Friday, May 24, 2013

Chasing Clichés (aka Around Town, II)

In Yes, Chef! A Memoir, one of Sam's favorite books, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson writes that his philosophy of cooking is to "chase flavors." I've decided that my philosophy for the rest of our not-yet-limited-but-already-all-too-short time remaining over here will be to chase clichés.

To kick off the cliché campaign, J and I had homemade fondue made by a real, from a mountain town, pension-accruing-even-while-a-postdoc Swiss (thanks Martin). [Blogger's note: whereas conservatives grossly exaggerate the generosity of the American welfare state, I romanticized the Swiss: Martin informs me that his pension is in fact frozen while he has a postdoc in Germany.]

I think we did pretty well.

Next, we've decided to embrace German, Kaffee, Kuchen, and Eis culture as enthusiastically as possible, which is easy to do considering a small gelato is 1€, or about a third of the Avenues price. Germans do not need an excuse to walk for ice cream or cake. And although sometimes I miss American-style coffee houses with plenty of seating and bottomless mugs of coffee, I love how the lines between cafes/coffee houses/bars/restaurants are completely blurred here. This sign says it all.

As just noted, the situation need not be perfect for an ice cream or cake. Often it's so cold that you need to wrap up so you can sit out on the main square and have a sundae (blankets provided).

Sometimes you need to have a quick Kuchenpause standing up on an expedition in between rain showers. Beats energy bars. 

Ah but when the weather is finally nice for a few hours ... watch out for thousands of Germans converging on their nearest ice cream parlor. It got so bad in Berlin this spring that one store owner was sheepishly forced into increasing prices (nice problem to have) to try and diminish the crowds his neighbors were complaining about. Here in Tübingen, we have competing gelaterias right across the cobblestones from each other near the entrance to Old Town, and on one sunny and warm weekend day -- ok, the warm and sunny weekend day, and one of two total sunny and warm days so far this calendar year -- the following resulted.

We did not wait the 30 minutes. And anyway, when in Germany, we prefer "Spaghettieis." Yup, the "carbonara" is in the background. I could write a whole entry on the Italians in the German imagination ...

The cakes are great, often filled with cream and fruit and not so much actual cake. 

The grocery store (!) where we bought the above claimed that it's a "Holland cake," but my Dutch officemate, Susanna, was perplexed by this characterization.   

In the coffee department, even though one can find the odd Tasse Kaffe here and there (amazingly, it's more expensive than an espresso -- if only Radina's would charge less for an espresso than a cup!) -- I just can't seem to convey the notion in a store that I would like our beans ground thicker than cocaine. (And remember, we are forced to buy them store-ground because of the home coffee grinder problem.) I've tried every phrase we can muster from Google Translate -- please grind them for a paper filter and/or an American-style maker; please grind them more coarsely than normal; I don't use an espresso machine, so please grind them coarsely; God Damn it, stop the machine! -- but every time, the beans come out like powder. I swear this happens even when I see the employee adjust the machine to a coarse setting. Of course, part of the problem is that the German verbs for grind and paint are indistinguishable to a non-native speaker (mahlen and malen), so I guess the coffee purveyors just give up (and press "default: extra fine") after they determine that I'm the strange American who wants his coffee beans painted.

With the help of the Bettymobile, we've also mastered the German castle and church excursion. The historian in me is tempted to provide a detailed summary of each castle's family, and its relative significance to the Thirty Years War, but I will resist (feel free to email me). Suffice it to say that we enjoyed the hike up to Hohenzollern. Ever notice that official pictures are always better than the ones you take?

From the castle we enjoyed a romantic view of the German countryside.

Hohenzollern has a beer garden, of course. And to think they say Swabia has no beaches.

This beer garden also gave us the chance to embrace the cliché of the vegetable-not-called-potato-less meal (unless, like the Reagan administration, you consider ketchup a vegetable).

I'm not exactly sure where Schloss Sigmaringen is. At that point we'd driven around Swabia twice and been drenched on what should have been a great walk along the Danube. But the place was tremendous (and if you ever need an Italian restaurant recommendation in the town ...).

Churches we've seen in abundance, as well. One of our favorites was nearby Zwiefalter. I'm not a religious historian, but I think the place may have been Catholic. Or be Catholic. It's unclear what the place is now because Napoleon secularized it, and the grounds how house an asylum. [Blogger's note re: Brent's comment below ... I should have made my sarcasm a bit clearer here. We've seen enough stark Lutheran churches to know that this over-the-top Baroque one is Catholic.]

