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

30 January 2007

Unspeak, auf Deutsch

Germany is particularly prone to the unspeak phenomena, with two shining examples being "freiwillige Auswanderung" (voluntary emigration) and "Unterschicht" (underclass). Freiwillige Auswanderung actually refers to asylum seekers who have exhausted all of their legal avenues and must leave Germany. Technically, they leave voluntarily, since they have not yet been kicked out, but in reality they are people who desperately want to stay but have no choice but to return to their [often violent and oppressive] home countries.

A political debate about "Germany's new underclass" has grown in response to a report from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. (More than you ever wanted to know about the topic can be found here.) Contrary to what you might expect, much of this debate has centered around the word "Unterschicht," with many politicians resisting the word and characterizing it as "stigmatizing." The result of this is that instead of talking about the increasingly large class of Germans (as much as 20% of the former East Germany, or as it is called in another example of unspeak, the "new states" (neue Bundesländer) who are either unemployed or, more likely, part of the working poor, with very limited chances for education, vocational training or any chance of climbing the socioeconomic ladder, politicians play evasive word games.

Interestingly enough, in some of those articles about Germany's new underclass, they withheld or changed the names of the families they interviewed, apparently not at the request of the families but at the request of the editorial staff. The German press does do much more to protect identities than the American press, withholding names of not only of victims but of alleged criminals, and, apparently, poor people. Talk about stigmatizing poverty.

In all fairness, I must say that, while I find the debate about whether or not Germany has an underclass to be absurd and pointless (Seriously, some politicians debate this, claiming there's no underclass, just people who don't have it as easy as you and me), rereading some of those articles from die Zeit has made me skeptical.

The one I link to above spends four of its five pages tugging on your heartstrings, trotting out example after example of Germany's new underclass, like the well-educated couple, both unemployed architects, who live in the most expensive city in the country (Munich) and can no longer afford their €€1400 per month house and will now have to--sob--move somewhere with fewer green spaces.

I question how drastic this problem is when I read that one of the "low wage earners" they interview, a watchman who works at a parking garage in Berlin, actually earns monthlyly salary that is higher than mstipendum (by about €€100). If a 40-year old man who works forty-two hours per week and makes €865 per month is the new face of poverty in Germany than what am I?

I suppose the difference lies in the respective prospects for future earnings. The watchman is unlikely to find a job with a higher salary, whereas at the end of the year I will return to the U.S. and continue my pursuit of higher education and advanced degrees. For all the faults of public education in the U.S., it usually allows for upward mobility through education. It may not be easy, but there are nowhere near the institutional and structural barriers there are in Germany. A twenty-three year old with a prestigious fellowship who spends about sixty hours a week either in class, preparing for class or doing research isn't to be pitied because she plans to parlay that into a very good job, and yet, sadly, the odds are against me landing a good job in my field. Only about forty-percent of PhDs in the humanities get tenure-track jobs, so are my chances for a rise in fortune really all that better than those of the Berlin watchman?

I guess it's all a matter of perspective; die Zeit sees this man as an example of working poverty with no hope, whereas I, living on the same "poverty" wages, think I have it pretty good. In fairness to die Zeit they do, in passing, cite historian Paul Nolte and his claim that Germans describe as "poverty" what is in actuality inequality or disparity.

So... what instances of unspeak have you encountered this week?


27 January 2007


Slate's printed a couple of articles in the past week about unspeak, words that "contain a whole unspoken political argument" and are "an attempt to say something without saying it," like pro-choice, pro-life, or terrorist surveillance program. The most glaring example I have found in recent days comes from CNN. Go read the article and see if you can guess what I'm talking about.

I think the author, Dan Rivers, shows how unspeak like the term "sex worker" can seep into a journalist's vocabulary. I don't deny there are women who work willingly and voluntarily in the sex industry and don't consider themselves exploited, and for them the term "sex worker" seems appropriate. All too often, though, it is a blanket term, used to sanitize ugly situations where women who are victims of poverty, drugs and abuse resort to desperate measures. Rivers uses the term indiscrimately, even applying it to children who are kidnapped, held captive and raped repeatedly. Calling that "sex work" is wildly inappropriate.


26 January 2007

The view from my window this morning

The snow continues...


