Friday, September 26, 2008

Deutsch. Alles klar?

Six weeks ago I needed a phone. We had not been assigned user names for the Marburg University network and I really wanted to call home. I had promised I would let my loved ones know that I hadn't missed my flight out of Charlotte and I hadn't made an emergency evacuation of my plane somewhere over the Atlantic and was currently holed up near a glacier in Greenland. I wanted them to know Marburg was lovely, even with only a few tumultuous hours of sleep and the other Fulbrighters were very cool people.

So I asked Jason, a graduate student from Northwestern in German History, and someone who apparently knew how this country worked, "Where can I get a cell phone?"

Jason helpfully supplied, "Anywhere you see a Tchibo sign they sell phones and phone cards."

This was seconded by Benjamin, a near fluent speaker of German, "Yeah, it's kinda weird but you go into the store and they sell coffee, pastries and cell phones."

Okay. I had seen several Tchibo signs and I had even seen them associated with bakeries. It did seem weird, but I was in Germany and had no idea what strange customs these German-folk might practice. As I climbed the hill back up to the dorms, I noticed a bakery called Baker Müller which had "Tchibo" prominently displayed next to their business hours. The next morning I would go, get myself a pastry and get myself a phone. That night I rehearsed my lines, "Guten Tag. Ich möchte ein Hany, bitte." (Good day. I would like a cell phone, please.)

The day dawned ripe for practicing German. I strode into Baker Müller, looked the woman in the bright yellow polo behind the counter in the eye and politely asked for a phone. She was roughly 45 years old with short blond hair and an expression that told me she might have just sniffed something rank. After uttering my line she looked positively repulsed. A low warning siren started echoing in the back of my brain.

I then noticed a second, younger Bakerine at Baker Müller. She was about 17 with a perpetually curled lip and a surly expression that told me she both hated her yellow polo and the smell of croissants in the morning. She gaped at at me like I might have just shot her dog. Neither of them spoke. The warning siren in my brain grew louder.

Had I mispronounced my request? As I cast about, literally at a loss for words (I only knew about eight) I noticed there was nothing vaguely resembling electronic equipment anywhere in the establishment except the coffeemaker and the cash register. Maybe they kept the phones in the back?

I then walked to the blue sign in the window, pointed at it and said, "Haben Sie Tchibo?" (Do you have Tchibo?) The older woman emerged from behind the counter, taking the careful steps of a person approaching roadkill that might not be completely expired. She squinted and did the last thing I needed at that moment. She started rapidly German. I started blankly, a deer-caught in the headlights, unable to move or respond. The siren was blaring. I aborted my mission.

I literally left in the middle of her monologue. I spun on my heel and scampered down the street without so much as a "Tchuss!" I still didn't have a phone.

It turns out Tchibo is a company that makes a variety of products ranging from phones to jackets, including coffee. Baker Müller brews this coffee but does not carry these phones and never will. What I did was the equivalent of walking into Home Depot and rattling off, "Hello, I would like a Pizza."

The worst part of the experience was that the next day as the Fulbrighters rolled to our first day of class, we stopped at that Tchibo supporting bakery. I was afraid to enter the place of my most recent Deutsch-slapping. When I got to the counter I noticed the repulsed woman and the surly girl were both behind the counter and they remembered me. Instead of good-naturedly smiling at me, they just stared as I ordered a coffee and Choco-croissant, products that they actually carry.

But that was six weeks ago. Last Tuesday I took my German final where I was asked to write a letter to "a friend" (my brother in this case) explaining what I was up to in Deutschland. I used present, future and past tense. I used subordinate clauses. I used the imperative. I was able to produce the Dative and Accusative cases. I still don't know much German, but I think it's safe to say I'm on my way to finally having a living language under my belt.

I am forever indebted to Mrs. Fogerty, my eighth grade English teacher who drilled her students on Grammar until we could diagram every sentence that crossed our paths no matter how obscure the subject or indirect the object. Because of that rigorous understanding of German, I was confidently able to figure out how to use the dative case and the accusative.

Then there's Latin Jack Emmett. When I took off for Germany I was ready to pitch everything I knew about Latin out the window as I entered into a Germanic rather than Romantic language. As it turns out, German and Latin are pretty close buddies, sharing a similar construction of nouns and verbs. Crazy. German and English share a lot of vocabulary and Latin and German share a lot of grammatical rules. On Wednesday I held forth in class on the similarities between German from the Middle Ages and Chaucer's English. The problem is when I really get excited about a topic, I get ahead of myself. I forget the words I have learned and stumble through a mix of English and German. I guess I should adopt a more stoic German attitude and my language skills will improve.

Today I went to the train station and muscled my way through purchasing a train ticket. I spoke to the guy behind the ticket window who reminded me of the Russian Library Bouncer and got a ticket headed for Bonn at the right time on Tuesday without dropping a word or missing a beat.

I should note that as I write this I am in a cafè in Marburg. Two gentlemen with shillelaghs, wearing three-piece suits and top-hats are trolling the room. One just gave me a lengthy explanation of...something. It made the guy at the next table over laugh and get out a 5 Euro note. I stared blankly. Someone else just laughed and got out money. I don't know who they are or what they're up to. Yeah, it was a good six weeks of language instruction, but I have the German vocabulary of a five-year old.

The title of this post is "German. All is clear?" A play on words because "Deutsch" means "Clearly" and "Deutschland" is the "Land where people speak clearly." It's still not clear to me. There are cultural quirks, such as cell phone shopping and men with top-hats that I have yet to fully sort out, but my six weeks in Marburg have certainly given me the chance to take a plunge and try to sort this place - and this language out. Even if it meant going to getting slapped around a bit.