Even better, this place is 50 meters away.

The brewery was closed; you have to call ahead with a group of 15 to get a tour ... so score a point for U.S. beer culture on the matter of tours and tastings. But score one for the Germans with places like this, about 3k outside of Tübingen. The Dinkel Acker Jubiläumsbier was excellent.

We've all had so much fun around town that at one point I almost captured Ella smiling. She has the best paparazzi-dar I've ever seen. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Between L4 and L5

In heartrate terms, Level 1 (L1) is easy aerobic training. L3 is medium. The upper end of L3, right where it meets L4, is one’s anaerobic threshold, the point at which the body's ability to prevent the build-up of lactate (lactic acid) seriously deteriorates. One can sustain threshold for about an hour, so L4 is essentially race pace for shorter races. L5 is the heartrate and pace you can sustain for a few hundred meters. It’s reserved for hard intervals, the end of races, and, if you're a guy, when you're about to be “chicked,” aka passed by a woman. (Look, most guys in endurance sports are pretty progressive; please forgive us this one misogynistic term when used in a friendly manner.) Für mich, being on the L4/L5 border is bliss. My body is tripping on endorphins, and although I know the last stretch is about to suck, I also know the post-race beer and fun with friends is just around the corner, the endorphin high will linger, and the traditional race-day whiskey nightcap is just a few hours away. 

I hope I get back there soon.
L4/L5 also refers to our lowest two vertebrae, and, unfortunately, I’ve been diagnosed with a problem between then. More specifically, it looks like I have Spondylolysis, which, as Wikipedia puts it bluntly, "is a defect of the vertebrae." Even more specifically, my L4 and L5 are not fused correctly, and I was likely born this way.

Luckily I do not have Spondylosis -- seriously, this is a third term and condition (basically a form of degenerative arthritis). The similarity of the words is Kafka-esque. I have spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis but not spondylosis. Ready for the quiz? I thought about posting the x-ray here, but really the spine is grossing me out at the moment.

So what do an improperly fused spine, stress fractures, and slipping bones mean in the long term? As Kristin and Jason's doctor friend just put it to me, "The good news is that you have had this your whole life, the bad news is that it is now symptomatic." It’s funny that I recently wrote here that my goal remains a marathon p.r.; I guess I should scrub that line from the blog. I hope to remain a moderate runner, and maybe do shorter races (one question I'll ask whatever doctor I see back in the states: will this increase the chances of being in a wheelchair when I’m 70?). My sister got all the swimming genes in the family (I literally can kick for about three strokes), so I guess the way to make lemonade out of rotten limes here is to finally take up swimming. Anyone want to go in on adult swim lessons? The good news, according to Kris Freeman, is that swimming makes you a faster skier. Indeed, I hope above all that I’ll still be able to x-c as much as I want.

But there’s no doubt about it: this is disappointing news, given that running has become a passion -- and running is pretty much the worst thing you can do with this condition. And apparently lifting weights may not be ideal either. My question for the ex-theologians and psychologists who read this blog: if one is cancer-free; not in a Syrian refugee camp; in the SES not getting completely screwed by our nation's anti-statist fetish, record inequality, and stupid turn toward austerity; and devoid of a true disability, how much is one allowed to be depressed about simply not being able to do as much of what ones loves to do? And I am allowed to be feel sorry for myself if this condition actually starts affecting my ability to walk for Eis or to wear a backpack, as it seems to be at the moment?

In the short term, I decided to take one out of the Washington Nationals’ playbook and completely shut down. I stopped everything for two weeks ... and did learn you really can read a lot of history when you don’t have to worry about workouts (and you’ve finally met a 17-year-old goal of getting your inbox to zero). I lifted a couple days ago, and so, of course, the pain returned this morning walking J to the train station towing a suitcase. Argh. Of course, then I felt like a complete jerk getting mad about it after we passed a woman with elephantiasis. ... but in any event, it looks like I’m back on the IR. Maybe at this point, instead of admitting that I’m in athletic limbo, I’ll pretend to be a serious athlete ironically describing the difficulty of finding things to do on recovery days

Although the news was not great, Betty and Ella and I had fun at the hospital. Here I am waiting for the x-rays after getting a number.

