Nov 30, 2014

Christmas Market

Stuttgart is known for few exceptional things- the ones not involving major industrial corporations are A) Wine, and B) The Christmas Market.

Imagine a tiny rustic wooden village in the forest, filled with lights and overflowing with people, and all the shops on the narrow streets have lit windows full of cheerful Christmas displays and knicknacks for sale. This is what the Christmas market aims for, and if you have enough to drink, really comes close to nailing it.

In a Christmas market, numerous vendors set up semipermanent stalls and decorate them for the season. Generally speaking, these are very small businesses, traditionally handcrafts. However, in more contemporary times, the wares sold at the Christmas market vary wildly: there are stalls selling LED candles, wool hats, woven scarves and gloves, Christmas tree ornaments, pottery, spices, teas, household kitchen tools, carved olivewood things, silicon spatulas, neckties, etc. Some of this stuff actually comes from Germany; much else comes from China or Pakistan or Greece or wherever.

The Stuttgart market is pretty extensive, filling two of the major city center plazas and stretching along the cobblestone streets between them.

There are also tons of vendors selling food and drinks. In addition to tons of spiced nuts and chocolate stands, there are fresh Schwabish Maultaschen stands, french fries in sauerkraut, sausages, steaks, crepes, and fry bread. By far the most popular beverage, a near requirement to drink when you go, is Gluhwine. ("gloo-vine") This is a hot wine spiced with cinnamon, orange, and other herbs and spices, and also sold spiked with other spirits. It's served in small mugs which are nearly universally interchangable for the deposit. You can pick up a Gluhwine at one stand, walk through the market, and get your deposit back at almost any other Gluhwine stand.

It's really about the experience of drinking hot spiced wine on a cold wintry night or afternoon (it gets dark around 4:30 here now), surrounded by rustic fake log cabins, Christmas lights, and animatronic moose. It's absolutely thronged with people. Busloads of tourists arrive from the surrounding areas just to come to the Christmas market. The Stuttgart Christmas market is so well known, that even the Swiss who have made a cultural ideal of artifice and Alpine wintry wonder, throng here to eat up the atmosphere.

The biggest surprise to me, apart from the fact that they launch this thing before Thanksgiving,  is the lack of representations of Santa Claus. Tons of wreaths, tons of reindeer, but really the big man is not to be seen. The market runs right up until Christmas. Nearly four weeks solid of Christmas three meters thick.

Definitely, it can be kitschy, uncomfortably crowded, and overpriced, but it is also really fun and and if you let yourself just a little bit, it is easy to get swept up in the fantastic whirl.

Nov 26, 2014

back to work

Saori and I went back to work today, after taking yesterday entirely off to rest and recuperate. The nausea and sickness ends, but the weakness, dehydration, stiffness, and headache stayed awhile. Anyway, I'm pretty much recovered, still a little tired and a little stiff.

Nov 24, 2014

What Michael Brought

Tuesday night, we decided to host Thanksgiving. So Saori invited some of her American students from her German course, we invited the Mexicans and Apo, and Saori also invited a few people from her office. No problem, we told ourselves, Michael's family is ill so maybe only he might come. And then to not leave people out, Saori's coworkers asked to include a few more people since was an significant other boyfriend, etc. etc. And then Michael's entire family showed up: two young and adorable daughters, and his German wife.

We were actually thrilled that everyone came (and brought a dish!) but we did run out of chairs and forks. Rafa and I ate with spoons, and Saori ate Thanksgiving dinner with chopsticks. The twelve of us were really cosy- we had a kids table set up that many of Saori's crowd used, sitting on a bench we normally use for plants. I think only one person ended up sitting on the floor, actually. There was plenty of wine, people seemed happy, and the two kids running around leant a really homey atmosphere. It made me really happy because it reminded me of the big family Thanksgivings we had in the US.

I made a baked turkey which surprisingly turned out to be really good. I bought a bunch of turkey legs from Aldi, brined them overnight in an herb honey brine, and rubbed them inside the skin and out with an olive oil and herb mix. I may never attempt to wrestle an entire turkey again. The brining helped it stay really juicy, and the meat, which I shredded and served on some platters was quickly taken.

I also threw together a giant salad which went mostly untouched. I guessed as much when I made it, but it didn't feel right without a token green salad.

