Say it with Ede

Edmund ‘Ede’ Stoiber.  The mere name conjures up thousands of associations for Germans, and probably 1 or 2 for non-Germans, the first being that ‘Stoiber’ (remember to pronounce it "Shtoiber") is pretty fun to say. Sounds like a Yiddish insult.

Briefly put: He’s a politician from Bavaria, a part of southern Germany where people are pretty conservative and talk with a funny accent. He’s renowned for his many delightful verbal gaffes and his general dopiness.  It’s not all his fault; like many Bavarian politicians, he’s often forced to give speeches after drinking lots of beer, and sometimes while wearing funny costumes.  I think of him like Ronald Reagan, without quite as much optimism. 

He just stepped down as chairman of the Christian Social Union party.  In honor of his career, the Sueddeutsche newspaper has just created a java application that lets you put words in his mouthto make speeches (G)  Just drag and drop the phrases — not too much attention to grammar, please — and dazzle at Ede’s eloquence!   

UPDATE: Here’s my very own Ede Hoergruss, with lots of Denglish.  Add links to your own in comments, if the mood strikes you (you might want to TinyUrl them).  Non-German speakers are definitely encouraged to contribute.

You’ll Need the Scheisshaus After the Fried Steam

One day, this blog will become a United Nations World Heritage Site of unconventional translations.  I already have a section dedicated to this purpose.  However, other outlets — like Welt Online, sometimes try to horn in on my territory.  This slideshow (G) collects attempts at German and English from all over the world, sent in by German tourists. [h/t K.S.]

My favorite is this bathroom sign from Panama:

But perhaps the best source for translations is menus.  Whenever I go to Other Foreign Countries, I immediately grab the menu out of my dinner companions’ hands and scan it.  I’m often disappointed (especially in Northern Europe, where everybody’s English is much too good). 

But not in India.  Here are just two of the precious finds I unearhted there.  First, from Hampi, India, "Momus Fried Steam":


And from Bangalore, ‘Alien Steak’:


I ordered the Alien Steak.  It looked like this:


And it was pretty tasty. Yes, it was real beef.

Thought About Your End Lately?

As we know, Germans refer to a television show or movie with an upbeat ending as "Happy End," as in Ein familienfreundlicher Film mit Happy End! 

That’s the good feelin’ the makers of this consumer product are trying to evoke:


Yes, it’s toilet paper. As Homer Simpson might say, it works on so many levels!

[photographed on-location in a bathroom in Frankfurt, Germany]

God, Gays, and Germans

Yes, yes, I know I should get around to doing some original blogging one of these days, but instead I’m going to to steal yet another graph from the Pew Study Kevin Drum linked to — a chart of worldwide responses to the question whether you must believe in God to be moral, and whether society should accept homosexuality.

The answers line up just about how you’d expect, except perhaps that most of Latin America is more tolerant of homosexuality than the U.S.; and Russia and the Ukraine much less.  Brazil surprises everyone by rating off the charts on both the God/morality question (affirmed by both young and old) and tolerance for homosexuals.

I don’t have much to add, except that this chart might indicate why I tend to feel more at home in Europe than in the United States. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I would answer question 1 "obviously not." And, to illustrate the point, most of the Germans I know who do believe in God would not say this essential to morality.  They know there is a veritable Everest of historical evidence against this proposition, and don’t want to look ignorant.*

And my answer to number two is "of course." The fact that about 4 out of 5 Germans agree — and 9 out of 10 of younger Germans agree — means that many Germans who consider themselves conservative and who are regular churchgoers believe society should accept homosexuality. Major leaders in all political parties are openly or at least not-secretly gay. It’s just not a controversial issue over here, which explains why the angry bickering over acceptance of gays in the United States seems so futile to most Germans.

* This doesn’t mean the opposite is true, of course. My personal experience favors the null hypothesis: belief in God has no effect on a person’s morality, however you might want to measure that (good luck!).

The Wealth and Religiosity of Nations

Via Political Animal, a graph that plots a nation’s religiosity against its wealth, as measured by per-capital GDP.  Yes, yes I know there are lots of issues with GDP and measures of "religiosity," (feel free to point them out in comments) but this is a blog, not a scholarly forum, so charts will be accepted at face value. As long as they have pretty colors.

The U.S. is an outlier here, which is the thing that caught Kevin Drum’s eye. What caught my eye is how poor Kuwait is.  I was always under the impression that thinly-populated oil-rich states had the highest per-capita GDPs, but it turns out small European nations beat them by a mile.  Which again raises the question: Why is Iceland so bloody rich?  Everyone I know who’s visited Iceland is floored by the outrageous prices and how many flashy possessions everybody owns, but I’ve never gotten a satisfactory explanation for how this small, treeless nation got so rich.  Is it sitting on gas or oil reserves?  Has it cornered the world market in gingko?  What gives?

I also noted the close scores for Eastern and Western Europe on the religiosity scale.  Even the most religious Eastern European nation doesn’t come close to the U.S.  It doesn’t really surprise me, since I’ve traveled a fair bit in the former Eastern bloc. However, you often hear that after the Iron Curtain fell, church pews were filled by those were finally "free to live their faith" after years of political persecution.  I think this cliche was generated by a stream of news stories in the early 90s.  What the reporters didn’t cover was people gradually losing interest and drifting away. No pretty pictures of candle-filled churches there!

Why did this happen? Take your pick of explanations: (1) Communism drummed the religious instinct out of Eastern Europeans; (2) They were distracted by all the bright, shiny objects offered by the free market; or (3) although the Catholic Church earned respect for resisting Communism, it quickly re-asserted lots of its old reactionary tendencies after the fall. Many Czechs/Poles/Hungarians saw little advantage in throwing off one intellectual corset imposed by second-rate political bureaucrats only to replace it with another intellectual corset imposed by second-rate religious bureaucrats.

Number 3 is, by the way, the most common explanation given by Eastern Europeans I know. By far.

Believe the Lack of Hype

Whenever I go back to the U.S., I feel raped by hype.

Everybody has shiny white teeth; everything’s fantastic, wonderful, or inspiring; Jesus and/or God loves everyone (yes, even you!); stores in which you’re buying stuff feature expensive flat-panel television screens everywhere telling you to buy even more stuff; colorful new creams, gels, auto cleaning products and medicated inserts boast of miraculous powers; and tough, smart "winner" lawyers are promising you nothing less than justice itself. As in the following ad. Note that it consists not of sentences, but of clusters of words and phrases that evoke associations of trust and authority in focus groups:

Then I come back to Germany, and breathe a sigh of relief.  Nobody’s trying to be superhuman here, not even the lawyers.  Here’s a video from the homepage of the law office of Werner Siebers (G) quite obviously made by Siebers himself, quite obviously working without a script:

For those of you who stubbornly refuse to learn German, he begins by noting how uncomfortable it makes him to talk about himself, then describes his practice areas (criminal defense and auto accidents), and ends by asking you to visit him if you have a relevant legal problem, because "maybe something will come of it."

I call it Germany: A Place to be Human™.

A Plug for the Filmgalerie

Well, having just insulted Mönchengladbach, I should try to repair the damage by mentioning something good — very good — that has come out of that city.  I’m talking about the Filmgalerie Videothek.  For anyone who’s ever gone into a mainstream German chain-store video rental place and been disappointed by the crappy selection, the Filmgalerie (G) is for you.  They started in Mönchengladbach, and now have an outlet in Duesseldorf. 

What makes the Filmgalerie so special?  The fact that it’s run by and friendly film buffs with eclectic taste.  There are sections for every major director, from Almodovar to Peckinpah to Pasolini to Fassbinder to Renoir to Malle to Scorsese to John Waters.  If that’s too hoity-toity for you, there are also extensive collections of splatter, horror, ‘Kult’ (John Watersy stuff from Germany and Europe), a generous selection of the weird and wonderful movies coming out of South Korea and Hong Kong these days, and miscellaneous ‘erotic thrillers’ (but no outright porn).  For the expats among you, there are films in English that were never released in Germany, and special sections with movies from Iran, China, India, Iceland, Mexico, and other exotic lands.  For more mainstream fans there’s also plenty of comedies and drama. It’s all laid out logically, if a bit idiosyncratically, and you can search the whole collection at their website.

Much of this stuff is impossible to come by, especially in mainstream German video stores. In fact, I still haven’t even found an rent-by-mail service in Germany that matches the Film Galerie’s selection (although last time I looked was 2006). The Film Galerie is a tad more expensive than conventional video stores (but not if you get a 10-film card, which costs 26 euro), but if there is anything more worth subsidizing than a great neighborhood video store, I don’t know what is. 

Movie-loving friends of mine in other, supposedly cosmopolitan, German cities, complain that they don’t have a single decent video store.  That’s why I keep encouraging the Film Galerie crew to expand…

“Esra”: Forbidden Forever

I’m a bit late in getting around to this, but the German Federal Constitutional Court has issued a decision confirming (G) a lower court’s ban on German novelist Maxim Biller’s novel "Esra." The book revolves around the relationship of two figures named Esra and Adam, a first-person narrator, and was closely modeled on Biller’s personal life. The problem, from the perspective of German law, was that Biller inserted a very big clef into this roman a clef — his novel-girlfriend was identified as the winner of a German film prize, and her mother as the winner of an alternative Nobel Prize — which was also true of his real life girlfriend. 

"Esra" and her mother sued, and won.  The high court’s 5-3 majority (decision (G); summary in press-release format (G)) held that because Biller described personal crises the ex-girlfriend faced and "intimate sexual practices," the novel intruded into the "private sphere" of the real-life person on which the character of Esra was based. So, unless you already have a copy of this novel, you won’t be getting to read it anytime soon. The court also noted that Biller mentioned facts that would have made the woman easily recognizable to a wide pool of persons. In fact, working from the facts mentioned in the court’s opinion, you can find out her name in about 30 seconds of Internet research. (A useful reminder that most lawsuits are filed for symbolic reasons, not to achieve a practical goal…)

Three judges dissented, in two opinions. They attacked the majority’s test for determining the extent to which a fictional character was based on a real one as unworkable: all art, they write, is a "transformation of the real into new realities," and judges are poorly-suited to determine whether an author has undertaken the legally appropriate degree of transformation. The dissenters also objected to the majority’s focus on descriptions of sexual intimacy; since the reader never knows exactly what aspects of a novel are the author’s pure invention, they might not necessarily immediately conlude the character in the novel had actually performed these acts.  Both decisions, say the dissenters, are ones that judges are ill-suited to make; two dissenters even suggest that under the majority’s rule, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther would have been banned.

I tend to agree with the majority opinion here. The longer I live in Germany, the more sympathy I develop for legal rules that protect the private lives of ordinary citizens. These rules seem to have a strong Signalwirkung in Germany; in that the respectable press shies away from reporting details of public figures’ intimate lives to a much greater extent than in the United States, where even the biggest newspapers run columns analyzing politicians’ weight, hairstyle, home decoration taste, and even preference in underwear. Some people see this American obsession with personality trivia as a harmless distraction, but I think history, over the past six years or so, has shown that it can have grave world-historical consequences.

Of course, the laws themselves are the product of cultural factors. As the article I quoted a few weeks ago shows, even in daily interaction, Germans keep many aspects of their private lives to themselves, and therefore understand the rationale of laws that help them do this.  Another point in favor of the majority opinion is the ease with which Biller could have changed some of the details in the novel.  Because of the details Biller discusses, it’s not just the small circle of people who knew Biller would be able to identify the character.  That’s the risk anyone who sleeps with a writer takes. What Biller did revealed the woman’s identity to the much larger pool of people who know who won the German film prize in that particular year.  Finally, on an aesthetic note, I find novels in which writers neurotically dissect their personal lives kind of superfluous, so anything that discourages more of them can’t be all bad.  Here, I note that Biller very unwisely sent his ex-lover a copy of the book saying he wrote it "only for you" to show the woman how much he loved her.  The majority couldn’t help citing this fact on the first page of its opinion.

But, the American in me can never get used to the idea of banning a book (rather than awarding money damages after the fact), and the dissenters do make a pretty convincing case for what, in American constitutional law, would be called the "chilling effect" of the majority’s rule.  You probably don’t want novelists constantly looking over their own shoulders, monitoring whether they have altered enough details of a particular character who could be mistaken for a real person, and the majority’s rule would seem to bring about just this situation.

So, to sum up, if I could be split into 8 different people, I would rule just as the court did: 5-3.

Welcome to the Bee Bunker

Most German cities have a pedestrian zone lined with bars and fast-food joints where certain locals go to get sozzled on weekend nights. These pedestrian zones range from the reasonably charming to…Moenchengladbach.  Most of the bars in Moenchengladbachs’ Waldhaueserstrasse look like the kind of places that will greet you with the stench of ammonia and stale cigarette smoke once you open the door, but the bunker-like ‘Bee Basket Night Club’ takes the cake for uninvitingness:


Note the stains near the bottom of the walls, almost certainly caused by decades of human and canine — but mostly human — urination.

Kind of makes you wonder what exactly goes on inside there, doesn’t it? (Don’t answer that).

Why Beautiful People are Intelligent

While doing some research on voter behavior, I came across the website of Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. Evolutionary psychologists study human behavior on a mass scale, tracking large samples of people across cultures.

They study questions such as the degree to which intelligence determines success, what sort of things men and women look for in their mates, whether monogamy is workable, why we discriminate on the basis of gender and race, and whether attractive people fare better than ugly ones. Evolutionary psychology is fascinating to some people, disturbing to other people, and both things at once to most.  Generally, the findings annihilate the comforting platitudes and improving slogans your parents or your religion may have taught you:

  • Your success in life will largely be determined by your intelligence, which, in turn, is strongly determined by your parents’ genes and good nutrition.
  • Men prefer young, attractive women, while women prefer high-status, wealthy men.
  • All things considered, beautiful people (especially women) have it easy in life, because people like and trust them more and because they’re generally smarter than ugly people.
  • Our basic disposition is to fear and distrust people of different races and ethnicities, especially if they are visually different from us.
  • Things that are essential to who ‘you’ are (tastes in clothing, books, and music; general disposition; political and religious opinions) are influenced by your genes much more than you might want to acknowledge.
  • In the absence of strong social taboos, lifelong monogamy is rare. As men age and increase in status and wealth, they will divorce their aging wives and marry younger women, who will be attracted to them because of their increasing status and wealth.  The older wives they divorce are unlikely to remarry.

Don’t try to disprove these assertions by reference to some individual case of a long-lasting marriage or dumb, successful pop star. We’re talking about general rules here. Even a roomful of 90-year-old smokers doesn’t disprove the link between smoking and cancer.  And besides, for every counter-example, you can cite dozens of confirming examples, such as intelligent, high-status, wealthy, hideously ugly men discarding their aging wives and marrying beautiful young women. Men like Slavoj Zizek and Salman Rushdie.

Kanazawa appears frenetically productive, and tends to write short, punchy papers taking aim at one or another sacred cow.  They’re all available online, and have catchy titles such as Why Beautiful People are More Intelligent (pdf):

From the evolutionary psychological perspective, there are theoretical reasons to expect that higher status men [who, by hypothesis and according to most studies, are more intelligent] and beautiful women marry each other. Buss’ (1994) extensive cross-cultural data on criteria of mate selection indicate that men in all cultures prefer physically attractive women as their mates, and women in all cultures prefer wealthy men of high status as their mates. There have also been experimental demonstrations that men prefer to mate with physically attractive women and women prefer to mate with socially dominant men…. Because not every man can marry a beautiful woman, and not every woman can marry a wealthy man of high status (even in polygynous societies), it is natural to assume that more desirable (i.e., higher-status) men will marry more desirable (i.e., beautiful) women. The process of assortative mating should unite higher-status men and physically attractive women in mateships.

or Teaching May Be Hazardous to Your Marriage (pdf):

Few occupations and professions afford greater opportunities to come in contact with women in their teenage years than teachers in secondary and postsecondary schools. These teachers experience the cumulative effect of exposure to young, attractive women who are at their peak reproductive value more acutely than people in most other occupations…. [M]ale teachers in secondary and postsecondary schools should be more dissatisfied with their mates than other people. If there are behavioral consequences to their dissatisfaction, then these male teachers should be more likely to be divorced or separated than others…. [S]imultaneously being male and being a secondary school teacher or college professor statistically significantly increases the likelihood of being currently divorced.