Saturday, November 29, 2008


The day before Thanksgiving, my mother died unexpectedly of complications following an operation. I have left Germany for a few weeks to be with my family. Our loss is beyond words. Blogging will resume eventually.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Yesterday I was reminded -- if I needed a reminder -- all over again about the power that stories have on the human imagination. I was reading Khaled Hosseini's novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is just as good as his international best-seller The Kite Runner. Hosseini writes about his native country, Afghanistan, with a mixture of fictional characters and real events: giving a human face to history. In one section of the book, he talks about the drought-stricken summer of 2000 in Kabul, where the Taliban has forbidden books, TV, and movies:

"That summer, Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan -- sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and wept tears for Jack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. If there was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the children watched it, too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TV from behind the toolshed, late at night, with the lights out and quilts pinned over the windows.

"At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed. Soon, from the river's sunbaked hollows, it was possible to buy Titanic carpets, and Titanic cloth, from bolts arranged in wheelbarrows. There was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burquas."

Such personal risk in order to share in a story!

And speaking of stories, my writing class has its first critique session today. We sat in a circle and I passed around cookies, making this as much like an American writers' group as possible. None of the students had participated in a critique class before, and only two had previously written any fiction whatsoever, but they did very well indeed. I look forward to seeing the rewrites of these three stories, and of the rest to come.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


In the United States, this is Thanksgiving week. If I were home, I'd be planning a big turkey dinner for twelve. As it is, I'm invited to a pot-luck Thanksgiving dinner organized by my department chair, and therein hangs a problem. I volunteered to bring that very American side-dish, cranberry sauce. However, I cannot find any cranberries.

Cranberries are native to North America and have not yet caught on in Germany. Saturday I visited three greengrocers: no cranberries. Yesterday I went to the shops in the HauptBahnhof, the central rail station, which are the only shops open on Sunday in Leipzig. No cranberries. I have one more resource to check today: a gourmet delicatessen that, I'm told, is located in the basement of the big department store in the city center. If that doesn't work -- no cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving.

Cranberries are a terrific source of vitamin C. They can help prevent bladder infections because a chemical in them coats the inner bladder wall so that bacteria has trouble adhering there. They taste wonderful when prepared with sugar and a little orange zest. And they belong with Thanksgiving dinner.

But maybe not this year.

Friday, November 21, 2008


When I was a kid, sometime back in the Triassic, I read a story about the hi-jacking of a space ship by rebel freedom fighters. I can't remember the name of the story or the author (although the names Gordon Dickson and Murray Leinster both come to mind -- which? or someone else?) What I do remember was my fifteen-year-old sense of awe: Something that really huge could just be stolen?

Now that Somalian pirates have actually stolen a huge oil tanker, holding 25 people hostage and using organized crime as the transfer point for millions of dollars in ransom, my visceral response is not "awe." Outrage, disgust, fear are closer. The Somalian pirates' motive is greed, and the SF story hi-jackers' was (I think) patriotic freedom. However, it's the lack of "awe" that interests me at the moment.

Maybe the world has gotten too grubby and jaded for "awe." Or I have. At any rate, a "sense of wonder" is no longer what I look for in fiction, including SF. I don't want to be dazzled by things I never thought of before, even though often that seems to be what SF values. I want to be emotionally moved, involved at a visceral level with the characters and the situation, not with novelty or landscapes or gadgets or derring-do. Take, for instance, Elizabeth Bear's Hugo-winning story "Tide Line." I loved this story for the portrait of the dying sentient war machine who passes on its heritage to a child. Whatever devastated the Earth and sent it back to the Stone Age is barely mentioned. I'm sure that war was awesome, but it was probably also boring -- UNTIL it's brought down to the level of personal suffering.

So -- not a sense of wonder. A sense of vulnerable humanity. Which, now that I think about it, that space-ship piracy story probably lacked -- or else I would remember something, anything, about at least one character?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Yesterday I had coffee at the home of a faculty colleague, Dr. Anne Koenen. The delightful afternoon featured luscious homemade pastries, plus hedgehogs.

Germany loves hedgehogs. There is a powerful organization, Pro Igel, that lobbies on behalf of the cute little critters. It has forced McDonald's to change the design of the lids on its McFlurry's shakes, since with the previous design, hedgehogs were getting their heads trapped and starving to death. Pro Igel ("igel" is hedgehog in German) also has conferences, education programs, and a Hedgehog Hotline. Plus, they do igel rescue.

