Monday, August 10, 2009

Bye-Bye Bonn

For the last week I've been wandering Ireland. By the end of this one I'll be back on U.S. soil. In case you want the skinny on Guinness versus Murphy's and the delights to be had biking in the rain in the Dingle Peninsula, I'll be uploading those adventures after I get back, along with final reflections/comments/wonderings on Europe, Germany, and the life of a paleontologist abroad. Chat with you then!

After cutting myself lose from every institution tying me to Bonn, I walked along the shaded lane leading from the Poppelsdorfer Schloss (featured in the title bar right now) to the Sauropod research group’s offices to meet Koen. The sky was perfectly clear, older couples were out for walks, and younger couples were out for jogs. I mused that this was probably the last time I would ever get to walk from work with a castle at my back. There are some things that just don’t happen at home.I met my host for the weekend and we rode the tram to his house where I could finally drop my bags and stretch my shoulders. Koen had been contacted earlier that day by Kristian, a post-doc in the department, who invited us out for a night on the town in Bonn. I was pretty excited to hit the Bonner clubs since I really hadn’t had the opportunity yet, and felt I might be missing a key ingredient to the city’s character. Koen assured me I hadn’t missed much.

Our first stop was to the fraternity house where I said good-bye to the crew, drank more Warsteiner and chatted with a history major about theoretical approaches to historical interpretation. I think I need to have a little more alcohol in my system before I attempt such a conversation again.

We met Kristian and his wife, Seiko, at a bar near the Bonn Opera House. Yes, there is an opera house. No, I never made time to see a performance in my own city. Yes, I feel slightly guilty about that. The bar had a bouncer who didn’t have very much to do since the place was pretty much dead. Kristian’s wife was excited to do some dancing on the floor in the bar’s basement. Unfortunately there were only four other people down there, and none of them were making a move to dance. We tried to get something started, but gave up when the Thong Song came on and I had a flashback to junior high. When Post-traumatic stress disorder sets in, I don’t do much dancing. I also tend to avoid the dance floor when there are five guys moving and only two women. This is not because I dance to pick up women. They just tend to be better dancers and I don’t get bored. As it stood, five guys lamely bouncing to the Thong Song was an experience worth missing.

Two of Seiko’s friends met us and we rolled on to Hofbar, a club connected to the Opera House. So I can at least say I’ve entered the building. Well, I entered it for a 5 Euro cover. There was also an age restriction. Only 25 years and up. How I got in, I will never really understand. Maybe the bouncer figured the kid who looked 18 would be able to pep things up a bit, because the Hofbar really needed some pepping. It looked like the perfect place to have a night of classy clubbing and dancing. The bar was smoked glass back-lit with neon green and pink lights. Most of the men were wearing sport coats and the women…well, once again there weren’t a lot of women.

A waiter came by our group as we stood on a narrow balcony overlooking the Rhine. I really wasn’t interested in beer, and ordered a Jack and Coke. This also helped introduce me to the new members of our group as The American. I regretted this decision almost immediately as the waiter asked for 7.50. Fortunately the cover charge got me a 5 Euro token to subsidize the beverage. After paying, the low-key vibe and near empty dance floor made a lot more sense. Germans aren’t want to shake their groove things or tail-feathers if they aren’t properly inebriated, and with beer running at 4 Euro a pop, there weren’t going to be many dancers, but soon Seiko and her friends led us to the floor. We were joining a middle-aged couple, and a lonely, lanky 50 year-old dude in the hopes of getting the party started.

I still don’t understand the German dance floor. There is not touching. There is no twirling. Everyone maintains an arm-length safety circle and glances around the circle of friends giggling slightly at the fact you’re dancing. This goes on for the rest of the evening. I think part of the problem is the music. There’s only so much you can do with electronic dance music that uses the exact same beat for six songs in a row.

Finally I reached a peak of boredom and reached out a hand to one of the Seiko’s friends. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, but eventually figured out she could put her hand in mine and I could spin her around. Then it was back to bored bouncing. If that’s Bonn nightlife, yeah, I didn’t miss much.

The next day Koen and I were invited to see a friend of his off to Mongolia. She was having a massive barbeque in an even more massive park tucked into suburban Bonn. I got my now regular workout of schlepping a crate of beer for about two kilometers. I love drinking out of real glass bottles, but packing thirty of them into a heavy plastic crate flies in the face of the car-less European lifestyle. Without a vehicle, you should probably just plan on partying in the parking lot, or inviting a body builder to help you set up.

At the barbeque I took on the job usually reserved for the slightly shy new-guy. I tended the fire. I was also starving and ready to tear into the potato salad Koen and I had brought along, but no one else seemed ready to eat and I didn’t want to perpetuate any nasty stereotypes about ravenous Americans.

As the meat sizzled, I struck up a conversation with a boyfriend who had been dragged along and didn’t know anyone at the party either. We talked about German soccer, and all the teams I should have seen while I was in country. I’ve been on the lookout for the entire year for someone who could impart such information. Figures I find him my last weekend. His girlfriend will be studying in San Diego for a semester, and I was asked, “what we should see in America.” I was at a loss for what to say. I told her she should see the zoo near where she’ll be living, but then what do I say? See wide open spaces, see skyscrapers, see lines, ice cubes, and bottom-less coffee. See screened windows, excessive air-conditioning, and beef under 7 Euro a pound.

Sunday, my last day in Bonn, I finally visited the home of it’s favorite son. Every visitor who has swung through my city has been treated to the coral façade of the fronting building, but it was time to see the room where little Ludwig von Beethoven came into the world, and the room where his family celebrated his departure for Vienna at age 22.

The house was encrusted with verdant grape vines and filled with artifacts from the composer’s life. They had his first viola, a reproduction of the advertisement for his first performance, and portraits of brooding B’hoven. For his first public performance he played the piano in Cologne at the age of eight, but his father lied on the ad, saying he was six, to get a little extra attention for the next “wunderkind Mozart.”

The most interesting artifacts were a collection of ear horns he used, and the a selection of the notebooks he used for conversations with friends and for jotting ideas during his long walks through the Viennese countryside.

Part of the problem with a museum dedicated to Beethoven, is that his greatest accomplishments can’t be seen. It was cool to see his pianos from Vienna, and the organ he played for the Elector in Bonn, but I really wanted to hear the melodies he was able to draw from them.

I was also fascinated by the paintings adorning the walls of 18th and 19th century Bonn. The University building that now adorns the logo for the University used to be the residence of the Emperor’s Elector in Cologne. The Prince didn’t really like the congestion and grime of larger Cologne, so he retreated to the sleepy university town of Bonn. The pictures showed stately carriages unloading ladies in froofy hoop skirts onto the steps that are populated by aging, drunk punks today.

Other pictures showed the Poppelsdorfer Palace with its expansive botanical gardens filled with masked party guests at a spring ball. Beethoven became a member of the Elector’s symphony when he was ten and attended these parties as his grandfather and father had before him. A map of the city in 1770, the year Beethoven was born, showed a layout nearly identical to its present footprint.

The final stop on my tour through the house was the “Digital Archive” where you could cue up hundreds of recordings of Ludwig’s compositions and read his scrawling notation as the music played. I holed myself up at a terminal, reading about statues of Beethoven around the world (Bonn’s was the first memorial erected in his honor) until participating in an art installation that pairs the climatic jail scene from Beethoven’s one opera “Fidelio” with high definition abstract, animated figures that could be controlled by audience members. The blobs of color didn’t do very much emoting, and despite being three dimensional (with the requisite Ray-ban-like glasses) weren’t nearly as engaging as watching actual people perform and emote. Maybe it would have been more interesting if more people had hopped up to move the figures, but we all stayed reserved and German.

