Operation Glasshole™ Concluded

Yesterday, I donned protective gloves and wading boots, and finally finished cleaning up one short stretch of the Düssel river. Here's the video: 

As you can see, another 100 or so bottles, to add to the 100 or so I had fished out before. Plus, this round brought us:

  • A steak knife
  • 7 more bicycle locks
  • a pair of sunglasses
  • one (1) women's boot
  • a 1.5- meter length of rusting steel re-bar
  • a disc-shaped battery-operated IKEA light fixture, complete with rotting batteries
  • 5 plastic bags or pieces of plastic sheeting
  • 1 more umbrella
  • 1 section of metal grille
  • several plastic cups
  • three metal rods and/or picture frame elements
  • one laminated official notice on white A4 paper from the City of Düsseldorf which was formerly attached to the bridge, warning people not to lock their bikes to it until 16 October 2016 because of bridge maintenance.
  • what appeared to be one-half of a foam soccer ball
  • a still-stoppered fake mother-of-pearl perfume bottle
  • several parts of an ironing board
  • a few unclassifiable pieces of metal and plastic which looked like auto or machine parts

I displaced at least 10 juvenile and 2 adult spiny-cheeked crayfish from inside various bottles.

At the end of the day after making several tours of inspection, I could see no more junk. There were still hundreds of bottle caps, but I have my limits. One couple passing by asked me whether I was fishing for eels. After I was done, I had a chat with the Slavic woman who runs the convenience store next to the bridge. She called me "poor guy", and apparently assumed my clean-up operation was a form of punishment. I informed her that I had just gotten fed up and decided to clean up the river. She said "Well, that's nice of you, but let me tell you, people are just going to keep throwing stuff into it. I sit here all day and watch them."

I said that almost all the stuff was covered in silt, which made it seem as if it had been there a long time. She said that, on second thought, that she hadn't seen much littering lately: "There was a group of people who were doing most of it who moved away." She made a certain gesture indicating what sort of people they were, but I couldn't really decipher it. It sort of looked like a mixture of air-bottle glug-glug (drunks) mixed with some kind of arm-waving. Possibly a Nazi salute. But I can't be sure.

This gives me some hope that most of the garbage came from short bursts of antisocial behavior years ago; possibly a gaggle of winos colonizing the riverbank for a few days, throwing their empties (mostly 200 ml flasks of Stepanoff vodka) into the stream. And then, of course, the garbage was passively tolerated by thousands of local residents who crossed the bridge over the years, wrinkling their noses in disapproval but doing nothing about it.

One mystery that's provoked plenty of discussion on my Facebook page is the bicycle locks. A few of them had obviously been cut, but most of them seemed to be intact. Which raises the question of why anyone would throw what appears to be an intact bicycle lock into the stream? My only guess is that some people steal bikes by picking the locks. Then they reattach the lock and throw it in the river, presumably to get rid of evidence. It seems like a fairly ludicrous precaution, given that local police don't even try to solve individual bike thefts. But who knows?

Any guesses about this mystery?

Can All Germans Swim?

There's a heat wave going on in Germany right now. Trains are screeching to a halt, asphalt is melting, and people are flocking to local lakes to cool off. Yesterday, in this part of Germany alone, four adults drowned (g) in those lakes, and one six-year-old boy almost drowned.

This is pretty shocking. Four people in one day! Is this because they can't swim, or can't swim well enough? I wonder whether Germans routinely learn to swim during their education. This is standard in most parts of the USA, where hot weather and swimming pools and beaches are a fact of life. Maybe not so in Germany, where there are perhaps 15 really hot days in any given year.

Or perhaps it's a combination of (1) no lifeguard supervision; (2) alcohol consumption; and (3) murky water and uneven surfaces. Any other theories?

I Have Herpes, and So Does Justine Henin, and So Do You!

And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"

I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected…

…lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.

As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

Which brings us to the tale of how Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin unwittingly became a poster girl for venereal disease. In a 2007 interview, she stated: 

Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?

JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”

So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.

I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.

But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:

With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.

With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.

Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.

And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:

Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?

I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.

Neanderthal Descent and Rock-Crusher

Last weekend I took my GoPro on this fantastic mountain-bike tour (g) through the Neander Valley and nearby areas. The first bit is a fun descent down a hillside road (pardon the stabilizer artifacts, still working on the technology), the second is a panning shot of a 'rock-crusher'. Part of the bike tour goes through Grube 7 (g) (Quarry 7), a former chalk-quarry pit that was closed down in 1964 and allowed to return to nature. There are a few reminders of its former purpose, though, including this huge platform, which was the above-ground portion of a rock crusher, now left to be slowly reclaimed by ivy and mosses. 

Hold Tight to Avoid Beer Spillage

I’m in Hungary right now, so I won’t be watching the Turkey-Germany match.  I pass on a State Department warning to Americans living in Germany, as an email entitled "Hold Tight to Avoid Beer Spillage."  The pedant in me couldn’t help noting the misspelling of a certain Berlin public monument:

On Wednesday evening, June 25, Germany and Turkey will meet in the semifinal round of the 2008 European Football Championship in Basel, Switzerland. Various cities in Germany have set up viewing areas for the public to watch the live broadcast of this game. The "Fan Mile" in front of the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin is expected to draw up to 500,000 German and Turkish fans, Frankfurt am Main will host a public viewing area at the Rossmarkt, and Munich is setting up a large public viewing area at the Olympic Stadium where 30,000 fans are anticipated. Similar events are planned in other cities and spontaneous celebrations or demonstrations related to the match may occur throughout Germany.

Because of the high fan interest in this prestigious semi-final elimination game between Germany and Turkey, there exists the possibility that disturbances, including violent disturbances may occur before, during or after the match, which begins at 20:45. At a minimum, post-game celebrations will likely result in traffic congestion in larger cities. Crowds celebrating previous German and/or Turkish victories have blocked streets and rocked vehicles attempting to pass through them.

I’ll be pretty busy the next few days, but my hotel has Internet access, so I’ll try to post a picture or two.  I can tell you one thing about Hungarian already — it out-umlauts German by 8 to 1!

Tips for World Cup Tourists

So you’re thinking of coming to Germany for the World Cup? Fabulous! I’ll probably be leaving for Rome. If you’d like advice on how to behave, here’s an archive of tips written by foreign residents of Germany for you, courtesy of the Spiegel magazine.

But why rely on foreigners? Instead, I’d advise looking at page 36 of this month’s Titanic, which contains valuable hints written by actual German Mark-Stefan Tietze. What follows is my slightly abridged, and very very loose, translation, of this important contribution to cultural understanding:

Don’t even think about it!

As a World Cup tourist from some underdeveloped region of the world, you should know: not all Germans are Nazis, some of them just want to make a nice profit from you. Nonetheless: there are also tourist traps in Germany, and plenty of behaviors you’re better off avoiding:

Blathering on pointlessly

In Germany, communication is always goal-oriented ("Out of my way!" "Show me your papers!" "Give me the money!").  Things that might count as charming banter in your culture ("May I help you cross the street?" "What glorious rainy weather!" "By the way, I come from Burundi") will be regarded in Germany as superficial blather and a waste of time.

Turning down invitations

If a German actually manages to invite you to his home to show you his own personal recycling system, you must never turn down the invitation. Otherwise, you’ll make another enemy, and what it means to make enemies of Germans you can learn from any history book.

Speaking during meals

It is considered improper to speak during meals in Germany. According to old German custom, you should poke around the plate gloomily for a while, then suddenly choke it all down in one fell swoop. As soon as you see the German national dish, "Sludge with Goo and Meat," before you, you’ll know why.

Conceal your fears

In Germany, culture, economy and cuisine are traditionally based on fear. Germans are accordingly proud of their fears and delight in spreading them. Currently, Germans are afraid about their pensions, dying-out as a nation, and being eliminated in the first round. Don’t be afraid to talk about your own fears (floods, nuclear war, sauerkraut) — but always admit that your hosts’ fears are more important.

Inappropriate Appearance

An inappropriate appearance can injure religious feelings in Germany. Of course, nobody will complain if Catholic Brazilian girls visit churches in their traditional costume of sequined bikinis. However if you happen to be in East Germany, you should avoid provoking the natives by having an unusual skin color. The ancient Germanic gods that are worshiped in these areas strictly forbid it.

Remaining sober during the evening

During the day, Germans like to appear lifeless and stony. During the evening, however, they drink several liters of beer and then suddenly go out of their minds and begin screaming like banshees. You should absolutely join in! Anyone who doesn’t will quickly get smacked in the chops. Of course if you join in, you’ll also get smacked in the chops, but you won’t notice it as much.

Forgetting to mention the war

Never forget to mention the war to Germans! Germans love to prove, in hours-long conversations, that they know a lot about the rather unfortunate parts of their history, and that they’ve learned important things from it. As a follow-up, they’ll be happy to explain to you all the things that suck about your country, and which genocides you should feel responsible for.

I hope this helps apprehensive tourists.  Welcome to Germany, and don’t forget to root for Togo if Germany gets eliminated!

Signal Iduna Park?

Oh weh.  Oh weh.  It’s beginning — Apparently they’re about to rename Dortmund’s Westfalen-Stadion (The Stadium of Westphalia, to translate it in the most dignified manner) to Signal-Iduna Stadium.  An impassioned outcry against the proposed move can be found here

My very respected ladies and gentlemen, I come from the place where the Houston Astros baseball team play.  They play now in Minute Maid Park (which used to be Enron Field, before Enron had, err, certain difficulties).  Notice how nobody even cares whether it’s a ‘field’ or a ‘park.’  When the next company buys it, maybe they’s rename it ‘palace’ or ‘clown’ or ‘sock.’  Who cares what you call the stadium?  The important words are the corporate designation. 

Germany, by contrast, is supposed to be the land where some things are Not for Sale.  It’s the land where books all have to be sold at the same price, to enable the survival of neighborhood bookshops like the fabulous Bibabuze, 100 meters from my front door.  It’s the land where cashiers get to sit down while they work.  It’s the land, in short, in which the people occasionally yank the chain on the pit-bull of capitalism, whack it across the nose with a newspaper, and yell "No!", before it tears another hole in the country’s cultural fabric.

And now this.  Signal-Iduna Stadion.  No matter how cool that name is (much better than Düsseldorf’s limp ‘LTU Arena’), it should not happen. 

Stand up, Dormunders.  Do something.  I’m counting on you.