We left over a foot of snow and arrived in a false Spring. The air has a warm touch, and if I didn’t know better, I’d think tulips were going to be sprouting any day now. They might be already. And soon February through April will kill them. The fucking birds are even tweeting like green leaves and blue skies are just around the corner. I think we are all going to be disappointed on that front for another four months. At least.
The calendar page has turned, and here we are back in Germany and in 2014. I like the sound of that number. It has a pleasant evenness about it. Rag on 2013 as you will, but it was a good year too. I published two articles in the ever-charming magazine New Escapologist and wrote a mini-guidebook of Frankfurt for The Hunt guides. (If you’d like to hear about some of my favorite places in the city, you can read an e-version here for free. Just click on “buy guide.” You won’t actually have to buy it.) I started my first fiction story in almost a hundred years, something I hope to have wrapped up and sent away in the next couple of weeks. I wrote and edited a shit-ton of stuff for Young Germany too, though the world still seems to be infinitely less impressed by writing that is published digitally. Joke’s on you digital skeptics! Web writing is where most of the regular pay checks are at.
as I was saying
We went to the States. Things happened. We paced up and down the east coast. We introduced Pickles to her American family, stuffed ourselves at Thanksgiving and at Christmas and at pretty much every opportunity in between and slept in a lot of beds that were a little bit too small for three people. There was singing and snow and a trip to the aquarium. There was bad-to-non-existent public transportation, there were peaceful car rides, there were glorious thrift stores, and there were cold playgrounds and books. It was fun and stressful, as traveling with a kid just under two can be. We saw a lot of people, and missed a lot more.
A few visuals of our travels (there wasn’t a lot to choose from, what with not wanting to post photos of any people, but still):
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Here, here J.R.R. Tolkien, here, here. The Hobbit is just full of tasty lines that apply seamlessly to our own travels. Luckily we are not likely to encounter any trolls. But I suppose that really depends on who you ask.
There have been witches. And possibly ghosts.
Though a comfortable stay in a cozy house with ample food and drink may not make for much of a story, I can tell you this about our first two weeks in the U.S.:
Pickles can now pedal a tricycle and say a lot of new English words. English is winning the language race now that we’re surrounded by people speaking it.
I can now say, tried and tested!, that this recipe for Pumpkin Pull-Apart Bread is the best cooking decision you will ever make. (Oh. My. Cod.)
Sculpture parks can be creepy and fun. (See photos.)
Jet lag with babies sucks more than you ever could have possibly imagined.
There are air mattresses in this world that are actually comfortable.
Tonight will find us on the highway heading south. Who knows when we will make it back to New Jersey. Next year? In three? In five? But it has been fun. And off they drove, tra la la!
I am writing this to you from the shores of America.
It is a fact that I still find hard to believe.
The jet lag was horrible; I don’t recommend traveling across time zones with babies to anyone, ever, period, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.
I spent 23 years of my life in America, and now it strikes me as a country of people running in circles, frantically waving their hands above their heads.
Not everybody, not individuals, and probably not you: It is a feeling, an image that comes to mind when people start telling me stories about the health care system and gun violence and the economy and abandoned houses and minimum wage and the way people drive. America doesn’t make any sense to me, and I’m not sure that it has anything to do with the fact that I have lived elsewhere for the past eight years.
But we are having a lovely time, eating decadently and enjoying watching Pickles get to know a new set of grandparents. We’ve been to the beach (it was foggy; we built castles) and a thrift store (I miss the warehouse-sized American thrift stores, though it turns out I can get much better deals at the flea markets in Germany) and on walks beneath the brightly colored stragglers still hanging onto their trees.
Designed by a regular, it was slathered with some things you’d expect on a burger (onions, bacon, cheddar cheese) and some things you wouldn’t (peanut butter, hot green chilis, pineapple). I hesitated: I am not usually an adventurous orderer. But nothing else on the menu sounded interesting in comparison. I ordered. It was delicious.
I can’t stop thinking about this fucking burger.
Seriously. I have been talking about it for weeks. With three vegetarian options on the menu, I keep telling the Beard that we need to head to Heroes, birthplace of this strange burger, together, immediately. I crave the peanut butter and pineapple combo, the bacon and the cheddar and oh my god did I mention the peanut butter? On a burger? My mind has been blown. I wake up thinking about this fucking burger. Whenever I start getting hungry it is the first thing I think of.
