of the most dog-friendly cities in California, by the way) and tied Scout to a lamppost in front of a small store -- so small that she could see the entire store through the front door. I stepped just inside the front door and she started yelping and barking, scrabbling frantically for the door, like she was afraid the dognappers were after her, or I was going to duck out through the secret back exit!
Then there's the whole leashless thing. Each day I walk through what I call the 'impromptu dogpark' -- there's always a big group of dogs playing there. There's a busy street along one side, there are no fences anywhere, you never know what kind of dogs are going to walk in -- but yet the owners are sitting on a bench, talking away while their dogs play on the other side of the park, because they know that with a few words, they can tell their dog to ignore whatever's about to get it in trouble and order it to come running back. Leashes are pretty much optional; they appear in certain situations, like in a store or the subway, or if you have a threatening dog -- but most of the time, people let their dogs roam out ahead of them, since they can bring them to heel with a simple voice command. I still cringe when we're out walking and I see a big dog without a leash loping towards Scout -- oh no, dangerous stray dog! -- but I've never had a problem here; usually a few curious sniffs at most, before its owner becomes apparent and tells it to move along.
Unfortunately, Scout is actually pretty well-trained -- for a Beagle. But next to the average German mutt, she looks sloppy and disobedient. Maybe the Beagle's general intractability and preference to follow an interesting scent instead of an owner's directions are the reason why you see so few of them here in the land of Unnaturally Well-Behaved Dogs.
What do they do here to make all of the dogs so good?
(Now if only the owners were well-trained enough to pick up after their dogs ...)
Yesterday was a big day. I visited two museums in a trip that took me to the ends of the known world -- "the known world" being defined by the Hamburg transit map.
My first journey was to visit der Lokschuppen Aumühle, the Aumühle roundhouse. The Aumühle roundhouse is a branch of the Museumsbahnen Schönberger Strand, a large railway museum near Kiel (north of Hamburg, near the Baltic Sea). I decided to visit Aumühle this weekend because the Schönberger Strand museum was advertising rides between the Kiel train station and the museum on their historic equipment beginning next weekend -- and why spend a half hour riding the bus when you can ride pulled along by a steam train instead?
The roundhouse is just a short walk through the forest from the Aumühle S-Bahn station -- which, being at the easternmost end of Hamburg's S-Bahn network, is a long ride from the city center. Someone who isn't a train fan might be disappointed at making the long trip, because the Aumühle branch was a very small museum -- a three-stall roundhouse with a few engines, four or five passenger coaches, a couple of very old S-Bahn trains, and a motley collection of boxcars. Aumühle's mission seems to be mostly restoration work; once a piece of rolling stock is refurbished enough to be presentable and travelworthy, it's sent off on its way to the main museum. But I'm not complaining -- for me, it was an interesting enough way to pass an hour or so (trains!), and it was free!
After having had my fill, I rode the S-Bahn all the way to its western terminus, in Wedel, to see the "The Duck Family" exhibit at the Ernst Barlach Museum. Two floors of the museum were given over (actually, it looked like all of the museum was given over) to Disney comic art done by three men, Carl Barks, Al Taliaferro, and Floyd Gottfredson. It would have been nice to see a little more original comic art (much of Carl Barks' section was given over to the serigraphs he did later in life to raise a little money), but I enjoyed it. And I think that this was an exhibition that I "got" a little more than many of my fellow visitors, since most of the comics were in English! (The poor parents who brought kids along to see the exhibit were having to stop and read every single comic strip to their demanding children ...)
Pictures of trains follow (click on any of the pictures to get a larger version of that image ...)
Partially-related link: Hamburger Bahnhöfe -- Pictures of (most of) Hamburg's railway stations (for both mass-transit and long-distance rail)
|Auto Accidents: At the end of our block last night, some justification for Shelby and I patiently waiting at the crosswalk and not jaywalking like everybody else: a car crash! One side of the intersection is made up of a visibility-impaired curve that most people take a bit too fast: it looked like a boy-racer type in a Honda Prelude came around that curve, ran a light, and slammed into an elderly couple driving their Renault through the intersection. The cars were totalled, but the people all looked okay; the old folks were standing on the corner, hugging each other and smoking like mad as they waited for the wrecker's truck to come. This morning the corner is still decorated with broken glass and plastic fragments, along with a big section of mangled fencing that formerly separated pedestrians standing on the corner from traffic ...|
|Bachelor Living Update: In the plus ('not gross single guy-like behavior') column, I've:
The list hasn't changed all that much since its first appearance here a couple of months ago -- the biggest change being due to the introduction of Peter Mulvey's Kitchen Radio into my listening rotation.
