Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wirsing (Savoy Cabbage) -- Brassica oleracea var. sabauda

Also known as chou de Milan

Mrs. Bloggerboy recently purchased a fresh, perfect Savoy Cabbage.  Although you can find Savoy Cabbage year-round here, fall and winter are classic times to buy the vegetable.  It is rich in vitamins and minerals.  Part of our Savoy Cabbage was used as soup greens for a stew with potatoes, carrots & chicken.  The rest was cooked in butter with heavy cream, nutmeg, salt & pepper added and served as a side dish.  The aroma is much milder than for regular cabbage.  The flavor is similar to but less bitter than chard (Mangold) and goes well with heartier fall and winter dishes.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Gallery of Cold War Players

I always loved the passage in the the Book of Matthew where the genealogy of Jesus gets traced back to David and Abraham.  The Cold War has roots going back before World War II, and, when thinking about the cold war, one might benefit from reading up on US history at least as far back as the First Red Scare.

Luigi Galleani

Alexander Mitchell Palmer

Felix Frankfurter

J. Edgar Hoover

Alger Hiss

Ethel & Julius Rosenberg

Joseph McCarthy

Richard Nixon

Ronald Reagan (speaking out against socialized medicine!)

Arthur Miller

Edward R. Murrow

Earl Warren

What strikes me in putting together this gallery is that, in spite of all the ups and downs, each red scare caused resistance against overreaction to arise that often played itself out in the courts and that resulted, directly or indirectly, in an amazing expansion of civil rights that eventually paved the way for our modern society.  I can still remember separate bathrooms and water fountains in the South in the early Sixties, so I don't take this kind of development for granted.  Still, it doesn't hurt to go back and have a critical look at the actors to see what roles they played in the drawn-out fight against communism.  Sometimes the old cold warriors also turn out to be capable of being peacemakers, in spite of their flaws.

As usual, thanks to Wikimedia Commons for all the great pics!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Defending Ho

I really was politically out of it in my youth. It took me a long time to get on top of things. This may have to do with the fact that both of my parents were the only children of immigrant parents, and that we had moved off into wider America to pursue our fortunes. My parents did not discuss politics with me. I had no older siblings. We subscribed to Life Magazine and National Geographic. I found the half-naked African tribeswomen pictured in National Geographic more interesting than politics, although I do recall being interested in the photojournalism in Life.

The first important political issue that I can recall that bubbled up in the South was school integration in the mid-Sixties. I can recall rumblings of dissatisfaction on the playground at the prospect of forced busing. In the second half of the Sixties, Vietnam became more of an issue, but, again, I had little information and no opinion on the subject. So, one day around 1973, our political science teacher decided to let us practice our debating techniques and chose the Vietnam War as the debating topic. Did I volunteer or was I picked to represent North Vietnam in the debate? I don't recall. I do recall spewing out a moving defense of an indigenous people's rights to self-determination. Who knows where I got this stuff from, but I obviously had a certain talent for projecting rhetorical pathos and had soaked up enough of the antiwar sentiment of the day to bring it into the debate.  The class voted, and North Vietnam won. I sat down after the vote, and one of my friends who sat next to me sneered and called me a "commie". So began my slow initiation into things political. I later went through a long phase of having an opinion on every current political topic and on many historical issues.

Looking back, somewhere between Korea and Vietnam I have the impression that Cold War logic got the upper hand in US foreign policy and snowballed.  We appear to have adopted the French colonial position in Vietnam, complete with pre-packaged enemies, without taking a differentiated look at the local situation. (Don't forget, one of America's big post-war projects was the dismantling of colonial structures -- remember Suez?)  Was it inevitable that North Vietnam would become a Sino-Soviet proxy? Where would Vietnam be today if we had cut some sort of deal with Ho back in the early Sixties and tried to work with him? Was the communist threat in Asia critical to the success of the Cold War in Europe? These are areas that, for lack of time, I will never systematically explore. I love to hear other people's opinions, but I've reached a point where I no longer feel compelled to have one of my own. That is one of the most liberating feelings, let me tell you: not feeling compelled to have an opinion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gross / Net

