Arlesheim, Basel-Landschaft (BL), Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera/Switzerland

[1984 Nikon FE2 SLR 35-mm roll film camera, s/n 1816483, with Nikkor AI 50-mm f/1.8 lens, s/n 2336591, and 52-mm polarizing filter;
Kodak Ektar 125 (Kodak 5101 | Ektar 125-1) 36-exposure colour negative film]

© Copyright photograph by Stephan Alexander Scharnberg, November 1991

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gartow’er Weihnacht



© Copyright photograph by Frohlinde and Klaus Paasche, December 2008

My aunt and uncle (one of my father’s four sisters) e-mailed this photo with their Christmas greetings a few hours ago. They live next to my deceased grandfather’s house, in which my cousin and her family now live.

Gartow is a small town in Landkreis Lüchow-Dannenberg, Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), Deutschland. It is a few kilometres down the road, eastward, from grandfather’s house and orchard in Höhbeck, and nearby Brünkendorf. During the Cold War and the reality of two German nations, this little rural corner bulged into the DDR (Demokratische Deutsche Republik), the communist state. It is here, another few kilometres east, where the river Elbe, coming from the North Sea and Hamburg, disappeared into the DDR at the village of Schnackenburg, famous for its storks and their nests on the thatched roofs of the local houses.

On my summer visits in the 1980s, I often cycled the country roads, paths, and dikes. Grandfather passed away about two weeks after his 100th birthday, simply not waking up one morning. His birthdate was October 18, 1896.

This photo reinforces my many fond Christmas memories.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Coffee

Coffee is an integral, important part of the day for me. I enjoy the taste of a good cup of coffee (French press at home). I need it to get me into a good mood and the right frame of mind in the morning, preceding a long day Monday to Friday doing my two full-time jobs, 9:00 am–3:00 pm (Educational Assistant, Elementary school) and 3:30–11:00 pm (Intensive Adult Services Worker, Group Home for the mentally challenged). I average three cups daily—breakfast, start of evening shift, after supper. I know plenty of people who consume many more cups of caffeine than I do—and not all of them push through two jobs daily.

I don’t like sleeping in too long on the weekends—except for the rare time I am sick or extremely exhausted. Nine or ten o’clock latest, but then I am already off routine, out of rhythm, and as a result more likely to be grumpy. If I were to miss my coffee—watch the Tiger roar!

There is good coffee, there is mediocre coffee, and there is liquid crap—putrid, brown slosh marketed as fine coffee. Bah! Most of the commercial store brands are made of the robusto bean—higher caffeine content, lower quality—unless the tins or bags are clearly marked “100% Arabica”—the premium coffee bean. These latter are passable-to-decent in the drip filter we use at work.

Next up the ladder: Starbucks (the crappiest of the joe franchises, although their staff are usually friendly, many establishments offer a decent seating environment, and many locations/easy access. I am partial to their espresso doppio con panna.

Then there is Tim Hortons (average, and there is the rumour that just won’t die around here: they spike their coffee with nicotine—we all know people who drink lots of joe every day, accompanied by the cigarette—more prevalent in the Maritime provinces).

At the top of the franchise pile, locally, is JJ Bean. They have a couple of locations around Vancouver. Myself, I have only frequented the one on Commercial a little north of the railway cut and Commercial/Broadway SkyTrain Stations. This establishment is generally busy—it is often difficult to get a table, stool, or chair. It is a lively place—the patrons an exuberant, vibrant crowd. There are always more than a few books, newspapers, and laptops open, and educated conversations on the go. The staff is friendly for the most part—even quite knowledgeable and helpful. A nice touch and a sign they know the coffee business: if I order an espresso, they serve me with a water on the side for the palate. This is the first place outside of Italy and Europe I personally have experienced practicing this.

I also like The Grind on Main just a couple of doors south of East King Edward. Friendly service, lots of room front and back, an assortment of free newspapers, magazines, neighbourhood advertisement postcards, and posters of events, free wireless access, and a woman I believe to be the owner or co-owner, and, I think, of Japanese background. She knows some of her daily regulars on a first-name basis. She even remembers a few who do not frequent the place quite as often. She loves to talk, is truly interested in her clientele.

For the most part, I like my coffee pretty basic—preferably in one of the European offerings. None of this pretentious shit, ordering at Starbucks or some similar joint: “I’ll have an extra hot, extra shot, Grande non-fat vanilla latte with a swirl of caramel” or something even more extravagant and perverse.