I met Koen at the office where he announced, “I can’t explain it, but have am craving Mexican food.” So, my final meal in Bonn was a burrito con carne and half-priced margarita. Pavel joined us, “Matchew, if you are leaving Germany, why do you eat Mexican food now?” Koen looked a little sheepish, “Oh, that’s right. It’s my fault, but I know a good German dive we can go to so we can put some final Kölsch in your system.”

At Spleen, a low ceilinged, wood paneled affair with cushy couches and tables polished by elbows and coasters, we raised our glasses and toasted the country that none of us call home.

The next morning I was up before 5AM, throwing my few possessions into my backpack and scampering down the street to catch the first tram of the morning towards the train station. I entered through the neo-classical façade for the last time, and began to roll away from my home.

Leaving Marburg, I mentioned how quickly it had come to feel like home, and wondered if Bonn would have the same hominess. I was leaving a place that was decidedly not my home, but also where I had managed to make a lot of new friends. Would I be able to pull it off in the next town without the extensive support network? Yes, yes I did. The ride along the Rhine past 12th century castle ruins is like my driveway, and I pulled out of it for the last time waving over my shoulder at the people who had helped me settle into two semesters of the good German life.

But, the exploring wasn’t over yet. That train was heading south to Frankfurt where I managed to navigate the massive terminals to the Aer Lingus counter with a German tour group that was headed to the home of Guinness and Gab. They formed what I hope will be the final German blob I participate in, and all checked in with ease. There was much confusion upon landing in Dublin as they tried to remember where they had stashed their passports, and the line of other travelers had to wait for a dozen methodical German grandmothers to recover their identification cards. I was a little antsy. I just wanted to get to the Arrivals gate. A certain someone from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean had hopped the pond to meet me, and the Germans weren’t going to delay the reunion if I could do anything about it. But I couldn’t. I was no match for their blobbing, and had to wait my (possible) turn.

Finally I burst from the baggage claim and there she was. Carolyn was standing next to her pack and I was treated to much more romantic reunion than our harried hug at the Frankfurt gate back in December. Then we turned to set our sights on Dublin…


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Movin’ Out

Germans are bureaucracy fanatics. Paperwork is as German as pretzels and beer.

At first glance, it may seem like the copious red tape is related to a lust for efficiency and order. But, the real reason Germans require forms for every television in the house or change of address is they love collecting stamps. Every document handled by an official – professor, conductor, DMV employee – gets smacked with purple and blue ink, letting you know you can move on to the next round of paperwork wrangling. Your reward will be a new stamp.

Paperwork is just the most socially acceptable way for adults to get excited about rubber stamps. It’s unfortunate they no longer read “Good Job!” or “Superb!” Exclamation points have been sacrificed for streams of legalese, but Germans voraciously collect them anyway.

I, however, am not German. I’d just as soon forsake the paperwork/stamp ritual as it has a nasty habit of perturbing my already delicate state of mind. So, it was with a certain trepidation I started gathering the stamps necessary for me to move back to the United States.

First to city hall to deregister from the city. It was a miraculously painless process. I found the office, got a number, waited for my number to pop up on the screen above my head and went to the desk listed on the screen. I explained I was moving out of Bonn on Sunday, and the secretary looked up my name, glanced at my passport, and presented me with signatures and stamps. In fifteen minutes I was back on the street. The ease of the process left me weirdly giddy. Easily earning my stamps and papers making me grin…maybe I’ve become more German than I thought.

On to the University of Bonn’s International Students and Fellowship office where I walked right in, explained I had a lovely time in Bonn, but it was time for me zip West and “ex- matrikulieren” from the University. A paper was printed, stamped, and I was euphoric.

I had budgeted most of the morning for this process, but I was done in time for elevensies. This left enough time for me to go back to my dorm before the office closed at noon to figure out how exactly I should move out. The Hausmeisterin is a lovely woman, the doting aunt-type who happens to have a lot of keys in her desk and a very German love of getting all your paperwork together in the right order. She also has a very German way of only speaking German It’s good to have someone who is forced to listen to me stumble my way through the language without relieving me with English. Unfortunately it also means there are details that get lost in translation as I try to figure out what she’s getting at.

As you may remember from last October, my move in to my dorm – Tennenbusch II – was not a particularly smooth process as it began with the statement, “I do not have you entered in my computer. I don’t know if I have a room for you.” She ended up offering me a room for the night so I could go to the housing office which had closed at noon.

I was hoping for a little flexibility for my move out, too. Technically my contract ended on the 31st of July, but I wanted to know if there was any way to stay for the weekend, so I didn’t have to worry about moving my bags around before departing for Frankfurt on Monday for my trip to Ireland.

“You have no friends you can stay with?”

“Well, yes I do, but I was just wondering if it was possible to stay put. If not, it’s not a problem. I just wanted to ask.”

“And you have no friends?”

“Yes, I do, but I think it’s easier to stay in one place instead of moving all of my luggage twice.”

“But you could stay with a friend.”

“So it isn’t possible to stay for the weekend?”

“Well, what would you do with the key?”

I thought this might be a problem. Her office is only open from 9 to 12 on workdays. I needed to be in Frankfurt to catch a plane long before she unlocked the door.

“Well, I could leave my key with a friend and they could give it to you Monday.”

She blinked, befuddled. Apparently it was fine for me to crash with a friend for three nights, but trusting them to bring her my keys was too much.

“You should stay with a friend and move out on Friday.”

Okay, fine. The three people I knew well who lived on my floor were all out of town or already hosting people for the weekend. It is the semester break doncha-know, so I got a hold of Koen, a graduate student in the department, to see if his floor was available. No worries. He even had an extra mattress.

“How do I get my deposit back?” There were 160 Euros floating out there that I had scrubbed my floors to get back in full.

“You will be returning to the United States?”

“That’s the plan.”

“And you will be closing your German bank account before you leave?”

“Another part of the plan.”

“Then you will receive it in cash when you check out.”

Rad. Now I just needed to extract myself from the room. I packed and scrubbed for the better part of a day. My departure from Marburg had scarred me. There the Hausfrau had walked in, flipped on a light that I didn’t know existed and berated me for not removing the streaks from the stove top that could only be seen when that light was illuminated. Fortunately I didn’t have any massive blue stains to contend with and my room was (eventually) spotless.

Friday morning I trooped downstairs, lugging my mysteriously hefty backpack, guitar case, and daypack. Three other students were sitting around the office door, expectantly waiting while another student talked to the Hausmeisterin. I dropped my stuff and waited. The guy in the office came out, but no one went in. I scrutinized each face, trying to figure out if they were waiting for some kind of signal. Why weren’t we just waiting in a line? Most of us were international students. We know the blob is a silly German tradition.

Finally I asked the girl next to me, “Are you next?” She was stunned someone would say something and confused I would assume she had anything to do with the office. “No, no.” Okay. Apparently the Native Spanish enjoy lounging near office doors.

I went in and plunked my key down on the desk. “And what is this?”

“It’s my key, I’m ready to go to my friend’s.”

“You have not been inspected.” “

“When will that happen?”

“Are you ready for the inspection?”

