Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ode to a Pocketknife

Every boy, even a Bloggerboy, needs a pocketknife. I don't remember my earliest knives, but I remember several instances of relatives or family friends giving me small pocketknives when I was a boy. Even as an adult, I have received knives as gifts. One of my friends who is a hunter has given me a couple of small knives over the years, insisting each time that I give him a coin to fend off bad luck. The pocketknife that I have owned the longest and used most often is an Opinel No. 8. I believe that it is only the second Opinel that I have owned. I may have bought my first Opinel as early as the age of 18. In any event, I know for certain that I owned one by the time I was 23 and have had one ever since. There were periods when I frequently carried my Opinel in my pocket for reasons unclear to me then and now. In more recent times, I use it as a picnic knife even though we always pack utensils when we go on a picnic. Whenever we go to France, I try to remember to bring along my Opinel for a return trip to its homeland. The knife is very inexpensive.  The soft carbon steel needs frequent sharpening and tarnishes quickly, but for picnics or simple cutting chores it works just fine. Long before I knew that "Design" could be an art form, I knew that there was something special about my Opinel, a certain frisson, pardon my French, that I felt when looking at it or holding it in my hand. The beechwood grip fits perfectly in my hand and is pleasing to the eye. The blade also has a simple but pleasant shape. The knife is quite simple, consisting of only four parts and a rivet. Just add a ripe cheese and fresh bread and cut. The logo printed on the knife handle and engraved on the blade, "the crowned hand" (La Main Couronnée), reverberates deeply in my core brain, conjuring up images of knights, round tables and swordfights. For anyone familiar with the Opinel knife, this is a funny image, because the knife's blade-locking mechanism – a sliding ring collar -- barely holds the blade fixed for the simplest cutting chores, much less stabbing or hacking. I've cut myself more than once with my Opinel when I had not twisted the locking collar tightly enough, and the blade collapsed on my knuckles. The thought of using such a knife to defend oneself is laughable. That does not explain the strange feeling of comfort that a guy has carrying a pocketknife, even an Opinel, in his pocket. (I'm sure a feminist or psychologist could have a field day with this post.)

Now that I've sung my own song of praise for the Opinel knife, I'll let Wikipedia and the official Opinel website do the rest.

The Opinel knife was invented by Joseph Opinel in about 1895. By the start of World War II as many as 20 million had been sold. The company is still run by the Opinel family. There is an Opinel Museum (Le Musée de l'Opinel) at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. The elegant curve of the blade is a traditional Turkish design known by the term yatağan (cf. yatagan sword), while the flare at the base of the handle accommodating the tip of the blade is referred to as a fishtail. Opinels come in eleven sizes numbered from 2 to 13, numbers 1 and 11 having been discontinued in 1939. Number 8 (an 8.5cm blade) is perhaps the most popular and convenient size for general purpose use. The Opinel knife has long been a feature of everyday French culture. In fact the word opinel can even be considered to have entered the language, as its inclusion in the Collins–Robert French–English Dictionary implies.

In 1985 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London put on a “Good Design Guide” exhibition, a collection of the “100 most beautiful products in the world”. One of those products was the Opinel knife. It also is exhibited by the New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) as a masterpiece of design, alongside other industrial objects which have defied time. The simple design has remained virtually unchanged for a century. Some owners even use their knives as raw materials for their own creative efforts, decorating the wooden handle with pokerwork or carving it into designs of their own invention.

As to the origins of the symbol of the crowned hand, in 1565 King Charles IX of France had ordered every master knife-maker to place an emblem on his products to guarantee their origin and quality. In order to prevent counterfeits, the stamps had to be registered in a ‘safe place’, in the Police Lieutenant’s registry for Paris, at the guild headquarters or the home of the oldest Master or Juror for knife-making centers. They had to be stamped on a slab of copper, lead or silver, as proof of registration and in order to keep an imprint in the event of dispute. Respecting this tradition, Joseph Opinel chose as his emblem "The Crowned Hand”. The right hand, known as a hand raised in blessing, with three fingers straight and two fingers folded, figures on the coat of arms of the town of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. A silver hand raised in blessing, on an azure background, clad in the same. Since the 6th century, the cathedral has housed a shrine, where the faithful may worship, containing three fingers from the hand of Saint John the Baptist, brought back from Alexandria in Egypt by a young girl from Maurienne, named Thecla. The crown placed above the hand recalls the fact that the Savoie region was once a Duchy.

