Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Germans are funny part 2

In the hours leading up to the Christmas Eve festivities I caught some of the news for the day. A famous actor named Johannes Heesters died at the age of 108. The man’s career is impressive, spanning decades of theater, film and music. He was even appearing in films and plays earlier this year before his passing on Christmas Eve.

Later that evening at home I was introduced to a classic comedy movie from 1985 titled Otto der Film. I must admit that though my language skills are adequate, watching TV and especially movies is still a formidable task. I’ve found particularly with comedies that a lot of the humor lies in word play and regional expressions, which I still struggle to grasp in the moment (imagine those situations where you catch yourself laughing at a joke you’d heard half an hour ago). Most of the time, I manage to get a few of the puns and enjoy some of the witty banter but by and large a lot of the dialogue kind of escapes me.

This particular film was however easier to follow. A lot of its humor was in physical comedy. True to its time, it was a pretty safe laugh to have your protagonist accidentally light something on fire or nearly escape a comical death. In addition to these slapstick situations, this film had an almost annoyingly entertaining lead character, Otto (Waalkes), a film and music star whose career continues to such contemporary works as voicing the sloth in the German Ice Age films. Otto, a young man from a small town setting, comes to the big city (Hamburg) to make his fortune. Most of all he is engaged with two problems: How can he impress Silvia, a rich young girl whose life he accidentally saves, and where does he get 9876,50 Deutsche Marks to pay off a loan shark he struck a dubious deal with to get his start up funds? 

Incidentally, the aforementioned Johannes Heesters even has a cameo in this film. After saving the life of Silvia, Otto meets her parents. Obviously his eccentric nature is a clear juxtaposition to Silvia’s privileged upbringing, and nothing her stuffy mother approves of in comparison to the Brazilian suitor Ernesto. As a thank you, Silvia’s mother gives Otto an old bottle of wine. After singing the mother to sleep with a comedic song about sheep, he thought briefly about stealing a piece of jewelry to cover his debt, but a recurring theme in the film, Otto’s moral dialogue of good guy on one shoulder bad one on the other, talked him out of it.

Later in the film, Otto, after throwing back a few, crashes a classy dinner at the Crème de la Crème, where he hopes to profess his love for Silvia in front of the high society guests. Naturally, this plan goes awry and Otto ends up being thrown out of the restaurant. In a fit of anger, Otto rifles through the trunk of his shabby car to find something to throw and comes across the bottle of wine. Cue Johannes Heesters, who stops Otto mid-throw to urge him not to waste a bottle of wine. The two then open the bottle (Johannes obviously had a cork screw and paper cups), and toasted. After a few sips, and a bit of dialogue, Johannes begins to comment on the quality of this wine. He speculates it’s from 1902 or perhaps even 1901. He then checks the label to find it’s an 1899 bottle of wine. He rejoices in how lucky he is to savor such a treasure, Otto seemingly unimpressed with the quality shrugs and continues to slurp. The man then goes on to comment on how much a bottle like this one brought in at a recent auction. Can you guess the amount? Spoiler alert, it’s exactly how much he owes.

Not only physical comedy and irony, this film also boasts a bit of parodying, as well as a nod to classic American cinema (in this humble observer’s opinion). After having a meaty dinner at a local Greek restaurant with his beloved Silvia, there is a sudden rainstorm. A la Gene Kelly, Otto opens his umbrella and does a charming dance in the rain, leaving Silvia cold and wet. After his little dance, they begin walking in the direction of a cemetery when suddenly, out of the graves bodies start moving. Keep in mind this is 1985, a few years after Michael Jackson’s, “Thriller.” All of a sudden there are a group of men, whom I later found out were dressed as a German folk singer Heino singing one of his songs all in a zombie like robot motion.  I only got one level of the humor, as I could clearly tell it was a take on Thriller, but had to have the folk singer part explained to me.
(please excuse the second screenshot, I felt it was necessary, despite the poor quality, to illustrate what I consider to be the tribute)

Smash cut to the end, Otto ends up dressed as a flight attendant on a plane with Silvia, her mother, Ernesto, and a bunch of Karneval clad party goers on their way to Rio. Aboard are two bank robbers who knocked out the pilot and co-pilot and forced Otto to fly. He lands on what he thinks is Cuba but is actually an aircraft carrier. Turns out, Ernesto wasn’t as rich as he said he was and Silvia and Otto end up together. 