On top of having The Weirdest and Best Burger I Have Ever Eaten, the restaurant that makes it is pretty fucking cool. As the name might suggest, it is superhero themed: the walls are decorated with comic book characters (mostly Batman and the Joker from the quick look I took while chasing Baby Pickles around the place), and there are comics in a magazine rack along the tiny bar that fills one corner of the small room. Everything is made there (including the buns), and in the summer there is seating outside. (This was key in keeping Pickles entertained while I ate. There was also a waitress who deserves the hero title for herself for playing with Pickles whenever she could so I could actually finish my wonder burger.) It may be all the way over in Bornheim, which means almost an hour of travel by train or by bike, but holy shit. So worth it. And the massive protein shot makes me a bicycle superhero anyway.
I might never have even discovered the place if it wasn’t for an incredibly fun new writing project. The HUNT (a series of city-specific travel guides) hired me to write a mini guide for Frankfurt. It will be published as an e-book and will be available at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. And it is one of the funnest projects I’ve done in a while. When else do you get to go out to eat or drinking and legitimately call it work?
May I present…direct from the land of milk and honey and one of my favorite people in the world…our new baby bike seat. Squeal–It’s what I do in my head every time I think about this thing. And when Baby Pickles and I took our first ride on it, she did a lot of squealing too.
Bikes for the win! Seriously.
Recently, an old friend of mine introduced me to a new friend of his as “a bicycle activist.” I had to think about it for a minute. Was it true? While I don’t make it to every Critical Mass anymore, I do see bikes as a key to living my ideals. I initially got into biking as my main mode of transportation the year before I moved to Germany. I was beginning to think critically about car culture and the habit of the 9-5 career path. I didn’t want to work more to pay for a car that was mucking up the environment and keeping me alienated from the world around me. On my bike I noticed my surroundings. On my bike I was a part of the world, not fenced off apart behind metal and glass.
Biking to work didn’t cost me a thing, and it kept me fit. I didn’t have to sit in traffic jams, and I noticed the birds singing or the smell of summer on the air. When I moved to Germany, I sold my car, and I haven’t owned one since.
When we first moved back to Frankfurt, I took the train everywhere. Pickles intially refused to ride in our Chariot kids’ bike trailer, and so my feet and the train were my only options. While I am totally in love with Germany’s public transport system, it is still limiting, and it still costs 2.60 a pop for local rides. As soon as Pickles started enjoying the bike trailer, and I started biking again, I felt so free. It sounds cheesey. Maybe it is. But on my bike, I don’t have to worry about train schedules or missing the last ride home on a night out. I save at least 20 euros a week not buying train tickets. And it is just so fun to zip around the city with the wind on my face: Just slow enough to take in the scenary and fast enough to get me anywhere in this tiny metropolis.
The Chariot trailer is awesome, but it has its downsides. I love it for the space (you can haul two kids and half your house in the damn thing), and it is convenient that Pickles can nap in it. But I sometimes don’t feel like using it because it makes biking harder. The thing is feather light, as far as bike trailers go, but if I’m already feeling exhausted, just thinking about pulling extra weight around makes me think twice about even leaving the house. And Pickles refused to ride in it calmly until she was over a year old, baby hammock attachment be damned. So there’s that.
Then we tried out a Bobike seat in Holland. Pickles loved it. Our Dutch friend bought us two. After something like six months and a lot of excited waiting, finally, finally, we were able to pick up the used Bobike seats she had gotten us during our most recent trip to Holland. And the people rejoiced. At least I did. But I still needed a bike.
See, I ride a racing bike. It is fast and light and purdy and I love it to pieces. But it is also impossible to attach a Bobike seat to a racing bike–the handlebars are all wrong, and if for some reason you did manage to attach it, you would be riding with your head all up in your baby. No thanks. So I started haunting eBay’s classified ads for a Holland bike, and after a week of appointment roulette and one false lead, I bought this nifty black number for half of the sticker price. Lady had bought it and discovered that she hated riding bikes. I can’t say I mind. She was so happy to be rid of it that she thanked me six times before I made it out of the door.
Last night I finished installing the seat and tweaking the bike. I strapped on Pickles’ helmet, and off we went for a ride down the river. Holy shit. I love it. I LOVE it. Riding a bike in an upright position is pretty comfortable, if not so fast. (Though this bike is pretty light for a Holland bike–thanks aluminum.) Pickles squealed and shouted and pointed at everything she could see, and I squealed right along with her. We can go for an evening ride every single day! We can just hop on a bike and run to the store! I don’t have to think about attaching the trailer or hauling it around for every single trip! I am so smitten. I can’t wait to get home and go for another ride.
Sometimes I forget how great being on a bike can make you feel. How exhilarating it can be. Like, for example, when you don’t ride a bike for two years because you’re pregnant (and then too nauseous and then too spacey and then too enormous and keep kneeing yourself in the belly when you try to peddle) and then because your freshly squeezed newborn doesn’t do anything but scream when you try to use the bike trailer. I forgot then.
