Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's in a Name?

Does the title of a movie or television show make a difference? Can it affect the way you feel about it?

Germany gets a lot of its entertainment from the United States, Great Britain and Scandinavia. When Germany imports foreign movies or TV shows, it frequently translates the title into German. Those translations often alter the meaning of the show. I was reminded of this as I was watching The Avengers, a 1960s TV show from the UK. The German title is Mit Schirm, Charme, und Melone. It literally means: With an Umbrella, Charm and a Bowler Hat. It refers to the lead male character, John Steed. Mr. Steed carries an umbrella, has a certain degree of charm, and wears a bowler hat. The German title suggests that show is primarily about Mr. Steed.

I don't know about you, but I watched the show because of the female lead, Emma Peel, played by the brilliant Diana Rigg. Mrs. Peel was clever, resourceful, beautiful, athletic and witty. She was emancipated long before Women's Liberation, Police Woman, Cagney and Lacey, or Oprah. She could hold her own against any man while still being feminine. It wasn't as if Mr. Steed was the key to the show's success. In fact, the show never retained its level of popularity once Ms. Rigg left. So why have a title that emphasizes the male character while neglecting the female? Perhaps, a bit of German male chauvinism?

Not all title translations are this bad. For example, Laurel and Hardy are known as “Dick und Doof,“ (Fat and Dumb). This is certainly a more descriptive, if not funnier name for the two comedians. Moreover, the German title for the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blonds is simply Blondinen Bevorzugt (Blonds Prefer). In this case, I find the German title more appropriate since the film deals with Marilyn Monroe, a blond, trying to snag a rich husband. The movie doesn't care an iota what the gentleman prefer.

American television shows do a bit better than films when it come to retaining their original titles. For example, Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Die Simpsons are known by their English titles. However, Little House on the Prairie is known as Unsere Kleine Farm, (Our Small Farm) and Home Improvement has the cumbersome title of Hör mal, Wer da hämmert (Listen to who's hammering there).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Anxious for Spring

Balcony Ready for Spring
This week spring officially began, and tomorrow Daylight Savings Time returns to Germany. It's still cold, but the days are noticeably longer. People are anxious for winter to end, and the stores and shops are filled with blooming flowers, gardening equipment, and the latest in outdoor furnishings. Like many of my neighbors, I've brought out the balcony furniture, filled the planter boxes with flowers, and started having my morning coffee outside. All in anticipation of spring.

Even the neighborhood crow has reappeared and started to join me for breakfast. He usually sits on the chimney across the street. I started noticing him last year. He doesn't do much, but he does make a lot of noise. He's there from about 6:00 AM till 6:45 AM; then he leaves, presumably for work. During the winter months, he was noticeably absent. But with the improving weather, he has returned. It's nice having company for breakfast.

In most countries, seasons begin on the twenty-first day of the month. However, Australian seasons are the exception. Australian seasons begin on the first day of the month. For example, the start of summer is the first day of December and the start of winter is the first day of June. I was told that since Australia doesn't have distinct seasons, why not make it easy and start the season on the first day of the month. It makes sense, but does Australia really lack seasonal change? 

When I lived in California, I was constantly told by non-natives that California had only two seasons, wet and dry. To some extent that's true. But having lived in California most of my life, I could easily recognize the subtle seasonal variations. Whether it was the smell of the air, the quality of the light as it reflected off the ocean, or the early morning dew, I always had a keen sense of the particular season. I can't put it into words, but California, in its own unique way, had four distinct seasons. Perhaps, it's not unlike Australia. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tributes Continue for Knut

Knut was Berlin's version of Princess Diana.  Both were attractive, both were extremely photogenic, both achieved fame suddenly, and both had tragic ends.  The outpouring of sympathy was evident today, as most of Berlin's newspapers had headlines concerning Knut's untimely death.  Knut's passing also continued to be the lead story on the evening news.  Flowers, letters, and tributes began to accumulate at the entrance to the Berlin Zoo and at Knut's enclosure. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Eisbär Knut ist Tot

News Flash: Berlin Mourns the Death of Knut

Berlin Zoo officials announced today that celebrity polar bear Knut has died. Knut, arguably the world's most famous polar bear, was found dead in his zoo enclosure late this afternoon. His death came as shock to zoo officials and Berliners alike. Knut was 4 years old.

