Saturday, June 26, 2010

My Two Cents Worth: World Cup and Obama - Actions Speak Louder Than Words

World Cup Tomorrow:  England vs. Germany

I've lived in Germany and England so I have divided loyalties. Just in case, I have the flags of Germany and England in my apartment, including a Berlin bear.  I have all the basis covered.  Too bad the USA is out.  I always pull for the underdog.

Two Cents Worth

Unlike most people, I didn't expect much from President Obama. I wasn't particularly impressed with candidate Obama; yet, over the past 17 months, he has shown restraint and thoughtful leadership skills.  When he is allowed to be himself, he is particularly impressive: thoughtful, reflective and reserved.  In those rare instances when he tries to be the "common man," it doesn't work.  He comes across like a Tiger Woods apology - disingenuous.

President Obama doesn't participate in theater politics or make impulsive decisions.  In some circles, he's seen as too professorial or detached. His critics may have a point, but being reflective, intelligent and detached are qualities that can be advantageous, particularly when making difficult and complex decisions.  For the most part, his presidency has avoided the carefully prepared "sound bites" so common in today's market politics.  I applaud him for his restraint.  I am sure those around him have advised otherwise.

However, I do have a bone to pick with the President.  It's his negative statements about the previous administration.  It first started during his Inaugural Address.  His comments about the failures of the previous administration were unnecessary. This was the time to talk about his presidency not the previous one. This was especially inappropriate since President Bush was sitting just a few feet away. To those viewing the ceremony, the comments came across as crass and unbecoming of the "change" President.  Did change mean it was okay be rude.

Unfortunately, the President has continued to make these types of disparaging remarks throughout his first year in office.  He keeps reminding us of how America has a long way to go to repair the mistakes of the past and how his administration is going to fix them. While I am no fan of President Bush or his policies, President Obama's comments are inappropriate and show a lack of propriety.  He's not running against Mr. Bush. The election is over.  Does the President want to lower himself to the level of the US Congressman who shouted "liar" during his Congressional address?

Last week, the President continued his assault.  While eating a hamburger and french fries (trying to show how he is just a regular Joe) with Russian President Medvedev, the President stated that the USA and Russia had come a long way in repairing the damage done during the previous administration, and that he looked forward to improving relations between the two countries.  Why the President found it necessary to again reference the previous administration in an unkind light is unclear. 

It's no secret what occurred during the Bush administration: unbridled abuse of power, blatant disregard for civil rights, and irresponsible fiscal policies.  We don't need to be reminded.  We experienced it first hand.  As a result, we voted the Republicans out of office.  Now, it's time for the Obama administration to continue with its own priorities, stop finger pointing, and get down to business. There is no reason to continue to cast blame. Actions do speak louder than words. 

I suggest that the President follow an example from the Laura Bush Play Book: be gracious, be polite, be yourself, and don't use another person to make yourself look good.  

We live in an uncivil society.  Decorum is a thing of the past: four letter words are spoken in polite society and nobody raises an eyebrow, crass remarks are made by our elected officials and they are viewed as "speaking the truth," someone cuts you off on the freeway and you feel obliged to flip them off.  It's all okay.  Well, it's not okay.  It's time to return to civility. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rats, Drugs and Berliner Roll


Maine's state symbol is without a doubt the lobster.  In Berlin, it's the bear, and you see evidence of it throughout the city.  There are bear statutes everywhere. However, I would argue that Berlin's real symbol is the rat.  It is estimated that Berlin has five rats for every person in the city.  With a population of 3.4 million, that means there are approximately 17 million rats living among us.  How many wild bears does Berlin have? None, I imagine.

But why the rat?  Every city has its share of these cute furry creatures.  Why should Berlin have the prestige of being known as rat city?   The simple answer:  they are both so similar.  The rat like Berlin has a history of being viewed as dirty and even evil.  Both have survived wars and plagues; yet, they are resourceful and nothing keeps them down. They survive and even thrive. 

A couple of weeks ago, I needed some Aleve (Naproxen Sodium).  I recently had knee surgery and the doctor recommended Aleve as an anti-inflammatory drug to help reduce swelling.  In the USA,  Aleve is an over-the-counter drug that is easily obtained.  That is not the case in Europe.

In the UK and in Germany, a doctor's prescription is needed to get the drug.  In Norway, it's a bit easier to get, but there is a catch.  Aleve is only approved for sale, as a non-prescription drug, if it's used for the relief of menstrual cramps.  In other words, the pharmacist will sell the drug but only for its approved use. Well, long story short.  I bought the Aleve, and I feel great.


Last, but not least.  There's this urban myth that claims President Kennedy's famous statement:  "Ich bin ein Berliner" means "I am a jelly doughnut," and not "I am a Berliner."  I asked a few natives what the statement really means. Well, the answer is not that simple. To a native Berliner, President Kennedy's statement did mean "I am a jelly doughnut," but only to people familiar with Berlin slang.  A "Berliner" is known in Berlin as a jelly doughnut or jelly roll, but only in Berlin.  In other parts of Germany, the statement means a person from Berlin.  I hope this settles this burning question.

