Tuesday, January 31, 2006

So, what have I been up to lately? Gosh, what a nice and considerate question. Well, since you asked, I guess I could share with the adoring public a few of my most recent adventures. Or you can wait for the book, "Does That Come with Potatoes?: Obvious Questions About Living In Germany And Their Even More Obvious Answers" (Hardcover, 24.95).

It was cold last week. Very cold. With ice. And snow. And a lot of it. By Wednesday, we had gotten snow for three days straight, and although I was enjoying the "Will I Fall On My Ass Today" game, I was really starting to crave some warm sitting down time, so I shuffled into "Mien Bäcker," a small backery and coffee shop, on the way back from school for a bit of hot chocolate and a nice view of the snow on the Main Street. I sat myself at a table looked out across the street toward the Rathaus (Town Hall) and busied myself poking the ice berg of cream that floated in airy bliss over my piping hot glass mug of endorphin-inducing goodness.

Which brings me to a note: People in Northern Germany aren't what you would call talkative. On the scale of everyday conversations, the average person ranks somewhere just below a step ladder, but that isn't to say that they don't WANT to talk to you. It's just that it's a population of people kind of like that kid in class who would always walk up to you while you were having a conversation with someone else, only to stand six inches behind you and never say a word. You knew he wanted to join in, and he knew it too, but neither of you could quite figure out how to make it work. Well, the people on Fehmarn get around that with what I like to call "The Fehmarn Flirt."

It works like this: You're at a table eating or drinking. You're minding your own business, which means people start staring at you. A lot. It's usually cloak and dagger stuff, a look over the shoulder, leaning back in their chairs, staring directly into your eyes without blinking until you avert your eyes and start staring at the table cloth, stuff like that. You hardly even notice. Anyway, if they really want to talk to you, they just repeat the procedure, making it slightly more obvious each time that they think you're just SO interesting.

At this point, your job is to think of some lame reason to start talking to them: "Gee, that sure is a swell sweater you've got there," or "Boy, it sure is nippy outside, isn't it" at which point that might respond with: "And how!" and by the time the conversations over, you know all about that toe nail that's growing the wrong way on their left foot. Congratulations: you've got youself a new conversation partner.

Anyway, this old lady started giving me the eye and smiling, so I started smiling back. Naturally. We did that for about twenty minutes, then she said something about needing sugar in her coffee, which then blossomed into a full-blown conversation.

FRAU: Ugh. We've had too much snow. Awful. Everything is so slick. It's so hard to walk.

ME: Yeah, I know. I got stuck sliding a ramp the other day, and a taxi driver got out of his car to help me down. (That's true, by the way. See, Germans are friendly)

FRAU: It's awful. Too much snow. I say we've had too much snow.

ME: Yeah.

FRAU: When I was young, we'd used to have so much snow, you couldn't open the door to go outside. The weather's awful here. Ugh. And the people are so nosey, always wanting to know what you're up to. I hate it here.

ME: Really? Where are you from?

FRAU: Fehmarn. There's an old saying: Fehmarn is flat as a table and the people are proud of it, but that's not true. I hate it. I used to live in Hamburg, but it's full of thieves now. It's not safe to use the U Bahn (subway); you have to watch your bag.

ME: Uh huh.

FRAU: And these kids! They get so fresh when they get around fifteen and you have to crack them on the shins with your stick every now and then. Isn't that right?

ME: Uh....sure.

FRAU: Do you know that song "Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann (My father was a wanderer)?"

ME: Yeah.

FRAU: I love that song.

ME: Me too.

FRAU (singing): Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann\Es liegt mir auch im Blut (My father was a wanderer and it's in my blood too). We've had way too much snow this year, you know.

That's basically it. It's compressed, of course, and I left out the boring parts that make her sound sane in favor of this shorter, much more interesting, version. Isn't it fun how I can warp someone's personality for narrative purposes! It's so much....POWER. Muahahahahahaha!

