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Hell’s Belle

Part One: Obsession

It all started with an iPod.  Laura and I both swore we’d never own one.  Laura believed they were responsible for the decline of Western Civilization–no one speaks to each other anymore; they wander around running into things; often, that thing is her.  I thought they were too expensive.  I walked to work, or rode the bus, and was often bored.  But it was a good bored.  I could think; let my mind wander.  It seemed dumb to spend $300 to stop thinking.  We bought one anyway, for a variety of reasons.

First, we wanted to play white noise at night.  We’d read that it might keep our then three-week-old daughter asleep.  We didn’t have room for a full stereo system in the bedroom, so we got some cheap computer speakers and figured we could plug the iPod into them.  Plus, that’d give us a way to play music too, which we’d read might help gether to sleep.  We thought we’d play soothing music: new age, classical, celtic.  The deciding factor was that we could also use the iPod in the car.  We reasoned that with an iPod, those same new age, classical, and celtic songs could follow us around town, making our little Ella sleep like an angel.

We have a fine car; a 2000 Saturn SL-1.  Not flashy, but trusty.  Not new, but paid for.  Not big, but I hate driving big cars, and it’s as safe as any sedan can be from the monster trucks posing as family transportation that clog the highways these days.  The car is great, but the factory radio sucked.  So, before a cross-country drive a few years ago, we replaced it with a Sony deck that’d let us play CDs and MP3s.  The Car Stereo That CouldThe unit we bought does all that and more…much more.  It could play regular CDs, and of MP3s.  It had a headphone-style jack so you could plug in an MP3 player way.  If that wasn’t good enough, it had a USB plug on the front so you could jam in your thumb drive and play any MP3s you had on there.  Last, it had an officially licensed iPod cord coming off the back.  This cord dangled in the passenger’s footwell for over two years.  We rolled it, coiled it, taped it, shoved it under things, but it kept falling out, getting in the way.  I guess it wanted to be useful–it ached to have an iPod connected to its pins.  After Eleanor arrived, it did.  That’s when the Hells Bells obession began.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I have to tell you more about the stereo.

When you hook your iPod up through the officially licensed cable, the deck uses its own built-in software to control your iPod, and you control the tracks, playlists, menus, etc. from the buttons on the deck.  That’s right, you use the tiny buttons originally designed in the 1960s to control an AM radio, and a 12-character green dot-matrix display (where “B” and “8” look exactly the same) to navigate tracks, artists, playlists on over 100GBs of MP3s.  What could be simpler?  The deck also has some really fun behavioral quirks.  If you are actually playing a song at the moment you plug the iPod in, the deck knows what you’re playing and takes it up from there.  However, if you’ve paused it, or backed up to a menu, or breathed while plugging it in, then it couldn’t access the iPod’s memory to know what you had been playing.  Instead, it just played the first track from the first album, ordered alphabetically.

When Ella was born, we were slowly, half-heartedly, digitizing our music collection.  We have an abnormally large number of CDs (somewhere around 700).  And despite my spending a decade in the software industry, we have luddite tendencies.  We didn’t trust that MP3s would sound as good as the CD (which they don’t) or be as fun as pulling out the CD and looking through the cover art (which it isn’t); or be as wonderful and painless an experience as everyone said it was (which it also isn’t).  We started the ripping with Rock.  We’d both worked at CD megastores in the past.  Rock always comes first.  We’d completed the first half.  The first album, alphabetically, in that genre was AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”  The first song on that album is Hells Bells.  Can you see it coming?  Then you’re smarter than we were.

Car rides are notorious soothers for babies.  We heard anecdotes from our birthing class instructor, and our First Weeks leader, and our parents, and other parents, and just about everyone, about the wonders of car rides.  There’s a family legend about Laura’s parents driving from Rapid City, South Dakota to Chadron, Nebraska in the middle of the night (an 5 hour round trip) just to get some quiet, if not some sleep.  In Ella’s case, we felt like we’d been given the bait and switch.  Ella would sleep in the car, but only when music was playing, and when you were going above 40mph.  If you dipped below 40mph, no matter how long she’d been asleep, no matter how deeply asleep she seemed, she would cry.  We were in our own personal version of the movie Speed: Keanu Reeves Adam pointing out obstacles and contacting home base for advice, while Sandra Bullock Laura keeps a level head and weaves through traffic.  Meanwhile the infant bomb is still strapped in the back seat and we can’t slow down, or our eardrums will rupture.

Music and motion, that was the magic combination.  Picture two frantic parents jumping into the front seats while the baby starts to cry because you’ve gone out of sight.  Ella couldn’t stand our being out of sight.  Talking didn’t count.  She had to see you, which meant you had to be, at most, eight inches away from her face.  Hard to do from the driver’s seat when she’s strapped into the Graco in the back, facing away from you.  She didn’t cry if she was asleep, but you had to get her to sleep.  Quick! hit the gas and get this bucket of bolts moving.  And put on some music!  But what to play?  Celtic Memory wasn’t on the iPod yet.  That was in Irish, a subset of World, which wouldn’t be digitized until after Rock, Soundtracks, Showtunes, and Classical. And we weren’t about to go scanning through to find something appropriate.  Picture that scene: click, scrolling song title slowly comes into view, that’s not appropriate, next, still no good, click the button to switch to artist scan mode, that’s the wrong button you just turned on repeat, [curse], look up at the road, let me do that you just drive, I’ve got it, no just drive, click, accessing, oh hell with it, this is fine, Fine, FINE, not bad actually, this is fine.  We didn’t have time for that.  There was a baby crying in the back seat.  We just went with whatever came first: Hells Bells.

Single Sleeve CoverPerhaps this is a good time to tell you about the song Hells Bells, and AC/DC.  If you’re not familiar with AC/DC, they’re an Australian, heavy metal, blues-infused, four-piece from the late-70’s/early-80’s “bad boys of rock” tradition.  They play odes to the triumvirate gods of the rock pantheon: sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.  They are most famous for their guitar player, Angus Young, who wears a boarding schoolboy’s outfit on stage (navy short pants, blazer with patch, striped beanie), and their high-pitched, scratchy-voiced singer.  Actually, make that singers.  The original singer, Bonn Scott, drank himself to an early grave, and was replaced in 1980 by Brian Johnson.  AC/DC fans can tell the difference, but the casual listener may not realize that a change was made.  They can both scream like banshees.

If you’re not familiar with Hells Bells (note: they forgot the apostrophe, not me), it’s a song about the devil taking people to hell, or perhaps someone in the band taking people to hell, or someone else taking people to hell, or perhaps it doesn’t make sense at all, and is just a heavy metal song from the days when vaguely satanic imagery sold millions of records. In any case, it’s an epic–a start quiet and slow then build to a headbanging frenzy, epic–with all the requisite parts.  It starts with low tolling bells: “dong…dong.”  Next, Angus Young adds a haunting, dirge-like guitar riff which drives the rest of the song, single notes picked out in quarters and triplets.  After one eight-bar riff, the drummer brings a ride cymbal in on two and four; the next time through, he layers on a kick drum.  One hit on two, one on four.  Emphasis, but with lots of empty space for the bells to echo around your head.  Once more through the phrase and we pick up the bass.  You don’t notice it unless you listen for it, but you can feel it, a drone, just two notes in the eight-bar phrase.  Then, a drum fill, and everyone breaks out of their slumber.  The drum is playing a rough rock beat, the bass is pulsing through the chord progression, and we enter the heart of the song.   By the time Brian Johnson sing his first line, you’re already on your feet with your horns in the air.  “I’m rollin thunder, pourin’ rain.  I’m comin’ on like a hurricane.  White lightin’s flashin’ across the sky.  You’re only young, but you’re gonna die.”  Maybe you have to be a certain age, or of a certain age, but I still think that line rocks.  So, that is the music, those are the lyrics, that Ella heard whenever we took her out in the car.  And Lo! behold the power of associative behavior.

By two months, Hells Bells could be heard night and day in our little Seattle condo.  Set on a loop, it played while one or both of us bounced, shhh’d, and sang our little groupie to sleep.  It was a cure-all.  If she was fussy from gas, overtiredness, or needed to eat but dad was getting the bottle ready, there was nothing like it.  We parents couldn’t stand just the one song all the time, so the rest of the Back in Black album soon followed, and the Black Crowes, and Guns n’ Roses were eventually added to the set list.  These additions were not to be used calm her down.  Oh no.  The were only as after-the-storm-but-she’s-still-not-totally-asleep sanity keepers.  More often than not, though, Ella would hear the changeover from Angus to Slash, and her eyes would pop open.  That’s when Laura would give me that “What the heck were you thinking changing the song?” look, and I’d be on rocking duty for another half hour.

Ella got older, and her horizons widened.  At four months, she was grabbing and rolling over, she could see across the room and recognize you.  But her taste in music was as restricted as ever.  She would still, as we described it, lose her rhythm.   One minute she’s fine, playing happily, then suddenly she’s crying.  As soon as we played music, she’d be fine.  The radio was a decent choice.  If you stuck to heavy metal and classic rock, something with a good beat, she calmed down.  We tried working in classical, new age, even Celtic Memory, but they had no effect.  She wanted to rock-n-roll all night.  And even though the radio would work most of the time, if she really got going, if the pitch and volume were trending in the wrong direction, it was back to Hells Bells, the instant baby cure-all.

She’s now eleven months old, and she is not a super sleeper, but she’s getting better.  Many nights fifteen storybooks and a good nursing will put her to sleep.  If that doesn’t work, then riding in the sling with daddy singing “Oh Shannendoah” or “Molly Malone” will often put her out.  Some nights though, it’s just not enough.  If the day was too intense, she’s too frustrated, or overtired, then we break out the jams.  I have a new playlist in iTunes full of hard rock and heavy metal, called “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word.”  It usually works when singing doesn’t.  But if that won’t cut it, we have an ace up our sleeve.  If the dulcet tones of Axel Rose won’t do the trick, then we can break out the big gun, and put Hells Bells on a loop.  The second she hears those low, tolling bells, she perks up, looks at the speakers, looks up at me, and lays her head on my chest.  It’s only a matter of time, then, until we can all go to sleep.

Part Two: The Concert

Olympiahalle and Acquatic Center

Olympiahalle and Acquatic Center

We live in the north of Munich, in Olympia Dorf.  It’s a huge complex of apartments and condominiums which now house drowsy student/parents and their young children, and retired people who tend their planters with utmost care.  Once, though, the apartments of Olympic Village were the temporary homes of the lithe young athletes of the 1972 Olympic Games.  That’s one of the sad ones.  It’s the one where the Israeli team was murdered by Palestinian terrorists.  The building where that happened is about 100 yards from ours.  We were worried for a few weeks that it was ours, but we didn’t ask anyone.  If it was, we really didn’t want to know.  Up the street and just over a bridge is Olympiapark, the main Olympic grounds, with the swimming/diving hall, the indoor arena, and Olympiastadion.



