Back from Germany

I’m back. Pictures are at my site here, and on flickr (although I’m liking that site less and less the more I use it.) Not everything is captioned, and yes there are a lot of pictures that are blurry and fucked up. Museums with low light, no flash allowed, glass cases, and my piece of shit camera will do that.

I enjoyed the trip and seeing new things, but I’m so glad to be back. My main two problems were food and drink. I thought I liked German food, but it turns out that I like German food made with American ingredients. There are some real differences in the quality of food in Europe. The meat is much tougher, and the pork products are cured way more, so they have this horrid taste, like if you’ve ever had shelf-stabilized bacon in a can from a camping trip or an MRE. Vegetables are all non-GMO, non-big agra, and not that incredible. I’m sure the eurotrash contingent would disagree, but I like tomatoes that are bigger than a golf ball. What was frustrating was that there are many American chain places that use German ingredients. I went to a McDonald’s hoping for the same burger and fries I’d get back home, but the meat was tough and gamey, and the potatoes in the fries didn’t have the same magical starch composition as Idaho spuds back home, making them taste odd. If I lived in Germany, I would lose 50 pounds in the first three months, because I simply wouldn’t be able to eat fast food anymore. (In fact, I lost about five pounds since we left, but I’m sure most of that is dehydration from the plane ride.)

And not all food was horrible. On our last night, we went to a more traditional German restaurant, and I had the best damn potato soup I’ve eaten in a long time. We also went to the fancy-schmancy restaurant in the hotel one night, and I got an eight-course dinner that was pretty incredible, if not a bit weird. The best dish was a cajun scampi that was lightly fried in spices, but was as tender as baby food inside, and served with a wasabi sorbet, which sounded odd, but was incredible. The main dish was three types of ox: tongue, shoulder, and breast, done up with some kind of reduction and cooked to the point where they were almost jelly. I also tried a lot of stuff I’d normally never eat, like duck liver, caviar, mackerel, and a few others. It was a strange meal, but very memorable.

Oh, the drink part – I think Germans don’t consume as much liquid as Americans. That eight glasses of water a day thing didn’t make it over there. I can understand the lack of fascination with large soda sizes; I went to a Burger King and got a super maxi size, and the soda was like 16 ounces, which is the child-size at an American fast food place. It’s hard to even find a 12-ounce Coke, let alone the 16 or 20-ounce big plastic bottles. The most popular size was a .2 liter or .33 liter. And that’s fine, but the water sizes are even more scant. Go to an American Safeway or Kroger, and you will find a million bottles of water that are a liter, if not more. (“Sport” sized.) I never, ever saw that. They don’t serve water with meals, they don’t have drinking fountains, and the water they do have is some kind of carbonated mineral water. No Dasani, no Evian, just the stuff that tastes like it will give you lead poisoning. And I drink like ten glasses of water a day, plus three or four American-sized Cokes. After a day or two of begging and pleading at restaurants to get a second four-ounce glass of water, things got old fast.

Nice things: the mass transit. There are two types of subway (S-bahn and U-bahn), plus streetcars, busses, light rail, longer rail, and the Eurail. The subway was a bit daunting at first, but it was also odd because there are no turnstiles to stop you from entering any station. There are just little paper tickets – you buy one, then stamp it in a validator machine to show you’re riding the train now. If you get caught without a validated ticket, there’s a fine, but nobody ever checked ours. If they did this in New York, there would be 40,000 people living in each station in a matter of seconds. The stations were clean, maybe as clean as a PATH train, so not sterile, but decent. Each station has digital signs telling you where the trains are going, and when the next train will arrive. (Same with bus stops.) Let me repeat that: THERE ARE SIGNS THAT TELL YOU WHEN THE NEXT TRAIN IS ARRIVING! Not “eventually”, not “at some point”, but “in two minutes”. They could never, ever, fucking ever do this in New York. And before you ask, yes the times were accurate. Trains regularly showed up a minute before the time. I never saw one run late. Another odd thing is that subway doors don’t open or close at each stop – you press a green button on the inside or the outside to open the door, and they close automatically as the train leaves. What’s weird is you can open a door as the train is slowing down for a stop. In New York, that feature would kill about 9 people a day. The trains were very nice; the S-bahn is more long-haul, above-ground stuff, while the U-bahn is underground, but more transfers to get from point to point than a NY train. But figure in that New York City hasn’t been divided and reunited and leveled by bombs over the course of the last 50 years, so their routes can be a bit more static.

