Yesterday I visited friends in Cologne and my bicycle broke down on the way without warning (the left pedal froze up). So I decided to park the bike near the Cologne Central Station so I could take a train to my destination. I was running late, so I didn’t have time to figure out how to use the ‘official’ Radstation bike parking, which is indoors. I parked my ride in a legal, official bike-parking stand next to the bus station and taxi rank, and went about my business, with a feeling of unease, since my bike was a pretty valuable Bulls Cross RS 1. Nevertheless, I reassured myself that at least the bike was in a highly-trafficked area. I looked around for video surveillance, but saw none.
When I got back a few hours later, the bike was gone, of course. Bike theft is endemic in Germany, so it wasn’t a stunning surprise, but it still makes one’s blood boil. I have dreams of finding someone riding the bike, tearing them off my precious steed, and inflicting exquisite tortures on them. But the bike’s almost certainly in the back of some truck, halfway to Latvia by now.
Fortunately, Germany’s crack police agencies have a sophisticated and well-funded system for recapturing stolen bikes called “BikeFinder 3.0”, so I’ll surely get it back in a few weeks. Just kidding! The chance of recovering a stolen bike in Germany hovers just over 0% (g). Once your bike’s gone, it’s gone, baby. German cops have much bigger fish to fry — in the 2000s, state and federal governments started slashing police budgets, anticipating a continuing decrease in crime caused by an aging society. Then, starting in 2015, federal politicians decided to allow almost a million young males from the most unstable parts of the globe into Germany without any background checks. The rest, as they say, is history (German prisons now have the highest proportion of foreign-born inmates in history (g)).
Endemic bike theft represents a larger policy failure. Germany wants to meet climate goals and reduce pollution by encouraging people to ride trains and bikes. But they’re simultaneously allowing trains and bikes to become ever more inefficient and risky. The German national train system, Deutsche Bahn, has been spiraling into crisis for years owing to relentless budget-cutting. On-time performance has decreased year after year even as ticket prices rise. Security on trains has also deteriorated, with attacks on train personnel sharply increasing (g) and many local train companies introducing police-like bodycams (g). After the first unpleasant incident on a late train, you might just chalk it up to chance. But after the 10th, or 20th, you will decide that investing in a car now makes sense.
German cities have created an increasing number of bike paths and bike infrastructure, but what good are those when you can’t park your bike safely, and have zero chance of recovering it after theft? If the chance of your bike being (1) stolen and (2) never recovered is more than negligible, and if you need ever-more expensive and inconvenient devices to prevent theft, the attractiveness of bicycles as a form of transport slowly erodes. And you’ll think longer about buying a car. After all, it’s getting harder and harder to steal cars.
German politicians don’t seem to perceive the links between safety and security and transportation choices. One sign of this is the embittered resistance to video surveillance. Video cameras are pretty much ubiquitous in private spaces in Germany because it’s cheap and it works. But when it comes to installing video surveillance in public areas, some left/Green politicians still trundle out antique arguments about Orwellian privacy loss and Stasi spying. It never seems to enter their minds that the trivial loss of privacy caused by your image being captured for a few fleeting seconds might be outweighed by the documented proof that video surveillance reduces crime and disorder and increases the reliability and success of criminal prosecutions.
There will never be 100% security against bike thefts, but it should be easily manageable to provide security for an open, public bike parking structure on public property with 100 bikes attached to it, like the one I used. Point some cameras at it, have someone actually looking at those cameras, and post large notices to announce the fact that it’s under camera surveillance. Even better, add an armed cop to patrol the public bike-parking areas every 30 minutes or so, on the lookout for suspicious behavior.
And right about now, with the loss fresh in my mind, I would be fine with giving that cop the right to beat bike thieves to death on the spot, and then hang their lifeless, flayed corpses on a nearby gibbet.
You won’t stop every bike theft, but you can at least offer ordinary citizens the reassurance that if they park a bike at a large open bike-parking lot near a main train station, it will be there when they get back. Shouldn’t that be the least we expect for the taxes we pay?
An editor’s website advises Germans not to use the word ‘fuck’ in professional settings:
A lot of Germans are surprised to find out that Brits and Americans can be rather prudish when it comes to using swear words. After all, in TV and movies, they hear the F word all the time so they don’t realise that in everyday life in the UK and the USA, swearwords can be quite controversial.
When I first came to Germany, I was astonished how many people swore, even in business situations and in front of children. Even children in Kindergarten were told so say, “Armeisenscheiße!” instead of saying, “Cheese!”, when getting their photograph taken.
This is sort of true, sort of not. Germans will often use the English word ‘fuck’ in all sorts of situations — both in Germany and France, it’s often used to express dismay at a minor catastrophe: dropping an ice-cream cone, or stubbing a toe against a piece of furniture, getting shot. And then there was the notorious ‘Fuck the Diet‘ (in English) ad slogan by a German food company.