We got to talking about health care over at 27th street, and I thought I'd put together a spreadsheet based on worker salaries so that you can get an idea of what health care costs in Germany under the "public option".  The public option is mandatory for anyone making below the Social Security ceiling, which is about EUR 48,600 in 2009.  Above that level of earnings, if you are young, single, and healthy, private insurance may offer better care for less money, but, depending on which group of insureds you get in with, the costs may go up substantially as you get older.  The spreadsheet lists two calculations for each income level except the highest.  The Tax Class III would be for a married person who is the main breadwinner.  Tax Class V results in higher income taxes for the second earner to take into account the higher progressive tax rates for additional earnings.  The income tax amounts are recommended withholding. The actual income tax bill will vary depending on individual deductions, etc.  Similar to the US, Social Security and Unemployment are paid 50% each by the employer and employee up to a ceiling amount that is adjusted each year.  Additionally, health and long-term care insurance are also paid 50% each up to a ceiling amount. 

The real benefit of the public option in Germany is that children in school and non-working spouses are covered with the breadwinner's premiums.  If you convert these numbers into Dollars at the current exchange rate, you might distort the costs, because the Dollar is badly undervalued right now.  I'd recommend a purchasing power parity (PPP) conversion rate of no more than EUR 1 = USD 1.25.  Arguably PPP is closer to 1.10 to 1.20.  Finally, if you are self-employed, you have to pay both the employer and employee share of insurance.  The percentages shown in parentheses are the total percentages that are split between employer and employee.

Although the German insurance seems reasonable, it can add up quickly.  A working couple each earning the average salary of EUR 41,000 with no children ends up having to pay an annual premium of almost EUR 6,500.00, or roughly USD 8,000.00 at PPP.  That does not include the employer share.  And a self-employed single person with net income at the average earnings level has the same USD 8,000.00 annual bill, because he has to pay the full 14.9% as opposed to one-half.
I'll post later on the quality of health care and the quality of the public option coverage.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Trick or Treat – Or One More Reason to Learn a Foreign Language

It was early 1953, and the Korean War was still going on. Dad got drafted. Dad could speak a bit of German. Dad was one of the few draftees in his group who got to go to Germany instead of Korea. Of course, Dad’s mission was a suicide mission if the Russians ever decided to attack, because he was stationed near the border, and his group was guarding the Fulda Gap.

The Fulda Gap was one of the two most likely routes of invasion from the East, having been used by Napoleon as a retreat route from Russia. Frankfurt sits in a hole, and the invasion route through the Fulda Gap would lead directly to the crown jewel of the US V Army Headquarters and Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt. If the Russians did not encounter substantial resistance at the Fulda Gap, they could have their tanks in Frankfurt in 48 hours or less and be able to cross the Rhine shortly after that at a relatively narrow crossing near Mainz.

Dad was an x-ray technician in a medical unit attached to the 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment, a tank outfit. Although at later phases in the Cold War the Army puffed that they were in a position to defend the Fulda Gap and hold it, back then Dad’s outfit had instructions to hold the line for 24 to 48 hours. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it also has come out that the realistic 24 to 48 hours was all that the Army expected even in later days, and that the Soviet Union indeed would most likely have invaded through the Fulda Gap, AND that it most likely would have used nuclear weapons had it invaded. A lot of ifs, I know, but 1953 was one of those years when suddenly everything seemed up in the air. Russian pilots had been engaging in dog fights with American pilots over Korea in a proxy war that came very close to going nuclear. Apparently, Eisenhower hinted to the Chinese and Russians in 1953 that if a truce was not reached within a short time, the next offensive northwards would not stop at the Chinese border and that nuclear weapons might be used. That threat from a former allied commander, combined with Stalin's death, might just have brought about the armistice later in 1953.

