Mar 30, 2014

Montag

Monday morning, first thing I marched down to the city public offices to register myself. The cities in Germany sounds much more autonomous compared to cities in the US. It is interesting to me that I need to register with the city of Stuttgart and not with Baden-Wurttenburg or the National Government.

Anyway, the process was very simple. To talk to a city service person, you push a button and take a number. When your number is called, you go up to the counter lit up beside your number. There is a lot of stamping of documents and making copies in Germany, but at least its relatively transparent and straightforward. And everyone I dealt with was nice. Despite knowing nothing about what I needed to do apart from coming with an address and a passport, I was able to get the document I needed.

Afterwards, I took the bus to my new office. I knew coming in that 42 and 44 both worked and I had a map, so I just hopped on. I stumbled in the starting block though, trying to stammer out "Heisenhofstrasse" but the driver patiently let me try a few times before asking me for a basic fare. I just need to remember "ein zonen, bitte" (one zone). It was nice to ride the bus through the city, to get a feel from the street level of what is going on.

I actually had a lot of hesitation going in. I needed to stop by and fill out some paperwork, but I was also coming in wearing my sneakers and jeans. At least I had a button down shirt on. I began to wonder if I should just bail and put on something nice to come in the next day.

Actually, I could have, since I'd been instructed to come in sometime monday or tuesday.

The bus dropped me near the office, which is close to the top of one of the hills which ring the city. It's almost entirely houses with an odd private business mixed in. It's going to be slim pickings (if any) for lunchtime. Which could be good for my body and my wallet if I have to make my own lunch every day. I found the office, ringed with a tall wooden clad wall. I steeled my nerves and rang the buzzer.

The gate buzzed open and then another, and I was inside the office. It was a light and airy kind of space, minimal, sleek, modern, monochrome. There was a guy standing at the desk with a receptionist. They looked at me expectantly. "Guten tag," I managed, "I'm Alec, Alec Perkins."

"Ah! Welcome!" the gentleman answered brightly. He was Jochen, who had been handling all of the paperwork for me. He was a very nice guy and we chatted over the different documents for the office.

Afterwards, I was grabbed by Leo, the Argentine architect who pulled me in to a conference room and started explaining a project for a competition they were doing. Two engineers arrived, and the conference room quickly filled up. Leo had grabbed me a black notebook, so I took notes quietly and basically stood in the back of the room scribbling occasional notes, mostly words in German that my ears picked up but I didn't really understand. I tried, in other words, not to look like a total uncomprehending idiot while the discussion proceeded in German.

One of the other office architects motioned me out of the meeting and I joined him and a small group apparently for lunch. He was a very nice architect named Luis, a spaniard, and we found that it was easiest and most pleasant to simply converse in Spanish as we walked out into a light rain. Jochen drove, Luis got shotgun, and the rest of us junior staff- four of us, jammed into the back seat for the ride to lunch at the cafeteria of Deutsche Bank, where the office has special dining privileges.

Mar 26, 2014

medieval living

Sunday morning, we rolled out of bed late and grabbed the "Surfer's Breakfast" at a small restaurant featuring glossy, full color menus featuring beachgoer type cool young people like the restaurant was also a Abercrombie and Fitch store. The "surfer's breakfast" was apparently only on sundays, but it did include free drip coffee and orange juice. That was where I first met Lina (apart from a Skype background).

Lina is the daughter of Jens, the architect I'm working for in Stuttgart. I'm not sure how they met, but Saori and Lina became really good friends, despite the fact that Lina is over a decade younger than Saori. Lina was the link who really brought my name in front of Jens, so I am deeply in her debt.

Anyway, the surfer breakfast was good, I ordered a passable jalapenos and eggs, although I suspected that the jalapenos were of the canned variety. Saori and Lina both opted for museli. Not just milk and museli, mind you, but museli mixed with fruit juices, soy milk, honey, and some other strange things. This apparently entirely normal. Germans apparently even eat muslei cereal hot with flax, seeds, etc. There seems to be a national obsession with natural, organic food.

After breakfast we took the S Bahn over to a new apartment which was being shown. Lina tagged along since she was interested, and actually it was helpful to have her along so she could tell us what the broker was telling the other potential buyers.

Renting an apartment here in Stuttgart is tricky. There's more demand then supply, which drives up the price, and the starting costs are astronomical. As opposed to the US, where you pay to have a credit check, there's no credit check here. Instead, the standard is to put down a 3 month deposit (invested into a secure, separate account the landlord/lady can't touch), plus a 2 month rent commission fee to the apartment broker. You will have to pay the first month's rent in advance anyway, so before you even walk through the front door, you're putting down six months worth of rent.

If it turns out you're not paying the rent, then they have three months of rent to draw from while they evict you. The fact that many of the apartment brokerages want to have at least a two year commitment to lease actually makes sense in light of the 2 month rent brokerage costs.

Anyway, after looking over the apartment, we went to Moulu for coffee, a small coffee shop close to Fueresee in one of the more picturesque older neighborhoods of Stuttgart. We chatted and drank bowls of hot coffee before seeing Lina off for work (even though it wasn't open for business, the clothing store where she works was doing inventory).

From there, Saori and I meandered through the town to the Kunsthalle art musuem, a giant glass cube hovering over an underground permenent collection gallery. There's a restaurant on the top floor which I've heard is the best place to get a view of city at night.

After the art museum, I left Saori at Starbucks and went up to meet Ben, the guy who I'd been dealing with for the rental room up on Zepplinstr. Ben is an interesting character, a student of book preservation who dabbles in bookbinding and illuminated manuscripts, white as the Bavarian alps, and with light blond dreadlocks. He sat down with me and we wrote up the room rental contract for me and the landlady to sign. He also showed me a book he made based on a medieval traveling book used by civil officials.

The book covers were made of 1.5 cm thick oak, and wrapped in leather which extended off of the bottom of the book by a few feet to end in a woven knot around a fist-sized river stone. This serves two purposes- the first is that you can slip the book under your belt and the stone works both to act as a counterweight and to keep the book from slipping out. So you can walk along with the book cinched tight, and then when you need it, you can lift up the stone and get some slack in the leather to read the book. Or you can use it as a nasty weapon. This is the middle ages after all.

