November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving, Night of the Monster Turkey

It's my favorite holiday. I think because it's about family, friends, and feasting, three of my favorite things. I love gathering in the kitchen and gossiping while cooking and drinking wine.

Last year I hosted my first German Thanks- giving. I was anxious about finding traditional native North American foods on this side of the Atlantic, so I found an online shop catering to ex-pats. I ordered canned pumpkin, canned cranberries, and Stove Top stuffing (hey, that's an indigenous food). I ordered a turkey from the butcher for pickup Friday night. I was so excited I even arranged a radio interview in Wisconsin about this post-cold-war moment sharing Thanksgiving with Germans and Russians...but that's another story. Saturday morning I found myself with no turkey, no pumpkin, no cranberries, and 20 people coming for dinner.

Luckily Andrew and his friends arrived from Frankfurt, and they told me to relax. Ok, plus I went to yoga class. But sure enough, the butcher got an emergency Saturday delivery, and we found fresh pumpkin and cranberries right there in the market. Note to self: look under your nose before going online shopping. Unless you want Stove Top stuffing.

So we got to chopping and boiling and mashing, and just four hours later had a feast fit for 50. By the time all the guests arrived with food, we could barely fit it all in the kitchen. Oleg, Lillia, Larisa and Wyly brought their kids, who managed to steal Andrew´s hat and hide it in my underwear drawer in between courses. Everyone stuffed themselves, and I had enough to bring to my office on Monday to give my colleagues the most authentic taste of Thanksgiving - leftovers.

This year was etwas ganz anderes, completely different. First, Frau Johann re- membered me at the butcher's and promised there would be no last minute crisis. She took my order for an 8-9 kilo (16-18 pound) bird, and promised that someone would call and confirm. Sure enough, the head butcher called, but he had unfortunate news. The farm had no birds of that size. I could either have a turkey of up to 6 kilos, or 12-15 kilos. At this point I entered crisis aversion mode. Any large bird would be better than none. I did not do any math to calculate that a 12 kilo bird is in fact 24 pounds of meat. Nor did I ask the price. "Ok, a 12 kilo turkey is good," I said in my kinder-Deutsche. "As long as it is ready on Friday night."

Confident from my last-minute shopping success last year, I didn't buy anything in advance. I even said "sure!" when a German friend offered to make the pumpkin pie. This drew some raised eyebrows from Americans, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the meal. I strolled down to the butcher on Friday evening with my backpack-style suitcase and no worries. So when Frau Johann emerged from the cooler with a cardboard box the size of a filing cabinet, I jumped back in surprise. "For me?" I sputtered.

Oh, ja. She opened the box to reveal the largest, fattest turkey I have ever seen. It was the size of a small child. It's thighs were as big as footballs. Clearly we were honored with the king of the barnyard. I envisioned myself leaning on the oven door and securing it shut with a bungee cord. Another worker came out from the back to check out the scene. "It's 15.64 kilos!" she announced proudly. I gasped. That´s over 34 pounds. Then I caught sight of the sales ticket. The price was €125. My jaw hit the floor and I began backing away, making whimpering noises.

A kindly German man observed me flailing away from the turkey and spoke to me in English. "Is that yours? Do you need help?" I replied that I thought I had a clear grasp of the situation, but I might need to negotiate. Over the next twenty minutes, Frau Johann brought the manager on duty to speak to me, and he in turn phoned up the head butcher to decide what should be done. Finally he came back and smiled. "You don't have to pay for it," he said. A vision flashed before my eyes, a table full of food, with an empty spot in the middle where the turkey should be. "There are frozen turkeys over there if want a smaller one. Or, if you like, we can cut it half."

I did a double-take, but my extraordinarily patient German translator assured me that yes, he really had offered to attack the monster with a table saw. "Ah, ich brauche ein minute," I said, and thanked everyone. The frozen turkeys were considerably more affordable, but seemed puny and plastic by comparison. Consultation was called for. I called Loren, who said, "hey, we grew up on Butterball, the frozen one will be fine." But defrosting is such an unpleasant way to begin a meal. I needed a second opinion. "Oh, get the fresh one, it will be something special!" said Ed. My thoughts exactly.

