Friday, November 30, 2012

Be on Your Guard at Weihnachtsmärkte

If you're in Berlin during the holiday season, you might consider visiting a Christmas Market (Weihnachtsmarkt). There are scores across the city. These traditional street markets are big tourist magnets where you can buy food and drink, and handmade items such as toys and Christmas decorations. Some of the larger markets even have skating rinks, amusement rides, nativity scenes, and the Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus). One of the highlights of the markets is Glühwein, a hot mulled wine with a shot of brandy. Yum! (It's very strong:12-15%.)

I would avoid the larger markets where prices tend to be higher, the tourist traffic heavier, and the vendors less hospitable. My favorite Weihnachtsmarkt is held on Sundays at Winterfeldtplatz. It's small and cozy, and just the right place to enjoy a warm mug of Glühwein. 

Don't accept anything
from this guy. He is wanted
in connection with last year's
Weihnachtsmärkte poisonings.
As always, be on your guard for thieves and other unsavory characters. Last year, a number of Christmas market visitors became ill after drinking poisoned schnapps. According to authorities, an unidentified man offered visitors a drink to celebrate the birth of his newborn child. They quickly became ill and many required hospital attention. A composite drawing of the man has been posted at this year's markets, just in case he returns.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Sechzehneichen": Another Remake of "The Stepford Wives"

Remaking a film classic is always a difficult task. Just because a movie was successful is no guarantee that a remake will also be a hit. Take the 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It was a disaster critically, and it bombed at the box office. Yet, Hollywood continues to recycle old material. There was Poseidon (The Poseidon Adventure) in 2006, The Stepford Wives in 2004, and Madonna's truly abysmal Swept Away in 2002. These were real stinkers. In truth, the bad remakes far outnumber the good ones (True Grit 1969 and 2010, Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 and 1978).

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Last night, das Erste presented Sechzehneichen (Sixteen Oaks), another remake of The Stepford Wives (1975). The original film, starring Katherine Ross, Paula Prentiss, and Tina Louise, was of its time: the lure of suburbia, the rise of feminism, and the dangers of uncontrolled technologically. It's difficult to see how another version would work in 2012. Yet, it does, and it works quiet well. 

Directed by Hendrik Handloegten, Sechzehneichen, is one of the most visually fascinating movies I have seen. The imagines are both real and dreamlike, and the carefully synchronized musical score by Radio Heads adds to the terror and suspense. This version pars down the narrative and focuses on the couple's relationship. Handloegten delves into the sexual motivations behind this "ideal" community, and challenges the viewer with the questions: How does society deal with the rapidly changing roles of men and women, and does sexual equality threaten the "liberated" man?

If only American TV (or American movies for that matter) could make something half as good as this. Sechzehneichen can be viewed on the Internet for a limited time. Go to das Erste and click on Mediathek. Even if you don't understand German, it's worth a peak. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Guggenheim-Berlin: Visions of Modernity

Unlike its big sisters in New York and Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin is modest in size and nondescript in architecture. The Museum has no permanent collection of its own, and instead hosts four exhibitions a year. In the past, these exhibitions have been unimpressive. The Guggenheim's latest offering, Visions of Modernity, is no exception. 

Lauschende (Listening)
Heinrich Campendonk
One of the few interesting
This small collection of modern art from the late 1900's and early 20th century is uninspired despite having the works of Picasso, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Miró, Delaunay, Cézanne, and Modigliani. There has been a lot of buzz about the exhibition, but all that buzz is just hype. In fact, the curators seemed intent on making the exhibition as dry and mundane as possible.

The works are displayed in a hodgepodge fashion with little information about the individual pieces other than the title of the work and name of the artist. It reminded me of the way museums used to exhibit works of art, accessible only to people with advanced degrees in art. The Guggenheim foundation can present impressive and imaginative exhibitions. The Kandinsky show at the New York Guggenheim was remarkable in its accessibility and ability to tell a story. 

Visions of Modernity is on view until February 17, 2013, and admission is free on Mondays.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Berlin's Vegan Brunch and More

One of the best things to do on a Sunday is to go out to brunch. In Berlin, brunch is an institution, and it runs from about 10 a.m. until early evening. These all-you-can eat banquets are reasonably priced (8-13€) with some great food. There are bunches specializing in Asian, Russian, Turkish, African, South American, and even German cuisine.