I got to visit Fulda in 1973 with the family. That was the closest I had been to the iron curtain. I had no idea what thigs were like on the other side of the border and little curiosity at the time. At one point we went to an air field near Fulda where hobby gliders were launched using a cable wound onto a winch. The launch direction was in the direction of the border. Our escort, a German doctor who had worked with Dad in Fulda, told us that the pilots had to be careful not to head too far east for fear of crossing into the DDR. Today, there is a memorial and museum near the former border called Point Alpha. The website has some more information about the significance of the Fulda Gap, etc. (the internal links at the website aren't fully functional; try the site map if you get stuck).

In the end, Dad spent more time drinking good beer than he did confronting Russians, but don't say that the Bloggerboy family did not make a contribution during the cold war.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Film is like psychotherapy.

Early in the “animated documentary film” Waltz with Bashir, one of film-maker Ari Folman's friends is portrayed sitting in a bar with Folman, complaining about his nightmares from the Lebanon War in the early Eighties in which they both fought. Folman cannot remember any details from that period … until he goes to bed. He wakes up in a cold sweat after having a dream about being in Beirut during the Sabra and Shatila massacre. In the middle of the night, he is back in a bar asking another friend from the war for advice. The friend recommends that Folman talk to other people who were in Beirut at the time and, maybe even make a film about it. “Film is like psychotherapy”, the friend says. Based on interviews with Folman that I’ve read since seeing the film, I don’t think that he is a big fan of psychotherapy, even though he obviously consulted a psychotherapist to get over his own war traumas, and even though he included scenes of his psychotherapy sessions in the film. I certainly hope that Folman exorcised his personal demons in telling his story. He certainly left behind a remarkable work of art that tests the limits of an animated film's expressive range.  Maybe his friend was right.

The film deserves comparison to another successful animated film from French-Iranian artist Marjane Sartrapi, Persepolis (released in Germany in 2007). Both films are timely, political and moving. The animation in Persepolis is sparse, almost childlike, corresponding well with the child’s perspective of the film at the beginning. Folman, whose background is documentary filmmaking, chose animation in order to be able to include powerful dream and flashback sequences. His animation is much more detailed than the animation of Persepolis, but no attempts are made to trick the audience into thinking that they are seeing real pictures. In fact, Folman switches suddenly to documentary footage of the Beirut massacre scenes (aftermath) at the end of his film to shock the audience and to reinforce the reality of the events that took place. I really liked the black and gold chiaroscuro tones of Folman’s night scenes.  In spite of my high praise for these animated films, one does realize that animation has its limits, namely, communicating the warmth that radiates from the faces of real people on screen.

The Lives of Others

I was browsing Timothy Garton Ash's website (see post below) and came across an excellent film review / essay by Ash which appeared in The New York Review of Books about the Academy Award-winning film The Lives of Others.  Since the film's topic meshes well with my cold war theme, I'm linking to the essay as a lazy way to get my film notes rubric up and running and to continue my discussion of the upcoming anniversary.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Streitfreudige Kleingärtner -- The Cold War Series Continued

Recently, John, one of the visitors to this blog, asked about the future of German-US relations now that the CDU and FDP were going to be running things.  I found the following article to contain excellent observations about the current state of German-American diplomatic relations as they relate to Russia, and Russia is a key to how Germany and the US will get along in the future.  The article is entitled   Can Berlin and Washington Agree on Russia? By Steph F. Szabo.  Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Washington Quarterly • 32:4 pp. 2341.  Szabo is the executive director of the Transatlantic Academy, an independent research institution that is located at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.  He has very astute observations about Germany and Russia and the German people's views on Russia, some of which are counterintuitive.

Talking about pugnacious allotment gardeners (streitfreudige Kleingärtner), I see that the debate about who gets the credit for winning the Cold War is still raging on.  According to sources cited in Szabo's article, during one of their meetings Condi Rice and Frank-Walter Steinmeier "disagreed strongly over the causes of the fall of the Soviet Union, with Steinmeier declaring it the result of détente policies and Rice crediting it as the fruit of Western strength."  (Sounds like a classic case of good cop / bad cop to me.)