“That’s not coffee, that’s just showing off. Go to 7–11 and buy yourself a slurpee or something instead. You don’t really want a coffee. You just want everyone in the place to hear how smart and special you are, ordering some fancy, silly concoction that half of everyone else orders, thinking and acting just like you. Bah! You’re the same sort of person that talks loud enough on their cell phone about nothing important. Not everyone on the crowded, standing-room-only 99 B-line UBC express bus wants to hear that you got laid last night, about how shitty it was, but you’ll go out with him or her again because they seem a nice person and a lot like you.”

Absolute number one in my books locally: the independent Continental Coffee on the Drive, Republic of East Vancouver! This place has been around since hippiedom. Rumour or legend has it: the founder/owner of this fine establishment was supplied by Starbucks in the early ’70s when the latter was one little wooden shop across the street from Pike’s Market in Seattle. I remember seeing long-haired dudes traipsing about, delivering sacks of beans—it was the only thing they sold in those early days—every time we were down there. Each time I visit Continental, I have that flashback European experience I pine for and miss a lot. The aroma, the flavour, the satisfaction, the social scene, the ambiance!

When in Paris: there are many fine and decent establishments in the City of Lights catering to the coffee drinker. I know best the neighbourhoods in and around behind Sacré Coeur and Montmartre, toward the Cimetière de Montmartre with its hundred feral cats and mostly large family tombstones—I prefer it over the Père Lachaise cemetery for its unique character. There is usually a choice of servings—stand at the bar, inside table, outside table (cheapest to priciest). In Paris the popular one’s are un café (plain coffee with nothing added, but is strong as it is brewed like espresso); café au lait (a popular French coffee with steamed milk, and it’s almost always wonderful. You will sometimes get the coffee served in one pot or in the cup, and then a pitcher of steamed milk to pour in as you please); café crème (coffee served in a large cup with hot cream); café noisette (espresso with a dash of cream in it. It is called “noisette,” French for hazelnut, because of the rich, dark colour of the coffee); café americain (filtered coffee, similar to traditional American coffee); café léger (espresso with double the water. I generally like a café noisette or a café au lait (dunking la baguette à la confiture into a big, steaming bowl of steamed milk coffee).

In Hamburg: I like a Milchkaffee in the mornings, a Kaffee schwarz in the afternoons. Sipping at an expensive outdoor table in the heart of downtown, in full view of the Außenalster (where my paternal ancestors owned and operated a ship building business, boat rental, and passenger ferry on this man-made lake—a dammed river). And the International Youth Hostel near Landungsbrücke does a fine serving of coffee with their awesome breakfast—the best of any hostel in Continental Europe, as Germans sure know how to put on a spread, hosted in the good, substantial Hamburg style. Breakfast is very important to us Germans. Hamburg’s former coffee exchange—Kaffeebörse—used to be the hub of world. There’s the Kaffeemuseum, Münsterstrasse 23–24 (the coffee museum).

In Stuttgart: in the ’80s I knew a great little place up in the wooded hills of a large park overlooking downtown—the Mozart Café in a stone rotunda much like a bandstand. It was simple, served good, simple fare. I would go for the Schwarzes Frühstück: café noir avec une Gauloise. I used to smoke for the sheer pleasure of it (usually unfiltered Camels or Lucky Strikes, the Virginia tobacco did it—a cigarette or two daily, never more than six a day, then none for days or weeks. My German girlfriend at the time, Claudia, had turned me on to this unique way to kick my ass awake.

In Italy: espresso (known as a caffè in Italy, served in a 3-oz. or a demitasse cup. Strong in taste with a rich bronze froth known as a crema on top); doppio (simply a double espresso); ristretto (more concentrated than a regular espresso that is made with less water); lungo or caffè americano (an espresso made with more water—opposite a ristretto); macchiato (espresso that is “marked” with a dollop of steamed milk on top); caffè corretto (laced with a shot of alcohol—usually “corrected” with grappa, brandy, cognac, sambuca); cappuccino—not ordered after 11:00 am unless you want to get laughed at (espresso with foamed milk and containing equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk); cappuccino scuro (cappuccino prepared with less milk and is a darker color); cappuccino chiaro (cappuccino prepared with more milk—but less than a caffe latte—and is lighter in color); caffè latte (espresso made with more milk than a cappuccino but only a small amount of foam. In Italy it is usually a breakfast drink); latte macchiato (steamed milk that is “marked”—sometimes ornately—with a shot of espresso coffee). I can get a decent espresso in the cheap trackside vending machines in the most waylaid train stations in Italy—better coffee than what Starbucks or Timmies has to offer.