And so I walked proudly home with half a monster turkey in my suitcase. I took Loren´s suggestion of 'brining' the turkey, that is, soaking it in salt water overnight. The internet said to use 1 cup of salt per pound of turkey, umm, 18 cups. So I rushed out the door to buy a mountain of salt. Oops! The door swung shut, separating me from my keys. After more adrenaline, half a dozen phone calls, forty minutes and €90 later, I was reunited with my keys by a man with a handy wire and a business card. Note to self: all I need to earn quick cash money in Germany is a car, a piece of wire, and the title Schlüsseldienst, or key service.

After the turkey had his overnight saltbath, I tried to fit him in a 10-gallon oven roasting pan. No go. He kicked his leg out defiantly, refusing to go under the lid. I maneuvered the pan carefully into the oven and twisted it around to find the precise angle at which the door would shut. But his leg still pressed up against the door, as if trying to kick it open. Finally, a lovely aroma filled the apartment all afternoon.

The American crew and Larisa arrived from Berlin and we did some chaotic shopping. Ed mixed up soothing gin-and-tonics while we took turns using the one chopping knife, one stewpot and one saute pan in my kitchen. Adrian and Jessica threw themselves into the vegetables so enthusiastically that she forgot to prepare the turkey-alternative tofu dish. I think I drove Larisa crazy by ordering her to chop the oranges just so and melt more butter. Loren, Yvonne, and Andrea appeared like three angels with hot vegetables and whiskey. One by one my German guests called to say, "the dish is still in the oven!" So we found ourselves in a national role reversal, with all the Americans punctual, and all the Germans arriving late. Americans know about these timing problems on Thanksgiving.

Nevertheless, Stef and Jens-Martin arrived with delicious creamy scalloped potatoes, and Henning and Silke with beautiful artistic pumpkin pies. Everyone tucked in. My giant turkey got 15 thumbs up. He was looking lean when Christof, Tina and Max showed up, the last late arrivals. They inhaled dinner, muttering something about finger food at a conference in between gulps. The next morning I found a pile of soup bones with a couple of morsels hanging on underneath. Note to self: never leave a turkey unguarded among a pack of ravenous Germans if you want leftovers.

After many refills, we sacrificed the pies to the knife for dessert, along with Ute's apple crisp and Roger's ice cream. Jens-Martin was thrilled to get the jack-o-lantern. Then everyone collapsed in true Thanksgiving fashion. Except Larisa, who is a late-night rambler and hit the streets with Ed. Oleg and Lillia called from St. Petersburg to reminisce about last year´s vodka-fueled midnight ramblings, when I also locked the keys inside the apartment...but that's completely another story.

April 16, 2007

Unwalkable Amman

And now for something completely different… I am visiting my friend Meg in Amman, Jordan this week. Besides the obvious culture shocks of hearing the call to prayer, even at 3:30 am, smelling spices in the street, and never seeing a woman’s hair, one is immediately struck by how difficult it is to walk here. From non-existent or obstacle-ridden sidewalks, to sprawling distances over hills, it is just plain unpleasant. My guidebook dedicated a textbox titled “Pedestrian, beware!” to this topic. Although there are less than 1 million registered vehicles, they seem to be accident prone. For instance, about 1 in 6 was involved in an accident in 2005; about 1 in 300 people were killed or injured.

Why is it so bad? Jordan is the only oil-poor nation in the Middle East. It is not super wealthy; it has more in common with other developing areas than say, Dubai. Amman is a rapidly growing city of 2 million. Car ownership is rising, but relatively low at 31%; it’s expensive. Public transport is widely used, but bus stops are hard to recognize, lacking shelters or route guides. Although I have been looking, I haven’t seen a single person on a bicycle, in fact, not even bicycles.

