Friday, July 30, 2010

Annoying the French?

Whilst Simon Winder takes on the Germans Stephen Clarke digs into the tribulations of the Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain. In his book 1000 Years of Annoying the French he picks to pieces the relation between the two countries starting with William the Conqueror in 1066 and ending with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.

One critic wrote: If the book is funny for English readers, it becomes downright hilarious for non-English readers although I personally find some of Clarke's jokes embarrassingly far-fetched, e. g., when he states: At the start of the 100 years' war France was like a widow on a Caribbean cruise: rich, available and convenient, but Edward III didn't raise enough funds for the invasion and had to shuffle home “like an English pensioner hit by the rising euro”.

Otherwise, I learned quite a lot of interesting details, such as Dom Pérignon suffered from excorkulation when the CO2 pressure in the champagne bottles built up. There were explosions too. Thanks to the Brits who made the first rigid bottles in Newcastle the champagne bottled in France could be shipped across the Channel safely. With all those lost bottles Dom Pérignon initially had to calculate with a big margin. This must be the reason why champagne is so expensive or have you ever seen a raised price decreasing? In the future, Clarke hopes for better deals in England with the onset of global warming causing ideal champagne-producing conditions shifting north from France towards vineyards with similar soil on the other side of the Channel.

British humorist Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse once wrote: There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called guillotine. All wrong says Clarke: The earliest type of what we mistakenly call the guillotine was probably* invented in Halifax, northern England, a town whose only other claim to innovation is that is was home to confectioner Violet Mackintosh, the woman who invented Rolos and Quality Street toffees. So to be historically accurate, the guillotine should be called: le Halifax, which would actually have been quite fun, because 200-odd years later, the Académie française would probably still be debating whether to allow the verb halifaxer.
*There are also records of guillotine machines in Ireland in 1307 and in Scotland in 1564.

In 1914, when the first British troops disembarked in France to help the frogs against the Kaiser, His Majesty's government had carefully chosen Scottish Highlanders playing the Marseillaise on their bagpipes reminding the French of their all-time favorite Brit, Mary, Queen of Scots, rather than offending their ego with their old enemy England invading them again. However, the Entente did not last long when more important contingents of those snobbish British soldiers arrived in France who were accustomed to treating their inferiors in a colonial way. As they extended this practice to the mostly rural population, the French took revenge on the rosbifs by regarding them as welcome meal tickets. Their vehicles were the local estaminets (pubs) where for a high price they sold muddy water as beer, red wine made from vinegar and red ink, and white wine made from vinegar leaving out the red ink.

At the beginning of the war when the Germans following the Schlieffen Plan blitzed through Belgium the Tommies soon came under pressure: In retreat, the Brits resorted to their old pillaging tactics, emptying orchards, helping themselves to chickens, eggs, and milk, and stealing coal or ripping down whole farm buildings for firewood. It was the Hundred Years War all over again.

Reading this I remembered a passage in Paul von Hindenburg's memoirs that I had heretofore regarded as wishful thinking. Did the old man (78) correctly recall what happened at the Western front in 1918?: Ballten sich doch Fäuste französischer Soldaten vor unseren Augen unter Schimpfworten gegen den englischen Bundesgenossen. Riefen doch französische Stimmen zu uns herüber: „Heute mit England gegen Euch, morgen mit Euch gegen England!“ (Before our very eyes French soldiers shook their fists at their English allies while calling them names. French voices shouted in our direction: "Today with England against you, tomorrow together with you against England").

I have encountered my share of anti-British sentiment too. Once when conversing with a French friend we came close to the delicate topic of German atrocities committed against la resistance in France during the last war. He probably wanted to comfort me when he said: Manfred, you well know who our arch-enemy is. His remark did not console me at all. On the contrary, I felt deeply embarrassed and had no reply.

Apart from Petit Napoleon, another of Clarke's favorite French targets is the tall General although one originated from Corsica and the other from Lorraine. Churchill had his opinion about De Gaulle as being fascist-minded, opportunistic, unscrupulous, ambitious to the last degree, whilst Mon General asserted: England, like Germany, is our hereditary enemy.

Brotherly hug

As far as Germany is concerned De Gaulle must have changed his mind soon after the war. I remember standing there at Munich's Odeonsplatz in the crowd that hailed the General in 1964 when he shouted in his guttural German: Für Ihr großes deutsches Volk, jawohl! This emphatic yes resulted in ecstatic cheers from the crowd. After all those humiliations in the past, the people did not notice that they were being manipulated. Did those present really think they were suddenly recognized or even loved?

An earlier crowd at the Odeonsplatz. It is August 1, 1914, the beginning of the
First World War with an unemployed Austrian immigrant standing there all delighted.

France and Germany have finally grasped that violence is no solution should problems arise. Is it already love when De Gaulle embraces Adenauer in Reims, Kohl and Mitterrand are holding hands* in Verdun and Sarkozy kisses Merkel both in Paris and Berlin?

*Keen observers noticed
that it was Mitterrand clenching Kohl's hand assuring that his came on top.
Not only my French friends know that I am a Francophile and let me add here: in all my encounters with French men and women, I have never sensed even the slightest anti-German sentiment.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Deutscher Wald

Ah, those Germans and their woods! Yesterday I read an article in our local Badische Zeitung (BZ) about the German woods without a word about Waldsterben. As the mystical and historical aspects of our woods were only briefly touched upon allow me to enlarge a little bit on this, mentioning only those woods that come to my mind right away: The Teutoburg Woods where Arminius beat the Romans thus depriving our ancestors of Latin culture. The Western Woods with cold winds always blowing. The Vienna Woods where Crown Prince Rudolph killed his mistress and then himself. The Saxon Woods with old Bismarck grumbling about our last and least Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Ardennes Woods and the Third Reich's final offensive on the western front before Germany was cut into pieces.

Deep in the woods, lost and hungry: Hänsel and Gretel
approaching the witch's house made out of gingerbread.
Not to forget the Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tale Woods, huge and dark, where people are always lost, are either eaten by bears and wolves or meet friendly dwarfs or wicked witches. You must remember this, A kiss is still a kiss, but also, It's the same old story, A fight for love and glory when a poor but clever guy liberates a beautiful princess in a haunted castle hidden deep in the woods and wanting to marry her. Father King does not like the idea and puts the young man under stress with three usually unsolvable problems. Using witchcraft or some other tricks the nobody eventually succeeds and becomes heir to the throne. The young people live happily thereafter until they die or if they did not die they still live on today.

Enough of those atavistic reflections. Let me rather dig into the BZ article entitled: The trees and we. What I learned was that German attachment to their woods dates back to the Middle Ages where arable farmland was scarce and generally insufficient to feed the families with many children given the poor agricultural yield in those times. There was no room for pastureland thus farmers drove horses, cows, and pigs into the woods to look for their food. Those pigs were particularly happy. For lunch, they ate acorns and beechnuts, dug for cockchafer grubs for dinner and closed their meal with truffles.

The woods generally belonged to the nobles who charged the farmers rental for their use. Whilst in the beginning only a few Pfennigs sufficed in later years the owner asked for more so that the expression Schweinegeld (pigs’ money) was coined and today still means that something is very expensive.

The noble class took good care of their woods as hunting grounds. A good example is the Prussian king’s deer garden that once stretched in Berlin from the Brandenburg Gate to Charlottenburg Palace. The Tiergarten became public when during the 1848 Revolution people got the right to smoke there in public. Were the authorities at that time more liberal than today?

Most of our woods were spared in the 19th century as, contrary to England, the Industrial Revolution in Germany came later and coal from the Ruhr satisfied the need for heat. A notable exception is the Black Forest where glass-works and smelting demanded enormous amounts of wood. The Baden people, however, were clever and soon started a program of afforestation.

Another important use of wood was and still is housing. Although building in stone diminishes the fire risk, in the past, only those people who were steinreich (stone rich) could afford to build stone houses.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


In my free time - of which as a retired person I do not have much or should I rather say much left - I read quite a lot. When visiting a foreign country roaming the bookshops is a must. There I am always looking for the odd reading stuff you do not easily find in Germany. Recently at Füssli's in Zürich two witty books written by two Brits attracted my attention. I like British humor although I probably understand only half of it. In the following I shall concentrate on Simon Winder's book Germania in which as the title correctly suggests the author criticizes my country. Mind you, most of his observations are not negative. As a person who keeps claiming throughout the book being in love with this country Winder has his favourite German characters and places. There are Alexander von Humboldt who is his God and the prince-bishop’s Würzburg Residence in Baroque style with ceiling paintings by Giambettista Tiepolo he admires. How can it be that Winder who has traveled all over Germany and visited so many places mentions several times that he does not speak a word of German? Is he as a British subject proud of it or is it just an understatement?

Throughout the book Winder fights stereotypes like the one about German food. It indeed generally is heavy although varied because cooking in Germany is regional. In fact, Sauerkraut is the specialty in Alsace but that is no German territory.

He rightly points out Germany’s obsession for the Middle Ages when the world still was in order. You find places like Quedlinburg with its neat timber framed houses located at the foot of the Harz Mountains. The Abbey Church holds the grave of Emperor Heinrich the Fowler. He was reburied there in 1930 by another Heinrich (Himmler) who at the same time desecrated the church turning it into an SS shrine of which the counter clark only hesitantly shows a blurred black and white photo on demand.

