15,001 Sunrises

It’s an hour before sunrise, the blue hour.  The stars make their final curtain call as they slowly bow out to wispy tendrils of dark violet and crimson streaking across a sky seemingly made of ink. There is that finite moment between the overlap of evening and morning where everything is frozen on the cusp of infinite possibility. The world is not yet awake and there is a stillness as palpable as an audience in a concert hall. The dark hues shift into a kaleidoscope of reds and gold as the symphony of dawn begins with the opening notes of a lone, unseen bird.  The brightening sky thaws me from my placid reverie as the sound of lonely footsteps echo off the sidewalk with shutters one by one opening all around. Life with all its aggrandized agendas has begun once again.

I have had approximately 15,000 sunrises similar to this in my lifetime and I can’t even fathom how many were missed, ignored or left unappreciated.  There have been a few remarkable ones that I have been fortunate to witness. I have seen the early morning sun reflect off the snowcaps of Mt Fuji. I have watched Mt. Vesuvius transform from a silhouette to an angry, albeit sleeping giant under a Pompeii sky. I have listened to the cacophony of the streets of London not even miss a beat while neon signs fade and give way to another gray, wet British dawn. Geography plays an important role in the aesthetic appreciation of this time of day, but I sit here in a small kitchen in Germany looking out of a window and realize that where we are emotionally is equally important.

I swore to myself that I would avoid any syrupy cliché’s if I ever decided to start writing publicly again. Yet, here I am spending almost half an hour thinking of creative ways to proclaim all of this as the dawn of my new life. I guess cliché’s are unavoidable. Wherever there is a sunrise, there is a corresponding sunset somewhere else. The sun finally sets on a life that was and rises 5,000 miles away in a modest flat in North-Rein Westphalia. There is much I have to do and I will undoubtedly have periods of worry and despair. Money will be tight, communication will be difficult, and some of the comforts of my former home will be longed for in moments of weakness. Perhaps, it is the stereotypical American optimism talking but I believe I will be appreciating a lot more of these German sunrises.

I have a partner, best friend and wife who has been my rock for seven years and I have a daughter who sees the world with wide eyed enthusiasm that reminds me to laugh. Not to mention, I have a pretty good view.

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Surviving the Sabbath in Deutschland

This is not my first attempt at blogging. I can think of at least half a dozen instances where I ambitiously decided to blog on something I found myself passionate about. There was my cleverly titled political blog, “Who is Left?” that I was convinced would make me the male counterpart of Rachel Maddow. That one, to use a Florida colloquialism, rolled over like a turd in a punch bowl, as I never got past the website registration page. There was that time I decided to go all Roger Ebert with my film review blog, which somehow morphed into me suffering the slings and arrows of outraged teenage (and a few Moms) fans of the Twilight Series. My Star Trek blog was my rock bottom moment when I was faced with the realization that I was discussing dilithium crystals with entirely too much sincerity.

When it comes to sitting in front of a computer, I tend to have the attention span of a ferret after three cups of espresso. I want to believe this blog is different. My motivations are well grounded and not to mention, I am literally living the things I am blogging about. I have also been quite inspired by some excellent ex-pat blogs out there. This is something I really want to stick to. So, yesterday was a day full of guilt at my laziness for not even trying to think of a topic. My wife consoled me by saying, “Well, don’t worry, it’s Sunday.” Of course! Sundays in Germany definitely require adjustment for an expat and certainly worth discussing.

Florida is Hurricane country and it is not uncommon to lose electricity for an extended period of time. Intellectually, I am aware there is no power and yet I would invariably flip on the light switch in every room I walked into. It’s a bit of a muscle reflex I suppose. Sunday’s in Germany are a bit of the same experience for me.  The following is an actual excerpt from my household.

Me: “We should get more creamer from the store today.”

Wife: “We can’t. They are closed. It’s Sunday.”

Me: “You mean, EVERYONE is closed?”

Wife: “Yes.”

Me: “When do they open?”

Wife: “…”

Me: “After church?”

Wife: “Monday”

So, that’s it. I know it’s Sunday and I know places are closed, but the American consumerist muscle reflex just wont let me wrap my mind around the concept. I’m out of flipping creamer and I found the finality of it all a bit disconcerting. Sundays in the United States are a bit like traffic lights in Italy, more of a suggestion to slow down than anything else.  Sundays in Germany are a venerable roadblock. The expat must learn to think ahead. Last minute Saturday shopping is essential for Sunday survival. Anticipate those needs or that late Sunday night refrigerator binge will have to wait.

Shopping or lack thereof is not the only facet of Sundays in Deutschland. One has to be very quiet. I have always treated Sundays as the day to get all those little chores done. The expat can still do this, but as most living units here involve a neighbor above and below, it has to be done quietly. This effectively rules out running a dishwasher, vacuum cleaner or (God forbid) a lawn mower. Still wanting to do something, I thought I could at least take out the various trash piles. As anyone living here knows, there are various categories of trash that are separated. There is the general “yellow bag” trash, biodegradable trash, paper trash, and discarded glass bottle trash. The following may or may not be an actual conversation between an American and his German wife.

Me: “Well, since I can’t get any creamer, I’m going to take out the trash.”

Wife: “That is frowned upon.”

Me: “Why?!”

Wife: “It’s Sunday. Just do it quietly.”

I am suddenly no longer an American doing Sunday chores, but a garbage ninja lurking in the shadows with a yellow trashbag. I swear I could feel those disapproving eyes on me as I returned to our flat.  Undaunted, I finished up the biotrash as quickly as possible. All that was left to complete my trash run was the glass.  The following is…oh, you see the pattern by now, I guess.

Wife: “No”

Me: “Why?”

Wife: “It’s too loud. It’s…”

Me: “…Sunday. Right”

Defeated and without my coffee creamer, I placed the box of empty glass jars down quietly. I plopped down on the sofa next to her wondering what in the world there is to do on a Sunday.

That was four months ago and I finally found the answer: Enjoy it. That’s the whole point of Sunday here. What we in the United States often forget when we swing by Wal-Mart on Sunday after Church is that somebody has to work on that day. Sunday is everyone’s day off. For what it’s worth there are small bakeries that are open for a few hours, which is the perfect thing for that nice Sunday stroll. I’ve grown rather fond of Sundays here and I suspect in a few years, I will be that disapproving neighbor scowling at that philistine trying to dump his trash.

It is now Monday and I just realized I still haven’t dumped those glass jars.

How curried sausage won the Cold War: A hyperbolic treatise on Currywurst

Any attempt to explore another country’s unique culture will invariably lead to an extensive look into its food. One could, conceivably devote an entire blog to the history of German cuisine, the traditions associated with holiday dishes or perhaps even point out that former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy proclaimed himself to be a jelly filled donut on June 26, 1963 while visiting Berlin. There is so much out there, and yet I have reluctantly decided to leave such a daunting task to the other ex-pat bloggers for the two important reasons: 1.) I’m getting rather hungry and could not offer an objective insight into the vast assortment of succulent, savory sausages, cooked to a golden-brown, fresh out of the pain still sizzling with the juices running down the…(sorry, lost my train of thought there) and 2.) I am not entirely sure how to spell most of the foods and my spellchecker is not exactly Deutsch friendly. To that end, I decided to delve into the sub-culture of fast food beginning with my personal favorite: Currywurst.

When I was four years old, I visited my grandfather in Virginia. Most of the memories are a blurry haze involving very large people with very large voices telling me to remove foreign objects from my nose, etc. There is one memory that still rings today with remarkable clarity and that was a trip to McDonalds. I was well aware that I was far from my hometown in Massachusetts. In fact, I estimated my distance to be somewhere between a gazillion and a bajillion miles away. Despite this vast distance, I discovered this McDonalds was exactly the same! From Ronald McDonald to the Hamburgler to that purple looking thing that confused me, all my friends were there to greet me. Suffice it say, I felt right at home when I realized that my cheeseburger and fries tasted exactly the same as the McDonalds in “massatussits. “ This was my first deep understanding into the corporate homogeneity of the fast food industry. As I got older and traveled the world, I observed that a Big Mac in Tokyo tastes pretty much same as a Big Mac in London. The only culture behind fast food seemed to be the culture of commercialism served with heaping spoonful’s of familiarity. My wide eyed astonishment as a child morphed into an apathetic, mind numbing acceptance that this was the nature of the fast food beast.

My first foray into German fast food began with a currywurst stand in Cologne. I had, of course, heard of currywurst. One cannot spend more than a week in Germany without being introduced to a food so ingrained in German culture. With the help of a lovely lady I am proud to now call my wife, I ordered my first serving. I was armed with a tiny plastic fork and as I took my first bite, I came to realization that it has taken me roughly thirty six years to recapture that wide eyed, culinary enthusiasm. Sure, I have had pork sausage before and I have certainly had my share of something similar to this tangy red sauce. I even had the privilege to have tried curry powder a few times in my life. The individual components that make currywurst are nothing spectacular or unique. Yet, clearly this is a food where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

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Hello, beautiful. I’ve missed you.

To the casual observer, this may look like ordinary, run of the mill ketchup, but no, part of the charm of currywurst is that unique, “not-quite-ketchup” sauce. Sure, it is ketchup based, but everyone has their own creative spin on what makes a good sauce. A good amount of curry powder is sprinkled on top and if the line of people isn’t too long, a person can be eating within two minutes of placing the order. There is nothing prepackaged and sitting under a heat lamp either. Part of the joy in the currywurst experience is watching it being prepared.  It can be served stand-alone, with bread or in my case, with French fries. I felt I experienced Germany on a level as significant as the Cologne Cathedral or the Brandenburg Gate. Before one would dismiss this as hyperbole, the following should be considered:

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In a 12 Round Cage Match with Ronald Mcdonald, my money is on this guy.

Currywurst was even the subject of a Novel by Uwe Timm that was later made into a film.

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And of course, the bards have sung of this uniquely German food as well.

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With a nation divided, this seemingly simple fast food was one of the few common denominators between East and West. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and Germany was suddenly a nation reunited, one had a choice between the Western-with-skin or the Eastern-without-skin currywurst. Perhaps currywurst didn’t win the cold war after all, but I would like to think it made it a bit more palatable or as noted food critic Thomas Platt once said, “currywurst was the warm meal of the cold war.”

Germany of course has Mcdonalds, Burger King and KFC, but I will often walk (yes, walk…another blog post begging to be written) that extra half a kilometer for currywurst. No two currywurst stands are quite the same and I have yet to experience any of that dreaded commercialized homogeneity.

Happy Vaterstag(?)

I spent three months in Germany last year and immediately realized I was missing out on a lot of unique cultural experiences.  Upon my return and subsequent staying here for good, I knew this time around would involve a lot of unique “firsts”. Today marks my first German Father’s Day or Vaterstag. In the United States, Father’s day is celebrated on June 17th and in Germany, Father’s day always coincides with the day of the Ascension. The day of Ascension is a very holy day in which it is believed that Jesus made his final ascent into the kingdom of Heaven. Naturally, I expected the Vaterstag experience to one full of reverence and all things holy and solemn. I immediately saw the symbolic connection of honoring one’s father as Jesus himself…oh, never mind.

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It would appear that Vaterstag is essentially a carte blanche for Fathers to get together and get as inebriated as humanly possible. I can picture Father’s day in the United States with a Dad sleeping in late on a Sunday morning as children serve him runny eggs and burnt toast in bed while Mom nods approvingly over that Pokemon tie the family chipped in to buy. With no frame of reference I can only envision the German Father’s day experience as…well, my college years.

So, instead of the warm fuzzy Hallmark moment associated with
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The experience is in theory, likened to something like
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This leads me to a plethora of questions regarding a Father’s role from a cultural perspective. Perhaps, a Father spends 364 days a year being the responsible patriarch that Vaterstag represents the one day out of the year where those obligations are cast aside. Being a non-drinker and an American Dad in Germany, this is one German custom I must politely observe from a distance despite my utter disdain for Pokemon ties.