I also whipped up a big batch of garlic mashed potatoes, thinking about Tay the entire time since that is one of his specialities. Saori made two types of dressing, one vegetarian and without wine since one of our guests was a Croatian Muslim woman, but Saori was really disappointed with how they turned out.

The dishes people brought were really good. More sliced turkey, midwestern corn casserole, Croatian Bamyam, which is a tomato and okra dish (she wanted to bring something local to her, and she was surprised to hear that okra is not a vegetable which only grows in that part of the world, but then I thought it only grew in the American south, so there you go. Everyone labors under the Okra delusion). There was macaroni and cheese with sliced sweet peppers, there was bread, there was wine, there was honest-to-god pumpkin pie which Michael made from fresh Hokkaido pumpkins, and sweet potato casserole.

We ate about half of the food in the end. People were just stuffed. And they were all really, really jealous of the apartment.

I think Michael also brought a stomach bug, because Saori and I are now both sick as dogs. Saori was sick last night, and didn't go to work today at all. My stomach was unhappy for the last day and a half, and seeing the writing on the wall, took off work early to buy water, canned soup, and 7up before the bug started its happy work on me.

I am happy I ate something earlier today, because I can't hold anything stronger than water down right now. I hope this burns out soon, because it is seriously no fun. Saori and I both crawled out of bed to make something to eat since we wanted to try at least, and I found a really simple recipe for potato and leek soup which uses leftover mashed potatoes. I was perhaps a bit premature in having a small bowl.

Anyway, its one of those things where you feel creaky, tired, cold, and stiff, and you ride a roller coaster of nausea. I feel well enough to write (and about food!) but I will probably miss tomorrow morning at the office.


Nov 15, 2014

surprising ways to die in Stuttgart

Not so many years ago....



Last friday, one of our Mexican interns was alarmed to receive a text from her roommate, who informed her that the block was being evacuated because a 500kg bomb from WWII was uncovered at a nearby construction site. At first, she thought it was a joke, but I assured her, to her increased unease, that yes, this actually happens in Germany. Actually, I was reading that as recently as a few years ago, an unlucky digger on a construction site was killed when he hit an undiscovered bomb. Unfortunately, years are not kind to either the bomb materials or fuses, which become really unstable after more than sixty years of being buried in the earth.

I don't worry about it much because I don't live or work near a construction site, although it must make German contractors sweat a bit as an additional danger on top of an already dangerous profession.

Anyway, because unexploded bombs are so common in Germany, the evacuation of over 1000 people proceeded with apparent ease as the city immediately brought in evacuation busses to quickly move the residents and workers of the way of danger. Apparently the bomb was neutralized less than six hours later- either it was stable enough to be moved (most likely), or it was defused on site.

The intern was saying that if the bomb had killed, her it would have been the US's fault. I countered with immediate comment that it would be Germany's fault. Actually, thinking about it more, it made me wonder if it would have been the US's fault. Germany started the war, but the US chose how to respond with its warfare, and produced the defective bombs. Or, like many killed in war, our intern would simply have been considered a casualty of war, with equal blame on all participants.

Stuttgart is one of the safest cities in Germany, but being killed by WWII ordnance is one of the strange and surprising ways to die in this city.

Surprising Ways to Die in Stuttgart
1) WWII bomb explosion
2) viral meningitis from ticks (really! its a thing that always kills a few people every year)
3) luxury automobiles. Stuttgart was the original car fetish city. People here sometimes have more money than sense. You can buy beer at the age of 16. and hard liquor at 18. Some of the highways have no speed limit.
4) Street protest violence. People get really worked up about the Stuttgart 21 project. One guy lost his eyes in a water cannon blast when the police tried to contain a riot a few years back. The soccer hooligans here are also nuts.
5) [unknown] Someone was discovered resting in a the main square. In pieces inside of a suitcase.
6) Potted plants falling on your head from balconies.
7) Slip and falling on one of the many steep staircases of this hilly city.

And probably a few people choke on pretzels or something. Actually Stuttgart is one of the safest cities in Europe. At least, postwar.

Anyway, something like 40-50% of the city was destroyed or badly damaged in WWII. A lot of it was picturesque traditional southern German architecture, with lots of wood, white plaster, steep wooden roofs, stone etc. The catch, however, is that none of it was really that old, or as old as it was pretending to be. Stuttgart was a sleepy village with a tiny population until it industrialized, and the new city center was built to look historic and traditional not so many years before the first Modernist buildings started to rise in the city.