Partly the problem seems to be cultural, as pedestrians have no clear right of way, and drivers use their vehicles to assert dominance. For instance, on city streets and the highway, one crosses by waiting for a gap in traffic, making eye contact, and running for it. Following this technique in the rural city of Jerash, Meg and I were shocked when the driver of a big BMW gunned the engine and sped up as we eyed him and ran– she with a baby in her arms.

But mostly it seems to be an utter disregard for non-motorized traffic in the physical design. Sidewalks are of varying widths, and it is common to find a tree or pole planted willy-nilly in the center, which are especially difficult to dodge when one has a baby stroller or grocery cart. Painted crosswalks are rare, some are accompanied by signs, but none have curb cuts. There are a few pedestrian bridges over major roads, but they don’t necessarily link up to sidewalks. Walking from one major tourism site to another, I was at times on a narrow two-foot sidewalk, in the street, and in the dirt next to the street.

Should I be surprised that it’s such a poor place for walking? One might ask whether that is typical of a developing country. Indeed, it’s not unusual, but my question is why. Much of the development here has occurred in the last 30 years. Much of it has been financed with US and European aid. So why are we aiding the destruction of the main way people get around, by walking, and creating car dependency? I doubt it’s a malicious intent – it just seems thoughtless. What’s wrong with a few design standards in the developing world?

One thing I can’t help saying is that these same design problems exist in plenty of US cities as well. I would argue that as we do in the US, so the template ripples out into the rest of the world. The mistakes we make are replicated, and the consequences multiplied. But conversely, our innovations are also replicated, and their benefits multiplied. Seeing how US and European cities are retrofitting themselves for better walkability, I’m encouraged.

April 4, 2007

Tour - Last Days

We made a stop for lunch in Freiburg on the way from Konstanz to Leuven, Belgium. Frieburg is a relaxed city with a buzzing center, crisscrossed by trams. The streets were lined by exposed storm sewers – something I’ve never seen before, as they have mostly been covered over in modern cities. You have to watch your step.

We also stopped in Mannheim to visit the excellent Media Museum there. It is a collection of interactive digital media artworks that engage users through participation. For instance, one used plants – when you touched the leaves, the roots were stimulated and transmitted a signal to electronic sensors, which then created images on a screen.

People seemed to hit bus mania during this long leg of travel. Alexandra and Olga led a bus game, where we had to write a crazy story and then read it. Daniela led an enactment of the Passover play, casting Ed as Moses. Finally we got to Leuven and piled off the bus. It's a University town about 30 minutes from Brussels with students filling the streets.

Belgian bars have the most elaborate beer menus. We hit a bar and used our guidebook to pick an artisan beer brewed by Trappist monks. So began my love affair with Belgian beer. The fine brews are a bit like wines, with delicate flavors and aromas, and a variety of colors and textures. While they are very proud of their waffles, I would have to say beer is the high point of Belgian cuisine. It is dignified by distinctive glassware and ritual. Yet the restlessness from the bus was irrepressible. Katya, Olga and Abby came in with ridiculous masks on, setting the tone for goofy playtime.

At dusk I was wandering around the student quarter and ran into four of the Chinese guys in our group. They were munching on some ice cream, and we strolled together for awhile. Then a trio of cute blonde girls went by on bicycles, crying "Nihao!" and waving. The guys were startled, and pleased. They smiled and waved back. Then the girls circled around and came back. They held their bikes and grinning broadly, began to sing a Chinese folksong. We gasped. Judge Li's face lit up, and he joined in with gusto. Soon they were all singing together, and I was giggling wildly, thinking it was the most spontaneous moment of globalization I'd ever witnessed. It was amazing, and beautiful.

The next day we visited the European Parliament, where a series of lecturers attempted to explain the structure and functions of the EU policy making bodies. There are four - the Council, the Commission, the Parliament, and the Court. These are confusing to keep straight when you try to trace the process by which a bill becomes a law. No Schoolhouse Rock here. There are proposals, white papers, first readings, and directives being negotiated between 27 member states in nearly as many languages. The Parliament chamber seats over 800. It is a massive and unwieldy process, yet surprisingly efficient. Big decisions get made. Maybe it has to do with the fact that no one is directly elected.