Olympiapark is really an amazing place.  The stadium is half sunk into a hill, has tall graceful spires, and a glass and steel half-roof which looks like a spider web, and which spills out of the stadium, over the plaza, and links to the other buildings.   Instead of being surrounded by a huge asphalt parking lot, like most stadiums, it’s in the middle of a beautiful park.  If hobbits and elves got together to have an Olympics in Bree, this is what they would build.  In addition to the other olympic buildings, there is a beautiful pond where you can rent swan paddle boats, kilometers of walking/biking trails, and wonderful grassy hills.  The biggest of these looks down, just a little, into the far end of Olympiastadium.  One night in May, AC/DC paid this stadium a visit.

All that day the U-3 was packed with tattooed men and women wearing leather pants and black T-shirts coming up to our park.  There were twice as many trains (running every five minutes, instead of ten), all day, all full to the brim with AC/DC fans.  That’s a lot of AC/DC fans.  It’s a big stadium, but not that big.  We had to find out what was going on.  Plus, we felt we owed it to Ella to take her near the concert, even if she wasn’t old enough to go in.  We planned to take a walk around the stadium, witness the mob scene, and since it’s an open-roof stadium, listen to a bit of the concert.  We headed over around dusk.  Ella was tired, and fell asleep in her stroller almost immediately.  Large groups of fans were still moving towards the stadium, finishing their beers and trying to shove them into already overflowing garbage bins.  A few eco-conscious fans collected their bottles in boxes and plastic sacs and stacked them near the fence, or near their bikes, so they could pick them up them on the way out.  We stopped to read a few posters advertising upcoming heavy metal shows.  Germans love heavy metal above all other forms of music, and they have some great band names to prove it.  There are good names: Dream of Evil, Witchburner, Enemy of the Sun.  Bad names: Bonded by Blood, Powerwolf, and Jon Olivia’s Pain.  And there the truly hideous: Davidian, Contradiction, and best of all Hackneyed.  Did these people not get the message that they’re a heavy metal band?  They should learn something from their colleagues.  Heavy metal is about skulls, blood, and fire, not ironic self-effacement.  Hackneyed?  Maybe an emo-pop solo act like Bright Eyes could pull that off as an album title, but heavy metal?  Come on!  Anyway, we had a good laugh, and pushed on towards the stadium.  Just as the sun was disappearing behind the hill, we rounded the curve to see the stadium and the park.

A Leatherclad Hill

A Leatherclad Hill

Now we knew where all those people were going.  The big hill had turned from green to black.  All those leather-clad fans who didn’t have tickets had settled for a case of Augustiner, a picnic blanket, and a spot on the hill.  You can see a little, and you can hear perfectly.  Those who couldn’t find a spot on the hill were milling about in the plaza below.  The beer and döner-kebap carts stayed open late to serve the fans who hadn’t brought their own.  Everyone was anxiously waiting for the boys from down under to take the stage.  They didn’t have to wait long.  We were still looking for the best place to park our baby buggy when Brian Johnson started belting out Rock N’ Roll Train.  The response from Ella was immediate.

She had been fast asleep, her stroller reclined for greater comfort.  When she heard the gritty falsetto, she popped her eyes open, propped herself up on an elbow, and smiled a huge, open-mouth, giggling smile.  She knew that voice.  That scratching, screaming, soothing voice was bouncing around and surrounding her.  It was everywhere.  She was in heaven.

A Satisfied FanWe stood in the plaza for about an hour.  Ella was bouncing in our arms and laughing.  We had a wonderful time too.  We are slightly abashed, though, that Ella seemed to particularly enjoy “The Jack,” a song about one of the band members contracting Chlamydia.  But good times like that can’t last forever.  Despite her favorite band being so close and clear, despite the smiles and laughter, despite her dancing in our arms, she was getting tired.  She was fussing, threatening to cry, sounding like a car with a faulty starter.  I put her in the baby sling to cuddle her, and we decided to take her home.  Then fate struck one more time.  We heard the bells.  She knew those bells, Laura knew those bells, I knew knew those bells.  It was her all time, number one, best, most favorite song.  She calmed immediately, and when Angus Young started that haunting guitar riff, she looked towards the stadium, then up at me, laid her head on my chest, and went to sleep.

Part Three: Fate and Fantasy

This obsession with Hells Bells could be caused by the iPod, and the car stereo, and the countless times she’s heard it while nodding off, but it might have been preordained.  Let me explain.  Before Ella was even a raised eyebrow and a passionate look in my eyes, more than a year, in fact, before she was conceived, Laura and I were walking through Seattle’s Post Alley.  That’s an offshoot of Pike Place Market.  It’s got some interesting things like a cool tea shop, but mostly it’s stores like: Made in Washington, A Thousand Things You Never Knew Existed, and Wouldn’t This Look Good Collecting Dust On Your Shelf?  In the window of a swanky baby boutique, we actually saw something we couldn’t live without.   It was a tiny T-shirt, black, with silver writing.  In unmistakable lighting-inspired script, it said “AB/CD”.  We had no child, and no prospects for a child, but we knew that someday we would.  We didn’t have a lot of money, so we asked the clerk how long they might have this in stock.

“Well, at least until the fall.  After that I don’t know.  Why?”  She saw the disappointment in our faces.  “How long were you thinking?”

“Two years.”

She laughed out loud.

“Let’s get it,” we said.  We didn’t know what size to get.  We knew that babies were sometimes born too big for their clothes so we wanted to be sure.  Err on the big side, we though.  We got a 2T.  That’s for two year olds.  Yikes!  We didn’t know any better then.  In a year or so, when Ella fits it, she’ll certainly have earned it.  She’ll probably have listened to Hells Bells over a thousand times.

Our friends and family are alternately amused, and completely baffled by, Ella’s AC/DC obsession.  Friends have exalted the “all-Angus diet,” suggested that we start teaching her how to play Guitar Hero as soon as possible, and two friends have threatened us with drum kits for her second birthday.  Laura’s parents are surprisingly good sports about it.  Their house normally resonates to the smooth timbre of a French horn, or the nimble grace of a fully-loaded string section.  When Ella arrived and needed hard rock on the radio, Grandma Mary played along.  She jumped and jiggled with Ella till she fell asleep, then turned it back to the classical station.  Her other Grandma Mary made her a “Lil’ Rocker” outfit for Christmas, complete with AC/DC onesie, red velvet shrug with skull and crossbones lining, and a matching headband.  Ella loved it (especially the headband, which she tried to eat).  Maybe she’ll receive inappropriately occult gifts for many years to come, like a skull on her sweet sixteen.  Or, maybe we’ll forget all about it.

I have a vision of her at eighteen.  Her AC/DC obsession was over before she could really remember anything, maybe three or four.  She hasn’t asked about it since, and it has somehow slipped through the cracks all the times I’ve told embarrassing Eleanor stories to her boyfriends as they sat on the couch, trapped between a protesting Eleanor and me, wanting to laugh, but fearing dangerous repercussions from my feisty daughter.  In my fantasy, she’s driving down the road on a summer afternoon, in her faded, red 2016 Toyota Celica.

She’s driving mad.  It’s been a bad day at work.  She’s doing an internship at Bethesda Medical, earning experience before med school, and though she doesn’t tell me, earning some beer money too.  She’s frustrated because the tasks they give the interns aren’t challenging enough (she’s brilliant, you see).  She could handle the hard stuff if they’d just give her a chance.  Anyway, she’s angry as she drives.  The windows are down, and she’s taking deep breaths.  She wishes she smoked, smoking seems to calm her friends sometimes, but of course she knows better.  She would never smoke.  She’s got the radio tuned to KROK – “The Rock.”  They’re playing the latest track from the parent-scare band of the day.  Parent scaring is a grand (and highly lucrative) tradition in the music business.  It’s probably older than the 1950s, but the lineage traces back at least that far.  It includes Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Marilyn Manson, and System of a Down.  But of course, I listened to parent-scare bands too, so they don’t scare me.  The boy bands (NKOTB, N*Sync, Backstreet Boys) have always been much scarier.

Chauncy, the young, hip DJ (KROK still has DJ’s; this is kind of a throwback station), is signing off and handing off to Rex, The Dinosaur.  Rex (on-air name: T-Rex) has been with the station forever.  He’s going gray on the sides and bald on top.  Rex is always decrying today’s music, talking about how it was back in the day,  how much better the music was when he was a kid, and about how Bryce, the f*ing station manager, won’t let him play the good sh*t (Jimmy, the sound engineer, has to keep one hand on the dump button–that’s radio talk for the bleep button–during Rex’s show).  Today Rex has decided he’s had enough.  He’s playing what he wants to play.  “This is T-Rex, rockin’ you all day, and gettin’ you ready to party all night,” he says as he comes on the mic.  “Today, we’re not playing any of the crap that I’m supposed to play.  We’re bustin’ out the good sh-BLEEP.  And we’re starting right now with one of the best of all time.”

At first, Ella is not sure if he’s played anything.  It’s just silence.  Maybe they pulled the plug on him.  She leans forward and turns up the volume.  Then she hears the bells.  The slow, tolling bells.  She leans back, relaxes her shoulders.  “This is cool.  I’ve never heard this song before,” she thinks to herself.  The guitar riff starts and Ella is strangely happy, like she hasn’t been in a long time.  The stress of the day is melting away.  Her shoulders are relaxed.  She can feel her cares draining out her feet, through the pedals.  She wants to go faster, driven by the music, but she knows better.  She carefully obeys the speed limit.  When the bass enters she’s smiling widely, straining her cheek muscles.  She’s a beautiful bud in the spring, raindrops glistening on her petals.  She doesn’t know why, but she starts giggling.  When Brian Johnson comes in, she opens her mouth and sings along.  She knows every word.  Every single one.  She doesn’t understand.  She gives her mouth a look like it’s betraying her as she sings along.  Why does she know this song?  She doesn’t care.  She’s flying.  She sings with abandon (though she continues to drive carefully, safely).  She’s shaking her strawberry-blonde hair, pounding her fists on the steering wheel, rocking in her seat.  She is Hell’s Belle.

They’re Getting It Wrong

Everywhere you go in Munich, you find little pieces of America.  There are American companies, like McDonalds; there are American concepts implemented by German companies, like C&A; and there are Americans themselves: bands, movie stars, Disney characters, on T-Shirts, posters, and DVDs.  Most of these are direct imports, perfect translations.  Not only is it the same product, but you get the same feeling, the same emotional product when you buy them.  At Starbucks, they still have Tall, Grande, and Venti, and a latte is still a cup of hot milk with a slight coffee aroma.  In some other cases, though, they’re getting it wrong.  In these cases, it feels like American culture has been explained on a phone with a bad connection.  As if the Transatlantic Cable is getting a bit shabby, subtly changing words and letters, making ideas put in at one end come out differently on the other.  Like a game of, well, telephone.  

“Eh? Was?