If you are interested in this subject, I highly recommend Timothy Garton Ash's book In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent.  Ash, a British historian, is one of the world's leading experts on the Cold War in Eastern Europe.  He observed the building revolution at close range over a period of many years.  Check out his website, too.  He draws balanced conclusions about Germany's Ostpolitik, not all of which are positive.  Check out this fascinating article at his website on Britain's reaction to pending German reunification after the fall of the wall.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beekeeping and Farming in Chicago

I was indulging in an afternoon "Kaffeetrinken" (with Kuchen of course) and checked out the show "Auslandsjournal", a TV news magazine with stories from abroad.  [Query to any Germany experts out there: is it possible to have a Kaffeetrinken by oneself?  I suspect that company is what it takes to turn Kaffee_trinken into Kaffeetrinken.]  One of the reports came from Chicago and reported on a man named Steven Slaughter and his wife who not only keep chickens in their yard in Andersonville (?) but also keep bees on the roof of a nearby church.  After the show I googled Mr. Slaughter but could not find a direct website or personal blog, but I did find two interesting sites at which he had posted:  1.  Chicago Bee Blog; and 2.  Chicago Honey Co-op.  So, after my breathless reporting about "capital A" Artists making honey in Frankfurt, those down-to-earth midwesterners are giving us a run for our money.  Gotta compare the honey prices.  But our Bee Journal certainly will be hard to beat.

The report also included footage from a city block somewhere in Chicago that had been set aside for gardening.  I've seen similar reports about such projects in New York as well.  When I visited the website of the Auslandsjournal linked to above, there was a picture of Michelle Obama in the White House Victory Garden.  Germans will find all of this familiar, because of the widespread availability of allotment gardens (Schreber- or Kleingärten) here.  Most urban Germans live in apartments or townhouses that do not have large yards, so the cities often provide allotment gardens to individuals or clubs (Vereine) at reasonable rents where families can put up a shed or small garden house, plant flowers, trees (including fruit trees), or other fruits or vegetables, and generally get to spend time outdoors during the sunny months for rest, recreation, cookouts, etc.  Of course, most allotment gardens are grouped together in a tract that is run by a club, and there are detailed club rules to abide by, and the neighbors sometimes get a bit nosy or even bossy.  Just add a few garden gnomes and stir.  The potential for strife is unlimited.  There is an expression here to describe someone who likes to bicker as a "streitfreudiger Kleingärtner" (roughly "pugnacious allotment gardener"), proving the abundance of such types in the allotment gardens throughout Germany.  I'm sorry if this sounds dismissive, because deep down I kind of like these allotment gardens.  Every time I ride past a particularly peaceful or well-kept garden colony on my bike, I start to fantasize about having my own allotment garden.  I'd grill on weekends, snooze in the garden under a fruit tree, and read.  If I could just find someone to do the yard work.  Did I already tell you that I really hate yard work?

Update:  The Chicago Honey Co-op sells a 6 oz jar of honey for USD 7, about EUR 4.70.  The MMK sells a 250 gram jar of honey for EUR 4.50.  Using my trusty Bee Honey Conversion Calculator (sic -- just found it), I can tell you that 250 grams comes out to just under 9 oz of honey.  (Don't forget, the Bee Journal is included in the price.)  Ha!  Beat that Chicago.  (I'm just waiting for someone to start griping about the heavily-subsidized European economy.  Who knows how many of my tax Euros go into that jar of honey to keep the price down.  I wonder whether the city beekeepers qualify for EU agriculture subsidies?  Ah well, I never knew that "socialism" could taste so sweet.) 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Wake Up!

