Friday, October 01, 2010

An American Evening

You should know that the reason I don't write more often is because I'm on the rocks with writing lately. Sometimes words are wonderful, and sometimes they're the last thing I want to see. My words. I'm undoubtedly my worst critic, and I've tried to write -- but then I throw away my attempts, disgusted. C'est la vie.

As I walked past a McDonald's this evening, I saw what I had to have: the 1955 Burger. I'm not making that up, and, if I'm honest, it's one of the tastiest pretend-burgers I've eaten in years. It brought me back to good ole '55, when a burger was still a burger. To a time when Elvis was doing his thing, only men were allowed to read the newspaper, and the real Bel Air was still just a twinkle in a Chevy designer's eye. Those were the days.

Of course, a burger is hardly the place to stop when you're having a good time, and I was in the mood this evening for Something Completely Different. Cinema is the word I was after. After poking around on my phone, I found what I was looking for, and decided to walk into the city rather than take the subway because I still had time. One of the best decisions I've ever made, too, because I saw the Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren Sterling Moss edition - another throwback to another time and another era, but this time with a staggering 650hp (and even more torques) coming from its blown V8. So help me, I'm naming my second son Sterling Moss Nelson in honor of that exquisite car. And as soon as I have €895,836 laying around (yes, it was that specific), I'm buying that car. Well, no, I'm not. But it was pretty. And if I had to guess, it goes like hell and sounds like heaven.

I'll always stop what I'm doing to talk cars. You know me. Back to it, though, I found out this evening that there's an English-language cinema here in Munich. Granted, German's no longer an obstacle for me, but dubbed movie are one of the dumbest inventions known to man. I've wanted to see The American, a new George Clooney film, but the last thing I want to hear is a German who sounds vaguely like Clooney having to cram his lines into the time while George's lips are flapping. With all respect due to my dear Germans, it's preposterous. A country that can make 250MPH trains and $15,000 surgical scissors should see the superiority in subtitles. But I digress. Again.

The point is, I'm down to 26 days left here. My second round of courses has started, and I'm now in the second-to-highest level of classes offered by Johann's Institute. I've learned a great deal, and I continue to learn. As far as the language goes, I'm at the first point in my life where I think I can admit to myself that my German is good. Not good enough, but good. I'm not ready to go back.

I came to Germany to plan as much as to study. Dad's death threw my life -- and with it, likely some of my psychological health -- into turmoil. I came to Germany then, and that's part of why I'm in Germany now: this place I love, this place where I often feel more at home than America, is somehow where I recharge. Reflect, renew, recoup, redirect, undoubtedly other re-'s too. (If you think of a particularly good one, do let me know.) Meandering back from the theater as I am now, it's raining lightly, drunks are returning from d'Wiesn (hint: Oktoberfest), the world is quiet - and I love it. Goethe Institute will look good on a résumé when combined with my major and my mission, and will hopefully help me stand out in an increasingly homogeneous world. But more, I'm where I belong.

It's about time I know exactly what I want to do, and I have a pretty good idea of how to get there. I have my pilgrimage to the Fatherland to thank for that. It's funny how these things work. And although I'm talking -- writing -- as though I leave tomorrow, I know I still have weeks ahead (and a trip to Italy!) to enjoy and to utilize. But seeing future as present has always been (to a fault) my modus operandi, hasn't it?

(And for those of you who were wondering, the movie was excellent - though deserving of its rating. Reminiscent of The Professional, and replete with absolutely brilliant cinematography... I love it when composition helps tell a story, and, in concert with Clooney's subdued acting, it did. My favorite euro-style film in a while.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Part One, Done.

After four weeks, my first of two intensive courses is done. 15 proud, brave souls withstood the test of time. Though made weak by time and fate, our strong will pushed us to strive, to seek, and to find* our way through what Mark Twain lovingly dubbed "That Awful German Language." We are the few and the proud.

I celebrated by going to the Oktoberfest then having a burger at McDonald's. At almost four in the morning. There's nothing like good Scottish food to buck you up, and it turns out that one of the things I enjoy most about being in Europe is the delightful spin they pit on American fast food.

In America, the Big Mac is the most recognized name in burgers. There's the Big'N'Tasty (I assume it's spelled something like that), and then there's the Whopper. They're pillars of our society, as cherished as american football and national debt. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In Germany, I've eaten the California Whopper (a slice of avocado serves as differentiation), the Big Tasty Bacon (which is a burger and not an oversized strip of pork, as the name would suggest), the Big Spicy (Tabasco sauce) - and in Austria I've savored the Spicy Mexican Whopper, a truly marvelous creation which rightfully earns its name thanks to the liberal sprinkling of cayenne pepper, DIRECTLY ON THE BUN.