“American kids sometimes have Pop Tarts for breakfast.”

Ja, ja, ja.  Pop Tarts are the traditional American breakfast.”

They’re getting it wrong.

Wie Bitte?

“I said, the Playboy symbol is a little bit trashy.”

“Right, got it, the Playboy symbol is hip, a little bit classy.”

They’re getting it wrong.

This is embarrassing, but it seems that all the major American imports are fattening.  When you go to the latest Hollywood movie, you sit on your engorged glutes and munch popcorn and candy.  You go to Starbucks and have a frosted muffin with your Venti Mocha. Karstadt’s American food section has, in addition to Oreos, Pop Tarts, Swiss Miss, Easy Cheese, Cake Mixes, and Hershey’s Syrup, five different kinds of marshmallows (seven if you count two varieties of marshmallow “fluff”).  I know that America has an obesity problem, but we do occasionally eat our vegetables.  But whether they’re a representative sample of the American diet, or just the things with enough preservatives to make the boat ride over, those things are at least honest.  Americans do eat those things.  They’re getting it right.  With Kentucky Fried Chicken (here known strictly as KFC), on the other hand, they’re not.

One Saturday last month we went to Real, a big box, “we’ve got it all” store.  As is customary, we planned to leave at nine.  As is also our custom, we left at eleven-thirty.  By the time we got there, it was after noon.  We were starving, and the smell of breaded chicken pressure cooked in liquid fat was too much, so we went to KFC.  It was a perfect likeness of any KFC you’d find in the states except for these seven small differences:

  1. The “Zinger,” my favorite KFC item in the states, does not have three crunchy chicken strips topped with a tangy, dare I say zingy, sauce.  It’s just a spicy chicken sandwich.
  2. You can get a cappuchino.
  3. You can get fries on the side.  Normal fries.  Not coleslaw, or mashed potatoes, or fruit-infused Jello.  Fries.
  4. It was in a bright red two story building with a tornado slide, and its own attached parking garage.  Does anything remind you less of a young Kentucky Colonel in a bow tie taking his homemade chicken, packed with eleven herbs and spices, door to door 99 times to make his first sale, than a two-story monstrosity with an attached parking garage?  Yes, actually:
  5. There were huge plasma screen TVs playing pop smarm from Britney, Christina, Justin, and several others I’m too old to recognize.  On the second floor, there were cozy chairs and coffee tables so you can lean precariously over, trying not to drip mayonnaise on your pants, eating your fries, while looking out the picture windows over the parking lot of Real, Munich’s Wal-Mart.
  6. There are no sporks.  They have real forks and knives.
  7. There are no biscuits.

The first six I can forgive.  You can change a sandwich or two.  You can serve cappuccino, and try to be hip by having plasma-screen hotties grind out techno-pop.  You can even get rid of the spork, exemplar of American efficiency.  Nixing the biscuits, I cannot forgive.  They’re getting it wrong.

But KFC isn’t an American icon.  If you asked me to name the top ten fast food chains in the U.S., I’m not sure I’d put the good Mr. Sanders’s restaurant on the list.  Now, if you asked me to name the top ten American casual sports played outside which are hilarious super-deformed versions of real sports, I’d certainly put mini golf at the top of that list.  

In America mini golf is, at its best, a cacophonous spectacle of colored lights, animatronic aligators, and twirling windmills.  Windmills that spin at a speed so slow that you’re stunned–use your putter to grind your big toe to powder, grit your teeth and put on a noncompetitive, it’s-all-wholesome-family-fun, smile stunned–when the wretched blades send your ball careening back at you with a force unknown to man or beast, ending your quixotic hope of a hole-in-one.  Mini golf is goofy, obnoxious, and overdone.  It’s very American.

The Münchner equivalent is none of these things.  Well, perhaps goofy.  Yes, certainly goofy.  Instead of Crayola green outdoor carpet meant to simulate grass, this version is played on bare steel.  Vast gray sheets of it, set about in rectangle and thermometer shapes.  It’s like miniature golf on ice.  Into these are set red plastic obstacles.  There are the traditional sadistic camel hump hills with the hole set between.  There are pinball machine swirls, taking your ball up and around towards the hole.  There are even entire holes raised three feet off the ground.  To play these, it seems from my perspective outside the wire fence, you turn your putter around to use it like a pool queue.  Perhaps it’s challenging.  Perhaps it’s great fun.  But they’re getting it wrong.

I know this is all very unfair.  Who are “they”?  No one.  Everyone.  Just a nebulous force that conspires to keep my life from conforming to my wishes.  Everyone knows them.  KFC is an American company, they have control of their product, but they change to suit the tastes of their customers.  They do what it takes to make money.  It’s business.  I get that.  The Münchners, all of Germany, all of Europe, in fact, can do whatever they want with miniature golf.  It’s their city, their country, their continent.  What’s weird, though, is that Euope isn’t just getting America wrong.  Europe is getting Europe wrong.

If America, to Europeans, is a plumped up Norman Rockwell painting with rosy-cheeked families going for a Sunday drive with hamburgers in their hands, then Europe, to me, is Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night.  Europe is the half-empty sidewalk cafe, golden against the navy evening sky.  Its tables spill out onto the cobbled square.  Each one supports not just coffee and cake, but endless possibility.  Lovers rendezvous, old friends reunite by happenstance, Ernest Hemmingway sits (and drinks) and pens his great American novels.  The sidewalk cafe is a European romantic ideal that is reinforced daily in paintings, songs, and movies.  Like any icon, though, reality can’t live up to the hype.

Sidewalk cafes are too often on busy thoroughfares, where the whine of passing Vespas threatens to drive you inside no matter how hot it is,  where van drivers load up plinking pallets of empty beer bottles, then squelch them tight with saran-wrap.  No one seems to be rendezvouing, or meeting unexpectedly, and certainly no one is writing.  I always feel a bit ashamed to be taking up a table so long when I take out my laptop.  Does the waiter care if I stay for two hours if there are fifteen empty tables around me?  Probably not.  As usual, it’s me who’s getting it wrong.  

That’s the point of traveling, though, isn’t it?  To dispel your illusions.  Take your prejudices, preconceived notions, and points of view and hold them up to a foreign light.  Try to divorce the thing from the association, recognize it for what it is, not what you think it ought to be.  Admit that a game is just a game, a cafe is just a cafe, a painting is just a painting, and a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich.

Pigging Out

I love pork.  When I found out we’d be moving to Munich, the first thing that popped into my head was the scene from the musical inside the musical The Producers, “Springtime for Hitler,” where a scantily-clad dancer saunters down the stage wearing a 6-foot bratwurst on her head.  Heaven.  But even someone who eats ham religiously has their faith in the snouted saint tested here.  Bavarians go hog wild for pig.

A list of schwein choices from my local grocer:  the traditional bratwurst, a no brainer;  the more obscure bockwurst, a double-ground sausage the consistency of liverwurst; liverwurst; great rashers of uncut bacon;  ham (Black Forest, Honey, and Virginia); hot dogs, from America; and from Italy: capicola, prosciutto, and salami by the kilo.  The Italian imports are often wrapped round a proper Bavarian wurst; pig in a meat blanket.  There are pork impostors: turkey ham, turkey salami, and turkey bratwurst.  Turkey turkey is hard to find.  Apparently, the only acceptable use of fowl is to help health-consious Germans to eat more ‘pork’ products.  If you have the stomach for it, you even can buy whole young pigs (hooves attached, heads removed) ready for the rotisserie.

The meat counter also holds some truly bizarre selections.  You can get strained pork drippings, essentially pork broth, in a sausage casing.  It looks and feels like those slippery water toys you had as a kid.  They get wet, you squeeze, and schwoompf!, it flies across the room.  I’ve never held one of these broth-wursts for more than a few seconds.  I’m afraid I’ll drop it; that it will break open and leave me standing in a schwein lake.  Last, but certainly not least, Bavaria has created their own delicacy: what Laura and I call “Münchner Fruit Cake.”  Picture a tube of salami, about two feet long, with the end cut off, to show off its innards.  Suspended in this hog log are….are….glossy bits of I don’t know what.  It looks akin to midwestern picnic salad; banana swimming in a sea of orange jello.  All that’s missing is the Cool Whip.

I’ve been making a point to try these delectables whenever I have the chance (except the fruit cake, I’m still working up the courage).  Last week a friend from America was out visiting, so we took her to Marienplatz to watch the Glockenspiel, and have lunch at a sidewalk cafe.  It was 25 degrees (that’s Celsius), so I ordered a beer and something light, Münchner Wurst Salat, clearly a local specialty.  I pictured something like a blackened chicken salad, or even a Vietnamese beef salad: a bed of greens, perhaps some red cabbage, with a tasty grilled sausage sitting on top.  I should have known.  Piled high in the kitchen’s largest mixing bowl were thin slices of cold boiled sausage, gray as a February Seattle sky, topped with raw onions, and a tangy vinegar sauce.  There wasn’t a scrap of lettuce anywhere.  Münchner heaven.  I said a prayer for my arteries and dug in.

And it is, in fact, Münchner heaven.  There’s an old German fairy tale called Schlaraffenland, Land of the Lazy.  In Schlaraffenland, food brings itself to you.  You want fish?  Lay down by the river and open your mouth; they’ll jump right in.  Geese soar, and chickens run, fully cooked.  Pigs, their stint on the spit complete, wander through town with a knife in their back.  Whenever you feel peckish, just grab the handle and slice off a snack.  Not exactly a balanced diet, but it’s a commoner’s fantasy.  When you’re poor and starving, looking at yet another plate of boiled potatoes, the thought of meandering meat might bring you hope enough to make it through the winter.  Only the rich can waste their imaginations on Sugar Plum Fairies or Turkish Delight.

When Laura and I first arrived, while still stubbing our toes with alarming regularity, we had a fantasy of finding breakfast sausage.  We had visions of pancakes, eggs, and sausage, maybe hash browns; a Denny’s breakfast, complete with coffee and orange juice.  We dreamt about it, but we never even tried.  It’s morally wrong, staring over mountains of molded pig (in literally dozens of flavors and styles), to ask for Jimmy Dean just to satisfy our unadjusted American palates.  It would be an insult to the butcher’s craft–the swinish equivalent of asking the Sommallier of The French Laundry to recommend a White Zinfandel.  I could never do that to the poor butcher.   Besides, bratwurst for breakfast is a fine substitute.

Pork is the traditional meat of Germany, its everyday food.  I’ve never known a traditional diet in America.  Perhaps there was one once, before supermarkets, before the interstate, before Kraft.  But no more.  Now, we eat the world.  We have taco night, followed by Chinese take out, spaghetti, and chicken cordon bleu.  A week later, it’s tupperware terror as you prepare for Sunday’s grocery trip.   How wonderful it would be, I thought, if we did as the rest of the world did?  Wouldn’t it be great to be like the French?  They bake bread, and if it goes stale, they make onion soup.  If Greek milk starts to go off, they make Yogurt, which they can use for another week.  Refried beans are probably refried because some Mexican child didn’t want to eat them the night before.  There’s a simple beauty to a traditional diet.  One meal becomes another.  Yesterday’s leavings found tomorrow’s feast.

