Getting outa Kraków, but I assure you…coming back as soon as I can

Relatively early morning on the town square
Been a bit of a whirlwind, but was it ever worth it. After a few hours in Poland‘s capital Warsaw on Friday, arrived later the same day in Kraków and hit the ground running. 

What a gorgeous city and what wonderful people. Goodness me, I’m definitely taking the earliest opportunity to get back to the city of JP2 (the Polish pope), as well as Copernicus, and an endless list of Polish intellectuals and theatre people and students and Catholics and and and…

Our guide called Poland the North Korea of Catholicism, which as a Catholic I think he could get away with saying. 

There were Pierogi and a day at Auschwitz, which I’ll have to write about once that experience has been digested, and more Pierogi

You could saunter over to my Instagram feed for more photos (here’s a link to one I like quite a lot: link to that photo I just mentioned)

Otherwise, you’ll be left with just a few odds and ends of my impressions. Here goes…

No matter how much I fly, I still love the feeling of wheels safely touching down on the earth again. Before Louis C.K. reminded us of being a bit more grateful for the miracle of modern flight, I’d long been marveling at the whole thing. 

Many times when I’m staring out the window of a big jet plane, I’m reminded of being a very small child in the exact same position. Gazing out over the clouds that all those years ago reminded me of fluffy pillows, I could never have fathomed how much I’d be in the air as an adult. 

The other thing that I’m left pondering after this weekend has to do with communication: when I go somewhere new, I quickly learn how to say ‘thank you‘ and ‘I’m sorry‘. Once I get those things down, I can somehow get across almost everything else with an elaborate pantomime. 

Thank you Poland in general and Kraków in particular. That guy waving his arms around and mouthing ‘Dziękuję‘? He’s coming back as soon as he can. 

This kitty’s komin’ to Kraków

One of those places I’ve always wanted to see? Not far from the Czech border in what I’ve heard is a gorgeous part of southern Poland, I’ve downloaded digital books about Kraków and am googling where’s the best place to exchange money. 

Get to spend several days remembering what a pain in the tuches it was to deal with currency exchange before the Euro. Don’t even know what money they use there, so for the time being I’ll e calling them ‘Polish dollars‘. 

What can you expect in the coming days from hereabouts and my social media feeds? Lotsa photos of Polish food and bad puns. There might even be some questionable jokes about that little historical reality that happened down the road at Auschwitz. You can hardly wait, can you?

August all to ourselves

  
Many European cities are empty for the entire month of August. Well, not empty exactly, because there are still plenty of tourists. Yet the locals are gone. None of this is new, by the way. 

Parisians are notorious for abandoning the City of Light and make a mass exodus to the Côte d’Azur and points far beyond. Italian city dwellers aren’t any different I’ve been told. 

And here in Munich? There are plenty of people still here through the first few weeks of August, but it seems like they’re either filling in for those that’re long gone or they’re busily preparing for their own escape. An already emptier than normal city is about to get emptierer. 

That means if you steer clear of the places where tourists flock, you can enjoy some of the most beautiful things our city has to offer. Without others elbowing you out of the way, you can get a seat at your local café. That cool place that does brunch on the weekends? On a Sunday morning, which would be packed to the rafters at any other time of year, your cool brunch is remarkably attainable. 

You want to go to a public swimming pool and actually find a spot on the grass? You won’t be alone there on a sunny day – there are some left over locals, after all. You’re not completely alone; this isn’t exactly a ghost town. However, you will have room to breathe. Not that it’s difficult to breathe here in this beautiful city nestled near the foot of the Alps

If you’re in Munich this August and you think you simply have to get out, then I guess you should do what you must. If you can calm that urge though, there’s quite a lot worth sticking around here for. If you stay here with me, we’ll practically have August all to ourselves

Enjoy the ride while you can, my little Marillen on the Austrian team. This could get a bit bumpier.

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only using this photo for the red and white for Austria

This year’s UEFA European Championship, also referred to as Euro 2016, is already in full swing. I’ve been deliberating writing about this year’s hooligans, which I might still do, but at this point I’m spending so much time just watching as much of the football as I can manage.

Instead, I’m so inspired by how Austria has been doing, that I had to gush about it here. This is definitely a dark horse candidate of a team, if there ever was one. After a disappointing loss in their opening game against Hungary, I think the Austrian team could’ve easily folded under the pressure of playing what most would agree is a far superior Portuguese side.

