Wednesday, November 30, 2011

breaking the bank in Bern

We arrived yesterday and our first impressions are: wow, the Swiss are rich. And: nice to be a neutral country.

I love how in Europe you can be someplace COMPLETELY different within an hour or two. Okay, we cheated, and took a plane, but even when driving. One hour by plane, and you can go from Berlin to Bern. Two cities that claim the bear as their mascot, that couldn`t possibly be more different. (By the way: it was nice to not fly with a bankrupt American airline...we got free newspapers, choco-croissants, and Schoklis. Thanks, Swiss Air!)

We arrived at Zürich airport (shiny, sparkly, fancy), and took the train to Bern (1 hr). We stepped out of the train station into this unbelievable city. Not in Berlin anymore. Berlin, like so many other German cities, was devastated during the bombings of WWII. So the rebuilding is this kind of patchwork-style of Imperial Germany/20s Modernism/Nazi buildings/postwar rebuildings: ugly building here, uglier building there, old building here, interesting building there. And then cover the whole thing with graffiti. Bern, on the other hand, benefited from Switzerland`s neutrality and is GORGEOUS. So old, so pittoresque. (And I guess the core of the city is also a few centuries older than Berlin...) It reminds me of some cities I`ve been to in France, and Luxembourg. Really ornate old facades, arcades along the bottom of the street. Circled by a river on three sides, and alps visible along the horizon. The river is much lower than the city, which makes for some dramatic views from the various bridges.

We walked along one of the main streets in the old city, and had fun window-shopping along all these fancy little boutiques. We popped into one kitchen store just to look around...and I was greeted with a mouthful of something I did NOT understand. I just looked and the shopwoman and said, "wie bitte?" She laughed at me and repeated the whole thing in (standard/high) German, which was something like "Are you just looking around or can I help you find something?"  It`s so crazy! I really expected to be able to understand a bit of what was being said, but Swiss German is SOO different. I can understand (with difficulty) Bavarian German, and Austrian German, but this is a whole different dialect ball game. Last night we had fun flipping through some TV channels, too, and listening to these beautiful sounds. The German words are printed on the screen, and then they read something incomprehensible (to me). Swiss German is melodic and they have really adorable diminuative forms where they put a "li" at the end of everything: "Schokli" = little chocolate.

This whole situation was repeated again at dinner, when the waitress came over and said something to us that sounded like "aoighds oaiidgfakl jfskljasfo". We look at each other and she says, "Oh, English?" and we said, "nein, Deutsch..." And she laughed and repeated in Hochdeutsch, "would you like bread with your meal?" What is crazy to me is that it is German. All the advertising is in German, the menu, the papers, the street signs...but when they speak it out loud we can`t understand a thing. Incredible.

Monday, November 28, 2011

ab in die Schweiz!

5 days in Switzerland! Not long, but it's a mixture of work and play, a conference and some city sightseeing (no mountains this time...but Bern and Zürich!)


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Things I think you have to be a native German to like

You know me, I love to try new foods, and I eat almost everything. I eat pickled herring at Christmas, really love foie gras. I try (mostly) every deer/moose/elk part my dad has put in front of me. But living in Germany I have encountered a few things I think you have to have native taste buds to enjoy. I know it's not very nice to make a blog post of "gross" German food, but I feel that 99.9% of this blog is a my love for German food and living in Germany, so here's some balance. :) which isn't to say that if you have the chance to try this should! Maybe you will like it?

1. Harzer Käse - I saw the grocery store had samples of something the other day...go over, and it's Harzer Käse. "Nein, danke" I say. This is a sour cheese, translucent and looks wormy on the outside. gross. I found another website that described it as smelling like sweaty gym socks, which I think is pretty spot-on.

2. Leberkäse - a loaf of meat, literally "liver cheese". The serving: a slice of it on a bun. Michael said they were selling this at the basketball game he went to, like they would hotdogs at baseball games.

3.Malzbier - Germans don't have root beer, but maybe this is their "equivalent," in that it's a non-alcoholic beverage marketed to kids and has the word "beer" in the name. It's very sweet, and while I don't think it's gross like the above items, I don't really care for it. But if you like soda you would probably like it. I say often, I prefer to consume my sugar in Kuchen-form.

4. Meat in aspic - Sülze - Any German supermarket, meat counter, deli has many different kinds of meat in aspic. This one, Sülze, is the grossest. Like Leberkäse, it also comes in a loaf form.

5. Mettbrot - Basically just raw ground pork on a bun. I see more old people eating this at bakeries. And, admittedly, this goes more in the category of "things I'm afraid to eat" than things I don't like. If I am eating raw meat I need to know a bit more about kinda weirds me out.