I don’t mean to imply that Germany doesn’t have supermarkets, interstates, or Kraft.  Nor do I believe that the average German spends Saturday night grinding sausages in her kitchen, then rises at five on Sunday morning to bake bread.  They buy their meat wrapped in plastic, same as anyone else.  But what they buy, and what the markets sell, shows that the love of pork is anything but ancient history.  Pork is traditional, and comfortable.  People know what it is, and how to use it.  They buy it, so that’s what the markets offer.  Sometimes that’s all they offer.  That’s the problem.

From my lofty perch in America, I thought about how it’d be great to meld one meal into another, eating variations on a theme.  It’s cheap, it’s simple, it’s historical.  It’s also boring.  I’ve eaten so much pork in the last two months that last week, while shopping in a suburban supermarket, I almost dove into the refrigerator case at the sight of ground beef.  I listen to Cheeseburger in Paradise a lot.  I’ve considered not eating for a week so I can afford to go out for sushi.  When Americans were poorer, when more of us lived on farms, we ate what was available, what was cheap, or what we raised (mutton yesterday, mutton today, and probably mutton tomorrow).  As incomes rose, we could afford to branch out.  Now we’re rich enough to be filthy; rotten cheese in the fridge, taco shells forgotten in the cupboard.  Germany is rich too, but their diet hasn’t evolved yet, or at least their meat counters haven’t.  Don’t believe me?  I finally found my courage, and tried the “Muenchner Fruit Cake.”  Those glossy bits suspended in the salami?  Ham.

All The Small Things

It was an off-and-on rainy day last Monday; Ella and I were spelunking, wandering around Odeonsplatz, searching out the beauty of Munich.  We found it, unexpectedly, in the U-Bahn station.  Lying in her kinderwagon, Ella was conked out, and it was beginning to rain a bit, so I figured we’d head home.  We went down an escalator, and down another, and went to wait for the train.  Now, this isn’t a particularly beautiful station.  Low ceilings, a little dark, not much art, though they do have Mozart playing through the PA;  the advertisements, for everything from plastic surgery, through furniture, to jeans, share a conviction: products sell best when the models are naked.  It’s not ugly, just average (the station, not the models, who are sublime).  There are beautiful U-Bahn stations in Munich, like the the one at Königsplatz, where they’ve taken the statues from of a Roman gate aboveground underground to protect them from weather, pigeons, and the occasional American bomb.  Back at Odeonsplatz, I took a seat on a wire-mesh chair and dragged Ella beside me.  I had a few minutes, so I got out my book (Paris to the Moon, a series of essays by another American Adam living in Europe with his kid) and started to read.

As I sat, and read, and listened, trains came and went, percussion coming in on cue, every three minutes.  Clang clang, whine, hisss, click-schhrruumph, mumbling and shuffling, schhrruumph-click, whine, clang clang.  My train came and went as I sat, and read, and listened.  Reading with Mozart and my daughter, time marked by the rhythm of the trains; it was a small moment, small beauty, in an unexpected place–Euope’s specialty.  It the small things that brings people back to Europe to study, to vacation, to live year after year.  Everyone wants to climb the Eiffel Tower, but it’s the graceful ironwork, not the commanding view, that gets you groping for your camera.  It’s the flaky croissant almost too cute to eat, warm bretzels from a talkative baker, the square of chocolate with your coffee that make Europe Europe.  Unexpected beauty, sudden grace, love put into the smallest things.  These you take home–a piece of Europe lodged in your heart.

To those living in Munich, these bits of unexpected beauty are oases, a refresher for the soul.  Just when you are too hot, annoyed by all the cars, wondering why there are no trees on the street, too tired to bother walking another five blocks to the U-Bahn, too fed up with bumping up against your own cultural ignorance, when you’re ready to go home, you find an oasis.  Two hours before my stint of reading in the underground, I was ready to go home.  We’d just started our walking around, but it was already a Monday.  Not a particularly bad day, nothing you could point to and say “X led to Y which meant that Z happened”, but enough to make you want to give up.  Then I noticed, up and to my left, in the cloister under which I was standing to keep out of the rain, several huge murals depicting the history of Bavaria: the ascension of the first Wittelsbach, pitched battles to consolidate the crown, the submission of defeated enemies to the Herzog; all this in vibrant color, three meters tall, stretching for 200 feet.  I stopped at each one, took some time to try to understand it, to soak this unexpected gift.  I’d been here several times before.  How had I missed them?  As I looked, others stopped.  It seems that most people, locals and tourists alike, had never seen them either.  After a few minutes I felt refreshed, ready to explore, to have another adventure with Ella.

These hidden treasures are everywhere in Munich.  The grand hall of Ludwig Maximilians Universität has a beautiful planned view.  There are two large statues flanking a grand staircase which splits half way up to allow for an arched door which frames a fountain outside.  This arch is echoed three times directly above, also in your peripheral vision on the left and right walls, and brought up into the ceiling dome.  It’s a perfect blend of art and architecture, giving you something to appreciate, still letting you get where you need to go.  But the view is almost invisible.  To see this it, you have to walk to the back of the room, turn around and flatten your back against a marble wall, and for best effect, sit on the floor.  How many people have ever bothered to do this?  How often is this view, this grand vision, simply missed as people rush from class to class?  It’s as if the architect knew that eventually a student would be so beaten down, so tired that she would collapse against this wall, stare at her feet a while, and eventually look up.  When she did, his masterpiece would be waiting to impart a lesson: don’t despair, there is beauty in the world, your problems aren’t so bad.  The waiting is the key.  There is no carnival barker, no one to shout: “Step right up, step right up folks, just look at this cupola!    See great architecture right here!  You there, with the long hair.  Yes, you with the backpack.  You look like a hippie, I’ll bet you like art.  Come on over here, give it a go.”  Instead the oases wait.  They wait for hundreds of years if they have to for the needy soul to find them.

Children teach you to appreciate small things in life, a laugh, a smile, a tiny fist struggling to clutch a toy.  They show you that hilarity can be as simple as a washcloth on your head.  They teach you to appreciate things in the moment, because soon someone will need to eat, or sleep, or have grown into a teenager.  When you stumble upon an oasis then, you’re ready for it.  You know how to let it take you in, how to appreciate it.  Before having Ella I’d have never read in a subway station.  I’d have found a park, a library, a coffee shop, somewhere suitable.  But she was asleep, and there were chairs, when else today would I have ten minutes of peace?  Sitting down, being still, opening myself up, I found something beautiful, something refreshing, an oasis in the city.

This is the piece of Munich that I want to keep in my heart.  A lesson I want to teach to Eleanor.  Be calm for a minute, sit still, and find the beauty around you before searching it out somewhere else.  It’s only fair, since she taught it to me.  Because I can’t take the U-Bahn or the murals home with me, I’ll take Sunday.  Sunday in Munich is how Sunday used to be in the USA.  Everything is closed except restaurants, coffee shops, and museums.  Perhaps it sounds awful.  Americans are used to having things the way we want them, when we want them.  We feel driven to go, go, go.  Squeeze one more errand out of every day.  But living here, I find Sunday provides a rhythm to life.  On an enforced day of rest, you can’t feel guilty.  You can’t spend an entire day getting increasingly irate, flitting from store to store, looking for the perfect toddler shoe.  Sunday here is the day everyone is out in the park, at the museum, breaking bread with friends.  It’s a day for yourself; a day to recharge; a day of rest.  I’m going to bring home a day for family, a day for the small things in life, a day to be calm, sit still, appreciate.  We’ll observe the sabbath, and keep the spirit of Munich in our hearts.

Germans Love Babies, Part III

This is part three of a three-part series on German and U.S. baby culture, the implications for parents, and why we’re so similar, yet so different.  Part one discussed reactions to Ella in Germany as compared to the USA, and proposed the question of whether Germany was baby-friendly, while America was kid-friendly.  Part two talked about cultural practices, and suggested that Germany has integrated children into their adult society, while the USA has created an entirely separate world for kids.  This week we will focus on public policy differences in the two countries, and the effects they have on parents.

What would you give up for a year off work to raise your children?  What would you be like when you returned?  German parents face this question with every trip to the maternity ward, and their answers are more complicated than you might think.

The USA and Germany have vastly different policies on parental leave.  In Germany, parents are given 14 months paid time off, to be split by the parents however they see fit.  In the U.S., governments have largely been laisse-faire on parental leave.  There is a 1993 federal law, called the Family and Medical Leave Act, mandating that employers offer 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave.  A few states have stipulated that employers provide more, but mostly it’s up to individual companies to offer paid maternity and paternity leave as they see fit.  To create their policies, these companies usually use a boilerplate taken from the Great Big Book of Generic, Inflexible, Poorly-Thought-Out, Homogenizing, Sometimes Embarrasing, Certainly Soul-Crushing, No-Room-for-Discussion HR Policies That Will Cover Your Company’s Ass If An Employee Tries to Sue: 

26.K.iii.b Parental Leave

Mothers shall receive four (4) weeks time off, and may take up to an additional two (2) weeks of Vacation Time.  Fathers will receive 2 weeks*, and may take up to an additional two (2) weeks of Vacation Time.  

* West coast and technical companies only.  If your company is on the East coast, or in a more traditional market, delete the sentence regarding Father’s time off.

In addition to stingy maternity policies, this book brings you non-compete agreements to keep your employees from getting jobs at better companies, and 15-page “Acceptable Internet Use” policies that should really just be one sheet with big bold letters saying “Don’t surf for Porn!” 

But I digress. Fun as it is, I will not spend this entire essay ridiculing ridiculous HR policies.  I will instead investigate the effect that vastly different parental leave standards in Germany and America have on parents.  Does the American system, where work pulls you back before you even get good at changing the diapers, lead to an American schizophrenia, a struggle to be both super-parent and super-employee? And what does it mean to German parents to stare out from their stable life as a childless couple, into 14 solid months of child-raising?  Do German policies mean Germans struggle to define themselves not as both parent and worker, but feel compelled to choose between them?  Lets start with the USA.

American parental leave is indeed stingy by European standards, but perhaps the short time away from work makes it easier for us to have kids in the first place.  Place yourself in the position of a typical American woman.  If you get pregnant, you’ll work through the majority of your pregnancy, give birth, and then 6-8 short weeks later they’ll drag you back.  You’ll still be Ms. Molly McKickAss, top-flight lawyer.  When you get back to work your colleagues will be the same; they’ll be anxious to see your cute little baby; they’ll be anxious to get you back into the swing of things.  You may not have missed much in the marketplace, and there won’t be a lot of new advances in your field that you need to catch up on.  Your company won’t even have had time to think of essential projects that must wait, with the work piling up, until you get back.  Becoming an American parent is a bit like bungee-jumping.  You have to take the leap, but you won’t fall all the way.  Before you lose yourself completely, you’ll be jerked upwards, back towards the platform, back towards the identity you’ve created for yourself through your experience and expertise, back towards Ms. Molly McKickAss, top-flight lawyer.