Jeez, what hole was I hiding in when this song came out in 1997?  Anouk.  Reminds me of a mix of Cher,  Shakira and Linda Perry.  Mind you, the song came out before Shakira hit the US.  I love that guitar solo.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wind of Change

This song still has an effect twenty years later.  Not that it's a masterpiece, but for every era there often is a song that captures its atmosphere.  I think this song captures the feel of the peaceful 1989 revolution.  The video is framed by references to Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.  The first reference is to the brutally-repressed uprising in 1953 during which Soviet Tanks were used at Potsdamer Platz.  Potsdamer Platz used to be, and again is, one of the major centers, if not the heart of Berlin.  From 1961, the wall ran through its middle.  In the west, it was razed and left empty, used as a flea market on weekends.  In the East, it was a death strip.

Potsdamer Platz 1903

Potsdamer Platz 1945

Potsdamer Platz 1975 - Looking East

Berlin Wall viewed from the West with a Death Strip on the Eastern Side

Picture Sources:  Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where's the Beef (Come From)?

As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a preference for medium-rare hamburgers.  I made a disclaimer about the risks of eating undercooked beef, but this New York Times article really caught my attention.  Reading about how hamburger meat is manufactured in the US, and all the different sources of the ingredients, I can understand how it would be almost suicidal to cook medium rare hamburgers from either frozen or other mass-produced stock.  Most of the butcher sections here grind their beef on location.  Nevertheless, I think I'm going to start asking about the source of the ingredients, just to make sure my supplier is not mixing in fat or other cheap cuts from different sources.

Now, I'll relate a couple of anecdotes about ground meat.  As folks who have lived in Germany are aware, beef (steak) tartar is considered a delicacy in some circles.  I have an American friend who, the last time we got together in an old-fashioned apple wine pub here, ordered beef tartar, consisting of raw ground beef -- and it was served with a raw egg on top.  (I can almost see my American readers cringing.)  You stir in the raw egg and then spread the tartar on a slice of bread.  Yummie. 

Every time I think of beef tartar, I am reminded of my German-born grandparents on my mother's side.  One day many years ago I must have expressed surprise at my grandparents eating raw beef.  My grandfather then explained to me how he did it.  He'd always go to a trusted butcher and ask for some freshly-ground chuck.  Back in the day, the butchers would be glad to oblige.  Just as the butcher was getting started grinding the chuck, my grandfather would change his mind and order ground sirloin instead.  Grandpa then explained to me that the chuck was supposed to clean out the meat grinder so that the ground sirloin would be pure.  I try to imagine the expression on the butcher's face when my grandfather changed his mind after he had already started grinding the chuck.  Me, I'm sure I would ask them to grind some chuck that I could cook for meat loaf or meat sauce and then order the freshly-ground sirloin afterwards and pay for both.  But my grandparents grew up in rougher times and on a limited budget, and I just love to imagine them doing this together in their new home, smirking at one another behind the butcher's back as he started grinding the chuck.

Just the other day, Frau Bloggerboy was interrogating the butcher at our local grocery store about a cut of beef for goulash.  The recommended cut had a fairly thick strip of fat on one side.  My wife asked the butcher to remove the fat to save her the work at home, and the butcher did it with a twist.  He cut enough beef with the fat to make a perfect blend for hamburger and then ground the fat and beef for my wife.  The remainder was packed for goulash.  We would have had to pay for the fat in any event.  This way we got to eat it as hamburger with part of the lean meat.  I thought that was a brilliant idea and, more importantly, it insured that we knew the source of the ingredients in the hamburger.  Presumably, the goulash meat was at least as good as, if not better than, the normal beef that goes into hamburger. 

So, anyhow, I guess what I'm saying is, if you want to live close to the edge, make sure you know where your food is coming from.  Here, just about every neighborhood has at least one butcher shop, and some grocery stores have pretty good butcher sections as well.  Our neighborhood, unfortunately, does not have a good, independent butcher, but then we can walk into town in fifteen minutes and have our pick of several butcher shops, and the butcher at our local grocery store has been properly broken in by Frau Bloggerboy.

Picture Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Cold War Factoids

US Troop Levels in Germany (Army + Air Force):

1945     2,680,860
1946        311,483
1947        124,802
1948        114,550
1949        101,673
1950          98,931
1951        151,324
1952        286,934
1953        284,738
1985        291,212
1998          57,740
2004          69,200

Source:  The Improbable Permanence of a Commitment -- America’s Troop Presence in Europe during the Cold War,  by Hubert Zimmermann.