“Yes, I am ready to leave.”

“Then go to your room and wait for Herr Brener.”

I dutifully squeezed back into the elevator with my stuff and walked back to my room, banging doors and walls with my tent and guitar. I sat and waited; acutely aware we were fast approaching the noon mark. If my luck held, we would be geschlossen before Herr Brener reached me, and I wouldn’t be allowed to leave Germany. I would spend the weekend waiting for the Herr to show up on Monday.

At 11:55 he entered. I had the gumption to doze off in my chair and he wanted me out waiting in the hall as soon as he busted in. I scurried past his mustache and anxiously waited for him to discover a corner I had left a little skuzzy.

After a quick glance, he noted something on his clipboard and asked for my key. “Am I finished?” “You must see Frau Schultz.” Back to the office and the amorphous blob of expectant students and luggage.

Herr Brener returned, handed off the clipboard and I was back across the desk. “So, is there anything I need to do or am I ready to get my deposit?”

“Herr Brener says you are missing your pillow, duvet, and…(there was some confusion over the translation of the final item that should have been under my bed).”

“I never had those things in my room.”

“Yes you did, and you do not have them now.”

“No, I used dirty laundry as a pillow for weeks, my sleeping bag for a blanket, and the only thing I put under my bed was my luggage.”

“You used dirty laundry for a pillow?”


“And you didn’t get sick.”

“It wasn’t that dirty.”

“This is, maybe, an American thing to do.” I continue to be a stellar model for my countrymen.

“So will I be charged for these things? Can I get my deposit back?”

“Well, you are missing three things.”

“I know, but they were never there.” She could have said, “Herr Brener also noticed you were missing your giant inflatable gorilla? Where is the gorilla?” and I couldn’t have proven otherwise. I never signed or saw a form detailing my room’s inventory. I was getting annoyed. Come to think of it, I would have preferred the gorilla to a pillow. “Can I visit someone’s room to look at this bed thing I’m missing?”

“This is very confusing. You are leaving when?”


“The Studentenwerk (where I would get my deposit) will be closed I think.” Of course they’re closed. It’s an office in Germany, they only stay open until noon. Who would ever need to deal with bureaucracy after lunch? “Can you talk to a friend who can get your deposit?”

“Why would that help? Can’t you just transfer the deposit into my bank account? Either way, I get charged for an international transfer.”

“Well, can you talk to a friend?” We were very hung up on my acquaintances.

“I need my key back so I can go knock on their doors to ask for help.” Remember I have three locked doors to plow through to get to my room.

“I can’t give you your key back. Are you sure a friend cannot get your deposit?”

“I need to talk to them, and to do that I need my key. But I still don’t see why that would help. If I can’t get the money before I leave, why should a third person get involved in this?”

“Here.” In frustration she handed me a stamped form for my full deposit. “I am not supposed to do this. You are missing three things. Take this to the Studentenwerk if they are still open. They will give you your deposit. You must go quickly.”

“What if they are closed?” She shrugged. She wanted me gone. It was 12:35. She was ready to start her weekend. I took the paper and bolted before the missing gorilla was noticed.

Lugging all of my worldly possessions, I scampered to the tram and rode to the necessary offices. The sun was shining and so was I. Shining with sweat anyway as I hobble-jogged to the Studentenwerk.

I plowed through a gaggle of German students who though the front steps were a great place to gather twenty people for a chat. I clipped someone with my guitar, and didn’t look back. I had to get my cash-money.

At the top of the stairs I was greeted with a dark hallway and empty offices. I pounded on the main door, hoping Frau Schultz had maybe called ahead to let someone know to stick around for me. No one had. All the offices were closed on the next floor, too. Everyone was probably taking their two hour lunch. I trooped to the university Kasse where I paid the deposit in the first place. Also closed. A helpful loading dock worker suggested I come back at two, so I dragged myself and my possessions to the Institute, the only place left in Bonn that would welcome me.

Pavel was surprised to see me and my massive pack. He said the secretary had been in looking for my key. I went up to her office and handed over my final connection to the city. Homeless and office-less, I walked back to the Studentenwerk so I would be on hand when everyone got back from lunch. Everyone in the housing department was gone for the day as a harried worker explained to me on the way to the copier, but the Kasse lady was back.

She took one look at my form, “No, I cannot help.”

“Please, all the other offices are closed and I’m leaving Monday before they reopen.”

“I can’t help.”

“Can you make sure this is deposited into my account. I don’t need it in cash. I can transfer the money.”

“It will take six weeks.”

“I know, I just can’t do anything else.”

Grudgingly she took the paper, stamped it, and filed it away with an “Auf Wiedersehen.” My day shot, I shuffled back to my office, knocked on the window, and was let in by Pavel so I could put my fossils and bones away.

I like collecting this dead stuff. I think I’ll leave the stamp collecting to the Germans.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Flag

I bought my flag today. It’s the only souvenir I usually buy for myself when I visit a different country since I consider my copious pictures reminder enough of my visit. The trend started in Greece when a cute Greek girl selling then out-of-date Athens Olympic banners hooked me with her eyelashes. It became a tradition when I inadvertently started haggling for a Kenyan flag in Malindi with a wily Indian woman.

Buying the flag usually caps the experience and often involves chatting with the proprietor about how much I enjoyed my visit. The flag usually requires a visit to a locally owned souvenir stand. Museums and trendy shopping districts never deal out the national banner. Ya gotta go for kitsch. Was it possible to find such an establishment in quietly dignified Bonn?

Crossing from the Poppelsdorfer Palace to the city center there’s a walking path that dives under the railroad tracks that divide the idyllic university from the equally idyllic - but slightly more bustling - city. This path gets a lot of foot and cyclist traffic. Because so many people pack the path, barriers have been installed to slow down the bike riders. They are forced to dismount and carefully weave through the posts. This operation provides hours of entertainment as tandem cyclists and mothers powering strollers equipped with bicycle rims try to weave through and end up enlisting about six spectators to help them lift their awkward burden over the barriers.

Once you’re in the bike-safe-zone between the posts there are five entrepreneurs who quietly peddle their wares to the pedestrians of Bonn. There’s a florist who sells sunflowers large enough to signal a rescue helicopter, a fruit stand that only seems to offer strawberries and “forest berries,” a bakery with cold cut sandwiches that are sterility lit with a battery of florescent lights, and…the shop. It seems to have begun its life as a place to get keys copied. Then the proprietor expanded into the bumper and novelty sticker market.

You can get an white oval with a letter designation for every country in the European Union. You can also get crossing signs for every animal you can imagine and several that you can’t, stickers with puns and double entendres in six different get the idea. But stickers weren’t quite bringing in the rent, so he tacked on ethnic souvenirs, displaying West African tribal masks and didgeridoos. Finally, and most importantly, he decided he needed a little color and he started selling flags.

I knew my flag would come from this stand on my first trip to Bonn when I saw the Black, Red, and God held in place on the path’s wall with a wooden toadstool and a plaster replica of Akhenaten. Every time I walked under the train tracks, I would look at my flag, waving next to the Tibetan colors and the Stars and Bars, and knew it would be mine in July.

So, today I bellied up to the shop’s small counter. The owner, roughly seventy years old and wearing a well-loved wool sweater, was tucked behind a table cluttered with non-descript nick-nacks and keys. He seemed surprised someone had actually stopped to make a purchase and was a little flustered about how to begin the transaction, so I took the lead:

Me: I would like a large German flag, please. I was hoping he would follow, “Would you like fries with that?” Sadly he replied…

Him: Yes, I have the German flag. He exited his shop to point out the existence of the faded Teutonic glory I had been checking out all year.