Kitchen Radio just might top my list of Most Totally Perfect Complete Albums, narrowly edging out Deb Talan's A Bird Flies Out (sorry, Shelby). I first saw Peter Mulvey seven years ago, as an opener for then-emerging-phenomenon Dar Williams; we most recently saw him last November, playing in a small coffeehouse in San Jose. He clearly deserves far more than the small-coffeehouse circuit, and I hope that he gets it -- but then, like when I go to a Dar Williams concert now, paying more money to sit farther away from the stage each time, I'm sure that I'll be lamenting for the Good Old Days.
My officemates are less fascinated with my music collection than they once were; I guess the novelty value has worn off. Still, when I shut down my computer at the end of the day, I always seem to be disconnecting a listener or two ...
(Folk music bonus question: what in the heck happened to Iris DeMent? She was on the track to fame for a while -- gaining mainstream recognition, switching her record label from Rounder/Philo to Warner Brothers -- but now she's more or less disappeared, not doing much for the past eight years beyond playing on a collection of compilation albums. She's someone who shouldn't go out languishing in the 'Various Artists' bin!)
Tragedy! When Germany scored the first goal early in last night's match against the Czech Republic, I was hoping that the pessimists around our office would be proved wrong -- but they turned out to be right, as the Czechs eventually came back to win the match 2-1, thereby crushing Germany's hopes for advancing any further in EM 2004. In last night's other match, Holland walked over Latvia (who Germany 'tied' last week 0-0) 3-0, so the Czech Republic and Holland will be the teams from our group that advance to the next round.
There were no big outdoor parties in our neighborhood like there were for Germany's first game, but you could still feel how much the city was concentrating on this match. Our apartment doesn't face any apartment buildings or nightspots -- just an office building and a parking lot -- but I had the windows open as I watched the match, and as Germany scored that first goal, you could hear a roooooar made up of many voices drift in from outside. I took Scout out for a walk around the half, and the neighborhood was totally abandoned -- nobody else walking, nobody driving. It felt like being in one of those last-man-on-Earth science fiction stories. American sports fans wish that they could be this intense.
This past weekend, I became, to the best of my knowledge, the last American in the world to read mega-hyper-bestselling blockbuster The DaVinci Code.
It wasn't entirely an act of my own free will. For unknowable reasons, our book club back in San Jose (which usually has better taste) chose TDC as next month's book; even though we're in Europe, we still try to keep up with each month's pick and send in our comments via E-mail.
When I finally put the book down, the one persistent question that it left ringing through my mind was what was the big deal about that?
For all the hype (and its assuming a seemingly-permanent position on the best-seller list), I was expecting a book head-and-shoulders above the usual in the "thriller" genre; maybe not an enduring classic of literature, but perhaps something that, say, Tom Clancy might have written on his best day ever. What I got was one of the clunkiest books I've read in recent memory. I don't know what annoyed me more:
(SPOILERS AHEAD: Read on, and some of Dan Brown's intricately handcrafted mysteries may be spoiled forever if you haven't read the book yet!)
[On the other hand, there were moments of "suspense" that he drew out far longer than he needed to: look at the whole Sophie-saw-a-sex-ritual situation. "I know why my grandfather was the head of a major secret cult ... but ... I just can't talk about it right now." Repeat, ad infinitum. You have to feel for her: she's only had, what, ten years to process what she saw that night ...]
And I'm far from steeped in English letters, but I knew immediately that the "pope" in that knight-and-a-pope puzzle would turn out to be Alexander Pope. (I didn't guess the Isaac Newton part, though -- but that might be okay; if you search on the Web, you can find people claiming that one of Brown's many errors is that Pope didn't officiate at Newton's funeral; he just contributed a valedictory to a memorial book assembled some time after the fact.)
Also, we have the crazy albino monk and the crazy rich OBE with polio and leg braces, two main characters who seem to be primarily defined by their physical abnormalities with a few other random traits thrown in. If we're at a loss as to what to do next with Silas, we can always go back to talking about his alabaster skin ...
Like the Harry Potter books before it, The DaVinci Code is a case of a hack taking us on another trip down an already-well-travelled road -- and thanks to savvy marketing whipping people who don't typically read books into a frenzy, we're led to believe that the author is doing something new and brilliant that we've never seen before.
Shelby and I are about to go off to Hamburg Airport; today she'll be making a trip back to the San Francisco Bay area for a friend's wedding. It's only a short trip -- she'll be coming back on Monday -- but I'm sure it'll only take a couple of days before Scout and I descend into squalid bachelor living, lounging around in undershirts and only eating food that comes premade in boxes or cans.