6. Beer mixes - The combination of Sprite (lemon soda) and beer is so popular you can get it in most pubs/cafés/bars. In Northern Germany it's called Alsterwasser,  in Southern Germany it's called Radler. Very refreshing in the summer, I guess...Nicht so mein Ding.  Or how about Colabier, called Diesel? Also popular. Spezi is a non-alcoholic version...with orange soda and cola. But not only can you buy these drinks "mixed" at a bar, you can buy pre-mixed versions. Strange, for the land of the Reinheitsgebot, the purity law for brewing beer.

7. Sweet Popcorn - When you go to the movie theater in Germany, you may be surprised when you take your first bite of popcorn. Yes, it's sweet, not salty and buttery. They have sweet popcorn. I tried to make "American style" popcorn for the German students I was teaching 4 yrs ago, and they didn't like it. They had never seen someone make popcorn on the stove, and I wanted to make something typical for them (buttery popcorn). After they didn't like it, I made a batch, sprinkled sugar on it, and they loved it. (Again, seee #3 for my sugar preferences: not in beverages or sprinkled unnecessarily, but in baked goods.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

it's starting to look a lot like Christmas...

In Germany the Advent/Christmas stuff has been coming out into the stores for weeks now. The cute bakery I walk by every day put out its decorative Christmas window display last Sunday night. The grocery stores are putting out their Adventskalender and chocolate Weihnachtsmänner (santas) and the florists are selling wreaths and advent wreaths. Because they don't have Thanksgiving, the Christmas stuff comes earlier. Or, at least, that's my theory. When did it start in the US? Before Thanksgiving? Or just now that Thanksgiving is over?

I like how Germans celebrate all of December, the whole advent season. Everything just gets beautiful.This picture is taken on Ku'damm, the shopping mile in former West Berlin. They already have Christmas markets up. Berlin has tons of Christmas markets. So excited!!

This past week I had my first Stollen of the year, and gebrannte Mandeln. No Glühwein yet. I feel like it needs to be at least December for that...

Apologies for sporadic posting. We've been really busy lately, and taking off to Switzerland on Tuesday, and then my Zwillingsschwester arrives! Lots to do!

Friday, November 25, 2011

altes Gemüse: old world and new world

 This post could also be titled "super fun facts for food nerds", or, a clever title from an article I found, "back to our roots, vegetables from grandma's garden." Root vegetables! Eating like 19th-century peasants in Germany! :)

I eventually decided that the Gemüsekiste (veggie box) is probably not the best option...since after a week we still had a bag of potatoes, three beets, a spaghetti squash, and no onions...probably better to just buy what I need/want at the local organic market, which is literally around the corner from where we live, every Saturday. And to try to simulate the excitement of new vegetables, I decided to try to move out of my comfort zone when choosing veggies.

Last Saturday was the first time I found kale at the market. You can't buy it in normal grocery stores here. So I was really excited, and chatting with the farmer guy at the stand, telling him how kale is rather popular in the States right now (I think Duluth declared kale to be their "community vegetable of the year" or something). So he was like, "Oh, do you like altes Gemüse? You should try this..." I hadn't heard the expression "old vegetables" before, but gathered from the context he was referring to heirloom varieties and not to stale veggies. I was intrigued. I told him "Yes, do you have something I should try?" And he sold me this huge knobby thing (pictured above), which turned out to be a Steckrübe (rutabaga), and some black radishes (pictured above). Two new things to try (lots of vegetable googling). Also got some Rosenkohl (rose-cabbage = brussel sprouts) and some more of this winter lettuce, and apples. It was a nice assortment.

The radish tasted like a normal radish: peppery and crisp. I put it raw on a salad with some of the greens, and mango, avocado and red pepper. Very good. The brussel sprouts we sautéed with bacon and olive oil, and put pine nuts and parmesan on them. Also good. By the way, if you don't know what brussel sprouts look like when they grow out of the earth, click here. It will blow your mind. We used the rutabaga on Thanksgiving, when we made a root vegetable gratin with gruyère and layered sweet potatoes, potatoes, rutabaga and beets in thin slices. The beets made it look pretty (sorry, no picture. you must believe me.)

But back to this strange, knobby-looking thing, and altes Gemüse, what used to be good old peasant food. We have had a lot of (I know, nerdy) fun looking up these strange vegetables and where they come from. There is so much fascinating history of colonization, exploration, and the industrialization of farming in these vegetables (and their virtual disappearance). The invention of trains, refrigeration...this totally changed what people ate and when they could eat things. And can you believe that Europe didn't have POTATOES or TOMATOES until they "discovered" the Americas? Amazing! I think I never recovered from learning that fact. This is a good point to not get too nostalgic about veggies. Are we glad that everyone is "re-discovering" heirloom vegetables? Yes! Are we also glad that we can eat things like mangos and avocados? Yes!

So anyways, some fun facts about these crazy winter root vegetables:

Parsnips used to be a main source of nutrition in Germany, into the 18th century, but they have a growth period of 7 months, so they were replaced by potatoes.  

Some older people still connect some kinds of turnips and rutabagas with war time, and don't like to eat them because it reminds them of those times of hardship. 

In Germany in the supermarket you can buy a bundle of vegetables called "Suppengrün" to make vegetable stock. Often this includes celeriac, carrots, pieces of these larger roots.

On my list of things still to try: Topinambur (sunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke), Teltower Rüben, Schwarzwurzeln, or Winterspargel (scorzonera? "black roots"), Wirsingkohl (savoy cabbage).

More reading on this topic: "Altes Gemüse," Die Zeit
Altes Gemüse, neu entdeckt, Die Welt
Zurück zu den Wurzeln -  Gemüse aus Großmutters Garten
German recipes with root vegetables: fancy, from Essen und Trinken

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Cranberries: "Die Power-Beeren aus den USA"
How you can tell a holiday is truly special... hasn't been commercially exported from the US to everywhere. (Halloween, Valentine's Day...NO. Thanksgiving...YES. Truly special.)

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving! I was sorry I couldn't be with my family, but we had a wonderful time with new friends here in Berlin. Who all cook amazing food. It was a tasty, tasty feast. There were 4 Americans and 4 non-Americans in attendance, so explained things like "Oh, Americans don't eat big meals in courses...they have firsts/seconds/thirds of everything." and "Yes, they watch football on the holiday. You all eat, and then you lay around groaning and watch TV. It's a family day!" And "...and then people go out shopping. Some of them. And stand in line at 5:00 am to get a deal..." Oh, our country. :)

I like how inclusive Thanksgiving is. It's not like you can't believe in it. Who doesn't believe in being thankful? Although it may have dubious origins in whatever kind of origins myth with pilgrims and's a pretty good thing as a thankfulness-feast. In Germany, where patriotism is problematic, and there are no legit stories of national origins, all of their national holidays are religious (specifically Christian)...except New Years. It's nice that the US has these holidays that also support the national narrative of inclusivity and togetherness, and "melting pot" or "stew" or whatever. Germany (and Europe in general) is still trying to work out a narrative of "Multi-Kulti" that works for their increasingly diverse 21st century population.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


built-in bike holder?

outside an organic supermarket: (roughly) "Nice that you came by bike"

only in Germany

It's starting to be that time of year...when you pick up some mulled wine on your way to work?!

Monday, November 21, 2011


Today I happened to be in a new area of town: Berlin-Wilmersdorf. I was walking around and noticed that the doorways had these really beautiful frames. They had a little plaque that said built 1925/1926 and the name of the tile-manufacturer. Then I happened to walk by a house with a plaque, stating that it was the house of Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, the famous anti-war novel. Such random little discoveries!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

zum 200. Todestag - Heinrich von Kleist

It is the 200 year anniversary of the German poet/writer Heinrich von Kleist's death. It ended with a carefully orchestrated murder-suicide out in Wannsee, outside of Berlin.

Kleist wasn't very well-received during his life, and only wrote a small number of plays and prose pieces, but he is very popular today among scholars of German studies, also because his writings often theorize writing itself. He has a unique style, with lots of long, complex sentences, and brutally violent scenes. If you want to read something, you can get The Marquise of O and Other Stories in English. The title story, for instance, begins with a raped woman who, finding herself pregnant, puts an ad in the paper to find the father of the baby. Yes, crazy stuff.

from Hermannsschlacht production
In honor of this anniversary, there have been lots of events going on...including a theater festival at the Maxim Gorki Theater. I went to three plays: Hermannsschlacht, Penthesilea, Die Familie Schroffenstein. I have to admit, it wasn't really my kind of theater...people stripping down naked...yelling at the audience...cutting down the script.... I'm also not a connoisseur of modern theater and don't really go to productions like this very often, so I also had trouble judging the merits of the stagings. 


Die Familie Schroffenstein

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cappucino, Milchkaffee, Espresso, Kaffee...

This is a pretty little coffee I got at the French place at the Markthalle. Coffee is interesting here...From my general impressions, I think the "coffee to go" trend has really picked up in Germany during the last few years. In the US it's pretty common and you even see people with portable coffee mugs, which I rarely ever see here. (If it's "coffee to go," it's in a paper cup.) But my impression is still that people take the time more often to sit down at a café to finish their drink.

Brewing at home: In the US, you can grind your own beans at pretty much any grocery store and it's pretty common to buy whole beans and grind your own at home. I don't know how many people own coffee grinders here (we don't have one in the apt), but here it's hard to find places to have beans ground. Makes me wonder what people are drinking at home?

Also interesting what kind of drinks are "trendy"... I used to hear people ordering Milchkaffee (German version of café au lait), but now (young) people seem to drink Latte macchiato.

And coffee machines are much more common. Sometimes you have these vending machines for coffee drinks, which are not as common in the US.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hip Cities

From the New York Times, "Hip Cities That Think About How They Work"

This culture capital combines low rents, a white-hot arts scene, good public transportation and myriad creative types — from media to design to technology — from all over the world. Known as Europe’s largest construction zone for at least 10 of the past 20 years, 4.4-million-strong Berlin has probably changed more in that time than any other large European city. And while the restaurants have become more expensive, the clothes are now more stylish and the D.J.’s have added more attitude, there is still plenty of real city left to be discovered by the thousands of artists and young professionals who move here every year to make this the pulsing center of Germany, the powerhouse of Europe.

Besides radical renovations to the government center, main train station and the old Potsdamer Platz, the city recently turned a historic airport in its heart into a vast urban park. A short-term bike-rental system is in place and the old subway system, reunited after the fall of the wall, like the city itself, is as efficient as ever. Besides artists and bohemians looking for the vibe, the city — home to several prestigious universities, research institutes and many a company headquarter — is brimming with smart scientists and savvy businessmen.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gemüsekiste: was wir kochen II

Sorry to disappoint if you were looking for some creative use of celery root. I looked online a bit, and it seems Germans either make soup stock with it (aromatic like celery) or, another popular item: "Sellerie-Schnitzel", where you cut it in disks, bread it and fry or bake it. Not really how I love to eat my veggies. So we went with soup.

Tonight's dinner used from the Gemüsekiste: the celery root, two beets, an apple, and some of the winter lettuce.

We made a pumpkin-celery root soup, spiced with Indian spices (leftovers from my cooking class: chili, fresh ginger and turmeric root, some other weird root-like thing, no idea what it was), and apple-beet salad. Tomorrow the week is up, and we still have the spaghetti squash, potatoes, two beets, a couple of apples and a bit of salad. It was good to try out...definitely a lot of veggies for two people!  You have to be strategic about what you use first!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

formalities: du and Sie

So tonight I went to another cooking class at the VHS, and it started with this strange little scene:

The chef/instructor: "First things first. Some of you I know from other classes, some of you are new...Is it okay with all of you (Sie), that we use the du (you) form?"
General consensus: "Ja, klar..."
And so we proceeded to call him "Sven" and call each other by our first names. 

The German polite you (Sie) and informal you (du) have loose boundaries in certain kinds of settings, such as community ed classes, apparently. It's interesting, because if these same people were to encounter one another outside of this setting, they would obviously use the Sie form. Because I'm a foreigner, and a German instructor, I am hyper-aware of whether I am being gesiezt or geduzt, and I'm always trying to figure out these patterns. But it's hard, because there are no real rules, although there are general rules: Sie = everyone over 18, older people, work/professional settings, du = children, animals, family members, God, people your age if you are young. But you can also use the Sie form to create distance, or be extra polite and show respect. On the other hand, store clerks or restaurant servers who are trying to be young and hip and will use du. And there are settings where it feels strange that they use Sie (I happened to hear in an episode of The X Files that the German voices for Mulder and Scully say "Sie" to each other...although they use their last names, they are very close colleagues and this translation decision really surprised me!) It's fun to watch dubbed American films and wait for the moment where the characters switch from the Sie to the du...usually a romantic scene is involved...

One other big difference between the States and Germany: In the US, people use their first names much more often. Good example: they have their first names on their name tags in stores. You call your server by his/her first name, and, for example, at the grocery checkout (bank counter, too?) they wear tags with first names. In Germany it will say "Frau Müller" or just "Schmidt", or whatever, NO first names!

But because educated Germans are aware of how it is in the States, I have had two "offers" to use the du form when it probably would have been inappropriate (too early) in German. In traditional German culture, switching from the Sie to the du form includes drinking Bruderschaft and is a big milestone.

One other random thing, respect-related, which I find totally endearing. In Germany, they knock on the table/desk instead of clapping as the gesture of applause. At the end of every lecture, the professor gets a round of knocking on desks. Sometimes they will clap as well (at talks/conferences), but I love the sound of the lecture hall filled with knocking. It's so German...

"Wein schenkt Freude"

great bike basket, "wine brings joy"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gemüsekiste: was wir kochen

This week has had its ups and downs, and we've been very busy: seeing modern stagings of classic plays--Kleist's Hermannsschlacht and Penthesilea, running a 10 K Schmalzstollenlauf race in a beautiful German forest (with bread/lard as the prize), trekking out to a newspaper archive, spending lots of time in the library and attending some classes...Biggest downer: Yesterday when coming home I turned the key in the lock of the front door and it BROKE off. I was in a rush, so Michael dealt with the Schlosser, the locksmith who came, and after 30 mins and taking the lock apart finally got it out (60 EUR bill...). He said the lock was very old and Michael was fascinated with the mechanics of the ordeal. So today we got a new key made as well. Just another day in the life, which happened to be an expensive one... Anyways, between all that we've been making some really delicious meals out of our Gemüsekiste we got on Friday from this organic farm. Above: roasted chicken with root vegetables (carrots, parnsips, onions), chard (mangold) pizza with tomatoes, pine nuts, salami, parmesan (Michael claimed it was "the best pizza ever"), and cabbage and caramelized onion tart with gruyère (inspired by last week's episode of The Office and mention of Dwight's cabbage pie..."We should make cabbage pie!" "Seriously?" "Yes!"). sehr lecker.  Recipe for the cabbage tart here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mitte, nachts

We don't really see the "touristy" sights of Berlin very often, but when we went to the theater on Saturday night we got to see some of the buildings lit up...It felt good to get out of Kreuzberg, our neighborhood, and be in the middle of Berlin. They are starting to set up the Christmas Markets!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

citizenship: members of a soccer team for life

A quote I wanted to share from Wolfgang Koeppen's modernist novel Tauben im Gras, which I read recently. This made me think about the American ambassador's speech and about national alliances, and all our other alliances that sometimes pull us in different directions. The novel was written during the first years of the Cold War and takes place in one day in Munich, constantly shifting perspectives between American occupying soldiers and Germans. 

Die offizielle Welt bemühte sich noch immer, in hohlen Phrasen zu denken, in längst jeden Begriffes baren Schlagworten. Sie sahen feste, unverrückbare Fronten, abgesteckte Erdstücke, Grenzen, Territorien, Souveränitäten, sie hielten den Menschen für ein Mitglied einer Fußballmannschaft, der sein Leben lang für den Verein spielen sollte, dem er durch Geburt beigetreten war. Sie irrten: die Front war nicht hier und nicht dort und nicht nur bei jenem Grenzpfahl. Die Front war allüberall, ob sichtbar oder unsichtbar, und ständig wechselte das Leben seinen Standort zu den Milliarden Punkten der Front. Die Front ging quer durch die Länder, sie trennte die Familien, sie lief durch den Einzelnen: zwei Seelen, ja zwei Seelen wohnten in jeder Brust, und mal schlug das Herz mit der einen und mal mit der anderen Seele.  

The official world was still attempting to think in empty phrases, in key words…They saw steadfast, unmovable fronts, demarcated pieces of earth, borders, territories, sovereignties, they took people to be members of a soccer team, who should play their whole lives for the team they joined by birth. They were wrong: the front was neither here nor there and not only at the borders. The front was everywhere, whether visible or invisible, and life was constantly changing its position to the billion points of the front. The front cut across countries, it divided families, it ran through the individual: two souls, yes two souls lived in each chest*, and sometimes the heart beat for one and sometimes for the other soul.

*”zwei Seelen in einer Brust” is a reference to Goethe’s Faust

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gemüsekiste: farm share boxes in Germany

So I ordered a trial farm share box for this week, a Gemüsekiste from a farm west of Berlin. In Germany they seem to do these boxes much differently than in the US.

In case you're not familiar with the "CSA" system in the US (which I only know through friends who have done it), the typical farm share is a mix of vegetables in season from local farms. You don't choose what you get; you have to get creative with what's in season. You can choose between a "whole share" or a "half share" and it's usually available once a week, you pick up at the farm or at the farmer's market.

In Germany, this works differently. You can pick individual items, and you seem to have more flexibility with how much you get and how frequently. In looking into this for Berlin, I found about 4-5 different farms to choose between, all with websites where you could order online. Online shopping for veggies! One kilo of potatoes, some mache greens, into the "shopping cart." Or you can choose a mixed box, with the options of fruit/veg mix, just veggies, regional veggies, etc. Then you decide whether you want 10 EUR, 15 EUR, or 20 EUR worth of veggies (for example). So it seemed more flexible in terms of price and size. You could also choose between weekly delivery and every-other-week delivery. Some sites offered regional produce, or produce from their own farm, others put together boxes from different farms, and even include "exotic" organic produce from outside of Germany. So you can opt for a box that includes organic bananas and avocados, or one that is from the farm's own harvest. Often you can also add non-produce products as well. You can have them add in a "cheese of the week" or "bread of the week" or milk with the delivery, among many other items.

I found one site that looked like a good one to try. Their website wasn't as good as some of the others, but they have quite a few things from their own farm, and they offered a "trial box". Rather than order individual items, I just told them to put together a selection for 16 EUR, as much stuff from their own farm as possible. This is what we got: Rote Bete, Möhren, Mangold grün, Kartoffeln festkochend, Pastinaken, Knollensellerie, Weißkohl, Posteleinsalat, Äpfel Cox Orange, Spaghettikürbis. Okay, although you might not understand all the German, I am sure there are also some things in this picture you don't recognize. We had to look up: Pastinake = parsnip, Knollensellerie = celery root. So if you have ideas about what to do with these things, I will welcome any advice. The spaghetti squash is exciting. :) And I love the tasty little apples. They never taste that good from the supermarket!

I don't know if I'll sign up for regular delivery. It's a bit expensive (16 EUR for the above pictured), and there is a weekly organic market right around the corner. But I wanted to just try it out and see what it's like.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

die Freie Universität Berlin

The Freie Universität, in German FU (eff-uuh), lovingly called the "eff-you" by some Americans... This is our "host" university in Berlin. Michael has been attending a few courses regularly, and we have been trying to work in the library here, too. It's a 30-45 min commute, way out in Berlin-Dahlem, where the Americans were stationed at the end of the war. The name, the "free" university, refers to the postwar ideals of freedom and liberty and democracy promoted in Germany by the liberating occupying forces.