I hope you've learned a thing or two about a new culture and haven't to run away from it but instead stood your ground. If you have, know that I admire you for it. If you've taught someone something new about your culture recently, I hope you didn't took at them like something a dog left behind on the sidewalk. If you did, you should work at Baker Müller.


Deutsch Heuteworte: Sohn - Son (masculine), Tochter - Daughter (feminine)

In Mittelalter English, das Worte "Sons" und "Daughter" haben "Sohnah" und "Tau-k-ter" ausgesprägt. Deutsch ist sehr gleich. Fetzig.

In Medieval English the words "Sons" and "Daughter" were pronounced "Sohnah" (this is exactly like German) and "Taukter" (also exactly like German). German is very similar. Crazy.

I really want to take a class on the history of this language. Maybe when I retire and can take classes for free... The monastery come University building that is the Academic heart of Marburg.

Euro - pe

Last week began the process of saying good-bye to Hessen, the hopping central state in Germany where Marburg nestles.

Way back two Fridays ago we (the Fulbrighters) took a trip to Frankfurt, the largest city in Hessen, and the center of German Financial Business. The city kinda gets short-shrift because it's an "American city" by which the taunters mean it has skyscrapers. The skyline really doesn't look much more impressive then Columbus, but German visitors resent the attempt to look like Germany's Manhattan.

Our class ventured to Frankfurt to visit the Euopean Central Bank, the European Union's equivalent to the Fed. Our visit accidentally coincided with the beginning of the financial chaos in the States, so everyone was a bit more interested in visiting a large bank than we probably would have been otherwise.

(It is about an hour drive from Marburg to Frankfurt so some of us passed the time trying to play Six Degrees of relatively-obscure-or-old-actor-to-another. It's that kind of group. I challenge you to get from Weird Al to Michael Keaton without IMDB. I'll let you know how we did it in the comments section of you really care.)

The bank is currently renting a series of buildings and will break ground on their own skyscraper next year, and boy do they need a new one. The lobby of the current building is decorated with mosaics which would be fine, except the centerpiece of the room is this one: This may be one of the creepiest examples of public art I've ever seen. I think I'm supposed to notice diversity exists even among bald people. I mostly noticed we would all look like aliens if we didn't have hair.

I was given an extended period of time to contemplate this image as I waited in line to fork over my passport at the ECB's front desk. Because the building is owned by the EU, by entering the place were were leaving German territory and entering "European territory." Try to wrap your head around that border distinction. That means every employee at the bank is divorced from Nationality and is instead working toward European interests. It's really not that strange of a concept when you just think of the EU as a Federal government governing sovereign states, something like the U.S. But never refer to the "United States of Europe." Feathers will get ruffled and declarations of national loyalty and sovereignty made.

We heard a a lecture on the formation of the EU and the necessity of the bank from Gabriel, the assistant to the VP of the ECB. That's a lot of letters. He spoke for a bit more than an hour and so perfectly summarized the problems and successes of the EU experiment that all the Fulbrighters were a bit in shock. "That was actually really interesting!" Multiple people sheepishly then wonderingly admitted. I won't try to replicate the lecture here. Suffice it to say, the Euro is doing well.

I'll take this moment to actually comment on the money in Europe. I'm fascinated by what countries choose to put on their cash. It's a great clue to national pride. Americans love their historical mythology and thus the founding fathers grace our coinage along with historical sites like Independence Hall and Monticello, places that are the American equivalent of the Roman Forum or Ur. Concepts more than places. The Aussies put their wildlife on their coins, including the Platypus. I don't know exactly what that means about the country except that Australians are wonderful people for giving the Platypus her due.

The Euro, on the other hand, is decorated with the continent of Europe and a series of door and bridges. The doors and bridges look vaguely European, but actually do not represent a specific door or window. There is nothing distinctively European about the coinage. Famous authors and political figures from European history are ignored. How would you choose who to put on the money anyway? The only opportunity to express any national pride is on the one Euro coin. Each Nation's mint leaves their mark on the one Euro. The German Euro is a very Roman looking Eagle. The French have a tree that looks something like the White Tree of Gondor.

While I am slightly disappointed by how undecorated the coinage is, I am always excited to reach into my pocket of change to find I have real money in there. Between the two and one Euro coins, I could pay for dinner with pocket change. It never gets old.

Anyway, after the lecture we left Frankfurt. We just got up, returned our used coffee mugs and cookie platters we had been issued by the bank and got back on the buses (I should note here that this was not the first time a bank had given me free coffee. When I went to open my bank account with two other Fulbrighters, we were asked if we would like coffee, tee or espresso. We were a little confused, but eventually made our orders. We were then shown a small conference room where our beverages awaited us. We sat and sipped our coffee while the details of our accounts were explained to us and we felt like we were the CEOs of some Fortune 500 company. Apparently it doesn't take much to make me feel important. Just a free cup of Joe. Service is not always a German concept in restaurants and stores, but in the banks, we felt like kings). Frankfurt may not be as classic as Munich, Hamburg or trendy as Berlin, but I feel like a little time to explore wouldn't have been wasted. At least I was able to snap this shot off before the city disappeared into the distance and I was left to contemplate the future of the European Union, national identity and the shortest distance between Eric Bana and John Wayne.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Kassel: City of Greek, German and Japanese

(Click here for a set of pictures illustrating my excursion to Kassel. Enjoy and use them to further understand the magic that was Hessen's great, yes great, northern city.)

As I packed and prepared for Germany I would often say I was off to study fossils and "Wanderweg Europe." That is, I wanted (and want) to make this continent my oyster. "Oh, yeah, Europe's great for traveling. The trains take you everywhere and it's all so close." By the time I climbed onto my plane bound for Frankfurt, I was convinced I would be able to flip a Euro into a friendly engineer's hand and travel from Lisbon to Moscow without spending more than a few more Euros on necessities like food, public restrooms and alcohol.