Many Germans simply don’t understand quite how rude this word is in English. One handy guide is to tell them that it’s as rude in English as the word ficken (“to fuck”) is in German, which is very rude indeed. Why they wouldn’t have understood this from the beginning is an interesting question. My guess is that it comes from watching American movies and TV shows, where characters say “fuck” far more than ordinary Americans do in real life:
On the other hand, the German law students I used to teach nearly jumped out of their skins the first time I dropped an ‘f-bomb’ on them. German law students, bless their prim little hearts, are old-school haute bourgeoisie. Think wooden toys, recorder lessons, set mealtimes, and choir practice.
I didn’t do it for effect — not at first. I just naturally sometimes say ‘fuck’, don’t we all? Most of my law professors dropped an effy once in a while, although of course they didn’t make a habit of it.
Eventually, I confess, I started dropping f-bombs just for the fun of it. They never failed to elicit a few gasps and chuckles. To prepare my students, I decided to play an educational recording for them about the word ‘fuck’ in English:
This really helped cross the cultural bridge!
One of the many advantages of life in one of the world’s most cultured cities is that, in addition to the ‘official’ public museums and galleries run by the city, there are dozens of exquisitely-run, professional-standard small private museums and galleries to explore.
When Julia Stoschek inherited millions from her family’s auto-parts business, she did what many wealthy Germans do: she began collecting art, focusing on contemporary video and installation art — or, as the promotional material for the collection puts it, “time-based” art. By all accounts, she’s a thoughtful and dedicated connoisseur (or is it connoisseuse?).
Just over ten years ago, she converted a former factory built in 1907 (g) in the tony suburb of Oberkassel to house her collection, with a nod to Beuys at the entrance.
The Julia Stoschek Collection is open to the public for free every Sunday. It has a theater in the basement for showing art films and films about art, and several exhibition floors designed for video installations. Some of the rooms are open, others are closed inside glass walls to limit sonic bleedover and enable better concentration. This means views within the museum offer layered reflections of several different pieces at once:
The current exhibition is ‘New Metallurgists’, featuring recent works by Chinese artists.
The reference to metallurgy is derived from some bit of Deleuze/Guattari foofaraw which need not detain us further.
Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m rarely impressed by contemporary Chinese art. Too often, it combines an obligatory shout-out to China’s Rich Cultural Heritage™ with a cheeky reference to contemporary ‘social issues’. Yang Yongliang‘s traditional landscapes speckled with building cranes and half-finished housing developments, for instance, or basically anything by Ai Weiwei. Snarky juxtaposition only takes me so far. Maybe it’s the German in me, but art doesn’t get its hooks into me unless it has a seam of the ineffable/oneiric/eerily sublime buried in it somewhere.
Some of pieces in ‘New Metallurgists’ don’t get far beyond the snarky juxtaposition, for instance a piece tracking the many interim owners of a mid-sized airplane scattered about the globe, or an three-part video display tracking hundreds of players in a World of Warcraft game.
Other pieces were less on the nose. Fang Di was represented by three cheeky, trippy works the length and style of music videos, the most interesting of which was Triumph in the Skies, in which three cyborg flight attendants with creamy, soft plastic sex-doll faces cavort in a sort of post-apocalyptic cave bar.
Warm Spell by Shen Xin is a 35 minute long (many of the works are around this length) exploration of a Thai tourist resort, stripped of all conventional narrative. The effects of mass tourism are hinted at, but the film is mostly an moistly atmospheric, meandering, hypnotic exploration of jungle, sea, and people working. There is a bit of narration, in broken English and Thai, by a native, some of which is translated, some of which isn’t. Other pieces that caught my eye were the 9-minute Ecdysiast Molt (what a title!) by Yao Quingmei, an impossible-to-categorize work in which an amateur choir sings and recites odd bits of philosophy and song while a traffic cop seems to guide an ecdysiast (striptease artist, that is) through her performance.
And then there were two pieces by Wang Tuo, the most interesting being Smoke and Fire, which juxtaposes an elliptical portrayal of a migrant worker’s revenge killing filmed in color with grainy black-and-white interludes depicting fragments of Chinese revenge and ghost stories. It all hangs together, and falls apart, in an agreeably dreamlike way.
Overall many sharp, provocative pieces in an interesting space. It seems churlish to complain about a free museum, but the bare benches in many of the rooms were too uncomfortable to sit on for the longer pieces, and the headphones were too loud, although that might have been the artists’ specification.
The First German Bratwurst Museum (g) in Holzhausen, Thuringia is so popular it’s outgrown its present location. The nearby town of Mühlhausen invited the wurst-lovers to relocate to a former military base of the East German army on the outskirts of town. The area is now abandoned and overgrown. It seemed like a perfect match, and the museum began drawing up plans.
But then came a hitch. Turns out that before it was an East German military base, the area was an “satellite camp” (g) of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Satellite camps hosted forced-labor detachments transferred to live and work on location in factories or quarries.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been a problem if the museum were a thoughtful, sober meditation on the history of the sizzling pork tubes. But no. The planned museum features a “bratwurst cannon”, a bratwurst song contest, a golden pig and — best of all, a “walk-in bratwurst”. This is a photo from inside the current “world’s largest walk-in bratwurst”:
Alas, the plans for a sausage museum on a former slave-labor camp did not go down well in Germany, and it’s probably not going to happen. I personally would have suggested combining the two purposes, but then again, not all of my ideas are good ones.
Post-war German literature never generated international household names except for Günter Grass and, later, W.G. Sebald. Anyone can recognize what it means for a character to read Sartre or Camus, but Johnson or Bachmann are likely to elicit only head-scratching. There’s something about German writing — its ‘interiority’, long sentences and paragraphs, tendency toward abstraction, and often quasi-mystical or fantastic elements — that makes it a bit of an acquired taste, although it’s one well worth acquiring.
That’s why name-checks of modern German writers tend to be rare. My favorite came from a very unexpected place: the ‘Parker’ novels, the best hard-boiled crime novels before James Ellroy. They were written by Donald E. Westlake under the pen name Richard Stark. Here is how Wikipedia describes Parker:
A ruthless career criminal, Parker has almost no traditional redeeming qualities, aside from efficiency and professionalism. Parker is callous, meticulous, and perfectly willing to commit murder if he deems it necessary. He does, however, live by one ethical principle: he will not double-cross another professional criminal with whom he is working, unless they try to double-cross him. Should that happen, Parker will unhesitatingly undertake to exact a thorough and brutal revenge.
So there I am, listening to one of Parker novels from the early 1960s. A peripheral female character has intellectual/beatnik tendencies, as evinced by the collection of avant-garde literature on her bookshelves, including books by Uwe Johnson.
Wait, what? A fictional early-60s beatnik living in a fictional town in the American West is reading Uwe Johnson in translation? Of course, it would have been über-beatnik if she were reading Johnson in German. (Or would it?) In any case, I checked, and yes, there were English translations of Johnson’s books available in the early 1960s.
And now, a second random upcropping of the German literary post-war avant-garde. This one is in an even stranger context: A book reviewer noticed the unusually large number of books with “horse latitudes” in the title, and decided to read every one of them. The result is worth reading, but what grabbed my attention was entry number 4:
4. The Egghead Republic: A Short Novel from the Horse Latitudes (1957), Arno Schmidt.
This is a deeply weird, out-of-print German experimental novel. It concerns itself with dividing walls, radiation, and juvenile sexual frolicking in about equal parts. A possibly unintended commentary on what was happening in Germany post-war, but also a deliberate commentary on punctuation. It’s sexist and racist and totally daffy and pretty wonderful.
Title Relevance: 4/5. The novel takes place aboard a jet-propelled island that can only safely inhabit the horse latitudes because the water is calm there. No actual horses are at risk.
Quote: “And upon renewed stroking and whispering: they snorted in exasperation (must also have been inhibited by their ridiculously thick gonads: half horse, half human: horse latitudes!)”
Describing Schmidt as “deeply weird” barely scratches the surface. I haven’t read this book either in German or in English, but it looks like I’ll be needing to soon.
From a Facebook friend who doubtless wishes to remain nameless, this review of a 1966 ‘adult fantasy’ novel about … Nazi leprechauns. I give you The Little People. Grady Hendrix of Tor.com read this book so you don’t have to:
Christopher … introduces us to the Gestapochauns: a gang of miniature people living in the castle and battling rats with their tiny bullwhips. He then clears the hurdle and jumps the shark all at once by letting us know that these are not just any Nazi leprechauns. These are Jewish psychic Nazi leprechauns who enjoy S&M, are covered with scars from pleasure/pain sessions with their creator, were trained as sex slaves for full-sized human men, and are actually stunted fetuses taken from Jewish concentration camp victims. And one of them is named Adolph.
Take a moment to wipe the sweat from your brow.
While all this information is being hosed into the reader’s eyes like a geyser of crazy, this book rockets from 0 to 60 on the Loony-meter and over-delivers on practically every front. From the moment the Gestapochauns play a mean practical joke on the old Irish washerwoman who works in the kitchen to the moment the lawyer/fiance realizes exactly what—my God!—the tiny Nazi Leprechaun named Greta is actually up to inside his pants, it’s one long, 50-page passage in which this book is firing on every cylinder, and then some cylinders that don’t even exist in our dimension.
I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while, but one of my New Years’ resolutions is to revive the blog. Going to try to make it more regular.