On bibliophilia, and why I want a Kindle for Christmas

I've always been one of those people resisting the growing e-book market. But tonight I went to a talk that gave me some really interesting things to think about...First, some reflections about books and reading, and the future of books and reading.

My mother passionately loves books and loves to read, I grew up with classic stories and with local treasures, and these memories are always with me. My dad introduced me to the adventures of Jack London, and his parents have a library which is a truly magical place. And there have been many days when my sisters have stayed in bed all day with a book, and when we have fought over whose turn it was to get the next Harry Potter.

I love the weight of a book in my hand, I like the excitement when you can feel that there are only a few pages left to turn. I like to collect books and own them, see them on my bookshelf and think about where those books  have brought me. Unlike my sister E, who is a true bookworm, I don't usually re-read books, but I still like to have them. Sometimes I do feel that it's more a kind of collecting. The books take on a different function when they enter the bookshelf. And there are different kinds of reading...Now that I am a full-time, eternal student and teacher, I read differently, and I read different kinds of texts differently. I still love to consume a good novel, and be driven by a story, but I also enjoy the different pace and challenge of a difficult poem or story.

Also, the places of reading are amazing places. I had an earlier post about libraries in Berlin, but also independent bookstores, and even bigger chain bookstores. I was really really sad to see the downtown Borders close in Ann Arbor, the site of the first Borders, and subsequently see the whole chain follow. 

So all of these thoughts and memories and feelings were already a part of my experience when I went to this evening's talk, entitled "Was ist das Wesen des Buches?" (roughly) "What is the book?" (The German word "Wesen" means nature/character/essence), and with the subtitle "Ruth Klüger: Reading Differently, Confessions of an avid e-book reader". Ruth Klüger is a German-American academic and author, most famously of the book weiter leben (Still alive).

Some background info: Germany does not at all have the e-book culture that is growing steadily in the U.S. Surprisingly, I have yet to see someone reading an e-book on the subway, or in public in general. Always newspapers and paper books. Also, Germany has many more independent bookshops. They do have a few big chains, but also lots of little Buchhandlungen.
note that the cheapest version is $79...

Ruth Klüger, the invited speaker, talked about how popular e-books have become in the US, especially among older people, because you can adjust the font size, and they are easy to hold and comfortable to lug around with you. She talked about the ease of ordering books with one click after reading an interesting review, and how she reads more books more quickly with the e-reader. She talked about how e-books are less expensive and some, out of copyright, are even free. She attributed the popularity in the US in part to the fact that we have a "Wegwerfgesellschaft", a "culture of throwing things out/away". She said, people in the US tend more to pass on or get rid of books they have already read, rather than hold on to them, put them in a library. (This Wegwerfgesellschaft, in general, describes the trend to throw things out instead of having them replaced, use plastic dishes, etc, which is, in general, true, I would say, of our culture.) There was also a publisher present who has a hybrid traditional/e-book publishing house, who also commented and answered questions. In general, all of the comments presented by the panel discussed the growing trend towards e-books as an unstoppable trend which is not going to make paper books disappear, but which will be a somewhat parallel development. It was not completely pro e-book, but did make arguments for their usefulness, for their place in reading culture.
...and the German version is 99 EUROS for the US $79 one

Then the debate began (Q&A session). Interesting. And made me increasingly angry. What disturbed me most was the way Germans talked about the US and the tone of some of their remarks, with an air of superiority, arrogance, and discomforting nostalgia. (I'm all for critiquing the US, just as I can critique German culture, but what gets to me is the arrogant tone. It makes me defensive.) If you've read this far, you can see that a big part of me also wants to attack e-books and hold out for the experience of holding a real book in your hand.  But when I heard people making their arguments, I wanted to be more open about these changes. Here are some of the more impressionable remarks:

1. One guy brought up the comment about America's "Wegwerfgesellschaft" and talked about how nice it was to own keep books (again, in a slight tone of arrogance about Germans vs Americans). Now, I am an avid book-collector. But I will admit, sometimes it gets out of hand. How many of the books on my shelf have I read? How much has it cost to acquire this collection? Books can also become a fetish, and buying them can also be a bit obsessive. It's also a marker of social class, and of education. Someone brought up how it's a part of a certain kind of living/household aesthetic, to have big, filled bookshelves. In Germany there is this idea of the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated bourgeoisie, that has more of a (classed) tradition than in the US. Owning bookshelves is a kind of status symbol. Once I heard about someone (a famous writer maybe?) who would leave a book in public somewhere every time he finished reading it, hoping someone else would pick it up and enjoy it. The idea stuck with me. How liberating! How would that lighten the load of earthly possessions you have!  Ruth Klüger mentioned that houses in the future will look differently, that the e-book industry will impact the way we collect, own, and display books. Maybe she will be right. Maybe it has already started?