Unfortunately, this is not strickly the case. The trains and public transportation system connect the countries of the European Union in an incredible network of tracks and engines that would make the Romans salivate. Unfortunately, it ain't cheap. Many Germans drive because by the time you buy a train ticket for every member of your family, you might as well drive to your destination, even if gas hovers around $6.50 a gallon. That doesn't necessarily mean they drive large, gas-guzzling cars, but you get the idea. The trains are a bit expensive (teuer in German). The German rail system (The Bahn or "Way") recognizes the problem and offers some incredible deals if you are paying attention to the right website at the right time. They also have a less closely guarded secret called the Schönes-Wochenende Ticket, a deal almost too good to be true. You and four of your best friends can buy a 37 Euro ticket that will let you go anywhere in Germany for 24 hours. You also get free transportation on any bus or tram in any city you visit. That's roughly 8 Euro (10-ish bucks) to go anywhere. Because so many people were away visiting their host cities for the entire weekend, a group of us - Erin, Katie, Halley and myself - decided to have a "Great Weekend" and travel to Göttingen and Kassel, two cities reasonably close-by, but still expensive to visit without the sweet ticket deal.

Our adventure began in Marburg. We would take an hour-long train ride to Kassel then transfer and ride a further hour to Göttingen, a university town with a castle and such. It's the city where the second wave of Fulbright students will be having their orientation meeting, so it must reflect well on Germany. We would wander there in the afternoon, hop back on the train and visit Kassel in the evening. Unfortunately "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry (as some are want to say). Our plan went awry in the form of a train that just didn't want to go on. After about 20 minutes we had to stop. The operator mumbled something that no one really understood, regardless of their mother-tongue, and we lost some time. Then we stopped again, the door opened and we were told this would be about a half-hour break to "fix the doors."

The fours of us piled out onto the platform at Treysa to take a breather, stretch and confer on what exactly we thought the intercom had told us. Then we noticed a girl in an electric-blue tuxedo and lank black hair stroll by. It is Germany, and fashion statements must be made, but she looked ridiculous. She was followed by a kid with long blond hair spiked at strategic points into a ridiculous halo. "Maybe the circus is on board?" Halley speculated. Then someone with a scythe hopped onto the platform. It then dawned on me. They were dressed like Animè characters from Japanese cartoons and comic-books. In case you've never been in this situation, waiting for your broken-down train to be repaired while mingling with people in school-girl outfits, capes and wielding weapons medieval and imaginary is probably the closest to Purgatory I will ever be in this life. Stay tuned in case this observation is contradicted. I'll let you know.

The Animè kids were clearly headed to a convention of some kind and we were curious to see which was their stop when the train finally got rolling. By the time we reached Kassel, it was 1 in the afternoon and we were starving. It looked like we would do this city first and eventually roll north if Kassel didn't hold our attention until 10:27 PM when the last train to Marburg left the station. We needn't have worried.

The city of Kassel was mostly bombed out in 1944 and leaving the city center a mostly post-1950 architectural affair, but if you hop on the No. 1 tram to the outskirts of the city you will find a massive garden built in the early 18th century by Wilhelm IX. The garden is fronted by a palace built in 1786, an affair partially funded by the fees collected by the British government when they hired a bunch of Hessian soldiers to help stifle the pesky American Revolution. We entered the park via a conveient tourist office where I learned many of the facts I have and will continue to regurgitate for you. At the office I also picked up as many brochures as I could. It's a kind of compulsion. A vital piece of trivia (an oxymoron if ever there was one) may be hiding in their well-organized pages. It makes me wish I was a scrapbooker so I could somehow justify my need to collect the things.

We then found a lovely cafè for lunch where I ordered a very German meal of sausage and potato salad. As we ate, the our waitress came running from her corner where she was talking to the regulars, brandishing her cell phone. We turned and saw she was snapping pictures of this: The Animè convention was in castle and the adentents were checking out the sites too...dressed as a monk and a bridal stripper. I won't judge. I will observe though that her shoes were hardly adequate for the kind of hiking we took on that day and she was probably a mite cold as the Hessian weather finally ushered in a cool Autmnal day.

We went to the first castle which also houses the worlds finest wall-paper collection (it had to be somewhere, I guess) and a variety of Greek and Roman antiquites. It also provided an incredible view of the garden and the Oktagon, the monument that bears a massive statue of the demi-god Hercules on its summit. Hercules is about forty feet tall and he's a speck at the top of that tower. We had a long and arduous hike, but we wanted to see how a rich king blows his extra cash, so we started up the hill/mountain (Language note: The Germans have a word that encompasses both "hill" and "mountain." It's "Berg." To me a hill is hardly more than a bump and a mountain is quite the opposite. There isn't much in between. I think a Berg fills in this gap pretty well.).

It was an epic quest past massive fake Roman aqueducts that were built to look like ruins, but now three centuries later, are legitimately starting to fall apart and across The Devil's Bridge. The whole endevour kept reminding me of Fantasia as the centaurs and pegasuses (pegasusi?) romp through an idyllic Greek garden. We kept turning around as we climbed higher, admiring the view of the city and snapping a picture. An example: But, as you might assume, the higher we got, the better the view. We finally reached the foothills of Hercules monument at a massive fountain with Neptune holding court. I think the whole structure is probably even more striking in mid-Summer when the fountain is running, but it was still quite a sight: I think it's important to remember that the statue up on the top is huge and it still barely registers in the picture. Getting up there was quite a challenge (despite the fact that elderly women, small children and family dogs seemed to get to the top without much hesitation) involving probably 700 steps and nearly 500 m in elevation change. Not a bad Saturday afternoon stroll.

