Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Being Attractive is the Most Important Thing There Is

Gloria Winters
I enjoy reading the obituaries in the New York Times.  It's how I start the day.  It's, by far, my favorite part of the newspaper.  Each obit is like a mini-biography.  From the famous to the infamous, if you're somebody, the NY Times will include you in its obit column.  I find the obits of obscure people to be the most fascinating.

For example, I recently read the obit of Gloria Winters.  She was not a household name, but worthy enough to be included in the NY Times.  She played the role of Penny in the 1950s TV show "Sky King."  I never saw the show, but was nevertheless intrigued by her obit.

After the TV series ended, Ms. Winters wrote an etiquette book for young girls, "Penny's Guide to Teenage Charm and Personality."  In the book, Ms. Winters declared, "Being attractive is the most important thing there is."  Wow, how refreshing and what a truly honest look at reality.

As children, we're told that it's the inside that counts, not the outside.  We are reminded at home, school, and church that qualities such as honesty, sincerity, tact, and loyalty are what count in life.  Well, those qualities are important, but being attractive trumps them all.  Ms. Winters had it right, and she wasn't afraid to say it.

Let's face it, attractive people have an advantage over the rest of us.  Research has shown that attractive people get more attention in school, tend to get higher paying jobs, get promoted more often, receive more attention from the opposite sex, and are more likely to be viewed in a positive light.  Moreover, to add insult to injury, attractive people tend to score higher on scales measuring happiness.  Life isn't fair.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Die Schultüte und Mehr

This Saturday was the first day of school for many German children.  As I recall, I couldn't wait to start school.  In some respects, it was my first real taste of independence.  I can still remember walking to school with my mother as she pointed out the stop signs, introduced me to the crossing guard, and reminded me never to talk to strangers, even if they offered me candy.  Mothers are like that.   

A Group of Children Carry Their Schultüten
In Germany, the first day of school is a very special occasion marked by an official welcoming ceremony.  It occurs on Saturday before the official start of school on Monday; and most importantly (a least for the kids), each new student is given a Schultüte by his or her parents.  A Schultüte is a large decorated cornet of cardboard filled with sweets and little presents!  As I was watching the children in the school yard, I couldn't help notice how they were comparing their Schultüten to see which one was bigger, had the most sweets or presents, or was more elaborately designed.  I guess this is also part of the learning process:  instilling a sense of competition.  It's never too early to start.    

Does Your Language Shape the Way You Think

There was a very interesting article in Saturday's New York Times concerning language and how it shapes the way we think and grasp ideas. In many languages, nouns are assigned a gender.  In German, the articles are "der" (masculine), "die" (feminine) and "das" (neutral).  For example, a spoon is masculine (der Löffel), a knife is neutral (das Messer) and a fork is feminine (die Gabel).  Unfortunately, there are few rules to determine noun gender.  You simply need to learn the noun and its gender.

As the article points out, it would be impossible to say in German, "My neighbor is nice," without knowing the gender of your neighbor:  Mein Nachbar ist nett (man) or Meine Nachbarin ist nett (woman).   The question for linguists is whether the assignment of gender shapes the way we view objects and use those objects in our lives.  Something to think about.  

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The American Pop Stars

Recently there has been a lot of talk in the German press about President Obama's fall from grace.  In other words, how the American public has become disenchanted with the President.  First of all, I'm not sure this is an accurate reflection of public sentiment; and second, if it's true, I think the American public had unusually high expectations to begin with.  What did Americans expect from President Obama?  His resume was short, his qualifications minimal, and his political experience scant.  As I said during the presidential campaign, he sings a good song, but can he deliver the goods.

During the campaign, President Obama demonstrated suburb oratory skills, an uncanny ability to excite young voters, and good marketing tactics, but what did he bring to the table?  He did prevent a McCain presidency and that's something!  Where would we be with President McCain and Vice-President Palin.  One shutters to thinks.  Moreover, President Obama offered a bright light after years of darkness.

