Monthly Archives: February 2009

Trying to write about Darmstadt

“The Bauhaus you wrote about in your last post reminded me of Darmstadt” Francesca said. “Let´s write about Darmstadt”. 

This time it was my turn to be polite: “Darmstadt, of course …”.

Why should I know anything about Darmstadt?

Maybe, because it is only 35 km away from where I live? Or because it would only take 31 minutes to get there? 

In 15 years I have been there once. The only place I know in Darmstadt is the dirt track at the college sports field. Amongst runners, Darmstadt is quite famous, because one of the best German triathletes, Lothar Leder,  lives in Darmstadt. The local running club and the sports medicine department at Darmstadt University are known to produce good athletes. Therefore, ten years ago, I went to Darmstadt in an attempt to improve my running style.

I had decided on a workshop with a highly acclaimed triathlon coach after I had come second to last in a 10km public run–the last one was 84 years old.

The weekend started with a cardiac fitness check. While everybody else got his or her optimized range of heartbeat for serious running, the computer analysis told me rather to excercise in light walking. Then we hit the dirt track, and I met my fate.

I ran and ran, panting. My blood whooshed and swooshed. My head turned red. Sweat trickled into my eyes. My T-shirt clung to my body. My lungs ached. I ran as fast as never before, only to see the other students pass me twice in four rounds. “We do have special workshops for overweight people”, the coach said, and I decided to erase Darmstadt from my map.

My map shows a lot of blank spots, when it comes to the cities surrounding Frankfurt: Mainz, Gießen, Marburg, Aschaffenburg, Limburg. I have been to London four times, to Marburg (50 km away, a medieveal Fachwerk-gem and home of one of the oldest German universities) … once. 

Germans are proud to be the tourist champions of the world. When it comes to travelling, they ignore the wisdom of Goethe, the most famous German poet, who wrote, three hundred years ago:

Willst du immer weiter schweifen?

Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.

Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen,

Denn das Glück ist immer da.

In English shorthand: Why travel far? Look, and you will find the good things in your neighbourhood. 

Said Goethe, and set out on a year long voyage through Italy, the first “Bildungsreise” or “Grand Tour” in history. This journey and the book he wrote about it started the trend of travelling in Germany. In the 19th century any well-off young man, who wanted to be part of the in-crowd, had to go to Italy. In the 20th century, everybody had to go to the Canary Islands. In the 21st century you fly to New York for Christmas shopping.

Goethe didn´t go to Darmstadt, though he grew up in Frankfurt. But he did go to Offenbach, a city only 10 km  away from Frankfurt. He must have been the only citizen of Frankfurt to do so.

These two cities live in deliberate ignorance of each other. Thus, they recall the times when Germany consisted of  more than 100 little kingdoms and dukedoms – Kleinstaaten. Till the 19th century, each of them minted its own money, ran its own mail system and provided its own transportation system. Every few miles,  travellers had to pass custom controls. Furthermore, they had to get out of the stagecoach and change into a new one. This still happened in the 1990ies between Frankfurt and Offenbach. As an innocent newcomer to Frankfurt, I one day decided to go on  a sightseeing tour to Offenbach. I took the tram saying Offenbach and expected to arrive in Offenbach. But suddenly the tramway stopped in the middle of nowhere and a loudspeaker announced: “Stadtgrenze-city limit”. I had to get out and  wait 15 minutes (to get rid of any Frankfurt germs?). After  buying a new ticket, I was finally allowed into Offenbach.

As all those little German states couldn´t sustain themselves by agriculture and industry any more in the 18th century, they found new means of filling the “Staatssäckel”, like selling their male population to the British to fight in the American War of Independence. The duke of Hessen-Nassau, his capital Wiesbaden only 40 km away from Frankfurt, was one of the most notorious of these slave traders. Thus, one fourth of the British army in the Revolutionary Wars was made up of Hessians.

Traces of the old Kleinstaaten are still found in German legislation and administration, like federalism. Today, Germany consists of 16 Länder-states, which can act autonomous in a few fields like culture and education. And there are Landkreise-counties, that play an important role in daily life administration. Darmstadt, the former capital of Hessen-Darmstadt, now is the political center of Landkreis Darmstadt-Dieburg.

The most adventureous thing about Darmstadt I know is that they built their new congress center exactly on the Oberrhein fault, the line where earthquakes generate. I admit, this is not the St. Andreas Fault, and earthquakes aren´t as disastrous in Germany as in other regions of the world. But why run any risks deliberately? They are even proud of it and show off the technical knick-knacks Darmstadt´s technical university engineered to minimize the effects of an earthquake on the building. 

Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen-every little animal has its own version of fun. I won´t organize any congresses in Darmstadt. But when I have finished this, I will take the next S-Bahn to Darmstadt.

Darmstadt owns a Museum for the Art of Printing, with a working Linotype printing machine on show. From the way the inventor of the Linotype, Ottmar Mergenthaler, is honoured in their information material, I inferred that he was a son of Darmstadt, and his revolutionary new printing process therefore a German invention.

Internet research showed that he wasn´t a son of Darmstadt, but of Bad Mergentheim, and that he invented Linotype after his emmigration to Baltimore in the USA.

Irren ist menschlich-nothing more human than to be wrong. So allow me to be proud of the invention of newspaper printing in Darmstadt, as long a President Obama believes that cars where invented in the USA.

But this is another story.


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Darmstadt – Stadt der Künste – Believe It!

I should have been the last person to suggest writing about Darmstadt. I grew up there and nothing seemed better than getting away.

Yet when people say, “Darmstadt, why should I go there”, I get the urge to put the picture straight and it needs a lot of straigthening, because physically Darmstadt was completely destroyed during a “Firestorm” attack in September 1944 and the scarring becomes evident, when looking at old pictures of the former “Residenzstadt” and comparing it to what we have to today. Only a few of the buildings that remind of its former glory of “Residenzstadt” (City of residence/Royal Seat) to the Grand Dukes of Hessen were rebuilt and some of the original gems are hidden away on the Marienhöhe, where a Künstlerkolonie (colony for artists) was created and housed some of the finest artists representing “Jugendstil”  (Art Nouveau, Liberty Art) in Germany around 1900. The Russian chapel on the same premises reminds us of the close connections Darmstadt had to both the British and Russian Royal Families. Amongst old photos you might find one of Queen Victoria visiting. But looking at its town centre and several horrendous architectural mistakes of the sixities, seventies and eighties (and I am not sure about the most recent additions) it would be hard to believe that once it was also the capitol of earlier versions of Hessen.

Nowadays its fame is a secret tip. Would you know that “Darmstadtium” has been discovered here, or that is a renowned centre for “Neue Musik“, that it has Universities, its own Theatre and Opera and that ESOC – the European Space Operations Centre has been here since 1967. The list does not end here.


Henry van de Velde, Schreibtisch, 1899 @HLMD

My days out in town included walking through the Hessische Landesmuseum (currently being renovated), whose exhibits were entirely free then (much appreciated by poor students that needed a place to meet which was dry, warm and interesting even on the worst days, which were more likely than not).  This was the place were my great affection for everything Jugendstil was born. The swinging forms of the furniture, the paintings and jewellery collected and displayed drew me to visit them over and over again. I would dream of one day sitting at such a piece of art, feels its smoothness and bathe my eyes in the harmony of the display.

Right next to the Museum is the former Theatre. For many years it housed a little cellar theatre and it was where I went for my first ballet classes. It was cold, drafty and I was mightily impressed by the perfectly round hole above the sink of the bathroom, which I was convinced was caused by a bomb. Then for many years it was declared unsafe and much later it was renovated and turned into an archive. 

I remember walking through an exhibit of Jugendstil posters on the Mathildenhöhe and afterwards enjoying a piece of Käsekuchen in the adjoining Café. Can life be any better. If you ever get a letter from Darmstadt make a note of the ink stamp on top of your stamp. The shape might remind you of a hand and it is the outline of the “Hochzeitsturm”  (Marriage Tower) or more endearingly “Fünf Finger Turm” (Five Finger Tower).

As a child I was part of a troupe of pre-school ballet dancers that would participate in various theatre productions (in the new theatre – don´t ask me what that looks like!). I remember representing a sack of gold in the Story Baba Yaga or jumping on the stage in Antigone. Other evenings had me in the audience watching a friend of my parents singing “Die verkaufte Braut”.

Later I performed at a local Jazzclub, which is housed in a Gewölbekeller, and heard about the archive dedicated to Jazz and held in Darmstadt. Darmstadt has a knack for archives it seems, even if they don`t always keep them, like the one that was created for the Bauhaus movement. Architecture certainly always had a playing field in Darmstadt and some of it it can be proud of like the Hundertwasser Haus called the Waldspirale, with is playful round shapes and rainbow colors that look fantastic from the outside, although I don´t want to imagine what it is like to furnish an appartment that lacks straight walls in a world in which straight is King.

Many dedicated and talented individuals got together in various “Vereine” Clubs to restore Music, Art and Science to the high standards that it had aspired to in Darmstadt before WWII. Being unaware of this as a teenager, I would frequently lament the provinciality and lack of opportunities of our little town.