But Pickles doesn’t hate the bike trailer anymore. Now she tolerates it for up to two hours at a time. Now it almost always puts her to sleep for a 40 minute nap that she wouldn’t have taken at home (which, much to my surprise, seems to be resulting in better and more sleep nights, weird). Glory glory hallelujah, I am no longer a slave to the Deutsche Bahn.
Not that I don’t like the Deutsche Bahn. I love the Deutsche Bahn. Public transportation in Germany wins all the awards from me. But it can still be a hassle. And it still costs more money than I’d like to be spending on something I could be doing for free (2.60 a pop, 6.somethingorother for a day pass, 9.80 for a group day pass). Because of the lay of the tracks and the waiting and the walking time, I am actually faster than the train when it comes to going into the city. (A sentence that makes me feel like the bike hulk. Heh.)
Now I go out of my way to find reasons to go for a ride, places to journey out to. Like today, when I was here:
The ride took me to a village to the north of Frankfurt, and the way was almost entirely through fields that looked like this, on paved bike paths where I met the occasional walker, dog, or fellow cyclist. The weather looked mean (it was faking), so only a handful of people had braved the backsides of their doors. And the city lurked off in the background, far away from us.
Judging from the kilometer count, it should have taken me 30-40 minutes to find my way to my friend’s apartment this morning. But it turned out that Google maps had invented a path, and I did a lot of backtracking and stopping to check the map. In the end I was almost 2 hours in getting there. But it was a lovely ride.
Now there’s breaking news. (Cough.) Look, people who come from countries that aren’t wealthy, who maybe aren’t a shade of Swiss cheese, who might actually need to get into Germany to save their fucking lives often have a hard time getting visas. They sometimes get deported.
I am an American, and my skin is the color of Swiss cheese. I have married a German and have produced a Swiss-cheese-colored baby for the shrinking German population. (Jawohl!) I can prove that I have a job and insurance and stability and a place to live. But what about the people who cannot prove these things? What about the people for whom staying here is the difference between having a chance at a fairly normal life and being shot or bombed or oppressed or or or? I don’t know where the immigrations people draw the line (are they more surly if you can’t speak German or if you can’t prove you have insurance, a job, and a rental contract?), but there are lines being drawn. I doubt anyone is being given an armband and sent away solely because of the color of their skin, but I do know that the people being sent away are largely people whose skin more closely resembles hazelnuts than cheese.
According to this article, Germany deports 50,000 immigrants annually. And before they deport them, they put them in special little deportation jails. Ick.
Today, any foreigner residing in Germany without legal immigration status can be arrested and placed in detention pending deportation. This includes refugees who are refused asylum, civil war refugees whose right to remain has not been extended, and immigrants in the broadest sense, who either entered Germany without a valid visa or whose residence permit has expired.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the law has allowed the detention of such people, in order to procure passports or travel documents before deporting them. Those affected are in a desperate situation lacking any recourse. The reason for their arrest is not any criminal offence they have committed, but restrictive German laws that turn them into “illegal immigrants.” Moreover, deportation detention can drag on for up to 18 months. …
According to the Initiative, over 50,000 migrants and asylum-seekers are deported from Germany each year, most of them by plane. Each day, 130 to 140 are returned to the conditions from which they fled—civil war, political persecution, dire economic hardship and regimes that suppress ethnic minorities and women.
Deportees are frequently accompanied by the paramilitary German Border Police or private security agents, who are prepared to use force. Those who resist are beaten, restrained and injected with drugs. A number have already been killed, but the culprits and the authorities responsible have so far escaped prosecution. The dead and abused refugees and immigrants are consciously accepted as the price of a brutal deportation practice.
Since 1993, 99 people have taken their own lives or died trying to avoid deportation, 45 while in detention.
Knowledge is power. So what are we going to do about it? Why are borders so important? Why is keeping people out more important than keeping people alive? Dog eat dog, survival of the fittest? Nope, just an accident of birth. I was born here and you were born there, so you better stay the fuck on your side of the line in the sand. You were born into war and I was born into wealth? Well, I must deserve it. Or something. Say it with me now…ICK.
It is a scenario that comes up over and over again in the apocalyptic books that I like reading so much. And in a life-or-death situation, I can understand turning people away from your group. If the choice is starving together or surviving a lone asshole, I know my instinct would urge me to survive as an asshole. But guess what: Germany is not turning people away because if it doesn’t, all the Germans will starve to death. We are not living in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Germany is turning people away because it makes sense within this government-controled, border-patroled world. Sad.