Obama's message was "change," and his election, was, in some respects, similar to the election of President Carter who entered office following the Watergate Scandal.  President Carter's message was "honesty," and he offered Americans hope after years of Washington impropriety.  President Carter's initial popularity quickly evaporated as the economy took a nose dive, the Iran hostage crisis escalated, and his perception as a leader turned negative.  This may be happening to President Obama.  I hope this is not the case because the alternative is a Republican Party moving further and further to the right. 

To his credit, President Obama has succeeded in getting a form of universal heath care, and even made an effort at bipartisanship in a polarized Senate and House.  He has also made some political gaffs, including his misplaced "Mosque" comments, and his invitation to religious leader Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration.  But for the most part, he has steered clear of controversy, a welcome relief after the Bush-Cheney years.  All and all, he has done a competent job, after 1 1/2 years in office. 

In Europe, the Obama's are still viewed as "Pop Stars."  That partly explains President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize and why Michelle Obama's face can be seen everywhere. We see Michelle on the front page of the daily newspapers, on the nightly news and on almost every magazine cover.  We see her vacationing in Spain, wearing the latest fashion, or extolling the virtues of home gardening.  I don't see this as a negative.  I simply find it fascinating that Europeans are so in love the First Lady. She has an almost Jackie Kennedy mystique.

Moreover, in the eyes of the German press, President Obama can do no wrong.  Reality hasn't arrived.  When it does, Europe, like the USA, will see President Obama in a clear and unvarnished light:  neither a great President nor a poor one, merely an average one. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ein Traditioneller Biergarten in Berlin: Das ist der wahre Jakob

View of the Spree
At last, a real German Biergarten in East Berlin.  Located in nearby Treptower Park, the Zenner Biergarten is the perfect place to relax on a warm sunny day. You can listen to Schlager, dance, have a Wurst, and/or drink a Beer or two.  It's surprising that I haven't come across this place before.

On the nearby Spree River, you can rent a row boat or kayak. Although crowded, the Zenner is not overrun with tourists.  There is a definite east European feel to the Zenner Biergarten and to Treptower Park as well.  It's not because the famous Soviet War Memorial is across the street either.  It's hard to put in words, but I know when I'm in East Berlin.  Whether it's the architecture, the people or the mild disrepair, there is an iron curtain ambiance that one feels, even today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Honeymoon Restaurant

Quote of the Day
No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.
Lily Tomlin

I love this quote.  I'm reminded of it daily while riding my bicycle in Berlin, but that's another story. 

Back to the subject of this post:  finding a restaurant in Berlin serving traditional German food.  There are plenty of restaurants serving Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Indian, Thai, Spanish, and even Mexican food, but one is hard pressed to find good German cuisine in the capital city. Today, I was in the mood for German food, so I went to Honigmond Restaurant-Hotel (Tieckstraße 11, 10115 Berlin-Mitte).  BTW:  Honigmond means Honeymoon.  It's a literal translation:  Honey (Honig) and Moon (Mond).  The words, "die Flitterwochen," and "die Hochzeitsreise" also mean Honeymoon.

I've been going to Honigmond for years, and I'm never disappointed. They have excellent German dishes; and what's best, they have a lunch buffet for only 6,70 Euro.  They usually have 3-4 meat and/or fish dishes, assorted vegetables, salads, breads, a soup, a variety of German potato side dishes, and of course desserts.  Located in Mitte, the restaurant is a pleasant escape from the all the activity and noise found in this popular Berlin neighborhood.

Warning: Restaurant not recommended for the diet conscious.  German food means mouthwatering but also fattening.  Schade!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Texas and Taxes and that Awful Language

Texas Slogan for a Litter Free Texas
I was told that Northern Europeans have difficultly hearing the distinction between the words "Texas" and "Taxes."  I decided to conduct a non-scientific experiment to see if this was correct.  I did this, in part, because Americans have difficulty pronouncing the letters "S" and "Z" in German.  For example, the words "Seit" (since) and "Zeit" (time).  The "Z" in German is pronounced "ts."  Pronouncing the "Z" sound is particularly difficult for me. I always need to make a special effort when using a word with "Z" in it. 