Me: Yes, I would like to buy it.

Him: Well, would you like a flag with the “Adler” or without the “Adler.”

I was prepared for “with or without mayo” given the my opening line, but this Adler thing was new to me.

Me: Could I see one with the “Adler” and one without the “Adler?”

He obliged. Apparently the “Adler” is the black imperial eagle that symbolizes Germany. It also looks a little…Fascist. I wondered if this was maybe an antiquated flag, perhaps the banner that flew over the Wiemar Republic.

Him: The flag with the eagle is very German. This eagle goes back to the Holy Roman Empire. This is 1200 years ago!

Me: Yes, but I think I will take the flag without the eagle. It’s more typical, isn’t it? I see this (indicating the flag without the coat-of-arms) in every city, but I am not sure if I have ever seen this one with the Adler.

Him: Yes, without the Adler is everywhere but it is less German. I think (leaning closely and checking over his shoulder) that young people are worried about it. They think it looks like a Nazi flag.

Well, I wasn’t going to tell him, but that was exactly the thought going through my head. I would put the stripes and eagle up on my wall and a regular conversation starter at chateau du Borths would be, “Hey Matt, I know you spent a lot of time in Germany, but did you really need to bring the Nazi pride back here?”

Him: There (he indicated a flag staked in the lawn, a blue field with a yellow eagle). That is the flag of the Roman Legions! See where the Adler comes from? It has so much history!

Me: Yes, I love how much history there is here in Germany (remember, praising the country is part of my ritual, even if the compliment would only be appreciated by a select few).

Two things were obvious. A) He really wanted me to take the Adler home and (B) I would be looking up the history of the German flag as soon as I got within striking distance of Wikipedia. Ultimately I just wanted the regular German flag, but to say as much felt like letting down my slightly-loopy German grandfather. So I did what any other polite, but cornered, American would do. I made up a blatant lie.

Me: Well, this flag is for my brother. He collects flags and I think he wanted the regular German flag. He didn't say anything about this Adler.

Him Ah yes, the flag without the eagle is probably the one he wants. You should tell him the eagle is a national symbol.

Me: I’ll be sure he knows.

Him: Do you know if he wants any other flags? I have these. And he produced a 8.5X11 sheet of paper with a random assortment of nations scrawled across it. I have Indonesia, Tibet, the USA, Texas, the Southern USA, Egypt…

Me: I think the German flag will be fine. He already has the American flag. I’ll come back if he wants Egypt.

Him: Well, have a lovely day, and remember, you should not be afraid of the eagle. This is not a Nazi symbol. This is history.

Rarely have I received so heartfelt a valediction.

So, now it’s time to bring you up to speed on the flag. You could follow this link to the Wikipedia page where I got most of this information. Or you could read on and I’ll summarize. If I'm wrong, at least fifty faceless Wiki-contributors agree with my errors.

So this is the flag of the Holy roman Emperor.
Both the Prussians and the Austrians have laid claim to the HRE as their cultural ancestors. And for good reason. It basically stretched across Central Europe. A one Adolf Hitler considered it the First Reich along with most Germans. The eagle can be found all over coats-of-arms in central and western Europe.

Later on, some revolutionaries in Frankfurt wanted to break away from their Austrian rulers. In 1848 they came up with this design, drawing on the banners created during the Napoleonic Wars. Out of darkness (black) through blood (red) broke the golden light of freedom. Ta-da.
In 1919 the Wiemar republic simplified things, dropping the eagle, creating the recognizable flag of Germany. Then in 1933, the National Socialists rose to power and Chancellor Hitler declared there was only one true flag of Germany. It dropped the yellow and used the black, red, and white of the former German Empire (1871-1918). It also added an ancient device that meant a variety of good things to many cultures throughout history, but now simply means evil.
With the fall of the Third Reich, there was some concern about which flag to use. Many people thought Germany should just revert to the flag of the Wiemar Republic since everyone was hoping to take the democratic ideals that got seeded in 1919 and build on them. One group proposed this flag which was suggested as the Wiemar flag and later became the flag of resistance to the Nazis.
Personally I think that's pretty neat, but people were wary of changing the flag of Germany too much while it was still divided. The above design would have represented the West while this was the flag of the East:
Gotta love a hammer and compass ensign. Eventually the flag of Western then united Germany was simply this:
A design approved in 1949. This is the flag I now own thanks to the guy under the bridge. But what about the Adler thing? Apparently this:
Was approved in 1950 as the Bundesdienstflagge or "State flag of federal authorities." That is, it's used by governmental offices as the eagle is the federal badge. It decorates the uniforms of German soldiers and use of the federal flag by any party unaffiliated with the federal government is a fineable offense.

So, I might have been charged for displaying the "Adler" too publicly. Dodged a bullet there.

Now I'm ready to leave. I have my flag. I had my conversation with a proud local. Now I just need to sample a little more Kölsch...


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On the street where I live

Them: Ah, you are studying in Bonn for the year. So, where do you live?
Me: Uh, I live in Tennenbusch…near the Mitte tram stop.
Them: Tennenbusch (prolonged pause possibly with a nervous smile). This neighborhood…
Me: No, it’s really not bad at all.
Them: Yes of course, but you are American and this is maybe not a very difficult place to you.
Me: No, I don’t really think it’s rough. It maybe has a bad reputation, but it’s safe.
Them: Yes, well, you are American. Such places such as Detroit are normal.
Me: Detroit isn’t all bad. There are some neighborhoods to avoid…
Them: Yes, but you might be shot.

It’s become a common exchange. As I have stated repeatedly to various acquaintances, I live in Tennenbusch, a neighborhood just north of Downtown Bonn. Saying Bonn has a “Downtown” is a little aggrandizing. It has a quaint pedestrian shopping district where Beethoven’s glowering statue holds court along with a Medieval gate that had to be moved a block from the center for causing traffic jams. Many of the businesses splay out from this center.

South of the city center is a cluster of large office buildings that border on skyscraper-hood that include DHL’s regional office, Deutsche-Welle (the BBC of Germany), and T-Mobil’s headquarters. Bonn’s white-collar job opportunities come from it’s days as the campital. Also south of town is the United Nations campus that still functions as the UN’s base in Germany and Central Europe. If you want a perspective on Bonn as a capital, that heady time between 1949 and 1989 when a quiet university town was transformed into a reluctant world power, click here.

The swank businesses don’t make it to the north. Up here we have governmental housing and cheap apartments. The latter explains my presence; the former explains the bad reputation. In recent decades the cheap housing passed from German to immigrant hands. On the tram platform it is just as likely I will be waiting with a dark-haired woman with a headscarf, as I am to be waiting with a blond-haired German student.

Tennenbusch is populated by many first generation immigrant families that are ethnically Turkish. There is also a solid North African population, Lebanese population, and Syrian population. Most of my neighbors are working class with jobs in construction, maintenance, and manufacturing. Basically Tennenbusch is a first definition ghetto with ethic subsections and ethnic grocery stores.