Some time has gone by since I lived there and Darmstadt, seen from the distance, has surprised me again and again. At the last bookfair in Frankfurt I was drawn to the display of print machines of the old style. When speaking to one of the exhibitors he mentioned that they now housed all these machines in a Museum in Darmstadt. Due to the vast technological changes in the field, the many print houses in Darmstadt have either closed or are ridding themselves of the old machines, but former printers have volunteered to maintain the machines for the Museum and prevent the knowledge of the art being lost, in the hopes that people like me will realize that we need to preserve “real” printing for the beauty it transmits in the final printed book.

Another time I spoke to a well established italian musician during a stay in Italy, who mentioned that he had just returned from Darmstadt, where he had attended the “Neue Musik Tage”. Wander over the “Alte Friedhof” and you will be surprised by names of composers and writers, not only vaguely familiar. You speak to Engineers from other countries and they will praise the research at the University and Institutes of Darmstadt. Architects are aware of the Hundertwasser House and the Marienhöhe enchants countless tourists year by year with its unexpected beauty and those are only the “points of interest” I have heard of and discovered for myself over the years. Who knows what else is hidden beneath the surface of this book, always in the writing?

I learned that I should never judge a book by the cover.


More great links:  hessisches landesmuseum

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Ode to the iPhone

“I have to write about my iPhone”, I told Francesca in no uncertain words, “I have to”. If she had grown up in Northern Germany, she would have sighed “Wat mut, dat mut-What must be done must be done”. As she grew up in Hessen and is a very polite American, she just looked at me, slightly surprised, and said: “Oh, well …”.

Now I don´t know what to write. Or better, I know what to write about: The joy of feeling the smooth surface of my iPhone, its lightness and the fact that it always feels warm. The deep pleasure I derive from the elegant software solutions. The feeling of a treasure hunt when I check in into the store and find new ingenious mini-applications that cost next to nothing. The satisfaction to be part of a community that loves form and function combined.  

Furthermore, I would muse about the basic principle of the iPhone, the prinicple to react only when touched. This sensibility makes the iPhone part of the human race. No wonder I immediately understood what my son intented to say when he  described a girl as “beautiful like an iPhone”.

This I wanted to write when I proposed this weeks topic, but can I really do this without sounding ridiculous? A middleaged German falling in love with a mobile phone? I recently read an essay on how we can´t write poems any more, as  advertising has taken the place of poetry. The art of expressing strong emotions in poems has changed into the art of influencing saturated people with commercials.

I´m not paid by Steve Jobs, but I love his style. If he had lived in Germany 80 years ago, he probably would have been a member of the “Bauhaus”, an arts-and-crafts movement that searched for the ideal relationship of form and function. Bauhaus created the famous steel-and-leather chair  that decorates sophisticated offices all over the world. The Bauhaus created no-frill architecture and industrial design. It would have created the iPhone, had mobile phone technology already existed in 1920.

That mobiles didn´t exist before the 1980ies must be the most astonishing fact I ever told my son: “You grew up in a world without mobile phones? You want me to believe in the tooth fairy, too?”

Yes. Once upon a time there was a world when people would show up for a date at the time agreed on, rather than send an SMS that they will be late. Once upon at time, there was a world where I found my way by studying maps and training my sense of orientation, instead of calling the instant I´m lost: “Please tell me how I can find your street. I´m standing in front of a gas station ….”. Once upon a time, there was a world when somebody talking to himself on the street was considered a lunatic, when love affairs where private and when a man had to look his girlfriend into the eyes when he told her: “It is over. I´m leaving you”.

The mobile phone era in Germany started when reunification pushed the market. Phone lines in Eastern Germany were desolate. Therefore, in 1989, a mobile phone symbolized doing business in Eastern Germany. Though at this time, mobile phones where far from being mobile. The model offered by Deutsche Telekom looked like a bomb used a silent movie: a brick of metal with a receiver attached by a cord. It weighed 2 kilogramms and cost a fortune. Later, the “Knochen- the bones” came into use, a substantial piece of plastic with an antenna sticking out. By this time, the new device was called “Handy” in German. A marketing agency coined this word, but everybody thought it was the original English word.

Private use of mobile phones started in the early 90ies. I vividly remember the first private conversation on a mobile phone I listened to: a young man, still showing adolescent acne, enjoyed the admiration of his male and female pals for his brandnew mobile phone. When the mobile rang, he beamed with pride and pushed the receiver button. Suddenly, his expression changed. The sparkle in his eyes vanished, his shoulders slumped: “Ja, Mama, I´ll come home soon”.

