Monday, June 19, 2006

There are times when, wrapped up in what I have to do (buying groceries, getting home by 16.10 to watch "Star Trek"), I forget that I've been living in a small town. After ten months, the dozen crossing lights offered by this fair city of mine start looking like the Vegas Strip, which I have never seen, except if you count the Travel Channel. They like to gamble, those chaps over at the Travel Channel. But you know what? The shows still suck. This blog, on the other hand, doesn't suck. It's genius. And yes, I was able to say that with a straight face.

Anyway, what I mean to say is: People watch you here. It's like a friendly little police state with one free refill for your € 1,40 cup of coffee. They've perfected small town surveillance. I can't really blame them, though, because there isn't a whole lot to do here. There is a story behind all this, by the way, in case you're wondering. In fact, here it is:

If I haven't whined about it yet, I'm busy packing things up in my room to come home, which IS as fun as it sounds. I've spent more time with packing tape in the last few days than I'd like to admit, but I keep telling myself it's one of those necessary evils if you want to keep the guy from yelling for help all afternoon.

God, let me tell you, I don't know where I get it from! Stuff just seems to come to me. It's a gift, really, my gift to humanity.

No, you can't exchange it.


Apart from reconstituting old cardboard boxes with my innate "two left thumbs" handyman-ness that turns both Saran Wrap and tape into my mortal enemies, a large part of the last week or so has been spent gathering intellegence, which is my way of saying walking down to the post office and asking about shipping procedures. I had gone down before and asked about mailing my big red roller bags, but I was asked to check on it again by way of executive order (mom), so I headed off down the street, this time with the bag in tow as insurance in order to avoid misunderstandings with the person behind the counter as well as another Papal Bull requesting further investigation.

Long and short of it is, I did it: I talked to the lady in the Post Office, got what I needed, talked to some other people I bumped into along the way, and scooted in for a cup of coffee and a baked good. After that, I went home, stowed the bag, and went back out for a bit before Star Trek.

Now, I should say that I have developed what could be called a warm professional relationship with the employees at Jens Markt: they all seem to know what I shop for on a regular basis, and I have taken to asking for advice at the meat counter. As of now, he hasn't steered me wrong. But our relationship goes beyond meat counseling, it seems, and most of the people who work there now go out of their way to say "moin" to me when I walk in, which makes it only natural that I spent about ten minutes talking to the lady stacking drinking, which is another way of saying: I spent ten minutes listening to her bitch about her boss. We connecting. It was special.

Anyway, Saturday afternoon, after cleaning a little more and packing up, I headed out to buy some Tuna (I was feeling a bit cheap). Well, as fate would have it, because it "would have" many things, the lady behind the counter was the one I had that little bitch session with. As I walk up to pay, she asks: "What were you doing with your bag yesterday." Just like that. No introduction, no segway or "oh, by the way." She just said it. I part of me expected her to follow up with: "Do you always go to the bathroom between four and five every night, or is this a new thing in the last few weeks, because I'm starting to worry?"

After finishing all that, I have realized how amazingly boring it all is. Oh well, it happens, and if you've gotten this far, it means you've read it all, which means that the joke's on you! Go watch golf on TV; that will get your blood flowing again. But wait, what's that sound? Hmmm, could it be? No! It can't be! Impossible! Yes, it is! Incredible! There's more! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you have stumbled into a bit of a matinee, a faux entertainment extravaganza, a symphony of thrills, an adventure through fear and the deepest darkness of the depraved and desperate human soul.

Or just a county fair. Whichever comes first.

Those who know me know that I'm a bit of a freak, a nerd or geek, if you will, about things like fairs. There's something about the mixure of totally predictable consumerism and the utterly fun and bizarre that puts me on cloud nine. Plus, I really like the paint jobs on the booths and rides: I'd collect it if I could. And don't even get me started on what happens when an organ grinder shows up.