Today’s German words of the week are probably familiar even to some of the non-German-Powered®. They are:
Scheißen (SHY-sin): to shit.
Schießen (SHE-sin): to shoot.
You can see the blunt Germanic roots of our Anglo-Saxon English. In German, you always pronounce ie or ‘ie’ according to which letter comes last. Weiner is VIGH-nehr. Wiener ist VEE-nur.
By the way, that ß is called, in German, the esszet. (ess-tzett) It looks like a stray bit of Thai. Foreigners love it almost as much as umlauts. The last reform of written German reduced the use of ß, which I found regrettable. Some people even want to ban it entirely. I say to them: you can have my ß when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
Where was I? Oh right the shoot/shit scheißen/schießen confusion potential. Here is a picture of a news brief from a Facebook feed called “Pearls of Local Journalism”, which collects gaffes from local news:
No Medals for Ski-Hunters
Yesterday, the German men’s biathlon team failed during shitting. Today, the women are expected to make up for it. Page 19
It did require some tedious explanation, but it was worth it, no?
The other day I was listening to ‘Bikini Girls with Machine Guns’:
I misheard the lyrics as “Bikini Goebbels with Machine Guns.” Now I can’t get the image of Goebbels in a bikini out of my mind. And neither can you. You’re welcome.
A few years ago, a shop opened up on the Aachener Straße, in my beloved Bilk neighborhood. At first they stripped the walls down to the bricks, which led us all to thing yet another coffeeshop was coming. All that was needed was Edison bulbs, and the Global Coffee Shop aesthetic would be complete.
But no. Instead, the shop filled up with neatly-organized racks of what look like oscilloscopes, and tables piled with…something:
It looks like a Stasi listening post, but I doubt many Stasi listening posts were housed at street level behind a glass facade. You can often see a man puttering around in overalls inside. He’ll give you a friendly wave if you make eye contact at him.
The workshop — if it is a workshop, and not something far more sinister — has no name or sign of any kind. It’s not listed on Google Maps.
What the hell is going on here?
Bochum places fourth, out-uglied by Regensburg, Siegen, and Bielefeld.
Some may ask: Wait, I thought German universities were quaint and picturesque, like Heidelberg or Tübingen. Don’t you study in old castles, or at least with views of old castles?
There are two separate kinds of German universities. The first kind are established old universities, which often don’t have any ‘campus’ as such; their faculties are spread out around the city, in buildings ancient and modern. These are the kinds of traditional universities people spontaneously associate with the phrase ‘German university’ (if they associate anything at all).
But that’s not where most German students learn. Almost all of the universities on the most-ugly list were thrown up hastily in the 1960s and 1970s. Along with various other social movements, there was a mass movement to reform the German university system, which was regarded as outdated and elitist. Criteria for university admission were drastically loosened, and a system of free tuition and student stipends was intended to reduce financial bias in admissions. As a result, the number of students at German universities quadrupled (g) between 1970 and 1997.
Lots of new buildings were needed for all these new students, and — alas — the need for these new buildings coincided with the flowering of Brutalism, the most inhumane and arrogant architectural movement in human history. Yes, there are some interesting and even beautiful Brutalist buildings. But for every one of them, there are 20 soul-crushing banalities.
Sad fact: The reason Brutalism prevailed was not because it was wise or inspiring or but because it was cheap. Just pour 50,000 tons of concrete into prefabricated molds and Bingo! There’s your university. What’s that you say? No, my friend, you don’t need to put anything over that concrete. Students and professors will be mesmerized and enchanted by thousands of cubic yards of stained, graying concrete and pea-gravel bearing the imprint of the wooden forms into which it was poured. Why cover that fascinating vision in gray with bourgeois fripperies like molding or paneling or paint or any fucking form of decoration whatsoever?
So that’s how newer German universities got to be the way they are. As I often told visitors to the University of Düsseldorf (which could have fit neatly in this Vice article): “Yes, most of this University is composed of hideous, soul-crushing bunkers which look as if their only purpose was to survive nuclear war. But this is what education in a social democracy looks like. The buildings are cheap, the salaries low, and middle-management basically non-existent. But you can still get a good education here if you put a lot of work into it. And that education is free. Which would you rather endure: 4 years of study in this monstrosity, or $100,000 in student-loan debt chasing you for the next 30 years?”
Fortunately, things are improving. German unis no longer need to expand at any cost, and now usually commission pleasant-looking buildings. And if they can’t afford to do that, at least they have started covering the naked slabs of exposed concrete with something humans might enjoy looking at. But time is running out: Some of these buildings are going to get protected historical landmark status soon if we’re not careful. Be on the lookout, and be proactive!
Düsseldorf has one of the liveliest street art scenes in Europe, and a good deal of it is pretty interesting. I spotted this on the street called “Am Trippelsberg” yesterday on a bike ride: