My madcap adventures in Germany during my year as a Fulbright Scholar.

26 September 2006

Welcome to Kafka-Land

My letter from the university said to report to the university between 10:00 and 13:00 on September 25 for "matriculation," so I was there promptly at ten.

I followed the arrow on the sign marked "Immatrikulation." I walked through a door and wound up...outside, in the courtyard. Although there were no more signs, it wasn't too hard to find the room. Once there, I began the arduous process of wading through German bureaucracy. First, I had to wait twenty minutes for someone to arrive and unlock the insurance forms. After getting that form I went and checked in, at which point I was handed a map directing me to the cashier. It was technically located in the same building, but the only way to get there was by going back outside, through the courtyard, and into a different door. I paid my student fees and then retraced my steps. (Btw. €186 will buy you a semester at a German university, including a six-month transit pass. Isn't that amazing? There's actually been some discontent and protest among students, because until recently universities were completely free.)

Once back at the "Immatrikulation" desk I got a number and waited. And waited. And waited.

I watched students who arrived after me get called, be processed and leave while I continued to wait.

I suffered in silence, hesitant to ask someone why I had to wait so long, for fear of appearing impatient and being bumped to the back of the queue. I did, however, wonder if it wasn't like that Kafka story about the man waiting to be admitted to the Halls of Justice. Maybe all I had to in order to be let into the magical room where students were matriculated was ask. Maybe my exclusion from that room was due to my own hesitancy and shyness.

Or not.

After about an hour and a half a woman came to me, ripped up my number, and gave me a new one, on a different color of paper and six hundred numbers further back.

Finally, three hours after my arrival and two hours after I was given a number, I was shown into that magical room to be matriculated. Since they weren't calling based on numerical order, I thought it must be by major, and I suspected I had to wait so long because lots of students come to Germany to study German language/literature. Helen (history) and Freddy (political science) were called long before me because their majors weren't as popular among international students.

At first this seemed true, since each table in the room was labeled with a different major. But the table I was shown to was labeled "anthropology and ethnography" and Freddy was at the table marked "law." Then I realized that the woman who is helping me (I was number 263 until the woman took it away and gave me #886) is the same woman who helped Helen, who had number 264.

At that point I gave up trying to understand the system.

I filled out the form, showed the woman a handful of documents and was given a temporary student ID and some flyers. She then introduced me to the wonderful thing called "Visa Service." I filled out my visa application, submitted about a dozen documents (by that point in the day, though, they were completely disorganized) and left them to take care of the rest. It's like magic. It generally takes six to eight weeks to even get an appointment at the visa office, so this was well worth it, even if it meant leaving my passport with them for three weeks. That's one more thing I can check off the list.

I then trekked across the courtyard once more and went back to the cashier, where I handed them another form and was given €110 cash. Just when I was feeling like I'd never escape from a bureaucratic nightmare à la Kafka, someone handed me a wad of cash and said, "Welcome to Germany." It's not a bad system really; it made the half a dozen forms I filled out (I'm not exaggerating, either), the four trips across the courtyard, and the eternal waiting completely worth it.

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21 September 2006

Maureen's Top Three

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present, for your viewing pleasure, my own personal list of the Top Three Things You Would Never Want to Buy from a Vending Machine:

Number Three:

I wonder what genius at the publishing house came up with this brilliant marketing plan. Granted, Germans are the Volk der Dichter und Denker, but I still think they’re unlikely to buy a book from a vending machine, even if they’re desperate.

Number Two:

French Fries!
Ready in forty-five seconds and 40% less fat! (Although it begs the question, forty percent less fat than what?)

And, finally, the Number One Thing You Would Never Want to Buy from a Vending Machine:

Hot Dogs!
Can anyone say, “Eww?”


17 September 2006

and now for something completely different

I haven't spent all my time in this country at IKEA, despite the impression this chronicle might give. I've been to the Staatsbiblithek every day this week and accomplished a fair amount, and since I'll be out of town for a few days, I thought I'd give you something academic to mull over. In Das Kränzchen, one of the periodicals I'm studying, I came across a 1905 article called "From the lives of the Indians," about, you guessed it, American Indians. I found it well worth sharing.