2. One student talked about how Germans should be proud that they have held out against e-books, that they, and Europeans in general still have a book culture, and still read real books. She also made some remark about how the German language is dying out anyways being influenced from English.  I kinda wanted to yell at her. (But didn't, decided to blog instead. hehe) First of all, this talk of "culture" and "European culture" and "heritage" is a very specifically classed (and privileged!) culture. It is not all Europeans that are collecting massive libraries. Second, while it is true that German incorporates quite a few English words in technological fields (das Internet, der Computer, die Email, das E-Book), by and large it is not being affected by English. Not any less than it has been, at other times, fashionable to throw in French words. This whole discussion was very German in German German, and would not have been understandable to an English, non-German speaker!  The publisher had a great response to this comment: "I'm going to answer a bit polemically...sorry, but we are always 4-5 years behind the US. In a few years, we too will have e-books making up a large amount of the book market..."

There were other comments, about whether reading on an e-reader changes the experience of reading (best point), and how books connect us to memories and to family members who have passed them down to us (this will also probably trickle out...). About how this makes reading more affordable for students, whether academic texts will be published as e-versions, whether instructors will assign electronic books in class some day (the audience laughed, but in Michigan I heard that our German textbook will soon be printed electronically!).

Throughout, I couldn't help but think about how many different kinds of reading there are. There is reading in the subway on your daily commute, there is reading in bed before sleep, there is with a pen and notepad in the library, there is all-day-Sunday-afternoon reading, there are Jane Austen novels and Harry Potter fantasy stories and classic literature and poetry... And although I will never stop buying books, adding to my impossible collection, and and mourning the loss of local bookstores, I think it might be nice to get some Kleist, or Dickens (for free!) on an e-reader for my next trip across the ocean. Or maybe even for my next U-Bahn commute.

Do you have an e-reader? How would you describe "American" reading culture? I welcome your comments!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

a funny thing happened on my way to the library

 My bike ride to the library this afternoon happened to go past this bakery I have heard lots about and wanted to check out..."How convenient," as Michael said...

You order from a little window in the door, and sit outside. It was chilly, but I was warm from biking and bundled up, as were the 5 or so other people who were there when I was. Also, I heard some others coming and going, taking cake home, and someone ordering a torte for some event. It's a little treasure, this place!

This is what I got: Swiss Hazelnut-Kuchen. Delicious. Seriously.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

die Mode - fashion

I just finished watching a documentary about this East German fashion magazine called Sibylle. A friend of mine, another PhD student, is working on East German photography and I found it really fascinating.

As an East German publication, they had a small audience, limited travel opportunities (to Eastern bloc countries), and were supposed to present a certain image of women. One of the women in the documentary said that abstractly, their views harmonized very well with those of the party: they wanted to present working women who were well-educated and independent. But sometimes they had difficulties with the aesthetics of the images. The former editors who they interviewed said that usually they got away with what they wanted to do. 

In general, the magazine was popular. It had a mix of fashion and culture, and the fashion photography was very artistic and avant-garde, especially during its beginning years in the 1960s. To move away from the posed models of the 1950s, they used more realistic, natural poses, and also women who weren't smiling, women moving. Here were some of my favorites. I couldn't find pictures of all of them on the web, but you get a sense.  They're very beautiful images. Fashion photography is interesting. If you think about artistic photography, that sets a certain feeling or image, rather than necessarily portraying the clothing...I have seen some really whimsical and creative photo shoots in Anthropologie , for example, compared to catalogues like J Crew, that actually does show the clothing. And of course the major fashion magazines all have very elaborate and artistic photo shoots.

Arno Fischer

Sibylle Bergemann

Günter Rössler
Günter Rössler
 As far as "street fashion" vs high fashion, if you haven't yet discovered the blog The Sartorialist, it's amazing. The photographer shoots real people he sees out and about, being fashionable. This is also the technique of Bill Cunningham at the New York Times. Another documentary tip, if you haven't seen it yet, Bill Cunningham New York. watch a clip here. One of my favorite movies I saw last year.
Günter Rössler

Saturday, November 5, 2011

lost in translation

My sister sent me a link to this post from ZsaZsa Bellagio that I wanted to re-post:

This list got me thinking.... You've probably heard of Schadenfreude, Zeitgeist, Gemütlichkeit, unheimlich, and there are tons of words from German philosophy that aren't easily expressed in English but I wanted to add some more German/English "untranslatable" terms that I encounter or think about more often, some of you will have heard these before...When terms are untranslatable, or not directly translatable, it's really interesting to think about the language philosophy, and why you can't express something the same way...and what it means about thinking and feeling if you don't have the same vocabulary to express something. oops I got a little carried away with this list, but I still feel like I'm forgetting the 10 things a day that come to mind! Obviously the list could be infinite...