Brussels is a grand, elegant city whose streets seem to open up into squares and plazas at the least expected moments. Art deco buildings peep out from between wedding cake filigreed ones. The Grand Place is one of the finest public spaces in Europe, I'm convinced. It is dominated by the City Hall, inspiring awe at its unspoilt intricacy.

On Saturday we had some free time and paid a visit to Daniela's cousin's cheese shop. Belgium is roughly half Dutch and half French. This was definitely a shop for the French side. I've been around stinky cheese before, but the powerful smell of rotting milk practically penetrated the glass to hit your nostrils approaching this shop. The rows of small moldy lumps didn't seem quite like food. We bought a selection of cheese and a baguette, and they were revealed as a delectable delicacy.

By the final evening, everyone was filled up with culture and ready to go home. The last shared meal was abuzz with visit planning and roving from table to table to give best wishes. It was sad, and hugs seemed to last half an hour. We will never forget this amazing experience.

April 3, 2007

Tour Day 9

After a free day in Munich on Saturday, we got back on the bus Sunday morning and headed south, destination Konstanz.

Clever planning by Fritz broke up the long trip into manageable chunks. We stopped in Bayreuth to visit a 1750’s Italianate Baroque opera house built by the Prussian princess Wilhelmina, who also composed many of the early works performed there. It was ornate beyond compare; no surface was left ungilded. I imagined Liberace and his piano on stage.

Andrey and I shared the back bench of the bus and resolved to play internet chess. Perhaps inspired by all the art, he made a sketch of me in the Tagebuch, but wrote that he was ready to move on, “I don’t know about everybody, but I am absolutely satisfied by different art, kunst, bilder, malers, and so on. Now we go to a natural area and will look at lakes, forests, butterflies. Wonderful.” He is an environmental scientist to the core, outfitted in field boots and camping vest every day.

Next stop, Meersburg, on the shore of Lake Constance. The Bodensee, as it’s called in Germany, is one of the largest lakes in Europe, forming a border between Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We got lucky with sunshine, which we soaked up at lunch time like a bunch of lizards on a café terrace. The bus drove onto a ferry, and we crossed the lake, marveling at the clarity and light blue color of the water. Although the area is densely populated, and the lake is used intensively, careful environmental management helps keep it sparkling clean.

Within 15 minutes of arrival at our hotel on the other side, I had rented a bike, along with Andrew, Daniela, and Oleg. Our destination became obvious when we consulted a map: Switzerland! Only a few streets away from the hotel. We rode along the lake and tried to find a place to buy Swiss chocolate. The first town we found was eerily quiet, even though I am accustomed now to everything being closed on Sundays. We fueled ourselves at a gas station and watched the sunset.

The next day, we began learning about Umweltschutz, or environmental protection, in the Bodensee region. We visited the Insel Reichenau, also known as “Gumüseparadies”, or vegetable paradise. Residents wanted it to remain a farming community, so they protected it as a UNESCO world heritage site, and mainly use organic methods. The growing season is short, which they compensate with greenhouses. Our guide said the island has15 hectares under glass, (nearly 40 acres).

Next stop, Fruchthofs Konstanz, an eco-friendly fruit and vegetable distributer’s warehouse. The company needed to cut costs on energy fast, so invested in a green building. Designed to keep cool, the warehouse has 6 km of pipes buried in its foundation, using the earth to chill circulating water; it also has a grass roof, which doesn’t absorb as much heat as a metal or tar roof. They have some air conditioners, but power them partly with solar panels. This system enabled the company to cut energy use and costs by 50%. They paid off the initial investment within 7 years. Our tour was led with obvious pride by the eco-enthusiastic CEO. He treated us to organic apple juice on the grassy roof, complete with pond, and told us how a wild duck returns there every year to nest.

The next day, we visited the Blumeninsel Mainau, or flower island, the former private estate the royal Bernadotte family. The family gave the castle and grounds to Germany as a park and environmental education center. We were greeted by Countess Bernadotte, who is the CEO today, by the Shmetterling Haus, or butterfly house. Afterwards, we had a presentation on the Grünen Schule Mainau, an environmental education program.