Actually, since Scout doesn't wear an undershirt, and gets her food from a bag stored in the coat closet, we're already halfway there!
|We got back from Denmark yesterday. We had fun, despite driving rain, indifferent waiters, and having to pay through the nose for everything (our poor battered dollar ... treated even worse in Denmark than it is in the Eurozone). Pictures, along with my commentary, will be coming soon -- in the meantime, you can read Shelby's writeup of the trip, if you haven't already.I managed to get yet another parking ticket during the two hours between our return to Hamburg and my taking the car back to the rental agency. I richly deserved it; I was parked in a no-stopping zone. Still, everyone parks illegally in our neighborhood, all the time; the legitimate on-street pay parking disappears completely around mid-morning, once business hours begin in the surrounding office buildings. The stretch of street where I was ticketed is always full of parked cars, every day, for as long as we've been here (and despite yesterday's length-of-the-street massacre, it's full again this morning). Some people just don't park on the street, either; they're blocking driveways or alleys, or parking with half of their car pulled up onto the sidewalk. Given the everyday brazenness of the Falschparkers in my neighborhood, why do the extremely sporadic parking-enforcement attempts of Hamburg's Polizei always have to coincide with the few hours that I'm a temporary car owner?Oh well. At least the last ticket was only 15 Euro. Maybe when I'm pricing rental cars on the Internet, I need to start figuring the price of the ticket into the total cost ...A mystery: While taking the car back to the rental agency, a convoy of very serious-looking police vehicles came speeding by in the other direction: two police cars, leading five armored vehicles (one of which reminded me of UC Berkeley's bomb squad truck; yes, my university had a bomb squad, thanks to the Unabomber), with two more police cars bringing up the rear. I don't see anything in this morning's newspapers that would seem to merit that kind of response, so hopefully it was only a false alarm or a practice exercise ...|
Okay, one more entry for today: I remember nine (!) years ago, when I spent my second summer working at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, those of us working in the photography department (or, as it was formally known, the "News And Information Service") thought we were elite, because we had our own private phone line and a 2400 baud modem! (A few years later, the year-round staff members got excited when the local electricity co-op started acting as an ISP, because they no longer had to make long-distance phone calls to Albuquerque or Raton for their Internet.) I routinely denied requests from staff members in other departments to develop their personal pictures, because we knew that if we did it for one person and the word got out, then sooner or later we'd spend all of our free time doing it for everybody. (We didn't have a 35mm minilab and would have had to print all of their pictures by hand, meaning that the most we could have practically done was to hand them back a loop of processed film and say "now get these printed somewhere else". That still didn't stop them from complaining after we said no, though.)
Nowadays, backcountry staff members can blog direct from the staff lounge at Camping Headquarters during their time off -- and complain about how the photography department won't let them upload their digital photos.
The more things change, the more they stay the same ...
In a short while I'll be heading off to pick up the rental car for another mini-vacation: this time, we'll be going to Denmark. We'll be spending three nights in Copenhagen (stopping off along the way for such things as the Hans Christian Andersen Museum), followed by a day at Legoland Billund (the original!) and a night at the adjacent Legoland Hostel, where each room comes with its own Lego table. Scout will be spending this trip at her usual Hundehotel.
Naturally, it's started raining again -- perfect holiday weather!
See you again on Tuesday or so!
. . . but, along with visiting the train museum, perhaps something for the "to do when Shelby is away doing something else" list: a visit to the Ernst Barlach Museum in Wedel to see their "The Duck Family" special exhibit. It's comic art of Donald Duck and his relatives, with comic books, ephemera, and original drawings from such luminaries of Disney art as Carl Barks, Floyd Gottfredson, and Al Taliaferro.
I've been a closet Duck fan ever since the days of my youth, when I discovered that our local library had multiple volumes of the Carl Barks Library in its collection. The CBL was a thirty-volume collection of oversized hardcovers showcasing the art of Carl Barks, the most prolific writer and illustrator of Duck comics [and inventor of Uncle Scrooge, among other things]. Unfortunately the library didn't have all of them -- but it was a lucky mystery as to why they even had some of them, since they were expensive even at the time!
(Fun Fact: In Germany, Uncle Scrooge is called Onkel Dagobert.)
Last night Shelby and I went to Down Under, an Australian pub. We'd first noticed the place about a month ago; riding past on the bus, their large CHICKEN WINGS sign (in English!) caught our eye. Since a plate of good wings is something that Shelby has been sorely missing during our German experience, we put Down Under on our list of establishments to check out sometime. Last night, since Shelby was the birthday girl, she got to pick our dinner destination, so we finally went.
The trip was worth it. Down Under does indeed seem, as advertised, to be Hamburg's home for chicken wings: they've got sixteen different wing options on their menu, which you can pair with one of seven dipping sauces. Shelby chose the "American BBQ" option with blue cheese. They weren't quite the American formula she was searching for (not hot enough), but they were good, and the portion size was gigantic. I ordered a lamb "Aussie burger", which actually turned out to be a slab-o'-lamb on a baguette; still, the sandwich was also good, and my portion was likewise huge. We'll have to go back to work our way through more of the wing alternatives ...