ausschlafen  - to "sleep out", slightly different meaning than the English "to sleep in", which usually  means to sleep in late. You have time to sleep in on the weekend. The German ausschlafen means you got all the sleep you need. So you can get up at 6:00 and be super awake and someone can say with surprise, "Ausgeschlafen?" (slept out?)

awkward - no good German translation for this English word. Also in English "slang" it's become quite popular to call things awkward...Germans don't have this. The closest words are maybe unangenehm (uncomfortable) or komisch (strange).

ich habe dich lieb - In German there is more of a continuum to express like/love. You can say Ich mag dich, Ich habe dich lieb, Ich liebe dich. In English we don't have this second expression, which is literally "I have you dear", or "you are dear to me".  It's used like "I love you" but less intense.

pumpkin, squash - In German they don't have a distinction between these...they have Zucchini and Kürbis but no other word. There are lots of examples like this, which just reinforces how arbitrary classification systems are! Are squash pumpkins, or pumpkins squash? Who decides? A similar thing is that in German they have multiple words for what we would call a "bug", including both Tier [animal, beast] and Käfer [bug, beetle]. It seems very strange to me to realize you have a bug crawling on you and say, "Bwah, ein Tier!"

Feierabend - it's the time when you get off work. So when you're leaving a business/shop/office in the late afternoon, you can say "Schönen Feierabend", enjoy your "quittin' time". :)

Freund, Bekannte - Related to the variations of "love," above. In English we use the term "friend" quite loosely, especially in this age of Facebook "friends." But in German they distinguish more between Freund and Bekannte, more like "acquaintance".  Of course we have  the word acquaintance in English, but I would never use it, like "oh I met up with an acquaintance of mine at the movie theater last night." I think we are quick to call people friends.

homemade  - German has "hausgemacht" or "selbstgemacht" but doesn't have the same cozy ring to me

ein roter Faden  - literally "red thread," a common theme or topic, something unifying a story or a film or a "thread" running through, giving continuity to something. So you can say "this talk had no 'red thread', I couldn't follow it"

schwimmen - also means "to float" in German. They have no separate word for inanimate things on the surface of the water... "Das Boot schwimmt auf dem See" the boat is swimming on top of the lake. "Fat floats," Fett schwimmt oben. :)

Ohrwurm- a word for "a song stuck in your head," as in Ich habe einen Ohrwurm, I have an "ear worm"! haha, when I first heard this I thought this woman actually had some kind of illness, some kind of bug in her ear...still makes me laugh!

Then there are nouns that have slightly different meanings, like Haus or Brot. If you live in an apartment building, that is also a Haus in German. I say "the facade of this Haus has lots of beautiful balconies," but you couldn't use the English "house" in that way. Also in German you talk about "a" bread, not usually a "loaf" of bread.  So you can say "I would like a bread" or "2 breads", 2 Brote. Again, it's interesting to link language and culture, think about what it means about American culture (or German culture) that we have very different images of what a "house" is, something you think of as being so basic. What to Americans is the classic "house" picture Germans would specify as being a Einfamilien-Haus, a "one-family" house.

And for the real grammar freaks among you (I know some of you are...) there are also lots of English nouns that have German verbs, or vice-versa, or other parts of speech that don't line up. For example, in English we "have breakfast," and in German you use frühstücken, the verb. "I get up and then I breakfast," Ich stehe auf und dann frühstücke ich.  And they have a verb for "shame" and not an adjective, "Ich habe mich geschämt," not "I was ashamed". Really interesting to think about what some of this constructions mean for the way you actually feel or express the feeling of a certain emotion.

This list is evidence of the difficulty of one-to-one translation...and why as a language instructor it's always frustrating when students expect there to always be an easy translation, or a noun-to-noun translation, or whatever. I think it reflects a deeper understanding of the way language works to realize that you have to think about different ways of expressing a feeling, a concept, a thing, or an idea. I think as a teacher it's something we should help our students to recognize, but it takes a while...I think (especially middle or high school students) they think we just don't know the word when we tell them they can't say it like that!

There are so many more examples I can't think of at the moment!  German also has tons of composite nouns (hence the really really long words...), so you can also make up infinite number of combinations. That's why there is no "longest" word in the German language. They can keep getting longer and longer...I know German gets a bad reputation for sounding "harsh" and for being grammatically challenging, but once you really get into the language, you realize how creative it is, and how beautiful and poetic some of the composite nouns are. 

Feel free to comment with more examples!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ein gelber Herbst

Sorry, not a lot of posting lately, been going to the archive and to the library (photo left), and to talks/lectures...Which has all been great, although tiring.

Today I biked to the library and stopped and took some photos along the way. I've usually been taking the U-Bahn, but it was really refreshing to be out on my bike, looking around and seeing things.

The weather is starting to get a bit cooler, although not cold...And the leaves are still turning, and falling. Berlin doesn't really have the deep oranges or reds that we have in Minnesota and Michigan, but it's more of a "yellow autumn".

Happy November!