I recently discovered Veganz, a restaurant offering a vegan brunch with dishes from around the world. (It's not just Tofu!) Located in Prenzlauer Berg, Veganz also operates a full-scale vegan supermarket selling fresh fruits and vegetables, ready-to-eat food, cosmetics, household supplies, pet food/supplies, coffee/teas, and bakery items. And what's surprising, the prices are comparable to those you would find at the local supermarket!

Veganz offers cooking classes, workshops, film presentations, yoga instruction, and seminars. In December, they're offering a class on how to prepare classic Christmas dishes. Finally, Veganz has recipes and a newsletter that you can download from their website. Veganz is located at Schiverlbeiner Straße 34, Prenzlauer Berg, not far from U-Bahn Schönhauser Alle.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Great Minds Think Alike

I recently wrote about the dangers of mixing science and politics. Paul Krugman of the New York Times wrote a similar article a few days ago. I'm glad to see that great minds think alike.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Learning German in Berlin

Over the years, I've tried a number of German language schools in Berlin. The quality of the instruction varies, and price is no guarantee that a course will be good. Here are a few tips.

The Goethe-Institut is top-notch, but quality comes at high price. A four week course will run about 1000€. Located in Mitte, the Goethe-Institut has an excellent library, classroom visual aids, computers, Wi-Fi, and German DVDs and CDs for loan.

The Goethe-Institut is aimed at short-term visitors and university students. There are plenty of extracurricular activities, including tours of the city, organized excursions to the opera, theater, and other entertainment venues. The quality of the instruction is generally good, and class size is around 18 students. Synopsis: Overpriced. 

A non-threatening place to learn German with an emphasis on verbal communication skills. A four week course will cost about 600€. Located in Wilmersdorf, the quality of the instruction is very good, and the teachers take their job seriously. The instructors are patient, friendly, and know how to teach. Classes have about 14 students. The Neue Schule has extracurricular activities, including tours of Berlin and excursions to nearby cities. Wi-Fi is available but limited to the main building. Synopsis: Friendly atmosphere with good instruction. 

Located in Schöneberg, the Hartnackschule is a bargain at around 200€ for a four week course. The quality of the instruction varies widely. Beware, some instructors are excellent, a few are okay, and some are just terrible. Class size runs around 24 students.

The Hartnackschule tends to attract people residing in Berlin that need to improve their language skills for work or school. Accordingly, there is an emphasis on grammar rather than verbal communication. There are no extracurricular activities and no Wi-Fi. You get what you pay for. However, for the enthusiastic student who wants to learn German, this is the place to go. Synopsis: No frills but okay. 

Located in Mitte, the did Deutsch-Institut is pricey. A standard four week course will cost around 740€. Class size is small at around 10-12 students. The instruction is middle of the road. It's neither good nor bad. There's no course book, just daily handouts. Moreover, the Institut provides no Wi-Fi or extracurricular activities. Synopsis: Small classes with mediocre instruction.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Imaginative Caskets: Coffins To Die For

Berlin is truly a multicultural city. People of 186 nationalities live here, including a large Ghanaian population. Like many immigrants, the Ghanaian people have brought their unique customs and practices to Berlin. 

Lung Cancer Victim?
For the people of Ghana, funerals are a time of mourning and a time of celebration. They believe that when a person dies, they move on into another life. They honor their dead with brightly colored coffins that celebrate the way a person lived. 

Consequently, coffins are designed to represent an aspect of the dead person's life, such as a car, an athletic shoe, or even a cell phone. Coffins might also symbolize a vice, such as a bottle of beer, a cigarette, or syringe. It certainly adds some flavor to the traditional pine wood box theme. 

I've always thought of cremation as the way to go, but after looking at these creative coffins, perhaps I need to reconsider that idea. Here are some clever and amusing coffins.
Coke Cola Enthusiast?


A Variety of Coffins, including
a Shoe, a Prawn, A Tiger,
A Rabbit, and A Dog

A Businessman or a Shoe Salesman?

Bird Lover?
Mobile Phone Addicted?
Flight Attendant or Pilot?