By now, hedgehogs should be hibernating for the winter. But in order to do that, they have to be fat enough to live off their stored calories for several months. Those little hedgehogs that are not yet fat enough are still scurrying around, desperately eating. Anne, who lives on the outskirts of Leipzig, puts out cat food for the stragglers. It's a race against the weather, because if the ground freezes, the food disappears before the hedgehogs can build a winter nest, and some don't make it. In that case, concerned citizens can call Pro Igel and they will collect the hedgehogs, bring them to a sort of artificial hibernation center, and provide each little furry creature with yet more food and then a cardboard box where it can hibernate until spring.

I saw one of these small, laggard hedgehogs in Anne's garden. Go, hedgehog! Eat hearty!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CNN Europe

While I've been in Leipzig, my news has come mostly from BBC and CNN Europe. On Sundays I sometimes go to the central railway station and pick up the International Herald Tribune, but it's thin compared to the New York Times, and I don't like reading on-line. So CNN Europe has been my source of information -- and of an interest that goes beyond the actual news stories. There are a lot of differences between these CNN newscasters and those back home on ABC, CBS, and NBC.

First of all, here they don't look like actors. Some of the women are heavy. Some of the men are funny-looking. Nobody's hair looks sprayed into rigidity. Their suits can seem wrinkled. And their voices are not standard-mid-Atlantic, either -- Richard Quest of CNN sounds as if he's permanently caught in mid-gargle.

Americans are supposed to be the most informal people in the world ("Hiya! How ya doing?"), but these CNN reporters give out the news far more informally than Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams ever would. One said, during a series of technical glitches while trying to broadcast from the G-20 summit: "I know it sounds as if we're trying to bring you this with two tin cans and a piece of string, but just bear with us a sec." Another said, "Well, I've rambled on about that long enough, let's move on..." Election night coverage included this: "I'd tell you what's going to happen, but how the hell would I know?" Refreshing!

Finally, there is much more coverage of Asia and Africa than in U.S. news. The commercials, however, are just as simplistic and repeat just as often. I think I have now seen 4,396 times the tourist-bait commercial for "Incredible India," in which a beautiful, red-sari-ed woman floats alone through various India attractions (the Taj Mahal, a mountain precipice, temple steps, a desert), giving the impression that all of India is inhabited only by her and a clutch of camels.

Some inanities are universal.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


When one travels, one buys things. Souvenirs, local crafts, presents for people back home. This is inevitable and, usually, I can keep it under control, choosing small and packable objects. (The same cannot, however, be said for other people I've traveled with. On one long ago trip to Europe with my mother, I admonished her to buy small gifts: gloves or lace in Italy, watches in Switzerland. She bought a chess set, a tweed jacket for my father, a cuckoo clock, and four large dolls dressed in "native costumes." Guess who got to lug all this stuff in and out of airports?) Living abroad, however, is different. I inhabit this apartment for months, and I've bought things for it, which I now am encumbered with: A warm, large striped blanket because the European duvets, with white washable covers instead of top sheets, always look to me like heavy shrouds; A throw pillow for the sofa, comfortable for watching BBC; At least ten novels; Kitchen equipment. I can now ship this stuff home, leave it here, or try to cram it into my suitcases, already full of stuff (some of which turned out to be not needed). On balance, it's a good thing I'm not here longer, or I'd end up buying furniture. The living room really does need another chair...

Gifts are another problem. One friend wants marzipan, which shouldn’t be too hard. But another wants the Black Forest – the entire thing (“I want to hike in it.”) Another wants a “furry Russian hat,” which I can’t seem to find. And a lot just say, “Bring me something German” – which is no help.

I may just bring everybody schnapps.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has declared Germany officially in recession. The German economy, the largest in Europe, has shrunk for two successive quarters. Its chief financial officer warns that this recession will be "serious." Merkel has advocated drawing up a "risk map" of institutions likely to go under so they can be helped before they bleed too much -- a sort of economic triage.

It's difficult for an outsider to know how to evaluate all this. The ubiquitous construction cranes have not stopped working in Leipzig. Buildings are going up, not into foreclosure. Watching CNN Europe and the BBC each night, I hear interviews with financial experts all across the Eurozone, who seem to say that this global recession is a result of the crisis on the American stock market. If the United States doesn't pull out of this mess, neither will Europe or Asia.

Germany does not have a large national debt. In addition, it has a positive trade balance, being a huge exporter of all kinds of goods. Perhaps that is insulating the country somewhat. But not according to TV reports. One thing, however, does seem clear to me -- here there aren't the foreclosures common in the U.S., with people evicted from their homes, or the factory closings in China, with people milling around outside the gates demanding back pay. At least, not yet.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


My SF Literature class has turned in their first papers. There are 33 of them, and I am deep into grading, which in this case is even more difficult than it usually is. Although some of the students, inevitably, are merely regurgitating what was said in class, many others have written thoughtful and interesting papers. But they are writing in a language not native to them, and sometimes there are good ideas and organization but very rough English; other times there is nearly perfect English but either poor organization or not much to organize. How much weight do I give to what?