Did you know? Saint John, New Brunswick has twenty-two Tim Hortons outlets, most of them drive-thru, within its city limits—not that big of a city (my 2002 census). Always very friendly service, but smokers galore inside the outlets—many Maritimers still smoke. And, they know immediately you’re not a local—they don’t recognize your face, they hear it in your regional “accent”—they say “You’re from away” in a nice, friendly way.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Laughter

The bellyache takes the cake—laughing so hard I have to roll in the aisles, on my bathroom floor reading on the toilet, or fall from the chair. Laughter so painful, tears come to my eyes. Mother often said, „Nach dem lachen kommen die Tränen” (“After the laughter come the tears.”)

Being German, people assume I have no sense of humour. They say so to my face. They say I never laugh at anything. I do. But when I do, they roll their eyes and say I am childish, immature. I simply don’t laugh at what many others find funny, at what most of the English-speaking world finds funny.

I say “no” to most of stand-up (with notable exception thinking comedians such as George Carlin), to most sitcoms, reality shows, and other trash on television; “no” to much of popular culture—dumbed-down pablum, cheap, condescending entertainment, extolling the lowest common denominator. We fall prey to this after a long, hard day at work, as an easy diversion from the relentless rat race. We are often too busy, overwhelmed, too exhausted and emotionally drained to read, think, and indulge in deep, meaningful conversations. I can not relate. I do not understand that sort of humour. (At times, I, too, succumb to the idiot box.)

I am useless at telling jokes, reciting limericks, or spouting puns. But, sometimes I forget my lack of talent, my lack of understanding, and attempt something, inducing eye whites and groans. Then I remember the foolishness of trying to ingratiate myself at some party, in some circle of co-workers or friends.

Fundamentally, I am a serious person and seen as such by the English mind. But I do laugh—at the foibles of real life, the absurdities and incongruities, the mishaps of others. Half serious, half tongue-in-cheek, I say, “Schadenfreude ist die beste Freude.” This translates as, “Joy from others’ misfortune is the best joy.” Real life is much more humourous than anything popular culture can throw at my feet. Some of the best literature—for me the best of the English language, the French, the German, and the translated works of other languages—the writings that have stood the test of time, serious, high-minded, tragic, are laced with humour and gut-busting laughter. Opera is replete with humour (tragic and comedic), Shakespeare too. Classic tragedy has more humour than contemporary comedy. We Germans are accused of cruelty, laughing at the expense of others. Yes, sometimes taking pleasure from someone else’s misfortune is most enjoyable. It is almost a national past time (but this should not be taken too seriously).

It is a problem of language. German sentence construction rules out the lazy set-ups that English-language humour is based on. Are we Germans really incapable of laughter? No. It is simply that the German language, German humour, is so different that the English mind can not see it, so far away over the horizon. German humour does exist.

Let me quote a few paragraphs from comedian Stewart Lee’s “Lost in translation”, printed in The Guardian, Tuesday, May 23, 2006.

... attitude to the Germans and their supposed lack of a sense of humour is best understood through the example of the joke known to comedy professionals ... as “The German Child.” It goes like this. An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in Lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child’s mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, “Mother. This soup is a little tepid.” The German child’s mother is astonished. “All these years,” she exclaims, “we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the German child, “up until now, everything has been satisfactory.”

The implication of this fabulous joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption leaves ... little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be assured, the German sense of humour not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form [the English mind is] ill-equipped to recognise.

... the idea of stand-up is somewhat alien to the Germans. They have a cabaret tradition of sophisticated satire, cross-dressing and mildly amusing songs, and there are also recognisable mainstream, low-brow comedy tropes in the form of vulgar popular entertainers. But the idea of the conversational, casual, middle-ground of English speaking stand-up comedy is unknown to the Germans.

I enjoy sophisticated satire and mildly amusing songs but I do not care for cross-dressing cabaret and vulgar, popular German entertainers. To continue ...

The flexibility of the English language allows ... to imagine that [the English] are an inherently witty nation, when in fact [they] just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.

... German will not ... allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve [a] failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language’s far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of “pull back and reveals” that constitute much English language humour, the idea of [English] comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.