Photos:  Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 28, 2009


As in most cities, cheap space for artists in Frankfurt is at a premium. Unlike Berlin, with its cheap, former-east-sector neighborhoods, there are very few neighborhoods near the center of Frankfurt with the potential to become the next trendy spot. It is, therefore, encouraging to find that a local real estate company cheaply leased a vacant building to a charitable organization for use as artist ateliers, lecture halls, etc. The owner invested some funds in renovation and guaranteed a five-year occupancy. The space is called Atelierfrankfurt. The building is fairly run down but has high ceilings and a grand old stairwell. It is right nextdoor to the construction site of a new tower near the trade fair grounds. The owner, Vivico Real Estate, is developing part of a large, mixed-use development on an adjacent site, fomerly the freight train station and yards, known as the Europaviertel. Presumably, the Atelierfrankfurt site will become part of the Europaviertel project at a later date. Until then, it is a neat space for artists in the heart of town. Now, the heads of Germany's leading banks can, if so inclined, walk down the street on their lunch hour and visit real artists making real art, and then return to their offices to make virtual money in the afternoon. There are 45 spaces available. A couple of ateliers are reserved for visiting foreign artists. Also of interest are impromptu "cook-off" events held in a makeshift kitchen / cantina that is located on the ground floor. Creative types who either have their own restaurants or love cooking, put together an evening of cheap food, cheap alcohol and loud music.  A few weeks ago on a quiet Saturday afternoon, I walked down to the Atelier and looked at some of the exhibits, enjoying in particular some of the video displays.

Exterior View
Exterior Showing Tower Construction Site
This stairwell is a work of art, too.
There were two video displays running in this room.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What a Great Idea?

As has been widely reported here in Europe, from September 1, 2009, it will be illegal to import conventional pearl or frosted bulbs of any shape or wattage. Traditional incandescent bulbs of 100 watts will also be banned under European law aimed at reducing energy bills and carbon dioxide emissions. They will be replaced by energy saving lights, which usually use flourescent tubes, but it is thought some consumers will still prefer their 'traditional' bulbs, particularly for reading lamps.

I need lots of light to read. My eyes aren't all that great. I'm being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. This one really hurts. Dirigisme is alive and well in the EU. (Photo source: Wiki Commons.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Green Belt Bike Trail / Grüngürtelradweg

(Did you notice it took four English words and only one German word for the title? Try saying Grüngürtelradweg four or five times quickly. I've been having trouble saying it clearly once.) This year the city completed its 75 km bike trail around Frankfurt. Here is a link showing the approximate route. It utilizes existing trails along the Main and Nidda rivers but now includes an interesting stretch to the northeast and east of city center (primarily Bergen-Enkheim and Fechenheim). Today I completed the parts of the trail that I had yet to ride. I picked up the trail at the Niddapark just north of Ginnheim using my traditional route to get there. From there I headed northeast along the Nidda towards Bad Vilbel. At Berkersheim the trail diverted from the Nidda to wind through the outskirts of Bergen-Enkheim and back along the Main past Fechenheim and Offenbach. I never found these parts of Frankfurt to be particularly interesting, but I have to concede the error of my ways. The picture shows the famous view of Frankfurt from the Lohrberg, one of the hills just west of Bergen. What particularly impressed me were the size of the local woods between city sections. The trail skirted between the Bad Vilbeler woods (Vilbeler Wald) and Bergen along a high route with a great view over the woods. Then, the trail descended steeply towards the Main through the Enkheimer and Fechenheimer woods, which also are joined by the Bischofheimer woods to the east, making for a fairly large contiguous area. There were all sorts of fruits ripening in the hills around Bergen-Enkheim -- apples, plums, elderberry, etc. -- and numerous old orchards were scattered along the trail. This trip was real work, because there was a steep climb from Berkersheim to Bergen-Enkheim. The reward was coasting down to the Main from one of the highest points in Frankfurt (save the nearby Taunus hills). This portion of the trail took me about 3.5hours with occasional short pauses. The trail was well-marked except for one gap just before Bergen.