When we finally reached the statue, we were either belting "I can go the Distance" from Disney's Hercules, humming the Lord of the Rings theme (maybe that was just me) or trying to massage our tights back into action. But it was worth the view:
The Big Guy, Hera's bane and Zero to Hero, in his full glory. The above scenery shot was from the parapet you can see in the lower right corner. This is the best view of the statue we could get. I guess I'll need to go back when the reconstruction winds down. Considering they've been messing with the structure in some way for the last 300 years, I'm not optimistic I'll ever see it.

For more images (and less words) don't forget about that link at the beginning of this entry. When you reach the summit, there are three things that greet you at the top of the last step. 1) a mess of construction as the Kasselers shore up the pediment holding the offspring of Zeus. 2) The naked butt of the strongest man to ever live. and 3) a cut-out of the statue sans face that you can poke your own head through and have your picture taken as the mighty hero "in repose" (as every brocher I carried pointed out). The third was honestly the most exciting.

After taking a bunch of pictures we headed back down the hill and to the Lowensberg, or Lion's Mountain, a medival castle also reconstructed by Wilhelm. Where we wandered through the requisite castle maze, met even more well-behaved dogs, and caught a bus out of the park and towards our next destination.

Buses in cities that I don't have fully mapped in my head stress me out, as previously noted, because they have the ability to get stuck in traffic and run late or randomly shut down in the middle of the route. The latter occured and we had to pile out and find different stop to pick up a different bus to take us back to the city center. Our new coach eventually rolled up and we were off to central Kassel where we discovered the beautiful city hall (or Rathouse, so named because "Rat" means "council" not because city politicians are large rodents, though some may disagree). Next was the Orangerie where the nobility could enjoy the finer things and modern tourists can oggle at their oppulance. Here there was another garten, this one a bit flatter, with a wide field that just begged for an ultimate frisbee game, a touch-football game and a few kites. Erin and I, the two Ohioans, taught Halley and Katie how to salute the Fatherland at important monuments then rolled on to the duck-pond as the sun set. I think this is one of my favorite pictures I took that day as we walked along another tree-lined path to another gorgeous local where I can only dream of going for a run on a cool Fall night (preferably with a large, mild-mannered hound at my side): I also took a horizontal picture of the path. It's in the album. Which do you prefer? Anyway, with the sun down, our wandering was over and our stomachs were rumbling. We wandered aimlessly and found ourselves in the middle of the shopping district where fountains showered the central square and food was out of our budget.

We slipped down a side street and found "Zeus" a Greek restaurant that provided the perfect ending to our Hellenic-themed day. I got to briefly play menu authority as I racked my brain for the names of all the fantastic dishes I had when I visited Athens. In true Greek fashion, the wait staff took their sweet time getting our orders and bringing them out to us. We had to awkwardly flag down the waitress, by which I mean I got up and hovered in the middle of the room as she chatted with a table of more relaxed guests, so that we wouldn't miss our train home. We were given free shots of Ouzo as we scampered out the door and sprinted to the square to catch a tram to the train station.

We made it and found seats. As we rolled along we slowly acquired German teenagers decked out as their favorite Animè characters. More and more piled on and I sensed we were nearing the epicenter of the Japanese-inspired convention. Three stops from the station we stopped outside a large building with a banner proclaiming: ConMochi. We were inundated by people in massive, spiked wigs, samurai swords and knee-socks. I feld closure to the day. I was exhausted in the way only a day of exploring a new place can exhaust you and I was surrounded by great friends and people that have the kinds of friends that will accept you even when you strap on a couple extra limbs or look like this: I love this country. I hope you love yours (even if you need to pay a lot to fuel up the car for an adventure).


Deutsche Heutewort: ändern - to alter

Kannst du mir Hilfe? Ich brauche dich meine Würde zu halten für den Tag.
Can you help me? I need you to hold my diginity for the day.

P.S. I don't in any way want my teasing of the Animè peeps to be seen as derisive or mean. I am a proud nerd. I dressed up like Luke Skywalker when I saw the midnight showing of Revenge of the Sith and as Victor Krum when Goblet of Fire came out. I love seeing dorky, passionate people, especially when they get together and share their dorky, passions with each other.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bonn Voyage

(Here's a link to my pictures of Bonn. They illustrate this post a bit.)

It's strange how quickly a new place can feel like home. I remember feeling completely natural calling my dorm freshman year "home" after only a few weeks at Ohio State, and feeling a bit surprised when my tent in Northern Kenya felt as comforting as my bed back in Cincinnati. Maybe I just need a place to stash my stuff and a routine to feel settled in a place. I feel settled in Marburg, but with only two weeks to go before I leave, it's time to think about my next home: Bonn.

The Fulbrighters were given Friday off so we could go to our host-cities (a.k.a. The city we signed up to live in for a year) to settle housing and possibly meet with representatives at our host universities. I dutifully arranged to meet Dr. Martin, my academic host for the next year. I e-mailed him to arrange the best time for him. He suggested 9:30 Friday morning. I agreed, knowing as the crow flies, Bonn is maybe an hour and a half from Marburg.

Unfortunately, I didn't travel as the crow flies. There's an inconvenient mountain range between Hessen (the state Marburg's in) and Nordrhein-Westfalen (where Bonn is) that makes the trip three hours long. That meant I had to get up around 4:30 to get catch a 5:12 train. You may think, "Gee, Matt, if the ride is only three hours long, why not leave at 6?"

"Well," I say to you, "public transportation kinda stresses me out. I had four different connections to make and a streetcar/bus system to sort out in Bonn. I had to give myself that extra hour to allow for getting on the wrong train, missing a connection and/or getting completely lost in a station. So back outta my grill."

