Slovenian Joys III: Slovenian Oddities

I’ll get to the charming hilltop villages and dramatic mountain skylines later.  Perhaps.  For now, I’d like to concentrate on some of Slovenia’s oddities. 

1.   The Remains of St. Deodatus 

The main cathedral in Ljubljana is called the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation.  If you want to see p050_remains_of_st_deodatusretty pictures of it, go here.  It’s a nice Baroque church with a pretty imposing altar by the Venetian sculptor Francesco Robba and an unusual pink-orange exterior.  But what interested me was the open glass casket at left, which stands at the left of the main altar, under a portrait of Our Lady of Good Counsel.  Inside this casket are the remains of St. Deodatus.  The pamphlet available at the church information stand informs us that his remains were brought to Ljubljana in the early 18th century by a Franciscan monk, and installed in this case in 1882. 

I tried, very discreetly, to inspect the remains in order to answer the burning question: is that really the carefully-embalmed, over-300-year-old body of St. Deodatus?  The flesh itself seems waxy and unreal, and the eyes are pointing upwards and away from the viewer and have no pupils, which seems to indicate this is a symbolic effigy of the saint.  However, there is an obvious wound on one of his arms, which seems like an unusual thing for a sculptor to add.  I wonder if anyone can answer the question whether this is truly the saint’s body?   

2.  Mary with Saints’ Bones

I visited Slovenia’s National Gallery, which I will of course describe at some later point.  It’s no Louvre, but it contains intriguing and lovely objects, including a small, surpassingly graceful sculpture of the Madonna from 1410 called "the Beautiful Madonna."  But more to the point, for the purposes of this post, is this painting by Giovanni Francesco da Rimini, called the Hoška Marija (i.e. the painting of Mary associated with a place called Hoska).  The painting itself is severe and elegant.  But look at the frame, which is much more visible in this larger picture.  It’s features 16 glass-encased apertures full of fragments of human bone.  These are saints’ relics — each painstakingly labeled with small piece of paper.   046_oval_plastic_knickknacks_3_1

3.  Unidentified Oval-Shaped Object Composed of Aged Plastic.

No, I’ve no idea what this is.  But you can buy it — or one of dozens of similar objects — at a shop located just west of the Annunciation Church.   

4.  Buried Lightning

At the National Museum of Slovenia, you can inspect dozens of artifacts recovered from the time when what is now Ljbljana was the Roman city of Emona, including a stunning gilt-bronze statue of an unidentified citizen of Emona.  But what caught my eye was something in the lapidarium — the collection of inscribed marble and limestone tablets from Roman times.  The object in question was a triangle composed of three slabs of marble, with the words "Fulg[ur] C[onditum]" — lightning buried.  As a sign on the gallery wall recounts: "The Romans also worshipped the divine force of natural phenomena.  The grave of the thunderbolt is interesting.  The place where lightning struck was fenced, and the thunderbolt ceremoniously buried in order to ward off its evil effect.

There you have some of the more intriguing oddities I encountered.  Of course, anyone who has a good guess as to what the oval plastic object is, or whether the saint’s body is real, is invited to contribute in the comments.  In the meantime I will gradually type a few more entries about my fascinating stay in Slovenia in the coming days, along with other miscellaneous subjects…

Max Goldt & Germany’s “New Right”

No, they don’t have anything to do with each other, as far as I am aware (unless I’m missing coded messages).  And they have nothing to do with Slovenia, but I’ll be getting back to that subject soon, I promise.

Now to Max Goldt.  First, thanks so much for the quick and thorough response to my question about Max Goldt.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  German Joys readers are the smartest, best-looking web surfers in the world.  Looks like the essay doesn’t appear in the book of his that I have now, but I can imagine worse things than buying another book by Max Goldt.  I wonder, I really do, whether there would be a market for a translation of his odd meanderings into English…  Here’s a recent creation from Katz und Goldt(German) the touching story of a fat young man who enjoys displaying his family jewels in front of zoo animals, and has the total support of his family, even his superconservative grandmother.