So it should be of no surprise that I went with Andreas, the kids, and Lydia, their new au pair from Poland (who's really cool, incidentally), at the drop of the hat that I don't own. I'll just save myself the trouble of describing it all in detail by saying that it was FANTASTIC! I knew it was going to be good as soon as my nose caught the sweet, sweet scent of powdered sugar and dough bobbing in twisted baskets of popping fat, and my ears the shrieks of terrified children as their bodies were slung against the thin aluminum sides of brightly painted centrifuges. That is, despite what people might say, what dreams are made of. I think we were there about, oh, I don't know, five seconds, before Svenia grabbed my hand and asked me if I wanted to go into the glass labyrinth. Do I?! Ripley's Believe It Or Not, here I come!

Did I mention that I couldn't find my way out of a wet paper bag if my life depended on it? No? Well, I can't. I'm screwed pretty much the second you turn me around, and I generally hate the feeling that comes with it, but for some reason, if you duplicate it in a twisted rat's nest of overlapping glass hallways, I'll pay for it, and pretty much love the experience the whole time. That isn't to say, though, that I wasn't a little worried, after ten minutes of walking into panes of glass and plodding in circles, that I wouldn't get a complimentary certificate for dehydration along with my fun: it must have been ninety degrees in there before we found our way out between two spinning, padded pillars. It was the best € 2,00 I've spent in a while. I mean, Andreas seemed to get a big kick out of watching me and his seven year old daughter run into glass over, and over, and over again. Who was it who said that the essence of comedy is someone else's pain was a little more right than I like to admit sometimes. Oh, and there were magic mirrors, real ones. And they ruled. Solidly.

After paying to have my psyche screwed, Andreas, Emilie, Svenia, and I all climbed into Bumper Cars to see who could collect the coolest blunt impact bruise in a totally legal situation. There's generally a lot to be said for the fun you can have while ramming into children and teenagers in minimally padded cars, but it pales in comparison with the glee Andreas showed each time he jacked Svenia and I into the side of the ring. The word "impish" starts to get at it. It took a while to get there, but after getting to know Andreas for ten months and becoming pretty good friends, I can say that he's basically a little kid in a really lanky body who needs minimal excuse to come and out-kid the resident three year old munchkin.

Then again, after watching all the children at the Kindergarten run around completely naked in the playground, I'm happy that's not completely true. Growing up can be a good thing sometimes.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

So there's been a lot going on since I last made the effort to sit down and actually write something. Usually, this would mean that I'd string together a massive post with the readability of a James Joyce novel read backwards through a grimy bar room mirror, but I promise this time that I'll be concise. OK, so I just said that because I could. It feels nice every now and then. Most likely this will be long. Very long. With multiple topics without visible threads or transitions. You have been warned, and I have be absolved of responsibility. See, we do have a good relationship. Either that, or we're both in politics.

Alright. I'll start big and see how far we get:

I went to Weimar last weekend, what will most likely be my last trip out of Schleswig-Holstein before my grant ends, and it was beautiful. Yeah, I know I say that all the time, but I mean it, have meant it, every time I say it. I don't know what it is exactly, whether there really are that many great cities lying around like the crumbs under my very crooked mattress, or if I've just gotten lucky and chosen wisely. The first option seems more likely, but since I like to think of myself doing anything wisely, I'll keep the second half of that sentence for myself. But it was wise. I'm just saying. It was.

It's not a very big town, but Martin Luther, Goethe, Nietzche, Schiller, and Bach all lived there, so what it lacks in quanity it more than makes up for in quality. Just so everyone knows, that last sentence was mostly shameless name dropping, since I have never read any Goethe, Schiller, or Nietzche, and don't really like Bach all that much, but if college taught me one thing, it's to fake knowledge of canonical figures with little remorse to avoid pretentious eye-rolling. Apart from that, at least four of the five changed the world in their respective fields, which entitles them to at least one honorable mention, I think. They can rest easy now: I have mentioned them in this blog. Way to go, guys.

The city itself was very pretty and seems to benefit from its not being destroyed in the war. If you want to know what it looks like, just rip a medieval village out of a childrens' pop up book and place it on the face of the earth, and you'd get a pretty good idea. Go there if you get the chance. It's nice. It reeks of age in a comfortable way. It's very secure with it. It's like the guy who doesn't have to quote Velvet Underground lyrics or wear dirty clothes to prove how cool his is: he just stands there, and you know, deep down within yourself, that he's cooler than you. Plus, the City Park is fantastic! It runs along the Ilm River, and the meadows that stretch out from its banks run for miles. I didn't know that places like that actually existed; I just thought they were in English country stories or Romantic poems. Come to think of it, they are: Goethe had a little garden house there where he did some writing. We went in because it was there, but it was kind of underwhelming, really, just a little two floor 18th century country bungelow. It was pretty, but it didn't knock my socks off or anything. I could live there, though, maybe sleep behind the admissions desk.

We arrived in Weimar on Friday, the first day of the World Cup. Now, I'm not really the sporty kind of guy: years of ducking soccer balls or cutting out of line during kick ball didn't come, as many PE teachers seemed to think, from an unwillingness to "hustle, hustle," but rather a mix of not wanted to humiliate myself by blocking an incoming Frisby with my face, or dragging down the team unlucky enough to have me on their roster. I just suck. A lot. I'm OK with it, and sports and I have generally led seperate lives since High School. But I'm willing to make an exception for the World Cup. It's just plain nuts. The whole country seems to have lost a bit of its mind, and it's downright infectious. Growing up in the United States, soccer was never a part of the national sports consciousness, but I honestly have to say that people are kind of missing out. It's very different than football or basketball, where teams can win or lose by huge margins, and shares a lot in common with baseball: the scores are routinely low, the pace of the game is irregular, and a lot of it seems to be built on complex rituals driven by fans and actually being there, as opposed to a TV sport, which kind of makes me wonder why it's not very big at home. In any case, it almost seems like celebrating the World Cup as an event is just as important as watching the games, which gives unathletic people like me a nice alternative to actually knowing what's going on: breathing the air is enough to feel like part of a massive inside joke that the world north of the Rio Grande just doesn't get.

I spent the first day after Weimar walking around Lübeck on a blistering summer day that soared to 85 degrees, which I'm not used to anymore. I wilt like new spinach when it gets over 75 without a stiff breeze, so I did my share of what I've been told is called "sweating." Apparently, when the weather gets warm enough, your body produces salty water and releases it through your skin to cool you off. It's very uncomfortable, and suggest doing what I can to avoid it. Fortunately, ice cream is a good cure. And no, this isn't Baskin Robbins. German ice cream wouldn't be caught dead hanging out with our thirty-two "flavors" in a mall. It you want to get it, you have to go to an "Eis Cafe," where you can buy everything from the standard scoops to a "Becher" with fruits and all kinds of other things that are bad for you at a comfortable table. I have turned away from my Oreo Cookie Ice Cream Ways, and have been redeemed. It's not too late. It's never too late.

The end of the day saw Stacy and I drinking a bottle of wine at the Lübeck Wine Festival to lounged-up cover versions of Willy Nelson's "On the Road," Elvis Presley's "That's Alright Mama," and some other abomination I've managed to block out of my mind. There wasn't a sausage or glass of beer in the entire place, but they apparently had no problem bringing out the cheese. We were the youngest people there by a good quarter century, and I'm pretty sure they thought we were on a date, but I'm happy to report to the breathless hordes of women camped out on my yard that I am still single. But one at a time, please. Take a number. I've still got number "one," by the way, if anyone's interested.

And you thought it was too late for self deprecation. Honestly.