Over lunch, I asked Li and Xiaoyun whether there are aristocrats remaining in China. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a renewed interest in geneaology. While having aristocratic roots won’t grant you any special status, as it does in Germany, it’s a point of family pride. It sounds like Chinese noble families keep a very low profile, but have managed to regain wealth. They asked whether America had any aristocracy. I thought of the English traditions from colonial times maintained by old families in the south, like debutante balls, and of societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution. But while aristocrats derived their authoritative legitimacy via a blessing from God, America’s dynastic families derive theirs from wealth. I’ve never thought about the role of aristocracy in modern society in my life!

Ed summed it up in the Tagebuch, “We met the Countess ‘von Schmetterling’ Bettina, and learned about umweltmanagement, which seems to me more of a loosely defined buzz word referring to something between organic farming, energy efficiency, park management, regulated tourism, and corporate sponsorship. We had fun feeding the goats.”

The group started getting feisty on Day 9. Perhaps it was so much close quarters on the bus. But as patience wore thin and politeness faded, people seemed to let loose, and friendships to grow.

It started out with a visit to Larisa’s workplace, the Bodensee-Stiftung, an environmental management NGO. There were two presentations, one about the Global Nature Fund, with beautiful photos of animals and lakes, and another that was just too long. And finally, our colleague Larisa, who is studying eco-friendly tourism at Lake Constance as a model for Lake Baikal in Siberia. She rocked it.

Then there was a five-hour bus ride to Karlsruhe, where I overheard grumpy comments like, “I wanted to tell that presenter after 20 minutes on one slide, ‘shut up!’”

It was perfect timing for a group drunkenness ritual, like a wine tasting. Fritz took us to a small weinstube where we filed into a cellar and ravenously consumed bread, pork liver products, and Rieslings. Conversations got more controversial. I was asked, “What do you think about Taiwan?” by a couple of Chinese colleagues. I realized in the ensuing conversation that Americans and Chinese have a different notion of what defines a nation. “They are Chinese, they are our family,” is what I heard. I understood this to mean that Taiwan is considered the black sheep of the family, a wayward offspring who must be tolerated, but must inevitably come back into the fold. The idea of a nation composed of people of ethnic Chinese, but separate from China, seemed unacceptable. I wondered if this was how the English had thought about the Americans.

It made me realize that the American idea of nationality is separate from ethnicity. American citizens are of diverse ethnicities, but all equally American, recognized with terms like Chinese-American, African-American, etc. It appeared to me that the Chinese ideas of ethnicity and nationality are more conflated. It’s not so different in Germany. People of many ethnicities may live here, but it is difficult to be naturalized as a citizen. The idea of a Turkish-German, for instance, doesn’t really exist.

Anyway, things really started to get loose at the wine-tasting when our host appeared with an 8-foot long Alphorn. To our delight, he demonstrated how to blow it, and then asked for volunteers. First Alexander took a try, next Rong, and then I felt we needed an American and a woman, so I hopped to it. There is a good reason you don’t see those things played a lot – they make rather awful sounds. Luckily, they only be sustained for a short time, so the crowd reaction is better than for, say, karaoke.

Our guests also started the singing. They performed a couple of German folk songs, then some familiar standards and people joined in. Then Alexander grabbed the guitar, and began with Russian folk songs. This started the great tri-national sing-off on the bus ride home. By the time we stumbled out of the cellar, people were falling down drunk. We got on that bus and sang everything from “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to “Wo Sind die Blumen” and “Katarina”. It was fabulous.

Jiang, aka Judge Li, summed it up in the Tagebuch, “Tonight was one exciting night which gave me a deep impression, especially the wine and songs, including the different rhythms from Russia, America, Germany and China. I love this night!” He made a sketch of some wine glasses and abottle of Riesling bottle, on its side.