Last night was Germany's first match (versus the Netherlands) in Euro 2004, the European soccer championship. Since we were eating in a pub, naturally they had multiple TVs tuned to the game, and naturally there was a very boisterous, enthusiastic, soccer-focused crowd. At first, we were a little apprehensive about walking into the thick of things, but we quickly caught the spirit and started cheering for Deutschland.
This was (ugly American alert!) my first time ever watching a complete soccer match, so I found myself mentally comparing the experience to watching American football, the only team sport that I've often watched all the way through (usually back in college when my beloved California Golden Bears were on the field). Sorry, America, but soccer won: in contrast to football's very regimented march up and down the field, only occasionally reversed by a surprise fumble-and-interception, soccer was all action and all over the place. There was no series of endless time outs, where players were swapped in and out, talked strategy with coaches, or waited for officials to measure out distances on the field; the players who started the game were pretty much the players who stayed in the game, and each forty-five minute half was actually only forty-five minutes in length. For all the action though, the game was light on scoring: after one surprise goal for Germany about thirty minutes in, nothing else happened until Holland tied the game nine minutes before the end.
(The experience of watching sports on television was better in Germany, too; no commercial breaks, no floating sponsorship 'bugs' on the screen, no "and now let's see if you can answer this segment's American Airlines/Tostitos/Duracell trivia challenge moment, brought to you by Toyota!" moments from the announcers. They just showed the game! At the half, they played two commercials, and then switched to a news program for the rest of the break.)
Despite the fact that Germany didn't produce another goal and come back to win the game, everybody seemed to be leaving pretty happy. Once we got outside, people were waving the German flag on street corners; people in cars going by were screaming and honking their horns. Again, being used to American-style championships, we were mystified. Why didn't they extend the game to break the tie? How do they decide who 'won'? Who gets to advance to the next round of the championship? After getting home and taking a look at the website, we found out that for this first round, each team is placed in a group of four teams; they play one match with each of the other teams in the group, and whichever team comes out ahead on points after its three games moves to the next level as the winner of that group. So a tie wasn't the best outcome, but was acceptable; Germany gets points for tying and has three more chances to shine.
We'll be in Denmark when Germany's next match comes around, but the one after that, versus the Czech Republic, is on June 23rd; maybe we'll have to go back for some more chicken wings and Fußall then.
Today is Shelby's birthday -- Happy Birthday, Shelby! Everybody needs to visit her blog and wish her Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag.
While cooking dinner last night, I found myself speculating on the really small differences between Germany and the US. For example, every onion I've bought in Hamburg has been extraordinarily potent: I can usually only last for a few minutes of cutting before I have to run away and daub a wet towel over my eyes. After that, I have to open the windows to get some fresh air into the kitchen before I can start cutting again. Every onion that I haven't used right away has been extraordinarily short-lived: while it seemed like I could keep onions around for weeks before I used them back in the States, here it usually only takes a week before the rot sets in.
And then there are the eggs. Eggs here have radioactively bright orangey-yellow yolks. How do they get this unnatural-seeming color? Maybe this is the way eggs should look -- too bad I'm a city boy who can't remember what the last farm-fresh egg he ate looked like before it was cooked. And while American supermarkets all have their eggs in a refrigerated section, the last store I bought eggs from here just had the cartons stacked in the open air, on a table in the middle of the fruit-and-vegetable section. What about ... salmonella? Or spoilage? Eek! (Actually, spoilage is never a worry; the eggs I buy here always seem to have expiration dates much farther into the future than their American counterparts would.)
I wouldn't be surprised if it's all due to genetic engineering or hormones or something: that all onions grown in the US now have the patented Nev-"R"-Cry gene sequence spliced in (using the same secret formula as Johnson-and-Johnson's "No More Tears" shampoo!), which also happens to give the onions extraordinary shelf life. No doubt the egg yolk mystery is due to American chickens being pumped full of hormones and the eggs being stored forever after they're laid.
[After some quick internet research: I can't explain the onions, but it seems that egg yolk color is a function of the chicken's diet and the age of the egg. So the less vibrant yellow of American eggs -- and their shorter expiration dates -- could indeed be a matter of sitting around forever before they get to market.]
(Click on any of the pictures to get a larger version of that image.)