Beautiful Marburg is another city with a broken history. Saint Elisabeth of Hungary married to Ludwig of Thuringia lived at the Wartburg until the count perished in the 1227 crusade. Badly treated by her husband's kinfolk she moved to Marburg where she died in 1231 as a widow aged ony 24. She was buried there in a Church the Teutonic Order built for her. Later in 1410 the Poles crushed the Knights in the Battle of Tannenberg and stopped Germanic expansion into the East. The church in Marburg also became the final resting place for Paul von Hindenburg the victor of the second Battle of Tannenberg fought in the First World War against the Czar’s army. It was he who as Reichspräsident of the Weimar Republic eventually made Hitler Chancellor in 1933, only to die a little later not seeing what disaster his decision led to.

While reading the pages dealing with old history generally is fun Winder’s entry into the beginning of the 20th century is gloomy. Here I quote what he writes about the end of the First World War: In 1919 ... many among the Allies saw it as an amazing opportunity that so formidable a competitor had been knocked out, apparently forever. This was reflected in the Treaty of Versailles, which among many other things, saddled Germany with dizzying 'reparations', a hugely inflated version of what the Germans had done to France in 1871. The justification was based around German 'war guilt' — a disastrous piece of victor's justice which both absolved the Allies for all responsibility for 1914 and which rang completely untrue within Germany, thereby fermenting further a sense of almost overwhelming grievance across an alarming cross-section of society. This is certainly one reason why Germany followed the Pied Piper of Braunau but there was more in the pipe that Winder simplifies in just one phrase: This layer upon layer of catastrophe - the war, the Versailles Treaty, hyper-inflation, the Depression - provided so many individual German families with reasons to have collective nervous breakdowns that there is no point in hunting for deeper roots.

In his conclusion Winder starts to harp on Nazi-Munich but he must admit that all temples of the Third Reich in the city are long gone except for the Hofbräuhaus. Sitting there over his, as he thought, last stone of beer he observed a Japanese businessman or tourist paying the oompah band for the right to conduct it for one piece of music. To pay the band for conducting is current practice in Bavaria. But the Japanese man was a genius, as he asked them to play Shostakovich's Waltz Number 2 known from the movie Eyes Wide Shut. Winder must have kept his Eyes Wide Open when he concludes: Here, in one of the birthplaces of Nazism, a traditional Bavarian band was playing an American jazz inflected piece by a Soviet composer, made famous by a Jewish-American (Stanley Kubrick) adaptation of a Jewish-Austrian (Arthur Schnitzler) novella, the film's stars being a tiny Scientologist (Tom Cruise) and a lovely Australian (Nicole Kidman). It would be trivial to say that this music buried the past even for a second, but it was enjoyable to tot up the number of ways in which the famous pre-war frequenters of the Hofbräuhaus would have been struck dumb with rage by such a piece. Suddenly I felt aware of how much Germans had themselves put layer upon layer of work, culture and thought on top of their terrible past and that it was possible to sit in the chaos of the early twenty-first Century and feel that actions are being taken every day - even by an oompah band and its drunken Japanese maestro - to build a replenished world in which Munich can be more than just the cradle of Nazism. But the band was now playing 'The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond' and it was time to take the ill-judged decision to have another drink.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sad Dogs

The other day I was passing by a grocery store when I noticed two cute sausage dogs — one straight the other curly haired — sitting in a bicycle trailer parked outside. They were deeply depressed by the absence of their mistress continuously staring into the direction of the store entrance. Their sad looks reminded me of a Disney film I once watched where a father-dog gave his puppies the most important advice in a dog's life: To manipulate human beings, your eyes must show the most sorrowful expression.

The two dogs in the trailer apparently had learned their lesson so well that I started to suffer with them. I stopped and took a couple of photos.

Eventually they ignored me. Was it their mistress approaching from behind? No, it was their master turning up.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A hot weekend in Cologne

Whenever Elisabeth has her class reunion in Köln (Cologne) I accompany her although the girls always want to meet without men. For a couple of hours I enjoy the city on the Rhine all by myself.

This year the girls had chosen the first weekend in July possibly not thinking that in addition to open air television (Germans wrongly call “public viewing”) of the soccer game between Argentina and Germany on July 3, the city hosted Germany’s Christopher Street Parade on July 4. And it was not just warm, it was hot: 38 Centigrades (100 Fahrenheit).

The Christopher Street Parade used to take place in Berlin, Germany's gay capital, but with all the dirt he had to clean up from Unter den Linden - once the gay people had passed - the city’s Lord Mayor Klaus Wowereit eventually decided against his own camp. Did he think that Berlin had enough “cultural” highlights and could be deprived of the Love Parade or did he dislike opening the yearly event reminding the public periodically of his known sexual preference? So the Christopher Street disciples moved into the gay stronghold on the Rhine, into the Hillige Köln. For the city's commerce the event nearly presents a second Carnival.

As far as the soccer game was concerned, the young German team beat the lame Argentinean gauchos 4:0 what the local brewery Gaffel had wrongly commented on a coaster: It is better to drink 0.2, i.e., liters than to lose 0:2.

The local Cologne top-fermented beer is called Kölsch. You should know that it is served in high but thin glasses of 0.2 liters only, not enough for soccer aficionados. Hence the waiters (called Köbes in the local dialect) hardly wait until such a "test-tube" is downed. In passing by with a crate of full glasses they replace any empty glass immediately. Admire the male party on the left sitting around an upright barrel used as a table enjoying glasses of Früh, the Kölsch from another local brewery.

The mile where the gay people were supposed to parade on Sunday was already crowded on Saturday and above all lined with booths offering coulored cloths, fancy medals, beauty articles and open air tatooing but also food and drinks. When I am in Köln one of the objects of my desire is: Rivkochen or in high German: Reibekuchen, in Bavaria: Reiberdatschi, in Hamburg Kartoffelpuffer. When I discovered the sign at a certain distance ahead I moved ahead.

Those crusty deep-fried fritters made from freshly grated potatoes, do they not look delicious in their golden coulor? They did not only look, they were!!

Friday, July 2, 2010


With the space for housing in Freiburg becoming more and more scanty - many persons want to move into the Green City - there is one trick to increase the number of inhabitants per square meter: densification.

People who happened to have a niece view looking from their balcony into neighbour's garden wake up one morning staring into a deep dug hole for an underground parking. This is followed by a year of noise and dust. Walls are thrown up and when this is all over, one morning they look unto their new neighbour’s balcony and table. Soon they know whether he/she takes müsli or croissant for breakfast although I must admit I have not heard about handshakes between neighbours across balconies so far.

The problem of handshakes does definitely not exist at the Westfriedhof (west cemetary) in Cologne where Elisabeth and I usually visit my parents-in-law's gravesite. This time we could not easily find the site. The environment where trees and shrubs had guided us in the past had completely changed. Soon the reason became clear: densification. I took the photo with my parents-in-law's tombstone in the foreground showing a plot of land in the back in preparation for packing corpses into a higher surface density.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

My iPad

I was brought up with mainframe computers and punched cards and later was a proud user of an IBM PC operating under MS-DOS loaded from two floppy disk units. My heart however always belonged to the really small stuff.

I was fascinated by the HP35 and its Reversed Polish Notation. Later I went the whole way programming the HP41CX synthetically and even contributed to HP's program library. The HP100LX fascinated me for years. Eventually my pocket computers amalgamated with my cellular phone so I carried around rather sophisticated Pocket PCs containing all my personal information. That the PPC could also be used to place phone calls was a positive side effect. The text input facilities however of these machines were rather cumbersome with micro keyboards not helping at all when taking notes, e.g., in libraries. So I settled for an HP200 changing it later to the HP720 model for my external text work.
Me and my Jornada 720 (©Wikipedia)
The problem of all these small devices was synchronization. ActiveSync offered by Microsoft for transferring data between my mini stuff and the desktop computer always was a pain in the neck. I often spent hours trying to find out why the machines did not want to mate. Should I not have rather bought a net book for my text processing needs and use USB sticks for data transfer?

Enter the iPhone: With respect to my personal data Apple initially didn't facilitate synchronization between the phone and the desktop either. While addresses always synced rather fairly via iTunes, my agenda kept in Pocket Informant only now works reasonably well with MS Outlook following some real nightmares. With respect to my other data (i.e. frequently needed alphanumerical information) PhatNotes issued their version for the iPhone just in time so all my other data stay safely synchronized in a common database.

But what about text files and all the other stuff? Enter the Cloud and the iPad: Apple offers MobileMe with an iDisk in a cloud where you can store all the files on which you are currently working. No hassle anymore which one of the two files on your small machine or on your desktop PC is the most recent one. You only work on the one and only version on your iPad and your desktop. As a text processor Apple sells Pages for the iPad but curiously this software doesn't presently give access to the MobileMe Cloud. Hence, for the time being I use Quickoffice on the iPad supporting MS data formats fulfilling all my external text processing needs even when working on longer documents.

Do I have to open the word processor for small notes and odd information on the road? Enters the best application so far for iPhone and iPad: Evernote. You open Evernote on one of the iMachines or on your desktop and enter text snippets or pictures. These entries instantaneously are available on all platforms provided you are connected to the Internet.

For me the iPad is the ideal machine when away from my desktop. E-mail, news and Wikipedia on the Internet all at my hands. I have no time watching films or playing games but it seems that other people well find their fill with the iPad.