I also arranged to leave a suitcase with Dr. Martin so I didn't need to schlep four bags through all those connections the next time I make this trip. Thus, 5 AM in Marburg I was skittering down the hill to the train station, my rolling suitcase catching every rotten apple in the street (a tree overlooks the street from a very quaint garden. Pleasing to the eye, not to the rolling suitcase). I made the train, but managed to soak my shirt in sweat in the humid morning. I was ready to make a first impression.

I managed to make all the necessary connections and arrived in Bonn with an hour to kill. A few notes about the city: Bonn was the capital of the former West Germany. When they were reconstructing the ruined Germany after WWII The Allies decided to put the Western seat of government in the city because it was near-ish the middle of the country and completely apolitical. Making a once quiet, small city on the Rhine the governmental seat of power for about fifty years.

When the two Germany's reunited in 1990, Berlin wanted the capital back, saying Bonn, "has one-third the population of a Berlin cemetery and is twice as dead." I feel like that might be a bit unfair, but we'll see.

I rode a streetcar through the city and got very excited when we crossed the Rhine. Of course I didn't express this excitement in any visual way. I was in Stealth German Mode. This is when I keep my mouth shut, wear my jeans and shirt tight and act like I've seen the quaint homes, cool street signs and castles for my entire life. With the blond hair and unathetic-looking shoes, I think I get away with it. Once I got off the train this was my first impression of the city:

I'm thinking I might need to get a bike...

I took my time getting to Dr. Martin's office. I had my hand-drawn map and phone numbers in hand and found the place easily, mostly because this sign was over the door:
It reads "Geological and Paleontological Institute of Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms University" across the top. That last part is the full name of the University of Bonn. Then the inscription in the middle says, in Latin, "Mind and Mallet," the two main tools of any good Geologist. I like to think I use both pretty liberally...

I walked in with about ten minutes to go and got a bit worried when I couldn't find his name on the map of the building. In fact I couldn't find any paleontologists. Was I in the wrong place? I wandered in and saw the university museum where a huge Ichthyosaurs starred me down:

And where there are bones, there must be paleontologists. Sure enough, I followed the hall towards a T-rex skull and found where all the fossil people were hiding. Dr. Martin was ready for me. We talked about my stay thus far in Deutschland and my efforts to learn German. He was really supportive of my basic German skills and wants me to continue learning the language even when I got to the lab. He introduced me to the entire paleo-community at Bonn, which is absolutely massive. They have paleobotonists, Dino-people, Mammoth people, Trilobite people...If it died, Bonn has the personnel to study it. As I met each person, Dr. Martin mentioned I was trying to learn German and encouraged people to encourage me. We'll see how this all pans out.

I was also introduced to Dr. Zhexi Luo, a visiting researcher from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Dr. Luo and Dr. Martin are two of the world's authorities on early mammalian evolution, the stuff I really want to sink my teeth into. Dr. Luo is particularly interested in the ecological roles of these early fuzzy critters and I probably cited him a dozen times in my Senior Thesis. I was a bit star-struck to meet him. He was really enthusiastic about my project and promised to work with me when he comes back in the spring. This is going to be a good year.

Dr. Martin also mentioned that I will be able to go on several field trips around Germany with various classes and there may be field opportunities next summer. I may need to get my hammer sent across the ocean...

My project will likely deal with a group of Jurassic fossils from Portugal that Dr. Martin has been working on for the last couple of years. I won't bore you with the details (that will come in later posts) but I'll be studying the diversity of one of the earliest complex mammalian communities in life's history. Rad.

After lunch with Dr. Martin and Dr. Luo, I wandered into the city before catching my train back to town. Flying high from an exciting meeting with Dr. Martin, I really didn't care that the weather was drizzly and grey. I walked by the castle where the other natural scientists work on zoological and chemical problems and into the main square. I'll detail the city later when I actually start to make sense of it all, but suffice it to say, this place is a little bigger than Marburg, just as cute, and a bit flatter. It will be a fun place to explore for the next 10 months and the town has gotten good reviews from friends who have visited.

A large Catholic Basilica dominates the skyline and I hope to make a Sunday visit to the place. Here in Marburg the large church, St. Elisabeth, is Lutheran. I'm pretty jazzed to make it west into Catholic country where I get to use the impressive architecture for worship:

I should point out that this church was severely damaged after WWII and final restoration was completed in 1986. Much of Germany is like this, with seemingly old or even ancient sites bearing the scar of history. But the Germans are very proud that they were able to put everything back were it was. A resilient people.

As I walked past various shops and avenues, I kept passing reproductions and images of a very severe looking statue of a man glaring at the passing hoi poloi. I couldn't figure out the fascination with this surly individual. Then I rounded the corner of the square and saw the statue up close:
And tree simple words at his feet explained his look of disdain, "Ludwig von Beethoven." I had forgotten Bonn's other claim to fame. It is the childhood home of every one's favorite Classical/Romantic composer with an ear-horn. I have a feeling we'll become pretty good buds over the course of the next year.

As it continued to rain, I hustled towards the train station with conflicting feelings. I was headed back to Marburg, my home for the moment, leaving the place that will feel like home in a few short weeks. Bonn is an unexplored map soon to be populated with favorite restaurants, views, bars and memories. But at the moment I was ready to get back to Marburg to enjoy a few more memories in Hessen.

I hope you enjoyed your weekend, wherever your home is and you filled in a few new locals on your own memory-map.

P.S. This is the first in what promises to be a serious of posts beginning with Bonn-related puns. The possibilities are pretty exciting.