Overlooking for the moment the fact that these burgers are a caricature of the continent I call home (sort of), I shall explain the process of ordering said meals. When in Germany, it's best to place your orders for things like Big Macs with as heavy a german accent as possible, because if you say american words like an American, they likely won't understand you. Instead of asking if you want the meal, they ask if it should be menü (think snotty french accent and you'll say it correctly), and at places like Burger King where you can Have It You Way, you don't ask for 'Speck' or 'Käse' on your burger, but rather 'bacon' and 'cheese' (never forgetting to pronounce those words slightly incorrectly so they understand). And at the end of it all, you eat your fries with mayonnaise -- which actually tastes amazing.

My suspicion is that I'm trying to illustrate a cultural point here, and to remove all delicate readerly pretentions, I'll come right out and say that Germans seem to like american stuff (question for readers: does one capitalize countries when used adjectivally?). I wouldn't go so far as to say it parallels Americans' love of german cars, bratwursts and low-cut dirndls, but it's there. And at 3:30 in the morning, when you're wandering a foreign city alone, it's a pleasure seeing those golden arches.

(I'm aware that I've openly admitted in this post to eating at least four fast food burgers while here, which far exceeds dietitians' recommendations of eating one every two thousand years. But I'll get back on my bike this winter and try to earn the forgiveness of my cardiovascular system.)

I now have five days until the next round of classes begin. My cyprusian friend Hector will still be in class with me, but otherwise it's a whole new ball game. We're now a step higher up the germanistics ladder and feel pretty self-important because of that move. The farewell yesterday had all the necessary elements, including an appropriate number of eyes experiencing elevated hydrosic states, and from this experience I have new friends hailing from all over the world. One of these days I'll tell you about how Saudis aren't actually all terrorists, not all Norwegians are blonde, and how I'm pretty sure my friend from Belarus isn't a KGB spy. In the meantime, I'm ready for a relaxing weekend and getting ready for another treacherous cycle of learning and sleeping. I love it.

*My sincerest apologies to Tennyson for using some of the finest words ever penned in a stupid and ironic way.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Salzburg and Zugspitze

On Sunday I spent most of the day doing things that would make my mother cry.

One should expect, when visiting different countries, that the culture there will be different. I've spoken about such overwhelming surprises before. Though very similar to the United States in many ways, Germans tend to be more strict and observant of some things (when trains leave trainstations, for example; I had an experience on Sunday which I MUST tell later), and much more lax about others. Here in Germany, sex and nudity have nowhere near the same taboo as they do in the United States, and the English Gardens that are across the street from my apartment are well known for their Frei Körper Kultur - their free stance on clothing when the sun is out. On Sunday, the weather was perfect and the sun shone warmly down on Germany.

Of course, that has nothing to do with me.

My mother is deathly afraid of heights. Comically so (sorry, mom). It's absolutely hilarious seeing her trying to cope with dizzying heights that I take absolutely for granted. Sidewalks, for example. And as I travelled Sunday to the Zugspitze -- a very high place indeed -- I couldn't help but think of mom and the precarious perch on which I found myself.

The Zugspitze is the tallest mountain in Germany, at 2962 meters - or, as we cowboys like to say, 9718 feet. (We cowboys would also like to take a moment to point out that such a low peak is sissy stuff that can hardly be called a mountain.) It's located in the southernmost section of Germany -- the border with Austria actually crosses THROUGH the station at the top of the mountain -- and is only 35 miles away from Italy. The most amazing thing about the Zugspitze, however, is the gondola from the Eibsee to the top.

My mom's fear of heights is a recessive gene which I have the misfortune of not experiencing as part of my phenotype. I'm quite the opposite, actually, so whenever I see something really tall I want to climb it. It's compulsive, and you'll be pleased to hear that I'll be pursuing psychological help for it back in the States where the doctors are a little less freudian (dear germans: that was a joke). And because of all that, the gondola to the top was this magical, cathartic experience which has changed my life forever, or until I find some taller / more dangerous ride. The car gains 1950 meters of elevation during its ascent up the side of the mountain, and continues to be the highest single-section ascent of any gondola in the world. I rocked that.