For years after, to sit in the first class coach of trains turned out to be a valid method of research. Everything was talked about on the mobile phone, as if mobile phones built an invisible soundproof cubicle around the speaker. Be it mergers, acquisitions, or bankruptcy–a train ride provided first hand information.

Today, this golden era of investigative journalism has come to an end. Decline started with the Blackberry, when writing and checking E-mails became the favorite pasttime in business class. With the iPhone, even enjoying a DVD is a private pleasure again.

Luckily, the download list of applications compensates for this lack of public display. The ranking shows what people really care for.

The most popular business program for the iPhone is a manual on how to bind a tie. 

Men never change.

But this is another story.



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That Photo Album

Everbody used to have one of those, the Album of photos taken under the most daring circumstances resulting in one in a million images.

A friend from Ohio was telling me about his photos, which he made climbing all over the ice that was swept up on a highway during the sixties, near the lake where he lives in Ohio, so high that bulldozers could not shift the ice. He risked serious damage to himself climbing all over the mountain, which stood higher than the telephone poles, to conserve the images for posteriority. The chunks of ice themselves were as large as automobiles. Nature impressed with its strength and immensity.

The special set of photos my spouse made were taken hanging off a cliff in England to catch the seagulls in flight as they dipped and fell for the pure fun of it, gliding on the wind and showing off their amazing skills. He was mesmerized by their art and freedom.

They are very special pictures and they all ended up in the Album-Of-Pictures-That-Never-Were, because when my Ohio friend and my spouse got back from their respective excursions they realized they had no film in their cameras.

Enough time has passed to allow us to laugh at this misadventures. Hopefully enough time has passed for the friends of TrueGerman to forgive, that all the pictures of them standing with Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarność, were exposed to light, because unbeknown to Truegerman the film had got stuck in the camera and when the camera was opened the film was destroyed.

The brain usually tried to warn us. There was this nagging feeling, this did I remember, I must have put in film or the funny how many photos I seem to have on this roll. But either we were too excited or to sure of ourselves to listen to the subtle message.

I speak of these kind of events in the past tense as most of us amateur photographers will have switched to digital cameras by now, as have a lot of professionals. No more counting the frames to see how many pictures still can be taken, no take one more picture so we can fill up the film and take it to be developed.

This is Catawba when spring is about to arrive. Makes me wonder what it is like when it is winter!

This is Catawba when spring is about to arrive. Makes me wonder what it is like when it is winter! @Bob Schraidt 2009

Nowadays I don´t worry so much about my unsteady hands when I am asked to take pictures for perfect strangers, like the chinese group of visitors at the grave for Karl Marx in London this summer. I know the cameras they use will prevent any wobbles and they can immediately regard the result with obvious satisfaction.

We are experiencing a world that is technically becoming more sophisticated. It allows us to perfect our interactions and our art, by compensating for our weakness and failings. We can produce more of everything and always less flawed. And yet we don´t. 

As if to reassure  us the camera will imitate our imperfections: batteries fail in cold weather or an automatic flashlight will overexpose a picture. We still have the chance of making the AlbumOPTNW and I recommend that we do.

I did not make pictures of the chinese tourists with my camera, but in my mind the image of the well-heeled tourist groups of chinese visitors filing past the grave of their hero is an image I will not forget.

I remember the seagulls and how my spouse climbed the rocks to get the perfect picture. I still feel the wind, that held the seagulls up, coming in from the sea, the sun that would peak through the clouds, the smell that makes landlubbers like me  remain rooted to the spot, face into the wind and simply wanting to breathe as deeply as possible. Maybe that is what freedom smells like.

My friend in Ohio remembers the childlike thrill of climbing the ice, the sight from a viewpoint no one else could put a claim on, his breath coming fast from the effort of the climb and his wonder.

And his laughter later that day at the thought ,”That´s another one for the Album.”


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Fasching, Fasnet or Carneval – Licence to Run Wild

“With this topic” I warned Francesca, ” werde ich  vom Hölzchen aufs Stöckchen kommen-I won´t be able to tell a straight tale“. No tradition  is typical for Germany as a whole. We even can´t agree on a common name. Therefore, in this blog I talk about Fasnet, Fasnacht or Carneval, different names for the same few days before Lent, when Germans are licenced to run wild. 

Some regions don´t celebrate carneval at all. Historically, those were the regions where protestantism prevailed. A religious map of Germany would be red for protestants in the North and the East and green for catholics  in the South and the West.  The carneval-map would look very much alike. But both of them would be sprinkled with red and green dots like a Streuselkuchen. In a green dot, carneval would be a long-lived tradition with all the power of emotion, while in the red surroundings carneval today might take place, but without vibrancy. This happens in Frankfurt every year: while this basically protestant city organizes a somehow lukewarm “Faschingsumzug” on Sunday, the real, heartfelt Fasching takes place in its suburb Heddernheim, on Tuesday.

Carneval means anarchy. For seven days, all authorities are overthrown. First, men and their symbols of power a dethroned. On Weiberfasnacht-women´s carneval next Wednesday, men better don´t wear ties. Women are on the loose this day. In their bags, they carry scissors and cut any tie in reach. Maybe Sigmund Freud´s castration complex was  born on a especially wild night in late 19th century Vienna. I remember Weiberfasnacht as the only day the women of our village where allowed into the local inn without their husbands. They even sat at the Stammtisch, the table near the oven that is reserved for the local regulars. Women never sit down at the Stammtisch, never. So, this is anarchy.

Government is overthrown the next day, on schmutziger Donnerstag-dirty Thursday. Where I come from, masses in old nightgowns storm the city hall. Elsewhere, Prince and Princess Carneval reign. From Thursday on, everybody wears fancy dresses, and everybody  misbehaves: Alles ist erlaubt-no restrictions. 

Though, this being Germany, the fun is well organised. Fasnachtssitzungen and carneval parades are the places where the general cheerfullness takes place–with licence to laugh, and to touch the neighbours, orderly of course, by Schunkeln–joining the arms,  swaying on the benches, and singing. Alcohol helps to shed inhibitions. Therefore, Aschermittwoch, the end of carneval and the beginning of Lent, mainly serves to recover from the biggest hangover of the year.

While Aschermittwoch is fixed on 40 days before Karfreitag-Good Friday, everything else varies according to regional traditions: Weiberfasnacht can be on either Wednesday or Thursday, carneval parades are on Sunday, Monday (Rosenmontag) or Tuesday. And while I´m wrting this, I feel, beneath all the fun and the glitter, the terror of Fasnet. Old images arise, of menacing witches carrying away little children. Look at these pictures of Alemannische Fasnet and you can well imagine how terryfing those parades can be for a little child. The witches carried long chains. When they approached, they lifted the chains to the sky, rattled, screamed and grabbed their victim by the arm. Then, they pulled the terrified child into a ring of chains and dragged them along. For the first time, I felt the dangers and the attractions of evil. I feared to be taken away by the witch and at the same time longed to be taken, as this would make me special. Therefore I lingered on the realm of the parade, ready to be taken, and at the same time prepared to hide behind my parents should I be too afraid.

For many children today, Darth Vader probably radiates the same fascination.

Formed by these early experiences, today I never really connect to carneval parades at other places. They seem too lightweight, too irrelevant, even if corruption and government mispractices are sharply criticized. I have felt the dark side of power that lives in every human being. What else is there to come?

In my case, love. Only once I went to the carneval capital of Germany, Köln. I went there with an old friend. I went there because of serious business, but it was carneval, and we danced at night. We didn´t wear any fancy dresses or any masks. Rather, in dancing, our masks of super-earnest, politically engaged students dropped. In mutual recognition of our light sides, we fell in love.

But this is another story.


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Fasching – Push the Button

There it is. A memory. The colors.

I tried. I really did. I watched the parades, yelled Helaaaauuuuu, ran for candy, went to a “Sitzung” and did the polonaise. But I still don´t get it. I don´t enjoy Fasching.

Isn´t it nice that  Germans are being silly for once? Well maybe that would be nice, if they were not so, well so, so serious about it, held their Fasching parades when it is too cold to be standing or walking around outside and did not confuse moving around a room in caterpillar formation as dancing.

As a child I felt it was as if somebody had pushed a button. Okay everybody, Christmas is done,  get ready for the parade, get the float sorted out, put on your smiles, Merriment Button on ON and HELAU!!  Whatever that is supposed to mean. As the floats pass I duck to avoid candies flung at the crowds and  curse at people that knock other pedestrians and children down as they lunge for the booty. It just makes me mad not jolly.

Luftschlangen - Those are the colors that make me stop in my tracks.

Luftschlangen - Those are the colors that make me stop in my tracks. @Francesca

I also tried a “Sitzung”. My friend took me to an all evening do, when I was about thirteen years old, with dance shows, sketches and above all speeches: Büttenreden. They were supposed to be funny. Being allowed to be really silly only once per year is definitely not enough practice and as everybody wants to have a chance that once per year, there were loads of speeches. I was exhausted by the end of the evening just watching. To top it off, we all were dragged to the floor and polonaised our way around the hall. That was the moment I gave myself the silent promise: Never again.