German Heutewort: Möbel - Furniture (Neuter)

Ich habe nicht Möbel nur. Ich habe nicht ein Address nur!
I don't have any furniture yet. I don't even have an address yet! (it's true)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rainbow Connection

The weather in Marburg can turn on a dime. Maybe the weather of all of Germany is a little wonky, but as a good scientist I know that I only have one data point and I shouldn't make gross generalizations based only on my experiences here in Central Hessian, tempting as it may be. Friday and Saturday were soggy, Sunday a bit drier, but still drizzling every now and then as the class slogged through the woods to the ruins of a thirteenth century castle:
We still enjoyed a quaint snack of plumb cake and coffee in a little restaurant near the run, despite the gloomy forecast and the skies roiling with clouds. One of the best moments of the weekend came when we arrived back in the center of town an saw a massive rainbow arching across the firmament. I could practically see the leprechaun scampering away from our searching eyes (though what a leprechaun was doing in Germany is anyone's guess).
Of course the combination of the umbrella and the rainbow really made the whole moment just, too picturesque to ignore...though I'll let you be the judge of the picture that ultimately resulted.

Tchuss (I'll add a bit more tomorrow)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

As German as Apple Pie

Note: If you click here you can view some of my pictures as an album. They are mostly from last weekend. Another album is here and contains images from the Medieval Fair and my first few days in Germany.

The world loves American Pop-Culture, but it's always slightly surreal to hear distinctively American sights and sounds juxtaposed with a foreign culture that I am struggling to understand. Particularly memorable/strange moments include hearing "My Heart Will Go On" in an Egyptian hotel, surrounded by Chinese tourists, seeing a banner for a Jay-Z concert at the Carnivore Restaurant suspended above the National Museum in Nairobi, and hearing a bunch of old Greeks warble "Hey Jude" in a restaurant in Athens (I realize the Beatles are actually part of British culture, but they made most of their money off the Americans so I partially claim them).

A few weeks ago I noticed a Jazz club called Caveta on one of the streets leading up to the Oberstadt. I know Jazz is everywhere, but I was curious to hear a distinctively American sound interpreted by the Germans. Walking back from class, I heard two of my fellow students were planning to check it out on Monday. They'd learned from a nice, slightly crazy Marburger in their Capeoria class that the club had open jam sessions starting at 9 on Monday nights.

So Monday night the three of us traipsed up to the Oberstadt to investigate. Marty, an Applied Physicist and Saxophonist from Oregon brought his Alto Sax and Johanna, a Classically trained vocalist from Baltimore was ready to bust out the standards, I brought my ears and a regret that I didn't maintain my trumpet chops in any way after high school.

As we approached the door I heard the sound of pure brass smashing against the glass. When we swung the door open, the energetic sound of Big Band Jazz blasted into the street. We all grinned and entered. The club looked a little like the dungeon bar with a side room that was clearly a wine cellar at some distant historical point. Now it's the stage and provides an echo chamber for the music so people can sit in the room by the bar and still hear each other speak. We didn't want to speak. We wanted to hear the music.

The band was huge with three trumpets, three trombonists, four saxes, the drummer, the bassist and the pianist all lead by a conductor who vaguely reminded me of my band director in high school. The band probably doubled the number of people in the club. They were all clearly German and ranged from around fifteen to sixty-five years old and they had a big sound. I wondered if the younger people were in bands in school. I'm not even sure they have such extracurriculars in Germany. Maybe the young guys are learning the tricks of the trade from the older guys in the group. I wanted to ask, but my vocabulary only contains about a hundred words and most of them related to classroom objects.

The second group was a lot smaller, but included the director of the previous group on trumpet, a tenor sax, a pianist, a drummer and a dude on upright bass. I like to think I'm a connoisseur of bass-playing characters and this guy is a new favorite. He looked like a less-hip Jerry Garcia with his full grey beard, jovial countenance and pocket-protector in his untucked plumb Polo. Their final song, a kind of slow waltz, left me in a kind of musical daze. It was wonderful. The only problem with listening to swing, waltz and jazz in a tiny cellar is there was no room to dance. My feet were itching to move and my hands were keeping the beat, but there was nothing to do with that energy and my favorite dance partner is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

As another band got set up, we realized the crazy Capeorian was a bit off about the whole jam session thing, but Johanna decided it was worth asking if she could get up an sing with one of the groups. The pianist had to run around and ask a bunch of different people about this American who wanted to join a group, but finally she had her chance to jump up on the stage and plug in a mic - after a group that thought playing Jazz meant giving every member of the group very long repetitive solos.

As soon as Johanna started warming up, the entire house snapped to attention. "This could be interesting. This person looks like she actually has soul." I should say that Johanna is African-American and at that moment was probably the only black person in the Oberstadt. It was tough to tell if she had soul at that moment. She was a bit nervous as she discussed the song she wanted to sing with the group and how the intro and solos would work. But as soon as she sang the opening notes, "My funny valentine..." the room was convinced. She blew the roof off the place - and it's a medieval cellar, so the roof is as solid as they come - with improvised vocal lines and wonderful harmonization with the band. If the other performers were skeptical about inviting an unknown musician into their ranks, after belting the final note they were begging Johanna to stick around for the rest of the set. Just because a culture creates something, it doesn't mean that culture necessarily gets it. The English invented cricket, but the Indians are best at it. Hollywood invented the western but the Italians perfected it. But in Marburg Johanna proved that Jazz came from the U.S. and Americans can still command the club. That's not to imply the Germans don't understand Jazz, it's just the States still has fantastic musicians.

The next evening was another night at the movies. A large contingent of Fulbrighters had not seen The Dark Knight, one of my favorite movies of the summer, and it just opened in Germany. The Marburg Cinema has two showings a week in English. Someday soon I will see it in German because I want to hear how The Joker is performed by a German Actor and how the gravely Bat Voice is reproduced, but that isn't the way you should see The Dark Knight for the first time. I love experiencing movies in other countries. It's interesting to see what kind of food is offered, how loudly people laugh and where they sit.