Yesterday was a busy day for us. We can start with the cutest pictures first -- in the morning I went grocery shopping, and came back with Scout's favorite German dog treat, the Frolic brand "Wonder Bone" (see this previous blog entry for an explanation of its wonders):
|The multi-colored Frolic Dalmatian on the package is your guarantee of total dog-mesmerizing quality!||One sly-lookin' Hund.|
|Enough looking cute; now it's time to get down to some serious chewing.|
The pride parade highlighted some big differences between Germany and the United States. For one, the parade was being broadcast live on TV by NDR, a government-sponsored broadcaster:
. . . imagine the uproar in the US if a publicly-funded broadcaster chose to spend its budget and broadcast time showcasing an "alternative lifestyle" parade! (And one that included graphic sexual imagery, at that -- there were a number of dancing condoms making their way down the street ...)
|All of the parade 'floats' were flatbed trucks, some more elaborately disguised than others. Prestige points seemed to be awarded on the basis of whose truck had the most elaborate DJ platform (and the loudness of your techno music), how many balloons were attached to your rig, and the relative coolness of whatever souvenir you were throwing out at the crowd.
In another illustration of differences, both major German political parties, the CDU and the SDP, were represented in the parade, along with floats from some of the smaller parties. In America, the Democrats and Republicans are competing over how little they can do for gay people, so as not to alienate the Joe Sixpack Evangelical Christian vote -- while here, each political party was fighting to establish itself in the minds of the crowd as more gay than any of its competitors!
|Since the parade was taking place along a main shopping street, this made for some interesting spillover, like the two drag queens who held their own mini-parade through Karstadt's cosmetics department.|
|After watching the parade for a while, we took care of some other shopping. Here's Shelby inside her favorite store, Lush, on Spitalerstraße.|
We had fun! Shelby met some of my co-workers and got the nickel tour of my office. The visual portion of the art show -- several rooms full of paintings and photographs, and a couple of short films -- worked much better for us than the spoken-word segment. For Shelby, it was a lost cause from the beginning; for me, total comprehension still usually requires total concentration, and this was impossible in a big room full of other conversations. Other peoples' talk would die down just enough that I could catch a few sentences really well, and then the background noise would rise and I'd lose the thread again; it was a lot like driving with the radio tuned to a station that keeps fading in and out.
Chit-chat was about as dismal as that at any other office party. I noticed that while a typical American question to ask someone newly settled in the States might be "and what's your favorite thing about living in America so far?", Shelby was asked "and what do you find most difficult about living in Germany?" Telling comment on the difference between national psyches, or just a case of individual pessimism?
Meet the Mitarbeiter (und Mitarbeiterinnen): Tonight we're having a social event at work -- an employee art show (producing software for use by creative people leads many of us to believe that we too are creative and artistic). Spouses, significant others, and children are invited; we've been promised food, drink, and general merriment.
This will be Shelby's first chance to meet most of these co-workers of mine that she spends every day hearing about. (Except for a small core group of people who've been together since the very beginning, my co-workers aren't much for doing things together outside of work -- and our foreign not-quite-getting-it-ness makes us even less likely candidates to pal around with.) Hopefully we'll all make good impressions on each other.
Death to the Materialistic Great Satan . . . no, wait: I was reading another Hamburg-based blog recently in which the US was being condemned for (among other things) its "materialistic McDonalds culture". Walking around this past week, I've reflected on how nobody living in Hamburg can seriously point a finger at anyone else's society for being materialistic.
Growing up in Orange County, home to South Coast Plaza (the highest-grossing mall per square foot in the United States!) and Fashion Island, and then going on to live in more-money-than-sense Silicon Valley, not all that far away from the Stanford Shopping Center, I feel like I can say I know something about ultra-concentrated displays of hyper-materialism -- and Hamburg has just as many of them, or more, as anywhere in the States.
Walking in the Jungfernsteig -- Hamburg's tony shopping district -- a few months ago, we passed a sandwichboard that a jewelry store had put out on the sidewalk, advising us to COME IN NOW because the something-or-other prestige watch (Rolex? Patek Phillipe? I forget), normally selling for 3500 Euro, was NOW REDUCED to just 2000 Euro! Across the street from my office is Stilwerk, where people with an unlimited amount of money can buy stylish Italian-designed egg cups from Alessi, and then go upstairs and spend 5900 Euro on a set of bookshelves, or 200 Euro on a garden chair. The subway station that I travel through every day has large glass display cases on the main platform, where clothing retailers on the street above showcase 100 Euro blouses and 175 Euro pairs of pants, in hopes that female travellers will be seduced away from their journey.
I know that most people in Hamburg aren't rich and ostentatious -- I'm reminded of that everytime I ride the bus. And I know that living just a short walk away from the Jungfernsteig, we're in the eye of the storm, local-materialism-wise. But still, every day the streets in our neighborhood are filled with Beautiful People carrying big, full shopping bags with elite names printed on the outside ...
As for McDonalds -- well, yeah, that is our fault. But maybe Americans are getting fed up with them too; Super Size Me seems to be the latest underground hit back in the States ...
Staying-in-Germany News: My manager had a talk with our company lawyer yesterday; I don't know exactly what she said, but it must've been a dash of cold water over the "no problem!" promises made by the HR guy. So, before they go ahead and hire the tax consultant, we're going to wait until my manager's manager gets back from vacation (on June 20th); we'll all sit down, figure out how much the company might need to spend to keep me over, how much the company is actually willing to spend, and decide whether or not this is even feasible before we start bringing in outside help.