And now for something completely different.  For some unknown reason, on what appears to be an architect’s unfinished promotional website, there is a reprint of an essay on German politics from 1996.  It appears here under the heading "Germany’s New Right."  Although the formatting is confusing, this seems to be an essay written for Foreign Affairs by Jacob Heilbrunn of the New Republic.  Heilbrunn is Deeply Concerned.  Near the beginning, he intones "A profound move to the right has been taking place among Germany’s best-known novelists, such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Martin Walser." [I wouldn’t have described Enzensberger as a novelist].  Heilbrunn continues:

Underlying new right positions is a deep hatred of the westernization of Germany under the influence of the United States over the last five decades. The advent of an American-style multicultural society is perceived to pose a great threat to Germanness. Hatred of the United States is what binds the right nationalists and defectors from the left who make up the movement. But above all, whether the topic is World War II or current immigration, the new right seeks to rehabilitate German nationalism by seizing on communist and leftist excesses to elide Germany’s own misdeeds.

The piece continues in this vein, discussing Rainer Zitelmann, Frank Schirrmacher, Junge Freiheit, and various other figures of greater or lesser legitimacy.  Read it if you’d like to get a snapshot of how Germany was perceived in the mid-1990s.  For purposes of context, let me point out that The New Republic, whose website you can visit here, is a centrist-liberal American journal of political opinion which distinguishes itself by its strong support for Israel.  Notice how diplomatically I put that.

Max Goldt Quote Help

I am sure that the elite audience this website attracts is familiar with Max Goldt, the German author whose meandering essays grace the pages of Titanic, and whose poignant texts form the basis of the Katz und Goldt comics. 

I was at a reading by Herr Goldt recently, and he mentioned the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish band from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Here is an review of a Cocteau Twins Album which quotes this Max Goldt piece:

Eigentlich bin ich über Max Goldt zu den Cocteau Twins gekommen. Er deklamierte in einer seiner Kolumnen sinngemäß, daß der einzige Zweck einer Platte von den Cocteau Twins sei, die "unbedingte Erzeugung von Pracht und Eleganz".

I am working on an article for the Berliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung about the Rezeptionsgeschichte of the Cocteau Twins in German-speaking countries, and I would like to read the Max Goldt piece.  Unfortunately, I don’t know what its title is, or where it was originally published.  I have the Max Goldt collection Für Nächte am offenen Fenster, but I can’t figure out whether the Cocteau Twins essay can be found within its pages.  Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Slovenian Joys II: Governing Casually

It’s a balmy weekday afternoon. I’m sitting at the Tea House, an outdoor cafe in the Old Town of Ljubljana, a crescent-shaped warren of narrow cobblestone streets and baroque facades which rises from the east bank of the Ljubljanica river. The customers sit outside on a long wooden pallet, watching the people pass by as their tea brews in squat little jugs. We see a portly, white-haired man a short ways down the street, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, and carrying a shopping bag. My friend Samo notes casually "Oh look, that’s the Slovenian Minister for Local Affairs." Just before we spotted the shopping minister, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek — the world’s most famous Slovenian — had walked by. About a half-hour later, a prominent woman journalist, and then a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official, dressed casually but wearing stylish wraparound sunglasses.

It’s no surprise that these folks all walked by the same cafe — the Old Town is the place to go in Ljubljana, and the city is pretty small. What struck me was that these people were all wandering around the city on a weekday afternoon, at around 3:30, and that not one of them was wearing a suit. The casual observer might conclude that government officials run out of things to do at around 2, so they knocked off work and did a little shopping. Then, at 3, the journalists have finished their accounts of the day’s meagre events and follow suit.

Of course, this impression may not be accurate. These officials do have things to do, I was assured. But in Slovenia, it’s considered fine to take a little break in the afternoon, then return to work if there’s more to do. Nobody expects you to wear a suit unless the occasion strictly demands it. I meandered all around the capital city for days at all times of the "work" day, and saw thousands of people. Exactly 5 of them wore something that could be described as "business attire." They stood out. In fact, they gave me sheepish little glances, as if they were embarrassed to be seen dressed so strangely.

I began to think of Slovenia as a sort of a big college campus. On campus, everybody knows each other, there’s one or two meeting places where they all go, and nobody dresses very formally. Everyone’s relaxed because the very idea of a campus is to create a cloistered Arcadia of knowledge, where the stiff, demanding, results-oriented practicality of the outside world is kept safely at bay. The whole of Slovenia has this campus-like feeling. But outside Slovenia, there’s no "super-Slovenia" waiting impatiently with pocket calculators and timesheets.