News of his death spread rapidly. Television programing was interrupted, and news of his death became the number one item on the evening news, replacing the Japanese nuclear accident and the Libyan crisis.

Knut became world famous when his mother rejected him shortly after his birth in December 2006. He instantly became a symbol for Berlin and the perils of global warming. His fame made millions for the Berlin Zoo. There were Knut dolls, toys, and games. I even have a credit card with Knut's picture on it. But fame also had a price. Over the years, Knut was the subject of death threats from animal rights activists who argued that polar bears should not be held in captivity. Knut's death is under investigation.

A Warm Bowl of Chicken Noodle Soup

I'm currently recovering from a cold. I usually get one about every two years; so I was due. I have the usual congestion, sneezing, and of course, the sore throat. It's at these moments that I recall my mother's remedy for a cold: a bowl of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, some Nabisco Saltine Crackers, and a coloring book. The combination of these three items always worked wonders and made the discomfort of the cold less irritating. These days, the chicken noodle soup and saltines still work like a charm. (I can do without the coloring book.)

Unfortunately, trying to find a can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup or even saltine crackers in Berlin is difficult. But why? We live in a world where there's a McDonald's in every city and town, and where the Internet connects people all over the planet. This is the age of globalization! Yet, despite all these advancements, there are still things only obtainable in the USA. 

When I first came to Europe in the late 1970s, you were advised to bring your own toilet paper since the European stuff was like wax paper. Things have improved a lot since then. The toilet paper is now softer, and almost every German supermarket carries its share of American junk food items such as peanut butter, diet soft drinks, chocolate chips cookies, decaffeinated coffee, and even popcorn.

BTW:  I did eventually get some quasi-chicken noodle soup and cardboard like Swedish whole wheat crackers (yuck). Lesson to be learned: Don't get a cold in Germany. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Music Break

Rumer is a British singer, and her debut album, "Seasons Of My Soul," has
been called absolutely stunning by the German press. Thanks, in part, to Rumer's clear and resonant voice, her album has a distinct 1960s sound with a fresh and contemporary twist. She reminds me of Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield. "Das Debütalbum der Sängerin Rumer ist wirklich verblüffend, retro, und altmodish." Have a listen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


As the tragedy in Japan has unfolded over the past few days, I've had to learn a whole new lexicon of German words. For example, the words for Nuclear Power Plant are “das Kernkraftwerk,” “das Atomkraftwerk,” or their abbreviations “AKW,” or “KKW.” The word for nuclear meltdown is “die Kernschmelze.”

Last year, the German government announced that it would extend the life of its oldest nuclear facilities despite opposition from the Green Party. However, in the wake of the Japanese tragedy, Germany has had to reconsider its nuclear policy. Chancellor Merkel announced yesterday that seven of its oldest nuclear plants would be closed down temporarily for three months to evaluate safety and one plant would be closed permanently. Mrs. Merkel also said that Germany would accelerate its renewable energy program.

As is often the case, it takes a tragedy to motivate governments to do something to improve the safety of its citizens. It seems governments never seem to be proactive but reactive. In the case of Japan, it did everything humanly possible to mitigate the dangers of a nuclear accident. Yet, a natural disaster can lay waste to the best made plans. I was reminded once more of just how ruthless Mother Nature can be. Some disasters are so far-reaching that it’s hard to prepare for them. I believe that no matter how prepared we are, when a calamity of massive proportions enters the picture, all bets are off. In the case of nuclear power, we need to answer the question: are the dangers worth risk?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Daisy Miller

As a child, I was often told that children should be seen and not heard. Today, children are indulged far too much. At least it seems that way to me. I was reminded of this permissive attitude as I was having lunch at a neighborhood restaurant.