I suspect I'm grading pretty easily, partly because I'm so impressed that they can write an academic paper in a second language at all. They have read hundreds of pages of sometimes-complex SF in English, and will read hundreds of pages more (re Red Mars, Robinson has been accused of "describing every last damn rock on Mars.") That, too, seems to me to justify comparatively easy grading.

For those interested, here are the paper questions, both based on some of the works read to date:

Choose one question:

A person may accept the ideas of the world he or she grows up in, may reject those ideas, or may strive for a combination of acceptance and rejection. Discuss how this applies to two of the following characters: Berge, Koriba, Louise Banks, Shevek, Tirin. Be as specific as you can, citing incidents from the texts.

Much of science fiction is, in one way or another, concerned with power. Describe what power means and how it operates in two of the following societies: the terraformed moon of “People Came from Earth,” the Heptapod society of “The Story of Your Life,” the orbital Kirinyaga, Annares, Urras. Be sure to give specific examples from the texts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Alternate History

Yesterday in SF class we tackled two stories of alternate history: Robert Silverberg's "Tales from the Venia Woods" and William Sanders's "The Undiscovered." Both stories were successes with the students, although I did have the feeling that not as many as usual had done all the reading, undoubtedly because they also had to hand in their first papers that day (a phenomenon I remember clearly from my own student days).

With the Silverberg, we looked at the story's two views of empire as embodied in the Pax Romana: as an oppressive totalitarian state or as the best alternative to a war of all-against-all. I put on the board Ben Franklin's aphorism that "History is written by the winners as an excuse to hang the losers." Nobody was exactly sure who Ben Franklin was, although they did have him located in the American war for independence from England. This discussion, of the viability of a world government (or what passed for "the world" in Roman times) is, in part, preparation for reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, the next thing on the syllabus.

We then turned to "The Undiscovered," Sanders's wonderful cross-cultural story about William Shakespeare ending up in America in the late 1590's, being captured by Indians, and attempting to stage Hamlet among the Cherokees. The Indians find the play hilarious. I find the story hilarious, and so was startled when two of my students disagreed: "It's tragic. It just crushes Shakespeare that no one understood his play." Which is, of course, true in the context of the SF story. An interesting response from thoughtful readers.

Addendum added a day later: I emailed Will Sanders. He said he intended it as a sad story. Score one for the students!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Doors and Toilets

One of the pleasures of living in another country is the chance to notice all the small differences. Such, for instance, as doors. Germans love doors. In the university library, there is a large room, opening off the mezzanine at the top of a wide staircase, where all books are checked out and in. People go into and out of this room at the rate of one every 35 seconds (I timed it) and every single one opens and closes the door. In America, this door (if it existed at all) would be propped open all day. Every other room in the library also has a door which is constantly opened and closed. When my students come to see me in my office, the first thing they do is close the door. The office of the Institute secretary has a door that, when she is there, is opened two inches to indicate her availability.

Thus, I was surprised whem, at a dinner party on Saturday night at the home of a German colleague, there were no doors between the kitchen and the dining room, or the dining room and living room. I asked if doors were not usual in German homes. She said yes, they are usual, but she had them removed. She'd lived three years in Berkeley.

Toilets: On the streets are small public toilets (see below). These are useful and surprisingly clean. The same idea was nearly installed in New York, but because the tiny buildings didn't permit handicapped access, the entire project was scrapped, on the theory that if everyone can't have it, nobody can. Leipzig is very good about handicap access -- there are ramps and elevators everywhere -- but not as stringent as the States.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


For some totally unknown reason, Blogger has decided to allow me to post pictures (mysterious are the ways of technology). This is the New Town Hall in Leipzig. It's not really medieval, having been built in the late 1800's, but it's impressive nonetheless. The BurgPlatz, the square there beside it, has nice little cafes and a lovely Italian restaurant.

This is the Opera House. Built in the 1950's, it has a light, airy main theater of pale wood and simple lines. Last night I saw Swan Lake (Schwanensee) there, danced by the Leipzig Ballet. Maiko Oishi danced Odette/Odile with exquisite precision. There were a great many children and teens in the audience; in the States I've only ever seen that at performances of The Nutcracker.

This is the Mendes Fountain (turned off now for the winter) at AugustusPlatz, Leipzig's primary square. Behind it is a controversial bit of construction: a university building that will include a sort of replica of St. Paul's Church. This was blown up by the GDR in 1968. It was replaced with university buildings, which in turn are now being replaced. Construction cranes work busily everywhere in Leipzig.