Up at the top it was sunny and simply gorgeous, and I enjoyed Rouladen and Spätzle as I looked south across the Tirolian Alps towards northern Italy. We took a different cable car part of the way back down, then I enjoyed the masterpiece of german engineering that is the cog-train that they have running through the mountain almost to the peak. It's incredible, and will definitly make me more appreciative of the german engineering in teutonic luxury cars I plan on owning in the future.

We sauntered over to another one of Germany's tallest peaks (and by sauntered, I mean took the train) and there I experienced one of the more intense "heights" moments of my life: someone decided it would be a good idea to build a 50-foot-long platform there which extends out over absolutely nothing, just to enjoy the view. And when I say absolutely nothing, I mean almost a kilometer of freefall would occur were it to break, and I'd be falling for about 18 seconds (if my maths are about right) before suddenly encountering the ground at nearly terminal velocity. If "I think, therefore I am" is a determiner of being I would, in that moment, cease being very, very quickly. The bottom of the platform is made of grated metal, and it was an...interesting...experience looking through it as I walked to the end of the platform and my certain demise. Gratefully, I haven't been demised yet.

We didn't get back to Munich until almost 11 o'clock at night, and I was ready to crash. One thing I've noticed is how much walking I do here compared to in the states. Even with a spectacular public transportation system, my travelling needs (I know, I don't need to travel somewhere every weekend) dictate that I spend a lot of time on my feet. That, coupled with language classes determined to kill me slowly whilst verbessering my german, mean that I'm sleeping a lot these days. I love it.

I spent the day doing things that would make my mother cry. But I think she still loves me anyway.

PS: I also went to Salzburg this weekend. It was gorgeous. Go there. I'm in love with that city. Best in the world, as far as I'm concerned.

PPS: These pictures aren't mine. Mine are better. And when I have the software again to deal with my camera, I'll prove it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bowling and Jazz

On Sunday I went to Salzburg, and it was one of the highlights of my life. I've never seen such a beautiful city - it's enough to make one's heart ache for the joy of it. I walked probably 12 miles while I was there, and one of the best moments was eating lunch (Spätzle noodles with mushrooms and this sauce consisting of a mixture of tomatoes and ambrosia) in Salzburg's mountain castle while looking out over the city. Words fail me.

I've been trying to think about how one would describe Salzburg, and it just doesn't work. I love the place; go there. Done.

What I can say, though, is that all of you have a new goal in life, and it should be at the top of your lists: watching Europeans bowling. Seriously. On Monday evening the Goethe Institut had an evening at the lanes, and I've never seen anything like it. In America it's reasonably common for people to know what bowling is supposed to look like. For europeans, I have discovered that this is not the case*. The sheer breadth in (shoddy) techniques demonstrated was alone worth the price of admission. One girl would stand still at the beginning of the lane, swing her arm (and the ball) at least half a dozen times before letting go. Another guy would walk slowly towards the lane while holding the ball to his side with both hands, then rotate his whole torso as he sort of set the ball down into the lane. Another girl would put the ball on the ground then push really hard to get it rolling. It was wonderful, and now I understand why curling must be such a great spectator sport - because it's absolutely and utterly preposterous watching people do things this way. I *loved* it.

This evening we went to a jazz club that's rated in the top 50 in the world. It was in the cellar of this old building in Munich, and it had this awesome ambiance that made you think Jack Kerouac was just around the corner, putting something interesting in his blood so he'd be ready for another four-page-long sentence. There was a Steinway grand on stage, and off to the side the bar had just the right mixture of old-world character mixed with modern german efficiency. And that's not even the music.

My hat's off to the pianist. His name was Matthias, and that guy could do incredible things with a piano. Everything from interesting chord progressions to perfectly-timed hemiolas you didn't even see coming to some arpeggios he threw in at the end that were possibly the highlight of the show. The percussionist was excellent, the bass player very good, the saxophonist (and leader of the band) was passable, but the singer --- she was amazing.

I've often wondered what it would have been like to experience some of the jazz greats - Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, Red Garland. Well, after hearing the singer tonight I now think I can understand what it would be like to hear the great Ella Fitzgerald singing. With a head cold. And swimmer's ear. Having learned English from cartoon reruns on Nickelodeon and from karaoke bars in Asia. Inebriated. And singing about 4 times closer to the mic than could ever sound good. Like I said, the singer was astonishing. (The rest of the band really was great, though. That pianist. Wow.)

My studies at the institute seem to be going well. Today we were talking about the similarities between Subjunctive 1 and 2 when discussing past events before my brain finally gave out, but that means I lasted most of the day. I'm finding that I still need at least nine hours of sleep a night here, and I'm sure on Friday night I'll again sleep more than 12 - I don't know what it is, just so much about the language that I'm systematically experiencing. I love it.