I found this article fascinating in its details about the ongoing debates in the US and the negotiations with Germany over troop levels.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cold War Baby – Setting the Stage

To get my 20th anniversary series going, I was born during the cold war at the tail end of the baby boom. I grew up with frequent pictures of mushroom clouds and weekly emergency tests on TV. We had regular exercises at school hiding under our desks, and heard daily noontime air raid sirens. I’m not really sure when I became aware of the existence of the Soviet Union, the main source of the threat under which we lived, but I’m sure it was much later. I don’t ever recall being afraid, even during the Cuban missile crisis. I never bothered to ask difficult questions, no adults explained the danger to me, and no one my age discussed cold war politics. By the time I was old enough to focus on politics, Vietnam and Watergate were the newsgrabbers. Looking back, I find it remarkable that we really were not indoctrinated at school about the Soviet Union. Aside from the mandatory pledge of allegiance every morinig (there were years when this was not part of the morning routine), nationalism was not part of our school lives.  I do not recall any unsubtle attempts to instill chauvinism or incite hysteria towards the Soviet Union. I started school well after the McCarthy era. I’d be curious to hear stories of my elders on that topic.

I try to be very unassuming when looking back at times past. I want to understand the times. I resist the temptation to project my modern values on prior generations, because I know that, but for my privileged upbringing in a special time and place, I might be a much different person, and that every human has the capacity for all kinds of behaviour. I watched the films uploaded here, therefore, with interest and not condescension. These kinds of films are played for laughs nowadays, but they are serious.  There is something heartbreaking watching school children practicing for a nuclear attack. I was born well after these films were made, and I don't recall being shown similar films at school or seeing them on TV in the Sixties. These films help me get a feel for the context in which the Cold War began and some of the reactions that it produced in my home country and around the world. Hardly had the Japanese surrendered, and America, the sole superpower (sound familiar), was confronted with an atomic rival with an undemocratic system and, we suspected, expansionist ambitions. I try to imagine soldiers and their families, exhausted after years of war in Europe and the Pacific, looking forward to peace and getting on with their lives, and then being confronted with the harsh reality that a former ally had other plans for the world and that confrontation was pre-programmed, further sacrifice required. I try to imagine the sinking feelings of the people of Eastern Europe who, barely having shaken off one terrible form of tyranny, began to realize that the new occupiers were not only not going to be leaving soon, but that they were going to be imposing a stifling economic and political model on them and brutally purging anyone perceived to be a threat to that system. I try to imagine the claustrophobic feeling of someone living in Berlin when the Soviets cut it off from the rest of the world, or the exhausted and impoverished residents of Western Europe hoping for a bit of peace and prosperity, time to gather themselves up again. What struck me most about the films was their matter-of-fact approach to something that we now regard as unthinkable: atomic hygiene. To a generation that had just witnessed the holocaust and the use of atomic weapons on Japanese cities, I suppose our nervous attempt to suppress reflection about atomic weapons today appear childlike. Mind you, I’m glad humanity for the most part has decided to turn away from the contemplation of actually using nuclear weapons. I hope my descendents and I won’t find ourselves having to deal with atomic hygiene in the future.

So, this is the stage onto which I was cast over fifty years ago. When I look back at those uncertain times, I consider it almost a miracle that my life was so protected and peaceful. What a luxury. I guess I get a bit impatient with people on both sides of the Atlantic who cannot see just how lucky we were to make it through that period without a major (read atomic) confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union or China, or who try to give too much credit to one approach or the other. Reagan did not "win" the Cold War any more than Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik did. It was a long, drawn-out, multi-party effort on numerous fronts.