But having children changes you, and in your time away, whether your colleagues know it or not, you’ve added an identity.  Work still expects you to be Ms. Molly McKickAss, top-flight lawyer, and your children (and you) expect you to be Molly McMommy, kick-ass parent.  You’re pulled in two directions.  You want to be both, and American culture tells you that you can be.  We celebrate stories of the “super mom” who runs a company, takes the kids to soccer practice, and has dinner ready at home.  They’re American heroes, and America loves heroes.  There are certainly men and women who can pull off a trick like this, but I think more of us drive ourselves crazy believing that we can be all-in at work, and at home.  We search frantically for time-savers, quick-fixes, and we look to experts–from Dr. Spock, to Dr. Sears, to Dr. Phil–to give us the prescription for making it work.  We multi-task as parent and employee, and eventually become split people, schizophrenics, trying to be in two places at once, wishing while at work that we were home, and when things get rowdy at home, wishing we were back at work where at least we had some level of competence.  This is American parenting.  

When things seem too crazy at home, Americans look to Europe for a new model.  When the English crown seemed too oppressive, we took a Greek idea (incubated in France) and made it our model government.  American parents look at their schizophrenic lives and look to Europe, and its luxurious parental leave times, and see their salvation.  But these European policies create their own issues for parents.

Germany gives parents 14 months of parental leave, guaranteed by the federal government, to be split between the parents.  Both can take seven months, one could take all 14; it’s up to them.  The leave time is paid, but not very well.  You are paid 67% of your salary up to €1,800/month, about $2,455/month (just under $30,000/year).  For all families, it’s at least a 1/3 pay cut; if you’re solidly middle class, it’s much more.  This may sound a lot better than the $0 the American government gives its citizens, but it forces German parents into a difficult economic decision.  What ends up happening most often is that German mothers take off a full year, and dads take two months.  This creates the least disruption to their lifestyle and still gives a full year of parent-child bonding time, at least for one parent.

But what does it mean to a first-time German mother to suddenly face a year off of work?  Frau Katarina KickAss must come to terms with a full year of diapers, drool, and crying; a year of isolation at home, struggling to learn-as-she-goes, without formal training, without prior experience (the first time, anyway).  She has to stare out the open door of a perfectly good airplane, seeing life pass her by below, and decide to jump.  It’s 9.8 straight down, with no bungee cord in sight.  She has to drop freely for a while, trust that her parachute will open and carry her safely down, but to where, exactly, she’s not sure.

Where will Frau Katarina land after a year of floating in the air?  What would it be like to be gone from work for a year?  How many colleagues turn over in your company in a year?  Will your friends be gone?  Will you have to re-establish your relationship with your boss?  Will you have a new boss?  Will there be projects that have been stagnant for a year that now you have to dig out of the rubble of back-work?  Will you have any concept of what’s happening in the market?  How many competitors will have been bought, or gone bankrupt?  How sharp will you be?  Will you remember the million tiny-little details that you keep in your head every day that make you good at your job, or will you have to re-learn everything?  If you’re a programmer, your skills have a shelf-life, and when you get back they may be obsolete.  You’ll be a year behind your colleagues in experience, in seniority.  How likely will you be to get that next promotion?  Does our fair Frau really want to do this?  Would she do it more than once?

Perhaps a German mother, looking at a year away from work, and all it entails, will take the leap for one child, and work hard to re-establish herself.  But if she wants than one child?  If she has a visions of sisters brushing each other’s hair after a bath, Christmases with brothers in matching reindeer jumpers, if she feel like she needs another shot at this parenting thing now that she has some experience, then what?  Perhaps the cost to her career is too great to have more than one.  Perhaps a German mother is forced, not to be a split-personality like her American counterpart, but to choose to be wholly one or the other, to reinvent herself.  To jump from the plane and leave Frau Katarina KickAss behind; to become Mütter Katarina.  To float down into a new life.

Does she look west while she’s up there, just as Americans look east?  Does she long for the security of the bungee cord, tugging her back to work, keeping her tied to her former life, however crazy it may make her, just as Americans struggling to be all things to all people long for the freedom to do one or the other?  Do we both, Americans and Germans, look across the Atlantic and see the greener grass of a better way? Perhaps we do, and perhaps the fantasy is a useful one.  Being a parent makes you crazy whether you go back to work right away or not.  Perhaps looking out, seeing another way, lets you dream of some other place for a while, where people are civilized, where they have this stuff figured out.  It gives you hope when the laundry is piled up, the dinner dishes are still on the counter, you’ve got a big presentation tomorrow, and finger painting on the table has just turned into finger painting the table.  Somebody must have all this figured out; somebody must have a system; somebody, somewhere has it right.  It’s a wonderful fantasy.

Giving Over

I realized this morning that against my will, against my reason, and even against my character, I’m ethnocentric.  Despite my efforts, despite being a Europhile as long as I can remember, and contrary to my self-image, I keep feeling like things aren’t right here, and that I’d all be better off if they just did it like they do back home.  It’s not simply that I love America and I think it’s great, though I do.  It’s not that I demand that everyone speak to me in English, or shield my child’s eyes from marble members on Roman statues, because I don’t.  It’s not even that I think the American way of doing things is necessarily better.  Sometimes it is, and in some cases the Münchner way is better.  But I never know what to expect.  Is this actually familiar to me, or does it just look familiar and it’s going to be a royal pain when I find out it isn’t?  This is my life.  It’s the nagging fear that accompanies each interaction, each step outside the door.  So, I keep looking, unconsciously, but desperately, for little corners of my former life to crawl into,  little eddies on the Isar where the flotsam of America has been trapped, where I can circle awhile before rejoining the channel.

This is natural, and it shouldn’t be surprising.  The main thrust of this blog has been the the little hang-ups, like finding coffee on a holiday, that I’ve found so difficult, and you, dear reader, have found so funny.  But it is surprising.  I was taught to be open minded, to enjoy the differences in people and behavior.  I was taught to respect the home of your friends and act according to their custom.  I’ve come to believe that I do this, that I am that person.  I’ve traveled a fair bit, and tried to fit in, culinarily if nothing else.  I’ve had caviar (salty) and borscht (tasty) in Moscow, bangers and mash (mmmmm) and curry (huh?) in London,  escargot (yummy) and a hamburger bleu (oops, not a cheese option!) in Paris.  Do as the Romans do, that’s what I expect of myself, but it’s harder than it seems.  I’m used to the way things were, so I take refuge in the familiar.  Safely ensconced in my Starbucks duck blind, I hunt those funny little differences that make good stories.

Sitting here, looking out at everyone pass by my window in to Odeonsplatz, I wonder if it isn’t, like so many things are, just a phase.  We’ve all heard of the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.  Either we’ve experienced them, or a Psych professor told us about them, or someone in a movie has kindly explained them to us to set up the bittersweet ending.  I think there must be stages, too, of cultural assimilation.  Five different states of mind you progress through, adapting to a new home: Shock and Awe, Homesickness, Toe-stubbing, Giving Over, and finally, Going Native.

The first, Shock and Awe, should be familiar to anyone who has traveled, but especially internationally.  You’ve experienced this.  It’s that feeling when you first arrive in a place and everything, and I mean everything, is amazing.  The buildings are too beautiful; the parks are just perfect; the local accent is so cute; even the way they fold the butter packet, or the shape of the milk carton, is adorable.  In this stage, you feel like you could spend an entire day just sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur staring out at the 19th-century oil painting come to life that is Paris.  But it doesn’t last.

If you move, or if you travel long enough (for me it’s about three weeks), you arrive at Homesickness, a nightmare from which you cannot wake.  The cute little milk cartons have become tiny monsters that bite your hand as you try to open them.  The parks are too big, too crowded.  You can’t understand a damn thing people are saying.  Somehow, in the last week, factories have sprung up all around, and they’re spewing smoke all over the place, wrecking your gorgeous view.  Everything is different.   You don’t know anyone. You can’t even go to the grocery store without a minor meltdown because they don’t have turkey; or, you can’t find the trash bags; or because yes, they do have lots of cheese, and okay, it’s actually better than most any store-brand cheese in the USA, and well, okay, it’s cheaper too, and no, it’s not artificially colored, and yes, I can see that it’s organic, and would you give it a rest already? It’s not Extra-Sharp Cheddar.  Is it too much to ask to have some freaking Extra-Sharp Cheddar?  But like Shock and Awe, this too shall pass.

After a few weeks of homesickness, you pass into a longer phase, a settling-in phase, that I call Toe-stubbing.  By this point you feel a little more comfortable in your new home.  Grocery trips are old hat.  You’ve got a favorite bakery, coffee shop, cafe.  You’ve mastered the subway system.  You don’t even need a map to get to the major landmarks, and you feel good directing tourists around your neighborhood.  Life is getting better, things are smoother, this could be okay, you can actually do this.  Then you start stubbing your toe.  

You don’t even realize, but you make life harder for yourself.  You know that things are different, and you like that they are.  You don’t really want everything to be the same as in America, but you expect it anyway.  You can’t help it; you see something that looks familiar, and you assume it’s the same.  You stub your toe.  Laura and I were looking to file all the papers of our new life: our rental contract, our electricity bill, our health insurance.  We were looking for manilla file folders and a cardboard file box.  We started looking the first week we were here.  But at Kaufhof (like Target), Karstadt (like Macys), and Woolworths (like Woolworths), we found only binders and plastic sorting racks.  We thought that was strange, but everything was strange.  So, we made a plan: we’d find an office supply store and get them there.  When the pile on the desk developed an intelligence of its own, we knew it was time to make the trek.  We consulted the Oracle of Google and Lo! there were three, yes three, Staples stores in Munich.  Happy day!  

Except it wasn’t, not really.  We had a bit of a snafu with Google Maps not knowing exactly where the thing was.  It’s not Google’s fault, really.   The numbers here bear no relation to their distance along a street.  Each building gets a sequential number, no matter what block it’s on.  This leads to much head scratching when, for instance, you’re standing in front of number 39, looking across to number 178.  In spite of this, and after much walking, we found it.  We found the store called Staples, which was clearly the same chain as the U.S. Staples.  It had the same logo, and the big “easy” button.  But it wasn’t Staples.  They had pens, but different pens, they had paper, but different paper, and they didn’t have manilla file folders.  They had a very few hanging file folders, priced 6 for €8, and a few small plastic file boxes for €20.  But we had some serious filing to do, six folders wasn’t going to cut it.  