It's nearly one in the morning and I need to be off to sleep. I didn't even touch on some of the great experiences I've had in the institute; those will need to wait 'til later. Bis dann!

*I love making sweeping generalizations like that. Of course there were a few excellent players; they were just the vanishing minority.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Word from the Editor

I've heard from a few sources that there's been some confusion about my last post, i.e., that the Goethe Institut is easy or I'm not taking it seriously or something. Allow me to assure you that that isn't the case.

The "cultural awareness" class to which I was referring was a pre-departure seminar I was required to take at BYU. While it could be helpful in other circumstances, possibly, hypothetically, conceivably, it wasn't in my case. The Goethe Institut itself is brilliant, in its scope and structure and in the highly professional way the classes are taught. There is a methodical order to everything done here which ensures that at the end of each day my brain is DONE. On Friday night I slept 19 hours as part of the recovery process from the prior week. I didn't even know that was possible.

I went to Salzburg on Sunday, and per my norm, I have something to say about that. But that'll have to wait until after classes today. Bis dann!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Problem with Experts.

So I'm sitting in the middle of Munich right now. As we speak. As I'm writing. It's dark outside and the furthest into the night sky I can see is the towering Rathaus (city council building) ahead of me. There are hundreds of people milling in this large square, and a little down the street a performer is playing Tchaikovsky on a marimba. The church bells all around just started ringing because it's now 9 o'clock at night - so considerate of them to remind us.

If you have the opportunity to go to a foreign country through school or work, they're probably going to put you through a program like the one I had to experience. There I learned that different cultures are different, that sometimes they have different foods and sometimes the weather in different parts of the world can be different than Utah. Absolutely mind-blowing stuff. Who knew? Probably the best bit they told me, though, was about stages of acclimation:
1. When you get to a new country it's amazing and charming and beautiful and life-changing. But then,
2. You start to notice differences between where you used to live and where you live now. Sometimes that makes you afraid and you start spending a lot of time with people more similar to you.
3. Something else.
4. Eventually you come to appreciate that the new culture is different, and you'll probably learn to like it about as much as you can - maybe as much as your old culture, if your new one is cool like Germany.

I wish I were the one paid to write that. I'd enjoy it so much, and then to get paid besides would be amazing! Anyway, the point is, that training comes to mind as I sit here and watch and listen and feel german. The people, the food, the culture and history, the smells and sounds. Without such advice, I'd never be here.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

History Lessons

I caused a history lesson today because I'm an american.

Class started today, and I now get to enjoy sitting for five hours a day learning about intricate german language rules for the next two months. I know how exciting that must sound to you, because just writing that sentence was abhorrent enough to me that I wonder why I *chose* to do this. German is good, german is great, german is wonderful. That's better.

There are 14 students in my class, and I'm the single student from the americas, and the single student whose native language is english. I know, I was surprised too. Seven of us are male and seven of us are confusing, a perfect gender mix. Two come from Belarus, one from Russia, two from Italy, one from Romania, one from Hungary, one from Japan, two from Saudi Arabia, a couple of others undoubtedly come from great countries, bless their hearts ----- and I come from America.

Germans like to be in the middle of everything. Maybe the center of everything. I'm german and american AND a college student, and that mixture is potent enough that I feel like I ought to be the center of everyone's universe. (I kid?) In fact, even the very first germans, tribes like the Frankonians and Burgundians and Visigoths and Ostrogoths and Othergoths, decided when they first came down from the north that they wanted to be the center of Europe.

That's all very well and good, but sometimes that means little bits of other cultures slip into german. Now, I'm all for the spreading of german culture (a better word would be dissemination), but I get antsy and fidgity and defensive when people start encroaching on my fatherland's turf. It's the worst with the french.

Back in the 18th century the french were the cool kids on the block* and everyone wanted to be just like them. And by everyone, I mean the germans - who at that point had spent too much time philosophizing on what life actually means and how to be and raise good people and the like to stay in touch with Cosmo's latest trends. Therefore, the germans aristocrats who were important and monied and kept their 18th-century Rolls at their 18th-century summer home in Monaco started copying the cool french sissies in the way they dressed and spoke (Parlez-vous deutsçh?). Dark times, until the Brothers Grimm collected some fairy tales and made a dictionary and snapped zee germans out of it.

Here's where I come in. America's now the big kid with McDonald's and Nike and Bill Gates and t-shirts that say I <3 New York -- all the important things in life -- and it's crept into german. The german word for "downloaded" should be "heruntergeladen," but is sometimes "downgeloaded." I've heard girls say "gebabysitted" for goodness sake - what kind of nonsense is that?!