Films from the Prelinger Archives.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another Anniversary

I’m in a bit of a nostalgic mood these past weeks thinking about my 21st year as an expatriate that is coming to an end. When I talk to people here who were adults in 1989, many just don’t realize what an incredible period they lived through. I want to bear witness to that remarkable period leading up to the first cracks in the iron curtain, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- The Revolutions of 1989, also referred to as the "Autumn of Nations". The next series of posts will help set the stage leading up to my own personal encounter with history. I’ve got a few weeks left, so I’m going to take my time. Forgive me if I meander a bit.

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Anniversary

Twenty years ago today Bloggerboy moved into a furnished apartment in Frankfurt. Just as today's fine October morning, the weather was mild and sunny. Back then, Frau Bloggerboy was finishing up a job in a northern German city, so I had the place to myself for a couple of months. I distinctly remember the day I moved in, the strange but pleasant smells of an apartment that had been lived in for many years by a recently-deceased owner and then rented once or twice to short-term tenants, the look and smell of the thousand books lining shelves throughout the apartment, the unusual chill coming from the tiled floors, and the outdated colors of the Italian tiles -- brown and green. Two months earlier I had met with the deceased owner’s sister and the property manager. The sister was an elderly artist, a potter who made otherworldly pottery and who lived in the Rheingau. The rental market was extremely tight in Frankfurt, and I was getting desperate to find a place to live so that I could head back to the US and make arrangements for our belongings before my new job started in October. Most Americans, myself included until then, have never experienced a tight rental market. On the afternoons that the real estate ads came out in the local Frankfurt newspaper, a line of fifty or more apartment searchers would form at the newspaper's office where the new edition was first available. This was before cell phones, so friends of the searchers would occupy the nearest phone booths to be the first to call about new ads. And I, as a lone American, wet behind the ears and only having a temporary job offer to brag about, was set out in the world to find a place to live for me and my wife. After trying and failing several times to get a lease, I came up with the brilliant idea of asking my German mother-in-law, who lived in Frankfurt, to accompany me on the next apartment visit, thinking that the evidence of local and, more importantly to German landlords, German connections would boost my chances of getting a lease. Well, Schwiegermutti and I drove out to a nondescript townhouse in a second-rate part of town for the next appointment. Fantastic! Bloggerboy would love to live here! Please take me! Turns out that the house owner was a psychologist and that the only thing that interested her was why a grown man would bring along his mother-in-law to an apartment viewing (i.e. no lease).

The first thing that caught my attention about the furnished walk-up apartment, other than its great, central location on a quiet side street, was the books. After greeting the owner and property manager and taking a quick look at the rooms, I went over to one of the shelves in the living room and picked out a book that caught my fancy. I made some comment to the owner about the book. The property manager wandered off to check on something in the kitchen. The gentle owner came up to me and said in her softly-spoken German, “I’ve made up my mind, you can have the place, I think you’d like the books.” Mind you, my love of literature had rarely brought me a material advantage before, only sceptical looks from professionals who could not understand how anyone could devote so much time and attention to the liberal arts. My undergraduate studies in the unemployable arts were a distinct disadvantage in my job searches. My new landlady appeared to me as one of those angels in a Wim Wenders film, radiating inaudible waves of  comfort to a lost soul. As so often in my life when things seemed to have reached a dead end, a person of remarkable character entered my life and helped me achieve the change in direction that I longed for (but often could not articulate). I dedicate this post to the fond memory of the gentle woman who let me stay in her apartment at a point when I was starting to think about abandoning my project. Later, we had many pleasant afternoons drinking coffee with her at our place or out at her home, where you could just catch a glimpse of the Rhine River from her back yard while sitting under a huge cherry tree. I’ll write a bit more about her later.

The day I moved into our new, furnished apartment, I brought in my limited belongings, set them down, and then sat myself down on the antique sofa in the living room that looked out on a tree-lined street and blue skies. I opened the balcony door to enjoy the fresh autumn air, soothing my nerves after the long apartment search and after a thousand-mile truck drive accross the southern United States in late August in a large rental truck that did not have  functioning air conditioning and that backfired loudly every time I turned off the motor. Is there a better feeling than arriving someplace where you feel you belong? After a few minutes on the sofa, I remember saying to myself: “I can imagine staying here for a long time”. As I write this post, I’m looking out the same window at the same trees that are turning a golden brown under a blue sky. All but a few of the books have been replaced by our own books -- still too many for the size of the place.  The outdated tiles are gone.  We own the place now and are raising two kids in it.