Monday, June 21, 2010

More World Cup

 Faça uma meta

You can't escape it.  Here is a photo of a group of Portuguese fans at Cafe Lisboa in Wilmersdorf enjoying the Portugal (7) - North Korea (0) game. Poor North Korea, nothing seems to go well for them. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Cup is Better than War

What can I say that hasn't been said before.  Europe is mad about the World Cup.  Cars, balconies, and restaurants are adorned with national flags.  In England, it's the red cross and white background, in Germany it's the black, red and yellow stripes, and in Glasgow it's the Stars and Stripes (not many English fans here).

Back in Berlin, all the cafes and restaurants in my neighborhood have big screen TVs (inside and outside) for their patrons to watch and enjoy. You can feel the excitement.

The display of national pride is everywhere and if it supplants nationalist tendencies that's a bonus.  I've often thought that our enthusiasm for sport teams was just another form of nationalism.  For example, in Maine, you can't escape the flag of the New England Patriot during football season.  Perhaps, it's a catharsis for our war like ways?

Even now, as I am working on this post from a sidewalk cafe, I can hear the Italy and New Zealand game from the surrounding cafes and windows.  I know this because a guy just shouted from his balcony:  Ciao Italia.  And across the street, there is a group of New Zealand fans shouting and drinking.  Not much love for Italy in Germany. I wonder what this place will be like if Germany wins?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Just Wander

I like to wander in the cities I visit. I generally select a few places that I want to see; but otherwise, I just walk around with no fixed destination.  For example, today I was walking around central Olso and discovered a great jazz cafe.  It was tucked away in a courtyard that I would have missed if had been bicycling or been on public transit.  Even walking I would have missed it, except I happened to notice a group of people entering a narrow alley and looked in. There I found a courtyard and outdoor cafe tables. Inside was a jazz music store and upstairs from that was the cafe itself. The interior of the cafe was a small affair with exposed brick walls and intimate tables surrounding a small performance stage.  No other word describes it but charming. 

Later, while returning to the hotel, I happened upon a mid-summer parade full of trolls, vikings and other assorted goblins, accompanied by Norwegian folk music.

When I let the city unfold at a leisurely place, I never know what will pop up.

Labor Strikes

No doubt about it, there is always some sort of labor strike whenever I'm in Europe. This time I was burdened by the British Airways strike and the museum workers strike in Oslo. A couple of years back, while I was in Berlin, the doctors were on strike. This European strike thing is so 1970s! In the USA, people are glad just to have a job.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Play, a Pie & a Pint, but Beware: Condiments Cost Extra

I haven't blogged for a few days. I've been traveling around Europe: London, Glasgow and now in Oslo.

Back in the 1980s, when I lived in
London, good food was hard to find and it generally meant Indian or Italian. English food was bland and was often over-cooked. Now, London has lots of good restaurants, including English Gastro Pubs: traditional English food with a twist.

As for Glasgow, I really enjoyed my visit. I saw a production of Tartuffe, the classic French farce by Molière as part of "a Play, a Pie, & a Pint." That is a 45 minute excerpt from a play plus a pint of beer and a meat pie. I was expecting mediocre, but the production was excellent, the beer was good, and the pie was okay.

I had previously seen Tartuffe in San Francisco but this
production was better. How does Britain produce so many good actors! The play had been translated into Scottish dialect with lots of slang. I think I might have found the original French easier to comprehend. Now I can say, I saw a Scottish-English version of a classic french play.

As for Olso, I told m
yself that I wasn't going to talk about prices on this visit, but I just can't help it. The cost of everything is simply astounding. You wonder how people can afford it. At least the subway is cheaper in Olso than in London ($4.50 versus $6.00). For comparison, a subway ride in Glasgow is about $1.50.

Last evening, we went to Peppes Pizza and ordered the hot chicken pizza. Three flame icons on the menu indicated that it was extra spicy, and the waitress suggested sour cream as a condiment to "cool" the pizza. Well, the pizza wasn't spicy, and the few tablespoons of sour cream that came with the order failed to improve the taste. I'm not even sure it was sour cream, though it was some sort of pale goo. In any event, Peppes charged about $4 for the "sour cream." I thought condiments were free.

Well, this is Norway and you pay for everything. A reason
able meal will set you back $50-$75 per person.
However, I will recommend Punjab Tandoori, at Gronland 24. It offers excellent, authentic Indian food at a reasonable price. The two of us had plenty of food for for 215 NOK ($40). That's a bargain for Norway. There I go again, talking about the prices.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Why No Bicycle Helmets

When I'm in Berlin, I rely mostly on my bicycle to get around town. Bicycling is easy and allows you to experience the city close up. Berlin is flat and has a dedicated bicycle lane system throughout the city. The public transit system (U/S Bahn) is also superb and gets you anywhere. For an additional fee, you can take your bicycle on the subway.