After this image, you might expect a paragraph on the terrible waiting and rationing inherent in the German health care system. Sorry to disappoint. My visit to the hospital indeed brought the contrast between the European and American models into sharper focus … and made me mad once again that the Dems caved in on the public option. I first had back pain more than a year ago, but then I waited several months to see my doctor, and even then -- on a tight insurance-company leash -- he sent me to a personal trainer instead of a back specialist, and did not ask for x-rays. I don't want to even think about how the trainer twisted me like a Bretzel not knowing my condition. Here in Germany, the doctor was motivated by the novel idea of finding out what was wrong with me, and, wholla, I finally got the simple diagnosis. Oh, and the wait for x-rays took about 10 minutes. 

It turns out that Priv.Doz. Dr. med A. Badke’s son has the same condition. I think we really bonded. 

Friday, May 10, 2013


One of the great things about living abroad for 6 months is having the chance to visit places off the tourist path. Last weekend, J, J's colleague Bill visiting from Utah, and I took a day trip to Karlsruhe, a city in northwestern Baden-Württemberg, near the French border. My Uncle Jim was stationed in Karlsruhe in the 1950s (the U.S. Army finally left in the 1990s).

The day began with a crowded and noisy train ride filled with high-school kids and twenty-somethings having their first festive beers as they traveled to Stuttgart's Frühlingsfest. The first time we had seen train-goers in lederhosen and bar maiden gear, we had assumed they were going to work at the beer festival -- after all, J used to live in Colonial Williamsburg, so we have the notion that only the employees wear the terribly clichéd historical costumes. But, in fact, Germans of all ages do like to wear folk garb at beer festivals.

When we arrived in Karlsruhe we got a little lost and ended up the cinema multiplex. I wanted to eat here (as I'd never seen a wall of fries before) but was out-voted.

The design museum, our main destination, is part of an architecturally rich three-museum complex, the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie. Just close your eyes and imagine "German modern art museum." The space was vast.

And the gardens were nice.

We quickly ran through the city art museum. Germans drink more coffee than any other beverage -- yes, even that one -- even if they trail the Finns in per capita consumption -- and it shows in their art.

One painter had my last name. My ancestors hail from these parts, but my genealogy research team hasn't found the connection. Nice painting, though, and sort of reminds me of grandma's art.

The design museum offers a series of interactive computer exhibits. I don't think most people consider it a history museum, but touring it with two computer scientists who research virtual reality turned it into one. We had fun with cameras and computers and screens. 

They had lots of old video games and computers, too.

We spent five minutes in the third (modern art) museum, suffering the indignity of the greeter's comment (especially given that our German lessons [now a group class] have resumed): "If you speak no German, I can speak English." Then we walked to Karlsruhe's main Kunsthalle. J was not particularly enamored of the German "masters" and their proclivity for painting gory religious images, but the Dutch collection is solid. Sure, it may not include a Bruegel, but any old depiction of the frozen Dutch canals in good with me.

On the clock now, we raced to the Schloss, built by an absolutist, tulip-loving, and philandering Margraviate of Baden-Durlach (as you know, a Margraviate was a principality in the Holy Roman Empire that did not enjoy elector status).

Germany has a lot of castles, so they've gotten creative about raising funds. 

I don't think "just married" is the real German phrase, but I can tell you that "Partyservice" is.

Karlsruhe ended on a high note. In an otherwise forgettable Italian restaurant, with a pizza only OK by my new inflated standards, and yet another forgettable Pils, this one a Stauder from Essen, I discovered an actual German, top-fermented, copper-brown ale! [Bloggers's note: I later learned, drinking the bottle I bought in the train station, that the local Pils in Karlsruhe -- Hoepfer -- is quite good, one of the "hoppiest" you can find over here.] Like using the line over a vowel to denote a long sound, writing thank you notes, keeping score at baseball games, and supporting rigorous environmental regulation, Altbiers are relics, in this case of the bygone era before the triumph of lager yeast in the nineteenth century. Altbiers have all of 1% of the market share in Germany, despite being dominant in Dusseldorf. My Diebels Alt from Issum, northwest of Dusseldorf, wasn't as hoppy as I like my ales (no surprise there) but was excellent nonetheless. One of J's favorite breweries actually makes the stuff, so anyone reading this in Windsor please take note.

The excursion as a whole ended on a low note. The Frühlingsfest kids were subdued on the train ride home, having imbibed all day. But the drunk and drinking and singing and worst of all clapping fans of VfB Stuttgart were incredibly obnoxious, not even shutting up when an elderly couple asked them to -- this despite the fact that Stuttgart lost 2-0 that day to the LAST place team in the Bundesliga, SpVgg Greuther Fürth (Fürth is a small city next to Nuremberg). I'm sorry to be a spoilsport, folks, but when grandma is forced to move in a very crowded train, something is wrong. Most of us have been drunk and loud on occasion but also able to cease and desist when publicly chastised. At the moment I'm not sorry we haven't made it to a Bundesliga game.

