Friday, March 31, 2006

One final update this week. J! finally bought a change purse. This is a bit of a necessity when using the Euro, since the 1 and 2 Euro are coins. Savvy shopper that he is, J! managed to find the least manly change purse in all of Mainz (but, he adds, "for the best price!" which is true). Watch out, J! Feisty elderly women will be making mad, jealous attempts to steal your change purse for themselves while you aren't looking!

The plaid really brings out the blue in his eyes.

So, to celebrate my quarter century in style, J! arranged a wonderful day full of excellent Japanese food and a visit to the English Theater in Frankfurt. We had front row seats for the play "Blithe Spirit," which is something of a romantic comedy about a man whose second wife hosts a seance dinner party and the ghost of his first wife comes back to haunt him.

In other birthday news, I now have an 80s glam rock haircut. The conversation with the stylist went something like this:

Me: Hi, I'd like a haircut. Just a little bit shorter, please.
Him: Your hair is curly!
Me: Um . . .
Him: [Something incomprehensible in really fast German.]

Twenty minutes later he's snipping off alarmingly large chunks of my hair, gesturing dangerously with a pair of sharp scissors and trying to tell me something about an albino python that he saw in Turkey. Finally, after some vigorous blow drying, I was allowed to escape. J! laughed out loud when he saw me this morning, bouncing down the street to meet him with curls a mile high. They've calmed down a bit since then, so I won't post a photo for you. Instead, let me just say that I looked a little bit like this guy:

Also, I'm getting really good at guitar since I turned the big 25.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Happy 25th Birthday to the D of dotde!
Check out this action shot collage to see some of what she's done in the past year.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

More German News for You!

Three more pieces of evidence that the EU is slowly becoming the type of nation-state-conglomeration that the world hasn't seen since the Romans made togas a fashion statement and forced everyone to speak Latin with an Italian accent.

1. The EU driver's license.

Getting a license in Germany isn't easy. To begin with, you have to be 18, and you have to take a theory test and a driving test, you have to go to driving school and you have to pay about 1000 Euro. After that, you're all ready to cause your first accident on the Autobahn! No wonder so many young Germans prefer to spend some time abroad in a place like the US, where we'll give a driver's license to just about anyone. Soon (2012), however, the EU will be making EU driver's licenses mandatory for all EU citizens. German Fahrschulen [driving schools] are holding their breath about whether this means they can rip off only German citizens or everyone in the whole federation.

2. EU expatriates move because of love more than anything else.

Europeans in general, it turns out, don't move around a whole lot. Only 2 percent of the EU population elects to head out west (north, south, east) and strike a homestead (find a cheap apartment). According to a new study, 24 % of expats want better weather ("better quality of life"), 25% want more money ("a better job"), and 30% are following their spouse/significant other around ("love"). Not surprisingly, Italy and Spain top the list of most popular retiree destinations.

So, if you are a Finnish young man living in Laihia, battling the land-of-no-sun-at-all and frustrated with the overwhelming minginess of your neighbors . . . well, all you need to do is find a willing German lass, grab your newly issued EU license and drive yourself to gorgeous, sunnier Hesse, the state next door to dotde's very own Rheinland-Pfalz. In no time at all (8 years, down from 15) Mr. Finland can become a citizen of Germany.

As long as he passes Hesse's citizenship test.

In days gone by, some citizenship tests in the EU have become fairly controversial. The Netherlands, for example, recently made the news because its citizenship test includes a film with gay couples and topless women. Hesse, however, has taken a slightly different route. Instead of making sure would-be-immigrants are aware of state policies, the Hesse exam, quite simply, is Jeopardy auf Deutsch.

For example:

Which assembly met in 1848 in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt?

The "Grundsatz des freien Mandats" ("principle of the free mandate") applies to members of parliament. What does this mean?

and my personal favorite:

In one of his most famous paintings, the German painter Caspar David Friedrich depicted a landscape on the Baltic Sea island Rügen. Which motif does the picture show?

The exam has come under fire because critics claim most German citizens couldn't correctly answer many of the questions (except for the Caspar David Friedrich one, of course). Plus, not surprisingly, some of the queries target conservative Muslim populations in particular:

You hear that a woman is not allowed to go out in public or to travel without being accompanied by a close male relative. What is your opinion of this?

All this test is really lacking, in order to make this a truly German cultural experience, is Joerg Pilawa proctoring the exam.

For the original articles on the above topics, please go here, here and here. Translation of questions thanks to

Thursday, March 23, 2006

While baths, cafes, palaces, and churches appendage any European city that prides itself in luring foreign-currency-wielding-tourists-who-spend-most-their-trip-mentally-miscalculating-the-exchange-rate, our recent trip to Prague revealed an additionally bizarre limb extending from our tour of Euroquadrepeds: the monument to a socialist past that is Statue Park.

Sure, there's a tendency to topple any physical monument symbolic of past tyranny (note the yearly event at American universities). And despite this habit, angry mobs do fatigue and even the most revolutionary are a little weirded out by the abstract art that could replace stone figures in public squares. So since you can't break 'em all, Hungarian politicians and entrepreneur's came to a mutual, yet controversial, conclusion: gather all the stone leftovers from Hungary's membership in the Eastern bloc and let them stand together in some field 15 minutes outside the capital city.