Oh, I did have a nice encounter with Plattdeutsch, or should I say, Plattdüütsch, talking with her. If I haven't said already, it's the local dialect. Here's a nice little bit to show you just how different it is.

The old lady said: I have my glasses on, it can't be snowing.

In High German (Standard German): Ich habe meine Brille auf der Nase. Es kann nicht sein, daß es da schneit.

In Plattdüütsch: I' hab' 'ne Brill auf de Nääs. I' kann ni' sään, daß es de schneit.

That's the only sentence in Platt I could understand. Good times.


I also went to Hamburg over the weekend to walk around and look at stuff. Most of it was unremarkable, as are most of the times I hang out with people, but we did spice it up with a little REDLIGHT DISTRICT ACTION! Whoo! Yeah, OK, so it wasn't anything like that; we just watched everyone else walk into sex clubs while staring at the all the neon lights that advertised things I haven't really discussed since sixth grade biology. OK, that's a lie. But you'd be amazed how much more "open" the world feels bathed in red, green, and pink light and driven by techno remixes of Madonna songs.

There are times in your life, though, when you wish you had your camera with you, and this was one of them. We were looking down a side street that was stuffed with sex shops, sleazy looking gay theaters (would you like burning, itching, or swelling with your popcorn) and other "places," and right in the middle was a sign that said: "Jesus Lives." Damn. Maybe next time.

Anyway, we were walking down the street back to the train station when these two people walked past laughing, and stuck something on my head. Hmmmm. I reached up and pulled down....red and green felt antlers with bells glued on. I was confused and hoping it was dirt that gave the end of the left antler a beautiful gray highlight. The woman who put them on my head looked back over her shoulder when I asked what they were, and shouted: "Ich mag das, ich mag das (I like it, I like it), as she walked off into the buzzing light of the Reeperbahn.

Who was that masked stranger?

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Mullet has arrived. The girls brought it by my apartment Saturday night, and man, is it awesome! But is it a true Mullet? Does it match the criteria set by the Great Maned-One during his great Sermon from the Back Seat of his Bitchin' Camero in Detroit in 1978? Let's have a look.

1. Mullet: Check. It's a nice one, shoulder-length, slightly wavey, and complete with bangs. None of it is shaved. Instead, it appears he favors the bonsai tree approach to Mullet maintenance; let the hair grow where it will, trimming only those pieces necessary to perfect and release its true Mulletness. The result: a natural do born to par-tay!

2. Gold Medallion Sunken Deep in Chest Hair: Check. It's small, but it's there. Like the temple of Angkor Wat, it shines as a testament of gilded art surrounded by an impenetrable wilderness. And like that same Cambodian wonder, you can't help but stare at it. The shirt is unbuttoned just enough to show-case it and the bristled expanses which it inhabits. Kudos.

3. Denim Jacket: Check. The inclusion of this piece marks him as a true orthodox Believer, for where some of the newer practioners may abandon demin (the fabric of bad-ass dudes everywhere who still know how to rock out) for the subtler tones of leather, or, in some cases, pleather, this man sticks to the Old Path. It is faded blue, loose, and doesn't obscure one's view of either the Mullet or Medallion. Well chosen. The rivets are large and secure the pockets well, ideal for holding a pack of cigarettes or that shard of Tommy Lee's drumbstick you picked up while getting your mind "friggin' blow out" at that Mötley Crüe concert in 1987.

4. Thin Facial Hair: Check. Ok, so I can't say too much here, but what the hell, I'll throw the first stone. He does manage to make it cover his whole face, meaning the cheeks, chin, under the nose, and side burns, which is more than you can say for most. That said, area does not mean quality; it's see-through in some places, patchy in others, and it is this feature that saves his near perfect Mullet Rating. The stubble that refuses to grow into the beard you wish you had is crucial to anyone's Mullet Prowess, and I am proud to say that this man keeps his pride. My hats off to you, my friend.