At the table next to mine were two children between the ages of 7-10. They were completely out of control. They were jumping on their chairs, throwing utensils on the floor, screaming their lungs out, and generally making a playground out of the restaurant. Their parents did nothing.

Today the child's happiness is all-important. But what about the parents' happiness or the happiness of the causal observer? A good old-fashioned spanking is out of the question: no modern child-rearing manual would permit such barbarity. You're not even allowed to shout at a child because he or she might never recover from the dreadful traumatic experience. Who knows what deep psychological wounds could be inflicted.

So modern parents bend over backwards to avoid giving their children complexes, which a hundred years ago hadn't been heard of. Certainly, a child needs love, but the excessive permissiveness of modern parenting is surely doing more harm than good. Just look at today's self-absorbed, egocentric, and selfish adults, many of whom have been reared on this modern approach.

Yet, excessive permissiveness isn't a new phenomena. It has been around for a long time. Henry James (1843-1916) wrote about it in his 1878 novella, Daisy Miller. I recently re-read Daisy Miller and then watched the 1974 film version by Peter Bogdanovich. I enjoyed both the film and the novella. Daisy Miller is a fascinating work that says more about growing up in present day America or Europe than any contemporary novel or film. The book is still very relevant. I wish I had a given a copy of the book to the parents of those two out of control kids. Perhaps, they could have learned something. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Man from the Red Cross

Whether it's Berlin, Portland or Timbuktu, there are always people out to make a quick buck. The other day, I answered the doorbell to find what appeared to be a member of the German Red Cross asking for donations. Before the young man had an opportunity to open his mouth, I politely said I wasn't interested and closed the door.

I didn't give the matter much thought until 20 minutes later when I left the house to do some shopping. As I was walking down the street, I noticed the "Red Cross Man" being arrested. Apparently, he had been scamming the neighborhood and someone had called the police.

When I think about it, there was something odd about him. Perhaps, it was the over-the-top uniform festooned with Red Cross emblems or the strangeness of the Red Cross making door-to-door solicitations. In any case, I found the incident quintessentially German. First, somebody noticed the scam and immediately called the police. And more surprisingly, the police responded quickly to what I took as a minor offense. How would things have unfolded in the United States? Would someone have called the police? Would the police have responded? And if so, would the culprit have been arrested?

In Germany there is no offense that is too small to go unreported, let alone unpunished. Germans seem to have a law or regulation for almost everything. Big government isn't something that needs to be reduced but nurtured. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Mouse

Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Program with the Mouse) is a popular German TV program aimed at young children between the ages of 4 and 8; nevertheless, the average age of its viewer is 39 years old. This week Die Maus celebrates 40 years on TV. It happens to be one of my favorite TV shows. The show has a magazine format and consists of several segments, including short cartoons (mouse spots). The mouse spots usually feature the mouse and his friends, a small blue elephant and yellow duck. Take a look and have a laugh.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Courteous or Solicitous?

I often tell people that Berlin is inexpensive. Instead, I should say that Berlin is inexpensive relative to other German and European cities. It’s not a bargain but it certainly won’t bankrupt you. The cost of living in Berlin is what you would expect to find in most American cities. A cup of coffee is around $2.00, a pizza is about $6.00, and a nice meal for two people costs about $40.00, including wine.

The days when you could travel in Europe on $50.00 or even $100.00 dollars a day are long gone. For example, the sales tax (value added tax) in Germany is 19%. It's 19.6% in France, 20% in the United Kingdom, 23% in Greece, and whopping 25% in Denmark and Hungary. (Btw:  the only country with a sales tax lower than 15% is Switzerland at 5 %.)