In any case, I asked two Germans, one Pole and one Finn to tell me the difference between "Texas" and "Taxes." They all had difficulty.  It wasn't until I wrote the words out that they could understand the difference.  I can sympathize.  For example, how does one differentiate between words the "plane" and "plain," or the words, "meet" and "meat."  On the other hand, "Texas" and "Taxes" are pronounced quite differently, especially if you're a native speaker.

People always tell me that German is easy to pronounce.  They say it isn't like French, which is next to impossible to master.  I have to disagree.  I have studied both French and German over the years, and even become quite proficient in French (at least, I was until I took up German).  From my experience, learning German is an almost insurmountable challenge.  I quote from Mark Twain, no intellectual dummy:

"My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it."

- Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, "That Awful German Language"

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Están Lloviendo Gatos y Perros

View of Simon Dach Straße
It feels like Fall and it's only the middle of August.  I have even noticed a few leaves turning color. It has rained all day, and the streets are quiet.  As I was walking down the street, I overheard a couple say, "It's been raining cats and dogs."  I haven't heard that phrase in a long time.

For the first time in a long while, it's pleasant to walk in the neighborhood.  The summer holidays are almost over and the high school students will be returning to school in a few weeks.  I, for one, am looking forward to quieter nights. The bars and the restaurants will be less crowded, and I won't be awakened in the middle of the night by drunken loud mouth kids. In fact, I frequently see kids stumbling along the streets in the early morning hours when I get up.   

The drinking age for beer and wine is 16 and for everything else it is 18.  The age of consent for sexual activity is 14 (13 in Spain).  As a result, European young people tend to mature earlier than Americans. The USA tends to be more protective, and I'm not sure "that's a good thing" as Martha Stewart use to say.

Two days a week, I take a German conversation course. The course participants are mostly Europeans trying to improve their German, but there are a few Americans in their early 20s. When I see how the young Americans act compared to their European or South American contemporaries, there is a big a difference. For the most part, the Americans are still kids while the Europeans are adult in every way. With the non-Americans, I can have an have an intelligent conversation. With the Americans, I'm limited to topics revolving around Lady Gaga, the latest action or romantic comedy, or where a person can get drunk. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but from my observations, the Americans are still immature.

As my mother use to say, "You only live once and youth is fleeting; you need to enjoy life while you can." Her common phrase was, "You need to make hay while the sun shines."  I'm not sure her use of the phrase was appropriate in this context, but I understood her meaning.  It's like the title of this post, "Están Lloviendo Gatos y Perros." Despite having heard non-native Spanish speakers use this phrase, I doubt whether a native speaker would, especially when referring to "it's raining cats and dogs." 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Architecture That Makes a Statement

Architecture That Literally Makes a Statement

The middle field translates, "We're doing rather than waiting."

Haircuts Around the World

Berlin City Cut
Recently, I've tried to get a haircut in each country I visit.  My goal is to compare and discern any cultural differences in haircuts.  I've had haircuts in Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, Northern Ireland, England, Germany, France and Italy (um, fewer than I thought).  My most memorable haircut was a razor blade cut in Namur Belgium.  The barber only used a razor blade!  The haircut made such an impression that I still remember it 28 years later.  

In Berlin, I've been going to different barbers trying to find the one that suits my taste.  Last week, I found one at City Cut in Charlottenburg (Wilmersdorfer Str. 43, 10627 Berlin).  I'm not fussy about my barber, but I do look for speed, price and style.  The price for a haircut can cost anywhere from 6 - 20 Euro, depending on the location and the amenities offered.

I got a haircut, last year, in Mitte that cost 15 Euro, but it included a shampoo, coffee drink and scalp massage. The cut was merely okay but not fantastic. The haircut I got at City Cut was nearly perfect. The stylist was quick, the result exactly what I wanted (aiming for a longer look), and the price reasonable (9 Euro).  If visiting Berlin and seeking a haircut, I would avoid tourist areas such as Mitte, Friedrichshain, or Kurfürstendamm Straße (known as K'damm).  In these areas, I find the haircuts to be overpriced with long waits.  Also, I've learned, long ago, that price is seldom a benchmark for quality.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Der Flughafen Tempelhof: Now a Park

Flughafen Tempelhof Entrance
Since my last visit to Berlin, the old Tempelhof Airport has closed and become a city park.  It opened to the public in May 2010, and is also used for open air concerts and festivals.  Built in the 1920s, Tempelhof was one of Europe's largest airports at the time it was build, and was vital during the Berlin airlift in the late 1940s. 