There are some shady characters hanging around, as you would find in any lower-income neighborhood. When I walk through a strip-mall that surrounds my grocery store, I often pass through standing knots of young Turkish-German thugs. I’m fascinated by Tennenbusch’s version of the back-alley bruiser, the teenage gangster. They wear skinny-boy jeans, and jackets studded with rhinestones. Carefully gelled, curly mullets are smushed down with paisley trucker hats and fanny packs loop their waists. Sometimes the hair gets even greasier and the sides are shaved, leaving a mull-hawk limply cascading over the popped Polo collar.

Usually you can find a cluster of Tennen-punks behind the “Play Stop,” a small casino on the corner that decided to decorate with the same carpet as Golden Lanes Bowling Alley. The young clientele blow a few Euro then stand around giddily smoking each other’s cigarettes and are sometimes seen to be little extra giddy when there’s a whiff of marijuana in the air. They’ve never bothered me. In fact, they seem completely harmless, with a swaggering façade of misappropriated masculinity and little real angst to back it up.

Maybe these lanky thugs give the neighborhood its unruly reputation. Middle-aged German citizens venture North and are confronted with pseudo-gangs of young men who are bigger push-overs than your average Shark or Jet. But they may seem a little intimidating to this older German explorer as they spout slangy German and indecipherable Turkish.

It’s one of my dearest wishes to pluck one of them from Tennenbusch and drop him on the the South Side of Chicago or Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. I think they could use a little fashion advice and street cred and I am acutely aware I’m as nerdy and un-thuggish as they come.

I would then drop a young gangster from one of a rough American neighborhoods in Tennenbusch. He would rule the streets within days of arrival. The German visitor to the U.S. would be quickly humbled, proving that all transplanted species don’t become epidemically invasive. We can’t all be kudzu.

But then I wonder how much these greasy adolescents really affect the reputation of the neighborhood, and how much that reputation is affected by the women in headscarves. As you may or may not know, Europe is struggling with its growing Muslim population. As countries like France, Germany, and Italy grow wealthier, their populations shrink and natively born citizens are reluctant to take blue-collar jobs. Millions of Turkish citizens moved to Germany as guest workers and have established families in the land of pretzels and castles.

But, they are not always welcome. I have spoken with many Germans who worry that new immigrants are not German. They refuse to learn the language, will take over the government, and soon there will be no more jobs for Germans. Does this sound familiar? It’s been resonating throughout American history.

First the Quakers troubled the young American identity, later the Germans and Poles, then the Irish, and most recently Hispanic immigrants. Each time we worry that English well evaporate, that Democratic ideals will disappear, and we, the people descended from immigrants and who have forgotten this fact, will find ourselves oppressed in our own country.

But there’s an issue beyond cultural preservation that complicates the German mindset when immigrants cross the border to work. There is such a thing as an ethnic German. If you wanted me to get specific, I could tell you I am a German-Scots-Irish-English-French-Belgian-Cherokee. First you would nod with understanding when I tell you I needed a lot of orthodontic work. Then you would nod with understanding when I simply told you I am American. The first was a list of my particular ethnic cocktail. The second is my national identity. Being “American” carries no assumption about your ancestors’ languages or their favorite cuisine.

Being German, French, or Italian theoretically says something both about your ethic and nationalistic affiliation. There are no immigration laws for becoming a naturalized German citizen. If you are of Turkish descent and your family has been living in Germany for three generations, you are still Turkish, not German. You are treated like an outsider, and you self-identify as an outsider.

Nationalistic pride goes beyond xenophobia. It’s culturally entrenched in the identity of every European country. 150 years ago the continent was divided in the British Empire, the Prussian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the French Territories. These were multi-national bodies that didn’t care what language you spoke or the history of your region. Then revolutions started bubbling. Italian speakers shared a language and identity that was distinct from their French and Austrian overlords. They started a campaign to bring all ethnic Italians under one ruler. Serbian Nationalists kicked off the First World War in a move to separate Serbia from the Austro-Hungarians. Czechoslovakia was dissolved because the Slovaks wanted to govern themselves without cooperating with ethnic Czechs. National identity and ethnicity is part of the fabric of Europe. Now you have immigrants bending the rules of identity. Poles are moving to Ireland, and Turks are in Germany and no one is quite sure how to deal with it.

I’ve heard veiled - and even direct – assertions that the immigrant populations is stupider or lazier than their ethnically German counterparts. I don’t want to make the blanket accusation that the “Germans are all racist,” but it really is hard for me to hold myself back from a speech on the equality of human intelligence. There are stupid people, and lazy people, and brilliant people in every population. These immigrants are hardly intellectual lightweights. Many have learned German through after-work programs or by listening to their kids. They came here to work, not for a handout.

So, back to Tennenbusch. This has been my home for the last year. I live in a subsidized student dormitory that overlooks the bustling streets of Tennenbusch. I troop to and from work each day with an ethnic mix that would look normal on a tram in New York or Chicago, but worries many Germans. My message is one of relaxation. Just ease back. These new immigrants are necessary to keep Germany’s economic machine churning. German culture will survive. Everyone loves good beer, well-made cars, and efficient train networks. The culture may evolve in the process. Good. You’ve already adopted American pop-music from the 1980s, and readily incorporated the kebab into late night binges. I know you hate to hear it, Germany, but the U.S. might have some decent examples for how to deal and how to adapt.

So, yes, slightly worried German conversation partner, I live in Tennenbusch. Where the streets are clean, the rent is cheap, and the children are above average (even if they go through a greasy-Guido phase).

A link to an NPR story about German minorities that tackles some of these issues.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Die Kneipe

or, Yes Fulbright, I went to a German Frat Party, but it was all for the new cultural experience

I started packing two weeks ago. I loaded books, papers, and pamphlets into DHL boxes and sent them home ahead of me. This left my bookshelf and desk an empty expanse of sterile space. Nothing agitates me like an empty book shelf and now I’m living with eight. On Friday I started the second stage of packing. Because I’m flying from Dublin to Frankfurt, then turning around the next day and flying to Ohio, I asked Katie, a Fulbrighter in Frankfurt, to hang onto my extra bags while I’m in Ireland. Saturday she would pop up to Bonn to collect my luggage, meaning I had to pack everything for Ireland on Friday and squirrel the rest of it away in bags that will sit dormant for the next three weeks in her dorm.

Down came my decorative pictures of famous German buildings. Down came the maps of Europe (gifts from Aunt Karen and Uncle Troy before I left). My room is blank, all dusty white walls and clothing. My return feels starkly real.
I picked up Katie from the train station and stashed my non-Irish luggage in a locker so we could briefly explore the city. She’s staying until the end of August, but has several friends who are headed home and she wanted to squeeze in parties Friday night and Saturday night, so she only had the afternoon tour to the former western capital. Because of a late night celebrating, she didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before and didn’t have time to grab breakfast before boarding the train. This building hunger becomes key to the following story:

I lead the way past Beethoven’s statue and the disturbing, massive heads of Bonn’s favorite martyrs to the beer garden on the banks of the Rhine.

As soon as we were seated, a waitress wandered over to take our orders. Our Kölsch quickly appeared and we could share stories of the 4th of July, her travels in Scandinavia, and my frequent sojourns to Belgium with mugs of the local brew. We also had the opportunity to watch the towering sycamore, which provides the entire garden with shade, rain slabs of bark on the tables and strollers of unsuspecting patrons.