It was worth a laugh and at least I'm to the point where I can follow a movie! Here is a video clip, he could certainly have lent some noise to the Stomp crew.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Word of the week: Schöne Feiertage und einen guten Rutsch!

Schöne Feiertage/Frohes Fest/Frohe Weihnachten und einen guten Rutsch! : Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Last night was kind of the main event here. On Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) we traded gifts (Bescherung) and had a lovely meal. In fact here, the 25th and 26th are both part of the Christmas holidays. I've had students and colleagues explain it to me as somewhat necessary as people usually have to visit more than one set of family members and therefore it's easier when there are two holidays for that. This year Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday, which is kind of unfortunate for some who cannot take the week following the holiday off. However, as a teacher I tend to get breaks when students get breaks, so that's kind of nice.

The last few weeks have been relatively busy for me. I am teaching a couple classes at a university. The semester ends in February and I have to prepare the final exams and I've been pretty occupied with that, in addition to other lessons. But as of Friday I submitted everything and now reserve the right to chill for a week until after the new year! At the end of each lesson I had (the last lesson before the break I mean), most would use this expression, "Schöne Feiertage und einen guten Rutsch!" or at least ask me what the equivalent is in English.

If you were to translate literally, guten Rutsch is like have a nice slip, from the verb rutschen (slip, skid). The intended meaning of the expression is that when someone wishes you einen guten Rutsch, they hope that you come safely and happily into the new year. Some claim the word choice of this common holiday expression has to do with the weather, given that in this time of year it can be very cold and icy, hence an increased potential for slipping. So in this case you wish someone a nice slip, one that brings them well into the new year. Others claim the etymology lie
in the wishes of the Jewish New Year Rosch ha-Schana (Hebrew: Head of year) by Yiddish-speaking Jews as "Gut Rosch," which over time was borrowed into German.

In any case, it's a way of wishing a happy new year, which I do to you! Below are just a few pictures from the last week. Enjoy your holiday!

Last day of the Christmas market

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Crowd swimming in the Christmas Market

You knew it was coming, a Christmas market post. Living in Aachen it’s virtually impossible to avoid. In Germany alone there are thousands of Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets), from the larger cities with their respectively larger markets (Munich, Berlin, Cologne), to even the smallest of villages will have some kind of Christmas related event (most commonly in the form of a market). The opening of Christmas markets is somehow connected to Advent; Aachen’s market opened a week before the first day of Advent, and runs until the 23rd of December. Not all markets run that long, or are even open from morning until night.

It’s no wonder Aachen’s market is considered one of the larger. We’re quite close to the border of France, Belgium and the Netherlands; it’s also a popular destination for British people as well. There are of course tourists from all over the world in addition; bringing estimates to 1,5 million visitors per season. Walking around you hear all kinds of languages, and announcements made over the loudspeaker for security are in German, French, English and Dutch. During the day it’s packed with school kids and tourists, and at night it fills further when even the locals come out to meet up with family, friends and co-workers.

With more than 120 Stände (stalls), you can quench any thirst or satiate any holiday cravings. There’s the standard Glühwein, or Lumomba (hot chocolate served with amaretto or Bailey’s). There’s Eierpunsch (I guess something similar to eggnog), there’s even Jägertee (tea served with Jägermeister). If you’re feeling noshy (fun fact: nosh is another German loan word from “noschen” the verb that means the same), there’s no shortage of savory and sweet, whether it’s Pommes frittes (fries), pizza, fish or my personal favorite Rostbratwurst, or Lebkuchen (kind of spicy cake), Pfannkuchen (pancakes filled with your choice of fruit), Crêpes and Waffels, to even cotton candy, licorice, chocolate without end and Gebrannte Mandeln (candied, toasted almonds), you’ll find something to enjoy that quickly becomes a holiday ritual, as reflexive as wearing your winter coat.