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Es Gibt Kein Thanksgiving

It's almost Thanksgiving, but you wouldn't know it in Berlin. Aside from a banner at the local American Church announcing a Thanksgiving dinner (an experience I'm willing to miss), there's no indication that the USA is about to celebrate one of its most important holiday's.

There are no turkeys at the supermarket, no window displays featuring cute Pilgrims, no pumpkin pies on crowded shelves, and no after Thanksgiving Day sales. It feels odd, but then again, I've never been fond of a holiday dedicated to watching TV and over indulgence.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mr. Minsch: Die erste Klasse Konditorei in Berlin! / First Class Cakes in Berlin!

In direkter Nachbarschaft zum Yorckschlösschen liegt Mr. Minsch Torten. Mr. Minsch ist die beste Kuchenladen, den ich bisher kenne. Die Auswahl und Qualität ist sehr gut! Die einzelnen Stücke sind mit 3€ nicht die günstigsten, doch von der Größe her nebst der Qualität absolut okay. Ganze Kuchen oder Torten mit einem Durchmesser von 28cm kosten dort 27€-30€ für schwäbischen Affelkuchen, Schwarzwälder Kirshtorte, Schoko-Schoko, Käsekuchen, Linzer Torte (Lecker), usw.

Mr. Minsch is an out-of-the-way cake shop in Kreuzberg. You won't find any better cakes in Berlin. The quality is absolutely outstanding. Mr. Minsch uses only natural ingredients and everything is always fresh.

The cakes aren't cheap, but they're worth every penny. A slice of cake will run 3€ ($4) and an entire cake 27-30€ ($40). Order at the door, and either take-away or eat outside under the shade trees. There is plenty of seating, and the coffee is good too! On Sunday, Mr. Minsch offers Zimtschnecken (Cinnamon Snail/Roll). It's out of this world. Come early because there is always a long line. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Visit the Grimm Brothers

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
C.S. Lewis

If I'm honest I have to tell you I still read fairy-tales and I like them best of all.
Audrey Hepburn

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.
Albert Einstein

St. Matthäus-Kirchhof

I recently started reading the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales in the original German, and they're anything but sweet and gentle bedtime stories. Unlike the sanitized Disney versions, the Grimm stories are scary, antisemitic, chauvinistic, and often violent. The tales depict some of our less admirable qualities. Yet, they're part of the western canon that take the reader on a path of mystery and adventure. 

The Grimm Brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob, buried
alongside other family members
Coincidentally  the Grimm Brothers are buried at the Alter St. Matthäus-Kirchhof in Kreuzberg. This landmark cemetery is also one of Berlin's most beautiful outdoor green spaces with many opulent and creative headstones and memorials.

Created in 1856, St. Matthäus is the final resting place for many of Berlin's famous 19th and early 20th century bourgeoisie, including the Grimm Brothers and the physician Ruldolf Virchow. There are also memorials to AIDS victims and Nazi resistance fighters. Unlike many of Berlin's older graveyards, St. Matthäus is still a working cemetery with many new and imaginative headstones. There's a small cafe, and even an area dedicated to bee husbandry. Located near S-Bahn Yockerstraße, St. Matthäus is an outdoor sculpture museum housing some very famous people. 
Certainly A Man of Learning

I Love This Headstone!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What Do Germans Think We Eat?

American Food Section
A few weeks ago, I noticed the new American food section at my local Kaisers Supermarket. Tucked away in the back of the store, this small and spare section had a distinctively American look.

There was popcorn, Swiss Miss, Cheese Whiz, maple syrup, Hunt's Barbecue sauce, Betty Crocker Cake mixes, and of course, Pop Tarts. Having an "American food" section is a good idea and seems to be a growing trend in Germany, but what constitutes American food? And more importantly, who buys this stuff? Expats? Curious Germans? Junk food aficionados?

For years, KaDeWethe upscale Berlin Department store, would stock American food in its international food hall. Naturally, KaDeWe had the good sense to stock products that would appeal to American expats such as Velveeta, Corn Flakes, Potato Chips, and Mountain Dew. This pathetic section at Kaisers was a halfhearted attempt to target some vague market group. The least they could do is stock some Twinkies, Cheetos, or Pork Rinds.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

When Political Discourse Becomes "Science"

In his first interview since the election, Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan told reporters that he was "surprised" at the outcome. Mr. Ryan believed that the Republicans would win and win big. Was he delusional?