So, after that thorough and scientific examination of the....facts, I have concluded that this man IS mullet-worthy. And I say to you, whoever you are: Keep on Rockin', man, wherever you are.

I'm sure everyone really cared about this post. I know I did.

Monday, January 16, 2006

What Burg is like when the Tourists are Gone:

Before I came here, I wrote in my application that I would "immerse myself in the local culture" and see German life as it truly is. The sentence itself is crap, written in that special language reserved for applications where you try to make yourself sound like an earth-shaking figure in the mould of Jesus or Buddha, but the sentiment is basically true; I did, and still do, want to get to know people who aren't Americans, learn their language and culture, and generally make friends.

So you can understand it when I started feeling a little upset that, well, I wasn't really doing it. True, I did go to the Weihnachtsmarkt (see brilliantly written post of December 5 for further details), go to some peoples houses when they invited me, but something always felt lacking, out of place, and tainted by the smell of unfulfilled potential. Most of my weekends were, and are, spent watching TV and reading, which aren't bad, but you really can't replace them with human contact and an activity now and then.

What am I talking about? Sure you can. I have learned finally that what Germans (or these people on Fehmarn) do is, you know, pretty much what I do most of the time. Which is to say: nothing.

The movie theater is closed for what the sign calls a short business vacation, but doesn't say when that will end. And no one in town, including those who have lived here up to 30 years, seems to know either. They just know it isn't open and that this always happens about the same time every year. It's resurrection is something of a mythic concept rather than a physical reality; "Yeah, it closes in January every year....or is it Febuary? It closes every year and stays closed for a about a month until the middle of Febuary. Or is it March?"

This is a movie-going people up here, let me tell you. A lot of shops and restaraunts are closed too, giving the town a nice Spagetti Western set feel. Ennio Morricone plays me to the grocery store everyday. The town is what Germans would call "toten Hosen," or "dead pants."

But it has it's charm; the empty streets after 18.00 (everything is military time) are great for walks, and waving to bent old men in the neighborhood is a lot more fun than it should be. I guess you trade a social life for a kind populous, which is fine by me, at least for this year, but God, I wish they had a good bookstore I could walk around in.

Well, off to buy food for dinner, then watch me some Star Trek. And please, I know the urge to call me "Earth's # 1 Coolest Guy" is both obvious and warranted, but it's making all the other uncool people self-conscious. Be kind.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

So, it's been awhile, and I'm sure you've missed me. I know, I know, the world DOES seem darker and devoid of some deep, fundamental happiness when I'm not around, but it's just something you have to deal with at times. I've heard Camomile Tea helps.

I don't have any earth shattering news for you, just a couple little things I've collected over the last month or so. And no, they aren't in order of awesomeness.

Awesome Experience #1:

I guess I should start by saying that, in the weeks leading up to Winter Break, I had begun to do some work in small discussion groups of about five people. It wasn't anything major, just a short conversation about pretty much anything language is capable of expressing: politics, TV, food, music, things like that. It was fun, I liked it, and I think it was good for the students to have an actual conversation. And it's only a matter of time in these groups before someone asks about hobbies. It's what people do. I can't explain it.

Anyway, I gave them the usual answers I had gotten used to over the last couple months: "I play banjo, like to write," blah, blah, blah, but then I got ahead of myself and started actually answering the question. Oops. I'm not sure what it was, the air, the cereal I had had for breakfast, or the chance for interaction with the students at school apart from read ridiculously slow, but I started getting really excited and talking about other things I enjoyed. Like Mullets.

They're fantastic. I love them. In the Holy Trinity of hair I love, they are Nummer eins, followed closely by a good comb-over, with the rat tail rounding out the set in a distant third place. But that's beside the point. It took a bit of linguistic gymnastics, for they were as yet uncultured in the Ways of the Mullet, but the Spirit descended on them, and before long they were preserved in a goodly spirit of brotherhood and affection toward the Kentucky Waterfall and Tennesse Tophat.