The impression was deepened later, when I visited Metelkova. Like Christiana in Copenhagen, Metelkova is a complex of former military barracks that was invaded by counterculture squatters and turned into a mildly lawless zone where you can buy under-the-counter pharmaceuticals and mingle freely with other people who share your particular sexual preference. Like Christiana, Metelkova is perfectly safe to visit, as long as you don’t mind being walking through a few clouds of cannabis smoke. Among the usual stoners and backpack tourists, there was a sizable contingent of young journalists, government officials and business types milling about. When the joint came to them, most casually partook. I’m not going to identify them, of course, since there must be some people in Slovenia who actually disapprove of marijuana use. But the Tokers in High Places didn’t seem at all concerned who might be watching. Perhaps there’s an unwritten rule that "what happens in Metelkova stays in Metelkova," but I didn’t get that impression.

Everywhere I went, I got the impression that Slovenians paid enough attention to the rules to make sure everything worked OK, but saw no reason to add, or enforce, any more regulations than necessary. At the national museum, I looked for the coat closet, but was told just to visit the security guard outpost and put my bag in his room. The guard couldn’t have been more than 25, was wearing blue jeans, and smoking. At the Museum of Contemporary History, there seemed to be an elderly guard for every single room (perhaps relocated from a shuttered factory as part of a jobs program?). One of them, a ruddy-faced fellow with a large and decorative mustache, approached me and cheerfully engaged me in conversation. Apparently he had to work up some courage beforehand, because his breath nearly singed my eyebrows. He then wandered unsteadily away, nattering on about the beauty of "Slovenian Music." In the foyer of the contemporary art museum, all I saw was a group of sharp-looking twenty-somethings chatting over coffee. Two of them eventually got up and sold me a ticket, once they saw that I’d actually come to visit the museum.

Perhaps it was the late-summer weather, or the fact that the tourists were mostly gone, and I was often the only visitor most of the places where I went. But whatever explains the laid-back, improvised feel of Slovenia, it was a welcome relief from a country in which people routinely bark at you like angry terriers if you dare to cross against a red light in front of them.

Slovenian Joys I: Where it is and How it Came to Be

You may not know much about Slovenia, but Slovenia knows a lot about you. Not in a threatening, surveillance way, but in a curious, observing sense. The Slovenians, admitted to the EU in 2004, are very much attuned to developments in Europe and the United States. The bookstores are packed with books in all European languages, and boast a much wider and more interesting selection of books in English than I’ve seen in any German bookstore. Slovenia’s "leading intellectual," Slavoj Zizek, is better-known than many of his European counterparts, owing to his ability to write sleek, playful English prose.

The imbalance between what I knew about Slovenia and what Slovenians knew about my country was embarassingly large, and I’m wagering the same might be true of some Joysters. So here are the basic facts. Slovenia’s population is just under 2 million, and it sits near the Adriatic coast between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. Its capital is Ljulbljana, which has about 230,000 residents. Slovenians speak their own language, Slovenian, which is written in the Roman, not Cyrillic, alphabet. Slovenians are ethnic Slavs, but the majority are Roman Catholic. Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, after only thirteen years of independent statehood.

Slovenia had declared its independence in June of 1991, prompting an invasion by the Yugoslav National Army. The national army faced resistance from the Slovenian population and police, for which they weren’t prepared. The Yugoslavs turned back after conducting only a few bombing runs and capturing a small amount of territory. Their retreat was so hasty that they left behind spare uniforms and equipment, which are now on display in the Slovenian Museum of Modern History.

Eventually, the EU intervened and brokered a compromise settlement according to which the Yugoslav Army would completely withdraw in return for Slovenia’s promise not to take any further steps toward independence for three months. The actual fighting war had lasted only ten days, and resulted in 66 casualties. In the following months, the Slovenes held a referendum in which 88% of the population voted for independence. After initial European reluctance to recognize Slovenia (for fear that regognition would speed the crack-up of Yugloslavia), Germany took the lead in December 1991 and recognized Slovenia and Croatia as independent nations. The EC followed suit a month later, and by late 1992, over 95 countries had recognized Slovenia.

Independence was the culmination of a long process during which Slovenia preserved its unique identity within the former Yugoslavia. First, Slovenia was the place where things got done. Slovenia had virtually eliminated illiteracy by the 1920s, far in advance of other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and its population produced a portion of Yugoslavia’s GDP far in excess of its numbers. Throughout the 1980s, Slovenians, often with the tacit approval of local Communist authorities, introduced greater political freedom and built the workings of an autonomous nation-state. The key development in this process was the 1988 trial of four Slovenian journalists, one of whom, Janez Jansa, had published plans formulated in Belgrade to foment unrest and justify an invasion of Slovenia, in case the Slovenes got too cheeky. The trial was held in Serbo-Croatian in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, which was perceived as a double affront, and which triggered large demonstrations. The trial helped crystallize the wish for national self-determination, and after 1988 Slovenians intensified their use of excellent European diplomatic contacts, media savvy, and language skills to begin laying the ground work for an eventual independence bid.

Of course Slovenia, unlike other parts of the former Yugloslavia, did not have a combustible mix of different ethnicities living side-by-side. This is a crucial distinction that makes comparisons between Slovenia’s post-Yugloslavia course and that of other nations of the former Yugloslavia very dicey.  Without downplaying this important distinction, though, it’s hard not to admire the skill with which the Slovenians outfoxed the authorities of the former Yugoslav state. While much of the rest of the former Yugloslavia was electing braying nationalist demagogues and forming shadowy militias, the Slovenes were doing grown-up things like establishing a functioning state apparatus and staging orderly referenda. They are the nimble Roadrunner of this story, and the Serbs the Wile E. Coyote. Just as he realizes the Roadrunner has escaped him once again, he notices he has run far past the edge of the cliff, into open air. He turns to the viewer, waves, smiles a weakly ironic smile, and plunges into the abyss.

Next: Government Ministers in Shorts; or the college-campus nation.

Fear and Loathing and Pizza and Mayonnaise

I’m not the first to report that for Americans and Brits, European intellectuals take some getting used to.  Many of them seem to take themselves awfully bloody seriously.  Many Western Europeans, for example, believe the odd notion that a person cannot be simultaneously witty and profound. Because a lot of people have internalized this odd idea, plenty of Europeans who wish to be considered profound completely lose their sense of humor, if they ever had one.  This particular thought-virus seems to have buried most deeply into German society.  Have you ever heard Juergen Habermas, for all his achievements, tell a really funny joke?

Of course, many French intellectuals would have to be exempted, including, perhaps Jean-Claude Kauffmann.  Mr. Kaufmann recently wrote a book about, as he calls it, "an instrument to perform an existential rupture."  What is this instrument?  You’re probably thinking something like an intercontinental ballistic missile, or a powerful dose of LSD, or a 20-day fast.  But you’re wrong; it is, in fact…a cookbook. 

Kauffmann’s characterization of the cookbook as an instrument for existential rupture is just one of the many deliciously dry witticisms he fires off in his recent book-length anaysis of France’s changing eating habits.  He finds them in sore need of repair: Half of the French watch TV while eating; dinner-table conversation is a thing of the past, and more and more families are resorting to McDonald’s).  For more, just click here: The French table: Theater of the absurd?

Introducing Slovenian Joys

Yes, this blog was once German Joys, and will once again revert to being German Joys.  But for the next week or so is Slovenian Week here at German Joys, with a festive blog banner to boot.  I will be posting a few reminiscences from my recent trip to Slovenia, an intriguing little country I just spend almost two weeks in. 

The banner is a picture I took of the charming hilltop town of Stanjel, with its distinctive suppository-shaped oval bell-tower.  I suppose now is the time to inform all readers of languages that use diacritical marks that my American laptop doesn’t "do" diacritical marks, so I cannot put the two little horns on the "S" in Stanjel, nor will I be able to put the horns, slash-marks, or cross-hatchings on other letters.  I hope you’ll bear with me.

In any event, the next week will take you all on a journey of discovery to the fabled land of Slovenia, which is not to be confused with Slovakia, one of the two countries that the former Czechoslovakia broke up into.  We’ll meet Slovenian poets, artists, philosophers, and government employees.  We’ll eat Slovenian prosciutto, drink Slovenian wine, fondle Slovenian women (err, maybe not), go deep under the earth into some of Slovenia’s fabled caves, and high into the Julian Alps, the part of the Alps that Slovenia calls its own.  I hope you enjoy it.  If you don’t, I suppose you really don’t have much choice, because this is my blog, and I can do whatever the hell I please with it!

So fasten your seat belts, check your insurance, pour yourself a stiff drink, and join me on a journey to the Green Piece of Europe ™!

America: Not like it is in the movies, even for movie stars

I don’t know who told Franka Potente to go to Hollywood, but whoever it was was no friend of Franka Potente.  Potente, for the uninformed, is a German film star who is best-known as the eponymous Lola in the 1998 movie Run Lola Run (as its English title reads).  She delivered a lively and touching performance in RLR, which I found to be a pleasantly philosophical action movie but not much more. 

I’d characterize Potente as moderately attractive in an earthily German, not-conventionally-beautiful way.  Strong cheekbones, slightly shiny skin, an interesting, characterful nose.  No idea how her English is, or how her acting skills would be in English.  But apparently someone — perhaps she herself — thought she was Hollywood material, so off she went. 

To state a truism that’s been documented at least since the time of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locusts, Hollywood will eat you alive.  Hollywood is for beautiful, shiny, self-centered multimillionaire extroverts with Swiss bank accounts and balls of steel.  It’s not for insecure, pimply German actresses with stained teeth.

As Ms. Potente, to her misfortune, found out.  Apparently she’s written a book about how miserable she was in Hollywood, which is reviewed here (German).  She writes that she somehow managed to find an apartment for $700 in Hollywood which was full of bugs and whose doors wouldn’t close properly.  Americans reading this will be stunned not at the fact that the apartment was crap (what do you expect for $700 a month?) but that there are apparently apartments available for $700 in or near Hollywood.

The people called her "Blanka from Russia" or "Famka from Europe."  The beauty of the Hollywood stars, compared with her menstruation pimples and her mouth, made her shy.  "I hardly opened my mouth, because I couldn’t compete with the teeth of the person next to me, given that I drink 3 liters of coffee a day and smoke two packs of cigarettes."  She claims to have been taken for an "al-Qaeda member" because she paid the second installment on her 1969 Buick Riviera in cash.  To comfort herself, she slept with strange men.  No, I’m not making that up.

I think Franka has learned some valuable lessons.  Lesson #1: Germany is the natural habitat of morose, appealingly vulnerable introverts.  In Hollywood, such people are prey.  Lesson #2: European cities are not the well-regulated, danger-free playgrounds most European cities are.  Trying to live or travel on very little money in the U.S. really sucks.  The only people who do so are either the chronic poor or the recent immigrants, and the immigrants move to the suburbs as soon as they  can. 

Anyway, I am happy to report that story has a happy ending.  Instead of descending to the San Fernando Valley, Potente returned to Berlin, where she belongs, living with roommates in Kreuzberg.  There’s something "clear and brusque" about Berlin which she likes.  And that’s a sentiment we can all agree with.

Fred Irwin, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany,

for the love of God, go back and take many more German lessons.  I’m just watching Fred on the Berliner Phoenix Runde, which is staging an interesting debate among representatives from Russia, Turkey, France, and the United States.  All of them are delivering their views of the recent German elections in flawless German — especially Prof. Alfred Grosser, a French political scientist.

But not Fred Irwin, the American.  He’s speaking slowly, hesitantly, in simple sentences, with an incredibly strong American accent.  Not even an English-speakers’ accent, an American accent.  Further, he begins almost all of his  contributions with "Well": which, you might have noted, is an English word. 

Now, mind you, I’m not saying my German’s perfect.  Far, far from it.  But I’m not the freaking President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany.  Perhaps nobody who meets this rich and powerful man has the cojones to tell him his German, uhh,  sucks.  But I do.  Fred, your German sucks.  Come down here to Düsseldorf, enroll in Sprachforum Heinrich-Heine, Germany’s friendliest language school, and improve your German.  Do it for us, the American expats.   

Now I have 2 questions. 

  1. Can’t the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany find someone to be its President who can speak really good German?  I’m no businessman, and never will be, but it seems if you’re going to name a President of the Chamber of Commerce in another country, especially a country that has the world’s 3rd-largest economy, you might want to find someone who speaks the language very well.  I hereby offer myself for the position.  Granted, I will represent positions diametrically opposed from almost everything the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany stands for.  But at least I’ll do it in halfway-decent German.
  2. Why are so many Americans on German T.V. representatives of business interests?  Fred’s analysis of the situation is driven openly by his pro-business views.  He seems to have only the most superficial understanding of the complex party mechanics at work, but is nevertheless quite eager to prescribe various policies for Germany, such as tuition fees and various privatizations.   Meanwhile, the other people at the table are droppin’ major science* about the intricacies of the coalition negotiations, the possible promise of a "Grand Coalition", the possible effect of Joschka Fischer’s resignation on Germany’s foreign policy, etc. 

The Americans I see on German T.V. are three.  Irwin, Jeffrey Gedmin of the Aspen Institute, and Susan Neiman of the Einstein Forum.  Now the German of the last two named is quite good.  But the views of Irwin and Gedmin, 2 out of the 3, are those of businessmen and American conservatives, generally.  Not every American thinks the way these folks do, but I’m sure many a German viewer might get that impression.   After all, how many other representatives of the United States are there that appear regularly on German T.V., speaking German?

Now I know, millions of my devoted readers will hastily type a fervent comment: For the love of God, why don’t you go on T.V. and correct this problem?  Thanks in advance for the adulation.  But if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s telegenic. 

* ‘Droppin’ science’ is a piece of American black slang which means, in soberly scientific terms, delivering valuable information to your audience.  Here, a linguist might note, is an example of the use of the word ‘science’ in English which is roughly as broad as the German term Wissenschaft.  That’s something you don’t see every day.  Let’s bring this expression into German.  Something like Wissenschaft fallen lassen.  Other suggestions are welcome in the comments… 

What are “European Readers” Like?

I have been doing a little bit of research into the market for translations from German into English.  (I translate legal documents, but I wouldn’t mind diversifying into somewhat more…juicy areas).  I came upon this interesting web article,   Don’t Write Down to European Audiences!

The author is an American, Nancy Arrowsmith, who lives in Germany and, in this article, advises English-language writers who might want to obtain work writing for European audiences.  The article contains any number of interesting observations on the difference between American and European readers’ markets; I’ve picked two here as an introduction: 

  • The general reading level is higher in Europe than in North America. A European John or Jane Doe will generally read at a higher level (Flesh-Kincaid readability scale) than an American John Doe. North American audiences are often either extremely erudite (A level) or semi-illiterate (sub C level). The well- educated middle class (B level) seems to be shrinking. In Europe, it is alive and well, and reads books. European academics tend to read special-interest literature, and the semi-illiterate usually limit their reading to the boulevard presses. This leaves us with a large, fairly well-read class that regularly consumes books and periodicals and wants other people to consider them well-educated (a high prestige factor).
  • There is less internal media censorship in Europe than in North America. Because of this, texts are often more outspoken or radical, with more explicit language and sexual allusions. Counterculture is an important part of cultural life, and is not "pushed over the edge" into pornography or sedition, but incorporated into mainstream or borderline publications. Criticisms of the powers that be are more marked in European publications, and there is less fear of being sued for libel. As a result, reporting is often more personal.

Later, she notes: "Interviews with great thinkers or innovators are valued by most European readers, who are interested in personal views on world affairs and are firm believers in established culture."

An Uncommonly Civil Mini-Crisis

I’ve got to hand it to German politicians.  The election on Sunday led to no clear winner, no mandate.  Emotions ran high — well, as high as they generally run in Germany, which is no hotbed of hotheadedness.  Just after the vote, the leaders of all five major parties got together on national television and, in the presence of two journalist-moderators, and debated each other about the future of the country.  Already, that had the American part of me saying "They did what now?  Jesus, does that ever sound like a recipe for getting pulled off-message!"

But all of the leaders showed up, none of them had a teleprompter, and they agreed to be quizzed by journalists.  At least some of the time, they actually more-or-less answered on anothers’ questions.  Fancy that!  And you know what?  They debated Serious Issues, and remained perfectly civil throughout.  Everyone called each other Mr. or Mrs., or Kollege (my colleague), or used the appropriate title.  There were a few interruptions, and some heated moments, but that was it.  The only real breach of etiquette was that Chancellor Schroeder seemed a bit too brassy and defiant.  But overall, they talked about the possibility of forming coalitions, and their parties’ ideas about how to solve Germany’s problems, and other grown-up things.