Hit the switch and you have “Lachen auf Bestellung” (like canned laughter). Even TV conspires to be “amusing” and televises the more famous Sitzungen from up north – Aachen and Köln Karnevalssitzungen. Famous politicians to writers receive special  unserious awards and then are expected to display some of their famous wit in more, yes you guessed it, Büttenreden. To make sure you don´t miss your cue to laugh, the band trumpets a Tatääää (“Tusch”) everytime a joke has been made. I did laugh when when one of the featured politicians reacted angrily about his speech being edited for TV.

Of course everybody likes dressing up. I do too. But if I see one more guy, proud of his originality, dressed up as a Baby or a Something or a CLOWN I faint. I think I hate pink wigs. Children demanding money of drivers at a traffic light as so-called “Faschingzoll” (Faschingstax) does not endear it all to me either. There is no relation between asking for money during Fasching and getting sweets at Halloween. Nobody is expected to laugh at Halloween!

To my relief I have discovered that some Germans feel the same about Fasching or Karnival, quite funny Germans even (Read the alternative Büttenrede by Oliver Kalkofe here). It  has nothing to do with my cultural difference. Something about programmed jollines irks me and has led me to avoid “Fasching” in all its manifestations.

Exceptions: I have gone to parades with my children. Two to be precise and despite the expected candy rain, my children have not expressed any desire to repeat the experience. I hope that is due to my influence.

So when Aschermittwoch comes around I am not sad. People pack up their costumes, retire the speeches to oblivion and are serious about being serious again. Push the button: Merriment Off. What bliss.

I am not generally a grumpy person and I do like a celebration when the emotion is sincere. Fasching just doesn´t cut it for me.

On the other hand  there was the moment when the World Championship of Fußball came to Germany in 2006 .  As the weeks wore on, the weather held, the well-organized and numerous Fan-Meile across Germany welcomed fans of the sport and party-goers alike from all over the world. In all the time I have lived here, I never saw so many smiles for no reason at all but being alive and glad to be so.  Germans were allowing themselves to be happy and spontaneous just for the fun of it.  Their team lost the Finale and everybody was partying as if that did not really matter at all. And it didn´t.

It reminds me of the fairy tale “Der Froschkönig”. After the spell has been broken, the faithful servant Heinrich comes to pick the prince and his bride up with a horse-drawn carriage. Heinrich placed three bands of iron around his heart, when his beloved prince was bewitched, to stop it from breaking. As they all ride home the prince and his bride hear a strange sound three times and ask Heinrich what it is. Every time Heinrich replies his joyful heart has broken another band.

I think I heard that noise in the joyous cheering of a country, as if it had finally been released from an evil spell.


Here the dates if you want to avoid or try it:

Karneval 2009
Weiberfastnacht Do. 19. Februar – Watch your ties! Ladies will cut them in half.
Rosenmontag   Mo.  23. Februar – This is the parade day.
Veilchendienstag Di 24. Februar – Veilchen? Give me a clue. I thought it was more parades.
Aschermittwoch Mi. 25. Februar – Get yourself to church and be sorry for being so cheerful for a three entire days!

For more info on Fastnacht/Fasching/Karnival locations check out the “Stars and Stripes” travel blog:

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Handkäs mit Musik

“I´m dashed”, I said to Francesca when I read her blog. “I would never have thought about making  Thüringer Bratwurst the starting point of a character sketch of Frankfurt”. 

I´m quite competitive, sometimes, but this can´t be topped.

So I follow humbly with musings about Handkäse mit Musik.

If this were a victorian novel, Handkäs would be the inconspicious girl with gentle manners, whose virtues are overlooked because of her glamorous rival. 

I don´t know what would be the glamorous rival to Handkäs. But I know that the love of Handkäse is not love at first bite. Not even love at second bite. Though love it will be, in the end.

Before I knew better, I offered Handkäs mit Musik to any visitor of Frankfurt who asked  to try a typical dish. We went to a Apfelweinkneipe, where I ordered Apfelwein (cidreand Handkäse mit Musik. The look of those inns satisfy any expectations of foreigners coming to Germany.  Along old wooden tables, strangers sit side by side, drinking and laughing.  My friends enjoyed the gemütliche atmosphere and were always thankful to have me as a guide to true German pleasures.

This lasted till the Handkäs arrived. My guests looked first at the Handkäse mit Musik, then at the waiter, then at me, disbelief in their eyes. Being polite, they then reached for knife and fork and took a bite.

“Do you like it? It is a speciality of the region”, I happily informed them, and tucked  into my own serving.

“Oh, it is very … interesting”, they replied, and braved another bite.

Long years in intercultural communication have taught me to beware of the word “interesting”. I have learnt that non-Germans say “interesting” when a German would say bluntly: “No, I don´t like it” or “Nice try, but I can´t eat it”.

“Why don´t they like it?”I wondered.

Only  when I remembered my own first encounters with Handkäs,  I finally understood.

The first times I saw Handkäs I didn´t even dare to try it. I was a child then and greatly admired an aunt that stayed with my parents every summer. For me, this old lady incorporated the elegance and sophistication my family otherwise lacked. She travelled first class, wore tailor-made silk blouses, and a long goldennecklace. She drank Twinings Earl grey tea for breakfast, and always brought a supply of original English marmalade for the fortnight of her stay.  

Only when I watched her one evening slice what seemed to me a lump of yellowish solidified glue did I start to  doubt her refined tastes. 

I forgot about Handkäs´till I lived in a shared flat as a student. One day, I found a glass jar in the refrigerator, filled with what looked like Albert Einstein´s brain pickled in formaldehyd.

“Don´t you dare to deposit one of your scientific specimen in our fridge”, I attacked  my flatmate, a biologist.

“That´s no specimen”, he said, “This is Handkäs´mit Musik.Do you want to try?” 

“No”, I cried and left the kitchen when he opened the jar and a strong stint of onions, oil, vinegar and fermented cheese  crawled up my mose.

You probabably wonder now how I came to love Handkäs´mit Musik after all?

I learnt to love Handkäs´mit Musik because I learnt to be polite like a non-German.

When I came to Frankfurt, I asked my new acquaintances to introduce me to the regional kitchen. We went to a Apfelweinkneipe where they ordered Apfelwein and Handkäs´mit Musik. I obediently tried and said “Oh, that tastes …interesting”. Until, one day, I suddenly liked the taste.

Nevertheless, visitors are now first introduced to “Frankfurter Grüne Soße”, another regional dish, surprising too, but much more acceptable to international taste buds.

But this will be another story.


PS: Here you find how it looks like

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Glorious Food

I had to have one.

I know it is not on the top of the nutritious and healthy list, but I had to have my Frankfurter Rostbratwürstchen anyway. I found myself in the middle of Frankfurt at midday with time on my hands. And there it was that memory, not tribal, all mine, of long ago: lunch hours spent window shopping on the most expensive mall in Frankfurt, warming myself up with a “Würstchen mit Senf” bought from a “Metzgerei” on the “Freßgaß” (stuff-me-up-road). Well, it is tradition and I plodded towards the road, its familiar food smells, pedestrian area and fountains.

“Freßgaß” is not its real name and yet it is. I would have to look the real one up on a map and so would a lot of true Frankfurters. I walked towards it from the “Römer”, a name that pays tribute to the once upon a time presence of the Romans along the Main, its fake medieval houses and town hall standing tall and pretty.

500 year old Fachwerkhaus in Frankfurt. This style of woodframed houses was typical for southern and central medieval Germany. ©Truegerman

500 year old Fachwerkhaus in Frankfurt. This style of woodframed houses was typical for southern and central medieval Germany. ©Truegerman

After the bombings of WWII, only one house remained intact (see image) and after long years of suffering the architecture of the 60ies and 70ies, it was decided to resurrect some of the old glory of the town by repopulating it with buildings of a prettier building era. Some moaned at the loss of space and modern architecture, others secretly sighed in relief and tourists now puzzle how new these medieval buildings look.

A less touristic and nonetheless established sight is the Bretzel Vendor “Benno” which I had to pass on my way to the Freßgass. “Was in Japan ist der Tenno, ist für Frankfurt Bretzel Benno“ is its proud slogan. It looks like any ordinary street vendor, a little tent placed in the middle of a pedestrian zone, at a crucial cross roads. But its success is not only due to its location, but its quality. No pre-fab, ready to bake product, but fat, fresh Bretzel and breads in many shapes and tastes, with just the right amount of spread and texture. Quality is what keeps it ahead of the competition.

Finally I wandered into the Freßgaß. Nothing subtle about “Stuff-me-up-Road”. The first thing that changes is the smell. From busy town smell with car exhausts assaulting your nostrils, you switch to culinary choice mode. Restaurants, Café and Food Stores compete with each other for space on the pedestrian passage, pampering a surprised visitor with choice and variety. I knew what I wanted and headed straight for the open window of my chosen “Metzger” (Butcher) of the day. I noted changes. The window is bigger and the display and choice more generous.

