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

30 May 2007

German sidewalks are infinitely superior.

There are some things the Germans are better at than other countries.

Decking their cities in pretty, not-at-all-tacky (and secular) Christmas decorations, for example.

Or lighting their buildings at night.

Or even putting up scaffolding.

They also have fabulous sidewalks.

Maybe you don’t tend to think much about sidewalks, but anyone who walks as much as I do will appreciate a country that doesn’t simply use big slabs of concrete that are cracked, uneven and a mess when it rains.

These photos allow you to see two men installing one of Berlin’s many cobblestone sidewalks:

Stones are laid on a bed of sand, covered in more sand and then hosed down. And that’s it.

They’re not as uneven as you might think (not at all uneven, actually), can easily expand and contract in extreme temperatures (meaning no ugly cracked and broken stones), and absorb water when it rains. They can be disassembled fairly easily when the city needs to install a sign or telephone booth or reach the water mains, meaning no jackhammers disturb you when the city does work right outside your window.

This is one more reason to love German sidewalks; it’s a project that memorializes victims of the Nazis by placing a stone with their name on it outside of their former residence.


28 May 2007

A Pentacost Miracle

Today I actually cooked a meal... a meal that did not come from a box or bag with the word "instant" somewhere on it.

carrot and zucchini stir fry over Thai rice noodles

You're shocked, aren't you?

26 May 2007

It couldn't be more true.

Maureen --


A hermit living in the big city

'How will you be defined in the dictionary?' at

It's Saturday evening and I live in a city renownend for its night life, yet what am I doing?

24 May 2007

Kiel and Lübeck

A couple weeks ago I took a weekend trip to Kiel and Lübeck, and, slacker blogger that I am, I neglected to write about it.

You can see photos here.

I wanted to see an exhibit about nutrition and propaganda in the Third Reich at the Stadtmuseum in Kiel, so that was my first stop.

The city was nothing special to look at:

...but it has a really great energy. The main street was packed with shoppers and the boardwalk was full of people walking, running, biking and rollerblading. It seemed like a busy, active community, quite unlike slacker Berlin.

There was some fabulous public art and statuary, though:

I also stopped by the aquarium to see the seals at feeding time:

They were very cute, but it was a little sad to see so many seals in such a tiny pen, being forced to perform for their food instead of hunting it in the open ocean.

I also spotted some fearless sparrows:

Then it was on to Lübeck. I love, love, love Lübeck and I feel confident in listing it as one of the must-see towns in Germany.

This is the image that greeted me shortly after leaving the train station:

I was continually blown away by how beautiful the city was the entire time I was there. I kept snapping pictures of random streets because they were just so damn picturesque. Example:


This is the Holstentor, one of the most recognizable buildings in all of Germany:

Lübeck also boasts some truly lovely churches:

Lübeck also has literary connections. Günter Grass lives just outside of town and Heinrich and Thomas Mann both grew up here.

The inner courtyard of the Grass museum:

One of the Mann family's homes in Lübeck, set up today as the Buddenbrookhaus:

When I was in the Buddenbrooks exhibit I was scolded by one of the guides for never having read the book.

Lübeck is also known for its marzipan. In fact, the Niederegger marzipan shop was just about the only thing in town that was open. I was there on a Sunday and even the tourist information booth was closed. While lovely, Lübeck was also sleepy.

Inside the marzipan shop:

Marzipan fruits on display:

Marzipan model of the city of Lübeck:

It felt wrong to go to Lübeck and not buy some marzipan, but when I actually ate some, I realized that I don't like marzipan. A friend assures me that flavored marzipan is better than normal marzipan, but I don't really get it: if you need chocolate and flavoring to drown out the icky marzipan taste, why eat marzipan? Why not just eat flavored chocolate?

And, finally, because this is Germany and this is Spargelzeit, there was marzipan asparagus:

I kid you not.

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22 May 2007

More on Idlers

Someone else has been thinking about idlers lately.

19 May 2007

Idle Thoughts

A friend recently pointed out this website to me. Just in case you're too lazy to click, it's a magazine that "campaigns against the work ethic" and attempts "to return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling into something to aspire towards rather than reject."

I haven't invested the time to really gauge the contributors in the forum, to determine how serious they are. There seems to be plenty of irony there, but plenty also revel in the idle lifestyle, endeavoring to work just enough to get by and maximize leisure time.

While I certainly think that Americans work too much and consume too much (the two are inextricably linked, aren't they?), neither of which is good for the environment or makes us happy, I also think that work and productivity are good. And I can't shake the impression that the people writing the Idler forums are just lazy.