But why go by subway when you can bike: get exercise and save money. I can't explain it, when I'm riding my bicycle in Berlin, even in the most congested traffic, I have this sense of freedom and adventure. I don't get this feeling anywhere else but in Berlin.

For the most part, bicycling in Berlin is relatively safe. The pedestrians are mindful and the car drivers respectful. However, what I find amazing is the lack of bicycle helmets (der fahrradhelm). No one seems to wear this basic safety precaution. When I asked a friend to explain this phenomena. She simply stated that people are not reckless in Berlin. She admitted that it would be better to wear a helmet, but like tobacco smoking, it's off the radar of most people. I always say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

No Longer Romance?

You're listening to the radio in the morning while getting ready for work. The radio is on for background noise. Rarely do you pay attention to the particular news item being broadcast.

That's how it was yesterday. I was listening to the BBC World Service, and the interviewer was talking with an author of romance novels. I am not a fan of the romance genre, so I was paying less attention than usual. I didn't get the author's name or the name of her recent novel that won a prestiges award. All I remember was that the novel took place on the island of Mauritius involving three women.

What caught my attention was the author's reasoning for placing all her novels in the past. She felt that in today's society, it was too difficult to write about romance without sounding syrupy or over the top.
She has a point. In the past, people wrote love letters, read romantic poetry to each other, and courted. That stuff isn't done these days. In short, we aren't romantic anymore.

Sure, we live in an era where it's okay to discuss the most intimate sexual act with a close friend or even broadcast it on a TV chat show; but, we also live in a time where people are less inclined to discuss their emotional feelings, specifically feelings of love. We are sexually liberated; yet, we seem repressed in terms of romance and with the ability to discuss feelings of love. I am not sure I agree with the author, but it does cause one to pause. Did we trade romance for sexual liberation, or do we show romance in other ways?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Demonstrators and Little Lambs

I decided to take a bicycle ride to the Tiergarten (Berlin's equivalent of New York's Central Park) and enjoy the sunny weather late yesterday afternoon. It can be terribly hot in the city, but the tree canopied park can be 5 degrees cooler. There were the usual joggers, sunbathers, and cyclists enjoying the small ponds, meadows and blooming flowers of the Tiergarten.

Then, all at once, I came across a flock of sheep (a flock and not a heard). Yes, right there in the middle of Berlin's Tiergarten were sheep, their shepherds, and guard dogs. The sheep were doing what sheep do: eat, baa, and excrete. The dogs were also doing what dogs do: run, bark, and be cute.

It turns out, the sheep were at the Tiergarten to bring attention to the plight of the vanishing sheep herding profession. More and more family run and local shepherds in Germany are vanishing. It seems that, like most things, the production of wool and lamb is going offshore. (

The sheep were also demonstrating how effective they could be at keeping grass trimmed without the use of motorized lawn mowers. Lets face it, they eat, digest and excrete with minimal CO2 emission.

On my way home, along Unter den Linden (one of Berlin's major streets), I came across a parade protesting Israel's recent actions along the Gaza border. The protesters were loud and looked positively uptight. In contrast to the tranquil sheep, the demonstrators looked very unhappy. Give me the sheep's life any day.

This all happened within 10 minutes of my first sighting of the sheep in the idyllic Tiergarten meadow. What a juxtaposition of scenes. Only in Berlin!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pfingstrose or the Peony

Pfingsten or Pentecost is a Christian feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ. Pentecost is celebrated seven weeks (50 days) after Easter Sunday. Pfingstrose or the Peony, as it is called in the USA, blooms around the time of Pfingsten, hence its name. Everywhere I go in Berlin, I can't escape the Pfingstrose. Cut Pfingstrose/peonies are being sold throughout Berlin.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Favorite Espresso Bar in Berlin

I just arrived in Berlin. The weather is cloudy and a bit drizzly. The flight was easy and comfortable. I always enjoy flying with Air France. AF has good food and wine, and the service is always excellent. A big plus: it smells great inside the airplane. There is that distinctive AF perfume smell.

Now that I have unpacked, I've headed to my favorite espresso bar in Berlin: IL BARISTA! Located in Friedrichshain at Gabriel-Max Str. 18, Il Barista is the kind of unpretentious cafe that use to populate San Francisco and Berkeley before Starbucks and the proliferation of chain coffee houses. Il Barista has distinctive decor, and plays world music with an emphasis toward french, Spanish, and techno tunes. The customers range from students, housewives with small children, urban professionals and workmen. What's the biggest surprise? The owner is friendly!! A rarity these days, especially in cold and impersonal Berlin. Now that I think about it, friendliness is rare in the USA too.

There is free Wi-Fi (WLAN in Germany). You can relax, engage in conversation, or surf the Internet. You would think that Il Barista would be full of tourists but it's just locals. The tourists walk by and head to the more glamorous places up the street. It's their loss.

I guarantee, you won't leave Il Barista without a smile on your face and a glimpse of another side to Berlin.