We’d waited all that time, walked all that way, and stubbed our toe.  We’d expected to be able to do things the same way.  I mean, what other way is there to organize all your paperwork?  You collect it, put it in a folder, put that in a drawer, or box with a little label, and you’re done.  It’s not that we knew that Germany did it a different way, and were stubbornly looking to do it The American Way.  It just never crossed our mind that you filed things differently here.  Instead of deducing that we needed a new filing system, we assumed that we just didn’t know where people bought their filing stuff.  Turns out, binders are everywhere for a reason.   Here, everybody two-hole punches their paperwork and puts it in a binder.  That’s just how they do things.

This morning I realized that I’ve been stubbing my toe for a while.  That’s what I’ve been doing so many mornings, searching for a coffee shop from which to write, frustrated that they’re not open, or they don’t have wifi, or whatever the annoyance of the day.  I’m enforcing my cultural norms onto Munich, being ethnocentric, instead of giving over and allowing Munich to reveal its mores to me. In Seattle, coffee shops open early (really early) because people go there to read the paper before work, and people stay all day because for some people, they’re at work.  That’s what I’m used to, so that’s what I’m looking for.  But that’s not how it works here.  People who need something before work grab it to go from the shop in the train station, people who have time to read the paper in a coffee shop have no need to be up before work starts, so the coffee shops open later.  Laura, my wife, likes to work in the afternoon, and she has a favorite bakery.  But she’s an outsider too.  Nobody says anything when she opens her laptop and drags out her books, but no one else in the bakery does that.  They’re all on a Kaffee und Kuchen break (coffee and cake), and every 15 minutes everyone has cycled through except her.  Neither of us really want coffee shops and bakeries to be just like they are back home, but we expect it nonetheless.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming it, and realizing you’re stubbing your toe must be the first step in the next phase: Giving Over.  I expect this to be a long process of adapting those behaviors that I can, accepting those which I can’t, and praying for the wisdom to know the difference.  I’m on the lookout now for places where I’ll stub my toe, and I’ll try to avoid them.  I’ll try to do things the Münchner way, get out of my duck blind, get a two-hole punch.  But of course I won’t give over, not completely, not all at once.  This pathology runs deep.  

I’m planning a Cinco de Mayo party for us and our very few American friends.  We special ordered tortillas, direct from Florida, from a visiting friend (she brought them in her suitcase).  I’m going to have to make the salsa, because I don’t trust that the things in the grocery store that say “salsa,” really are.  I’m not stubbing my toe on that one.  We’re making tacos, or enchiladas, or something Mexicany anyway.  Here’s the kicker: I don’t have a clue what Cinco de Mayo is.  I think it has something to do with Mexican independence, or perhaps a battle from days gone by.  It doesn’t matter.  At home, we have Cinco de Mayo, and I desperately miss Mexican food, so we’re having Cinco de Mayo here, come infierno or inundación.  

In my ten short months in Munich I’ll never get to the last stage, Going Native.  I imagine a paradise where you’ve truly moved on.  You know the culture, the city, the language.  Slang is second nature, not something that sends you scrambling for your pocket dictionary (maybe you don’t even need a pocket dictionary anymore!).  I imagine that Americans already in this stage see me struggling at the grocery store and chuckle under their breath, the way a college school senior chuckles knowingly at the freshman, shirt tucked in, hair combed (washed, even), schedule in hand, glassey-eyed, looking for the chemistry building.  I can imagine it all, but I’ll never reach it.  And for that, I’m glad.

I’m glad because maybe these stages aren’t so novel after all.  Perhaps they’re just the same five stages of grief you go through when mourning the loss of a parent, a lover, a friend.  Wide-eyed shock and awe, denial that anything could be wrong; bitter homesickness, an angry denunciation of everything foreign; toe-stubbing, bargaining for your sanity: “If I pretend it’s the same, will you actually be the same?”; giving over, a depressing resignation to your fate; and finally accepting your new home, warts and all, immersing yourself fully, going native.

If that’s true–if I’m actually grieving a lost culture–then I’m glad that I’ll never reach acceptance.  I’m glad because that means my culture, my friend, isn’t really dead.  I don’t have to move on, I just need to make it through.  There will be a touching reunion at the arrivals gate in Chicago where I can embrace my homeland again.  A moment where we can stare at each other, knowing that we’ve changed during our time apart; knowing that though we now see each other differently, our relationship is stronger for it; that we have some distance, some perspective that we didn’t have before.  There will still be things that get on my nerves, a cultural leaving the cap off the toothpaste, but I’ll know that in other places they do that too, or they do something else just as annoying.  I’ll be able to accept America just the way it is, because I’ll know how much I missed it while I was away.

Germans Love Babies, Part II

This is part two of a three-part* series on German and U.S. baby culture, the implications for parents, and just why we’re so similar, yet so different.  Part one discussed reactions to Ella in Germany as compared to the USA, and proposed the question of whether Germany was baby-friendly, while America was kid-friendly.

German culture in the small is indeed baby-friendly.  The personal interactions, the cooing and clucking, happen everywhere: on the U-Bahn, on the street, and at the döner kebap stand.  Individual businesses welcome parents and children by providing changing rooms, and there is a near-universal acceptance of breastfeeding as a normal, healthy thing that should be done wherever the mother is comfortable.  Ella has even twice gotten gifts from strangers.  The first was at a pharmacy, where we were looking for children’s sunscreen.  Initially, the pharmacist was indignant that we would want sunscreen for a baby as young as Ella–children, until two years, should not be exposed to the sun;  they simply should not.  But after a few smiles from Eleanor she lightened up, sold us the sunscreen, and gave Eleanor a little plastic sheep.  A little blue plastic sheep.  I think it must have been some pharmaceutical swag.  The second time was at the Löwenbräu biergarten where the waitress actually took a little stuffed lamb (what is it with toy sheep?), which was hanging on her dirndl, and gave it to Ella.  All of this may be because Eleanor is naturally sociable, or may be because we encourage her to interact with shopkeepers and barmaids, but I think it’s more than that.  It’s so widespread. There must be a mos at work, a cultural norm to encourage this baby-friendliness.

Germany as a state, the government and its policies, is also baby-friendly.  Here a parent can take off a full year to care for the baby, or both parents can take up to 14 months, split however they choose.  After that year, the state provides a stipend, similar to the U.S. system of dependent tax deductions, for each child.  If you’re worried about your child, if you love to obsess about what they should be eating, whether they should be crawling, or you just need to know where to buy a new stroller, home visits by a certified nurse are free of charge up to age three.

The USA is not nearly so baby-friendly.  No one gets a year off work (most mothers get between 6-8 weeks, dads 0-2 weeks), daycare is hard to find and exorbitantly expensive, and nurse visits…lets just say we felt incredibly blessed that our hospital offered a free nurse visit a week after we went home. Even personal interactions aren’t the same.  People will occasionally smile at your baby in the states, but I’ve never seen someone take over the baby-tainment for a full three minutes like I have here.

America may not be as baby-friendly as Germany, but we are the champions of kid-friendly.  America is so kid-friendly, that we’ve constructed a separate society, a different world, with most of the good bits and few of the bad, just for kids.  There are kids TV shows and kids movies.  There are paint-your-pottery and build-a-bear stores for kids.  There are kids museums where you can pretend to do adult things like shopping and working a job.  Even libraries–steeped in the lore of kid-hating librarians who wear dark, ankle-length skirts and have a sadistic love of popping out from behind a row and shhing naughty children who talk to loudly–are kid-friendly, with big storytime areas done up like Sherwood Forest.  There are public pools, waterslide parks, and amusement parks all for kids.  And there are, of course, theme restaurants: Chuck-E-Cheese, Rainforest Cafe, and in Denver, Casa Bonita which turns the schlock up to 11 by replacing the creepy animatronic puppets with real actors performing a spaghetti western in which, at the climax, the bad guy gets shot, flails about wildly for several minutes, and finally falls ten meters from a cliff into a pool.  In the U.S., even public celebrations, like Easter or the Fourth of July, are “fun for the whole family.” This means fun for the kids and mind-numbingly boring for the adults.  Unless the venue serves alcohol, in which case kids must remain outside the six-foot chain-link fence, and it’s mind-numbing, but fun, for the adults.  From they day they’re born until they reach their teenage years kids are cordoned off from adult American society,  kept in Neverland, protected from harm and oblivious to the world of their parents.  And in many ways that is a good thing.

Germany is kid-friendly to an extent, but compared to the U.S., it’s a retirement home.  Children here are part of everyday life, exposed to adult culture, but still given room to be kids.  Adults take their children with them to the biergarten.  The adults casually have a 0.5L Helles while their children either sit with them and have a Coke, or go off to a playground helpfully provided by the proprietors.

And oh, the playgrounds they have!  They are the playgrounds of my childhood, no, the playgrounds of my childhood dreams.  The tall metal slides, jungle gyms, and forts have not been replaced with lower, safer, plastic abominations, as they have in America.  The playgrounds here in Munich have huge forts, gigantic spider-web rope nets, tunnels through hills, and at one near my apartment, the most amazing merry-go-round.  It takes ten children working in concert to operate it properly.  It is small, about six feet, in diameter. Four children jump into the middle to turn it by pushing on spokes leading from the central pillar to the outside platform.  The six riders stand on the outside platform and reach up to hold onto a bar above their heads for stability.  Because of the small diameter relative to the force four children can exert when excited by chocolate and beautiful spring weather, the thing spins fast.  Very fast.  The children scream excitedly as it speeds up, and then, laughing maniacally, the bolder children kick their legs out and hold on with only their hands to the top ring.  Their legs fly out and they are spinning horizontally, staring at the ground or the sky, according to their preference, feeling the pure joy available only to children who have no knowledge of health insurance premiums, or personal injury laywers.  This is all sanctioned, or at least condoned, by the attending adults.  The playgrounds at the biergartens all seem to be pirate themed, with big pirate ship jungle gyms/forts.  I don’t know why they’re all pirate themed, except that pirates are awesome, but it seems to be a tradition.

Swimming pools are an integrated experience too.  The one in my neighborhood, the old Olympic pool from 1972, is more like a busy train station than a pool as I know it.  There, Sportschwimmers swim laps, about ten to a lane, and between their turns at the wall, children jump in from the starting blocks, splash around a bit, then swim off to the ladder to do it again.  All of this without a lifeguard in sight.  In the Englischer Garten, children play pick-up soccer very near a well-known nude sunbathing area.  Children’s eyes are not covered as they make their way to the meadow; they are, it seems to me, expected to understand it as part of their world and not to make a big deal out of it.  Even shopping for children is integrated into the larger shopping experience.  Whereas in the USA we have Babies-R-Us, and other children’s (and specifically baby) stores, these are very hard to find in Munich.  Laura and I spent hours searching online, asking for recommendations from friends, and going street to street looking for somewhere to buy a new stroller and some baby-proofing equipment.  Whomever we asked responded with “Well, what are you looking for–baby furniture, baby clothes, baby bottles?”  These are all in separate stores.  Baby furniture is in the furniture store, baby clothes in the department store, baby bottles…well, we finally found out.  There is exactly one store dedicated to all things baby.  It’s a special extension to the downtown Karstadt department store.  There you can find strollers, cabinet locks, bottles, sippy cups, and crib sheets, though not the cribs themselves.  Children are part of the fabric of German society, not a society unto themselves.