If you’re not hungry (or full), you can spend even more time cruising around purchasing a range of decorations and gifts, a lot of which are made locally or at least in Germany. I personally enjoy the woodwork and lace. The air is filled with the sound of a humming crowd sometimes accompanied by a choir singing or musicians playing in the streets, and pathways are warmly lit and trimmed with Christmas plants and almost every shop has Christmas decorations. It is indeed a sight to behold.

Since Christmas markets are such beloved holiday "musts," it’s almost always packed. If you go on a Friday night for example, it’s a sea of people bustling around. This unavoidable mass (similar in size to public viewing broadcasts of World Cup games) led me to fine tune a skill I’d like to coin as crowd swimming. You’re no doubt familiar with the concept of crowd surfing, which you would do at some kind of performance, where you trust in the sea of people to pass you around much as an ocean moves a surfer on their board. It would obviously be a bit awkward if you tried to crowd surf at a Christmas market, as the crowd isn’t compact and stationary as it is at a concert, but rather alive and flowing much like a body of water. Instead of being transported via the surface water, it becomes necessary to use currents to your advantage in getting you from one stand to the next. You have to hone a kind of tunnel vision, where you know what your desired destination point is, and you can kind of focus in on it, enabling you to see the most direct route and get through the current obstacles as smoothly as possible. Notice I said “current,” as the obstacles are ever changing, one second it’s an elderly couple, the next it’s a pack of school kids, then it’s a crowd of university students (who may or may not be on their way to class/exams), suddenly it’s a mom with her baby and toddler in toe (adorably rugged up for the nippy temperatures), and people snapping pictures at every angle. It’s properly full of people.
So I see the movement therein as similar to this water metaphor in crowd surfing, only instead instead of letting yourself be transported, you’re moving around whatever is in front of you at the moment always with your end point in mind, swooping to the left to allow space for a wheelchair, perhaps a quick pivot to give way to the couple holding hands always looking over your shoulder to locate your partner lest you suddenly find yourself missing your other half and have to “plant,” yourself until you make visual contact again. (First is from a 2010 World Cup public viewing on the market place)

 Another physical capability that must be trained in such crowded events is the ability to transport drinks for a group without spilling. The aforementioned Glühwein is often served in charming little boots. Some stands serve in conventional round mugs, but enough serve the magically warming beverage in these festive boots. Imagine this, you and some friends are meeting up at the market, once everyone has arrived it becomes necessary to purchase the first round. Depending on the skill of the procurer, it may be a 1 or 2 person operation. Once you get to the actual bar, and order your 6 servings, then you have to get back to your posse through the swarm of thirsty visitors that has amassed since you’ve been waiting. You learn to use every centimeter of your foot as you carefully navigate through the huddle (bonus points if there’s snow on the ground). It’s also not unlike when you were a kid and would pour yourself a healthy bowl of cereal filled with milk, those steps from the counter to where you were going to eat were careful and precise. Such is the dexterity required for retrieving a round of this warm treat, keep in mind spilling one creates some kind domino effect where the others tremble sending streams down your fingers, then you’re left with the unfortunate sticky hands/clothes and you may have slopped on another person, a real Christmas market fowl.

(Hexenhof, a crowded Glühwein vendor). Despite the crowds, I still find the Christmas market to be a wonderful place. I enjoy it each year just as much as the last.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Four weeks of chocolate? I'm in.

It continues to be cold and wintery here. Yesterday there was a hailstorm, which fortunately started five minutes after I got back home from my morning class. One thing I’ve been enjoying lately is a daily treat from my Advent calendar. I was first introduced to this common decorative chocolate vessel when I was in Ireland and I realized it was a better version of an old Christmas decoration that hung in my house each year. Ours was simply a cloth calendar including 24 days (pockets) and a little mouse in a stocking, which you move forward each day. A treasured holiday memory from my childhood is trying each morning to get to the calendar before my sister to move the little mouse its one pocket closer to 24 (truth be told even on the mornings I was too slow I’d still move the mouse back and then forward again). Once I saw this same concept but now with a treat inside for each day I thought, “Score!”

What is an Advent calendar exactly? The Advent tradition is a religious celebration in preparation for the arrival (or “advent”) of the Christ Child (das Christkind) on his “official” birthday, the 25th day of December. The Advent season and its celebration have changed over the years from a more serious, somber character to a more celebratory one, including such treats as these chocolate-filled Advent calendars.

Another version is the Adventskranz, which is a wreath with four candles (one for each week of Advent), where each week (presumably on Sunday) a new candle is lit leading up to the last candle and Christmas. There is also an Advent calendar with small scenes inside each day, leading up to a view of the nativity on the 24th

I knew the holiday season was approaching when I first saw them in supermarkets as early as late October. I was thrilled to receive one when I got back from my vacation just in time to start popping open little boxes of goodies. Off to savor mine now!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Word of the week: Nikolaustag

I’m back! It was certainly quite a week for me. There was little pause between the end of my vacation and resuming my workweek, after leaving on Monday night in California and arriving in Germany on Tuesday night, I then worked Wednesday-Friday. Don't feel too bad, I had an awesome vacation and I planned it this way. I must admit my sleep schedule is still a tad off. And just as I predicted, I went from summer dresses and sandals to tights, jeans, long sleeves, sweater, scarf, jacket, hat and gloves, it’s cold here! There’s not a temperature on the week’s forecast above 10°C. But actually, I kind of don’t mind. Autumn was so beautiful and mild and virtually rain-free that it seems about time there be some seasonal weather. Also, given that it is, “the season,” as I predicted upon my return to Germany Christmas is in full swing. Actually it had already begun to swing the weekend we left in late November when the Christmas market opened. Which brings me to today’s word

Der Nikolaustag: St. Nicholas Day

Yes, it’s a holiday here in Germany! I must admit I’ve had to do a bit of sleuthing to figure out exactly what the deal is and found a lot of explanation from another German expatriate blog. By the way, if I misstate any information I welcome enlightenment. I'm still figuring these customs out and in my process hope not to be another case of internet inaccuracy. So (as I understand) the day celebrates Sankt Nikolaus (St. Nicholas), the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers and merchants. 

Since his feast day is on the 6th of December it’s no surprise he’s come to have a connection with Christmas. A quick and dirty lowdown, Nikolaus was born in a wealthy city in what is now Turkey some time in the 4th century. Both his parents died when he was young and Nikolaus inherited a lot of riches and animals. Yet he couldn’t seem to be happy without his family. After continuing to grieve day and night he read a scroll that told of the sad life of the poor and seemingly enchanted but somehow empty life of the rich and made the decision to share his wealth with others. So he walked through the town giving his chains and jewels, nuts, fruit even his clothes to others. Eventually he got a donkey sidekick that he’d load up each year on his birthday in his Sunday best and pass out sweets to children.

Germany is almost evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants (along with other religions). When Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer came along, he wanted to get rid of the Catholic elements of Christmas. In an effort to diminish the emphasis on Sankt Nikolaus' association with the holiday, Luther introduced der Heilige Christ (later called das Christkindl), an angel-like Christ Child, to bring Christmas gifts. Later this Christkindl figure would be replaced by der Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Protestant regions and even cross the Atlantic, where Christkindl mutated into the English term “Kris Kringle.” What does Nikolaus do exactly? Well, according to the legend, on the eve of December 5th he goes from house to house bringing small treats and gifts to children. In some places, children leave their shoes by the window or door for Nikolaus, I’ve read that some children even leave wish lists for Sankt Nikolaus to pass on to the Weihnachtsmann for Christmas.

If there’s one thing Germans know how to do it’s Christmas. There are more holiday traditions to discover, I’ll keep you posted. Until then, I’ll just be waiting for the first snow to fall.