It begins by describing the life of the "Squaws," detailing how they do all the work for the tribe except the hunting and the fighting and noting they are often mistreated by their husbands. The article then proudly declares that things have improved recently because the Indians are being "civilized." "Many red squaws like to play the 'great lady' just like Englishwomen, if their husbands have the means, something that is not uncommon in the so-called 'Indian territories,'" the article says. In the past Americans evinced an "utter disregard for the rights and requirements of the natives" but now are attempting "in every way to raise them morally and economically." This was achieved through endeavors like the Indian school at Phoenix, where Indians were given education and training to allow them to enter civilized society or to return to their tribes and better the position of women and "enable the spreading of Culture." The article then cautions that some students later return to "the old if [they] had never been introduced to anything better and higher," but encourages Americans to stay the course nonetheless because we "have an obligation to 'make good'" for what we have done in the past.

In all the pretty rhetoric don't lose sight of the fact we're talking about the systematic destruction of a race, a culture, a way of life. Children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to the school at Phoenix to be "civilized" and indoctrinated in the lifestyle of white Americans. You can read more about that here.

While I'm not denying the magnitude of what Americans have done to the indigenous peoples of North America, what I find most fascinating in this article is the striking moral certitude of the author. After all, Germans were not more enlightened about race; they just hadn't had the opportunity to show their destructive potential. Because German reunification happened relatively late (1871, thanks Bismarck!) it simply couldn't pursue colonies as aggressively as countries like England, Spain and France, but colonial literature and orientalist literature by authors like Karl May were unbelievably popular. You notice the article mentions "civilized" Indians returning to their tribes to "spread culture," a statement that fails to recognize that the Native American tribes already had their own cultures, which were systematically being destroyed by the very schools praised in the article.

I wonder they couldn't rely on empirical evidence, for the article was accompanied by photos of the saddest looking Indians I have every seen. Photos like this:

The most remarkable thing, though, is that my limited experience has shown me many Germans still share the attitude of that article's author and feel they have the right to sit in judgment of Americans for this aspect of our history. Now we can debate forever about who does and does not have the right to judge someone else for an atrocity, but that's not the point. What's weird and strange (and fascinating) is how Germans feel they understand the Indians, as if they are somehow culturally linked. It's the only explanation for the insane popularity of wackos like Karl May and events like this.


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16 September 2006

tee hee

I went to Spandau the other day to do some shopping. It's a fun, funky area with a huge pedestrian zone and tons of great shopping. There are parks, a medieval fortress, and an IKEA. What more does a girl need? Next time around I might live there. It's only about twenty minutes from the city center, but it feels like another city entirely. Anyway, while I was there I came across this place:

That's right, it's a plus-size clothing store called "It's OK." God I love this country.


12 September 2006

Today's Random Photo

I'm not up to posting much, but here's a photo I took at my local department store last week:

If the professor thing doesn't work out, this is a job I could like--coming up with wacky English product names to be used exclusively in the non-English-speaking world. No respectable German would buy a razor called the "Damenschützer" (or Damenbeschützer, or possibly Damenschutzherr, my dictionary wasn't being very helpful today), just as no American would buy a razor called a "Lady Protector."

While I find this funny on one hand, on the other hand it's sad. Everywhere you go in this city (and in this country) you come across English words and phrases. Cell phones are called "Handys," there's a bar in my neighborhood called "Singles' and Friends," and English words like "wellness" and "clever" are part of everyday speech. I'm sad that Germans don't appreciate their language and seem willing to let it be taken over. The French might be snooty, but at least they're not about to lose their linguistic heritage without a fight.

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06 September 2006


Dresden is about a two hours’ journey away by train, so on the way I had a chance to relax, do some knitting, and watch the countryside fly by. It’s a very picturesque city, but also rather depressing. It was all but flattened by the Allies (bombed mostly by British planes and not American planes, or so I’m told), and the Germans are still rather bitter about it. You hear all sorts of ridiculous stories about planes shooting at civilians and the river boiling, as well as grossly inflated death tolls. (I wrote about all that in a paper once; I guess it’s the result of some kind of post-war guilt-driven psychosis—the need to be the victims, etc.)