So while Berlin is relatively inexpensive by European standards, I still need to be price conscious. I splurge once a week by going out to eat. I usually go to Escendo, a pizzeria across the street from my apartment. It’s quick, cheap and very good. Another dining option is lunch specials. One of my favorite places is Garçon, a family run restaurant serving southern French cuisine. Their lunch specials include a salad or a soup, a choice of two main courses, and a beverage (water, soda, coffee, or wine). Their potato and broccoli casserole, and their salmon-cod soup are particularly good. It’s a good deal at $10 dollars. 

The last time I was at Garçon, I noticed a young couple sitting at the table next to the kitchen. What annoyed me about the couple was their complete indifference to the problem their very large dog was causing. It’s not unusual for people to bring dogs into restaurants. In this case, the dog was well-behaved and quiet, but he did manage to sit right in the middle of the main restaurant aisle. Each time a waiter or a patron needed to cross aisle, they literally had to leap over the dog. The couple noticed the disruption Rover was causing but did nothing to remedy the problem. This lack of consideration is unusual but not completely surprising. I’ve noticed similar things throughout Europe. It’s as if the Europeans take pride in being inconsiderate.
When I’m asked to describe the differences between Americans and Europeans, I always answer:  MANNERS.  By and large, Americans are more polite, considerate, and thoughtful than Europeans, including, the British. Of course, this is a gross generalization, but it’s something I’ve noticed time and again.

When it comes to customer service at restaurants, hotels, stores, and other public facilities, Americans again score high. Even my European friends agree that American customer service is exceptional. However, they often use the word “solicitous” when describing it. It’s as if they view American customer service in a negative light. I often tell Europeans that American customer service means being “courteous,” a word that may not translate into their language.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The German Mind

There's a lot about Germany that I like and a lot that I dislike. For example, Germans are quick to share their opinions with you, and point out how you are wrong and they are right. They also have a crowd mentality.  If there’s an art exhibition that’s received great reviews, you can expect everyone to be there, including people without any interest in art.  People go because other people are going. This applies to travel as well. Germans love exotic destinations, but only if it's the "in" place. These are things that I have noticed over the years, and I don't mean this as a criticism. However, I might point out that Germans have no reluctance in telling me how they find Americans to be narrow-minded, superficial, and materialistic.  

Germans are generally orderly, punctual, and obsessed with regularity. If you have a meeting at 9:00, you better be there at 9:00, and not 9:05. That's late and simply bad form. I generally like these character traits, but you can take a good thing too far.

Today, as I was getting ready for work, I realized it was the first day of March. That isn't particularly important until you understand the German mind.  For Germans, it's the first day of the month and time to begin anew.  For instance, on the first day of June, no matter what the weather, Germans will start wearing summer clothes: shorts, skirts, light fabrics, and sandals.  Likewise, on the first day of October, Germans will bring out their heavy coats and sweaters even if it’s hot.  If the calendar says it’s time for spring or summer, the Germans will comply.  Germans, it seems, are obsessed with regularity. 

Today was no different from the past few weeks. It's still very cold and grey, but the calendar says March. So what did I find as I was riding my bicycle to work?  Bicycle riders, and lots of them.  Yesterday, I saw perhaps 2 or 3 bicyclists.  Today, there were at least 100.  Now, there could be many reasons for this sudden bicycle explosion.  It was the first day of the month and subway passes have expired or people have decided to forgo mass transit because of the recent strikes.  These are all possible explanations, but I don’t think they fully explain the bicycle epidemic. The real reason is very simple: it’s March and time to ride the bike. There would have been 100 bicycle riders today even if there had been a blizzard and the subway was free.

Update: Guttenberg to Leave

In a surprise announcement earlier today, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned his post. Last week, Mr. Guttenberg admitted to plagiarizing parts of his doctorate. Despite calls for his resignation, most people thought he would weather the storm and continue in his post. Well, this one caught everyone off guard, including Chancellor Merkel.