And I still have the feeling that I could stay here a lot longer.

Friday, October 2, 2009

City Honey

The history of 20th art certainly will include entries for Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys.  I'm a real neophyte when it comes to art theory, but these two guys each staked out turf around art and its relationship to  modern, commercial society.  Warhol embraced the modern commercial world in a strange, postmodern way.  Beuys, the European, hoped to use art to shape society.  He was particularly famous for his "happenings" [Kunstaktionen] but also dabbled in politics and taught art at the art academy in Düsseldorf.  Quoting Wikipedia:   "it was during the 1960s that Beuys formulated his central theoretical concepts concerning the social, cultural and political function and potential of art. Indebted to Romantic writers such as Novalis and Schiller, Beuys was motivated by a utopian belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential for art to bring about revolutionary change. These ideas were founded in the social ideas of anthroposophy and the work of Rudolf Steiner, of which he was a vigorous and original proponent. This translated into Beuys’s formulation of the concept of social sculpture, in which society as a whole was to be regarded as one great work of art (the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) to which each person can contribute creatively (perhaps Beuys’s most famous phrase, borrowed from Novalis, is ‘Everyone is an artist’). (...)  Amongst other things, Beuys founded (or co-founded) the following political organisations: German Student Party (1967), Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum (1971), Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (1974), and German Green Party Die Grünen (1980). Beuys became a pacifist, was a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons and campaigned strenuously for environmental causes (indeed, he was elected a Green Party candidate for the European Parliament)."

Where was I?  Oh yes, the reason that I started off on a tangent is because the current art group of which I write expressly pays tribute to both Warhol and Beuys in its current project of beekeeping and honey production.  The group's name is "finger".  They call themselves a "production cooperative" [Produktions-gemeinschaft].  I like their website's main page, shown below with link:

According to Volume 2 of finger's newsletter, Bee Journal, the cooperation between artists and beekeepers upon which their project is based dates back to 1985, when a prop manager for the Paris Opera moved the bee colony that he kept at his home outside Paris to the roof of the famous Garnier Opera Building while on vacation.  When he returned, the beehives were dripping with honey.  The bees loved Paris.  As it turns out, cities are great places for bees.  Furthermore, finger draws inspiration from a Beuys installation called The Honey Pump [Die Honigpumpe] at the Documenta 7 in Kassel in 1977 in which 150 kg of honey were pumped through pipes stretching around several rooms.  It is no surprise, then, that Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art ("MMK") made space available on its roof for finger's bees.  (The MMK building also is my favorite piece of modern architecture in Frankfurt, and I'll write about it later.)  You can visit the hives at the MMK, and there is an instructional path on the roof that provides information about the bees and their environment.  For EUR 4.00 you can buy a jar of "city honey" at the museum's front desk and receive the most recent issue of the Bee Journal as part of the deal, which includes poems and stories relating to bees.  The current issue of Bee Journal also deals at length with the mites that are thought to be the cause of the mass death of honey bees around the world.  Not far from the MMK, finger has it's own storefront and office.  Are we being manipulated?  Sure, this is a playful way to add some energy to  city life at the intersection of art, environment and commerce.  Now, every time I stand on my balcony and see a bee "sniffing" the flowers, I think of the colony on the roof of the MMK.   The more I think about it the more brilliant the idea seems.  The bees create a direct link between the city residents and the museum.  we're all part of the honeycomb.  The revenues from honey sales also support the art group's other projects.  Too bad Andy Warhol is not around to design silk-screened honey jar labels.  Oh yes, the honey tastes great, too.


Images 1 & 2 with permission of finger.
Image 3:  Wikimedia Commons (Eva Kröcher)