25 January 2007

The view from my window this morning


23 January 2007

FO to show off

I will eventually get around to posting about my trip to Hamburg, but those kinds of entries take time to write, as does uploading the pictures to flickr, so you'll have to bear with me. (I really should work on eliminating run-on sentences from my writing.)

For now I just have this to show off:

It's a direct result of my quick vacation to Germany's beautiful harbor city. Trip to Hamburg = 3.5 hours on the train + 1.25 hours waiting in train station + 30 minutes of movie previews + some down time in the hotel = one new hat.

It's a magic hat, too. With one or two quick motions it morphs from hat into cowl:

I finished it just in time, too, because after weeks of 50° weather winter finally began in earnest; it didn't get above freezing today. Brrr...

Oh, and I got to try out my new lighted knitting needles. They're not the best needles to knit with: the points are very sharp and the batteries weigh down the ends, but it was still fun. Yes, I took pictures:


21 January 2007

I survived Hurricane Kyrill

By now you've probably all heard about the terrible storms that ripped through Europe this past week. Since Friday it's been basically the only news story here, but, contrary to what you might have heard, it wasn't really that bad. The news has been dramatic, and, yes, people died (mostly from being struck by debris), but I still think most of the coverage has been misleading.

If the news is to be believed, this is the worst storm to hit Europe in years, or even decades. All told forty-seven people died as a result of "Kyrill," a dozen of them German, but that's just twelve, in a country of 82,400,000 people. That's not exactly catastrophic. Granted, we got off easy in Berlin, without the uprooted trees, ripped off roofs and high wind speeds experienced elsewhere in Germany. In general, though, the problems didn't seem to be due to the severity of the storm, but to the quality of construction of buildings and the reactions of people who weren't used to storms and didn't know what to do.

On Thursday in Berlin businesses and schools closed early, flights were cancelled, hotels filled up, and agencies ran out of rental cars. As the day storm wore on into the night tunnels were closed because of flooding and the police received a few hundred calls about fallen tree limbs. Meanwhile, newscasters acted like the sky was falling. Granted, the suspension of all rail travel in Germany was a big deal; it takes a lot to bring German trains to a complete standstill. But the Deutsche Bahn recovered quickly, bending rules and regulations to get the passengers to their final destinations. Some train stations gave away taxi vouchers, but only to people willing to carpool; elsewhere they set up a train for stranded passengers to sleep in. The word in the news most commonly associated with the storm was "lahm" (paralyzed).

Of course, I had no idea any of this was happening. I was safely ensconced at home, listening to the rain and wind from the comfort of my bedroom and packing for a trip to Hamburg. Busy with school and research, I hadn't read any news in a few days, so I had no idea the storm was coming and hadn't been inundated with warnings or the repetition of the word "hurricane." I remember thinking it was actually nice to see lightning and listen to the wind howl, since I hadn't experienced a storm since my arrival in Germany. It never occurred to me the storm was (or, more accurately, would be considered) severe. I wouldn't say Germany was "paralyzed" by this storm, "inconvenienced," yes, but not paralyzed.

When I made my way to the train station for my 8:18 a.m. train to Hamburg I didn't see any evidence storm damage, like downed tree limbs or strewn garbage and debris. Everything was wet, but in general it was a fine, fresh morning, with the clouds already beginning to clear. I arrived at Hauptbahnhof only to find it closed: cordoned off and with a police guard. I learned later that a massive steel beam fell off the facade and crashed to the ground, breaking some stairs and damaging a few bicycles and a taxi. (Go to der Spiegel to see pictures.) All rail service through the station was suspended until Friday afternoon, and they're still trying to determine if this is a structural flaw or just a fluke.

Frankly, I'm surprised this wasn't a bigger story. Europe's biggest, newest and most expensive train station was shut down for a day because part of it fell off, but 150 miles away in Hamburg, it didn't even warrant a mention on the news. It seems to me that when you spend almost a billion dollars to build a train station, there should be some assurance that it won't fall down.