In general, people in Berlin seem to be more trusting and self-policing than what I’m used to in New York. There were many times when I saw something and wondered “why doesn’t someone just steal that shit?” Like eating at a buffet restaurant, the German approach might be “just take some food, then tell us what you ate and pay for it”, where the New York version would be “Pay for the shit before you even touch it, then go through the metal detector, pick up the food, and get the fuck out of here because we’re not running a hotel.” There were many coin-op public toilets on the street (like the kind that clean themselves between uses) and it made me wonder if they could ever do that in NYC, or if people would just put in the 75 cents and move into the bathroom and never leave.

People were largely nice, and I never got called out for being an American, and didn’t have to pretend to be a Canadian or whatever. Not everyone speaks English well, but a lot do. The main problem is that we both look German enough that people assumed we were German and would start babbling away rapid-fire into conversations with us. The other problem is that German is alien enough to me that I can’t tell if a person talking in my peripheral vision is talking to a friend, talking on a cell phone, trying to get my attention, or frantically trying to tell me to stop what I’m doing because I’m about to massively fuck something up. I can tell people are talking, but I can’t tell if they are talking to me, or what the tone is. I don’t understand much Spanish, but I know enough that I can figure that out when I’m here. But it really started to make me paranoid, because I was always worried there was some small social thing that I was fucking up, like if I didn’t take off my jacket when I sat at a table, I was disgracing the owner of the restaurant and he would have to challenge me to a duel. Or whatever.

The big thing about Berlin is the wall, even though it’s largely gone. Every gift shop sells little pieces of the wall, which are probably just cinderblocks smashed up into little pieces, just like the Mt. St. Helens ashes you used to be able to buy in Washington. A lot of the former lines of the wall are now outlined by twin brick lines embedded in pavement and sidewalks. Most people envision a single, long wall, like a castle wall, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. The wall zig-zagged all over the place, and it was actually two walls: a taller one on the east side, a smaller one on the West, and a DMZ between the two. We went to the Checkpoint Charlie site, which is now a Disneyland for hucksters selling cheap shit to tourists. Want a picture with a fake army guard at the checkpoint? A bath towel? Snow globe with a piece of the wall in it? Former commie t-shirts and hats? Come on down, bring your Euros. We went to the museum there, and it was the most tacky and ghetto (no pun intended) museum I’ve seen since me and Larry went to that John Dillenger museum in Brown County a decade or so ago. So yeah, the wall is a big cottage industry. And I bought a fridge magnet, so I guess I’m just contributing to it.

I can’t even begin to describe the museums we went to, although I took some photos. The German historical museum was my favorite, and did a good job of describing German history from before christ up to present. The up-to-WWI collection was an excellent primer on the early days of Romans and Huns and Emporers and Napoleon and everything else. The 20th century part was Nazi central, with a lot more than I’d expected. They had a lot of original third reich stuff, which was interesting for a bit, but after a few rows of it, it was like watching the History Channel’s WW2 marathon on repeat for days on end. It was odd that the Treaty of Versailles was called the “treaty of shame” in all of the exhibits. It was also eerie to see a display of an engine from a British bomber that was shot down over Berlin. I’m desensitized to seeing these “spoils of war” displays in museums; it was weird to see one from the other side.

We also went to a couple of art museums, which were interesting. I don’t know a lot about art or modern art, so when I see something I think is neat, I’m not thinking “wow, what does this represent?” but rather “wow, how did he do that?” I’m more interested in large-scale modern art from the welding/carpentry/stoneworking point of view than the actual art, so maybe that doesn’t make me the best critic. But the museums were great. I saw a lot of Andy Warhol at one, Picasso at the other, and Felix Gonzales-Torres had a huge showcase at one place. I also saw a Damien Hirst in there, “The Void”, the one with all the pills. That museum also had a huge display of video-based pieces, all of them incredibly odd and interesting. Like one guy was showing the movie Psycho over a 24-hour period. Maybe I should get a video projector and start filling out grant forms.