So when WWII flattened the old [new] city center, the city had to decide how much to rebuild in the authentically fake-old style and how much to start anew. Postwar Munich went the former way, Stuttgart leaned towards the latter.

Nov 13, 2014

A whirlwind of limited objectives in Munich

Lina Bo Bardi was a Brazilian architect active from the 1950s through the 1980s. One of her most notable works was the museum of art Sao Paolo (MASP), an iconic building easily recognized by its giant red concrete frame holding up a double deck gallery in glass. The space below the suspended gallery becomes a huge column free plaza which commonly fills with markets, fairs, and other public gatherings. The plaza extend to the edge of the museum's lower levels, and forms an overlook over the city.

Saori and I walked there one night when we were studying abroad, at the very beginning of our relationship, and it was there, sitting under MASP, with the lights and sounds of Sao Paolo below, that I worked up the nerve to kiss Saori for the first time. Later, we both took courses at university which dealt directly or tangentially with Lina Bo's work, guided by a certain professor, one Zeuler Lima, who had spent many many years studying her work.

After recently publishing a fairly comprehensive monograph of her works, he was invited to speak in Munich as part of a symposium and exhibition commemorating Lina's 100th birthday, had she still been alive. Zeuler invited us to come, and so we came: actually, we don't really need much incentive to come to Munich, but it was good to have a good excuse. I grabbed some surprisingly cheap tickets on the ICE.

After a fitful nights sleep, we dragged our sorry asses to the station for a 7:15am train. Normally, I crawl out of bed closer to 7:45. Got to Munich around 9:30, and we ditched the first panel of the symposium in favor of coffee and shopping at MUJI.

We got to Pinakotek der Modern just as the second panel was kicking off. I could have missed it. We met Zeuler briefly at the lunch break while we grabbed a mediocre sandwich at the museum cafe.

We were quite disappointed to discover as well that the associated exhibition would not be open until the following day.

Side note: why are museum cafes so mediocre? If it's the whole captive audience issue, then why isn't the food at least like a sports arena? Do we really need the "sophisticated" sort of food which pretends to be fine dining? If you are going to serve something from an international food service consortium, just give me pizza or fries or a hot dog or doner kebab instead of a pretentious brie, arugala and spicy mustard ciabatta which is not only overpriced but also bland, boring, and exhausted.

The third panel included a presentation by our professor. Gina, a friend of our and former classmate (well, she was my TA in urban books) also came to see Zeuler, since he taught urban books. She also works for Behnisch, although in their Munich office. Zeuler gave a good presentation, although he was still a little loopy from jet lag. He kept forgetting to advance to slides on screen which where clearly not synched to the presentation tablet.

Regardless, it was clear from earlier and later remarks from the other panelists, which included one Lina Bo's closest former associates, that Zeuler was respected as a deep repository of knowledge about Lina Bo.

After the third session, we broke for a coffee break. Zeuler, learning that we had wanted to see to exhibition, arranged for a private tour with the curator(!) so we got to have a quick spin with Zeuler with the exhibition design explained by the curator. It's one thing to see a museum exhibit explained by a docent, who talks about the work, and another to have an explanation of the exhibition by the curator. It was really wonderful, with all handwritten info and signage, and many of Lina Bo's original sketches and drawings. The only thing I was sorry about was that we had to breeze through it all so quickly.

To our surprise, Zeuler took a coffee break to visit with us, ditching the entire talk given by one of the speakers. We caught up about his work, life at Wash U, got an autograph in the book he just published, and told him about our life here in Germany.

It was really nice and I was sorry we had to rejoin the conference after, although there were some more good presentations, including some remarks and anecdotes by Lina Bo's former associate who spoke about working with her on the SESC project.

The symposium was not well attended perhaps there were ten audience members per panelist, although I was happy to see for the second half (including Zeuler's presentation) a busload of architecture students trooped in, filling out the auditorium.

The symposium ended at five, and we said mata-ne to Zeuler as he went to rejoin his colleagues and panelists. We caught a U-bahn across town to The Tap Room. The tap room is an upscale but unpretentious beer hall which serves a wide variety of international beers. While it would be entirely unremarkable in most US cities, it is nearly unheard of in southern Germany. I heard about them through Gina, who bumped them to the top of my list by serving beer on tap from Urban Chestnut brewery in St. Louis, brewed from the mixed waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

It's so good to have a Wing Nut ale again, and a strong wheat bock called "Elfkönig" from the same company. Also drank a really good "continuous [ly hopped] IPA" from a US brewer called Töeter(?). Not as good as my favorite IPA, "Bengali" from six points brewery, but Devin a rely second best IPA. We also chowed down on some delicious goulash soup to cushion the blow of these strong beers. (The elfkönig was 8% abv, the IPA: 7.5%).

Sadly, we had to chug the last quarters of our second round and make a dash for the U-bahn. Service was slow and we stoppe , twice, in the system between stations. We waited nearly ten excruciating minutes in the u bahn just shy of the hauptbahnhof station, and with ten minutes before our trains scheduled departure, Saori predicted we weren't going to make it.

Shortly after, the car started moving and we dashed to the platform. Thankfully, we were at the u bahn platform right outside the station platforms, only a few tracks away from our train, and we even had time to quickly thrust some coins into a machine for a bottle of water. The train left about four minutes after we boarded.

Had to unexpectedly change trains in Ausburg due to mechanical problems but now we are on our way back to Stuttgart, less than an hour delayed. Hopefully we will be back home before 11, since we both have to work again tomorrow. All in all, a good day, but a whirlwind of limited objectives in Munich

Thinking about German architecture

There is a saying in German: quadratisch, praktisch, gut. which translates to "square, practical, good." Actually, I'm not sure if that's an informal motto, or if it's just the slogan of RitterSport chocolate bars, but it applies equally.

Flip through any magazine of architecture from any German-speaking country and you will quickly discover a preponderance of glass boxes. In many ways, the Swiss and Austrians are even worse since they really enshrine the square in facade. Peruse Wettbewerb Aktuel a catalog of competition results, and you will be hard pressed to find find something that doesn't look like everything else. All of the renderings, for example, include the same whiteness, transparency, and burst of birds in flight, to say nothing of the reflective glass boxes depicted. A casual reader would be forgiven for thinking these magazines were rather a single office's monograph.

There are of course a few exceptions- sometimes inferior renderings do not crank up the etheriality to 11, but are clearly aspiring to do so. Or you get firms like Behnisch who are proposing something other than glass boxes.

There is a deliberateness to all German architecture. A high degree of rigidity and fixedness, a deathly seriousness which is as far removed from whimsy as is possible. At its highest form, German architecture reaches the rigid, crystalline, lightness which was first envisioned by Mies in his drawings of entirely glass skyscrapers. German architecture has no smell- at worst, a somber and ill-fitting tomb for the living, at best, an eternal and timeless open mausoleum for the saints.

Whenever attempts are made to make the architecture more lively, say with an angled wall or a kinked stair, I have the eerie sense of a mortician's attempts to position a corpse with more "life-like" appearance.

German houses and apartments are very compartmentalized. The hierarchy is stratified: the house is a collection of rooms of equal size evenly distributed around a hallway which serves as an entry. Each room contains one window and one large cabinet. This probably comes from a lack of floor space (space is much more scarce) and a very functionalist attitude. Realistically speaking, the area required to cook and to have cooking apparatus is not that different than the area taken up by a bed and the ability to get in and out of it.

Modern American houses have a more blended hierarchy: the spaces of the house range in size and importance from the immediate outside area to the tiny guest bathroom. Germans may also prioritize the importance of various rooms (I'm still trying to figure out what that may be, probably a sitting room) but it's the Americans who give form to their feelings about the spaces.

Is it an over simplification to say that American architecture prioritizes the feelings of its owners, a reflection of their aspirations and ideologies, while German architecture prioritizes functionality and visible order?

Nov 12, 2014

colorless fall

Been really tired and listless lately. Second wave of the settling in blues perhap? Or the onset of fall? Summer was cloudy, rainy, and cold. So far there is nothing to distinguish fall from the summer apart from all the brown leaves.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was commemorated saturday and sunday. I actually remember hearing about it when it happened, so it's strange to think back and to be actually in Germany. There are some great stories about the fall, which basically happened because of a handful of low-ranking bureaucrats and higher level people not reading what they were handed. A young chemist in east Berlin decided to go into politics that night: Angela Merkel. A KGB agent in Dresden watched and lamented the opening as he destroyed files: Vladimir Putin.

While I'm on the Interesting Facts part of the blog: Martin Luther King, Jr. received a blackmail letter supposedly from a brother disgruntled with his sexual adventures. It was detailed with names and dates and ended with a suggestion MLK kill himself. Actual sender: the FBI. Why? because Hoover disliked his politics.

Two malls opened one after another recently. In typical German fashion, people say 'lets not do things the American way' and then open bad imitations of our worst urban tenancies. The malls here, at least, are smaller than their American counterparts since there are fewer vast expanses available for paving. But they are almost entirely filled with crap. Accessories, disposable fashion, dollar stores. And the clothing stores all try to emulate American. One of the new malls is basically anchored by Urban Outfitters, which turns out to be the best quality store in the mall.

Saori and I went last saturday to the Milaneo, which was open until midnight. In an unusual bout of shopping, we shopped for about four hours there and checked out the place. It was packed, packed, packed. Of course, being Stuttgart, we ran into friends there. Actually the most exciting thing about the mall for me is Pull&Bear, one of Zara's stores closer to the Urban Outfitters line.

I am looking forward to getting out of town tomorrow. We have an early morning train to Munich to catch a day long symposium on Lina Bo Bardi at the Pinakotek der Moderne. Our old professor from Wash. U, Zeuler Lima, will be speaking and we want to catch him. Also, I have heard that there is beer from Urban Chestnut brewery in St.Louis for sale at a few places in Munich so we are definately going to check it out.

It's been not so much fun at the office lately. A string of competitions submitted with nothing to show for it except lost time and sleep. Incredibly frustrating.

Also frustrating is German language. An example: in English you might say 'The apple is in the kitchen. I threw the apple there.' In those two sentences in German, each article 'the' is different. Not because of noun gender, which is its own deal, but because of the position of the noun and how it relates to the action of the sentence.

Actually, since there are four basic articles for 'the' depending on the action, position, and relation, and four different genders (masc, fem, neu, pl.) there are sixteen forms which has been consolidated to one (the) in English. But they are not all unique- only der, die, das, den, dem, and des fill the sixteen roles. And this is considered the most basic level of German grammar. 

Nov 11, 2014

the fog of English

For lunch I walked down the other side of the hill to Ostendplatz, one of the neighborhoods with a large immigrant population. I grabbed a falafel to go and walked around the pedestrian areas. Spotted some graffiti: fog you. Yes, and fog your dedication to learning English.

Nov 3, 2014

Halloween and Dia De Los Muertos

Friday was Halloween.
I saw a trio of witches out with their father trick-or-treating, and a conspicous minority of people at the hauptbahnhof dressed up for parties. Overall, it was low-key. The impression I get here is that American culture is already so entrenched (and begrudged) that most people give overt American holidays a miss.

Friday was also the day before a state holiday on Saturday, where no stores would be open. Since no stores are open on Sunday either, we got to pretend we were facing an impending zombie apocalypse at the packed and cleaned out grocery store as we stocked up on vitals such as eggs, cheese, and limes for halloween margaritas.

At the apartment, we spent the evening with lights out and candles lit, listening to eerie music, drinking margaritas, and working on our skull heads.

Saturday and sunday were beautiful and sunny, but we stayed in, enjoying the warm snap with all the windows and doors open and sunning ourselves up on the roof. I made berry pancakes, we studied German for a few hours, wrote letters and emails.

Saturday night Saori wasn't feeling well, so she stayed home while I went out to the nachtflohmarkt (night flea market) at Wagenhalle, a former train shed now used as venue. It was a major major hipster scene. The advertisement said clothes, art, and music, but it was 90% clothes, and mostly für Hipsterfrauen. Cheap though, super cheap. I picked up a jacket for Saori for five euros, no negotiation required. The vendors apparently all came with the goal to sell out and sell out quickly. I got there an hour after it opened and it was already packed. When I left, there was a line out the door since the max capacity had been reached.

Looking at everything I bought once I got back home, I realized there was good reason they keep the lighting as low as prices.

Sunday, we built an altar for Dia de Muertos. Apparently the setup for a typical altar is also pretty much the same in Shinto and Buddhist family altars as well. I didn't have pictures for everyone, so instead, I made tarot cards with their name, as well as the the things I remembered about them, or things they really loved. Saori had just her grandfather, but I had both grandfathers, an uncle, a cousin, a great-grandmother, my old work mentor, and the old landlord from the house where I used to live.

We lit candles, offered fruits and cigarettes and whiskey, and put in a few other personally meaningful items. I left a screwdriver for Grandpa Case, who could fix anything.

And the weekend ended. Much too soon.

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to, a more writing-centric website.