This is taken facing the other way across AugustusPlatz, toward City Tower, Leipzi's tallest structure. There is a restaurant up there that I have yet to visit, but it's supposed to have a spectacular view of the entire city. If I were a better photographer, this picture would not have that temporary plastic kiosk in it.

This is the top of the Kroch-tower building, one of the few left in AugustusPlatz after WWII bombing. The figures at the top chime the bells every quarter hour. They sound a bit tinny, however. The inscription -- in case you forgot your Latin -- says "Work conquers all."

The statue of dancers at BayrischerPlatz, beside my favorite cafe. I covet this statue. I would take it home if I could. But it weighs several tons, and Customs might notice.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Anarchists and Capitalists

When my SF class here in Leipzig finished reading Le Guin's The Dispossessed, I asked them a key question. We had discussed the two planets LeGuin created, Anarres and Urras, and the various issues the novel raises: competition versus cooperation, safety versus freedom, the individual good versus the social good, equality versus merit. We looked at how LeGuin does not assume all good lies on one planet or the other, and why she subtitles her novel "An Ambiguous Utopia." We discussed the physical basis of each society: the geographically rich homeworld of Urras, and the relatively poor fertility of Anarres, the moon upon which humans had not originally evolved. We looked at the political structure of each: capitalistic Urras and anarchistic, non-money, non-propertarian Anarres. After all these points had been made, I asked them (with great curiosity on my part) this question:

"If you had to live on either Urras or Anarres, which would you choose? Urras, with its luxurious rich and starving poor, or Anarres, where all is shared equally and without law or government or ownership, but there isn't much to share in the first place?"

One student asked -- sensibly -- "Do I get to be at the top or the bottom on Urras?" But I said he wouldn't know until he got there.

The vote was four for Anarres, twenty-one for Urras, a few students abstaining. I'm not sure what this says about the young in the former East Germany, but it's sure interesting.

Election Night in Germany

Last night I attended an election-night party hosted by the U.S. Consulate and held at Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, the state-owned radio station. The building is impressive: a high rise in the south part of Leipzig, with fountains in the spacious lobby, statuary, glass-walled elevators and offices. Security was equally impressive. There were checkpoints outside, I.D. and invitation checks inside, metal detectors and purse-checkers. I was wanded before entering an elevator to the thirteenth floor. Four years ago Germany had a near-brush with terrorism on a Dortmund train, saved from tragedy only because the bomb failed to explode.

The party was held in a series of large rooms with spectacular views, decorated with bunting and American flags. There was food, wine, little tables with piles of McCain and Obama buttons, and a huge TV screen playing CNN Europe. However, it was impossible to hear Wolf Blitzer because the band kept playing American songs: "Big Bad LeRoy Brown" and, for some reason, an assortment of Bobby Darin standards. It was a very mixed crowd: diplomats in good suits and students in jeans.

I enjoyed myself.I talked for a long time to the Honorary Consul for Sweden, a retired German banker who speaks five languages. He introduced me to many people, including Leipzig's chief of police, but since many of these people did not speak English, conversations were necessarily short. With the exception of the Honorary Consul, most Europeans were solidly for Barack Obama. The piles of McCain buttons sat untouched; the Obama buttons were pinned to jackets and sweaters.

At midnight I went home, carrying my miniature American flag. There were no results yet, since it was only 6:00 p.m. in the U.S. East Coast and the polls hadn't even closed. So I went to bed without knowing who was our president-elect. This morning I woke up, listened to a BBC replay of Obama's moving speech in Grant Park, and studied the record voter-turnout figures. Child of the '60's, I could only marvel.

The times, they are a-changin'.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Essays and Cultural Differences

Recently -- like, last week -- it was explained to me that the German tradition of essay writing differs sharply from the English one. American and British students are taught to write thesis-proof papers: set forth a central idea upfront, write points and cite texts or research supporting that point, and finish with a restatement of the central idea or a discussion of its applicability (in the case of scientific articles).

German essays, on the other hand (including the ones my university students have studied throughout their long schooling), are structured differently. An argument often examines all sides of an issue. The essay may start anywhere, since the point is often not manifest until the end.

All this clarifies a question that a student asked me last Monday after class, a question I did not understand at all. She said, regarding the paper I had assigned, "So do you want us to write this in the style we were taught before?" I said, "Style won't count as much as content. I want to hear what you have to say." But now I think she meant "structure," not what I was thinking of as style (voice, eloquence). These students at the Institute for American Studies were taught, in their first year, the American style of paper writing. By failing to say that's what I want now, who knows what I will get.

I will try to clear this up in class today, but the papers are due next week and it's possible that many of them have started to write (I hope). But I will try. The difficulty with cross-cultural differences in that if you don't know the divide is there, it's hard to build a bridge across it.