But, why are children more a part of everyday adult society here in Germany and cordoned off in America? Are there inherent cultural differences that keep the Germans cooing while Americans are silent?  Perhaps the answer comes from Rush Limbaugh.  For years, perhaps decades, Rush has been telling all Americans who are willing to listen, or too slow turning the dial that Europe (that great monoculture that it is) is socialist.  Wait, sorry, Socialist.  (He says it with a capital “S”).  They have socialized health care, socialized parental leave, public transportation, a national railroad (Deutsche Bahn), and airline (Lufthansa).  This reflects an underlying socialist culture based on concern for the many, not just the one.  This is the reason Germans generally follow the rules.  It’s a very practical belief system.  If I follows the rules, things will be smoother for everyone.  If you break the rules, you’re making work for me, or for someone else, and that will make me late for my train, make me redo some of my work, or make me open late because I was painting over your graffiti.  DustbustersWhatever the rule may be, Germans abhor breaking it. If you don’t believe me, come buy a newspaper from a stand on the street.  It’s not locked.  You could just lift the lid and take the entire stack of papers.  There’s a little slot to drop your €0.50 into, and it’s expected that you’ll do it. This socialist, don’t-make-it-harder-on-the-other-guy approach accounts for famous German punctuality, which earns them endless grief from their French and Italian neighbors who abhor arriving anywhere on time.

Following the rules is practiced daily, and reinforced publicly.  On the U-Bahn, there is a series of hilarious posters encouraging people to clean up after themselves.  One shows several people sitting on the train with DustBusters, another a woman in a business suit and high heels wheeling a 50-gallon recycling container, overflowing with paper, onto the train.  The caption, roughly translated, reads: “It’s not this hard.  Clean up after yourself.”  And they do, because it makes things easier for everyone.

wheelyPerhaps this is why Germans are so baby-friendly, and kids are part of the greater culture.  Perhaps, it’s easier for everyone if a stranger smiles at a baby on a train.    Perhaps it will make the parent a better parent if they have two minutes of peace while someone else engages their baby between stops.  Perhaps one hundred pairs of eyes at the pool are better than the Lifeguard’s one.  Perhaps its better for everyone if, to paraphrase the old saying, the village helps raise the child.

In America, we don’t interpret the phrase “it takes a village” quite so literally.  We define our own village. We rely only upon close friends, family, and sometimes our neighbors.  Moreover, we have ingrained in our culture, drilled into us from our earliest days, the mythology of the individual.  We celebrate the stories of individuals rising from rags to riches.  We make heroes of Bill Gates, George Washington, George Patton, the captain of industry, the president, the general.  We believe that one woman, alone, can dig in her heels, put her nose to the grindstone, and if she keeps her chin up, overcome any obstacle.  We expect it of ourselves, we expect it of our neighbors, we even expect it of our family.  We assume the existence of, but don’t celebrate, the millions of people working for the hero, doing the little things every day that make the great machine go.  We don’t see the gears, we only have eyes for the operator.

The American family is one of these machines, and we’re the ones pulling the levers.  We believe that we can do it all on our own, just like our heroes.  We are the anti-socialists.  Kirk to Germany’s Spock.  This has allowed us, or perhaps caused us, to create our children’s society.  The village has no say in how we raise our child, and no responsibility for them.  In fact, most of the time, they’d rather not be bothered by them.  So we need to create places for them to go where they won’t bother the adults, where they’ll be safe, where we’re paying someone to help keep watch, because in public, we’re on our own.  And why shouldn’t it be so?  I mean, we can raise our own children, thank you very much.  What need have we of a stranger on a bus to interact with our children?  Why would they assume that we need a break, even for a few minutes?  We’ve got it handled, right?  Right?

I’m not ashamed to admit that no, I don’t have it handled.  Not all the time.  So, here is an open invitation to everyone I’ll ever share a plane, train, automobile, bus, restaurant, playground, sidewalk, town hall bench, church pew, or bathroom with: please engage my child.  If you have a funny face, make it.  If you know a joke, tell it.  If you know a song, sing it.  Do you have some candy?  Give it (ask me first, please).  If you have a warm smile and a three-minute attention span, show it off.  I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re not a lecher, or a psychopath; you’re just a friendly face who understands children, and parents.  A gentle man or woman who knows that children are a joy, but that 24/7 childcare is hard.  Do this for me, and I’ll do the same for you and your children.

* If you read last week’s installment and remember it saying it was part of a two-part series, well, my only defense is to quote J.R.R. Tolkien, who said of The Lord of the Rings: “the tale grew in the telling.”

Germans Love Babies, Part I

This is part one of a three-part series exploring baby culture in Germany and the US, and the  implications for children, parents, and society.

Germans love babies.  They really do.  Every single one of them.  Whenever I take Ella on the train, around a park, to the mall, to the museum, to the bakery, anywhere, everyone loves her.  They smile, they make faces, they cluck.  They actually cluck.  Not like a chicken, but a snap of the tongue from the roof of your mouth to the bottom, with your lips in an “O” shape.  It’s the sound you make to simulate a clock, except it’s not a “tock”–it’s a “lock”, with a hard pop on the “L”.  

It was a new sound to me when I heard it from the Lufthansa gate agent in Chicago.  Laura and I walked up to the gate with Ella in the Baby Bjorn, and our stroller loaded down with our numerous carry-ons.  As soon as the agent spied us, she only had eyes for Eleanor.  She clucked and smiled, then cooed a bit, clucked some more, smiled some more, called Ella süße (sweet), and genuinely fawned over her.  After two or three minutes, she looked up at us and asked for our itinerary so that we could check in.  At that point, her colleague took over the cooing and clucking with Eleanor while she checked us in.  After giving us a seat in the parents’ row, where there are bassinets (we didn’t even need to ask), she showed us to the first class waiting area (we were flying coach) so we could board the plane early and get settled.

Contrast this with our United flight from Denver to Chicago.  Laura and I weren’t seated together, even though I could have sworn that we picked out seats together on the website months before.  When we asked the gate agent if we could be seated together we were brushed off, then told there was nothing to be done, and finally told to wait to the side after I pleaded with her to at least help us find someone who might switch places.  To her credit, the agent got us seated together (there’s always a way).  We asked when pre-boarding for parents would begin and she said there wasn’t any.  “It doesn’t make things any faster. So just board when your zone is called.”

Doesn’t make it any faster, perhaps, but it makes it nicer for everyone.  We’ve got a stroller and car seat to check plane-side, a diaper bag, two wheel-aways loaded to the maximum extent allowed by federal law, a backpack, a purse, two winter coats, and a six-month old who’s just about to explode because she needs to nurse.  Do you want that standing in line in front of you?  Further, parents need more time to board and get their kids and their kids’ gear settled in place before Mr. Carmichael in first class gets too deep into his complimentary champagne and starts yelling at us plebs in coach to hurry up.  And it makes it a whole lot easier to load a 50 pound carry-on containing your entire digital life (two computers, 3 external hard drives, cables for the preceding) above your head when there isn’t a sweaty 300 pound defensive end in coach’s shorts sliding past your rump as he makes his way to seat 57E.  

United sees their “you’re not special” policy as customer service.  Since their studies show it doesn’t make it faster to board parents first, they reward people who booked early; the ones sitting up front.  So, they load front to back.  That makes some measure of sense.  What they don’t see is that it alienates an entire customer segment.  One which, in just two short years, will need to buy an extra ticket every time they fly.  It’s a good idea to treat parents well because they’ll be spending a lot of money with someone’s airline soon, to visit grandma in French Lick, vacation at Disneyland, or accompany Mom to her conference in Honolulu.  United doesn’t recognize this.  Lufthansa clearly does.  Already, before we’d even left the States, we were struck by the different reactions to Ella.

We visited with a friend in Berlin, a week after we arrived in Germany.  We brought this up–this German love of babies, the cooing and oohing all the time–casually, as one of those friendly compliments you pay to the other’s country.  I think Americans are anxious to do this for two reasons.  First, we want to be polite, to compliment someone on the place where they live.  It’s a nationalist “Nice place you’ve got here.”  Second, I think Americans who travel abroad, especially lately, have a need to show that they’re not those Americans.  The ones who demand that everyone speak English, and laugh too loudly in the museum.   We want to show that we’re open-minded Americans, able to see cultural differences and respect them.  Not one who constantly complains that the whole world is not like their backyard.  It’s our American self-consciousness.  Part guilt for our ugly break-up with England in the eighteenth century (Canada handled it so much more discretely), and part embarrassment for our cousin-travelers who symbolically sully all the towels, and drink all the scotch, while guests in the house of Europe.

Our friend was surprised that we found Germany to be more baby-friendly than the States.  He felt the opposite.  We talked about the kindness shown to Ella, the oohing, cooing and clucking.  We noted all the changing rooms we had seen everywhere from Bahnhofs to Bierhalls, and the lack of stigma about breastfeeding in public.  We said that even the government is baby-friendly, providing time off work, a stipend for child care, public health insurance, nurse visits, all the things Americans can only dream about.  Our friend conceded that those were, indeed, baby-friendly, but weren’t perhaps as good as they sound on the surface.  Moreover, he said, that wasn’t the point he was trying to make.  Germany may be baby-friendly, but America, he said, was kid-friendly.  Now we were onto something.  America is the home of Disneyland and Toys-R-Us, Barney and Bozo, Halloween and Happy Meals.  Kids in America have more entertainment options than anywhere else in the world, and the widest variety of activities from all over the world–think Suzuki violin, soccer, and Shao-Lin Kung Foo.  It’s pretty great to be a kid in America.  

After pondering all this I feel a bit like a kid myself.  I have to ask: “But Why?”  People love babies and kids alike on both sides of the Atlantic, but we respond to them in such different ways, personally, commercially, and politically.  What accounts for the difference, and what do those differences mean for moms and dads, Mutters and Vaters?

Next week, in Part II, I’ll explore this topic further, venturing into hilarious topics like public policy, sociology, and playground design.  Return here to read all about it.

Everyone Knows This

The journey from loving, adoring father to crazed, frazzled lunatic, it turns out, is about as long as the ride from Universität station in downtown München to Olympiazentrum, where we live. We rode the U-bahn home today, after a long day out with Ella. Laura and I were exhausted, and Ella was fussy. It had been a long day fighting German bureaucracy and our own cultural ignorance. We had decided to explore the area around the university where Laura will be studying and to avail ourselves of some of the services they offer.