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18 January 2007

Needles and Yarn

When I was home I took the liberty of adding to my yarn stash, much depleted over the course of the year. Here is my haul:

Oh, and this, too:

I have many projects planned. A hat, scarf and glove set from the yarn pictured above, some nice washcloths from this:

and some socks from this:

We'll see if I can get all of that done. If, by some miracle, I do, I have other yarn and patterns at home, bagged and waiting:

I also have some finished objects to show off. First, a hat and scarf set I gave my sister for Christmas:

Second, one of two iPod cozies (or iPod "socks," if you will):

In case you were wondering, the Apple logo took forever to knit. The only good thing about having a nine hour flight on Christmas Eve was that it gave me enough time to finish it. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the other one, but it was simpler: black, with a knit 2, purl 2 rib and gray cuff, as well as a pocket.

Third, I have a pair of wrist warmers (also called arm warmers and pulse warmers) I finished yesterday:

Contrary to what you might think, I will actually use these because I (1) am always cold and (2) own practically nothing but shirts and sweaters with 3/4 length sleeves. The pulse warmers are a more affordable option than buying a whole new wardrobe. To give credit where credit is due, I started out using this pattern. However, the beautiful chenille from my stash I chose to knit with wouldn't have shown the pattern, so I improvised as I went along, using a 2x2 rib and adding a picot edge for decoration. In general, I'm pleased with the outcome.

While I was home I also picked up some new knitting accoutrements. My parents gave me a Namaste needle binder:

It didn't fit in my suitcase (it's larger than it looks), so I left it at home. I miss it already, more than I miss my cat, and possibly my family.

I added some new knitting needles to my collection, as well. They might not look like much...

...until you turn out the light.

Cool, no?

My parents gave me one pair of these (size 8) as a gift:

and I loved them so much I went to Michaels and bought two more pair (sizes 6 and 10.5) in a slightly-less-cool version:

I can't wait to use them.


14 January 2007

What I did during my Christmas vacation.

Sorry for being such a crappy blogger this last week. After being exposed to every germ on the planet during that awful trip back to Germany, I have, of course, come down with a nasty cold/sore throat. It's left me with little energy for extraneous activities like blogging.

Even though it's now slightly after the fact, I guess I should catch you up on on my vacation. It was great, if only for the fact that I didn't have to cook, do laundry, go to a library, or think about school for almost two weeks.

I opened presents with the family,

took pictures of the pets doing cute things,

baked cookies,

and received many, many gifts. Like this, this, this, and this. Oh, and a set of these, too.

I also visited my uncle's new house.

Yes, it needs a little work.

Plus, I'm now officially ready for winter to be over, since I've seen snow.


12 January 2007

I have three words for you:




I thought I should hurry up and post this before the Christmas season ended.* I meant to do it before Christmas, but you know how it goes.

Amazing, isn't it? A massive tree covered in thousands of Swarovski crystals. It's beautiful to behold.

*Depending on which calendar you use it can still be considered Christmastide. Some churches mark more than just twelve days of Christmas, extending Christmastide until the feast of Candlemas in February. Even until the 1970s the Catholic Church celebrated Epiphany until January 13, so I think I got this in just under the wire. Besides, Jesus might very well have been born in the spring.


06 January 2007

It's only mostly dead.

I'm not holding out too much hope, but I think there might be a little life left in there.

As you can tell by the picture, I'm back in Berlin. The picture also serves as a perfect illustration of how I felt when I got home.

Other tidbits from a long, crappy (but not uneventful) international journey:

  • I'm the only person I know who actually uses the airsickness bags on airplanes. I needed two of them today. Long international flights with bad food and no sleep really suck (but I must admit, I didn't actually get sick on the plane; I managed to wait until we reached the Munich airport).
  • I hardly remember the flight from Munich to Berlin. I was so sick, tired and sleep deprived that I just put my head between my knees and didn't look up until we landed in Berlin.
  • I thought about taking a taxi from the airport, but the bus was there and I'm a poor student so I took it. I was thrown for a loop when I realized they changed the bus route while I was gone. It didn't really affect me, though, and it only took me about twenty minutes to get home.
  • It's really scary when the person sitting one seat away from you has a medical emergency somewhere over the Atlantic. Luckily we didn't need do an emergency landing in Greenland.
  • And, yes, In that situation they really do ask over the PA, "Is there a doctor on board?" There was.

More pics and info. coming soon, when I've caught up on my rest.