I got back to Fehmarn Monday evening to find that someone had replaced my upstairs room with a green house, complete with foggy glasses. I slept without sheets with my windows open, and I still managed to sweat. Tuesday was even more impressive. It was so hot, a balmy 90 degrees, that it drove me to the hated activity of buying clothes, shorts in this case. In case you don't know, finding clothes to fit me is as about as fun as untangling balls of Christmas lights, because I am what you would call a "little guy." Apart from towering over a level plain with five feet and six inches, I am also the walking antithesis of a football player's body. I'm personally OK with it, but the clothing industry at home seems to have forgotten that people like me exist outside of "Survial Of The Fittest" dioramas, and Germany doesn't seem to be much better. It took me three hours to find a pair that could fit with my belt on, and I wouldn't have bought those if they hadn't been reduced to € 15,00.

Well, it turns out there was a good reason they were so cheap, because two buttons had managed to wedge themselves shut and tear out of the pants within five minutes of me putting them on, and if that wasn't enough, the button on the fly popped off the next day. By this point, wearing these pieces of crap had become a matter of honor, so I shuffled across the hall into my bedroom holding the waist under my elbows and dug out my little sowing kit. I hadn't seen it since mom gave me a running demo on the train in August, but I am proud to report that the operation was a success. I am wearing them now. I'm ridiculously proud of myself, and take regular breaks to inspect my handywork. That sucker's never coming off again.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

As of now, I have watched "All The President's Men" and AM watching "The Spy Who Loved Me" (that's James Bond for you uncultured types), which makes for a good day. But that's not why I'm here. Hmmm, why am I here? Come to think of it, why is anyone here? Is it enough to live, or are we meant to do something greater, somethi....Sorry, just a bit of freshman year flashback. It's astounding how damn BRILLIANT you can be tanked up on Cheerwine and stained orange by stale Cheetos at five in the morning. But all that's beside the point.

What is the point? Last weekend was a good one. I had visitors. Yes, yes, I know. You're all thinking: "What, hold on, visitors? How did he manage that?" The answer is simply that it really didn't have anything to do with me, or the fifteen goat livers I roasted on hot stones last week under the half moon. It appears, strangely enough, that they just wanted to come, and I wasn't one to argue. So Stacy and Jenny arrived Saturday afternoon under a beautiful northern German sky, an endless, formless, expanse of blinding white driven by persistent wind and pissing rain. Now, in case you, my dear reader, have, I don't know, slept under a rock for the last ten months, there isn't a whole lot to do here if you don't rent a house and mind supping on ice cream and sleeping in a beach basket all summer. If that's your scene, you're set, but if you're one of the 15,000 people who call Fehmarn home for twelve months of the year, you're kind of screwed.

That said, I'm impressed how it all worked out, and not just because I was actually able to find something for us all to do for an entire day; it gave me the chance to see the island through a fresh set of eyes, which helped me appreciate it more. The first part of the day was taken up with eating lunch at a seafood place on Markt and taking a blitz tour of the old church while waiting for the next bus to Puttgarden. Oh, there are taxis, but they were all busy, or so the guy on the phone told me. ALL of them. Every single one. I don't know why I was surprised, because there had to be several thousand tourists here for the Pfingsten (Pentacost) holiday weekend. While I'm on this whole tourist thing, tell me: does it make a bad person that I sometimes want to push the old ladies off the sidewalk who walk about 0.00001 miles per hour side by side, affectively blocking your way as they stare at EVERY postcard on EVERY rack on the street? If your answer that that question is an "affirmative," keep in mind that it was more of a rhetorical question, a critical prompt, if you will. If, on the other hand, your answer is a "negative," feel free to write.

Anyway, the day before, I thought to myself: "Hey, you know, riding the ferry over to Denmark would be fun. I mean, I've never done it." It was one of those ideas that hit me with a mixure of excitement and ripened guilt all at once; I was excited because I've never done it, but that enthusiasm only served to drive home the fact that I SHOULD have by now. Yes, this is how I think. Welcome.