It looks as if there may be a storm brewing this evening, but the weather has been superb since Friday, so I'm glad I got out and rode. The summer is quickly drawing to a close. Usually, the air changes shortly before the beginning of September, and you know that fall is coming. I want to enjoy these next couple of weeks of high summer in Frankfurt on my bike.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Elder Mother

Reading up on elderberries got me headed down an interesting trail involving the folklore surrounding the elder tree. The Elder Mother is an elder-guarding being in English and Scandinavian folklore known by a variety of names, such as the Danish Hyldemoer ("Elder-Mother") and the Lincolnshire names Old Lady and Old Girl. The Mother Hulda (or Frau Holle) of German folklore is often seen as a variant on the same folkloric being, due to her connection with the elder and the similarity of her name.

It was said until recent times in various parts of England and Scandinavia that to take wood from the elder tree one would have to ask the Elder Mother first, or else ill luck would befall the woodsman. The woodsman would have to ask the Elder Mother:

"Old girl, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when I grow into a tree."

There is also the legend that babies should not be placed in cradles made of Elder, or Hyldemoer would drag the child out by the ankles. Elder wood should not be made into house furniture either for similar reasons. One such story of the Elder Mother's revenge concerns a writer early in the 20th century. When calling in on the mother of a sick child, the mother told him:

"It were all along of my maister’s thick ‘ead. It were in this ‘ow't’ rocker comed off t'cradle, and he hadn’t no more gumption than to mak’ a new ‘un out on illerwood (elder wood) without axing the Old Lady’s leave, and in course she didn’t like that, and she came and pinched the wean that outrageous he were a’most black in t’ face; but I bashed un off, and putten an eshen on, and the wean is gallus as owt agin."

In Denmark, an elder twig put in the mouth was traditionally thought to drive out evil spirits and thus could cure toothache. Also in Denmark, if you were to stand under an elder on Midsummer's Eve you could see the Elf-king and his host. A similar tradition existed in Scotland where it was said to happen on All Hallows or Samhain.

In England, it was thought that the elder tree could never be hit by lightning and that carrying the twigs of an elder could protect their bearer from rheumatism. Farmers used to protect their animals from evil by placing a cross made from elder on their cow-sheds and barns.

In some Slavic countries, such as Russia, it is thought that the tree had the power to ward off evil. In Sicily, it was claimed to have the power to ward off snakes.

It was auspicious if an elder tree was growing near one's dwelling, especially if it had seeded itself there. The elder's place traditionally was at the back door, to keep evil spirits and other negative influences from entering the home. The aroma exuded by the elder's leaves has long been known to repel flies, so this folklore may have been borne out of the need to keep such insects, and the diseases that they carried, away from the kitchen and food. Bunches of leaves were hung by doorways, in livestock barns, and attached to horses' harnesses for the same reason. Elder was traditionally planted around dairies, and it was thought to be effective in keeping the milk from 'turning'. Cheese cloths and other linen involved in dairying were hung out to dry on elder trees, and the smell they absorbed from the leaves may have contributed to hygiene in the dairy. Elder trees also were traditionally planted by bake houses in order to prevent the devil from being folded in with the bread dough –this also apparently is where the tradition of putting a cross in the top of the loaf before baking came from. Loaves and cakes were put out to cool under the elders. Any foods left out overnight under an elder however were considered a gift to the faeries.

In common with many other native trees and plants with potent pagan associations, the elder subsequently had negative Christian legends associated with it, to suppress earlier beliefs. The elder was doubly cursed as being the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself, as well as being one of several trees 'accused' of having supplied the wood for the Crucifixion Cross (oak and aspen being other popular culprits).