Thus D and I found ourselves spending a Hungarian Sunday navigating a labyrinth of public transportation to visit this unique attraction. This involved leaving the city's thriving tourist district and venturing into some of the bleaker areas to find the bus that would take us directly to the park's gate. Advertised as leaving every 15 minutes, schedules do change because of road construction, and we were required to wait 90 minutes for a ride that wound through, basically, the industrial and rural ruins that surround Budapest (we did, I should add, pass the Curling Club of Greater Budapest on the way).

Upon arriving at Statue Park, our stares simultaneously darted back and forth between the handful of monuments corralled into an area half the size of a football field and the bus schedule proclaiming the next ride as arriving in either 10 minutes or 2 hours. Without hesitating in the cold Hungarian air, we decided to take the statues in at full speed to avoid standing around because, well, there wasn't even a ration stand in the near vicinity and it's not like these things perform tricks (at least in the winter). Here are two photographs from our collective red streak through the park:

D and Captain Steinmetz

Center: Liberation Monument complete with Tourist Action Scene. Right: Marx and Engels. Left: We're about to miss our bus!

All in all, Statue Park is an interesting place and one you may want to visit if you journey to Budapest. In our brief time there, we saw both fans of socialism and the historically conscious intermingling, reading guidebooks, and browsing through the small gift shop containing work song CDs, t-shirts, and watches. And yes yes, we may chuckle about our morning in a place that historicizes a difficult period in the 20th Century, but it's only because the area is wrought with the dramatic. From the massive front gate that never opens (you have to sneak around the side) to the self-guided tour that stops at a dead-end, you have to wonder about a museum that creates so many symbolic gestures in a move to subvert the past symbolism of socialist rule. The sheer size (in mass) of their collection is impressive, but the intended effect didn't really ring through.

If you go, the bus ride out of Budapest-proper may be interesting enough. Summer may also provide a better venue. Motivated by the weather to linger longer, visitor's should be able to view the grey statues in green surroundings all the while sipping a bottle of Leninade.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Scene: J! and I exit pleasant Cafe Bonjour, directly across the street from St. Stephen's Basilica.
J: [pointing across the street] We need to cross the street to get back to our hostel, past that church.
Me: [nodding head]
J: [bragging] Ha! Do I know Prague or what?
Me: We're in Budapest.

One of the nice things about living in Mainz is that we're basically in the middle of Europe. Or, in the case of this weekend, a ten hour train trip away from the capital of Hungary. Budapest is an amazing place--for those of you who want to visit a former satellite of the USSR but don't want to be scared to death by burly looking border guards, try Hungary.

Budapest actually consists of two towns on opposite sides of the Danube River, Buda and Pest. To be honest, I couldn't keep them straight and kept having to check the map to figure out which city we were in. Both sides have their perks, though. The Buda side has the big palace, the Fisherman's Bastion, and Gellert Hill with the Liberation Monument. Pest, on the other hand, has got the casinos, St. Stephen's Basilica and the parliament building.

We spent most of Saturday doing the touristy stuff, my favorite being the Fisherman's Bastion (pics below). The Buda castle labyrinth, on the other hand, was a huge disappointment. The labyrinth are caves below Castle Hill (which notably lacks a castle these days) which were used variously, but most famously for war refugees. The caves were formed from thermal springs, and were eventually connected together. The whole area is sectioned off into five zones with rather odd exhibits. The "Pre-Historic Labyrinth," for example, has faux cave paintings in it. The "Labyrinth of the Future," has imprints of a "grave" in which a man was buried with his laptop. And there's also a section with a wine fountain.

Other highlights of the trip were a great Hungarian restaurant that served (surprisingly) one of the best vegetarian dishes I've had, and the Szechenyi Baths. Budapest is justifiably well known for its thermal mineral springs. The Szechenyi Baths aren't terribly luxurious, like the Gellert baths, and they don't have the cool Turkish domes, like the Rudas baths, but they are the hottest (72-74 degrees F) and deepest in Budapest. So warm, in fact, that people go to them year round, even though they are outside in the open air. Sorry, no photos of the baths--no cameras allowed, although this didn't seem to stop most of the tourists.

Castle Hill

Parliament Building and the Danube River

The Fisherman's Bastion

What do you call a Hungarian who walks to work?

A Budapedestrian!
(Matthias Church in the background)

Buda buffalo--now long extinct but once upon a time they were the scourge of the Hungarian countryside.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

J! and I often use this space to describe our adventures here in Deutschland, but I've realized over the past few weeks that we rarely discuss issues particular to Germany. In an effort to rectify that, I'll try occasionally to post German news items that don't make it across the Atlantic. It'll be great! You can impress your friends and non-dotde-readers with your incredible erudition and knowledge of obscure contemporary German events!

Two recent tidbits caught my eye that might be of interest to some of you . . . or not.