The polls consistently showed President Obama leading in both the national vote and swing states. Polling is a sophisticated science relying on algorithms, voting patterns, and carefully selected random sample sizes. Moreover, modern polling techniques evaluate sample bias, margin of error, and expected voter turnout. At its best, polling is precise, unbiased, and scientific. 

Yet, Mr. Ryan and many of his Republican cronies felt confident because they had their own information. Specifically, news (propaganda) from GOP friendly sources: Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, and the Republican fronted pollster Rasmussen Reports. In short, Mr. Ryan and the Republicans began to believe their own spin.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ryan's alternate reality is a symptom of two larger problems: 

1. The polarization of the news. On both sides of the political spectrum, people interested in politics increasingly view news through the prism of the a partisan media that dominate cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere. Before cable and the Internet, most people got their news through national media that sought to appeal to audiences spanning the partisan divide. Today, we watch news to reinforces our political beliefs, and not for information; and

2. The politicization of science. Politicians are increasingly preaching their own version of science to push a political agenda. For example, Republicans discount global warming as politically motivated, evolution as merely a "theory," and unfriendly polling data as another indication of liberal bias. Some Republicans have even stated that pregnancy cannot occur with a "legitimate" rape, and pregnancy resulting from rape is something "God intended." Science is becoming a tool for political debate. 

Luckily, Mr. Ryan lost the election, and the Republicans suffered a setback. The real election surprise wasn't the Republican defeat, but rather Republican overconfidence and bravado.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Vintage Volkswagen

A creepy advertisement
that reminds me of when
I lived in Folsom, California
I have a special fondness for Volkswagen. My first car was 1979 VW Rabbit that I had for 15 years. 

Overall, Volkswagen is the number one car company in the world, according to the Forbes Global 2000 companies survey. The report ranks the world's biggest companies across an equal weighting of sales, profits, assets, and market value. Forbes ranked Toyota as the second biggest car maker. Coincidentally, my current car is a Toyota Matrix.

In addition to being a great company, Volkswagen has a reputation for creative advertising. Here are a some vintage adverts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Here's the Dirt on Champagne Bubbles

"Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right."
Mark Twain

Next time you take a sip of your favorite champagne or sparkling wine remember that it's dirt and grime that causes the bubbles to form inside the champagne flute. 

Gérard Liger-Belair, an associate professor of physical sciences at the University Reims Champagne-Ardene, used sophisticated photographic equipment to observe what really happens inside a glass of champagne. 

The bubbles consist of carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolved in the liquid during the fermentation process. Scientists have long known that these CO2 molecules need a niche of some sort to form bubbles. In a perfectly smooth glass, the molecules would evaporate singly and invisibly. Conventional wisdom is that tiny pits and gouges in the wall of a champagne flute serve as bubble-formation sites. But Dr. Liger-Belair found that the imperfections of an average wine glass are too small for that purpose. Instead, what gives birth to the bubbles are dirt and dust particles on the glass surface, or cellulose strands from the dish towel used to dry the glass. These specs of grime are the perfect gathering places for the CO2 molecules.

Wow, isn't science fascinating. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Berlin Christmas Displays, Part 1 / Weihnacts Schaufensterauslagen in Berlin, Teil 1

The Christmas season is back, and despite the ostentatious commercialization of this once religious holiday, I still enjoy seeing the creative Christmas displays. Galeria Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz has particularly amusing window decorations, which feature animated animals frolicking at famous Berlin sites. It brings back the kid in me. 

Escape Over the Berlin Wall
Choreographed Dancing Frogs
at Alexanderplatz

Fun in the Snow at the
Brandenburger Tor

Monday, November 12, 2012

Berlin's Most Expensive Animal Rescue

It was the most expensive animal rescue in Berlin's history, and it took 40 firefighters and animal relief technicians to rescue Skipper, a white Parson Russell Terrier. Shortly after 6 p.m. last Friday, Skipper broke free from his leash while on an evening walk and got caught in a badger's burrow. Skipper's distraught guardian called the Fire Department after her efforts to rescue him were unsuccessful.

