Sunday, March 30, 2014

Air Travel I

Nothing makes me long for the good ol' days of natural selection like traveling by airplane and spending time in airports. In ancient times, if you were too stupid to do things right, you starved, froze to death, or got eaten. Today I think we need three lines at the security check points: one for frequent travelers, one for infrequent travelers, and one for the clueless. And if someone makes one mistake in the frequent travelers' line, he gets escorted to the end of the clueless line.

Ok, I've done a fair bit of traveling for a non-business traveler - 27 round trips between Europe and the U.S. in 28 years plus a handful of flights within the U.S. and one from southern Germany to Berlin and back to visit my daughter. I understand that many people don't travel often and therefore haven't built up enough experience to get through a trip smoothly. I understand mistakes, but I don't understand ignorance. The number of people at security who pull out of their carry-ons large bottles of shampoo, soap, contact solution, water, and yes, once an entire bottle of wine, and then have to throw them away while looking dazed and mistreated...Have they been living in a box for the last ten years?

I've got two tips for infrequent travelers:
1. Inform yourself about travel in the weeks before your trip.
2. Watch the travelers around you who look confident and do what they do. 

Travel Trick: Getting through security

I learned this trick years ago, which will spare you (and those behind you) precious time and stress. On the day you fly, wear a jacket or sweatshirt with big, preferably zipped, pockets. While you are standing in the cattle shoot inching toward the plastic bins and nudie scanners but long before you get there, put everything that is not already in your carry-on into your jacket pockets. By everything I mean your watch, bracelets, cell phone, wallet, loose coins, keys, pens, individually wrapped wet wipes, lip balm, tiara, and passport* (unless it's in a separate passport holder with a strap). If you felt the need to travel wearing earrings and a necklace, you can take your chances or - if you're wise - take them off and put them in your jacket pocket. You can leave your wedding ring on, but I removed all other rings when I was still traveling wearing jewelry. Take off your belt before you get to the bins, and shove it in your carry-on. Rebelt later - like when you get to your gate.

Just before you get to the rolling counter, take off your jacket and put it in a bin. Since you've already emptied the pockets of your pants (which, as of 2014, you don't yet have to remove at security), you don't need to go through them standing at the bins. If you have a laptop, tablet, Kindle, I-something, or gaming device, make sure you packed it in a spot that's easily reached, take it out, and put it in a bin with nothing on top of or underneath it. If the people in front of you have been removing their shoes, remove yours as well and put them in a bin. Don't look surprised or wait for the security guy to tell you to remove your shoes if you have been standing there for 30 minutes watching others do it.

And for the love of all things holy, WEAR SOCKS!! Why? Foot fun, Gus!  (foot fungus...)

If you have tiny bottles of stuff like hand lotion, shampoo, etc., you will need to have packed them all into one 1-quart (1 liter) see-through Ziplock bag. Please have this "Freedom Bag" of dangerous gels in a spot that is easy to grab (such as in your large jacket pocket or on the very top of your carry-on), and before you get to the bins, take it out because it's supposed to go loose in a plastic bin. Why? Who cares. The TSA and their cohorts require it, so just do it and grumble about it on Facebook later.

Here's the key: You want to have as FEW things as possible to have to retrieve from the bins after they've passed through the scanner. The fewer things you have to retrieve, the less chance you will forget something. Ideally, you've tucked everything away and need to grab only your jacket, your carry-on, one electronic device which you swiftly tuck back into your carry-on, your "Freedom Bag," and your shoes.

*Once you have passed the initial check point and the grumpy Amazon has confirmed you have a valid boarding pass and matching passport, you won't need to show it again until you are boarding the plane (or passing through a 2nd security point). The longer you have it in your sweaty little hand, the better the chance you're going to drop onto all the foot fungus or lose it. 

Travel Trick: Passport & Boarding Pass

If you are traveling internationally, your most important possession is your passport. It's a pain if you lose your wallet, cell phone, your entire carry-on, or your spouse, but if you lose your passport, you're screwed. I cannot emphasize this enough: choose one spot for your passport (such as the outside-most zippered pocket of your carry-on, which is never out of your sight, or better yet in one of those totally uncool passport holders with a strap which you can put around your neck and inside your jacket). Put it in there every time you put it away. If you hear yourself saying "I'll just put it here for now," stop, re-think your choice, slap yourself if necessary, and put it in its proper place. 

This is my uncool passport holder. When I travel, it's my wallet. It's got three zippered pockets, a slide-in pocket for my passport with a velcro flap to seal it in, slots for credit cards, driver's licence, and several types of currency, and even a pen holder.

The proper place for your passport and boarding pass is safe, secure, zippered, easy to reach at short notice, and never more than 6 inches from your body. Do not go to the restroom leaving these two items with someone else, even your spouse. Because look, if you lose your spouse AND your passport... Check that these items (I mean your passport and boarding pass, but check for your spouse regularly, too) are where they should be every single time you leave a shop, restaurant, or restroom, after you wake up from a nap, and at least once an hour. Frequently checking for your passport doesn't make you look stupid or neurotic. Losing your passport does.

During your entire trip, until you reach your hotel or home, keep your passport in a safe place where you can quickly and easily reach it but where it can't easily fall or slip out. Check that it's where it should be at least three times a day. If you're in Europe, keep it with you at all times. Your driver's license is not a valid form of ID here.  

What about leaving it in your hotel room, locked in your suitcase? Is that where you leave your credit cards and extra cash? Natural selection, folks. Don't be stupid.

To be continued...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Horb History I

I live in a learner's paradise. Whether your interests fall under history, architecture, art, religion, literature, geography, or all of the above, you can explore those interests here and get lost in them for hours. By "here" I'm referring at the moment to our local area and the small town of Horb specifically, but I could say the same about every place I've been to in Europe.

The town of Horb has a population today of about 5600, and its documented history goes back to the year 1090, when it was first mentioned in written records in old high German as horv or horva, meaning "bog" or "swamp." The Neckar River flows through Horb, and the entire old town was wisely built on the hill beyond the bank of the river. So the town was founded in the Middle Ages and has survived plague, famine, invasions, the Reformation, two city fires, countless wars, and floods. The buildings have been renovated, rebuilt, redesigned, and repainted, the Fachwerk (half-timbering) has been plastered over and then uncovered again, and all along the town has retained its charming and photographic silhouette, dominated by the Stiftskirche.

view from the Neckar River looking up to Horb's Altstadt

A full-page article appeared in the local paper last weekend providing some fascinating information about two structures in town which I have noticed and wondered about, but hadn't checked into yet. The following is my English summary of what I learned from the article and additional reading.

das Ihlinger Tor / der Luziferturm

Until the middle of the 19th century, Horb had more than six city gates along the old town wall. The only one still standing today is the Ihlingertor, named for the street that passes through it leading to the village of Ihlingen just to the southwest of Horb. It was first mentioned in 1273 and is the only gate known by a second name, the Luziferturm (Lucifer's Tower), as it was first called in 1445. From 1580 to 1630 the tower was used as a prison, and a plaque on the structure says "Hexengefängnis" (witches' prison). The reason this gate was not torn down like all the other ones was that it did not belong to the city, but rather to a local manufacturer who lived in the neighboring house and had part of his factory in the tower.

The gate is located in the west of the town, and this is where one needs to consider Christian symbolism to fully appreciate the gate's significance and understand its evil-sounding nickname. 

In Christianity, the East symbolizes the rising sun, light, and Christ, who will come from the East on Judgment Day. The West represents the setting sun, darkness, night and death, evil, sins, the dark powers, and Satan. Satan was known as the Morning Star until his fall from heaven (Isaiah 14:11-15), and the Latin word "Lucifer" indicates the Lichtträger (bringer of light), or the morning star. If I am not mistaken, the name Lucifer is not actually used in the Bible, but rather came into use because of the passage in Isaiah where the former angel is called "morning star."

der Luziferturm
In Horb it was often said that on certain days the morning star (the star now, not the devil) could be seen through the Luziferturm. Although this was never seriously proven, it is a plausible source for the gate's nickname. In the Middle Ages and beyond, people were constantly reminded of the powers of sin and temptation. It was part of their daily life and the world around them. This gate, with its ominous nickname and location on the western wall of the town, served not only as an important passageway into and out of the town and a protective, defensive barrier against intruders, but also as a reminder to Horb's citizens to guard themselves against the powers of darkness and the hostilities of Satan.

das Rabenwirtshaus

In the photo above of the Luziferturm, you can just see the building through the gate, which now stands where the Rabenwirtshaus used to be. The current building is bright red as of the second story. The Rabenwirtshaus was an inn until 1853, when the new owner changed its name to the "Schwanen" (Swan). For inns, the name "Schwanen" was and is not unusual, but the name "Raben" (Raven) surely is.

The names of inns typically reflect the spirit of the times (of their origin or naming). The oldest establishments often have names of biblical origin. Christian symbols (and names of inns) should give visitors a feeling of safety and security. Names such as "Dreikönig" were dedicated to the Wise Men, who themselves were travelers. Other names like "Adler" (Eagle) and "Löwe" (Lion) reflect the evangelists Johannes (John) and Markus (Mark).

In Horb, the "Raben" was one of the oldest inns, and the earliest known owner was Johann Eger in 1737. Since animals have such strong allegorical significance, one wonders why an innkeeper would name his establishment "the Raven." This black and evil-looking bird doesn't exactly present a good advertisement. The raven has a bad reputation because of its color and its piercing screech. He is a bringer of bad luck and a messenger of death. His reputation for eating carcasses goes back to the Bible, where, according to Deuteronomy 8:7, the raven left the arc to feed off emerging cadavers and didn't return. Because of this it symbolizes shameless, impure, irreverent prisoners of sin. It is a demon, a heathen, a sinner, who delivers intemperance and decadence into the world.

Horb's former red light district,
looking toward the Luziferturm

In addition to its location in the west of the town and its proximity to the Luziferturm, the name "Raben" for the inn fit into the Christian world view for another reason.  The area just inside the Luziferturm near the inn was the town's Rotlichtmilieu (red light district), known as Horb's Sündenpfuhl (sin swamp) in the late Middle Ages. Could it be that the building today (built in 2005 after damage to the old building from a mudslide required it to be torn down) is painted in such a bright red color to reflect this history?

In 1855 the new owner of the "Raben" turned the building into a brewery and changed its name to the "Schwanen". The brewery was in business until 1944. As was common for businesses, a swan figure hung above the front door indicating the name of the establishment (helpful in the old days especially for the many people who couldn't read). On the new building the swan has shed its Christian symbolism in favor of Greek mythology and has become Zeus in the form of an enthusiastic swan aiming to seduce the buxom and unclad Leda (wife of Spartan king Tyndareos and future mother of the immortal Pollux), who is taking to her heels to escape his lust. The sculptor is Peter Lenk, who also sculpted "Imperia" on the pier in Konstanz.

I have seen those scandalous statues on this bright scarlet house before and wondered why on earth....?? I didn't dare ask any questions and couldn't answer any, so when I walked past the building with my parents on our tour through Horb, I was relieved when they didn't look up. Now, however, I know and can tell an interesting story about this wicked spot in Horb, Lucifer's Gate, and the building formerly known as the "Raben."

Source: Südwest Presse Extra, Samstag, 22. März, 2014.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Deutsches Brot / German Bread

Really? A whole blog post dedicated just to bread?  Yep. And I'm not alone. Many American Expat bloggers say one of the things they miss the most about Germany when they go back home is the BREAD!

The short version is that a loaf of bread here is crusty on the outside, moist on the inside, and weighs about as much as a hardcover Tom Clancy novel. If you tap on the loaf, it sounds like you're knocking on a turtle's shell. I think if you tap on a typical loaf of bread in the U.S., it sounds more like you're knocking on a kitten.

For the record, let me say that I am not of the mind that there is anything wrong with American bread. I mean the type of bread most Americans buy: packaged, soft, and with a shelf life of 7-10 days, like Home Pride, Harvest Home, and store brands.  This bread is good for sandwiches, toast, pudgy pies and french toast, which is usually what we use it for.

PB & J would not work well on German bread, and french toast and pudgy pies are out for sure. Granted, we also have Toastbrot here, which is just like American sandwich bread, though without the end pieces, for whatever reason. It's really only used, though, for Toast Hawaii, regular toast, french toast, and for people who want to eat bread but don't have any teeth left (or yet).

This is  Toast Hawaii, which was invented by a German TV cook in the 1950s. It is a piece of Toastbrot (sandwich bread) topped with a slice of ham, a ring of pineapple, a slice of nasty processed cheese (we have switched to Gouda), sprinkled with paprika, and baked in the oven for a few minutes. Some people add a fake cherry on top to add a fancy Hawaiian flair.

The equivalent in the U.S. would be a grilled cheese sandwich. It's popular with kids and quick when you don't feel like cooking a proper meal.

We Americans are used to eating sandwiches on soft bread. It's what we're used to. We like it that way. Sandwiches here are made with hard rolls - like Kaiser rolls, for instance, but hard and crunchy on the outside. You can buy similar rolls in America, too, but they're only found in the bakery, and they're still softer than German rolls (on the outside).

So what do bakeries look like over here? They do sell delicious sweets, but their focus is on bread, rolls, and pretzels. This photo shows just the rolling bakery that comes to our street once a week, and even they have more varieties of bread than I've seen in bakeries in Wisconsin.

I count 16 different types of loaves.

While on the exchange 28 years ago, I found out that white bread is not as popular here as dark bread. The darker, the healthier, I think. My host family will be glad to read that, while I still like Tafelbrötchen, I no longer buy white bread in loaves. I still don't go for nuts and seeds in my bread (Vollkornbrot is something I just can't eat), but I do like Bauernbrot, Jogurtbrot, and Roggenbrot, and I'm getting brave enough to try other dark, mysterious loaves.

German parents can give their young children a piece of bread to teethe on. It's like giving a rawhide bone to a dog - they can gnaw on that thing for hours before it turns into a slimy, gooey mess.

This is the end of a loaf of Bauernbrot I bought on Saturday. Judging from our fancy built-in bread slicer (thanks to the woman who owned this house before us!), there are about 4 slices left. It still weighs half a pound (225 g). I just weighed 4 slices of Toastbrot, and that came to 3.5 ounces (100 g). I'm not dissing sandwich bread; I just still find it funny that carrying a loaf of German bread home feels like lugging a lump of lead. In the U.S. the bread needs to go on the top of the grocery bag so it doesn't get squished. Here the bread goes in first, next to the sack of potatoes. It wouldn't even make any difference if it were under the sack of potatoes.

And for those of you who think I'm exaggerating about the heartiness of this bread, here it is again with a hardcover Tom Clancy book on it. No tricks. (I don't know how to use PhotoShop.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Schwäbische Komplimente / Swabian compliments

The Schwaben (Swabians) are known for their thrift. Pages and pages of jokes are devoted to this personality trait, though the same jokes are told about Scots and other thrifty folk. I'm totally confused about the geological origin of the Grand Canyon, for instance, because I've read that a Schwob lost a Deutsche Mark there, but also that a Scotsman went digging for a coin he dropped.

While there is much printed about Swabian frugality and thrift, there is less to be found about another type of restraint I've noticed and M and I have discussed quite often: the Swabian tendency to be sparing when it comes to compliments and praise. They are industrious at work and at home, and they don't expect to be praised for doing what needs to be done. I come from a place where, if no one lavishes praise on the cook and moons over how tender the meat is, how nicely-seasoned the vegetables are, and how fluffy the mashed potatoes are, the assumption is that the meal isn't very good. Here in the Ländle, "Net g'motzt isch Lob genug" (a lack of complaining is praise enough). The sense, I suppose, is similar to "Well, I didn't say I didn't like it, did I?" Going back a ways to traditional gender roles, at the end of a meal if her husband's plate was empty and he didn't grumble about anything, the Swabian housewife could be satisfied that dinner was good enough. If she dared to dig for praise by inquiring, "Hat's g'schmeckt?" (Did you like it?), she likely heard something along the lines of "Der Hunger treibt's 'nonder" (hunger gets it down). M and I have turned that into our way of saying to each other, "That was  DELICIOUS!!"  :-)

I've also heard "S'isch gange" and "Mr hat's esse könne," both of which mean "I managed to get it down." Ah, the Swabian compliment...

When dining out in the Ländle, when your server sees you've finished eating he or she will collect your plate and ask, "War's recht?" (Was it all right?). If it was one of the most delicious meals you've had in a long time, the appropriate response is, "Sehr gut, danke" (Very good, thank you). If the meal was merely good, then you can say, "Ja, war recht." (Yes, it was fine). More praise than that will come across to the Schwob as fake and insincere, and the Schwaben can't stand insincerity. Their chef is supposed to provide you with a delicious meal. He spent several years in school learning how to cook, and several more years working as an apprentice in someone else's kitchen. He should be good at what he's paid to do, and he doesn't need your accolades. Just finish your meal so he doesn't have to throw any food in the garbage. I'm pretty sure the "Clean Plate Club" originated in the Schwabenland.

This topic has come up in our English lessons with M's employees. They have some American clients, and we've discussed the need for kick-off rallies and parties or gatherings in American companies where employees are publicly praised, rewarded with plaques, gifts, or just applause (usually on company time). The Schwob among us has said he would find that embarrassing - to be praised for doing his job. "Did you think I was incapable of doing my job? Were your expectations of me that low?"

I saw the other day another compliment auf Schwäbisch: "Er macht sei' Sach' gut" (He does his thing/job well.)  I wrote it down and M saw it. His comment was, "Goodness, that is high praise!"

To be perfectly honest, I prefer the Swabian compliments to the trend among young Americans to call everything "the best ___ ever," intensified by "literally the best ___ ever." Since I know that means absolutely nothing more than "that ___ was good," I would rather hear a guest at my table say, "Thank you; I enjoyed dinner" or nothing at all, rather than "That was, like, literally, the best Schnitzel/salad/roast/soup I've ever had in my life!" The Schwaben have always been good at understatement, while Americans lean toward exaggeration.

I'm gradually starting to feel like I fit in well enough in the Ländle, even though I will never be good at the Swabian dialect. I think being frugal is a good thing, I prefer wine to beer, and I don't mind sweeping our sidewalk on Saturdays. I still have work to do, but I'm getting there with the help of Bob Larson's Your Swabian Neighbors, which is literally the best book ever written about the Swabians and their world* (and by now out of print).

*And by "literally the best book ever written about the Swabians," I mean it is a good, funny, informative and interesting book about the Swabians.