Oh, I also saw the world’s largest model train layout. There are a bunch of blurry pictures of that in there, too.

I am sure there’s more to talk about, but I need to either take a nap or try to get started on the day…

Share

Back from Milwaukee

[Before I begin, does anyone know anything about WiFi? I have a router next to my Mac, and when I’m in the next room on my laptop, I’m lucky to have it work for five minutes before the signal drops. When I have a signal, it’s 100% excellent, no problem, but then BAM it’s gone. This happens even if the laptop is physically touching the router. There are a lot of other routers in the building, and I’ve tried fucking with the channel settings a bit, but to no avail. This is extremely frustrating, because every page I’ve found on google says “well, have you tried moving into a cabin in the woods with no walls?” as like step one. I also don’t want to dump a lot of cash into repeaters or antennae just to find out it’s a fundamental problem of living in NYC with too many hotspots. Oh, and I mention all of this because I already wrote this entire entry, and on like the last word, the connection dropped, and then when I went to the other computer to fix it, it overwrote the backup file with a blank file. I was seriously on the verge of smashing my laptop into little tiny pieces with a hammer. I still might. Anyway.]

So I’m back from Milwaukee, and the trip went well. We spent a lot of time with Sarah’s family, and that was all good. We also went to the art museum (where Sarah’s dad works), Irish Fest, the public museum, a Brewers game, and did a lot of driving around and seeing all of the places where Sarah grew up. We also drove down to Kenosha to meet up with John Sheppard and his better half. It was a pretty packed 4-day weekend.

Milwaukee, to me, seems like a Chicago-lite. It’s smaller, and doesn’t have as many of the big things, but it’s also easier to get around, it’s cleaner, maybe a bit quieter, and more relaxed. But a lot of things remind me of the Chicago I knew as the kid, like the little corner bars with the giant Old Style signs out front, the giant, old brick factories and chimneys from the breweries, and the general feel of the place, the way houses are built and how stores are laid out. It really made me think back to my grandparents’ old neighborhood (which is Larry’s current neighborhood.)

The only time I’ve been to Milwaukee was for the metalfest, in ’93. We drove by the big Eagles lodge that was the venue for that show, and I saw the only things I experienced on that trip: the hall, the street where Ray parked and we tried to sleep, the McDonald’s next door, and the quick pick minimart across the street. The other indelible event that I associate with Milwaukee is Jeffrey Dahmer’s capture. I remember in 1991, reading all of the news magazines in the Osco drug at Concord Mall, going over all of the facts of the butchery that he ran in his apartment. Turns out his lair at the Oxford Apartments on 25th and Kilborn was maybe three blocks from the metalfest. Oddly enough, when Sarah was born, her parents lived in a house just a couple of blocks down Kilborn. When we were driving around one night, we tried to locate the spot of his old apartment, but they tore it down years ago, and now it’s just a vacant lot with some old chainlink around it. Driving in the neighborhood was weird though, because I always pictured the area as an ultra-urban slum, like maybe where I lived in Washington Heights. But the neighborhood looked more like the rougher parts of Elkhart, by the projects.

The other big surprise was that I really enjoyed the Brewers game. I haven’t followed baseball since I was a kid, and even then it was only half-heartedly. I’ve never seen a professional game before, and this was my first. It was against the Astros, which is funny because my peewee league team was the Astrobowl Astros, and because of that, I was vaguely an Astros fan when they had the stupid-looking bright orange jerseys, the AstroDome (with AstroTurf), and Nolan Ryan on the mound. Now that all of that has changed, not really a fan, for whatever stupid reason.

We went with Sarah’s sister, and her boyfriend and group of friends that all had season tickets. We first went to their place and did some indoor tailgating, and they had some bratwurst grilling away in a soup of onions and peppers. Those were pretty much the best damn brats I’ve ever had, especially with some sauerkraut and a good bun. We ended up eating and listening to everyone’s bitchfest about the Brewers, and before long, we were into the first inning, but not yet at the stadium. We took off in different cars, and we paid the $12 for “preferred” parking. Dan and the others parked illegally at the back of the VA hospital for free, and we ended up walking up to the gate at the same exact time.

Miller Park is a pretty decent place to see a game. It has a retractable roof, modern seats and shops and all of that (no pee trough in the bathroom), and they have a lot of new LCD screens and score things everywhere, so you can always see all of the stats, and also keep up on other MLB games in progress. Lots of people were there. Lots of mullets. Lots of beer. I think I was the only sober person there, but that only added to the energy. I was surprised at how close we were for $38 seats, and watching a game in person is nothing like TV. In fact, watching on TV really sucks in comparison.

The game itself was sedate – it got tied at 2 by the second inning, and went on scoreless until the bottom of the 9th, when the Brewers got one in. But all of the little stuff made it interesting. Bernie Brewer, the mascot, slides down this huge slide whenever there’s a run. He used to slide into a giant beer mug, but I’m sure some parental nazi group got that taken out. There’s also the sausage race, where a group of people dressed as various kinds of sausages race across the field. (Italian sausage won.) The place went nuts when the first home run went over the wall. And at the very end, when they were getting everyone really riled up, they did this whole “more cowbell” thing on the video screen, playing the SNL sketch intercut with various home runs hit during the season, which was pretty hilarious. There were only 30,000 there, with a lot of empty seats at the top, but the crowd had a lot of energy (and a lot of beer), so it was a lot of fun.

Coincidentally, we were shopping at Target (so good to be out of NYC…) and I found a “more cowbell” CD, which has a dozen or so tracks featuring cowbell. It was a good buy at $8.99, although I’m a little don’t-fear-the-reapered-out for now.

Irishfest was also a blast. It’s the biggest one in the country, and it’s held at these fest grounds that are used for a lot of other festivals. So there were the same food courts and concert venues and all, but also a ton of tents selling Irish crafts and shirts and whatnot. I’d like to say I got some incredible food, but the lines were so long, I used the shortest-wait approach and grabbed a hotdog and fries. We saw two musical groups, one that was more drum-oriented, and we had a front-row seat for the Billy Mitchell Scottish group. They were bagpipes and drums, plus some dancing too. The whole thing reminded me of Simms and all of the times we watched So I Married an Axe Murderer. This alumnus of the group, who was 150% Scottish, was sitting behind us and making comments to a friend in his thick-as-hell accent, and it greatly tempted me to ask him to call Simms on the phone and leave a message on his machine, like “if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!”

In Kenosha, we met with John and Helen at The Brat Stop, which was also had a pretty good bratwurst. I also had some fried cheese curds, and I’m glad they aren’t available here, or I’d be pricing out bypass surgery by now. It was good to see John again, and also good to see tons of cheese and Green Bay Packers stuff available. We also stopped at the Mars Cheese Castle. Unfortunately, this was not a castle made out of cheese, but rather a store that sells a ton of cheese. Fortunately, there were free samples. We also stopped at the largest grocery store I’ve ever seen in my life. It had a beverage section bigger than most groceries in New York. And if you have been to a super-huge Kroger in the Midwest, well this place’s freezer section was bigger than this. It was truly awesome, except I couldn’t bring any of it back on the plane, so it wasn’t.

And that’s all. Well, we went to the museums, and the art museum has a pretty funky building, with these big spines that open and close, and no right angles in sight. And we had a lot of food, which was good. And now I’m back to the daily grind. And no, we’re not moving to Wisconsin. (I still can’t believe I can’t write about anything without someone mis-reading an ulterior motive into it.)

Anyway, pictures on flickr. Back to work.

Share

Amsterdam

I’m back from Amsterdam, and we had a good time there. Part of me wants to write a big trip report, but part of me wants to do a rm -rf ~/www/journal on a fairly constant basis, (and that might be coming soon), so no report. The basic synopsis is that the jetlag really fucked me, I got a bad cold and was not able to buy any medicine to get better, but we still got a lot in, and the trip was more than worth it. Pictures are posted, but I’m too lazy to add a link, so figure it out.

Although I’ve been to most of the 50 states, and I’ve been to Canada a half-dozen times, I’ve never left the country otherwise, so this was a cool trip. Ever since the first time I went to Canada in high school, bought a Coke can from a machine, and felt the slight difference, I have been fascinated by finding out the differences in places based on their consumer goods. I don’t land in Utah and seek out the Mormon people or find out why it’s called the Beehive state; I immediately find out if they have a Denny’s, an IHOP, a 7-Eleven, or where people go to buy their records. I enjoy travel to states that are test markets for new soft drinks, or that have odd hamburger chains I can’t find anywhere else. I know I should care more about the history or culture or climate or something else, but seriously, fuck that. I want to know about the things I consume, that I use.

In that sense, The Netherlands were very interesting, because EVERYTHING was different. Okay, this wasn’t like going to some third-world former Soviet shithole where people drink chlorinated rainwater and eat gamey horsemeat on important holidays. The Dutch speak English and enjoy many of the same foods as Americans. But the differences I look for were there in spades: .33L bottles of Coke; Fanta everywhere; bottled water in those plastic-impregnated cardboard boxes like soy milk; automats; coin-op bathrooms that were cleaner than hospital operating rooms; weird soaps; weird cell phones; weird cars. Everything was interesting. I wanted to buy one of everything just to open it, taste it, smell it, and decide if it was better or worse than what I’d become used to over the last 34 years. Even the money was weird; it took some time to get used to having a fistful of coins that was worth like forty bucks.

Everyone in Amsterdam speaks English. I read that before I left, but I was very surprised at how well most people did. And I’m not talking “your total is ten Euros” sort of proficiency; I mean, I had conversations with people who spoke such unbroken English that I could have sworn they grew up back in the states. The bad news is that everything is in Dutch, with occasional English subtitles. Shopping in a grocery store was a little difficult; I almost walked out with a large bottle of drinking water that was in reality vinegar. The most odd aspect of the whole English-Dutch thing was the number of times a cashier started talking to me in Dutch instead of English. You’d think I would have a giant “American” sign above me, but I guess not.

I mentioned elsewhere that things were completely politically neutral, which was nice. I was at the very least expecting a huge fuck-george-bush display in a city square, or some hippies hassling the American tourists over their fascist leader. But nobody said shit, and furthermore, there was no real display of political strife or issue locally. I was very pleased to find a place to go where I didn’t have to hear someone drone on and on about it.

I think my favorite thing was the botanical garden, which had three different big greenhouse climates with different temperatures and humidities, plus some smaller rooms and a lot of excellent landscaping and scenery. It was maybe in the fifties when we were there, but one of the big rooms was a jungle climate and so humid that my glasses and camera fogged over. They had some huge trees in there, and of course, this immediately made me wish I had a similar setup out on my Colorado land.

Anyway, that’s the basic story. Now I have to get over this cold, and start on my next project, which is learning Apple Pages, the new word processor/page layout program that’s part of iWork. It’s basically an Apple version of something like Adobe InDesign, and I think it might enable me to drop FrameMaker when I design my next book. I have only played with it for a few minutes, but it’s very fun.

But first, the evening’s Nyquil…

Share

From the IMU

Today’s journal is coming to you from the bowels of the Indiana Memorial Union. Although I’ve written paper journals in weird places (at 30,000 feet, in the middle of the golden gate bridge, at disneyland, at MIT, etc), I think this is the first online journal entry I’ve written outside of Washintgon.

Of course, I have much to write, and little energy. I’ve slept far too little, and done a year’s worth of walking in a day. I’m staying with my former roommate Simms, in my old house, on my old couch. He threw a massive Halloween party last night – more people than I’ve ever seen in that house before. He, Bennett, and Jason played his score to the classic silent vampire film, Nosferatu. The band was in the kitchen, and 3 TVs in various places in the house showed the laserdisc part of the show. Incredible stuff! I also saw many of my old cronies, and many people who knew of me that I didn’t know – Simms tells his Konrath stories to everyone he knows, and he knows many people. My costum- I went as Poison Ivy from the new Batman film. Don’t ask.

I managed to give away a shitload of zines last night – I set a stack of them on a table, and within an hour, a bunch of people were reading them or taking them. Cool.

Yesterday, I saw a lot of the town and realized how small it really is. I took the walk from the IMU to y old place in Mitchell Street. A lot of it looked the same, but it didn’t ring a bell anymore – it seemed distant. Most of my visit sofar has been like that. Things from my past are still here, but it doesn’t feel like it did before. Maybe my brain is telling me I should move on.

Speaking of moving on, I’ve got a shitload to do. Maybe I’ll try another entry while I’m still in Indiana…

Share