Not only did they not crumble upon facing these world famous footballers, who I won’t bother mentioning by name, but the Austrians did it with class and panache. Scoreless through the first half, one easily got the feeling that the old world footballers were playing on borrowed time.

As the second half rolled on and the attack of the Portuguese came in successive waves, the lowly Austrian team just kept taking punch after counterpunch. Players were feigning injury and debilitating fouls left and right, which is one of those idiosyncrasies that non football fans love to ridicule. There was plenty of that here – plenty to malign and disparage.

Finally at one point, a penalty shot was awarded. The infamous peacock of a world footballer sauntered up to what the German’s refer to as an ‘Elfmeterschuss‘ (eleven metre shot or more commonly called a ‘penalty‘), and would you believe it? The birdman’s shot didn’t make it to the net, but instead hit the left post.

The style and panache with which the Austrians played this match was undeniably inspiring. There have been a handful of other instances of underdogs exceeding expectations already in this tournament. I’m thrilled I got to see this one as it happened.

Enjoy the ride while you can, my little Marillen. This could get a bit bumpier.

Missives from this corner of Old Europe

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Light on the River Isar that runs through Munich

For quite some time, I’ve intended to change the tagline on this personal blog. I’m not certain how long it’s been, but it might’ve been from back when I started that if you clicked on my site, you’d see:

pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

It was an allusion to the Wizard of Oz, as well as a commentary on the way in which each of us creates our persona online. Essentially, I was saying: read my thoughts here, but please don’t expend any energy looking backstage.

I’ve chosen to live in a country that takes privacy very seriously. Because of Germany’s complicated history with the government surreptitiously observing its citizens, there is a genuine desire to ensure users ability to control how much of their private lives they display. It’s easy to be cynical about such a position, and my friends who work in cyber security would quickly insist that most of what we think of as online privacy is an illusion. However, I continue to respect the lengths to which they go to keep fighting the proverbial good fight. Europeans in general and Germans in particular are earnest about this. Quite commendable, if you were to ask me.

Yet the above tagline no longer works for me. It’s no longer the message I want to get across here. Not remotely. Instead, I’ve decided to take on an entirely new position. Frequently some event will happen hereabouts and I’ll receive queries along the lines of, ‘What in the world is going on over there?

My response is to write this blog as a meta answer to that exact question. The new tagline:

Missives from this corner of Old Europe

Implied in this is my eagerness to take on whatever questions you might have. If you read something here that you’d like to know more about, say something in the comments or drop me a line via email.

Hope you enjoy the new direction, and I’m already looking forward to some lively exchanges.

Don’t look at the photo of his lifeless body on the beach unless you’re prepared to do something about it 

 

Münchners getting in the spirit of welcoming refugees
 
There’s a photo from Reuters that’s all over the web today. Has been for a few days already, and it’s disturbing. It’s not at all nice. It’s the opposite of nice, even. It’s a shot of a little boy who’s drowned & washed up on the beach. I’m not putting it here, but I am linking to an editorial on Deutsche Welle in which they discuss their editorial decision to publish the photo. This photo isn’t for the faint of heart, though. You’ve hopefully been adequately warned. 

Opinion: an image that touches us all

If you’ve already seen this photo & many others of children washed up on beaches, maybe you didn’t bother going there. 

I’ve included the joyful photo above of the locals bringing donations for the recent arrivals as a counterbalance to the abject sadness that the other image brings. When I know people are visiting Munich and they express interest in Dachau, I often recommend that they schedule something/anything joyful afterwards. Not to pretend that the concentration camp didn’t exist, but because it’s so thoroughly depressing to go there and see the documentation of what occurred, it’s important to be reminded of hope and resilience and that there’s even still goodness. 

Yet we’re not quite there yet when it comes to the immigration situation in Europe right now. The Hungarians are furious that Germany has opened itself up so overtly as a safe haven for refugees, and the situation is still so fluid that anything I might write here will quickly become old news. 

Nevertheless, I hear plenty of reasonable people questioning the practicality of Europe in general and Germany in particular taking in so many refugees. This is purportedly the biggest migration of people in Europe since the Second World War, and the ramifications of this mass migration are far from predictable. I’ve even heard that these newcomers could make up as much as 1% of the population of contemporary Germany. 

Quite a number of the residents of Munich have been unquestionably generous by taking donations of food and clothing and toys (and I heard even portable wifi, so the refugees could communicate with their far flung family members) to the main train station. Football fans in many stadiums last weekend held up signs that said, ‘Refugees Welcome.’ 

What happens when the novelty of taking in all these people wears off? There’ll unquestionably be a new disaster or outlandish political reaction that’ll distract us from the outrageous news we’re reading on a daily basis. 

Here’s the thing, though: this immigration crisis isn’t new. It’s been a long time building. The Syrian refugees might be overwhelming the system at the moment, but any reasonable observation over the last decade or more has made it clear that Europe’s lack of unity on this issue was a disaster in the making. 

That’s where the photo of the child on the beach comes in. You can be as cynical as you like about this topic – I’ve certainly pontificated on both sides of the argument that we as a society are responsible for those fleeing war torn countries. I welcome the argument, even. 
But look at that photo tell me that we shouldn’t finally be able to come up with something better than what we’ve been doing. For years, some European politicians have pretended that it wasn’t their problem. That little boy’s lifeless body makes it harder to stomach such a position. 

Ode to Joy

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Tonight’s the Eurovision Song Contest, and during the voting they’re singing Ode to Joy and climbing ladders. As one does.

I don’t care how camp this thing is, I watch it every year, mock it on twitter and laugh at the voting from the countries that couldn’t get their entry into the Finals.

If you have no idea what this is, I’m not sure you want to research it. My parents were visiting me one year during the weekend when the Grand Prix was on. They watched it with me and were completely baffled by the whole ordeal.

This year? I suppose the bearded lady from Austria. Or the Polish maidens churning butter & washing clothes. Yes, that was a thing.

It’s a bit like an annual World Cup for the Homosexualists. Was that an insensitive comment? I can live with that.

a broken church in Hamburg

Always travel somewhere in mid October, and this year it’s going to be Hamburg again. In case you don’t know this already, Hamburg is my favourite Germany city. I love my adopted home, and Berlin has a fantastic bustling energy that makes me feel more creative.

 

But Hamburg? It’s is a dream. An unfulfilled one, but a dream nonetheless. One day I’ll live there. I just know it. Who cares where you live, right? It’s all the same damned thing.

 

Well, I’m not going to give into that sort of fatalism. Not me, baby.

 

There’s a church in Berlin that was bombed during WWII, and they left it as it was as a symbol to remind everyone of the horrors of war. That church is world famous, because it’s on Berlin’s Ku’damm, which was the Flaneur Mile of West Berlin during the Cold War, and you see it on the way to your upscale shops and such.

 

The one in Hamburg? Well, I suppose if you’re a local you know of it. Not like it’s hidden or anything. It’s right there in the middle of town, but the tourists are flocking to the harbour or the World’s Largest Model Train (Miniatur Wunderland). Who has time to go look at a broken church? Well, I do and I will.

 

More on this in October.

Broken Church in Hamburg

getting a baby’s consent is no easy matter

a delicate matter of judicial curiosity

Several years ago, I was reading Gary Shteyngart‘s 2006 Absurdistan, and there was one thing I found rather curious. It’s possible that everyone knows about this, but in my circle of friends the topic of late-in-life circumcision rarely, if ever, comes up. Ahem…as it were.

This is undoubtedly a sensitive subject, and I assumed the author was using it for effect. The main character, Misha, insists that losing his foreskin was a traumatic experience. That this event was something that continued to plague him. To cause him emotional anguish. It was part of the satire, right? This wasn’t a real thing. And if you were so inclined to have such a medical procedure when you were a teenager or young adult, then you have only yourself to answer to.

I filed this in my mental file as a non-issue. Used by a novelist to make a point. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But the subject has reared its ugly head again. Well, not specifically late-in-life circumcision, but you’ll soon see how it’s related. See, a German court has made a curious ruling on circumcision. Just the old-fashioned baby snipping. Before I get to my point, let me let Der Spiegel’s English page describe the facts of the case:

Circumcision Ruling Is ‘a Shameful Farce for Germany’

The press in Germany has, for the most part, supported the outcry about this decision, and you can see reactions from several prominent papers listed at the bottom of the article. To summarise, the court ruled that circumcision amounted to inflicting bodily harm on the baby. Ok, that seems a bit weird to me.

It’s been in the news for weeks. In the printed media, there’ve been many German doctors who have publicly questioned the practise of circumcision. The entire uproar has seemed bizarre to me. I assumed that what I’ve repeatedly heard was true. Male circumcision was hygienic. Case closed.

Apparently, that’s not necessarily the case. Or the data is more inconclusive than one might have been led to believe. I’m suddenly really curious about the whole story. Are the German doctors politically motivated? Are they hostile to religion?