Memorable moments in Konstanz:

Being toasted by the Russians at the next table, and Katya serenading us with her favorite folk song, played on her golden Dolce & Gabbana cell phone

Playing with the butterflies in the Schmetterling Haus

Laughing through the narrow, empty streets of Konstanz to find a bar, with a cryptic treasure map marked with two X’s, but no names

Tour Day 5

Our stay in Munich began with a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, where we learned about how Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, together with German artist Franz Marc founded German Expressionism in 1912-1914. Basically, Kandinsky hung out with his girlfriend and a bunch of other artists in a villa in the Bavarian hills and painted like mad. You can see the progression of his ideas in the paintings in this impressive collection: from representation of objects, like a bird, to representation of ideas, like flight, to representation of an inner meditation on an idea, which is utterly abstract. So they emerged from the hills with all these new ideas that made people reconsider what art is, generating controversy and dialogue. But just as it got started, their artistic collaboration was cut short by the outbreak of World War I. Kandinsky had to go back to Russia; later he fled to Paris and continued his work, producing iconic pieces and influencing the development of abstract modern art for the next half-century. Marc was drafted by the German army and sent to the Western front, where he was killed in 1918.

Next we had a meeting at the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a national newspaper based in Munich. We learned how they have addressed the same problems faced by American media competing with the internet – shrinking readership and advertisers. They had some creative strategies to stay relevant, like publishing low-cost editions of famous German novels. I wandered around the old city and checked out King Ludwig’s urban palace, and the Glockenspiel on nearby Marienplatz. This plebian timepiece, designed for the free enjoyment of the masses, features dancing figures that emerge when it strikes 5 pm, like beermaids and jousting knights, which frolic in front of the stern clockface. This of course signals that the workday is over. That night we visited the Munich Philharmonic, where we had seats facing Californian Michael Tilson Thomas use his face, breath, and entire body to conduct the orchestra.

The next day, we started out at IFO, an economic research institute at the University, where we had two lectures on macroeconomics. Honestly, I can’t really say what they were about. One presenter spoke about Thomas Mann’s dog, the other spoke at avalanche speed. I tuned out, along with most of the group. Ed created a “Boredom Index” in the Tagebuch to pass the time. He plotted disengagement over time; the two Bukas whose projects involved economic theory trended up, the rest down, with Fritz as an outlier. Andrew and Yang asked enough questions for everybody else.

Ed and I found a classic Bavarian beerhall for lunch, a place that had been in business for 500 years. The long wooden tables filled several rooms; it was impossible to see the whole place at once. A basket of large bready pretzels was waiting on the table. We had the smallest available housebrew – a half liter – served by a waiter in lederhosen, (a first for me.) Most Germans were drinking the liter stein, which is called a Mass, perhaps because it’s so heavy. That’s how we felt after our meal of Schweinefleisch: Leberkäse, or pork loaf for Ed, and Knödeln, or boiled pork in broth for me.

Things revived in the afternoon when we visited a cluster of artists’ studios in the University district. We chatted with painter Julia Schimtenings about the distinctive Bavarian Grüne Erde, or green earth pigment, made from local clay. We also visited plastic mosaic artists, and Yongbo Zhao, a Chinese artist whose work is a rude commentary on European culture.

Friday night we had a raucous Bavarian meal in the Nicolaikirche Platz. Two-thirds of our group is married, and those who were able to manage it are spending the year in Germany with their partners. Interestingly, all of the Americans brought their partners (including 4 husbands), and most of the Russians (wives only), but none of the Chinese. They said it was difficult for their spouses to leave their jobs and re-enter the workforce without losing a lot of ground.

Several partners traveled to Munich to meet the group for dinner and spend the weekend. Maybe it was the addition of fresh company, or the close winecellar space we were crowded into, or Wyly and Oleg’s kids running around, but there was a lot of loud laughter and happy chaos. Or maybe it was the abundance of beer.

Jessica's Tagebuch comment summed it up, "This was my first visit to Munich, and it was great. Lots of art, and the symphony was marvelous, especially the energetic conductor. Oh, and you don't have to watch out for dog poo on the sidewalks."