Notwithstanding these negative beliefs, elder continued to be put to such a wide range of medicinal uses that the mediaeval herbalist John Evelyn called it "a kind of Catholicon against all Infirmities whatever". Even today it is believed that elderberry concentrate may speed up the recovery period from certain flu viruses.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hard Times

Writing about the Recession Road Trip below got me thinking about the book to which I compare most attempts to describe the current recession: Hard Times, an Oral History of the Great Depression, by the late great Studs Terkel. Terkel's oral histories appeared in book form, some taken from his radio show interviews, but you also can listen to many of the interviews on the Web. Here is a link to a source for some of the interviews from Hard Times: Recordings from Hard Times.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

European Elderberry / Holunder (Sambucus nigra)

August and September are the months for elderberries. Mrs. Bloggerboy and I went for a bike ride along the Main yesterday and picked elderberries. (Well, I spotted the trees, and Mrs. Bloggerboy picked the berries that she wanted.) The berries are just now ripe enough, but many bunches still had too many green berries to pick. This is not stuff you learn at the university. Hardly had we left Frankfurt on the Sachsenhausen side of the Main River toward Höchst, and we started to find elder trees along the bike path. It would seem that elders grow best along rivers or other waterways. We drove past innumerable trees full of ripening elderberries in the immediate vicinity of the Main, but the minute the bike trail moved away from the river, the trees disappeared. You could tell that some of the lower-hanging fruit already had been picked, but, compared to the empty blackberry bushes that grow along the same route, it was clear that the elderberry is not as popular as the blackberry. That is interesting, because I can remember how popular the elderberry was among older Germans. The flowers are turned into a sirup, and the berries into juice and fruit spread. The sirup and juice generally are mixed with sparkling water to drink in the warmer months.

We were on the trail for about three hours but already had filled a large plastic shopping bag with elderberries before we reached Höchst. This morning the real work began, removing the berries from their stems, cooking and straining them, and preparing the jelly. [The homemade jelly is thicker and less translucent than what one might understand under the term jelly -- more like a jam but made only from fruit juice. The Germans often call all sorts of fruit spreads Marmelade, but in the English-speaking realm, "marmalade" generally only refers to fruit spreads made from citrus fruit. The EU adopted the English terminology for labeling, so the product now correctly would be called Gelee in Germany.] I've lost track of how many different kinds of spreads Mrs. Bloggerboy made this summer, but the supply should hold out well into next year. The past few weeks I've spread my breakfast rolls with homemade plum butter, red and black currant jelly, and strawberry preserves. The currants and plums come from a family garden. Some of the other fruits are store-bought if the freshness and price are right.

Warning: The green leaves and twigs of the European elder tree (Black Elder) and the seeds of the red elderberry, more common in North America, are known to be toxic.

Photo credit to Jonathunder (Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Recession Road Trip

I wanted to provide a link to an interesting series of articles about the current state of the U.S. as it moves through the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. The Atlantic's Christina Davidson is traveling around the country and writing about people she meets in a series entitled Recession Road Trip. She meets with people from all sorts of backgrounds, not all of whom are doing poorly. I particularly admire her for attempting within the restrictions of her medium to get below the surface of people's lives and to reflect on larger trends and themes. Check it out.

My friend Candy (see blog list) mentioned another site sponsored by the director David Lynch that involves a similar road trip with interviews in video format. It is called the Interview Project. The videos make for an interesting comparison with Davidson's articles. The Interview Project focuses almost entirely on poor or working class persons and clearly harks back to the days of the Great Depression, e.g., with the opening "Radio Days" atmosphere.

Not being in the States, I wonder if harking back to the Great Depression provides Americans with a sense of comfort, e.g., "we made it through a worse period not too long ago, so we'll make it through this time, too." As the world economy starts to regain momentum we still need to keep in mind that unemployment probably will continue to rise for several months to come. For people close to the edge, the next year or two probably is/are going to continue to be challenging.

The photo above comes from the website