We have a map that the student aid organization, Studentenwerk, sent us. In addition to being a great street-level map of München, marked on it, in brightly colored little bubbles, are all the Studentenwerk office locations. The little bubbles contain symbols describing the services provided at each location. Or so we thought. I should mention that there is a key to the these symbols, but they give only a vague description of what they mean. The globe, for instance, means “internationalische” a strange word, even in German, but which we took to mean the more common auslander, or foreigner. Clearly this is the office for foreign students. We thought this might be a good starting point. They probably have primers on the German university system, tips on registration, getting your library card, etc. Instead we found it was just one of the little jokes Germans play on emigrees. The office didn’t exist.

Here in Germany, they play football; in America, we play football. The games have the same name but they’re not the same. That’s what it’s like trying to do the simplest things here. There are simple rules, for everyday things, that everyone knows that we don’t. For instance, here it’s okay to push through unmarked doors leading to dark hallways. The bureau you are looking for is probably down that hallway, and the lights are off to save energy. You are expected to simply check that the door is unlocked, turn on the light switch and head down the hall. Of course, you should know ahead of time when the sprechstunde (office hours) of the bureau are. You should also know that they don’t have offices for foreign students. There’s a phrase that english-speaking Germans have that explains it all: “Everyone knows this.”

We were hungry and grumpy so we decided to get something to eat. The cheapest thing nearby was the student mensa. Even cafeteria food sounded good at this point. We should have known better. We thought we knew the drill–the prices listed on the TV screen downstairs, and the sheet of paper upstairs of the mensa hall clearly listed student and guest prices. We’d probably need to buy mine at the guest price, but no problem, it was still cheap. We loaded up our multi-sectioned white plastic tray with flatiron steak with gravy, fried potatoes, and the Bayerish equivalent of the French roll, a pretzel.

When we got to the cashier and she read out €4.85, Laura handed her a €10. “Haben sie kein Karte? Ach. Ach! Kein Karte. Kein Karte.” This literally means “You don’t have a card? Oh no, oh no! No card. No card.” But her expression clearly said “Oh my God! Have you never been to a cafeteria before? You don’t have the special cafeteria card? Are you an idiot? Why are you doing this to me? My life is hard enough sitting behind this register. First, my seat is uncomfortable and my manager won’t buy me a new one. Second, my fingers hurt from pushing these buttons all day. Third, I have to eat this food all the time because they give it to me for free. So, you see, my life is hard enough, and now you arrive without a card!”

She told us to wait there while the patient people behind us came through and our cashier asked each one in turn if they would buy our food with their card and take our cash. Eventually a young woman took pity on us. We sheepishly handed her our Euros , apologized, and told her to keep the change. She wouldn’t though, and went around to everyone in the cafeteria until she found someone who could give her two €5s. Then we crawled into the woodwork to eat our steak. It was surprisingly good, actually. All the food here is surprisingly good.

The cards required to pay for your meal are sold downstairs, through a set of imposing looking doors marked “University Personnel” (with an implied “only”) at an office that is only open when university is in session. Everyone knows this. We arrived during spring break.

50 Foot Striding Man

50 Foot Striding Man

Though we wanted to give up, it was only noon. We decided to tackle the library. Laura will be doing a lot of work there, so we thought she should go get a card. We walked just over a kilometer down to the library, past a 50 foot striding man, through the München arch, and to the München Staatsbibliothek. Ella no longer had the patience for this kind of activity, so we took a walk around the block while Laura went to get the card. We saw an old villa behind the library built for Frany Von Whatshisname as an office. A retreat where he could escape the hustle and bustle, and do some work. It was a relaxing place. Not so for Laura, inside the library.

She first waited in line for 20 minutes to talk to the single information officer who directed her to another 20 minute line where they issue library cards. Though she had her papers saying she was to study here for 10 months, and she was a Fulbright scholar, they informed her that she had to first matriculate at the university. Then she could get a university library card. Only then could she return to this line and get a card for the München Staatsbibliothek. I will remind you now that it is spring break, and it is not possible to register at the university during break. Everybody knows this.

That was all we could take. We needed something comfortable. I’m not sure then why we decided to return to our apartment, but we did. With all three of us tired and irritable we hopped onto to the U-Bahn. Ella was fussing, wanting to be out of her stroller, and neither Laura or I had it in us to entertain her. We were sure it was going to be one of those rides where the rest of the car hates us because our baby won’t stop crying. But then our angel came. The door opened and this woman crowded on right in front of Ella, and she just stared. She smiled and stared. Ella was rapt. I kept looking up at the woman to give her the usual smile of thanks that parents give when the person has run out of baby faces. From them, a silent “I did what I could,” or if you’re lucky, “cute baby, thanks for letting me make googely eyes at her.” In response, “Thanks, anything helps” or “Thanks, we think she’s pretty cute too.” But she didn’t look up.

For stop after stop she didn’t look up. She just stared and smiled at Ella, and Ella smiled and stared right back. I’d look up at the woman, look back at Ella, and eventually it became clear that I was neither needed nor particularly welcome in this conversation. I was a voyeur. At some point, the woman noticed a stuffed cat toy with a little plaid ribbon sticking out of Ella’s diaper bag. She looked down at it. Then slowly, with great affection, she stroked the ribbon. It was done with such care that I couldn’t help wonder about the woman. Were her children grown up–out of the house–and she missed having babies around? Did she follow her career and give up the idea of having kids long ago? Did something tragic happen to her own daughter? The woman started, as if she’d crossed a line, and quickly pulled her hand back. She seemed embarrassed as she turned around to face the doors, never looking at me, or again at Ella, until she got off three stops later. Ella didn’t fuss the rest of the way home.

I still feel uneasy about the experience, as though I witnessed something private, something I shouldn’t have seen. She showed such gentleness, such kindness, and so much affection, in view of everyone, on the U-Bahn, the most impersonal space imaginable, simply because of my little baby and a stuffed toy. I suppose that is the transformational power of children. They don’t know the trials and tribulations of your day. They don’t care if you’re homesick, tired, and frustrated in a country where you don’t speak the language. Just to look into their eyes and you return to an infantile, carefree state where the simple pleasure of looking at one another satisfies your every need.

Everyone knows this.

Good Friday

CoffeeI got up early today, thinking I’d get ahead a bit.  I was up and out of the house at 6:50 A.M.  The bakery down the street was dark yet, which was weird because their sign said they opened 7:00.  An employee had just unlocked the doors, and someone else, perhaps the manager, came up and had a heated discussion with the him, perhaps because he was late to work.  I trudged on toward the U-Bahn station.  I was headed to the Black Bean, the coffee shop a few stops away with free Wi-Fi.

When I descended the stairs to the U-Bahn station, I was struck by the silence of the station.  Even though it was a Friday, and only 7:00, shouldn’t more people be going to work now?  Well, Europeans take a relaxed attitude towards work, perhaps most people don’t go in until 9:00.

I arrived at the Black Bean at 7:10 A.M.  The sign on the window said “ab 7 Uhr geoffnet,” which to you and me means “we open at 7 A.M.”  But they didn’t, or anyway they weren’t.  Now I was getting upset.  It’s one thing to be a little late to your bakery on a Friday; it’s another thing altogether to have the place totally locked up, no one around, no nothing.  What the hell?  You can take a relaxed attitude towards work, but when you’re a drug dealer, you’ve got to show up on time.  People need their coffee, damnit!

I walked around a few blocks looking for something that was open, finding nothing.  It was about the fourth block when I figured it out.  Good Friday. Today is Good Friday.  I remembered the conversation at the beginning of The Hobbit between Bilbo and Gandalf about the nature of “good morning.”  I couldn’t see what was so great about it.

I’m an American, and not particularly religious.  The idea that stores, and coffee shops for God’s sake, would be closed on Good Friday never occurred to me.  I was doing what any good American does on a Friday.  Get up early, get cracking, get done early.  Then you’ll feel satisfied with a good day’s work when you take off early to enjoy the afternoon sunshine.  Bavarians are not American, and they are religious.  Bavaria is a very Catholic area.  It was, in fact, one of the last bastions of Catholicism in Germany during the Reformation.  The kings of Bavaria were so loyal to the Church that they were rewarded with the greatest collection of relics outside of Rome.  So, when Good Friday rolls around, the Bavarians take it seriously.  Not always from a devotion to religion anymore, though there is plenty of that (there will be a procession symbolizing Jesus carrying the cross this morning in Marianplatz, the main square), but certainly from a devotion to public holidays.  I mean who wouldn’t want to hold on to every holiday they can?  That was one of the things we looked forward to most about Bavaria before we moved here.  They take off the secular holdiays, and get extra ones because they celebrate religious holidays too.  Giving so much time over for Friday picnics in the Englischer Garten and Hofbrau in the biergartens is a sure sign of civilization.

This time of year the Viktualenmarkt is full of Easter baskets, Easter branches, and Easter wreaths made of real branches, woven together with fresh pussy willows, and topped with soft, green moss.  There are fresh flowers of all varieties (not just Easter Lillies), hand-painted eggs to hang from you Easter wreath or branch, and chocolate–good chocolate–in bunny and egg shapes.  All of this to celebrate Easter, a holiday that,  in the U.S., was ceded to Dow Chemical and its plastic eggs, plastic baskets with plastic flowers, and even plastic grass several generations ago.

Starbucks cupsBut enough about holidays, I was looking for coffee.  I wasn’t going to give up.  If the local shop isn’t open then surely there is a bastion of Capitalism, a symbol of Globalization, an icon of American Cultural Imperialism. Surely there is a coffee shop that ruthlessly crushes its competition and will go to almost any length (besides sacrificing employee health insurance and fair-trade, mostly shade grown, coffee) in pursuit of the almighty dollar.  A place that keeps its American business practice of making their employees get up at ungodly hours and shlep into work before the rest of us do, even on the high holy days.  Surely, Starbucks is open.

But it isn’t.  I stand outside, looking at my own reflection in the dark windows, crushed.  It’s a bit like being stood up for prom.  I’m from Seattle.  Starbucks is like a high school sweetheart.  An old flame with whom you’re now friends.  You have history, you knew them when.  You’ve watched each other grow into who they are today.  You can count on each other.  Now you prefer to go to other coffee shops where the baristas’ hair is longer and more colorful, where they pull Ristretto shots, and the lattes actually taste of coffee.  But if you need a fix, if you’re feeling down and just need to sit for a while, somewhere predictable, even if it isn’t hip, or particularly good, it’s there.  To have that coffee shop, that friend, disappoint you…  But I won’t let the bastards drag me down.  Besides I’m starving and in desperate need of coffee.  There must be a place in a major metropolis like this that is open on a holiday and serving coffee.  There must be an even bigger, more exploitive, more iconic American chain where I can sit and sip.

I write this now from a McDonalds,  underground, in the Hauptbanhof, drinking watery coffee, and refluxing my McGriddle.  I should have listened to my wife–I should always listen to my wife–she suggested we stay in bed and watch movies all day.   That sounds like a good Friday.