It was five minutes to twelve. I didn´t have to queue, as the thousands of Bankers and Insurers that would begin their descent on this road within five minutes were still attached to phones and computers, dealing with the day’s problems. Other changes were happening around me. An entire building had been removed from its gap in the row and was being replaced. I did something I rarely bother doing, because it really is not worth it. I looked up at the buildings. They still were horrible. Whatever change is coming it cannot be worse.

The Würstchen was a delight. The taste was the same, the size the same, the Senf the same. But there have been changes too. As usual I found that the price had doubled. Instead of DM 2.80 I paid Euro 2.80. And then there was the “Brötchen” (bread roll). This new one was shaped like a hot dog bun, which makes it easier to eat the Würstchen and spread the mustard. The traditional Brötchen are round and the Würstchen sticks out at either end. You don´t have an equal spread of bread over Würstchen. BUT the consistence of this new Brötchen was wrong. It tasted like those pre-baked, reheat, mass production kind that are never quite cooked in the end. It did spoil my walk down memory Freßgaß.

Maybe switching to the pre-fab kind has saved the shop from the daily panic moment, “Brötchen are finished!”. I saw it happen once or twice. “Brötchen run out” means business was good, but you can´t stop selling because you ran out of the bread that is only delivered once in the morning.

I understand the business need, but I was slightly disappointed, as I looked around at this town that is always reinventing itself and still rising from the ashes that it was reduced too. I wish I would have had the nerve to tell the shop assistant, that I’d like them to switch back to fresh Brötchen. But I didn´t complain.

I have seen the model of a destroyed Frankfurt in the Historische Museum on the Römer. I see too that a town is its people. Without them I would not have been standing there worrying about ugly buildings and soggy bread rolls. They resurrected Frankfurt with their bare hands and maybe they saw beauty where I didn´t see it that day. As I think about it the buildings don’t seem quite so ugly anymore.

Not all changes are pretty or good or perfect and might not last. But if we don’t try how will we know?


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To Buy Or Not To Buy — There Is No Question

My name is Francesca Button

I don’t age backwards, but I seem to do everything else backwards. First I had kids then I got married. First I went to work then I went to University. Now when everybody is keeping their cash together I decide to spend mine.

I bought a house yesterday.

Am I not worried about the recession? Yes I am and at the same time this recession has been a chance. Interest rates came down, my small nestegg did not dissolve or half in value as did the stocks of others, I could bargain on the house, because there were no queues of people offering more and the seller was eager to sell now.

I am buying the house, literally, while the ground it stands on remains the property of the town. Properties in Frankfurt remain expensive, so renting the ground rather than buying it and building or buying a house on it remains a valid alternative.

The one thing that was still holding me back was language. Not German, that I speak well even by German standards, no it was the “Fachsprache” – technical lingo used by Lawyers, courts and in contracts that was putting me off. I did not understand a word. But everybody pitched in: the lawyers, friends, the bank and my family. They pulled apart the language and paragraphs until I could see more clearly. Every possible protection is in place for buyer and seller. By the time I actually signed the contract, plus after a 4 hour long session with the Notary reading out the text and explaining it all, I was calm.

It will take a few weeks for the paperwork to process and the payment of the house is not due until it is all completed. I’ll get nervous again at various stages, but I can now see that the huge mountain of house buying is just a little bump in the road, that can be taken without falling, if you walk carefully. We listened to our advisors and learned from the mistakes of past generations and other countries.

I remember when many people in England, who bought a house like stocks and expected the prices to go up, but had agreed to flexible interest rates, lost their house and more, because they had speculated with the interest rates. This also happened in Italy. In Germany I have rarely heard this happen. Even people who are out of work can arrange with their banks to temporarily lower the payback, or have insurances that protect their ownership during times of duress. Our bank guarantees that our loan will not be sold off and even if this would happen you are protected by laws from unreasonable requests by new creditors. There are checks and balances everywhere. “Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser.” (Trust is good, control is better.)

Sometimes I get fed up with the check and balances. I ask myself if it were not great just to move around a country without having to reregister every time I move. I am amazed by stories of a person disappearing within the United States, who survived without valid papers and was not found out for twenty years. Why don’t we just trust each other? It sounds tempting. You are just you and all you can carry in a suitcase.

I look around. I have two children, a spouse, dreams of learning and hopes for change. I have parents who help me and who I can help. There are stories still to be told, to be carried on, lessons to be heard and developments to be made. If I left it all behind, who would I be?

There are many ways of turning over a new leaf and sometimes you can do that by staying in exactly the same place you are. I don’t blame checks and balances if I can’t.



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