My teacher's name is Lothar, and is probably a late-50s man who comes across as extremely intelligent and even better spoken. He's good. Probably the best language teacher I've ever seen. And that's just in a day. He paints pictures with words, then expresses emotions with those pictures, and suddenly we all know exactly what a word MEANS. He's good.

Anyway, he asked what it means "jemand auf den neusten Stand bringen" - bringing someone up to date. When I said "jemand aktualisieren," he said 'I had a feeling the american would say that!' Because the word "aktuelisieren" is kind of like the english word "actual," it didn't matter that I gave a correct and concise definition and that I was the first to know the answer. You see, I'm an american. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Big Mac to attend to before Family Guy comes on.

*And back east, the russians were probably the cool kids on the bloc. Aren't I clever?

Monday, August 30, 2010

My room is a MOMA exhibit.

Well, I'm in Munich. It's raining, the institute classes start tomorrow, and my landlord is slightly crazy. I'm going to love it here. :)

So I cam down from Erlangen to Munich (or, as the germans say, München) this morning with my great aunt and uncle, and we had to spend the whole 120-mile drive in the rain. To give you an idea of just how bad the rain was, we had to drive 75mph most of the way and even had a 60mph rain-induced speed limit at one point. Such things should not be.

After arriving in München I went to the Goethe Institute to take my third and fourth incoming tests respectively. It turns out that the results from my previous test were confusing, because I did really well for the beginner section, pretty badly in the intermediate section, then nailed the expert session. Go figure - I chalk it up to boredom. Anyway, some bureaucratic European Union committee came up with this thing called the Common European Frame of Reference for Languages, or CEFoRfLqsTdf, for short. They split of language abilities into six categories, from A1 to C2 - the former meaning you know how to introduce yourself and gargle mouthwash in the foreign language, and the latter meaning you can write cohesive and beautiful sonnets about the gargling of mouthwash in the foreign language. The first test I took in the states got me a B2+, meaning that I wasn't quite smart enough to be a C1, and today's test for speaking placed me at C1+, which means I must stick to german limericks for now. In a way, it was reassuring doing decently, because I work hard and it was some sort of validation that that's paying off.

My landlord is a modern art painter, and in coming days you shall see photos of my room. Though the walls are white, my bed is red, my entire cupboard has been painted a la Moderné, and the average number of pieces of art on each of my four walls is 4.25. It's awesome. He also strikes me as not entirely sane in a very pleasant and friendly way and I think I'll get along fine here.

I bought a week ticket to use all the transit stuff here in town today because it's not September yet, and I wandered over to the church building, chilled with the elderly couple there, then enjoyed a nice family home evening for people who were neither family nor home. It was very nice.

Non-sequitur awesome quote:

"The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts."
(K. Anders Ericsson in The Making of an Expert)

Tomorrow everything really begins. Should be interesting, I suppose. I'm in a city where I genuinely don't know anyone, aside from a few acquaintances from FHE tonight. It's strange, because I think this is the first time that's happened. I think I'll do just fine -- but write me an email, just in case. :)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back from Berlin

The problem at the moment is that I can't upload pictures yet. Give me three days.

Succinctly, Berlin is awesome.

Over the course of five days I traveled from Erlangen near Nürnberg to Eisenach. Eisenach is the little medieval town next to the Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther translated the New Testament while he was hiding out from a very angry Catholic church. After Eisenach we drove to Bad Harzburg, which, as I've said, will someday be very famous because the ancestors of Ryan Nelson came from there. From there it was a three hour drive to Berlin.

Do you know what it's like to have a topic in your mind but you're unsure of what to do with it so you'd rather leave it alone? That's how being in Berlin feels to me, because most of the ideas I have presently for writing about it would turn this into a travelogue -- which I emphatically don't want to do.

First, a few facts: there are around 3.5 million people living in Berlin proper, and the metro area is home to a total of a little over 5 million. That's nearly twice as many people as Utah, and roughly the same as the total population of Colorado. Interestingly, there are no skyscrapers taller than about 20 stories in Berlin. Also, Berlin is the capitol of Germany. Besides that, the government buildings look awesome (just stating the facts).

It's a good sign when the first impressions you have after a day wandering a city is that's it's alive and that you could live there. There's simply so much going on.