I can't kid Shelby about going for a whole three days without making any blog entries, and then leave my own blog alone . . .
As I write this, the rain is beating HARD against the roof, and we're being subjected to a truly cinematic thunder-and-lightning show outside. ("Cinematic" as in "extremely impressive", but also "cinematic" as in this is the kind of storm you have in a horror movie that forces twenty people into an abandoned mansion by the side of the road because the weather is so bad and the road just flooded -- and then, with a flash of lightning, the power goes out!) It's almost 8 AM, but it's still dark like 5 AM outside, and the clouds are so thick that I can just barely see "Michel" -- the tower of St. Michaelis church, our local landmark -- outside. I wonder how many people in the office will suddenly take "sick" or decide to work from home today. This June in Hamburg is reminding me more and more of June in New Mexico -- truly schizophrenic weather, where a warm short-sleeves-and-shorts day can be followed up in short order by intense rainstorms.
Naturally, Scout wants to go outside. And just as naturally, I've put her in her crate.
Staying-in-Germany news: I had my meeting with our HR guy this past Friday. He was extremely optimistic about our staying longer, confident that all of our points of concern could be overcome. Given that, Shelby and I did some soul-searching this past weekend, and decided that we'd like to stay through the end of the year, if it's possible.
Our next step is for the company to hire a tax/relocation consultant, since a professional in this field is the only one who can tell us (and the company) exactly how much a lengthened stay is going to cost -- and who can answer tax questions with total, legally liable certainty: will Germany want to tax stock option sales, if we sell in the months to come? (HR guy says no, but I find that dubious.) Is there any way to pry California's cold, dead hands off of our income? (California is always hot to get its 9.3%, unless you go through a very specific set of steps to renounce your California residency, and then don't move back to the state for a given number of years. If you move back too early, you're liable to have them say ha, ha, you were only joking about that not living in California thing, weren't you? and dun you for back taxes.)
The biggest stumbling block to come is the six months of back taxes that have to be paid. Since we're talking a fair chunk of money, likely over fifteen percent (or more) of my yearly income, it's clear we'll have to have some form of "income assistance" from the company. My manager is extremely enthusiastic about the idea of my staying longer, and thrilled that we've consented to stay -- but I fear that the final cost may still be too much to swallow. We're not in the go-go-go late 90s anymore (when they paid about $15,000 to fly me via Business Class to Hamburg and put me in a hotel room for an entire month), and on the company's totem pole of products, we're at the very bottom (possibly on the part of the pole that's buried underground, even), so we're not in a position to make what could be perceived as lavish expenditures.
We'll keep you posted!
Sculpting With Dull Tools: It's been a frustrating past couple of days at work. In order to produce the bright-and-shiny application that goes out to stores and people pay money to buy, we use another, internal application to edit the dialogs, menus, and other "resources" inside our main program.
Unfortunately, we don't have a dedicated staff to maintain our set of tools. And since this second application is just an internal tool, and it doesn't go out and make money, it tends to get sporadic, just-good-enough updates from people who are primarily focused on working on the money-making application. This patch-and-run philosophy means that every time you need to build a more-complex piece of user interface, you're gambling with death. I was able to drag that last bit into place -- Phew! Now let me just edit this text over here . . . CRASH!
I've been spending this past week doing something that's not only complicated to start with, but that also leaves me constantly bumping into the shortcomings of this tool. So, not only do I have to design for my primary goal -- I additionally have to plot my path so as to tiptoe around the fenced-off minefields of "never do THAT" and "make sure you always do THIS before you do THIS" . . . grrrrr.
Here are some new pictures, from our trip through central and southern Germany last weekend.
Predictably, President Reagan's death yesterday wasn't getting more than a top-of-the-news coverage from German TV this morning. (I wouldn't expect the death of a former German leader to get much attention from the US media, so I'm not all that surprised or disturbed that Reagan's death would only get basic coverage here.)
On the other hand, on the Web, there's this winning piece from Spiegel Online, which opens with:
Ronald Reagan was an actor, trade unionist, lifeguard, and for eight years, President of the USA. When he left the White House in 1989, he left behind a gigantic national debt and innumerable homeless.
But CNN International and BBC World weren't talking about Ronald Reagan all that much either, because the main news story of the day, with hours of live coverage and commentary, was the 60th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day invasion in Normandy. Poor French President Chirac -- CNN and the BBC both ran his speech in its entirety, but neither one chose to translate it from French! I switched to n-tv, a German station that was also broadcasting live from Normandy, in hopes that I could find out what the heck Chirac was saying, but they didn't translate him either -- even though President Bush's subsequent speech was translated from English into German. Those French just can't get an even break from anybody ...