In fact we got to chat and watch bark for an inordinate amount of time since our pizza refused to make an appearance. Like good, acculturated Germans we just assumed the proprietors were encouraging us to linger over conversation and not rush to the entrée and out the door. After forty-five minutes and a finished glass of beer, our hunger brought our American service expectations raging to the fore. Where the hell was our food? Honestly, it’s just pizza! We tried to catch our waitress’s eye, but she never glanced our way. We tried a polite “Entschuldigung.” Nothing.

Finally I was up and caught her carrying a tray between the tables. “Uh, ist unser Pizza…” “It will be out immediately.” This second part was in English with a perfect German clip on the end of the sentence. I was sent scurrying like a shameful kinder. Our food arrived after a few more minutes. Sweet relief. Sated, I lead a tour of the main campus buildings i.e. the University’s castles. In desperate need of a bathroom we dove into my department’s labs where Katie was appropriately awed by my master key and inclusion in the department’s annual who’s who photo collage.
With a stop for coffee and a stroll by Beethoven’s home it was time to pack Katie off to Frankfurt with my few worldly possessions. Appropriately Bonn also saw fit to send her off with a good Rhenish drenching.
Of course the train was significantly delayed and the arrival board was on the fritz. As trains and destinations appeared over the track that had nothing to do with Frankfurt, we were confused and concerned we had missed a detail in the garbled announcements. Then we saw the native Germans on the platform were looking equally befuddled. While bewildered Germans would normally be a terrifying sight, here it was comforting.

With Katie finally headed back to Hesse it was time to turn my attention to my evening. At the farewell barbecue, Nils, a paleobotany graduate student, invited me to a “Beerfest” at his fraternity to enjoy an authentically German experience. His one request, “Wear something nice. Do you have a smoking jacket? This is something nice.” This made me a little uneasy. While I remembered my rock hammer, Chuck Taylors, and hot sauce, I never bothered to bring my Hefner-designed wardrobe. I hoped a blazer would do the trick.

I’ve checked in on these fraternity boys periodically through the year as Nils suggested it might be a way to practice my German. They put up with my stuttering attempts to communicate in my new second language and seem willing to teach me news turns of phrase. They are also willing to share their beer. I just hoped they would serve it if I was a little underdressed for whatever this ‘Fest turned into.

The fraternity system (Studentenverbindung auf Deutsch) in Germany is stuffed with traditions and rituals that go back to the 18th century, some even originating in the 14th century with the founding of European universities. Apparently Bonn has one of the highest concentrations of fraternities in the country along with Heidelberg, Gottingen, and Marburg, all old university towns. German fraternities were the testing grounds for democratic thought, though some took on a strong, nationalistic bent that made them controversial through the Second World War and its aftermath.

Politics aside, they seem to function much like American fraternities with older members mentoring the younger classes, and the Alumni (Alte Herren) serving to financially support the house and help them professionally network. Unlike American fraternities, there is no fee for participation. Living in the fraternity’s house is one of the best deals in town (Bonn has notoriously high rent, thus my dormitory accommodations). Most of the guys in the fraternity seem to participate simply for the cheap rent and not because of some long-standing family tradition. Along the way they all become friends, and enjoy hosting events like this Beerfest.

I showed up in a sportcoat and slacks, with hardly any further information. Katie and I had seen guys wandering around that day wearing fraternity colors and riding boots, sporting fencing foils on their hips. Nils confirmed these guys were also celebrating the end of the semester with a fraternity party. Would this be a massive social, like a fraternity formal in the States with every member bringing his orange-tanned girlfriend for drunken dancing in formal wear? If so, this could be a little awkward without a date. Or would this be a fencing bout as described by Mr. Twain when he visited the University of Heidelberg. If so, this could be awesome and maybe a little bloody.

When I entered I was greeted by the fraternity president who took down my name and its pronunciation. “When this is read, simply stand and toast the group.” Apparently seats would be involved in the events. More clues were accumulating. I went downstairs to the bar and saw a lot of Y-chromosomes. This was not a co-ed affair. New clue. It was good to have one.

Koen, a graduate student from the department and another guest of Nils, joined me to offer some explanation of the event. He told me this was a Kneipe, a night of singing and drinking that goes all the way back to the Dark Ages. The tradition is so old that the word “Kneipe” is now synonymous with a tavern, pub, or any place where singing and alchol can be enjoyed in equal measure. With this fresh nugget of trivia we were summoned to the meeting room where a long wooden table was decked out with candles and the wood-paneled walls festooned with coats-of-arms and dusty flags. Here I switched into Anthropologist mode as a well-practiced, familiar-yet-foreign ritual took place around me.

I took a seat near the middle of the table, far from two long boards that were laid across the ends of the table. These seemed to have an official function and I needed to avoid finding myself in the way of the ceremony (if that’s what “singing and drinking” become in Germany).

Koen took a seat on one side, and a older man who was probably seventy years old sat on the other. He and a companion represented the Alte Harren and their presence immediately signaled this was a different kind of frat party. I would spend the next couple of hours trying to keep pace with my grandfather.

A brother struck up a march on a piano in the corner, and two other members tromped in, decked out in red jackets hung with red, black, and white ribbons. Each wielded a sword that was also decorated with the fraternity’s colors. We stood as they marched to the end of the table and rapped their swords on the boards to call us to attention. I deemed it a good choice to be in the middle as the concussion from the blade rang through the room. We were directed to open small green song books to number 143 and we started in on a hymn-like student song penned in 1875. It occurred to me that Luther revolutionized the mass by adapting drinking songs as hymns. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” never seemed like a very rousing tune for the inebriated, but it has a passing resemblance to much of the material we performed last night.
Between each verse a uniformed guard would introduce a different group. First the visitors who were all too bewildered to offer a toast, then the members form other chapters, then the alumni, and finally the current house residents. After six verses of formal German text we fell back into conversation. A few minutes lapsed, the swords hit the table and we struck up a new song, this one the anthem of Bonn. The lyrics refer to the city but the tune was originally composed in the 1600s for Heidelberg University and everyone just copied the melody. We received a report of that semester’s accomplishments and a piece of paper went around that some people signed. I started to, thinking it was some kind of attendance sheet, until my septuagenarian neighbor warned me, “This is for speaking. Perhaps it is better to take action rather than make words.” I agreed and hurriedly passed the page on.
Speeches were offered, toasts shared, and we sang. Repeat. We were dismissed to use the facilities. When we came back, there had been a changing of the guard, and we swung into a chorus of “Gaudeamus Igitur.” Then jokes started. The guard would point his sword and you stood and delivered some comedy bit, maybe a skit or long form joke. After the punchline we knocked the table in approval and took a swig from ceramic steins that would probably find a happy home in a historical museum. Two senior members were called to stand on their chairs for a rhetorical challenge. The first launched into a speech, the sword would slam down and the guard would yell one of the words in the speech. The opposition would take that word and start his own speech. They volleyed words and insults and I doggedly tried to follow, usually just laughing when everyone else did. And we continued to drink.
As the beer continued to flow the songs began to involve a lot more swaying and shout-outs and challenges to see the bottoms of glasses. I started to gets some ideas of how to bring this home. This was a drinking party, not a party where you drink. The alcohol makes the jokes funnier, and the speeches more spontaneous. This needs exportation, a true symposium where the group shares wit and insight, and Warsteiner. I think its key to have a kind of program, someone at the head of the table calling out which song needs to be cued up, and who should speak next. But then, I may be one of the few American twenty-somethings who thinks improvised speeches and good jokes are a way to pass a Saturday night.