We first wandered from the enormous train station -- second largest in the world, I believe -- to the Altstadt, the old city where the government functions. Sadly Angela was a bit too busy to see me, but then, as the president of a country she's entitled to being busy. After meandering around the old buildings (I'm bothered I can't do this justice) we came to The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The Holocaust is one of the most terrible events known to humanity - caused by hatred and xenophobia it wiped out nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe through state-sponsored, systematic and efficient murder. Adolf Hitler was unequivocally evil and the program of genocide the national socialist party of Germany created is beyond abhorrent. In a book entitled Die Schuldfrage (The Question of Fault) which was published a year after the end of the second world war, the historian and german philosopher Karl Jaspers said that the atrocities wrought by Hitler's regime were a sorrow that germans would have to carry as guilt and shame for generations because those actions of hatred were committed against Germany as well as against the Jews.

In Germany, nearly everything can be dicussed freely, from sex to politics to the idiotic driver in front of you. Germans tend to be quite frank and direct, which I appreciate and understand. However, the second world war and Holocaust can only be discussed carefully in good company. The swastika has been outlawed in Germany (Strafgesetzbuch §86a) and it's a mark of the people's intolerance of the symbol that one doesn't even really see it used in graffiti. There is some sort of background consciousness there that I find both fascinating -- in how it's handled -- and tragic -- in how's it's left an indelible print on this people.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (German: Denkmal für die ermorderten Juden Europas) was completed in 2004 and opened in early 2005. It consists of around 2700 rectangular grey pillars that are a little less than 8 feet long and a little more than 3 feet wide - unnervingly close in size to coffins. They take up a city block in neat, even rows, and the pillars are different heights, reminiscent of waves or the ascension of a city from its suburbs to the tall skyscrapers in the middle - indeed, the middle pillars are sometimes up to 16 feet high.

There is no plaque stating what it means. There are no markings or words or names on the pillars. On a sunny day you see people lying atop the pillars or hopping from pillar to pillar as they get higher. When you walk down the rows you eventually get lost in a sea of grey much higher than your head. It feels uneasy, and it feels wrong. And somehow, somewhere in the middle, I couldn't help but weep.

Think of it, 6 million people and all their progeny and possibilities lost to hatred. The chilling word in all of it, to me, must be "systematic." And as I sat in the shade of these pillars I felt like they could represent a huge city of lost souls, an ocean of the dead. I don't know more what to say. When you're in Berlin, visit the memorial.


To turn things around a bit, the rest of my day was glorious. After a tour on a river-boat, we sat at an outdoor café and watched an english firebreather work his magic. We wandered through old streets my aunt knew from living there, and ended up in this artistic shopping quarter where I was forced (against my will, mind you) to buy the coolest italian blazer, shirt and tie that I've ever seen.

Ernst & Young have offices in Berlin, as do Goldman Sachs and others. That gives me hope that there are enough american firms here that I could eventually live there for a while were the opportunity right. And the sun kipped below the horizon and we took the train back to the outskirts of town, I knew I had barely seen the city. The mayor of Berlin once called it the "poor and sexy" city, and, while I don't know if it's necessarily poor, the rest of his statement was right. Like I said, Berlin is awesome.

In a few days I'm driving down to Munich where I start my schooling at the Goethe Institut. I found out last night that I'll be staying with a relatively famous german modern art painter in the best part of Munich, and I hope that turns out as well as it sounds like it should.

I'll post pictures as soon as I can. Bis dann!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Der Blick aus meinem Hotelfenster

There's a river right below my window. It's quiet, maybe 150 feet wide, and moving just fast enough that lights from the other side are twinkling in the eddies and ripples from the current. Directly across from me is a palace, and just upstream the tall clock tower of the Rathaus (city hall) proclaims the time is neither wrong nor right. A single river boat is putting upstream, red light facing me, and other boats are moored safely on the shore below. Adding to this already restful and somehow perfect night view is the full moon, rising to my right above it all.

Berlin is gorgeous.

One thing that's struck me about being here in Germany is how historied everything is. Yesterday I was on the Wartburt castle (pronounced vart-boorg), where Martin Luther translated the New Testament - and where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe loved to visit. Richard Wagner was there and wrote a portion of the opera just for the castle, and Franz Lizst composed several pieces in the upper room there. Some of the greatest minds in history, all during different centuries in one room.

Last night we stayed in a little town called Bad Harzburg. If ever in my life there's a place I would call my pilgrimage, Bad Harzburg is it. It's a little town nestled in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany, and its principal claim to fame is that my german ancestry lived there for hundreds of years. But then who lived a few kilometers away? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an amazing philosopher who saw truth as beauty and spent his life following it.