Friday, May 3, 2013


J and I spent a whirlwind 36 hours in Nuremberg over the weekend. Despite having written (in my capacity as book review editor) a finely crafted, 120-word booknote for Kansas History on the memoir of a guard at the Nuremberg Trials, we weren't sure what to expect. One doesn't think of Nuremberg as a city -- just a courtroom -- but today it's the pleasant heart of a metro area of over 3.5 million people. As you might expect, though, the ghosts of the past roam freely here. 

Soon after arrival, and after the requisite visit to the first of several Old if Rebuilt Churches, we enjoyed a rejuvenating Thai meal. I think the food was great, but I'm not sure; I could barely taste it because I went a little overboard, due to the sheer joy of access, with the multiple house-made chili sauces (which tellingly required a special request to secure). We spent all Saturday afternoon at the German National Museum. Brent had warned us that we'd need a lot of time, but wow, that really was a lot of Roman pots. The museum has 20 million items, although I think that number is a bit inflated by counting each individual beer glass in the dollhouse collection (home of a 1639 dollhouse). 

Apparently Das Germaniches Nationalmuseum also has a bunch of important art, too, and the oldest globe in the world (Dürer's), and some big chest where they stored the jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, but I can't remember any of that stuff after seeing 3261 paintings, musical instruments, and recreated German kitchens in 139 minutes. I do remember the 1960 Luftansa serving tray, however.

We also struck the mother load in the Bruegel department. Although the Detroit Institute of Arts owns Bruegel's "The Wedding Dance," part of a trilogy of paintings that includes the even more famous "Peasant Wedding," somehow this painting appeared right in front of us in Nuremberg. I couldn't find any mention online of "The Wedding Dance" being on loan, but here's the proof.

Bruegel put us in a middlebrow mood. Every once in a while when traveling there comes a time to abandon the fruitless search for the authentic, pick up the guide book, and embrace the unabashedly touristical, in this case, the world's oldest Nuremberg sausage house. (Nuremberg sausages, similar to small American breakfast links, are among our favorite.) So off we went Zum Gulden Stern, first mentioned in 1419, and the survivor of many wars.

The sausages were indeed excellent. But here was the precise moment when I hit the wall on the absurd lack over here of a) beer variety in restaurants, a.1) craft beer culture, and b) vegetables not named potato or gemischter salat. Sprich mir nach, Deutsche: A-L-E. (Gillian, you would have died of laughter the next day, when, as the result of this apotheosis of German cuisine, I wandered the streets like a mad man looking for a Berkeley-style vegan wrap establishment. Needless to say, my search was in vain, even if claims 12 vegetarian restaurants in the city.) The beer, a mass produced but local Tucher Pils, was the absolute worst of the trip -- so vaguely sweet and weak and flavorless that I am willing to give Zum Gulden Stern the benefit of the doubt that they gave me a Radler (beer mixed with Sprite) by mistake. Don't be fooled by Tucher's advertisement with the nice view of Nuremberg and one of the Old Churches.

And just look at this meal, a parody -- if a true-to-life example -- of carbs gone wild (and touristical bread). I should admit for the record, however, that said worst beer of the trip is the one on the left nearly entirely consumed, while J's acceptable hefeweizen is still invitingly full. Look, I figured that if I raced, then the server would ask me if I wanted another, which is a rarity around here ...

I did like the fact, though, that even in this shrine to Germania, the new Germany was well on display. The sausages were made by a team of an older woman of European descent who was likely born in Germany and a man of Asian descent who was likely an immigrant. Here's to open societies and open-grill cooking ... if not entirely open borders in the U.S.

Absolutely insistent on finding a real beer vom Fass, we then headed to Kloster Andechs "Das Wirsthaus," the satellite establishment of a monastery near Munich brewing since 1455. Now we were getting somewhere! The doppelbock was very good, if not as remarkable as suggested by its astounding scores of 97 on Beer Advocate and 99 on Rate Beer. We might have to put the actual abbey on our list after reading this blog description...

But I digress. On Sunday morning, we took the tram to the Nazi Documentation Center a few kilometers from the center of town, in the enormous but mostly uncompleted complex that the Nazis built as a massive party center. You might recall that Nuremberg was a key locale for the Nazis and the site of those eerie mass rallies well documented on film. The museum, open for barely a decade, is located in the quarter-completed Congress Hall.