It seems almost anachronistic; I thought the Idler had more or less died out. He thrived in the pre-industrial days, was still around in Jane Austen's time, but his days were clearly numbered by the time Edith Wharton took up her pen. A gentlemen in the pre- and early industrial society could live on the income from their property or an annuity of some kind and have most of his hours free for reading, hunting and other idle pastimes. But he could do so only at an enormous cost to his younger siblings. Just this morning I was reading about the concept of youth in the pre-industrial age in Youth and History by John R. Gillis. (I actually study youth in the post-industrial/modern age, but I decided to be a good scholar and read the whole book, instead of just the part that covers my century.) The preference for primogeniture among the upper classes (nobility, gentry, bourgeoisie) often forced younger siblings (and, often, female siblings regardless of age) to "sacrifice for the good of all," since keeping the family property intact was often the only way to maintain settlements and annuities.

To draw an example from the book I just recently finished reading (again), Mr. Knightly (in Emma) can lead a relatively idle existence, nominally occupied with running his estate, but employing stewards to do most of the work, leaving most of his hours free for visiting, dining out, playing cards and engaging in other leisure activities. But he can do so only at the expense of his brother, who must work (in law, I think) to earn a living and support his family.

The idle existence was a privilege for the few, and I, personally, am glad that it's all but gone from society. I think we're better off without it.

Yet, somehow, I've managed to land in a city of idlers.

No one seems to work in this town. Stores, buses, trains, supermarkets, and restaurants are always full of people, regardless of the hour. When I was in Kiel the boardwalk was full of people running, walking, biking, skateboarding and rollerblading, and even on a warm, sunny Saturday there weren't that many people just sitting around. Here on every nice day, whether weekend or not, parks, beaches and lawns fill up with idlers who spend the afternoon reading, sunbathing and drinking.

I thought the leisure class was dead, so I don't know where these people come from. It really is reminiscent of an earlier era.

Take this photo I snapped a couple weeks ago:

Doesn't it remind you an awful lot of this?


17 May 2007

What every girl needs

Ack. Where did the day go? I meant to write a more substantial post, but it's already bedtime. For now, tide yourselves over with this and keep voting (scroll down).

When I was out shopping the other day I spotted this:

I think a Daniel Craig rug would spruce up my apartment quite nicely, don't you?

16 May 2007

Paint and New Jackets: Not a Good Combination

You would really not believe the day I had.

It started out great. I have a friend staying with me for a few days, and we were a bit disappointed yesterday when we couldn't go on a boat tour of the city. It was evening (after 6) and only a handful of people were interested, so the crew decided to just pack up and go home, despite the fact their sign advertises departure times well into the evening. I don't really blame them, but it does make me roll my eyes and say "Typisch deutsch."

So we were thrilled when today turned out to be a beautiful, sunny, warm spring day. Despite there being even fewer people on the boat than yesterday evening, the tour actually departed and we got our river cruise. Sadly, I don't have any pictures; my camera batteries were dead, all sixbatteries I had in my bag. (Note to self: Your rechargeable batteries no longer recharge. Buy new ones!)

With an hour or so to kill in the afternoon, we went to check out a cool little area in Prenzlauerberg that he knew about, with a nice farmer's market and a funky little felt shop. To get to the felt shop, we had to walk around a construction site. We were almost clear of their fence, when disaster struck.

The facade painters, cleaning up for the day, carelessly tossed an open bucket of house paint into the almost-full dumpster, splashing me, head-to-toe, with gray, oil-based paint!

I was in utter shock. I just stood there with my mouth open, covered in paint. Not fifteen minutes previously my friend had joked about how I looked like a Berliner, and my response had been that I should, given that I'd bought everything I was wearing in Germany. The jeans and shoes are a few weeks old, but I was wearing a beautiful spring green blazer for the first time. And now they were all ruined.

My friend roused me and told me we needed to go talk to the crew, since they really should reimburse me for the cost of new clothes. We asked for his supervisor's number, but I was still too shocked to really deal with the situation. With the number in hand, we walked a few houses down and I ducked into a bar/restaurant to use their restroom to to get as much of the paint off as I could.

Luckily, most, nearly all, came off of my shoes, jeans and top almost immediately.


Basically all that remains are one or two spots that look like this.

The jacket didn't fare so well, due to a combination of the light color and the cotton fabric. I called the number the man had given me, and, surprise, surprise, it didn't work. We walked back to the construction site and launched into an explanation with the first two guys we could find. Most of the time I speak German pretty well, but I was just too flustered to effectively communicate in a foreign language. We managed to get the job done, though, and one of the men informed us that the bosses/administration had their office just around the corner. Off we went, to once again explain our situation in rather stilted German.

Now I was almost sorry I'd worked on cleaning my clothes, since it really looked like my jacket had been splashed with dirty water. I could have made my case much more effectively covered, head to toe, in gray paint flecks and reeking of turpentine.

The men in the office were skeptical, but we were insistent enough that the guy in charge eventually asked us to show him where it happened. I think they half-expected us to lead them to a completely different construction site. (This is Berlin after all; there were others in the immediate vicinity. There was even someone else painting an entryway a few doors down.) Once we got back to the scene of the crime, though, it didn't take long to convince the guy what happened. He saw the full dumpster and the paint splatters on the ground and could smell the wet paint.

We watched him go track someone down and could tell by his gestures that he was relating the story of what happened. They fished the still-half-full paint cans out of the dumpster and figured out who was responsible. "The Turks." Apparently the subcontractor in charge of painting the facade was a Turkish[-German] company. As unhappy as I was with the painters who had ruined my clothes, I found the way they spoke of "the Turks" very distasteful.

We went back to the office, where the man in charge had me write down my contact info and called the contractor to inform them what had happened. I was a bit more relaxed at this point, since I no longer had to convince anyone what had happened and it was fairly clear I was going to get a reimbursement of some kind, so I could take a moment to observe some of the interesting cultural differences.

The German job/site manager explained to me that he would take my information and give me the painting company's contact info so that I could send them either the cleaning bill or the receipt for a new jacket. While I was there he placed a phone call to the [Turkish] painting company, in order to inform them of the event and let them know a bill would be coming and that they would need to file a claim with their insurance company.

Insurance, Rules, Order, Forms, Bureaucracy. Very German.

Not long after his phone call the painting crew came in, looking slightly sheepish. When everything had been explained to them, they preferred to handle the situation in a very un-German manner. We all shook hands and I walked out of there with a €50 bill in my pocket. (They did ask me to sign a paper acknowledging that they had compensated me for the damage, which I did willingly.)

This was a perfect resolution, in my opinion. €50 is about what I spent for the jacket and the jeans, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't need to replace the jeans. As frustrating as the whole situation was, I do realize it was just an accident, a random, freak occurrence that happened in the blink of an eye. They were careless in their hurry to get home for the evening and enjoy their Feierabend (tomorrow is a holiday). I can certainly understand that.

I also realize that these are people who work hard and don't have an easy life. Germany does not treat its immigrants (and children of immigrants) very well. They have little or no access to language training, which severely limits their educational opportunities, which in turn limits their job opportunities, leaving "immigrants" working in food servive (running Dönor stands or kiosks) or other menial labor. These painters likely work hard labor for long hours and relatively little pay, and all because Germany never bothered to give a damn about people with their skin color.

(I could go on and on about the inequalities in the German educational system and in German society, but it should probably be its own post.)

On the way back to my apartment I stopped at not one but two H&Ms to look into replacing the jacket. Each store only had two left, only one even close to my size. I stood in the store for about ten minutes, first trying on my [now spotted] size 12 and then trying on the new size 10. During this process the whole event took a very weird turn.

As I'm slipping one of the blazers on for the fifth time, I hear a voice pipe up, "If I may say, I don't like it at all. It doesn't look very good."

Ironically, at that point I was wearing the jacket I already owned.

Thanks a lot. Bitch.

But, really, she was just tasteless, right? This doesn't look bad!

Does it?

In the end I bought the jacket. I had the cash for it, and I was afraid, since it's on clearance, that I wouldn't be able to find another one and would be disappointed with my stained blazer forever.

If I find a new size 12, I might return the size 10.

Or not.

Once I got home and looked the jackets over, I realized I have no idea what I should do.

Fresh from my furious scrubbing, the blazer still had noticeable spots and did not look good. Once, it dried, it looked okay.

You can actually hardly see the spots. (Click for bigger images.)

They're there, but it's not bad.

When I bought the jacket in the first place, I wavered between buying the 10 and the 12, and opted for the 12. It fits, but the shoulders and arms feel a bit big to me. But the 10 feels tight across the middle. Which do you think fits better?

The size 12:

The 10:

The 10, unbuttoned:

I just don't know what to do. Return the 10 and look for a 12? Return the 10 and wear the blazer with the definitely-there-but-barely-noticeable spots?

Being a thoroughly modern girl, though, I decided the best way to solve my dilemma is to ask the internet.


There is one more tidbit from the tip I forgot to include in the post about my recent trip.

My love for Friedensreich Hundertwasser has been well documented, so I was pleased to finally get a chance to see some of his architecture in person.

We visited both the Martin Luther Gymnasium in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, which is affectionately referred to as the Hundertwasser school

and the Grüne Zitadelle in Magdeburg.

It's inspired me to want to knit more socks!

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14 May 2007


There's a good article in the San Francisco Chronicle today about teachers "cheating" on standardized tests.

It's an interesting read, I don't care for the hyperbolic headline ("The Teachers Who Cheat"); nor do I care for the sneering attitude of the reports that occasionally crops up, like here: "As a result, Challenger received no school ranking on the state's Academic Performance Index in 2006. Instead, there is a note by Challenger's name saying that an 'adult irregularity in testing procedure' occurred, and the school wasn't ranked. ('Cheating' is a word educators never use.)"

Let's not forget that teachers are educated people; they know what they're talking about and what they're saying. Choosing "adult irregularity" instead of "cheating" is not semantic hairsplitting. Let's look at what school districts consider cheating:

"State regulations let teachers give approved practice tests, show students test-taking strategies, and teach subjects that might be on the test.

But violations include tailoring instruction to the test, practicing on exams from past years or on alternate forms of the test, looking at the test in advance and teaching its content, and emphasizing score improvement over academic achievement."

Practicing on old exams and using alternate forms of the test seem like two perfectly reasonable test-prep strategies to me, and calling a teacher a cheater for "emphasizing score improvement over academic achievement" is absurd. Emphasizing score improvement over academic achievement is caused by high stakes testing. Because in the high stakes, standardized testing world score improvement ismore important than academic achievement, it is inevitable that some (most?)teachers will adopt the same attitude, however unwillingly. It's not fair to punish a teacher because a flawed system is working exactly how it was designed to work.

Let's take a closer look at the examples of teacher "cheating" the article cites. Some are fairly clear-cut:
  • "'It is my conclusion that student answers were erased and changed from wrong to right in a centralized location in a fraudulent effort to improve scores,' said director Isaac Haqq. 'I take full responsibility for the lack of monitoring.'"

  • "'She pointed at questions like they were wrong,' one boy told investigators."
Others are not so obvious.

  • "At Challenger, the practice test 'was clearly specifically formulated or intended to prepare his 169 pupils for the standards-based achievement tests,' district officials told the state."

    Am I missing something? Aren't practice tests supposed to prepare your students for the exam?

  • "In Bakersfield, seventh-grade teachers at Actis Junior High "tweaked their planned lessons to include narrative writing" after the principal told them what would be on the 2005 writing test, said an incident report. One of the teachers abruptly stopped teaching poetry and had the class rewrite the classic verse "Casey at the Bat" as a fictional narrative."

    That sounds like a pretty good lesson plan to me, since it teaches about not only narrative writing, but poetry as well, by showing students that it is not content along that gives poetry its meaning.

  • "In her investigation, Superintendent Michele Lawrence found that during the 2005 test, a third-grade teacher walked around the room and, 'through body language, nodding or pointing, told students to check a specific answer or "look at that again," ' according to Lawrence's report. One boy said the teacher helped him with problems he didn't understand, 'like 35 divided by 5. She would explain that you should put it in groups.' "

Okay, the first half of the last example seems obvious: telling or indicating to a student that they have a wrong answer is not appropriate, but the second half is different: "One boy said the teacher helped him with problems he didn't understand, 'like 35 divided by 5. She would explain that you should put it in groups.'" Please, let's not punish teachers for teaching their students. That teacher did not cheat in any way; she explained to her student what division was! As long as he actually did the "put[ting] it into groups" himself, I don't see anything wrong.

(Admittedly, that might not be the whole story. Maybe she pointed out the wrong answer before she gave her hint, but the article doesn't say so. Based on what is said, though, nothing inappropriate happened. If that was the best example the reporter could find, I'm not too worried.)

If that teacher's actions are truly against the rules, I think we have bigger problems. It is shocking to me that children are being given high stakes tests where they are not even allowed to ask for help. I can understand that I'm not allowed to ask the proctor for help on the SAT, ACT or GRE, but in no way do I believe those rules should apply to pre-teens.

  • "Teachers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, Redwood City, San Jose and elsewhere simply helped students answer the questions."

If "helping students" is now considered cheating, then I certainly hope we have an educational workforce full of nothing but cheaters.

And let's not forget why the very small number of teachers who are breaking the rules do so: "Incentives to bend the rules are strong in the No Child Left Behind era, when persistently low scores can shut down a school, trigger a takeover or force teacher transfers, experts say." The "cheating" is just a symptom of a much bigger problem.

13 May 2007

Walpurgis 2007

Two weeks ago I took a trip to Sachsen-Anhalt and Thüringen. The main event was scaling the Brocken on April 30th, just in time for Walpurgisnacht.

This is me near the summit.

This, inauspicious as it looks, is the summit.

Goethe and Heine both climbed it, and it featured in some of their most famous literary works. One passage from Goethe's Faust reads,
The witches t'ward the Brocken strain
When the stubble yellow, green the grain.
The rabble rushes - as 'tis meet -
To Sir Urian's lordly seat.
O'er stick and stone we come, by jinks!
The witches fart, the he-goat stinks

Because it was Walpurgis, we met some witches on the way to the summit.

Apparently the Brocken experiences more than 300 days of bad weather per year. As you can see from the photos, we managed to be there during one of the few nice days. When Heine climbed it, the weather was terrible, and he wrote in a guest book at the summit, "Many stones, tired legs, no view, Heinrich Heine," which sounds much better in the original German, "Viele Steine, müde Beine, Aussicht keine, Heinrich Heine.“

There are both a "Heine path" and a "Goethe path," but since this is what the Goethe path looks like:

we opted for a trail less literary and less paved. The Brocken isn't much of a mountain, but I wanted to be able to say I "hiked" it without blushing. (Taking the Goethe path isn't hiking; it's walking.)

Much, but not all, of our trail looked like this:

It was a lovely hike; I don't think I realized how much I missed nature until I was actually there, enjoying the clear, pine-scented air.

The only thing of note that happened on the ascent was that we spotted this couple:

The man is Dominic Raacke, a German television star.

Another highlight of the weekend was a barbecue in Chuck and Kelly's Schrebergarten.


Right now in Germany we're enjoying "Spargelzeit," the time when asparagus is ripe and sold at every grocery store, farmer's market and corner stand, so, of course, we had to have some:

Apparently white asparagus needs to be peeled before you cook it.

We also had dinner at this brewery, in the idyllic little town of Freyburg, a town that deserves a much better Wikipedia entry than it has.

(The German entry is slightly better, but most of you can't understand it.)

The rest of the trip involved hitting some of the highlights of German intellectual, literary and artistic history.

We saw, in no particular order, the St. Thomas church in Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor

and where he is buried,

the Nikolai church in Leipzig, site of the Monday demonstrations during the final months of the GDR,

with its surprising interior,

and the cathedral in Weimar where Herder preached.

We also visited the Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig, the largest monument in Europe and a relic of the rise of German nationalism in the early 20th century (it was built in 1913).

The monumental architecture makes it impressive from the outside, but the inside is another story:

The words "creepy" and "disturbing" come to mind. Take a closer look at those columns:

With the floral wreath, dim lighting and piped-in music, they were clearly trying to cultivate a somber, respectful, contemplative atmosphere. I found that most disturbing of all. Let's not forget what the nationalist sentiment that built this memorial led to, after all.

We also saw the house where Händel was born,

and the Weimar homes of Goethe

and Schiller.

It was a special treat to me to go visit the Fürstengruft where Goethe and Schiller were laid to rest.

Shockingly, my traveling companion was not willing to pay the €2 to go gawp at the caskets of two of Germany's greatest writers/thinkers.

The funny thing is (funny in an incredibly dark way), they're not even sure it's Schiller in that casket. He died in 1805 in a plague and was buried in a mass grave. Many felt this type of burial was unworthy for a great personage like Schiller, so some twenty years later they dug him up. But by then the cheap tin coffin had rotted away, so the mayor of Weimar sifted through 23 skulls until he found the one that he assumed was Schiller's. From there it made its way to Goethe's house, where it lived for at least half a year, until it, along with some random bones they assumed [or hoped!] were also Schiller's, was interred in the Fürstengruft. For a while there was a second set of presumed Schiller remains in the vault, but eventually some scientist ruled they were definitively not Schiller's, but to this day they still don't know if the first set of bones really belonged to Schiller.

What a way to treat the remains of one of your greatest national poets!

We also made a stop in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, to see the birthplace of the Reformation.

And that, my friends, is where it all began, the church where Luther preached.


Not too far away is the unique palace church,

which boasts the door where Luther supposedly nailed up the 95 theses,

as well as Luther's tomb.

There are more photos on my flickr page.

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