Lessing wrote:
"The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found."

There you have it. The profoundest words to likely ever go on this blog, and I had absolutely nothing to do with them.

People ask me every once in a while why I love Germany so much. The obvious first guess from those who know me would likely be "the Autobahn." And they're not really wrong - automobiles of teutonic excellence whizzing along gloriously beautiful roads do leave me breathless and strangely stammery. The history of the place fascinates me, too; I love finding out about the great thinkers, the enlightened and enlightening men from Germany who have bettered the world. Of course, my family comes from Germany, and heritage plays a large role.

I can't put a finger on the exact answer myself, because the likely answer is a mixture of all three (as well as a heady dose of 95%-flavorful food). "Das alles ist Deutschland, das alles sind wir. Gibt's nirgendwo anders, nur hier, nur hier." (If you didn't catch the reference, don't worry about it.)

The palace across the water has its own story: one day, a man walked in claiming he was the lord of the place. He set up shop and lived there for a while, claiming he was the owner, then made off with all the money in the house. Lessing and Goethe were good, but that's brilliance. I'm glad to be in Germany.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Word on German Food.

"He who eats alone, chokes alone." - Arabic proverb
"I don't like broccoli. And I haven't since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. I am the President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli." - George W. Bush (though he probably said "ain't", per our last discussion)
"One can not think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - Virginia Woolf

This is a post about a topic near to my heart - just a bit under and to the right. And it's a topic about which the germans are delightfully concerned. I said a word on german food, and I meant it:


In the morning I eat bread with butter and cheese spread copiously atop, with a little salami or wurst on the side or to accompany the (also-butter-smeared) second slice of bread. I drink whole milk, and for breakfast-dessert I eat some sweet yoghurt covered in fruit. There is some fruit and veg that goes with the meal, but that's not the important thing.

Today for lunch I ate a thing called Schweineschäufele, which is a pig's shoulder. And the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I ate the entire shoulder of a very large pig. I have no training in gastronomie or the correct chemistry of food (though I do have a book called "What Einstein Told his Cook), but they say that fat holds or transports the flavor of foods. If that is the case, and there is some sort of linear relation between the fat content and flavor content, I ate the most flavorful food in the world today. I'm not kidding when I say some bites must have been at least 95% flavor, if you know what I mean.

And I absolutely loved it. So good.

The most keen among you must be surely saying: "But wait! Wasn't my dearly beloved, sorely missed, wonderful friend and secret lover (for women) Ryan already in Germany!? Shouldn't he already know what german food tastes like!? Oh, I'm so confused! And because I think of him so often anyway, this will only add to the sleepless nights and worry!" Not to worry, dear reader. The problem is location.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that in northern Germany one eats only cabbage, rice and orange juice, but it's much nearer the truth there as it is here in the south. One still eats meat there, but not in the portions I've experienced in the last two days alone. It turns out that there are even Schweineschäufele clubs here in Bavaria (the state I'm in), which should say something about the food. Not to worry, the clubs are relatively small because others eat smaller portions. Or because the clubs aren't necessarily the wisest life-choice for longevity. I haven't decided.

This evening I ate a very small portion of olive salad (with fresh cheese, like cream cheese, and sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers) and then fruit salad and a single slice of whole-wheat bread, so I should live to see another german morning. Tomorrow we're beginning our journey to Berlin, which will take us through Bad Harzburg -- my pilgrimage site -- for a night. I now have internet on my phone again so it'll be much easier for me to post updates. Until then, dear reader - bon app
étit, und lasst es euch schmecken!

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Stranger in a Strange Land, or Deutsch and Narcolepsy

Tevye: As Abraham said, "I am a stranger in a strange land... "
Mendel: Moses said that.
Tevye: Ah. Well, as King David said, "I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue."
Mendel: That was also Moses.
Tevye: For a man who was slow of tongue, he talked a lot.

Having been in Germany for a few days, I'm finally starting to sleep normally. My travel took me on Sunday from Salt Lake City to Atlanta, and then on to Munich - and unfortunately, I've grown a little to much to be able to sleep any more in coach seats on airlines. (Note to self: fly first class in the future.) That means that the first night I was here I slept more than 12 hours, and I've averaged 12 hours a night every subsequent evening.

I think part of it comes down to how much there is to see and experience here which is unfamiliar. From silly things like noticing different brands of jeans to different foods and even different facial expressions people wear as they're walking down the street, there are a lot of small social differences between Germany and the US. More importantly, there's that whole language problem.

You see, in America there's english and there's the south, but even silly people who chose to grow up in places like Texas and Alabama use words that the rest of us understand. In Germany, we're not so lucky. I served my mission in Hamburg, and for the most part german in the northern part of the country is very clean and easy to understand. Here in the south I'm running into dialects of german called "Schwabisch" and "Frankisch" that don't even resemble what I know as german when the speakers are too intensely involved in their dialect speaking. Yesterday I went to Legoland with my aunt, uncle and cousins (more on that later, be very excited for pictures) and there were a few times I turned to my aunt and asked if people around me were even speaking german!

There was a study conducted by Harvard* which determined that increased sleep needs are almost directly proportional to the amount of new learning someone is undertaking. And given that I'm now speaking the highest percentage of german I ever have in my life (at least 98% a day is now german) and I'm seeing and experiencing all these new things, it's no wonder that I've been awfully tired. It makes me feel like Moses. But now the sun is shining and we're about to go 'make circuit trainings' at the local Fitness-Centre, and I think things are going to be just fine.

Besides which, Germany freaking rocks.

*I made that up.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Burnt Rubber

I joined a biker gang yesterday.

We've decided we're going to meet on Sunday nights, and our agenda involves cruising the strip, intimidating other gangs and trying to fly under police radar. Last night was talking plans, talking initiation, talking possible tats that we could get to show our dedication and our street cred - but we still found time to roll Center St and show our solidarity and our intentions. Watch out, Provo! Burnt Rubber is here.

I bought my first road bike on my 15th birthday, in 2002. It was a silver-and-yellow Giant OCR3 which I outgrew much too quickly. It had Sora components and a compact geometry that was perfect for agility but left me feeling hesitant on the epic downhills I love. I rode that for two years, upgrading to my current bicycle on my 17th birthday - a white Cannondale R1000 which I've tweaked and modded far away from its original pretentions. Carbon fiber and titanium are draped over it in an array best described by my high-school motto:
I have money, and I need to spend it.

I've ridden from Seattle to Portland and from my apartment around the block. I've climbed a 4500-foot mountain on nothing but a bottle of water, and on other days I've gone out and pounded miles which were fueled by three Double Quarter Pounders from McDonald's.

Last night's ride was relaxing and almost impossibly slow. I'm used to getting on my bike for specific purposes - for increasing my fitness, for bettering my awesome spandex-induced tan lines, for clearing my head after a long day. I'm used to riding 30 miles with impunity and 80 with ease - last night we road 5. Optimistically. And I loved it.

The reason it's been on my mind is because it was so mundane, and because it was impossibly
fun. When do I take the time like that to do something that doesn't have a clear objective? I remember what Billy Collins said once at a BYU Devotional:

"The oldest subject in poetry is carpe diem. The reason you're asked to carpe your diems is that you don't have many diems left. The more you see your days as numbered, the more grateful you'll be for those moments you have."

I've tried to live by that quote, but I'm starting to think that I haven't ever really understood it, and that I'm just beginning to have a better idea of what it means to me. I try to fill my days with meaningful activities so that when I hit my pillow I haven't wasted life, haven't wasted those 1440 minutes which were given me that day. But I don't think I'm very good at thinking about my days as I'm in them, instead looking ahead with laser focus at what I see in my future. It's easy to do, because I've a bright future and no reason to expect otherwise. But even if I'm working hard and looking to the future, I'm forgetting how to carpe a crucial component of my diems: the part where I sit back and enjoy the ride.

That's why last night's ride with my new gang was so useful for me. I need to tell myself to slow down, to stop and smell the roses, to sit up on my bike saddle and look around at where I am - because if I don't remind myself, I won't do it. Being worried about where you're going is great until you realize you're there and you missed the journey.

I don't want that. Do you? This one is from Kerouac:

"The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware."

Someday, when it's time to look back at my life, I don't want to see a series of precise actions that were totally logical and perfectly executed. I'd rather see course corrections as I change my mind and seek to live deliberately. Twists and turns and bends in the road of life that mean that I was trying to suck the marrow out of it, to find my best path and my best me. I want my life to be filled with friendships and activity and smiling and meaning and life.

We've decided that we're going to meet on Sunday nights, and our agenda involves cruising the strip, intimidating other gangs and trying to fly under police radar. My agenda involves sitting up and slowing down, grinning at other riders and enjoying being in the middle of the pack instead of always rushing to the front. My agenda involves having fun and nurturing relationships that matter, enjoying myself and living life for the joy of it. But I meant to be talking about cycling.