Stacy and Jenny didn't have their passports with them, and neither did I, come to think of it, but we decided to give it a shot anyway and ask someone near the ferry who looked like they might have the scoop on this whole "going to another country" thing. We weren't too worried about it, really. I mean, this is the German-Danish Border, which is kind of like the US-Canadian line after smoking three joints while knitting a loose fitting cap to Bob Marley: Greatest Hits records. "Welcome to Denmark: Whatever, Dude." And can you blame them? All that square paper pushing can, like, totally harsh your mellow.

But not being citizens of the EU, the world's only running Super Nation, we thought it would be better to ask someone if we needed our passes, someone who, in this case, turned out to be an older man standing right by the entrance to the ferry. Convenient. OK, los geht's. "Excuse me," Jenny said, walking up, "but we were wondering: do we need our passes to get on the ferry. Our passports. We don't have them."

"What?" Apparently, the question smelled something like rotten eggs wrapped in wet dog hair, because he managed to bring his eye brows all the way down to the bridge of his nose, pushing them together at the bottom so they assumed the rough outline of a dead caterpiller.

"Do we need our passports to get on the ferry?"

"I don't give a shit, I just take your tickets."

Well, OK then.

As it turns out, no one checked through the whole 45 minute trip, so I was free to stop and watch the gray waves and imagine fleets of trading ships bound for England or Russia, and the small pirate ships that ambushed them. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, the ships come with names and histories. It's what I do. But back to the real boat.

A border, with all the duty free perks, is probably the best way to describe it. It was huge, with six decks according to the buttons in the lower deck elevator, and I can believe it. I've watched the ferries dock before while waiting for the train from Copenhagen to roll off, and they look like something out of Star Wars (the original, please, none of this "Special Edition" or Episodes I, II, or III crap. I have standards), and by "something" I mean the Jawa droid trader vehicle in the first one. And don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. I know who you are.

At this point, you might be asking yourselves where the ferry docks in Denmark. Well, the map will tell you Rødby, something approaching a town, but it's really Rødbyhaven, or harbor, an industrial wasteland with just enough houses to provide for the population needed to give the place the desired "Twilight Zone" ambiance. It was a real post-Apocalyptic metropolis, let me tell you. The city plan was unnaturally wide and empty; the streets are more like asphalt and brick boulevards than small town thoroughfares. There was a bar called "The Golden Lady" and an ATM machine. Oh, and a Greasy Spoon joint, complete with washed out, yellowed pictures of the menu outside. That was it. Rødbyhaven isn't dead, it's already buried.

So I don't know why we were so surprized when the bus to Rødby didn't show up. The plan said it was supposed to run on Saturdays, but the shit-eating grins we got from people passing in their cars told us otherwise. Having a bus stop must have been one of those things the city designer read about in a magazine, one of those accessories that takes your end-of-the-earth hamlet and transforms it into a real city.

All that, though, didn't change the fact that we were in Denmark! I couldn't read a damn thing, except the sign for the "Golden Lady," and it was great, if not a bit confusing; I had started to take the fact that I can read signs and books for granted, I think. It might sound lame, but walking around a deteriorating Danish village was one of the coolest things I've done in a while. I mean, I came over the ocean just to get there! This reaction was pretty common in our little group, by the way.

But that doesn't mean we stayed all that long.

Once we got back to Fehmarn, we heading on down to the Südstrand (South Beach) to look at the ocean now that the weather had cleared up, and it didn't disappoint. The Baltic on a good day is actually a light blue color, almost greenish, which I guess has something to do with its very low salt content. The wind was puffing at that "knock you off your feet" strength, but that only added to the authentic northern German experience. There was a fest, too, where we all bought the world famous Danish Hot Dog. And no, I didn't miss the irony there.

The Danish Hot Dog is composed of the following elements:

1) Bright Red Sausage, thin
2) Equal squirts Ketchup, Mustard, and some kind of Romoulade or Sweet Mayonnaise
3) Fried French Onion Bits
4) Sweet Danish Pickle Slices

Think it sounds nasty, don't you? Well, you're wrong: it was delicious.

Denmark, land of contrasts, how good you are.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

It is the first of June, and it's cold.

What the hell?