And it’s continued that way in the days since.  Just tonight I watched some of a debate between Social Democrat "Super-Minister" Wolfgang Clement and Christian Wulff, the Christian Democrat Minister-President of Lower Saxony (which corresponds roughly to a state governor in the U.S.).  They also managed to discuss the difficult issues of coalition politics and their parties’ positions fluently and spontaneously, without any personal attacks, screaming, or fumbling for words.

Granted, these are two of Germany’s most gifted politicos.  Wulff’s precision-tuned haircut, shiny little glasses and eternally confident half-smile mark him as the smug class nerd.  He seems to love speaking on camera, and has a gift for mixing salty little jibes with statesmanlike platitudes.  Clement, with his endless nose, sad face, and downward-crinkling eyes, looks so much like a basset hound that you keep expecting him to lift a leg and pee on his seat.  But still, his no-nonsense gruffness inspires confidence.

I hear a lot of bitching about politicians in Germany, but I am tempted to say "compared to what?"  Look, politicians all over the world are criticized by all humans for more-or-less the same reasons, except in those countries where criticizing politicians can lead to the loss of fingernails.  But compare these folks to American politicians, most of whom spend their time robotically repeating about 15 poll-tested catchphrases ("death tax"; "turn back the clock on civil rights"; "a woman’s right to choose"; "smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud", etc.).

The best U.S. politicians are the ones who are able to actually pick the catch phrase that’s closest to an answer to whatever question they’ve just been asked.  The others just choose them at random.    Watching the average American politician be interviewed is like watching a human being fail the Turing test.  In order to have a real debate about the Iraq war, we just had to import two Brits to New York City, and they had to resort to calling each other slugs and accusing each other of various levels of familiarity with waste-disposal facilities. 

So far, during this time of moderate upheaval, I have yet to see any German politician begin screaming at or insulting any other politician, and most of them seem to have intelligent things to say about the challenges facing their country, even when, of necessity, their statements are often a bit vague.  Hell, the conservative candidate just ran on a platform in which she promised to raise everyone’s taxes.  That’s something you don’t see every day.  Judged by the standard of politicians in other countries — and not by comparison to impossibly noble philosopher-princes whom nobody would elect anyway — the average German politician strikes me as unusually forthright and articulate.

Plus, post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer gave humanity a political quote that can stand with the best of anything Churchill said.  When asked why he appeared to have changed his position on an issue, he responded "Was kuemmert mich mein dummes Geschwaetz von Gestern?" — roughly, "What do I care about my silly chatter from yesterday?" 

Introducing Gregor Podlogar

OK, that’s enough politics.  It’s an amusing spectator sport, but nothing to get too concerned about.  My motto: the more you insulate your life from controversial areas of human activity over which you have very little control, the happier you’ll be.  And the first step in insulating yourself is to stop paying attention.  Switch that TV off.  Chuck that newspaper into the next trash barrel recycling container.  Tell your friends to shut up, and slap them if they don’t. 

Pay attention to poetry instead.  Specifically, pay attention to Gregor Podlogar.  I met him during my recent trip to Slovenia.  He’s a poet, and he also works for the Slovenian arts and culture radio channel.  He was nice enough to find a bike for me to ride around Ljubljana in.  He’s in his early 30s, is quite friendly, and speaks excellent English.  Somehow, almost every resident of Slovenia seems to fit that description.

He writes poetry, mostly in Slovenian.  The English translations I’ve read remind me a bit of John Ashbery, but I can hardly judge the body of his work, since I don’t read Slovenian.  However, one poem of his has been translated here.  An audio file of him reading one of his poems, followed by an English translation, is here.  If you play it, you’ll get to hear Slovenian, which sounds to me a lot like Brazilian Portuguese.  And finally, my favorite, which I will just reprint, in case the link ever stops working:


Pumpkins boiling in a pot, I accept the world’s game,

overcooked macaroni, heart spilled,

shadows drawn with mathematical precision,

insects are industrious,

much more than us, but that doesn’t matter,

the universe doesn’t know us, this nature machine.

I almost forget, the dog whines, snow doesn’t want to melt,

I can’t say neighbor to the neighbor, we don’t wave,

he doesn’t play the lottery, black cat

moving along the white house scares the mice.

Afternoon is dying in my eyes, drawings all around,

cooking calms me in a special way, the dish should be washed

and sit a little while in spring.

–translated by the poet, and Matthew Zapruder