Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Well, the Transatlantic Monthly is back online after a brief 7-month hiatus. You know how it is, with moving and all...?
In case you didn't know, it is an election year. Sure, there has been the same-as-usual aligning of Demmies and Republies to their respective champion. But also a surprising number of "flex" votes, as moderates and undecided fence sitters wait until the last debate to hear those elusive magic words from the candidate they will eventually support.
Fortunately, Katie and I have no shades of gray. This election has polarized us politically and maritally - I'll claim the positive charge because I'm writing this, Katie can have the negative charge. I offer up these real life, untouched-up photographs as proof. Katie Douglass is a gun-toting, dark-framed-glasses sporting, dyed-in-the-wool-sweater wearing Sarah Palin disciple. And I, John Douglass, like to spend my free time at farmer's markets hanging out with my multiethnic politico celeb friends Igor and Barack.
My friends, yes we can.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Question: What is red, white and green?
Answer: Besides the Italian flag, a football match in Cologne.
FC Koln, our closest and therefore home team, took on Bayern 1860 in a heated match up. Well, a heated match up for teams in the 2nd Bundesliga, which I guess means that the team is 1 less skilled than teams that play in the 1st Bundesliga. This was our first football match in Europe so we joined in with a group of teachers from the international school around the corner. I had no idea what to expect. After the game, I was "in the know". It helped that quite a few of the chants were the ones we had learned previously during Karneval.
Notable notes: (1) Koln's mascot is a goat named Hennes that wears a red and white scarf, hangs out on the sideline and occasionally has a microphone thrust into his face. The people go nuts when they hear Hennes bleat "maaaaa". It is endearing. (2) Also, the main goalkeeper is a Columbian guy named Mondragon that occasionally lives in Florida. My friend, who was at the game, is a Columbian guy named Cordoba that occasionally lives in Florida too. They are basically the same person, despite the name, vocation, and 1-foot height differential. (3) Katie loves the practicality of plastic beer mugs whose handles can be nested, thereby enabling the carrier to transport 6 mugs per hand.
The game was not terribly exciting, ending up in a 0:0 tie. No shoot-out either. The 47,000 fans walked out of the stadium in Germanic orderliness, so there was little chance of street lamp climbing or flipping over of cars. This was not the stereotypical crazed fan sport that Americans hear of. More like going to a sporting event with friends, cheering on a team, and going out to a pub afterwards. Rioting is played out, anyway.
Monday, March 31, 2008
Now that Karneval has been over for several months, I feel that the air has cleared enough to write about it. Don't be misled, the level at which Katie and I celebrated the holiday was nearly puritanical by German standards. But it was enough for me and my timid American liver.
Karneval is an obsession particular to the Rhine valley and generally not celebrated elsewhere in Germany. The holiday officially begins at 11:11 am on November 11th and ends on Fat Tuesday. I remember this year's November 11th very distinctly - not because I was cracking a beer with my friends - but because at that exact moment I was in front of a congregation delivering a sermon. In the brief dead airspace between points, you could hear distant honking of car horns and people whooping and hollering.
Being that Karneval spanned November 11th to February 5th this year, I was a bit confused. Four months is one major whopping holiday, even by European standards. Everyone kept saying over and over: "It is gonna be awesome." But whenever I asked them exactly when those awesome times would take place, everyone just looked at me and said "Karneval". Perhaps I was being a Dummkopf for trying to contain a spontaneous thing like partying within time limits.
Here's the scoop. After the kickoff on November 11th, the partying is fairly low-key until the Tolle Tage, or crazy days. During this time there is Weiberfastnacht, where the women rule by "taking over" the city hall and perform acts with chilling symbolism, such as cutting the ties off of men. The merrymaking continues into Rosenmontag, or raging Monday, with massive street parades. The following day is Fastnacht, Fasting Night aka Shrove Tuesday, and at sundown the party grinds to a halt as Lent officially begins. Time to repent!
Around 11:00 AM on Rosenmontag, Katie and I put on our costumes (she was a cheerleader and I was a self-made character I like to call Skillet, an 1840's style gold panner) and pedaled into Bonn to meet up with some friends to watch the Umzug, or parade. I greeted a friend with the usual "Hello", who responded with a kind yet stern look. "Hello" sounds too much like "helau", which is the way that they greet each other in Dusseldorf - the sworn enemy of Cologne/Bonn. Furthermore, he explained, to avoid any more cultural mistakes, every self-respecting Bonner uses the Kolsch greeting "alaaf". They also say "Karneval", never calling the holiday "Fasching", which is a Frankfurt thing. (If this regional warfare sounds strange to you, try getting a Pennsylvanian and Ohioan to sort out the whole "pop" versus "soda" thing.)