Meanwhile, back in the bubble of white privilege…I applied for what I think of as my “eternal German visa” a few weeks ago, or as the Americans call it, a Green Card. Once it is approved (the paperwork is floating around in Berlin somewhere as I type) I will be allowed to stay here forever—though to my disappointment I will have to return to renew every time I get a new passport, ie once every ten years. This is the award for three years of marriage.
I will be allowed to work any job, any time. (Bet you a dollar that I’m still not going to be allowed on the state health insurance plan though.) What a relief. Not that there was ever any serious question of it being denied, which is where my priviledge in this situation lies: All of my visas have been fairly easy to obtain. First there was a one-year au pairing visa. Then a three-year English teacher visa. Then I got married to a German, which gets you a pass for at least three years. Though after seven years in Germany I could have applied for the same visa independently of the Beard, getting married made everything a lot easier. Dual citizenship, however, is verboten. I guess I am as close to being German as I’m ever going to get.
This post is reincarnated from this post. (Because breaking down how various German punk songs helped me learn the language doesn’t fly as well with the work audience.) NOTE: Sorry to anyone who read this earlier in the day. For some reason the YouTube embeds just disappeared.
Year Zero. Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It was the year of the au pair. The year of graffiti appreciation. The year of loneliness and mad cap plans and then finding and bikes and more, but very different, mad cap plans. It was the year of much trail-by-fire, DIY, bluff-your-way-through it language learning. I took classes. They helped. But what helped even more was music.
In my former life, German music was a field that belonged exclusively to Kraftwerk, Rammstein, Nena, Bach, Beethoven, and a whole lot of techno. I didn’t love any of it. (Confession: I listened to Kraftwerk for the first time one month ago.) But I knew there must be more, knew there must be punks singing in German, and I asked around until I ended up with three CDs in my hands: Die Kassierer, Hass, and Quetschenpaua. If you have ever heard of any of those bands you can say it with me: oh my.
It is an easy mistake to make, and how could I have known? Say “Deutsch Punk” to someone who knows what they are talking about and you won’t end up with German Punk Music, General. You will end up inside a genre so specific that most of the population has never heard of it. Die Kassierer and Hass belong to this genre. At its best it is dirty, underproduced four-chord punk music with a most excellent sense of humor (though Die Kassierer and Hass got too big to still qualify for “underproduced.” At its worst it is completely unlistenable garbled garbage. My personal Deutsch Punk heroes are a now-defunct band called Ultrapunk, but they were too disorganized and (probably) drunk to ever get around to getting themselves on youtube. Too bad. Their lyrics are pure gold. They would have been very helpful when I was translating songs to improve my German. Instead I was listening to this (I like the Kassierer’s version more, but it isn’t on youtube either):
But hell, either way you look at it, a love song that starts outside of a library wins at least a handful of points.
Then there was Hass. I never quite warmed up to their sound, though their anti-fascism is endearing.
It was Quetschenpaua that I ended up listening to the most. Folk punk with an accordion. Songs about anarchists and demos and penguins and pirates and revolution and Berlin. It was right up my alley. Particularly then, when I was still all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about just about everything.
I sang the lines about the penguin who lives in Berlin with my au pairing charges. I learned what Labello and Captain Igloo were (chapstick and a fishsticks brand, respectively). I heard the expression “Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand” (Beneath the pavement, the beach) for the first time. I got the chorus stuck in my head constantly.
If you’ve ever gotten a song stuck in your head, you know how pervasive, how invasive music can be. Which is ideal when it comes to memorizing vocabulary in a new language. You want those words reverberating inside your head, unable to escape, and complete with an easy-to-remember context. Music does that without you having to do anything more than press “play.”
And look. Science agrees!
“In the 1970s, extensive research was carried out into the powers of music in the learning process, by the Bulgarian physician Georgi Lozanov. He revealed that music puts listeners into a state of relaxed alertness, the ‘alpha state,’ the ideal state of consciousness for learning, and his tests were conclusive.
“More recently, in the March 2005 issue of the journal ‘Nature’ researchers at Dartmouth College in the US reported that they had pinpointed the region of the brain where ‘ earworms ‘ or catchy tunes reside, the auditory cortex. They found that the sounds and words that have actually been heard can be readily recalled from the auditory cortex where the brain can listen to them ‘virtually’ again and again. Music it seems is the ideal catalyst to the memorisation of words.” (source)
Another study has also pointed to the possibility that “the extra information provided in music can facilitate language learning.”