Then I read this in the Guardian:

Circumcision ruling condemned by Germany’s Muslim and Jewish leaders

Not sure you really need to read the whole thing, but it does tell the same story in simply another way. There was one part that stuck out, though.

‘After much deliberation, it concluded that a circumcision, “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent”.

It ruled the child’s body would be “permanently and irreparably changed”, and that this alteration went “against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong”.’

Here I really had to do a double take? Consent? From a baby?

Oh, no. That’s the point. The baby can’t give consent. He’s being de-foreskinned against his will. Or potentially against his will. Suddenly Misha’s issue doesn’t seem so preposterous. Well, actually. It still does.

Yet, is the widely-held belief false that this is a practise done for hygienic reasons? Are the doctors, as well as this specific court, persecuting religion?

It seems hyperbolic, when Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt says that this is the, “…worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust”. But is it really?

Look, I’m really curious about this. If you can shed light on this, I’d love to hear your explanation. Leave a comment if you like. Don’t be a jerk, though. I don’t have any sort of comments filter, but if you write something inflammatory, I’ll delete your idiocy in a heartbeat.

What’s the deal with this ancient custom? Is it a barbaric act that the Germans are making a stand against? Because it’s a religious practise, does that mean that questioning it makes us intolerant bigots? We’re dealing with integration next week over at The Munich Times this week. This actually might become a topic of emigration if it’s not resolved adequately.

still his attacking heart

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Dreaming of a German English final

When I first arrived in Germany, I’d already become fascinated by international football tournaments, such as the World Cup. What I didn’t yet understand was the rivalry between the English and the Germans.

Not only when it comes to football, but for a myriad of other reasons it’s one of the most intriguing relationships. One book on cultural differences I read went so far as to say that the countries have some issue in part because their citizens are so similar.

Point this out to an Englishman, and he’ll likely deny it till he’s red-faced. Often a sign that there’s some truth to such a thing.

Many of the Germans I know love to ridicule aspects of modern British society and the quality of the English football side in recent years has been one of the easiest things to poke fun at.

However, my introduction to this rivalry came at an earlier time when the English were, shall we say, more competitive. Let me just say as an aside that I’ve waited to write this until both teams made it to at least the second round of the tournament. England may or may not be punching above its weight, but things are looking relatively good for the Three Lions right now and I’m writing this while their prospects are still a bit rosy.

It was late summer of 2001 and my neighbour Achim knew I was interested in football. Because of that, he invited me over to watch the match. He was an older German, who has since retired and moved with his Canadian wife back to her country (where all their grandchildren live).

The sad part of the story is that it wasn’t entirely certain whether Achim would live through the evening. I’m not exaggerating. Not remotely.

England was visiting and playing here in Munich and the tension in the city was even obvious to a newcomer like myself. One of the most well-known traditional restaurants in the city centre had been the scene of rival fans throwing the litre glass beer mugs at one another. Just for pure animal excitement, this was quite an evening to be watching football in southern Germany.

Am not entirely sure anymore the order of who scored which goal, but it was evident before the break that England had the far superior team that evening. Suddenly Achim was telling me I needed to call an ambulance for him. Later I found out he’d had a mild heart attack while watching Germany’s atrocious defending.

You’d think this would’ve put me off football entirely, but instead I was only more intrigued. The truth was I wanted to know more of what this was about.

Here are some pieces I’ve recently written for the Munich Timesabout both the English and German sides in their campaign to win a European Championship. Firstly, there’s Three Lions roar back to beat Sweden and before that I wrote about the Germans playing the world’s most expensive footballer in Germany manages their way around Portugal

Like I’ve said before, I’m doing my best not to write about football here everyday. Each time one of these competitions rolls around, I desperately hope for a German English final. The likelihood of that is so slim (it might even be impossible due to how the semifinals are set up), but that doesn’t stop me from hoping. What a dream that’d be.

I’ll be over here dreaming.

(update: my friend Caroline sent me a very nice email with a link to a file that explains what one can do in just such a heart attack situation. It’s in German, but I know some of you speak/read German. Some of you want to understand German better. The rest of you? Well, if you’re coming here for English-language-only heart attack prevention, you’ve possibly made an error in judgement. Here it is:

HerzinfaktundSchlaganfallerkennen11

Don’t you feel better having learned all of that? Thank you Caroline. Incidentally, if you need an excellent massage and you’re anywhere near Munich, Caroline is quite a masseuse. Let me know, and I’ll put you in touch with her).