By the time I had gotten this far and explained what the hell I was talking out, I noticed the looks of slight repugnance on their faces. Was it that they did not appreciate business in front, party in back? Could this be true? No. But that still didn't change the fact that they looked as if I had been explaining to them that "cow poo don't smell so bad, once you gits all used to it." I thought I had failed. They had failed to see the Light, smell the Hair Spray if you will. Five souls lost.

Boy was I wrong! A couple days ago, Andreas had the class break up into groups to play a kind of version of Jeopardy he had made up, and before they started, two girls over in the corner said they wanted to talk to me. OK. Thinking they wanted to ask me about some word or grammar they didn't know, I sat in a chair at thier table and warmed up my "split second grammar wizard machine."

But there was no word, no grammar. Instead, they offered me something far greater; a picture they had taken of a German Mullet. Now, I've seen Germanic mullets, and I have to tell you, they are something else, so you can imagine my excitement when I was offered physical documentation of their greatness.

They took the picture, they said, on the ferry from Puttgarden (a village on the northern end of the island) to Denmark while trying to find something to do over the Winter Break. I'm still trying to process the concept of going to Denmark because you're bored. My friend Ben and I drove to Elkin over the summer on a whim, but that doesn't seem to have to same ring to it.

And what REALLY makes the story awesome is that she lied to get the picture; she told the guy that he looked like her stepfather, and she wanted to take his picture! I have no idea why this excuse worked, but it did. God, that's awesome! I haven't actually gotten the picture yet, but I'll let everyone know when I do. I'm sure you really care.

Awesome Experience #2:

Monday was a cold day. OK, everyday is a cold day here, but Monday was especially cold, one of those days that seems to say: "Oh, what's that, you forgot your hat this morning, did you? No gloves? Where are they, on your desk? I'm so sorry. Here, I have a set in the closet, just let me go....SIKE! Sucker! God, you should have seem the look on your face! Man!" That was what Monday was like. Exactly.

Anyway, I was leaving school at around 4.00 in the afternoon, trying not to bust my ass on the patches of ice as I neared the curb. The sky was a deep gray, it's pastural beauty accentuated by the stinging mist that blew at sharp angles off the distant sea and through the trees. The sheen it gave the lingering ice reflected a single black bird as it left the side of the school, the wind tossed the branches of a dead tree. The weather WAS as good as the news said it was going to be! I don't know if Poe ever visited this place, but if he didn't, he was sure missing something. Winter here is so freaking brooding, it's great! But that's not my story.

As I was standing at the edge of the street waiting for the crossing light to turn green, two older ladies started talked across from me, one pointing at me with her cane every now and then as they talked. My first thought was: "What are they talking about? Is my hat really that stupid looking?" It is, by the way. Then, after a couple of seconds, I thought: "Awesome, an old lady is pointing at me with her cane! Neat!"

As I crossed the street, the lady with the cane asked: "Are you coming from the school?"


"So late? Oh Gott, oh Gott."

Need I explain how funny it sounds when someone says "oh Gott, oh Gott" really fast while looking at you with a face that seems to scream: "This cannot be!" No? Good. She then asked me what I was doing, why I was there so long, which I gladly answered. Oops.

I noticed that as the number of words increased, the expressions of both older ladies seemed to become less expressive and more akin to what you expect when someone, say, watches a dog pees on your shoe, or as someone has a sudden mental breakdown in the middle of the street. There was a short of reverse symbiotic relationship between us then: the more I said, the less they appeared to register. It was special. It touched me.

It took awhile, but I finally noticed that they didn't really care what I was talking about, so I told Chatty Mctalkerson to find something else to do, and I went on my way. Then it hit me:


Yes! It's good to know that I can still be confused for a sixteen year old High School student. I'd grow a beard to prove them wrong, but it would look just pathetic and patchy, completing the picture.

I've learned so much about myself here; apparently, I'm a sixteen year old Swiss\Schwäbisch High School Student who does way too much work.