After jokes and a snack of wurst with Bavarian mustard that caused a Bavarian brother to wax philosophical about the beauties of his homeland, the ceremony broke and went on the road. We trooped to the Rhine with mugs of beer to watch a “friendship sealing.”

Each fraternity member has a collection of ribbons. Each ribbon has the fraternity’s coats-of-arms, and something personal to the brother, usually a quote. You receive your first ribbon from a sponsoring older brother and you collect smaller ribbons from brothers who are your equal. On the river, near a cannon used to defend the city from roving Prussians and French, the ribbons were unveiled. They each had an Ernest Hemingway quote that said something about the promise of the morning. With this sealing swig:
the ribbons were pinned and a German copy of “The Old Man and the Sea” handed off. I took a little American pride in the moment as Papa’s words stirred German hearts.

We adjured to the city for late-night pizza and bleary rides and walks home. While the pizza might be a new addition to the tradition, I have a feeling the latter woozy journey back to the dorm is part of the ancient tradition, stretching back to the 13th century when swords were used for more than calling the next verse.

I hope you’ve managed to wander into a new cultural experience recently or maybe learned a new song from new friends. If not, try tracking down a German fraternity brother. He’ll teach you a tune and offer up a “Prost!” even if you’re not wearing your smoking jacket.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Saying Goodbye in German: Fire up the Grill

For the first twenty-three years of my life I labored under the mistaken impression that the barbeque was a strictly American pastime. On some level I thought the rusty communal grill in the middle of a leafy State park was a fitting symbol of my country. Then I came to Germany. The grill is a staple of every social gathering, maybe even more central than it is in the land of the Stars and Stripes.

Every sunny day is a cherished event on the German social calendar, maybe because winters are so dark and seem to stretch on ad infinatum. And sunny days are best enjoyed with charcoal. Once semi-warm weather moves in, the grill rolls out and every opportunity is seized to get people together with raw meat and beer. Maybe Ohio State was the exception, but we never had department grill-outs on Tuesdays to celebrate a faculty member achieving tenure. In short, they like to grill and they do it a lot. Maybe I should have seen this coming. This is the country famous for metts and brats. They must cook them communally every now and then.

So, when the Fulbrighters in the western half of Germany started kicking around ideas for the 4th of July, we knew we were guaranteed a typical backyard grill-out. The park would have a grilling section, and we would be able to bring everything our overburdened limbs could carry. We just needed to bring some patriotism and maybe track down some pyrotechnics to make it a truly American affair. We also had to bring our goodbyes as everyone started winding down in Germany and started preparing for life on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

We decided to meet in Heidelberg, a beautiful city along the Necker River in Southwestern Germany. I was particularly excited to see the legendary castle and the river Mark Twain compared to the Mississippi. My ride to the city was made particularly exciting by the domestic dispute at the next table over from mine which started with hushed angry whisper and ended with the Bee Gees-look-alike husband receiving a full purse to the face. Somehow the woman across from me managed to nap and I managed to hide my shock.

Upon arrival, Ben lead a tour through the shopping and restaurant district which basically involved following a single, mile-long street. The town is hemmed in by its river and the hills that support the massive castle, leaving a narrow but lengthy sliver of land for some urban sprawl. At a Schwäbisch bar we met Erin and Elise. In our enthusiastic catch-up we never figured out what we were doing to prepare for the next day’s festivities. This lead to what may be my third ring of Hell: unplanned group shopping. We are Fulbright scholars though, so we were able to organize our menu and divide duties with relative ease, surrounded by fresh produce and frustrated German women picking up the weekend’s groceries.

We walked out with just enough beer and more than enough meat. Marty, Marco, Ben, and I hauled our party across the river to a municipal park on the bank just as lighting started to illuminate the sky with natural fireworks. (Side note: When you buy a crate of beer in Germany, you're getting twenty glass bottles. That is a lot of liquid and a lot of glass to haul any distance. I believe transporting these weighty cases of alcohol has lead directly to the necessity of the German car in a country that could function solely on its public transportation.) Marty and Marco stayed with our supplies while Ben and I hiked back to his apartment so I could prepare Skyline dip in his apartment’s oven before looping back again. Ben’s apartment was conveniently located exactly one thunderstorm’s walk from the park. I would spend the rest of the day trying to get my underwear to dry out without perpetuating any ugly stereotypes about my homeland.

Eventually the dip was packed in a cooler with Elise’s fresh hamburger patties, my shorts were sufficiently wrung, and the party could begin. The next eleven hours were spent on the banks of the Neckar, grilling, eating, drinking, talking, and throwing around a football. Every now and then Ben would cut in with a rousing chorus of God Bless America, or the Coast Guard’s Anthem. It was the most authentic 4th of July I’ve ever experienced on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

As the evening aged we started to say good-bye, promising to keep in touch as we each embark on the exciting lives as exhausted graduate students. I really have made some incredible friendships over the last year with people who will – unfortunately- be scattered across the lower 48. Of course, this dispersal provides a handy excuse to visit Chicago, LA, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and college towns of the Midwest like West Lafayette, Champaign-Urbana, and Madison. A year ago, these people were just names on a spreadsheet that Fulbright sent along to my in-box. I knew I wanted to travel, and wondered if any of these people would climb a mountain with me, or take a weekend trip to the Iberian Peninsula, or join me in a cavernous beer hall. Turns out they would.

The next day Marco, Ben, and I rolled back upriver to Bonn, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the castle-lined corridor that leads home. When I got back, I began furiously puzzling my way through my project, acutely aware that I only had my precious fossils for a few more weeks.

During a short break from puzzling to get lunch, I ran into three other graduate students from the Institute. They invited me to join them at the Mensa where I explained I would be skipping town at the end of the month. They were shocked I was leaving “so soon! You just got here, yes?” Man, I know that feeling. “Well, we must say a proper goodbye. We must have a barbeque!” I was a little skeptical of this idea. Would enough people really show up to see me off? They waved off my thought and decided we should hold the party on the 23rd, before Dr. Martin left with his family for vacation.

So yesterday I brought a case of Pilsner and some sausages. The graduate students – Julia and Sandra – tracked down the picnic tables, dragged out the grill, and brought the charcoal. Then people actually started showing up bearing a variety of salads and plenty of meat to grill. We passed wine and beer around at 1PM on a Thursday and enjoyed a cake that Sandra had baked to see me off. Then they presented me with a t-shirt. The front has the scowl of Beethoven and proclaims “Beethovenstadt Bonn.” The back was signed by the well-wishers, and each name was accompanied by a doodle depicting their specialty so I won’t forget Sandra works on ancient horses and Vincent works on rodent teeth. Along with the shirt, I opened a card everyone signed which was tricked out with a limerick composed by a Belgian:

A young lad from Ohio came to Germany
To expand his knowledge on paleontology
He only stayed for a year
Did he learn enough, you might fear
I assure you, he is ready for that PhD degree!

Beautiful. Maybe a few extra syllables wedged in there then would normally be acceptable, but the intention of the poem is much more important. After all this attention I really wasn’t sure how to fully express my gratitude to a group of people who have tolerated my meager aptitude for German, and my staggering aptitude for stupid questions.

I realize I haven’t written very much about Bonn on this blog, but know that I really have felt welcome and comfortable as I toiled on a project that I barely understood until very recently. I feel like I’ve just rounded the corner of calling many of these students and professors “friends” and now I need to say goodbye. A goodbye best said with a barbeque. (Another side note: A party hosted by a separate someone is a rare event. Normally you are responsible for bringing your own cake, and orchestrating the logistics. This leads to dirty German/Hobbit comparisons. A party hosted by other graduate students was an incredible gift that I attempted to repay by editing their English abstracts.)