Anyway, the city hasn’t really recovered from the war. Bit by bit it’s being rebuilt (sadly, though, some of the Soviet architecture is there to stay), but it still has a long way to go. Many of the remaining buildings still have this rather macabre charred look to them. I walked from the train station to the Kreuzkirche, the town hall, and the famous Frauenkirche, freshly rebuilt. Where possible they rebuilt it using original stones. While this is nice in theory, the result is the rather odd speckled look you see here:

I was very disappointed when I reached the Albertinum and realized it was closed. The sculpture collection had been relocated to the Zwinger, but the collection of “New Masters” (a.k.a. 19th and 20th century art) was just gone . A temporary exhibit will eventually be opened elsewhere in town, but for the past several months (and for several weeks to come) the art has been sitting in storage. I just can’t believe that they would put the Monets, the van Goghs, the Paul Klees, the Gustav Klimts. and the Caspar David Friedrichs in storage, as if no one would miss them. Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism, all gone.

This is a sampling of some of the fabulous art I didn’t get to see:


Otto Dix

Caspar David Friedrich

Van Gogh

Gustav Klimt


Carl Gustav Carus

Well, I think that’s enough bitterness, for now. I was then off to the Zwinger and an afternoon going to every museum that was open.

My first stop was the Old Masters Gallery. The masterpiece is the Sistine Madonna by Raphael:

Quite frankly, I was disappointed. It was beautiful, yes, and perfectly balanced and composed, but it looked like it needed a good cleaning. There was an emphasis on Italian painters, and there were many pieces by Guido Reni, Titian, and Rubens. There was one measly room with a Dürer and some other recognizable northern Renaissance painters, a rather lovely room with two Vermeers, and then many, many poorly-lit galleries filled with paintings that all looked alike by artists you (and I) have never heard of. I feel I should explain, though, that by poorly-lit, I mean lit with incredibly bright, diffused, natural light from the enormous twelve-foot windows lining the galleries. Of course, the brightness caused massive glares, but who comes to a gallery to see the art, right?

There was, however, a fabulous exhibit of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger. Apparently they were both court painters (although I can’t remember the court and am too lazy to google it). Given that one room of the exhibit contained paintings portraying Salome with the head of St. John the Baptist, David and Bathsheba, and Samson and Delilah, as well as a knife sheath featuring the myth of Phyllis and Aristotle, I assume it was a rather misogynistic court.

I should also warn anyone planning a trip to Dresden in the near future that it was filled with white-haired British tourists. They shuffled through the galleries, reading only the tags and then making inane comments like “Oh, look, here’s another Titian.” They would stare at it for a while, and then shuffle on, looking at the tags instead of the art and only stopping when they got to another name they recognized. I realize this might make me sound like a snob, but why do people go to museums who clearly have no understanding of or appreciation for art?

There was also a museum employee giving a tour to some—and by “some” I mean “two”—VIPs and frowning at anyone else who tried to listen in.

However, the day did get better from there.

My next stop was the armory. I know I may not seem like the armory type, but it was really very interesting. There was lots of silver and gold “gently used” armor, some fake horses wearing horse armor, two fake horses and two fake knights wearing real armor demonstrating jousting, plenty of swords, sabers, rapiers, and guns, but not as many cod pieces as I expected. When it all started to look the same, I left. There was also a display case comparing armor to football pads.

Then it was on to the display of scientific instruments at the Mathematics and Physics Salon. That was also rather fun—gilded and elaborately engraved scales, beautiful globes, some portraying earth and others the constellations, thermometers, microscopes, and giant lenses used to focus light and melt things such as tin, copper, and lead. I’m not sure they had a practical purpose, but I bet they were fun toys. There was also an early adding machine from Blaise Pascal; it was the first (1650) to count to 10,000,000.

After having seen the 18th century speculum at the Mathematics and Physics Salon (bonus points to anyone who can figure out what gynecology has to do with either math or physics), I thought my life was complete, but then I moved on to the main event: The Green Vault. Wow. Wow. Wow! Not very eloquent, I know, but you’d understand if you’d been there. The place was filled with the most amazing array of treasures I’ve ever seen. Things like this:

and this:

and this:

and this:

I spent almost two hours there gawking and writing effusive notes in my journal. There was at least one piece made from every imaginable material: mother of pearl, diamonds, precious stones, minerals, clay, wood, leather, gold, silver, crystal, cherry stones, nautilus shells, ivory, enamel, coral, ebony, porcelain…

The early pieces focused more on craftsmanship than on precious metals and gems (although there were plenty of those, too). There were also distinctive orientalist tendencies to the collection, with scenes and people from India, Egypt, China and the Middle East. Some of my favorite pieces were Daphne turning into a tree (see above), a set of decorative and elaborate mining equipment (see above), pieces made with nautilus shells and ostrich eggs, a carved cherry pit portraying 185 faces, a leather trout containing a set of knives, and figures made from oversized pearls:

The collection belonged to the Electors of Saxony, and it was August der Starke who collected most of the pieces in the 18th century. He’s also the monarch who developed Dresden’s porcelain collections and founded the porcelain manufacturer at Meissen. Unfortunately, only half of the museum was open. On the ground floor of the castle they have restored a Baroque vault and will display 3,000 pieces, as well as a collection of delicate Medieval and early Renaissance pieces. That part of the vault opens in mid-September and will only allow a limited number of visitors per day. I think it probably warrants a trip back to Dresden.