A temporary descent into American politics: I noticed that CNN's first lead story on President Reagan's death included this recent quote from Nancy Reagan in support of stem-cell research:
"Now science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that have for so long been beyond our grasp," Reagan told an audience in Los Angeles. "I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this."
. . . I would hope that this appeal, considering its source, might cause some of America's more hard-core conservatives to reconsider their ban-it-all-now-dammit stance on stem-cell research, but no, Nancy Reagan has already been tried and found wanting on National Review's "The Corner". (When are those conservatives who so vehemently oppose stem-cell research going to speak out in favor of an outright, total ban on in-vitro fertilization, which is just as strongly intervening in the natural order of things and "playing God" -- and is the process responsible for creating the fertilized embryos that they claim to care so ferverently about in the first place? I don't want either procedure to be banned, but it seems awfully inconsistent of them to turn a blind eye.)
As Shelby already mentioned, we were able to buy a copy of David Sedaris' latest book -- in paperback -- at Thalia Bücher on Friday night, just days after the first hardback edition came out in the United States. And as I'd previously mentioned, mega-hyper-blockbuster The DaVinci Code may still only be available in hardback in the US -- after over a year -- but over here, you can choose from two English-language paperback versions.
What's the deal? My first thought was raw efficiency: something like the reason why post exchanges on U.S. military bases overseas price items to the nearest five cents so that the government doesn't have to go to the expense of shipping pennies around the world. Given the fact that a box of hardcover books costs more to ship than a similar number of paperbacks, that sales of English-language books in a non-English-speaking country must be relatively low, and the fact that the English paperbacks here are usually marked up to just below the "30% off" price of hardcovers in the US, it just seems to make more sense: publisher and bookseller stand to make more money if the publisher runs off a set of paperbacks "under the table", only sending them off to merchants outside the US (while no doubt cruelly keeping the rest of the paperbacks stacked up in some vast Indiana Jones-style warehouse, waiting until they've sufficiently milked the continental American public through hardcover sales before they start rolling the giant boxes of books out the door).
After some browsing around, the real answer seems to be more complex than that. Most books are published by separate US and UK publishers, who each have exclusive rights in their home market and share non-exclusive rights to sales in non-English-speaking Europe. The UK doesn't have the market for hardcover books that the US does (smart people), so their paperback editions tend to come out much sooner than the American versions. So, in order to grab potential sales away from the British publishers, US companies will preemptively rush an "international paperback edition" into the European market.
So, it's a simple matter of greed (or "increasing shareholder value") rather than efficiency -- and if you're travelling abroad and see a "Printed in USA" paperback edition of a book you know is only available in hardcover in the US, there's no conspiracy involving vast numbers of held-back paperback books hidden away in secret American warehouses. Mystery solved!
I was planning to write on how summer (or, at least, late spring -- I guess that Summer Solstice isn't until June 20th) finally came to Hamburg yesterday. The weather was warm, I was making plans to wear a short-sleeved shirt this morning, and the restaurant at the ground floor of our office building suddenly sprouted a whole new set of outside tables, an outdoor coffee bar, and a big sign advertising their brand-new iced coffees. When I got home, Shelby had all of the apartment windows open, and we went to sleep with our roof skylights cracked wide.
Well, I woke up about six this morning to the sound of rain. I scrambled to close the skylights and went back to bed.
Now it's sprinkling, and it looks like we can count on rain showers on and off through tomorrow (at least). So much for that.
(I was awoken from a dream in which we'd decided to stay in Germany -- and on the night we became taxpayers, Chancellor Schröder unveiled a surprise plan to raise the income tax to 94% for the next three months to pay for "the emergency". [I never found out what the "emergency" was.] We didn't plan for that! That's not fair! The new tax plan was explained to the public by the means of labels -- dense-packed with graphs, tables, and instructions in seven-point text -- hastily pasted onto cans, bottles, and boxes in the grocery store ... because while some people don't read the newspaper or watch TV, everybody has to buy food. Right after I woke up, but just before I snapped into consciousness, I remember noting that I had to ask the HR guy about the new tax during our meeting today.)
On my way home last night, I ended up walking with a co-worker from our office to the subway station. Our conversation started out in German and gradually transitioned into English. There's a certain group of co-workers that I don't ordinarily talk to who like to try out their English with me from time to time -- I think in part because I'm a native speaker, and partially because I'm a better conversationalist than the Berlitz guy that the company pays to come around a couple of times each week. (I know, because I've talked with the Berlitz guy myself. Also, the BG doesn't speak any German; how can you live in a foreign country, teach a foreign language in that country, and not speak any of the native language?? Immersion teaching may be well and good, but I think eventually it's always best to break down and talk about the finer points of the language you're teaching in the language that your pupils already understand ...)