After picking up a few more friends, we made our way into the old town part of Bonn, where the massive Umzug takes several hours to snake its way through. We stood on the sidewalk as people riding in floats tossed out a remarkable variety of goodies: candy, flowers, ping pong paddles, cigarette lighters, condoms, soccer balls, plastic cutlery, napkins, tissues, individually wrapped sausages, and mini bottles of alcohol. All of these things were constantly raining down on the spectators, so as another ping pong paddle went whizzing past my forehead I decided to give up on defensive maneuvering. Proactively screaming "Carmela" with the rest of the kids, I caught treats in my goldminer's hat.
People around us were in a spectrum of costumes. A large portion of those are dressed as French or Prussian soldiers, which is an throwback and intentionally ironic reference to the soldiers that occupied Cologne in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the celebration of Karneval was prohibited. The rest of the costumes were specific to the age of the bedecked. Older festival goers were dressed as your average run-of-the-mill clowns in baggy, checkered, colored clowny gear. The college grads to retirees ran the whole gamut from oversized party hats to zombie makeup. Perhaps making a social statement, the teenage group tackled the sexual tension of Karneval issue head on by going as cavemen and sexy cats. Meeeow. At one point, a girl who looked about thirteen years old walked past me with a plain white t-shirt, upon which was written in black marker a simple message: EASY AND AVAILABLE. That sight basically reinforced all of my fears about becoming a parent.
After the parade we headed to the Music Box, a pub down the street, to continue the festivities. Inside, hoards of costumed twentysomethings were drinking and participating in Katie's favorite activity... group singalongs! The Karneval songs are all upbeat with simple lyrics that are either about Koln's football club or nothing at all. The speakers blasted the same CD on repeat for the next three hours and gradually the pub filled to the capacity of about 15 people per square meter. I made it as far as learning the motions to a couple songs and inserting the words "drink", "Koln", and "ayyyyy" to tricky choruses. Katie was a shade better, but is a real pro now that she bought the songs on iTunes.
By six o clock the street sweepers had cleaned up the filthy gutters and the diehards were in the pubs, arms around each other and singing the same songs over and over again. Katie and I rode our bikes back home, convinced that the period between Nov 11th and Fat Tuesday really is something to get excited about.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Our last stop on the travel circuit with Katie's parents was Amsterdam. As usual, securing a room for the night was the first order of business so we set the car's GPS to a budget hotel on the outskirts of town. The hotel was full but they arranged for us to rent an apartment down the street for one night. It was minimally furnished and had the same spongy carpet and white walls that was in my friends' first apartments after they moved out of their parents' houses. Once again Katie and I snagged the double bed while Bill and Dorothy slept on the two singles.
Even though the wind chill kept the outside temperature below freezing, there was an extraordinary amount of movement on the streets. Swarms of tourists were wandering around, alternating between examining their guidebooks and squinting at street signs. Locals were easy to spot, as they moved at a much faster pace and didn't have Canadian flag patches stitched to their backpacks. Impervious to the biting wind, the stylishly dressed city dwellers were either running errands with several bags in each hand or walking intently to or from their places of business.
And then there were the bikes. There were at least twenty-five bicyclists for every one car on the road. The rules of traffic in Holland appeared to be more freeform than Germany's, but there are stipulations. First of all, one's bicycle must look like it would be more at home on a dirt road in the Guizhou province. The newer it is the faster it will be stolen. Secondly, one should only be limited in adding accessories to one's bike by the availability of frame space to weld things to - that means crazy utility bicycles with a wheelbarrow attached to the front, a basket on the handlebars, a massive trailer big enough to haul a piano in back, and a few water bottle cages thrown in for good measure. Also, bicycling should, before all else, be a family affair. I saw a woman riding on the side of a busy street with two small helmetless children in kiddie seats behind her and a baby balanced on her lap. (Once I also saw twenty acrobats simultaneously riding a single bicycle, but c'mon, they're professionals.)
We made our tour through the city to hit all of the big spots. The Anne Frank house was moving (emotionally, not literally) and well worth waiting in any line. The Rijksmuseum was undergoing renovations and consequently a good portion of their collection was not on display - I recommend taking a pass until the full exhibits reopen. The Van Gogh museum has a great range of the master's works and some from his friends and influences. The red light district is never more than mildly interesting to all but those people going there for serious intentions. The city of Amsterdam is currently in the process of disassembling that particular center of seediness, which may or may not change anything. In Berlin I saw the "world's oldest profession" practiced with more visibility than anything in Amsterdam.
Whatever happens when you're traveling, new things will be learned. I learned that driving around Amsterdam elevates my stress levels because there are precious few places to park and things pass by too quickly for me to know if it is interesting enough to stop and check out. Dorothy learned the not-so-subtle difference between a coffee shop and a cafe. Based on an informational sign in the window, she also calculated how many grams of magic mushrooms she would have to ingest to take her brain out for a spin. However that was as far as things went, as Dorothy kept in line with her motto about "doing high risk things in a low risk way".
For the final night of our trip, we ate dinner at a nice Dutch restaurant on the outermost canal ring of the city. Katie made Michael Pollan proud by eating a local venison dish, Bill and Dorothy had the hare's leg, and I idiotically opted for the pork satay, which tasted fine but lacked the game chic credentials of my dinner partners' choices. Just as it was everywhere on our five day trip, we were served huge plates of pommes frites (french fries) with our main courses.
On the following day, which happened to be my 27th birthday, we visited a museum and walked around for a little while longer. Then we drove the 3 1/2 hours back to Bonn and ate doner kebabs, a symbolic act to acknowledge that we were finally back in Germany.
Friday, January 18, 2008
What other people have in mind when they visit Belgium is their own business, but I expected to see waffles, mussels, and with some luck, Jean Claude Van Damme. The first two we had in spades while visiting Brussels, the oh so cosmopolitan yet unofficial seat of the EU. Because Brussels is effectively located in Flanders, the language doubles to French and Flemish (local Dutch dialect) and there is a different vibe too. Flanders is generally more wealthy than Wallonie, the tourism industry is more firmly embedded, and people will automatically start talking to you in English before any other language.
Brussels has a beautiful historic centre that is surrounded farther out by a mishmash of glass and steel buildings and crumbly ornate facades. We stood in the Grand Place and turned around in a circle, getting the architectural equivalent of a sampler platter of Gothic and Baroque styles. The city has been very intentional about conserving this landmark square, and even with reconstruction of one of the buildings the overall effect is very harmonious. Every chance he could get, Bill indulged his sweet tooth on the Belgian waffles, or gaufres. We went to a crowded multilevel restaurant on a narrow street and had some lunch. I ordered the moules provençale and was kicking myself for it afterwards, because it took a perfectly good plate of mussels and turned it into nachos by dumping cheese and tomatoes on it. We only needed to follow the gawking tourists to locate the Mannekin Pis, which is a charming little statue of a cherubic boy eternally urinating. Check it out for yourself if you must, just remember that it is no special thing in Europe to see someone peeing in public. I could have easily spent a week wandering around Brussels and sitting in brasseries drinking famous Belgian beers. But the show must go on...
We drove straight from the Ardennes on January 1st to Bruges, where I had reserved a quad (what was I thinking?) in a tiny hotel on the edge of town. First we went to an ice sculpture exhibit (Bill's expression sums it up for me) and had a major pileup on the ice slide. Then we walked into the town. Because of the numerous canals that wind in and out of the buildings, Bruges has earned the moniker Venice Of The North - but it also has to share that illustrious title with St Petersburg, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and a slew of other watery burghs. I will admit that Bruges is beautiful and the city has immaculately preserved the medieval charm that it (probably) held at its zenith, but keep in mind that everyone else knows that too. Souvenir shops and trendy, overpriced restaurants abound on those cobbled streets. Every few minutes a horse drawn carriage went clattering by with a chilly looking British couple remembering the comforts of automobile travel. In the afternoon we jumped into a minibus where we put on headphones and listened to a prerecorded tour guide talk about nuns and guilds. We spent an hour driving past all of the sites that we had previously walked through and everyone fell asleep except for me. The driver collected the fee as we got out of the minibus and it ended up costing about 70 US dollars for 4 people. Such is Bruges.
The coast of the North Sea is a twenty minute drive west of Bruges. We drove out there in the evening and walked along the boardwalk in Oostende. Elderly women in fur coats walking their dogs were out en masse and children barely old enough to walk were careening in and out of the crowds in their various rented pedalcarts. All of the waterfront property was limited to a continuous wall of condominiums that had all the charm of a Soviet office building. When we walked out onto the beach and stood by the calm water, I half expected to see the cliffs of Dover, but instead there was fog and a few dimly lit ships in the distance bobbing up and down.
[As a sort-of footnote, I am happy to report that my opinion of Belgian beer has much improved. I previously thought of the Belgian varieties as tasting too mouthy and sometimes cloying. The golden ales have excellent flavors and are surprisingly refreshing, as are the pilsners. A Trappist dubbel really got me questioning my unbridled allegiance to pale ales. Sadly I did not try any of the lambic beers, but that is for next time. Also, the Belgian beers pair really well with local cuisine, like the Flemish beef stew. What would you expect from a culture that takes their beer brewing as seriously as the French do their winemaking?]