Anyway, after the contract stuff, we headed down the hill and back to the apartment to cook a light dinner. Oh, and saturday, I got a chip for the iphone so I now have a local German number. Dear America: it took me ten minutes and ten dollars to get a chip for an iphone and I started making calls immediately: why aren't people demanding the destruction of the medieval telephone guilds?

A bit more on Saori's apartment: Saori lives on one of the upper floors of a very old apartment building, along with two other people, S, and F. S is in her forties and works as a translator for a translation company. She enjoys her job since the work she does is for high tech companies and there's a lot of work to translate scientific, burocratic, and engineering documents. She loves to talk, and thinks that Germany is not actually a sovereign country, but a puppet state under US/Allies control per a secret treaty after WWII. She is actually quite nice and I've enjoyed chatting (mostly listening) with her as she puffs on an e-cigarette in the narrow kitchen.

F is a Turkish gentleman in his late 30s, early 40's, who is also very nice, but his English is not all that good. It's still better than my German! He's also learning chinese to keep his friend company who is also taking the class. He's lived here for many years working as an engineer. The other night, the two of them made a big pot of vegetable soup that we all shared.

The apartment is tight. The square footage is about the same as my apartment in St. Louis, but with an extra bedroom squeezed in. There's not a living area, but a separate living room which S uses as a smoking lounge. The door opens into a kind of wide hallway foyer which the other rooms open onto.

The kitchen has a small table, but is comfortably and charmingly tight. I'm sitting here at this small table with four narrow wooden chairs, listening to to the tankless water heater kick on above the sink. Out the window, there is a balcony and a view across the bowl of the city of Stuttgart (Saori's apartment is up towards the ridges around the city).

The bathoom is also very narrow, probably less than three feet wide. In fact, it is so narrow, that the bowl of the toilet is turned 90 degrees so it faces the door. You have to squeeze past it to get to the shower. The shower, at least, feels a little more generous and the water gets hot quickly, stays hot, and the shower retains its heat when you shut off the supply. Hot water makes any bathroom luxurious.

Erste Tag im Stuttgart!

I can't believe I've only been here five days.

Saturday bright and early, Saori met me outside of customs and we got a coffee at the airport and chatted. It was a surreal experience for both of us, since it has been over 13 months apart. Fortified with coffee, (German Kaffee = sehr gut) Saori grabbed one of my suitcases and we lugged it to the S-Bahn.

For the metro area, there are two systems of mass rail transit. The u bahn and the S bahn. The names are misleading. The S bahn which I thought was for straße or street, mostly runs underground, and the U ban, which sounded like unter something actually runs more on the surface like light rail. And there's a bus system too. I'm still trying to figure it all out.

Anyway, the s bahn runs from the airport right to Saoris neighborhood in Stuttgart West and so we saved the $50 odd cab fare. After I took a shower and we exchanged presents, I crashed for a long nap since I was exhausted from all the traveling and the stress, and we set out in the late afternoon for the historic center (Stadtmitte).

Stuttgart is kind of a mysterious place. On the surface it feels like a large British city like Guildford, or even someplace like Florence, in terms of the density and size. Stuttgart city proper is very small and walkable. The city was mostly destroyed in WWII, so most of what is here was rebuilt although there are a few neighborhoods with buildings which remained intact.

The historic city center is mostly pedestrianized, with a huge street running through the center of the center called Koningstr, which is basically the pedestrian backbone. Lots of boutiques, giftshops, bookstores, cafes, H&M, Starbucks, etc. is here. At the end of Koningstr. is the train station with high speed rail connections to the rest of Europe. We went back there sunday, and I was surprised to find the street still filled with people, despite the fact that all the stores were closed. (In Germany, with few exceptions, all the stores and businesses are closed Sundays. That means no grocery shopping, no pharmacies, no bookstores, nada. The only places open are a few shops in the train station).

Anyway, Saturday night, Saori took me to a restaurant called Zum Something (not called Zum Something, I just can't remember the name). It's an old building with several floors which serves traditional Bavarian and Swabish cuisine. Lots of tourists, but lots of locals too. We were seated at a table for four where there was a hard-looking Russian man already dining alone. Ok, communal dining. I did it in Mexico, I can do it here. We said hello and ordered two beers.

The food was really good. I wasn't that hungry, so we split a bowl of liver meatball soup with a kind of beef broth and onions, and a plate of pork chop Schwinenbraten with big potato balls. Apparently it's a very Swabish meal. Really rich and hearty and I was happy we split the plate. The beer was a Pauliner Krystal Weisen, a clear wheat beer, which was pretty tasty. Living in the US, with all of its distinctly shitty lagers and pilsners, it's surprising to find that they can taste pretty good!

Anyway, I was fading fast with jet lag and the half-liter of beer, so we rolled back to Saori's apartment for the night.

Mar 23, 2014

Voyage to the Old World by Aero-Plane!

In the end, it was surprisingly simple to get to Stuttgart. Dad surprised me by generously buying my way there with his miles, and got me a flight with one short layover in New Jersey.

Dad took the morning off and he, Neri, and Tay took me to the airport and saw me off at the security checkpoint. I was really touched by the gesture actually, although I was surprisingly emotional the whole trip. The combination of anxieties, excitement, and sadness had just been flooding my system.

I forgot how close Newark is to Manhattan until I saw the spectacular sea of skyscrapers out the window on the approach, including a glimpse of the new Freedom Tower, a project that needs a corporate renaming as soon as possible.

I had skipped breakfast so I was ravenous, and for my last meal in the US for awhile, I opted for a chili dog with fries. I'd actually wanted to take a photo of the door marked "Stuttgart" but I wasn't sure if it was a tasering offense.

The flight was not that full and the middle seat was open, so I could stretch out a bit. The woman with the window seat was a German language professor from university of Chicago, who regularly takes students over to Stuttgart for exchange programs.

I couldn't sleep, although a few times I drifted close to it. Watched the silly and slightly subversive Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. German immigration was a breeze. The lines moved very quickly, and the agent asked me why I was here and I told him I was going to take a job.

I was expecting a grilling, and I had printed out a lot of material including the contract, but he simply asked what the company was and that was it. Bags came out right away, and although I got pulled aside by customs officials for questioning about the contents of my bags, they were not that interested in Mezcal and salsa. They let me go and I walked through the sliding glass doors into Stuttgart.

Mar 22, 2014

Last days in Houston

This week flew by with unnerving speed. Monday afternoon we drove back to Houston and had dinner out at Niko Niko, a famous local Greek joint, where you order at the counter and they call you up when your food is ready. I got a gyro and fries. The fries were the best I'd had in Texas; the gyro was probably a top 10 of gyros I've ever eaten.

Tuesday, I stayed home and worked on the housing situation all day while Neri and Tay went out grocery shopping. That night, she made a fantastic and incredibly rich osso bucco over risotto. We had tons of it left over.

The usual routine is that Tay rolls downstairs around 11, makes some coffee, and we plop down on the giant sofa to watch our old friend Alex Trebek and the three contestants. It was a simple pleasure which I was only able to enjoy for a few days.

Wednesday, Tay and I hit the town. Saori and I were invited to a wedding in Paris and frankly, it's a always a good idea to have a jacket handy to class things up. Tay drove us out to Katy Mills, an indoor outlet mall nearly identical to Arizona Mills. I tried on a good dozen jackets at the five or six outlet stores we visited. J Crew, Banana Republic, Sak's 5th, NeimanMarcus. Although a quick pass through the latter stores was futile- a $700 jacket 50% off is still $350.

Tay also tried on a bunch of stuff since he also really enjoys shopping and because the best clothing store in Bloomington is a Target. It was fun. Tay snapped photos of me in jackets in various angles and we talked about the fit, material, and color. In return, I helped him pick out a few new shirts. At one point, he stepped out of the dressing room in a very short sleeved Henley, and it was so different from what he normally wears, it kind of threw me for a moment. Tay never exposes his upper arms, so it was kind of shocking, but actually it looked petty good on him.

Anyway, we drove back into town to the Nordstrom Rack, and after searching through the racks and finding either wrong sizes or colors, I came across a jacket that had obviously been recently returned. The fit was perfect, I liked the color and the material, and Tay agreed it was the best fit of any of the jackets I'd tried on.

Sticking with the rule of due diligence, we left the jacket and hit the nearby J Crew and Banana Republic. Nothing, so we headed back to Nordstroms Rack. At this point, Saori called me with some urgent housing business and we talked and argued for over an hour while Tay twiddled his thumbs in front of the store. I bought the jacket and we cruised home in the early evening with the top down on Neri's convertible. At the house, Tay opened some wine while I got online and started reheating the osso bucco.

Thursday, Tay and I went to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel at Sundance, the upscale movie theater downtown. We parked in the theater district parking garage, which is apparently an underground parking labyrinth the actual size of the theater district. Nobody at the movies today, we nearly had the theater to ourselves.

The latest effort by Wes Anderson suffered from The Phantom Menaceeffect- a director so meticulously wrapped up in the staging and scene, that the actors become wooden puppets. Ralph Fienes did a great job, but in general, the expansive and talented cast were mostly an excuse to make them spout an droll line or two in elaborate costumes and eastern European facial hair. We saw Bill Murray for all of sixty seconds.

That night dad took us all out to Brenner's on the Bayou, a very expensive but lovely steakhouse with a lively deck bar overlooking the bayou. We ordered cocktails and enjoyed the scene I'm the late afternoon as we waited for our table. The food was excellent: the crab macaroni and cheese and the Brussels sprouts added new depth to the potential of each. For desert, we cleared a small hut of a Gran Marinier soufflé.

Back at the house, Tay came down to the guest bedroom and hung out while I finished the delicate art of packing and weighing. My idea skipping the second suitcase turned out to be absurd. I ended up filling both suitcases to within a pound of the fifty pound limit, plus a duffel more like a 30 pound sausage, and a small backpack.

Tay and I each inherited one of the giant black nylon Tumi suitcases our parents bought during our years living in Asia. They were some of the most expensive luggage outside of fashion labels, but they came with lifetime warranties. After a decade of repairs, replacing zippers, wheels, etc, the Tumi people finally caved and offered replacement bags if they would stop bringing in these old beasts for ever more extensive repair. I think they probably just stopped stocking the parts.

Saori borrowed mine, and took it Japan- it returned covered with the bright blue penguin duct tape which I have not yet removed. The other bag came from mom's husband. My backpack is one I purchased and finished. I travel with the support of everyone.

Mar 18, 2014

haunted by the ghosts of its two missing stars

Dad had a conference in San Antonio monday morning, so we jumped in the car and drove out to San Antonio. By way of Austin. Perceptive readers will remember that Austin is not insignificantly north of San Antonio. In fact, we made an extra hour and a half detour to to Austin. For lunch. The Fonda San Miguel has the best buffet I've had. The quality of the food is nearly comparable to Hugo's Houston. The location is pinche charming, through massive old wooden doors, to a hacienda type building with hand painted plates and elegant Mexican handicrafts everywhere.

The food is phenomenal and freshly prepared. Red mole and green mole. Roasted beef, traditionally roasted cochinita pibl with spicy pickled red onions. Tamales with huitlacoche (Mexican corn fungus). We stuffed ourselves. Tay was initially dubious about a 90 minute detour for brunch, but after the first few bites he admitted that it was worth the trip. We waddled back to the car and fought the post SXSW traffic down to San Antonio.

Dad and Neri were put up at some resort out in the hill country outside the city, but, charmed by the historicity, I suggested Tay and I get a room at the Menger Hotel. This was the best hotel in the city, the landmark and center of movie stars and presidents, about a hundred years ago. The hotel bar was where future president Teddy Roosevelt recruited the rough riders for the campaign in the Caribbean. A glittering center of culture, commerce, and politics.

That was a long time ago. A long time ago.

Today, the Menger is a three-star hotel and probably more attractive to visitors for its good location and relatively cheap price over its storied history. It's one of those places where the age has worked against the hotel rather than in its favor. If the elevators had been one of those old cage types, it would have been charming. Instead, we get the just above our heads lay-in acoustical tile in the 1950's era elevators. I commented to Tay that it is the most has-been-iest hotel in San Antonio.

The room smelled like it had just finished being used as an over-chlorinated pool. I thanked the pre-air conditioning construction and opened up the generous windows to vent out the chemical smell while I checked emails.

We met Dad and Neri back downstairs and went out to walk to the Esquire bar. The Esquire bar is one of those places that walks a fine line between being a historic, dapper saloon, and playing at it ironically. Armadillo shell light sconces on the wall with the bar name screen-printed on it. Edison light bulbs everywhere. An ancient old wooden bar and original worn wooden booths.  In the end, I don't even care, it's just kind of fun. We had a few drinks here, I got a finger or two of some Mezcal joven to worry me while dad got his Moscow Mule, and Tay ordered some more interesting cocktails.

We slugged down the drinks and retrieved the car to drive out to Tay's pick for the night, an American restaurant Cappy's. Cappy's was understated, warm, sophisticated dining. It's lack of ostentatiousness hinted at its expense. The food was American southern. Tay and I split the paella which was modified to have a more Italian flavor with a seafood risotto in place of the traditional saffron rice, plus we split a corn and keilbasa sausage chowder to start. The portion sizes were just right to split since we were still engorged from the massive Mexican brunch. The other really good thing was the kimchee flash-fried Brussel sprouts. The food was excellent, although Tay's side order of mac and cheese was pretty forgettable by comparison. The desert of sticky toffee pudding was much more on the creamy bread pudding side, but it was actually scrumptious and the fresh made vanilla ice cream they served it with was even better than the pudding.

After dad dropped us back at the hotel we walked over to the Ocho. I misread the phone's GPS and took us under the LED disco bridge underpass, and as we walked deeper in Stabville, we realized we were going completely the wrong way. We did finally make it over to the historic Havana Hotel where the Ocho was the hotel bar/restaurant. It was a moody, dark place, lit with candles and dim lighting, and with the plush couches, dark corners, velvet, and tropical theme, it was supped to evoke pre-revolutionary cuba. It was also quite dead. A quick scan revealed a scant two couples. Tay and I ordered some tropical drinks and settled on a velvet couch to chat.

Tay started to feel a little unwell, possibly from the unusual decadent richness of our lunch and dinner  and the syrupy grapefruit juice based drink he was nursing, so we called it a night and walked back. Tay's typical diet is a bowl of cereal in the morning and a chicken caesar salad for dinner, so I'm not surprised he was feeling a bit like a booze-soaked foie gras goose.

Despite the hotel's dubious reputation as the Most Haunted Hotel in San Antonio, we both slept really well. When the TV slid violently across the room to shatter the desk chair which spurted blood, I remember wiping some off my forehead, rolling over and falling back asleep. Despite his wildly bucking bed, I don't think Tay even woke up.

Toasting the Successful Job Hunters

Taylor arrived friday. Dad was out of town for a trip, so I offered to pick Tay up from the airport. I really didn't want to fight traffic, so I headed out a few hours early to spend some time at the old 1940 municipal terminal. Ironically, dad hurried back home after landing early at the other airport in order to save me the discomfort of driving. 

The municipal airport is a small art deco gem, tucked away on the side of the Houston Hobby airport. It was built back in the 1940s and really not used for that long. After an early addition in the tower, the terminal decayed and sat empty for many years. It was slated for destruction for many of those years, but the funds were never available to carry it out. It was actually rehabilitated and refinished in 2008 as an air travel museum. Apparently it does a huge stock in weddings and car photoshoots these days since there is also a small private jet parked out front too.

While I was poking my way though, I noticed that outside the hanger next door, a crew was prepping a helicopter for takeoff. Then, a big Gulfstream G5 jet rolled up as the propellers were spinning up to speed, and I watched a guy walk down the stairs and over to the helicopter. It was waiting for him, and carried him off, past the old terminal and away. The talkative and bored museum volunteer said that it was none other than Tillman Fertitta, the multibillionaire Houston native and owner of the several restaurant chains including Morton's steakhouse, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Golden Nugget casino in vegas, etc. Apparently he's got a tower in the Post Oak neighborhood.

Anyway, Tay's flight was delayed and I drove us home in the terrifying Houston traffic. Tay was terrified too, mostly from my blind panic style of driving. He was very helpful in navigating us home after dad's navigation system tried to route us to Louisiana. The car has a heads up display which is really cool except it get's filtered out by my polarized lenses, so I have to turn my head sideways quizzingly in order to see it. The other problem is that it delivers accurate directions but doesn't indicate when to take them. 

We went to dinner that night at Uptown Sushi, a very nice Japanese restaurant. We shared incredibly fresh sashimi, all kinds of rolls, a few bottles of sake and some really good appetizers including kobe beef on a sizzling rock. It was my picks since we were celebrating my new job in Germany.

The following day, we went out to Hugo's, Tay's choice, to celebrate his achievements and success in getting the job in Indianapolis. Really really killer high quality Mexican food. Tay and dad got the cabrito roasted goat and I got a special of the night, a slow roasted anchiote pork. Churros, Mexican hot chocolate, and vanilla ice cream for dessert, of course. 

Saturday, dad made us his special blueberry pancakes for breakfast and we got a predictably late start to the day. After breakfast we headed out to the shoe hospital to rescue Tay's beloved Carolina Herrera shoes which he was horrified to discover was using the wrong color polish on. It was a minor crisis while there was much hand-wringing as we researched permanency of shoe polish and remedial techniques. We rejected the acetone-dip as extreme.

After we filled out the paperwork and left flowers and cards for Tay's shoes, we went to the movie theaters. I've been trying to see the new Miyazaki film, The Wind Rises, but when I got in line, I was dismayed to realize that it was the dubbed version. All Miyazaki films are released by Disney in the US, and when they dub it, they generally 'Americanize' the dialogue by doubling it and adding in additional exposition. Americans, according to Disney, are simpletons horrified by the sound of silence. I declined to watch it.

We headed downtown to the nice theaters to try to catch The Grand Budapest Hotel. Dad valet parked the car and by the time we got inside, there were only six seats left. It was beginning to rain a bit, so we weighed our options. Tay, ever ready with a list of trendy bars to check out, directed us over to Hearsay Gastro Lounge ("Too Cool to be a Gastro-Pub") which was actually a pretty cool bar. I really liked the design and the drinks were good. Dad used the on-and-off rain to demonstrate an app which predicted when rain would start and stop to the minute based on his location and weather data. It was mostly accurate. 

Anyway, back at the movie theater, the Lebanese valets were suffering a minor clusterfuck, entirely overloaded by the cars arriving and leaving. Interestingly, there was a Mr. Universe bodybuilding challenge going on simultaneously, so we kept seeing orange-skinned, ripped from head to toe, neckless bodybuilders everywhere with their flip-flops and heavily augmented girlfriends. It was enough entertainment to just watch them while we waited the half and hour to get the car back.

Mar 12, 2014

cars, idioms, and movies of Germany

Today I borrowed dad's car and drove mom's painting to FedEx. This was the first time I've ever driven dad's car and I was really nervous because A) this is Houston, and B) It's a really really nice car made by German engineers in Germany. Made it to the FedEx five minutes away with no problems. With the car I ran a few more errands before returning to the house.

Neri asked if I enjoyed driving it. Actually, the only time I enjoy driving is when its my car and there's very few if any other drivers, and someplace beautiful or surreal. The only time I like city driving is late night in Phoenix on the wide open and mostly empty freeways which swoop around the city.

Practiced some more German, including some work on idioms. I really like idioms- they're colorful, poetic, and they betray a particular mindset behind them. There's a geography to them- there are American idioms, but there are also southern idioms, and even Oklahoman idioms.

For example, as a chronic procrastinator, I was drawn to Morgen, Morgen, nur nicht heute, sagen alles faulen Leute. (tomorrow, tomorrow, just not today, say all the lazy people).  There's a lot of internal rhyming and the syllabic beat is broken into four x four (mor-gen-mor-gen) (nur-nicht-heu-te). It's a nursery rhyme for kids on what not to say. It's also kind of group-centric, emphasizing which group of people you should or shouldn't belong to. "you don't want to be like those lazy people!" Faulen is kind of a tricky translation- its also close to "foul" or "rotten"

The American version "Don't put off for tomorrow what you can do today," seems much more dry and academic. It's a statement which considers itself self-evident- there's no punishment or penalties implied. It an axiom, not a lesson. It's a best practices reminder for a civilization which shouldn't need a reminder that laziness is bad.

Anyway, I also baked a cake today, modifying a lemon cake recipe to become a grapefruit cake including some zest and fresh-squeezed juice in the batter. It didn't rise as much as last time I made it- I think the problem was my butter was still too cold. The last time I made it, I over softened the butter to the point where it was entirely melted. I should get my eggs to room temperature too.

While the cake was cooling, I went for a long walk north, crossing the train tracks and the freeway and going beyond the end of the street to the football field wide drainage canal. The shallow wide canal is concrete only at the bottom. Both sides are wide fields of green sloping down to the culvert. The vegetation has been enjoying the spring and the rain. The weeds and grasses were past my knees and made it slow to walk. It felt like a strange secret garden running through the middle of the city.

Neri made a mushroom soup tonight for the two of us since Dad took off for a meeting in Louisiana. It was pretty good, I need to get the recipe. They will probably have quality and cheap ingredients for it in Germany.

I have a strange relationship with movies. Some days, I am filled with strange loathing of movies, like I am so far removed from movies and TV that I couldn't go back. Some days, I have a particular taste for some strange episode or esoteric movie I saw years and years ago. Some days I feel like just watching anything.

Tonight, I watched The Lives of Others, which I really enjoyed. It's a German film which really resonated with me because it follows a by-the-books, cold Stasi bureaucrat who through the fulfillment of his obligations realizes the horror which he is perpetuating.

It's also unsettling to watch post-Snowden considering the reach and lack of restraints on the NSA, and as we have lately, the CIA. What prevents either of these institutions from becoming like the Stasi with its accompanying abuses of power and corruption?

Anyway, it makes me worry what I write about. My opinions are politically leftist (for an American) and anti-capitalist (for an American). Although when I go to Germany, I'll probably come across as stumping for Ronald Reagan in comparison.  I guess it really depends what sensitivity the "ideology" knob is set to on the intelligence internet surveillance machine. Which in some ways, is spookier. You lose the human element when an algorithm decides if you've crossed the line.

This is also interesting to me, because the Germans are extremely paranoid and sensitive about their data and records being stored electronically. They still remember the Stasi, which was operating up until 1989.

Mar 10, 2014

a quick recap of houston

Dad met me at the airport friday night. It was good to see him again, and it was good to see he was noticeably thinner than when I last left Houston about two months ago. The gun case came out on the conveyer belt like everything else.  One thing about the Houston airport- the airport has set up a special lane for "clear" enrollees, a new program which frankly disgusts me. Cue the music for
PERCEPTIVE BLOGGER CHANGES SOCIETY WITH PROVOCATIVE POST!
The way Clear and PreCheck, the TSA's program, works, is you give the company an extensive amount of personal information, consent to a background check, have a perfunctory interview and pay between $100 to $200 a year to participate. In return, you get to keep your jacket, shoes, and belt on and notably, you get to bypass the regular security line.

I have to admit that this is kind of a petty disgust- the same you might reserve for people who walk off after their dogs shit on the sidewalk. There is much more contemptible and vile systemic behavior in government and business. This program is a gilded turd on the sidewalk which runs to a steaming mountain of feces.

Wait, where was I? I got distracted from the narrative with a rant which was derailed by a sub-rant. Focus.

I have problems with this program for two reasons.

  1. It sets up a tiered system of "trusted" and "untrusted" citizens. One could say "fine, don't share your personal information with the government," but when a large percentage does, then it increases the scrutiny on everyone else. It's an erosion on the expectation of privacy. Twenty years ago, people would be shocked to find out how much information the DHS snoops into when you buy a plane ticket. In twenty years, will travelers be required to hand over personal location data for the past year plus intense ideological scrutiny via algorithmic analysis of their online presence?
  2. The TSA is security theater which is forced on travelers. The only thing it does is reassure people. This isn't even my option. They've failed every security test. Repeatedly. Congressional committees have issued numerous damning reports and have called for the TSA to be disassembled. My opinion is that if you're going to force a circus on the US population, you force it everyone equally. For one, I'm offended you can buy your way out of it. Second, people need to call a fried turd on a stick a fried turd on a stick- and the people most in position to call "bullshit" are the ones who would buy their way out of eating the crap. I don't want the movers and shakers taking the "no fried turds" line, I want them to get so sick of these clowns they shut down the circus. 
Done ranting for now! Might launch into a tirade against Macs, Houston, or trackball mice and pairing microsoft windows keyboards with Macs, but I think I lost the steam on the TSA circus. 

Anyway, we went out to a restaurant called Shade after I got back to the house. Really good food. I ordered a wild mushroom risotto and a butternut squash soup. The really outstanding dish was the donut holes on the dessert menu. They brought out six freshly fried donut holes with a maple dipping sauce and house vanilla ice cream. Pretty stellar stuff.

Weekends are slow to get started. Dad usually gets up very early for work, so he likes a very laid back weekend. It's quite Tayloresque. We eat breakfast around noon, and don't get out, if we're going out, until around 3pm. I'd gotten used to the rhythm of mom's house where she's up by six, and most weekends I was out the door by nine. At the same time, it's not like I have a serious agenda here other than preparing for Germany and trying to not eat or drink too much. 

Saturday was mostly shopping once we got out. Sam's Club. Central Market is crazy on the weekends. It is interesting through because looking and listening demonstrates that Houston is the most diverse city in America. I heard two languages I couldn't identify. Sunday dad and I went out mostly working on my list of things to do. I picked up a shipping box for mom's painting, and hit an art supply store for some stuff for Tay and Germany. 

Today, I got out around noon and made a walking trip of errands. I cashed a check for some money to get started in Germany, mailed off requests for duplicate diplomas, picked up some raspberry brandy to make margaritas (and also picked up a four pack of my favorite IPA: Bengali Tiger by SixPoints Brewery), ate a responsible adult lunch of french fries and a white russian milkshake, and picked up some shaving supplies at the drug store.

Chatted with Saori about her recent submission to an international design competition and dad grilled up some steaks and asparagus for dinner. Alles ist gut.

Mar 7, 2014

Go East, old Millennial!

Today, I left Phoenix behind again, again. Again.

Last time was only 2 months ago, as I headed out to meet Tay and Dad and Neri for Christmas and New Years, fully intending to stay and continue my job search from Houston.

How many times have I left the 48th state, intending to get my career and life started? Five or six times, at least. This time, I was in Phoenix so long, I watched the entire process of mom house hunting, buying, moving, and settling in. At this rate, I might as well call Arizona home for how often I've found myself leaving it.

So once again I loaded up my luggage in the back of Larry's truck and he drove me out to the airport. This time though, I have a place to go, a job, and Saori awaiting me. I don't know when I'll be back to this dusty sprawl, but I'm pretty certain I'll be back sometime.

The airport was a zoo. Apparently today is the first day of Spring Break for a lot of students are either flying out or flying in. It also explains why tickets were so hard to get for today.

Checking the guns was smooth and didn't actually take that long to do. I said "I have some unloaded guns I need to declare" and they had me check in normally on the touch screen. Then they moved me to the side and had me open the case. I don't think she (the ticket agent) made more than a cursory glance before giving me a business card size declaration that the gun was unloaded. I signed it, she put it in the case and asked me to lock it back up. Then she walked me over to the TSA booth where a TSA agent swabbed the exterior of the case and ran it through an explosives detector.

I don't really understand the logic here. If I actually used the gun, or took it to a gun range where people were shooting, I would imagine that there would likely be traces of gunpowder on the case, in which event, they'd have me open it up again so they could run another inspection? Or, perhaps it's a machine looking for high explosives rather than slow explosives, like gunpowder. I could understand if they were concerned about someone trying to disguise a bomb as a gun.

Anyway, the check came back clean and I toddled of with my neutron star dense duffle bag and overstuffed backpack. Slow as usual clearing security screening, but I was happy to see free WiFi offered in the terminal.

Mar 6, 2014

Adios, Arizona

Wednesday afternoon, I met Mason at Lux to go over the phoenix market project we'd been working on intermittantly with Richard. I just wanted to sit down with him, talk about about what we had done and how we were planning on moving forward. I don't really see myself doing much with this project further. The scale of the project is pretty large. I may take it into Rhino and use it as Rhino exercise for my new position in Germany, but I'm not sure it will be developed to a portfolio level.

Anyway, it was a beautiful Phoenix afternoon, lux has great coffee drinks, and I wanted to see the place one last time anyhow. Lux really is a hub for architects and designers. It was where I bumped into Claudio a few weeks ago. And then, there's my old professor Scott Murff. Apparently, he hangs around Lux so much and requests so many Americano refills, they named the menu item after him.


Mason is deaf, so when he talks, he usually signs as he speaks. We were talking about Germany, and I noticed he would make two signs for Germany. As he explained it, the first one is the one he was originally taught, and then because it was seen as insensitive, it was changed to the second, but he still catches himself automatically making the first sign.

In American sign language, the older sign for "Germany" is to cross your hands and wiggle your fingers, what Mason described as forming a Swastika. The updated formation of Germany, the more "politically correct" way to sign it, is via an extended index finger on your forehead to form the spike of the WWI Kaiser helmets.

Actually, one thing I'm curious about is how Germans deaf people make the sign for Germany. Originally, I thought for sure that sign language would be a much more international, standardized language: if you're trying to say "talking" for example, the sign is basically an open hand moving away from your mouth. Since the mode of communication is pictorial or gestural, it must be more universal.

As it turns out, sign language is more nation specific. For example, Mason is currently learning British Sign Language, which is entirely different from American. Even the way letters are formed by the hand to spell things out is different. It's like having to learn a different alphabet, just to be able to spell words in English.

Going back to Germany, I read somewhere that sign language has long been repressed and discouraged in Germany, and it's only been in the last decade that it has been acknowledged as a requirement for accessible communication and beginning to show up at governmental public meetings.

After Lux, I went to target and bought four TSA approved locks for the gun case. It turned out when I tired them, that they were too small, which is good, because I subsequently discovered they're also illegal to use on gun cases. Apparently, there are concerns that rogue TSA agents could use the TSA keys to access firearms and weapons which makes everyone uncomfortable given the fact that the TSA agents are the carnies of homeland security.

I decided ultimately to simply fly with the guns as checked baggage. While there are horror stories about flying with guns in states like NY, they are highly atypical, and I've done a lot of reading on the regulations. Apparently, you go straight to the check in, declare immediately you are checking firearms, fill out a declaration of the guns being unarmed, and then you open the case for the TSA to inspect. They can look but they can't touch, so if they feel like they need to see more, they need to call over a police officer to take a look at them. Then all the locks go back on, and away the case goes to be checked. I'm building extra time in the process since I have a feeling this may take awhile. I'm a little nervous. The TSA doesn't bother me, but I need to be expressly clear that these are my guns and I'm not taking them to be transferred or sold. If they ask, I'll tell them that I'm planning on going hunting in Texas with my dad. Probably they won't even ask why I'm taking them.

Anyway, I met Sal and his fiancee Staci for drinks and a light supper at St. Francis. Sal brought me a parting gift of a book about walkable cities. It was a lovely evening of chatting over drinks and pork verde and cornbread, in the open air restaurant. (Apparently the remodel was by none other than Wendell Burnette, a local architect who also guest taught studio at Wash U one year.) I will miss the dry breezy nights of Phoenix.

Today was a whirlwind of packing. I came back to Phoenix with a duffel bag of clothes, but I've bought a few things and so instead of forking out the $100 for a checked bag, I mailed off a box this morning via USPS. It was $40 and it will get to Houston the day after I arrive. Picked up some heftier padlocks for the gun case at Kmart.

I fixed the wine rack since mom wasn't happy with the bottom piece being a different color than the rest, which was annoying in the amount of preparatory work I had to do last night (cutting, sanding, staining), but an easy fit this morning.

Got takeout from Los Dos Molinos for dinner, probably the last AZ influence New Mexican style cooking I'll have in awhile, and we watched tropic thunder followed by the late night showing of Project Runway.

Mar 5, 2014

Last week in Phoenix

Restless tonight. It's been a few busy days. Monday I spent most of the day working on a project for mom of putting in a wine rack. Too many trips to Lowe's, cutting, sanding, sealing with polyurethane, trying to make everything fit tightly. It's actually pretty challenging to cut a straight line on a 9" deep board. I picked up some cinder block and Ive been using those as sawhorses and board stays.

Tuesday, I went over to Sally's first thing to hang out with G while S has some medical tests done. She's had some really worrisome symptoms and they're trying to figure out what is going on. In the meanwhile, G is kind of missing the attention so I was happy to come over and keep him company. Thinking about them a lot lately and hoping its nothing too serious.

He introduced me to the many facets of Minecraft and then we walked over to his karate dojo where he is as assistant for the youngest class of kids. That was an interesting experience. For the age of five or so, the half hour lesson was more about learning to listen and sit still, and enthusiastic running around games more than it was about marital arts training. I wonder what it must be like, to be a certified black belt (and they all seem to be really focused on certifications), with years of advanced martial arts training, and basically acting as a kindergarten PE teacher. I wonder where they get that training, which requires a very different skill set. The other interesting thing was that since we are in the heart of Mormon county, I was not surprised to see half the kids coming in with mothers carrying infants. G worked with the little kids, giving them encouragement, trying to move them along, demonstrating movements and what the kids were supposed to be doing. I was impressed.

J took us out to lunch at a pizza place frequently by the Boeing people and we talked about anime, travel and other things. After getting back, I met Sally and S and she gave me a box of girl scout cookies for the road.

I drove back to the house, shaved, threw on a nicer shirt and after ten minutes of relaxing breathing, headed back out for another meeting downtown. I met Rhonda at the Phoenix center of the Arts where Project Rising shares a home with Roosevelt Row, and we sat down with Leslie to go over the pro forma, business plan, and financial summary in addition to the slide order and graphics. The city pitch has been pushed back further, and Rhonda was unsettled because we don't really know the political machinations behind the date change.

As always, its a reminder that architects don't buildings, contractors don't build buildings: politics and financing build buildings.

Anyway, Rhonda took me out to dinner as a token of appreciation at Barrio Cafe, which was packed to a 40 minute wait on a Tuesday night. And that's normal. Apparently word has gotten out about this place.

Mar 3, 2014

auslander

There is a word in German, Auslander, which means literaly, "outlander," or "outsider." When I was in Mexico, I was a Gringo. When I move to Germany, I will be ein Auslander. I've been reading a book about German character and cultural expectations. This book suggests that that Germans, like the Japanese, tend to divide people into either part of the group or outside of the group, and the relationship, language, and expectations are wildly different depending on what side of that line you are on.

Actually, I wonder what I will think of this post a year from now, having lived in Germany. From my experience of reading about Mexican culture and character, and interacting with Mexicans, it is fair to say that differences within smaller groups are greater than the larger ones. The differences are greater between a Mexico City resident and a Jalisco resident, than between a Mexican and an American. Within Mexico City, the differences between someone in Tapetio and Polanco, are going to be wider than the differences than the Mexico City dweller and the Jalisco dweller. All the way down to the level of an individual. People are the ultimate idiosyncrasy- in my experience, people are who they are much more by their personalities than by larger social characteristics.

So I have to take all of this with a grain of salt. Especially in Germany, which wasn't even a coherent whole up until 200 years ago. Anyway. There are some things generalizations are good for.

What gives Germans a reputation for humorlessness and formality is a supposedly a demonstration of that divide, which stands in exceptionally sharp contrast to American visitors. The book claims that Americans tend to be more network driven- our bonds of friendship are loose and wide and transitory. I'm guessing that there's something about the egalitarian ideology of Americans "treat others as you want to be treated" to this as well. Germans tend to be very stuck to where they grew up, and very closely tied a the small circle of friends, with correspondingly higher expectations of trust, obligation, and responsibility to the group.

The main messages I'm getting from this book are
  1. Be clear, expect bluntness. Germans are driven by clarity- in everything.  Anything which is clear, is generally good. Clarity in responsibilities, clarity in relationships, clarity in design, in organization, etc. etc. Modernism, which was born in Germany, is founded on the ideal of clarity in design. "The house is a machine for living in." Except that it's not. Which is the problem. Logical clarity in urban design was a really, really, awful idea. I cannot express how bad this was. And apparently Germans can be sold on anything if you can show a logical basis.
  2. Follow the rules. I remember laughing with Chase in Munich because Germans wouldn't cross an empty street without the lit walk sign. Germans partly follows rules because it makes relationships between things clear (see part 1) but also because Germans are willing to sacrifice more personal liberties for societal benefits. Actually, according to the author, Americans are some of the most individual rights focused group in the world. I can't argue it- the US is a place with a few horrible realities precisely because Americans prefer ideological fantasies.
  3. Expect competence, deliver competence. In Germany, as Saori says, things just work the way they're supposed to work. Work is done competently. People are expected to deliver on what they say they're going to deliver. If you tell a client "we'll try to get it to you by friday," you had better get it to that client by friday or be prepared to suffer a massive loss of credibility and trust. Note to self: under-promise and over-deliver (and fine tune towards exactitude as you go).
Anyway, I'm looking forward to meeting more of them, although like I said before, you have someone in front of you, you are looking at someone who is defined first at a Homo sapiens sapiens, second at a unique personality, and maybe 12th or 15th as a nationality. 

Mar 2, 2014

wood > wine rack > wine > drinking > remembering

Got up early and went to Lowe's to work some more on the wine rack. I needed to get a more traditional wood saw, and I also picked up two cinderblocks to use as sawhorses and to stabilize the boards while I saw them. It poured more rain today as I worked in the garage. The design features a big X which I'd intended to make by intersecting two boards, but I needed to notch both the boards in the middle, which are 1-1/2" thick, to get them to fit into each other. I ended up using a flat-headed screwdriver as a chisel to get out the 1.5" wide piece of wood in the middle. Not pretty, but since the intersecting wood pieces notch together, you'll never see it anyway.

I put the big X, the two side pieces, and the bottom shelf in place, and looking at it, made the suggestion that given my less than precise fabrication technique, to simply forego the secondary cross pieces. Mom and Larry agreed. So tomorrow after I ship dad's clock stuff, I'll swing back to Lowe's and pick up the sandpaper and sealant I need.

Talked to Saori today via skype as she was working late at her office for a competition. We were talking about housing and the difficutly of finding it in Stuttgart. One of her coworkers has been looking for a place for four months. That's a long time. We're looking within a four metro station radius, or along the main stretch of Stuttgart, which is really not that big of a city. Saori wants something with character and a bit older, ideally located close to that four station line. I'm interested in location too, but more concerned with the rent than the character.

Meanwhile, my friend Dew got married in Japan! I realize that life doens't actually happen on the Facebook time scale, but he announced his engagement to Yoshimi-chan a week ago, and they were married a week later. I guess I'm too used to seeing my friends have very. long. engagements. and very. elaborate. weddings. It's a reminder that it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. I'm happy for the two of them.

I remember back in 2011, I sat by Dew in the Shanghai studio. Early in the semester, Dew was really unhappy. He had broken up with his long-distance girlfriend in Japan a month before. One of his very close friends has been propositioned for marriage, and he was coming to terms with his own feelings towards her. She decided to decline the proposition, broke up with her then-boyfriend, and decided to date Dew instead.

Dew had actually been to Japan fairly recently, having worked in Shanghai the summer before the semester started, but he elected to join studio trip to Shanghai in order to meet Yoshimi there. Actually, he pretty much bailed on every single activity we were supposed to be doing as a group over there. He booked a room in the incredibly swanky Peace Hotel on the bund, and our first night there, I was introduced to Yoshimi at the Peace Hotel bar. They were turning away tourists- the only way to get in was to be a guest at the hotel, and even then there was a wait. We squeezed into a small table and chatted over gin and tonics to the ancient jazz ensemble in the dimly lit lounge. Yoshimi-chan does Ikebana for a living- traditional Japanese flower arrangement.

Mar 1, 2014

medium.com

Medium.com is a relatively new blogging platform, very clean, more story based and less continuous narrative. I just posted two quick entries there. I feels so airy and ungrounded by anything, like it's nothing more than a very long twitter post. It made me write much more satirically and loosely than normal because it just feels kind of one-off.

The graphic quality of it though is very nice, and it looks great on tablets. Easy to use, easy to embed images. I do like those things about it.

Here's the link: https://medium.com/@alecrun

long week

It's been a long week.

Tuesday was the first practice presentation for the Phoenix downtown project, so I was busy picking up last-minute edits to the presentation. It was also the last class of my Speedy German I, and we were supposed to bring something to eat since it was a potluck. Since there's a lemon tree in the backyard, I've been making lemony things, so this time I found a recipe for "German Lemon Cake" or Deutschezitronekuchen which is basically a dense poundcake with a basic lemon glaze. It turned out to be really good. I may have to make it again before I leave.

Saori and I also had a big argument that started while I was making the lemon cake which turned into three days of difficult emails back and forth as we had a kind of heart-to-heart which cleared away a lot of old tensions between us. It was emotionally wrenching, but I was sleeping better getting everything out and hearing everything from her.

Anyway, I rushed over to the presentation which went really well, got a lot of good feedback and took notes on the improvements, before jumping out early and crossing town to get over to Ahwatukee for the last class. The lemon cake was a hit, although I was actually quite charmed by the Suessemaus "sweet mouse," a light roll in the shape of a mouse with raisin eyes and dough tail.

I was actually pretty sad to have the class end since I was really enjoying it and the interesting company of my classmates. I almost wish I was coming back for Speedy German II. Anyway, wednesday I went back downtown for the second round of practice pitches with the revised presentation. That session ended early so I was back in time for wine and cheese on the patio.

Mom and Larry are really enjoying the new house. Mom's favorite thing is still to grab a glass of wine and sit on the edge of the patio and watch the mountains in the sunset.

Thursday I met Sally and Jonathan and the kids for lunch at SmashBurger. I liked the place. Good food, really good milkshakes, local beer. It was good to see them all although Sally is concerned about Sara and we are all crossing our fingers that it doesn't turn out to be diabetes. It's too early to tell since they have to do a series of tests over time. Actually, I have a cousin in college who has type 1 diabetes and it doesn't seem to slow him down at all.

Today I worked on the rifle situation. My dad left two guns in my possession, an old rifle and an older small-shell shotgun. Dad wants to store them in Houston, mom wants them out of her garage, but the Federal government prohibits shipping guns to individuals. If you want to ship firearms, you have to send them to licensed dealers.

So I'm going to check them in my luggage. Apparently there is a process for this at the airport, which just requires more processing time, more paperwork, and dealing with the Theatrical Security Administration.

Also today I met Kiyomi-san, Jenia, and Rachel for lunch at the Heard Museum, which was a parking disaster because the lot was filled up with vendors and tents preparing for the overpriced native american arts festival this weekend, and the DWL lot was torn up to repair a sewage line. It was nice to catch up with everyone outside on the lovely patio, and drink copious quantities of iced tea while chatting about life and travel.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...