After viewing August der Starke’s treasures I moved on to his porcelain. Now, I should say to my skeptical readers that a collection of porcelain is much more interesting than it sounds. There was a long gallery containing Chinese and Japanese porcelain from the 17th and 18th centuries. At one point the collection contained 22,000 pieces, but only about 12,000 pieces still exist today. Thankfully, not all of them were on display. Most of it was blue-and-white, and it was very pretty, even if it did have a tendency to all look the same.

Other parts of the museum contained porcelain made in Meissen. Strangely enough, most of the early pieces looked like Chinese and Japanese porcelain; even the people they portrayed looked Asian. There were also some pieces in the ornate, Baroque “German” style. My favorite pieces were serving dishes with decorative handles in the shape of lemons, artichokes and stuffed boars’ heads.

There was also a gallery of large porcelain animal sculptures from the Meissen factories. At the time, these were the largest pieces ever made of porcelain. There were porcelain buffalo, peacocks, owls, turkeys, goats, monkeys, lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my.

My last stop was a brief visit to the sculpture collection. It was a rather odd mish-mash of pieces, with 1st-3rd century Roman sculpture standing next to 20th century pieces. I did see my second representation of Daphne of the day, as well as this sculpture:

I then walked around the roof terrace and took some photos and sat in the courtyard of the Zwinger and listened to the Glockenspiel. After that I walked back to the train station and bought a pair of shoes along the way. After that I was homeward bound.

Here are some additional pictures of how Dresdon's museums coped with the catastrophic flooding in 2002:

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05 September 2006

Shangri La

Who says you can’t ever get there? On my continuing search for a decent craft store I went to the biggest department store in Berlin, and possibly in all of Germany, Ka De We. Eight floors of merchandise. Since most department stores here have a craft department, I figured the biggest and best department store would have the biggest and best craft department. When you’re right, you’re right.

I spent about fifteen minutes fruitlessly searching the store for the fabled “creative” department listed on the guideposts. Finally I found it, underneath the parking garage, across the street. But just look at it:


It’s huge: the size of the parking garage and filled to the ceiling with merchandise. Beads, buttons, fabric, paints, pens, paper, scrapbooking supplies, wiggly eyes, stamps, chalks, pastels, Xyron sticker makers, knitting needles, crochet hooks, and yarn, yarn, yarn. The black-and-white industrial look was perfectly complemented by the jewel-toned yarns.

If you subscribe to the idea that you choose your own heaven, this would be mine. Seriously.


I'm probably a horrible person for laughing at this, but...

Steve Irwin's surviving family members are named Terri, Bindi and Bob? Terri, Bindi and Bob? Please tell me that's a joke.

04 September 2006


I had some errands to run today, so I went to my local department store. (Dep't. stores are the closest thing to one-stop shopping around here.) When I was in the craft department (Btw. how great is it that the department store has a craft department?) I came across this yarn:

How weird is that? My neighborhood department store in Berlin sells [German] yarn named after my [rather obscure] home state.


03 September 2006


I just got home from doing laundry...for the first time in my life. It's kind of sad, really. As it turns out, just like I always suspected, it's not that hard to do laundry. I am, however, not likely to become a fan of it any time soon, mostly due to the hassle of doing laundry here. Obviously, I don't have a washing machine in my apartment, and there aren't any in my building. I did manage to find a laundromat, but it's ten-fifteen minutes train. I just don't understand how people in my neighborhood do laundry. Also, practically everyone at the laundrymat was British, which makes me suspect that most of them are some sort of foreign exchange students. That begs the question: How do Germans do laundry? Do they really all have washing machines in their apartments? Even the students? Or is there some sort of special laundry club with a top secret location that only Germans know? Some food for thought.
More later about my trip to Dresden...