Most of our conversation ended up centering on driving and traffic tickets, because we'd just had to dodge cars while crossing the STREET OF DOOM in front of our office (a narrow cobblestone street that's always overcrowded with drivers going much too fast for conditions), and because I'd received a parking ticket a few days ago.
After we'd reached my stop and I was by myself again, I reflected on how much I'd changed over to speaking "simplified English" here in Germany. Whenever I speak with a German, I mentally clean anything unusual out of what I'm about to say -- no contractions, no strange verb conjugations, no colloquialisms, and simpler word choices wherever I can replace more complex ones. My English speech patterns have become more like German, too. If I know a word translates directly into German or is an English-German cognate, I'll grab at it. I'll say bizarre-in-English things like "we should make a visit" instead of saying "let's visit".
(If most people engage in that level of self-editing, maybe it is better that Germans learn their English from speaking with someone who doesn't know any German after all ...)
Once in a while, I'll be talking to Shelby, and will come to a point where I can't think of the English word -- but as I stammer, I can think of the German one! Help me -- I'm losing my mother tongue!
There is a formal "Simplified English" movement, originally developed by the aerospace industry and now touted to anyone who wants to make their manuals more comprehensible to non-native speakers of English. This page has a link to a PDF full of editing guidelines and word lists that can be used to transform a written work from conventional English into Simplified English. Looking at their guidelines, I see a number of rules that I've already unconsciously developed and follow on my own. (I have to say, however, that their example of Simplified English in Action before the link to the PDF isn't too inspiring -- more a case of simple BAD WRITING that needs editing for clarification more than it needs 34 pages of guidelines ...)
. . . we still don't know. Our local HR guy came back with preliminary answers to some of my tax and salary questions while we were away for the weekend; the biggest issue is that yes, should we stay in Hamburg for longer than six months, we'd have to pay back taxes on the six months we've already been here. So that might put the kibosh on the whole deal right there, since we don't have reserve funds for that kind of thing (our time here isn't the typical cushy expat deal: except for airfare and some shipping and storage expenses, we're paying for everything). However, it might yet be possible to juggle things around enough that we can stay for longer; I've got a one-on-one meeting with Mr. HR on Friday where we'll look at my situation in more detail.
I really like Germany -- a fact that tends to get lost in the day-to-day of work, but something I'm able to appreciate again after a little vacation. I'd like to stay longer if we could; it seems pretty clear that this might be our last best chance to do so. On the other hand, on a day like yesterday, when that other number I watch (besides the Dollar-Euro exchange rate) puts in a decent performance, the thought of going back to California and buying a house -- our own house! -- beckons pretty strongly, too.
It may be hard to choose between our choices, but I have to say that I think we're pretty fortunate to have the options that we do.
Today's San Francisco Chronicle has an article on Davy Rothbart and Found magazine (previously mentioned in the blog entry on This American Life.) Rothbart has just put out a book of his best "found" items: Found : The Best Lost, Tossed, and Forgotten Items from Around the World. Something else to add to my wish list ...
And in looking for the new Found book on Amazon, I see that David Sedaris has a new book out, too -- Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Even more to look forward to once we get back to the States -- our cup runneth over!
(Apropos of yesterday's entry, today's Chron also has an article on how gas prices soar past $5.79 in the UK; some people do have it worse than the Germans ...)
|We're back! |
Pictures from our mini-vacation to come soon (and Shelby's already written up the trip); in the meantime, here's one for car-obsessed Americans: a photo of our gas pump after I tanked up yesterday morning. Using a few simple conversions, it took me 11.95 gallons of the cheapest-grade gas to fill the tank (it was three-quarters empty), for which I paid $65.50 -- an approximate price of $5.48 a gallon. Were I back in America right now, I'm sure I'd be complaining about rising gas prices as much as any other driver, but the man or woman upset because it now costs them sixty dollars to fill up their Ford Expedition can cry me a river. (According to this page, the 2004 Expedition has a 28 gallon fuel tank; so, if they brought their behemoth over to Germany -- and I have seen a few driving around over here -- they'd be paying $153.44 to fill 'er up!)
German gas prices aren't higher than America's because the Bush-Texas-Chevron Oil Cabal has a backroom deal with the Saudis, though, or because oil has to travel across Europe from the Middle East in gallon tins carried by camelback; it's all a matter of taxes. That blue sticker on the pump -- Je Euro 73 Cent Steuern -- directs customers to Aral's web site, where it's explained how taxes make up 73% of their gas price. (It's not our fault prices are so high! Don't blame us!) An item on last night's TV news outlined how Germany's gas prices were among the highest in Europe (in their survey, only the Netherlands' were higher), and how, with the panic following recent terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, prices could spike up above 1.30 Euro/liter in the weeks to come.