To this day I still remember the words of one of the pirate songs that my au pair charges liked to listen to. Robbi der Seeräuber segelt an der Wind. Robbi der Seeräuber tut nur das was ihm gefällt. Robbi der Seeräuber segelt an der Wind! Und wir segeln mit ihm weil wir auch Piraten sind! Cha-cha-cha!
Have you used music as a foreign language-learning crutch? What did you listen to?
Germany is in the throes of another meat scandal. First information surfaced that there was horse meat in some frozen lasagna, burgers, and the like. Then information surfaced that horse meat had even made it into the sacred (cough) orbs of Ikea meatballs. People are very, very upset.
Some are claiming that the issue here is labeling, that the question here is “can we trust anything we read on labels anymore?” Which is certainly part of the problem. But labeling was an issue before (labelling for genetically modified foods, anyone?) and very few people were yelling about it. And that leads me to suspect that the real issue here isn’t the labeling. The issue here is that a lot of people feel uncomfortable eating horses, an animal most people in the western world think of as a pet, as a friendly pink illustration on the Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper they had in third grade, as the stars of books marketed at young girls, as the talking wonder that was Mr. Ed. If some chicken had accidentally gotten into the frozen hamburger, would anyone be freaking out?
Of course nobody likes being tricked into eating animals they didn’t consent to consume. (SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!) When my friends, who spend every summer working in Switzerland (a country where it is totally normal to eat horse, fyi), brought a little package of sliced stallion back with them I felt mildly uncomfortable about trying it. (But I did, just a tiny bite, and it tasted just fine.) I have been through the conditioning, and I get the instinctive puky response that our minds force on our bodies when we realize we have broken a dietary taboo. Yet, simultaneously, it all feels kind of silly.
There are a hell of a lot of people on planet earth who do eat horse, and who are probably shaking their heads in disbelief and amusement at the media response to the German horse meat scandal. According to wikipedia the top eight horse-eating countries “consume about 4.7 million horses a year.” Reading further, I was intrigued to discover that many of these taboos also have roots in Christian imperialism and classism. Once again, according to wikipedia, “In 732 A.D., Pope Gregory III began a concerted effort to stop the ritual consumption of horse meat in pagan practice. In some countries, the effects of this prohibition by the Roman Catholic Church have lingered and horse meat prejudices have progressed from taboos, to avoidance, to abhorrence. In other parts of the world, horse meat has the stigma of being something poor people eat and is seen as a cheap substitute for other meats, such as pork and beef.”
When you look at the issue from a culturally neutral perspective, there is no issue. When considering the consumption of horse meat, I can’t help but think of Game of Thrones. And if horse meat is good enough for the Dothraki, then it is good enough for me.
Living so far from the place where I grew up, I had long ago given up on the possibility of a chance meeting with a so-and-so from a whenever-a-long-time-ago. I like chance meetings. I like finding out what has become of people I knew when we were kids. Character development. It’s fascinating. But I like living in Germany more, so down the drain with chance meetings, I figured. The closest I’ve come, will probably ever come, was a few weeks ago.
I’m coming to Frankfurt for work tomorrow! the email said. Whoa! I said. We met, after years and years of not seeing each other, of not even talking, two people who once called each other best friends. Life is funny like that. And so we went to the Christmas market, freshly opened, home of deep-fried everythings that had been silently begging me to come pay them homage from across the city (or was that my stomach?). As annoying as the winter holiday season can be, it sure is delicious.
We strolled through the crowd—a small one, we were lucky—until we found a good-looking mulled wine stand. We ordered and found a little table to lean against while we raced the cold air to the bottom of our mugs, comparing politics in the countries where we live, about Obama’s universal health care and the election and New York City. More tables crowded around us and more mulled wine drinkers around them, a little rock in a stream of shoppers pushing by on their way to fill their bags and empty their wallets.
When I was a vegan, the Christmas Market held no power over me, but now that I am again an omnivore, the temptation to pull out my wallet and bury my snout in another puddle of frying fat is large. When hunger arrived, we decided on langoes, a friend potato bread topped with cheese and garlic sauce, and it was tasty, if not overpriced in that way that seasonal, touristy attractions always are, and we left without ordering one of everything from everywhere. Though I do vaguely regret not having purchased any of these chocolate tools, my favorite discovery of the evening:
I thought they were real for almost an entire minute and couldn’t figure out why someone was selling rusty old tools at the Christmas market. Yum.
On a sidenote, tomorrow is the winter solstice, and while it is a holiday I would like to be celebrating, I have yet to establish a tradition for the day, overshadowed as it is by the habit of Christmas. Will any of you be celebrating? Happy winter!