The greatest invention by the Germans was the "Pause" halfway through the movie. We didn't expect it and the break came at a random point so we actually thought the projector had broken. Once the "Pause" cue came up on the screen, I realized this was perfect for a much needed pee break and everyone could discuss plot points they might have missed before delving into the second half. It was a little strange though to come out of a theater that felt very American, complete with stadium seating, where a quintessentially American movie about an American comic book hero (another of our inventions) was showing and hear German teenagers telling jokes while buying beer and sweet popcorn (I imagine it's something like kettle corn) at the concession stand . If I ever attain any power in the States, I will become both a vocal advocate for the mandatory bike ramp on every staircase and the "Pause" in the middle of every movie over 2.5 hours long.

My final strange run-in with American culture abroad came last night during anther visit to the dungeon bar. It was a rainy night in Marburg, so everyone was hunkered down in restaurants and bars, leaving the streets eerily empty. We, Jason, Erin, Katie and I, ate dinner at our favorite cafè, Cafè Early, where you can get a bowl of Auflauf for 4.90 Euro. A pretty good deal to start a night of exploring Marburg's night life. We then decided to return to Delirium, a place we checked out during the bar crawl. The place is a hole in the wall populated with trendy young Marburgers, but no one seemed particularly willing to chat with the Americans, so we rolled on to the Dungeon to see if the Muppet booth was finally open. It wasn't.

After a few drinks and enjoying the bachelor and bachelorette parties come in and out, we called a cab and huddled at the bottom of the stairs by the bar, waiting for our ride to take us back up the soggy hill to the dorms. The Dungeon has an interesting division. The front room, where the bar and the Muppet booth are set up, is were the real Marburgers hang out. The average age in the room before we entered was probably 50. The back room is where the young people hang out around large wooden tables each of which is equipped with a single candle.

As we waited, the sounds of John, Paul, George and Ringo faded, and the bartender gave us a cheeky grin as he loaded the next CD. We heard "A long, long time ago, I can still remember..." and automatically the four of us began to sing in unison, "how that music used to make me smile" (Play air piano here). Then all the old German men joined in at, "Oh bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry..."

All of us, the four Americans, the bartender, the waitress and about a dozen old German men, sang together for a full eight and a half minutes. The guy next to me, who sported a huge handlebar mustache and a flannel shirt, swayed with me to the music and jammed on his own air-guitar singing all the words (though he did need a little help when we got to the "Helter Skelter in the summer swelter" part). The scene was completed by an old dude in the corner sleeping on the bar, oblivious to the waitress belting, "No angel born in hell, COULD BREAK THAT SATANS SPELL!"

As the song wound down and "I met a girl who sang the blues" the bartender prepared five shots of apple liqueur, passed them out, and toasted us as everyone lost their place in the final chorus (which is always slower than everyone expects). "This'll be the day that I DIIIIIIIEEEE."

The mission of the Fulbright is to be ambassadors of the American people, not the American government and I think as four young Americans sang, entertained (I think they were shocked we knew all the words) and bonded with a bunch of old German guys we might have rebuilt a few bridges between cultures. If we didn't do that, at least we all had a great time.

I hope you had a wonderful week and have been enjoying the fruits of American pop-culture as much as I have been on the East side of the ocean.


Deutsch Heutewort: Schnurrbart - Mustache (masculine)

Wenn Ich bin 40 (fierzig) Jahre alt, Ich werde enine Schnurrbart haben genau wie Der Schnurrbart auf dem gelassen alt Mann.

When I am 40 years old, I will have a mustache just like the mustache on that cool, old man.

P.S. Don't forget to check out the album links in the first paragraph!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Castles, Romans and Dylan

I was a little bummed out going into this weekend. The college football season was opening and there is no way to watch it. The Democratic National Convention closed and there was no way to see John Stewart skewer it. I knew I wouldn't be able to enjoy the comforts of home when I signed up for this gig - that's part of what makes it all so much fun - but it was still weird to hear about friends and family gearing up for football and politics and not being able to participate. But by Friday night, I had forgotten my disconnected woes and was well into a great weekend in Marburg.

A few weeks ago one of the other Fulbrighters had the brilliant idea to have a party at the Castle. There are no open-container laws in this country and where there are few things that sound like more fun than a drink, snack and good company in the shadow of a tenth century castle. The evening did not disappoint. We first picked up a few bottles of wine to truck up the hill (somehow any other beverage didn't seem appropriate for the castle) along with traditional German snacks such as crackers, barbeque chips and - most important of all - Haribo Gummi Bears.

The gaggle of Americans then set to work climbing the stairs and steep streets leading to the Schloss ("castle" in German). It knocked the wind out of us, but the view was well worth it: It is important to note that the steeple on the left is not warped by some photographic trick. It's just crooked. It surmounts the oldest Protestant church in Marburg and is clearly visible from my language classroom where I stare at it all day and just want to will it into vertical alignment.

Before you think we were conforming to all of the stereotypes of American students on tour in a foreign land, I would like to point out that there were plenty of other Germans with the exact same idea we had. They were ready to party, too, much to the disgust of the couples that had climbed to the Schloss for some intimacy. After singing a little of "Beauty and the Beast" and discussing Politics and the merits of Tennessee versus Georgia we moved the party back down the hill and back to the Dungeon bar to see if the Muppet booth was open (see previous post for details).

We were disappointed to find the locals had already moved into the spot, so we went into the back and bidded our time. As we waited and ordered drinks, a woman from across the cellar heard our American accents and got up to invite us to join her birthday party. Her guests were all students from Marburg with impeccable English and many apologies for how "bad" it was. It's a ritual.