A Spanish artist named Santiago Sierra has touched a justifiably sensitive nerve by converting an old, retired synagogue into gas chamber in Pulheim, Germany. Sierra rigged the exhaust pipes from six cars to funnel carbon monoxide into the synagogue:
Visitors wearing breathing equipment were allowed inside the synogogue one at a time in the company of a fireman to spend a couple of minutes walking around the carbon-monoxide filled room.
Sierra has defended his art installation as bringing awareness to the ways in which the Holocaust is traditionally remembered, suggesting that Holocaust memorials in general are not shocking enough, and also to how we "perceive guilt." Critics argue that the installation addresses the victims more than it does the perpetrators.

This isn't Sierra's first controversial piece of art. Those interested can find more info here and here (the second link's in German).

On a brighter note, Germany is now considering 24 hour shopping! This will make Wal-Mart so happy!! For those who don't regularly catch up on the state of the German economy--things are bad. Germany is still recovering from unification between East and West, dealing with heavy burdens from their social system (national healthcare, social security, etc.), and unemployment is the heighest since 1933 (12.6% total, 10.4% in the west and 20.7% in the east). The election last fall, which brought Angela Merkel into power, was seen as potentially heralding in an era of massive economic and social reforms in Germany. Whether this will actually happen is uncertain still, but the expansion of store hours is at least one sign that German states are interested in deregulation. 10 of 16 German states are thinking about allowing stores to remain open for 24 hours (currently German stores must close by at least 8 pm on work days and cannot open on Sundays or major public holidays). Some states are talking about possibly letting stores alter their hours during World Cup and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is even considering allowing stores to open for limited hours on Sunday! All other German states, however, probably won't be doing anything that drastic in the near future.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Yes, we did enjoy our trip to the Frankfurt Botanical Gardens, and we look forward to returning in fairer weather. And while it was a satisfactory experience, there is still a much sinister aspect of these gardens that mandates investigation. Here are some fine pieces of photojournalism D wasn't willing to risk her Press Pass to publish:

Foreground: Daffodils. Background: Marijuana crop

Foreground: sticks and flowers. Background: Man and woman making a secret deal for that bag of "seed" (my apologies for the poor photograph-being discovered in such an environment may cost one one's life).

How easily a tourist germinates from perennial to annual. These two have already been exhibited in the gardens for three years and counting (note the colors of the man's sweater as totally 2003)...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

To celebrate (we hope) the coming of spring, J! and I traveled to far off Frankfurt this weekend and visited the beautiful Botanical Gardens there. Unfortunately, spring hadn't yet arrived to the park grounds. But inside, the greenhouses were steaming with exotic palms, orchids and even a few flowering cacti. Even better, we got there just in time to enjoy the second to last day of the "Schmetterlinge Flugshow" [Butterfly Show!]. The main exhibition hall also had a a gorgeous display of tulips and hyacinths--an incredible contrast to the wind, rain and clouds outside.

There weren't too many Schmetterlinge left, I have to say. J! even spotted a small butterfly carcass near one of the entrances but luckily I don't think any of the little kids around us noticed. Still, the remaining live butterflies were really beautiful. I've never been to a butterfly show before and I'd love to go when there are more of them. Most of the butterflies didn't actually move too much, which surprised me. I figured they'd be flitting around all over the place, but maybe old age was setting in. In fact, I only spotted one moving at all, and that one seemed to be picking a fight with one of the flourescent lightbulbs near the ceiling.

In other dotde news, J! and I are heading out to Budapest on Friday! I've never been before and I'm quite excited about it. Turkish baths and massages all weekend long! And probably some "cultural" stuff, too.

J!, excited about the banana tree behind him. It even had wee bananas on it!

So pretty!

Someday I'll have a yard like this.

Tulips and daffodils!

And some . . . heads. Just in time for spring!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Here in Mainz, a "temperate zone" in Deutschland, the winters are relatively mild--it snows, the snow looks pretty, it generally turns to slush as it hits the ground. Sometimes it sticks around for a day or so, hiding out in the shade behind the trash cans, but mostly it just melts immediately. This is really nice snow--I like it.

But I don't really like it in March.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Davis, CA

Mainz, Rheinland-Pfalz

Fortunately, a week's worth of snow is almost gone after two days of rain. They tell me it will get better by Easter. At least, that's what the Germans here say. Our lovely American pal, Je, let out that last year she was still wearing sweatpants in July. If anyone wants to mail us some sun here at dotde, we're happily accepting donations.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Happy Belated* Birthday to Nathan E. Milos, 20% of Cinco De Milos, coordinator of the Voorhies F(riend)-Bombs, and rapid completor of his Phd in English (nevermind that first book of poems). Shown here rocking out with a toaster oven, Nathan is both a friend and nemesis, as I look forward to heading back to Davis, California to regain my lead in our Major-League-Baseball-2006-for-Playstation-2 competitive series.

*our apologies, Milos, for not hitting this on the actual date. Just spent two nights sleeping in a gym somewhere in Northern Germany. My team soundly qualified for German National Indoors, if that's any consolation. Your present, by the way, will arrive a month or two late. But we here at Dotde promise satisfaction.