The rescuers had to excavate an area of approximately 50 square meters and dig to a depth of 12 feet. Skipper was finally rescued shortly after 1:00 a.m. This unfortunate mishap will cost Skipper's guardian 10 000 Euro ($13,000).

In the USA, when a child is rescued from an unfortunate situation, the taxpayer, and not the parents, usually foots the bill. But what happens if a pet's endangered. Who pays the costs then? Are costs assigned differently if it's an animal that needs help? Both the child and the pet have responsible caregivers, shouldn't liability be assigned equally? 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Being Polite or Solicitous?

Am I being polite or solicitous? That is the quandary. Many Europeans don't understand the difference between simple courtesy and being solicitous. For example, I recently asked a woman on the street,

"Wären Sie so nett sein, könnten Sie mir sagen, ob dieses Restaurant in der nähe ist?" (Would you be so kind/nice as to tell me whether this restaurant is nearby?)

The woman gave me a blank stare, and replied, "Heute bin ich nicht nett," (Today, I am not nice) and walked away. 

Berliners have a reputation for being rude, but I thought this was extreme, even by Berlin standards. I told a German friend about the incident, and he said not to worry. This was common. He suggested that I not be solicitous. I should try the direct approach. It never occurred to me that a simple polite question could be interpreted as being solicitous. I guess it's cultural thing.

Couples That Match

It's either cute or silly. On the one hand, it's endearing, on the other hand, it's a bit creepy. I'm talking about couples that match, partners that wear the same clothes. Is it a loss of identity or becoming connected in both body and soul. Whatever the case, it's a fashion no-no. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Et tu Fluffy?

Here's an interesting story that pits Cats versus Archaeologists. The Italian city of Rome is considering a move to close a cat sanctuary near an ancient historical site. The cat refuge feeds, sterilizes, and provides medical attention to thousands of homeless cats each year. The sanctuary has also become a major tourist attraction that attracts cat lovers from around the world. Archaeologist fear the cats are destroying a valuable historic treasure and want the sanctuary closed.

I don't know the details, but perhaps the sanctuary could be moved to another location. That would be a win for both sides of the dispute. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Last Word on Romney

I wonder how the election of 2012 would have played out if Mr. Romney had campaigned on his real beliefs rather than the extreme Republican Party positions he spouted during the election (anti-immigrant, anti-choice, anti-healthcare reform, anti-marriage equality).

Of course, no one really knows what Mr. Romney's stood for. His positions changed routinely. For example, as Governor, he enacted a health care plan extremely similar to ObamaCare, a plan he later denounced. As the founder of Bain Capital, Mr. Romney placed profits over the welfare of his employees. As a family man, he jokingly discussed his dog being tied to the hood of the car during a vacation. And finally, as a candidate, he disparaged 47 percent of Americans as on the dole

One assumes Mr. Romney is a principled man; yet, in his quest for the White House, Mr. Romney let ambition rather than his true beliefs guide him. 

President Obama is not blameless. As a State Senator, Mr. Obama endorsed same sex marriage. However, as a Presidential candidate in 2008 and as the President, his position changed or "evolved," as he put it. He did what was politically advantageous. Later, when public opinion polls showed a majority of Americans approving gay marriage, President Obama heartily endorsed the idea. Instead of being an advocate for change, President Obama lead from behind. 

Politics is a dirty business, and it's the rare politician that places core values above politically expediency. I can think of only a handful: George Washington, Harry Truman, Barry Goldwater, Nelson Mandela, and Jimmy Carter.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's Win Doesn't Surprise Europeans

President Obama's big win on Tuesday didn't surprise most Europeans. During the election, the German and European press would regularly report the current poll numbers, all of which showed a modest win for the President.

I would occasionally glance at the American press and the various election predictions. For example, last weekend, George Will (a once respected journalist) predicted a Romney landslide (321 EV). Even on election night, a number of pundits continued to predict a big win for Gov. Romney (Dick Morris, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove) even though the polls indicated otherwise.

Why such a disconnect? Since the very beginning of this election season, the right-wing media (Fox News, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times) have been spinning misinformation to their conservative audience. They know that it's more profitable to tell their audience what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. There was never an attempt at objective journalism, not to mention telling the truth. No wonder, conservatives who listened to this drivel were surprised at the President's win.