The German phenomenon of compound words also serves to confound the English sense of humour. In English there are many words that have double or even triple meanings, and whole sitcom plot structures have been built on the confusion that arises from deploying these words at choice moments. Once again, German denies ... this easy option. There is less room for doubt in German because of the language’s infinitely extendable compound words.... English ... surround[s] a noun with adjectives to try to clarify it. In German, they merely bolt more words on to an existing word. Thus a federal constitutional court, which in English exists as three weak fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable structure that is difficult to penetrate linguistically, like that Nazi castle in Where Eagles Dare. The German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion.

... for the smutty British comic writers, it [is] difficult to find a middle-ground between scientifically precise language describing sexual and bodily functions, and outright obscenity. There seem[s] to be no nuanced, nudge-nudge no-man’s land, where English comic sensibilities and German logic could meet on Christmas Day and kick around a few dirty jokes in a cheeky, Carry On-style way. A German theatre director explained that this was because the Germans did not find the human body smutty or funny, due to all attending mixed saunas from an early age.

The geographical accident of Germany has denied Germans the fun [the English] have with language, and it seem[s] ... that their sense of humour [is] built on blunt, seemingly serious statements, which [become] funny simply because of their context.... situations that ... seem [ ] inexplicable, even offensive at the time, hilarious in retrospect.... [a] night in Hannover ... out drinking with some young German actors[:] “You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover,” one of them said. “That is because you bombed them all.” At the time ... shocking and embarrassing. Now it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous English visitor....

Most of my sources of humour tend to be highbrow. A few, but rare, are from the gutter—traces of the crude and coarse interwoven like a few shit brown threads in a silk tapestry of golds and blues. (We Germans have an obsession with shit.)

When I laugh it comes from deep within, thunder rolling from the belly, bursting forth full volume in an aria of aching guffaws and bass notes. I tilt back in my chair, head thrown back and mouth wide open. The gut starts to hurt, tears stream from my eyes. I can not sit or stand any longer. I am at risk of falling to the floor but I still can not stop.

If, say, in a restaurant, you found a group of Germans around one table and a group of English around another, I am willing to bet €1000,00 the Germans would be laughing longer and louder. If you were a fly on the wall at a gathering of friends and family in a German household, or seated at their table, storms of laughter would be present, swirling and spinning, possibly feet and fists banging, chairs and benches threatening to crack and break.

This piece is slightly revised from the original, Saturday, May 26, 2007

Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas

Only sixteen days until Christmas—Christmas Eve, that is. You see, in my experience and cultural upbringing, December 25th was never Christmas for me. It was the evening before. On Christmas Day my family slept in, usually until late morning, the main festivities already behind us. A noontime family dinner would still follow on the 25th or 26th, varying from year to year.

From earliest childhood memory I remember snow (most years—we seemed to have more of it then than now—and I grew up on Vancouver Island, first in Lake Cowichan and Honeymoon Bay, then Duncan). At six o’clock the livingroom door was unlocked and we all walked in to a stunning display of lit candles on the tree. It was a holy light. It was the start of the Twelve Holy Nights. We were calm, quiet, solemn, reverent. I was always in awe of the day. It was magical. We sat around the tree, on the buffalo fur, large straw matts, and wool rugs. We sang many German Christmas carols, listened to an appropriate excerpt from the bible, and then eventually took turns opening gifts and eating from our German paper plates that we reused year after year. I still have mine. Homemade and imported cookies and cakes, a few chocolates, and a mandarin orange each were neatly arranged on them. By now our Advent calendars had all twenty-four of their little doors and windows open. The large Advent wreath hung from the ceiling, all four red candles also lit. The wreath was always of balsam my mother had bound as part of her wreath-making business every year. The tree was usually a Balsam, some years a Noble, and once even a Ponderosa. Some time every November the family went into the woods between Koksilah and Port Renfrew to fill the VW bus to the ceiling with greenery, returning once more mid-December for the tree. My father knew the woods intimately as he was a BCFP forestry crew boss and tree planter. It was cold, hard work in rain or snow, but looking back, a series of memorable adventures. The tree carried thirty-three candles clamped carefully to the branches with silver holders, deep red paper roses, some apples, and the zodiac and star symbols in gold paint on thin jigsawed wood, arranged in a spiritually-significant pattern as indicated by Rudolf Steiner. Years later in my teens I slowly understood the significance of all this. An excellent series of Christmas lectures by Steiner are worth a study. And in all the years we never had a single fire with either the tree or the wreath.

One year, 1971, I believe, I remember seeing—my brother and sister too—the Northern Lights, the beautiful Aurora borealis, so far south as Duncan, snow outside as we three looked out into the dark world, waiting for the door to be unlocked. Once, we also tried looking through the keyhole but it was wisely plugged, likely with a tuft of cotton ball.

I did not grow up with the tradition of Santa Claus. This fat fellow has always been a stranger to me. And now I can not get past the idea that his modern incarnation is a marketing scam cooked up by Coca Cola sometime early in the 20th century. Remember those old, colourful Coke ads in the National Geographic magazines, particularly the issues between the two World Wars? Santa was and is as foreign to me as the black and white photos of the naked African women the magazine was famous for.

My childhood image of Christmas was always the little child Jesus with long golden curls, walking in a wool night shirt and barefoot through the snow, oblivious to the cold, wearing a halo and bathed in a golden light and aura.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Thoughts while riding SkyTrain

It is almost three o’clock. I am on my way to work. It is my evening job in a group home for two mentally challenged men. I didn’t go to my day job this morning, as Educational Assistant at an elementary school for the Burnaby School District. I booked off, sleeping into the early afternoon, exhausted after 42 hours awake.

Problem is, Tuesday evening no overnight staff showed up at eleven o’clock. After a half hour I called my supervisor to notify him of the situation. He did not respond, I left a message. I was a little peeved, stuck here and knowing I have to get up again at 6:30 am for school. No one else on our limited staff list was available. It is an awake position. I completed the night duties and routine. There is nowhere safe to dose with an eye open and an ear alert. These men have the potential for aggression or even violence if you let your guard down. So, I consoled myself with the fact I will earn some nice overtime pay (double time as I am full-time staff). I would somehow muddle through my school job in the morning.

The night was uneventful. I made it through the next day, drinking seven cups of coffee instead of my usual two, almost nodding off at one point in the early afternoon during math tutoring. And I returned for another evening shift.

Somehow I got my second wind. Mind you, I felt punch drunk, slightly reeling at times. I had the second staff immediately double check the medication I administered, as per protocol. I wouldn’t want to screw up such a serious responsibility just because I couldn’t think and work straight.

I remember all the long trans-Atlantic flights (sixteen so far) to and from Europe over the years, and the domestic flights across Canada. Memories of stepping off the airplanes in Amsterdam, London, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Genève, Paris, Milano, Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton, Toronto, Moncton, and Seattle. Then, still having another flight to catch, or the Intercity train, regional train, S-Bahn, U-Bahn, Métro, Tube, street bus, tram, trolley, or Greyhound and the equivalents. Travel that usually took 30-plus or even 40 hours door to door, bed to bed. I was always too excited and a little nervous (the pre-trip jitters no matter how much I love to fly, to travel) to sleep on the flight, almost never closing an eye or two for a few winks. I did not want to miss any of the scenery, the excitement, or miss out on any possible conversations with willing fellow travellers. Upon arrival I would stay up until a normal bedtime but in the new time zone, thus acclimatizing myself much quicker to my new reality.

And so, here I stand in a full SkyTrain car, a short three-station hop after a half hour on the street bus. I think of the Paris Métro and the Hamburg S-Bahn and U-Bahn, and the street cars, subways, and buses in many other European cities. Transit here has grown and improved in the twenty years I live in Vancouver. SkyTrain is a fast, efficient way to get around, downtown or into the neighbouring urban centres. More and more buses are being added to more and more routes. There is still much left to be done until we get even close to what European cities offer. They also usually have much bigger tax bases to draw on. Maybe in another thirty to fifty years we will have a rivalling, vast rapid transit network. Our SkyTrain is unique in that much of it is elevated above ground, fully automated, and without turnstiles (although this latter fact may change someday soon).

When in Paris I love riding their large Métro system, coming in from Charles de Gaulle on the RER, transferring to one of the many Métro lines. The older stations still sport the classic subway tiles. Exit and entry turnstiles and gates control ticket use and abuse between the street and the network. I love to ride lines from end to end, popping up in the many neighbourhoods, surfacing for a closer feel and experience of what each place has to offer.

When in Hamburg (my ancestral city) I find it swift and convenient to transfer from the Intercity train to the S-Bahn or U-Bahn, quickly arriving at the hostel near Landungsbrücken, or some cheaper hotel.