The main exhibit inside, which emphasizes the rise of the Nazis from a local perspective, is well done, and got me thinking about historiographical debates I hadn't thought about since I was an undergraduate, when I wrote my senior thesis on Nazi ideology. These were the years of the height of the Histoikerstreit (historians' quarrel) about the rise of and nature of National Socialism. This debate centered on such questions as: was the Holocaust unique?; can we meaningfully compare Nazism to other forms of totalitarianism?; to what extent were the mass of German people responsible for the crimes of Nazi Germany (as Hitler's "Willing Executioners"), or can we start to think of some non-Jewish and non-gay and non-disabled Germans as Hitler's victims also?; and, was Nazism somehow the result of unique "peculiarities" of German history or was it much less inevitable? A related debate concerns whether we can and/or should "historicize" Nazi Germany, that is, consider it a "normal" (if utterly vile and criminal) part of history.

For the most part the museum did a good job of presenting mainstream historical interpretations. And it clearly concluded that the masses shared the blame. Still, my ears perked up a couple times when listening to the audio guide. At one point, when describing the Tasel on the Cult of Hitler, the recording said, "It was difficult for any individual to resist the cult of the Fuhrer." Oh really, so after a party of virulently racist thugs takes over power, usurps democracy, and employs kitschy rhetoric combining a childish take on German folk traditions and the ancient world ("restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans," as William Shirer wrote in his diary), it was difficult for thinking Germans to resist an idiotic worshiping of an idiotic man?

Walking around the complex also got me thinking about historical memory and commemoration. It's been more than a decade since I dabbled in the history and memory literature -- though I can still make Professor Mohr, my master's advisor, laugh out loud by invoking the one phrase -- "outside memory worker" -- that I (attempted to) contribute to the field in my article on the commemoration in Brookings, Oregon, of the World War II bombing outside of that town by a Japanese submarine. [Ok, try translating that last sentence into German!] So I'm out of my league here. But how are we to commemorate evil? Part of Zeppelin Field, where the largest rallies were held, still stands. One can walk out onto the same central podium that Hitler did.

The area in front (where Hitler's soldiers are marching in the first picture) is now essentially a closed street, and the day we were there, some 20-somethings were playing a game of rollerblade hockey. (The main rally grounds beyond are now soccer fields.) And every year it's also used as part of an auto racing track. So is that appropriate? What should we do with crumbling evil space? On the one hand, I wish Hitler could have seen a multi-ethnic group of friends making a mockery of his sacred space. And maybe it's good that one can rent a plastic swan boat to take on the lake. On the other hand, does using Nazi rally grounds as playgrounds and soccer fields historicize the Nazis too much, making them too much a part of the normal and very long ebb and flow of German history? Should the U.S. have destroyed the huge swastika after the war? Should we not rope off this complex and put a big sign up that reads "Serious Bad Stuff Happened Here?" There are signs commemorating the rally grounds, of course, but they normalize Nazi history a bit too much for my taste. The one near Zeppelin Field, for example, traces the history of those flying machines and explains how the field Hitler built on was a testing ground for them. And another sign, near the beer hall that has never ceased operating on the edge of the lake, shows turn-of-the-century Germans row boating and explains new middle-class leisure activities. Does such signage turn the Nazis into just another moment in time? And finally, how much money should private organizations and the state pay to maintain a rain-damaged stadium that the Nazis used? Would that money not be better devoted to aiding past and present victims of attempted genocides? Which reminds me, I was very glad that the museum pointed out that Hitler also oppressed and killed gay people.

I can understand now why the Germans retreat so much into the distant past. After the Documentation Center, visiting Nuremberg's Imperial Castle was a welcome relief. About a 1,000 years old, it was an official residence of the Holy Roman Empire (and apparently most of the Emperors until the 16th century spent substantial time there). Nice view of the city, too.

From there, it was a mad dash through the usual historic square, with the famous Golden Fountain, more Old Churches, Dürer's House (why do the Germans love audio guides pretend-narrated by the wives of long-dead famous people?), and the city museum. Many of Dürer's paintings are in Washington, D.C. right now, by the way.

We thought we had entdeckened the perfect way to end the weekend: a burger at the burger-specializing place near the train station. But, unfortunately, after no one came to the table for 12 minutes, we decided it was better to catch our train -- and to put on hold our continuing search for a decent burger.

Meanwhile, it's time for me to spend more time emulating "The Scholar" in the National Museum.