I quickly found myself in a conversation about the Late Roman Empire with an Archaeology student from Marburg in mixed German and English. I can't tell you how much pride I felt at explaining were I was from, what time period I work on and what kinds of animals I research - all in broken German. These classes are starting to sink in. He is also the only German I have met who supports John McCain. I couldn't quite make out his explanation because the German Punk Music was really getting going.

The group also chatted with a Linguist and American History student named Roman. He taught us the differences between American Sign Language and German Sign Language and his perspective on the American Revolution. When I explained, "Ich komme aus Cincinnati," he lit up and told me he would be spending October in Dayton, Ohio. He started rattling off the zip codes and area codes for Dayton, West Chester and Sycamore. The world is absolutely tiny.

The next morning, after diligently cramming all the German vocabulary into my brain that I wished I had the night before, a couple of the Fulbrighters went to the River Lahn to go paddle boating (Tretboot auf Deutsch). Every day we see people idyllically peddling through the water and it was the perfect day to try it ourselves:
Katie and I getting in our 15 minute cardio for the day (excluding the walk up the hill to the dorms, of course).
The roaring Lahn, home of war canoes and well-fed ducks.

There were four of us in the boat for a half hour. We thought that might not be long enough to really get the full experience, but after fifteen each minutes of solid pedaling we decided it was just the right amount of time and climbed back to shore with brief cardio workout under our belts.

We wandered the city and aggregated Fulbrighters. This town is so small that you start out the day with one or two other people and by the end of the day have turned into half the group. As fifteen people wander the streets together. I had a hankering for a movie and a hankering to test out my German skills. The only movie still available was called "Robert Zimmerman Wundert Sich über die Liebe" or "Robert Zimmerman Wonders About Love." We went in virtually blind except for a brochure that made it seem a little like "Across the Universe" mixed with "The Graduate." It was fantastic. The humor was mixed word-play, slapstick and awkwardness a la Wes Anderson. Here's a link to the trailer. I warn you that it's all in German, but I think you'll get the idea. It was about a young video game designer pursuing a forty-something dry cleaning woman. The movie was stuffed with references to sixties icons. The main character's name is Robert Zimmerman, after all. His introduction (originally in German):

Robert: My name is Robert Zimmerman.
Older woman: Like Bob Dylan?
Bum in the Dry Cleaners: Bob Dylan ist Got. (Bob Dylan is God)
Robert: Naturlich (Naturally)

It felt awesome to understand this exchange. There were huge swathes of the movie where I had to rely more on context clues than the rapid-fire dialogue to catch what was going on. There was one scene entirely in English (without subtitles). Robert is feeling down because he's in a Romantic Comedy and there must be some insurmountable misunderstanding between the central couple that can't be resolved until the last fifteen minutes of the movie and we had 35 minutes to go, so he enters a shady bar where a young person who looks remarkably like Art Garfunkel is also hanging out. After revealing his woes the character opposite reveals he speaks English (without subtitles) and is James Garfunkel, the son of the man who wrote "Mrs. Robinson." He dispenses wisdom taught by his father about life and love and Robert strikes out into the world again. Very surreal. Whatever happened to Art G after he left Paul Simon? Well, apparently his son is making cameos in German comedies. Now you know.

Finally, on Sunday (are you still reading? Wow. I did tell you that it was quite a weekend. Thanks for sticking in there) we went on another cultural field trip. This one was forty kilometers north of Frankfurt at Saalburg, a reconstructed Roman Fort and World Heritage Site. It stood on the northern border of the Roman Empire from 80 to 260 AD. Suffice it to say I was pretty dern excited to bust out my Latin skills after struggling to acquire my German ones.
We took a tour of the grounds, learning about the archaeological history of the place and all the details Wilhelm II got wrong when he ordered the place rebuilt. The museum was filled with artifacts such as shovels and bottles that were garbage 1800 years ago, but now get their own mood lighting. I love old stuff. It's really amazing that devices such as hinges, sieves and planers haven't undergone major design changes in thousands of years. They're just that perfect at what they do:

Ancient wood planers

Other highlights included lessons in archery and spear throwing, Roman Style. If you want to see a couple dozen of the brightest cultural ambassadors in America get really excited, give them sharp objects and a target. Witness:
Target practice was followed by a chance to hike to the edge of the Roman Empire. Formerly a massive earth and wood wall running 500 km along the German forest, the Limes (The Limit) is now a kind of earthen burm with a few wooden posts to remind you what Roman walls looked like, but I still couldn't resist the Four Corners/Continental Divide/Bridge over Niagara Falls Picture with one foot in the Empire (your right) and one in Barbarian lands (your left):
The day was concluded with a meal at a cute restaurant near the fort that specialized in traditional Hessian (The German State Marburg and Frankfurt are in) Fare. I got adventurous again and ordered the "Hand Kase Mit Muzik" or "Hand Cheese and Music." The name is kind of cryptic. One theory is the "Music" is the sound of pleasant conversation being held over the dish. Another is that the clinking vinegar bottles that are served with the cheese cause the music. The third (and most popular) is the "music" is your body's natural reaction to eating a lot of cheese and onions. The third makes the most sense. The meal itself was two palm-sized mounds of gelatinous cheese that was something like a light Swiss. The cheese is topped with diced onions and caraway. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't a meal. I had to eat a bit of bread and pop a few TicTacs to feel satiated. Maybe I'll go for the Schnitzel next time...

I hope you had a wonderful weekend filled with college football and political commentary.


Deutsch Heuteworten: Wohnmobil (fem.) - RV or pop-up trailer

Ich möchte meine Wohnmobil fahren und besuche meine Verwandten in California. Mist teuer Benzine! Mist Atlantischer Ozean!

I wish to drive my RV and visit my extended family in California. Damn expensive gas! Damn Atlantic Ocean!