I hope you have had the chance to gather around a gas or charcoal grill with people you love to spend time with and don’t ever want to say goodbye to. Just don’t do that in a public place with open containers. That’s a privilege strictly reserved for us German grillers, thank you very much.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Final Arrival Home

The random photo album with some images of Luxembourg and this final sweep through Benelux.

Before we left for this short excursion, I contemplated the extra space in my massive Kelty backpack. The extra payload was necessary for hauling the tent, but it still had plenty of flapping fabric. I wondered aloud if there were any comforts that would make my backpack more shapely. Marty looked down at the air mattress he had spent the night on. “We could bring this.” Normally when I sleep in a tent I have a thin ¾ length Thermarest offering me minimal lumbar support. The mattress seemed excessive, but it might fit.

Cut to urban campsite in Brussels. After setting up my tent, which is starting to show its age and experience with bleached colors and exposed fibers, I unrolled the massive mattress and started stomping on the foot pump. The pump has a long, ribbed, plastic tube that connects to a valve on the mattress. As anyone who has spent some time at a carnival or amusement park where crinkled straws are sold will know, ridged plastic makes a piercing whistle whenever you blow air through it. With every pump, the tube screeched and I felt like every other camper had their eyes trained on the prissy American who needed his eight inch thick mattress for a good night’s sleep. With every whistle I wanted to explain “I’ve hiked the AT!” Weeeet! “I’ve slept on top of a scorpion!” Wheeet! “I’m a friggin’ geologist!”

But the next morning as the alarm started chirping, I felt like hauling and pumping the thing - and all the soreness and embarrassment this decision might have caused - was absolutely worth it. I was sleeping outside and more comfortably than I do on my low German-dorm-issued cot. The only problem was things had gotten a little damp. The night before I had rolled open a flap near our heads to let the interior breath a bit. During the night and early morning a slow, drenching rain had moved through as slow drenching rains are want to do in this part of the world. We had happily slept on while our jackets and daypacks soaked up the invasive drops.

The rain made for a messy escape, but we had everything rolled up in time to catch our train at the Gare de Luxembourg station in Brussels which was right next to the EU campus. The plaza in front of the parliament building is named for the other capital of the EU making for some confusing train schedules as we tried to figure out which way was up (“We need to get to Gare de Luxembourg in Luxembourg, is that the same as this Gare de Luxembourg?” “Why are you asking me as if I would have a clue?”). As we searched for the station I was able to bust out the one French phrase I command on an unsuspecting grocer, “Excusez-moi, où est la Gare de Luxembourg?” I received some hand waving in a left-ish direction. It was enough to get us to the train where we slowly chugged half the length of Belgium and Luxembourg in three hours.

Normally I wouldn’t mind a chance to sit and read or journal with new European scenery whizzing by the window, but we didn’t grab breakfast before leaving Brussels (we thought it might be at the station. Turns out the “Gare” is pretty dead on a Sunday morning.). We wouldn’t arrive in Luxembourg until 1PM and there were no food carts on our comically small train. So we grumbled audibly while our stomachs did likewise.

We had two missions in Luxembourg: Get food and find the Internet. Marty still hadn’t heard from his friend. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out my evening, anticipating a call from Dr. Sander from the University of Bonn. After my “History of Creationism” talk the previous Tuesday he invited me to meet Don Lessem, a visiting American journalist-turned-dinosaur educator who makes it his life’s work to get the wider public interested in the past. We had vague plans of meeting for dinner Sunday night. As Marty searched for wireless access (a scarce commodity in these parts of Europe) I received a call to meet at the Institute at 6:30PM. That was about what I expected. What I didn’t foresee was a meager train schedule. I suppose Luxembourgers are just as reluctant as Belgians to leave the homeland. I would need to leave at 2:25 if I wanted to make it to dinner in time (key to the first impression). If I missed that, the next train bound for Germany would make me wait around 1.5 hours.

So, after a three-hour haul across Benelux, I only had an hour-and-a-half to explore before I needed to abandon Marty. We had to get moving. We crossed the soaring bridge to the Old Town and searched for a place with traditional Luxembourger fare, whatever that is. We found a trendy, but rustic restaurant with a potato dish that looked hearty and local. We sat down and a waiter, who suspiciously raised an eyebrow at our presence, laid out a tablecloth and presented the menus. We made our decisions and started glancing at the clock. Slowly we realized this wouldn’t work. Our preferred dishes would need to be baked. We only had an hour and hadn’t received our drinks. Time slipped away. Yeah, we had terrible luck with service and we just needed to take our stomachs into our own hands. So we got up. We also felt terrible.

What impression were we leaving of hassled Americans? We wanted to explain that we wanted to sit and savor good food, stretching our Sunday lunch into a three-hour excursion into the culinary offerings of Luxembourg. That there needed to be more trains looping through this part of the world. But we couldn’t explain. There was no one around to tell.

So, we moved on to a bakery recommended by Lonely Planet where soups and salads were the standard, quick bill-of-fare. We thought we would order at the counter and be filling our shrunken stomachs in ten minutes. Instead we found a seating area with knots of old women and couples lounging around Pottery Barn tables, savoring their coffee and not acting like they had a train to catch. We made our selections from the on-table menu. No one came for ten minutes. Cursed and hungry, we departed again doomed to roam barren Luxembourg for enternity. At least this time we were assured no one heard our accents and no national stereotypes were perpetuated by our actions.

We crossed the street and entered a kebab stand; the preferred first stop of most twenty-something males exploring Europe’s geography, but not its culinary variety. We had the thrill of ordering döner kebab in an ornate basket topped by delicious French fries (I will freely admit that I never expected Europeans to fully grasp the power of the fry. I’ve been proven wrong on multiple counts.). Filled with grease and mystery meat, we turned and power-walked back towards the train station (never a good second step after filling with said meat). With only a few minutes to spare I grabbed my luggage and hobble-jogged to my waiting train. Marty remained to try for contact one more time before leaving for Stuttgart and his final preparations before leaving for home this week.

Two weekends earlier, when I made a last-minute decision to visit Luxembourg, I consoled myself with this thought as I rolled out of town without walking through the diving chasms or lush gardens: I would be back soon with Marty and plenty of time to exhaust the micro-state of its riches. Well, the trains had other plans. At least I can say I’m intimately familiar with the route between the Old Town and the distant train station.

I got back to Bonn with just enough time to drop off my gear and hustle to Dr. Sander’s office. He was still discussing sauropod research with Mr. Lessem and I got to eavesdrop on the interview. I experienced the wonder these massive animals inspire one more time before hopping the Atlantic Ocean. Dinner was at a biergarten along the Rhine that I checked out back in October. The dogs and children romped and the barges chugged by while we discussed science education, how sauropods got their crazy necks, and the art of navigating Chinese regional politics. What more can you ask for from a good dinner?

And thus concluded my final European Continental excursion. As I type this I have about one more real week in Germany before I grab a flight to the island of Ireland and the arms of my Carolyn. The next few posts will deal with saying good-bye. Look forward to astute observations on German behavior, my living situation, and lists of things I will miss and things that I won’t. I bet you can just feel those curiosity juices percolating through your higher faculties.


The album one more time.