I remember visiting Tempelhof in the 1990s and was struck by its fascist architectural style:  very dramatic and inspiring.  It was meant to convey the power of government and was based on Roman and Greek ideals.  Unfortunately, the airport's interior is now closed to the public.  However, if you visit Berlin, there are plenty of other buildings, which survived WWII and designed in this particular style, including the Japanese, Spanish and Italian embassies (all former fascist countries).

The city intends to develop Tempelhof Park over the next 10 years; but right now, it still looks like an airport with its old runways serving as places for people to run, walk, skate, windsurf (on a skateboard), and cycle.  I also saw people flying kites and model airplanes.  There are observation decks throughout the grounds, including a Biergarten where you can drink and eat, as well as play badminton, boules, or sit on one of the folding chairs.  The park is also a refuge for a number of endangered flora and fauna species, including wasps, bees, and butterflies. 

Public Laughter
While I was riding my bike in the park, I happened to catch the Public Laughter Group doing their "laugh exercises."   According to research, the lack of laughter is a major contributor to many of our health problems.  Did you know that a child laughs 500 times during the course of a day while an adult laughs only 15 times?  I'm lucky if I can laugh once a day; although, I did smile and laugh as I watched the group go through their laugh routines.  If I had more time, I would join the group.  It really looked like fun!!!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dog Parking Platz

Hund Parkplatz
I love Ikea.  In fact, most of the Berlin apartment is furnished by Ikea.  From the sofa to the silverware, the Swedish stores' imprint is everywhere in the apartment.  Ikea's furniture is stylish, reasonable and well crafted.  I also enjoy the Ikea restaurant.  I sometimes go there just to eat.  Now, that's an Ikea fan.  The salmon fillet with potato cakes and vegetables is my favorite dish, and the desserts are good too.  And finally, for your shopping pleasure, there are 3 conveniently located Ikea's in the Berlin area.  (Wow, that sounds like an ad.) 

Ikea also pays attention to our four legged friends.  As you enter the store, there are dog resting spots.  Each "parking platz" is sheltered from the elements and includes a bowl of water.  There is a nearby exercise area for your friend as well.  The day I visited, this little guy was enjoying his little patch of green (albeit, Astro Turf) and watching the customers enter the store.  He was extremely well-behaved, but a bit bashful for the camera. 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Steig Larsson

I just finished the second installment in the Stieg Larsson Millennium  trilogy, "The Girl Who Played with Fire."  I was introduced to the trilogy last year by a Norwegian acquaintance.  I was looking for a thriller to read, and she recommended the first book, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."  I had never heard of Stieg Larsson or about his immense popularity and the unfortunate controversy surrounding his death and estate.  She was surprised since his books had become bestsellers in Scandinavia, and the film, based on the first book, was a big hit.  I'm glad I followed her suggestion.  I loved the books.

The second installment answered some questions and left a lot unanswered.  I'm looking forward to the third installment, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest."

What can I say that hasn't been said before about his books:  they're a good read, they keep you on the edge of your seat, they have plenty of action, sex and thrills.  All true; but, aside from being first-rate story telling, the books also provide a glimpse into Swedish society.  Larsson manages to tell a good story that reflects society's view of sex, its treatment of women, and the influence of organized crime on the political system.   And for you techies, it's also a Cyber fiction book.

Stieg Larsson died in 2004, at age 50, after a heart attack, leaving three completed novels (and rumor has it that part of a fourth was found in his computer).  It's a shame that Larsson was taken from us so soon, but it's a gift that before his time ran out he managed to produce at least two first-rate thrillers, and perhaps three.  I'll know for sure when I read the third book, "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest."