Month: February 2012

The Mystery of Orange 444

Cover of "Memento"

Cover of Memento

I can remember being able to remember. There was a time when I did not need an electronic calendar to remind me when I had a meeting. There was a time when I would remember what to pick up in the store without a note. There was a time when I wouldn’t have to record everything in order to remember it, but I have slowly accepted that my memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Now I am not sure if technology is making my mind a mushy mess of unconnected thoughts or if it is simply the fact that I am aging and my brain is already retiring a little at a time. Why my brain is turning into oatmeal isn’t that important to me, what concerns me is losing perfectly good ideas because my head has a slow leak, so I have become pretty good at recording the little flashes that pop into my mind as I go through my day. These little fragments are usually related to writing and if I don’t write them down or record them they have a tendency to float off and are lost forever.

Last summer I was taking a writing class from Pam Houston and she said that when she has to remember something she tells someone else her idea. Once she tells the story she remembers it and doesn’t have to write it down. Well, I tried that and aside from sounding like a crazy person at times (my ideas are pretty fragmented and random) I also forgot my great idea anyway. So I went back to recording my little ideas on scraps of paper, notepads and my hand. If I was ever killed in an accident, the coroner might wonder what was going on because I might have written “a marble dolphin and Indian Chef” on my palm earlier in the day.

Recently I discovered the app Evernote. Evernote is a handy little program that is on my phone and home computer. If I come up with an idea I just put it into my phone  and it magically appears on my home computer. This little app will record verbal notes, pictures and text messages. So last night, as I was preparing to think about what I would write this morning, I checked my Evernote app for my last entry and found this little message: “Orange 444.” I didn’t remember putting “Orange 444” into my phone and spent 20 minutes trying to figure out what my past self was trying to tell my present self. I started to feel a bit like Guy Pearce in Memento. It is one thing to forget what I was supposed to remember, but it is completely different to feel like someone took my phone and typed something mysterious into it just to confuse me. I could not remember anything about Orange 444. I checked the date and time I entered the message hoping that there would be a clue there that would unlock the mystery. Sure enough, I entered Orange 444 around noon last Friday which was just about the time I was parking my car in a downtown Seattle garage.

So instead of having a great idea for my writing, I had recorded a parking space.

Ugly Americans on the loose

A Curse Upon Both Your Houses

Ugly Americans on the loose

I can point to the moment I was first cursed with the travel bug. It was 1979 and my whole family traveled to New Zealand to spend a year. It was an odd arrangement that seemed perfectly natural to me. My father was a Presbyterian minister and had managed to exchange pulpits with a minister in Auckland, New Zealand. So the whole family packed up and traded homes, cars and churches for a year.

We landed in Auckland and my life was never the same. I went to Mount Roskill Grammar school. I learned to play rugby, cricket and tennis. I discovered BBC comedies and ate new and delicious food. We went to the beach and I learned to body surf, we traveled the entire country of New Zealand and I didn’t want to leave when the year was over. When I came back to the US, I was changed. I could no longer view the world from a strictly American viewpoint. When I watched the news I wondered what was happening in New Zealand (a country at that time that was hardly known in the US.) The internet did not exist and I felt like I was living in a world with blinders on. I hadn’t yet read Plato’s allegory of the cave, but if I had, I might have felt like someone else understood me. Sure, there was Mork and Mindy  but I missed Faulty Towers and rugby and cricket and the beach and climbing Mount Eden and the slower pace of life in the South Pacific.

These were thoughts I knew I should not utter aloud. As an American, I had a duty to believe that my country was the greatest country ever established on the face of the Earth and if I didn’t believe that then I should march on off to Russia and live in a gulag. I had trouble swallowing this because New Zealand had damaged my brain. I could no longer see the world as the US and then a bunch of moron countries that survived simply because we decided to allow them to exist.

Travel has a way of damaging your brain. Travel is a Pandora’s Box. Once the spirits of travel are let free you cannot put them back. Which brings me to one factoid that is troubling to me: In 2011 only 30% of Americans held passports. (Good thing we don’t need passports to invade countries. Cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist.) As a comparison, 60% of Canadians and 75% of UK citizens have passports. The US certainly has a lot to see, but if 70% of Americans never leave the country there is a problem.

I began thinking about this the other day when my son and daughter started to talk about missing Europe. We are not a wealthy family, but we have traveled to Europe as a family twice. I’m sure there are people who think it was a complete waste of our hard earned money, but I have always believed in investing in memories instead of things. I also believe that there is no better learning experience than traveling. You can always read about places or watch Youtube videos, but travel brings more meaning to what you read and how you think.

Would the US be a better country if more Americans traveled? I believe so. Would the world be a better place if more Americans traveled? I believe so. We misunderstand a good portion of the world and the world misunderstands us. Americans might be more willing to change their perspectives on education, health care, transportation and military spending if we traveled more. Ignorance of the world only breeds fear and fear makes us reluctant to change. I am proposing that we take the money Newt Gingrich wants to spend on a moon base and instead of sending 1,300 Americans to the moon, we send 13 million Americans to another country for a month. It couldn’t hurt.

The Art of Travel Photography

My son and I share a passion for photography, not a in a traditional sense, but in the sense that it gives us the opportunity to do something inappropriate and record it for posterity. For example, the following photo opportunity presented itself while we were in Paris a couple years ago.

This photo was taken using a cheap camera.

This poor fellow just happened to fall asleep in the wrong place and became a member of the family photo album.

A photographer is always looking for those special moments.

When taking a quality photo like this it is important to exercise a ninja-level of stealth. Some opportunities present themselves organically while others need a little bit of staging. My son spotted this next photo-op while we were walking through Versailles.

High Five

The key to good travel photography is a keen eye and the ability to see what the average tourist misses. How many people walked right by this statue without getting a high five?

Taking photos in low light can be fun also, but always be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for the opportunity to make those fleeting moments into treasured memories.

Low light photography has its own challenges

Always be aware of signs when composing your photo

The most important thing to remember when taking travel shots is to stay open to the possibilities presented to each each day. Almost all travelers have cameras, but not everyone is a travel photographer.

A travel photographer needs to have an eye for the absurd

Angry German Bakers: The Redemption

Pfullendorf, Ladenschild der Bäckerei Allgaier

The inevitable question arises, “If you were abused by German bakers, why did you keep going back?” While that is a fair question, it is a question asked by someone who has not been to a German bakery. German bakeries have very good pastries. While I was staying in Hamburg I found two friendly bakeries close to the our exchange home: there was a Dat Backhus and a small family run bakery within walking distance. So each morning I would get up, walk to one of the bakeries and order/point at a few of the pastries and then bring them back to the house for my family.

I discovered something interesting on these hunting/gathering journeys, Germans are very helpful when other Germans are not around. Now I don’t want to suggest something akin to a “Don’t be nice to tourists” campaign, but when I was in the bakeries by myself, and there were no other people waiting for service, the bakers took the time to explain to me a few of the things I was doing wrong. The first faux pas was the whole counting thing. If you want one Berliner then signal one with your thumb. Using your forefinger is apparently  confusing to Germans who might think you are ordering two of something when using your pointer finger.

At first I was a bit skeptical but after viewing several pictures of my favorite German celebrity, Dirk Nowitzki, I did notice that he does use the thumb when signaling that he just dropped a three-ball from beyond the arc. When an American basketball player gives the three-ball signal they inevitably use their first three fingers. So if Dirk, who has spent a fair number of years living in the US, still cannot break himself of the habit of using his thumb to count three-balls, the whole using your thumb to count as one must be pretty ingrained in the German people.

The next mistake I was making was getting in line before I was ready to order. Americans get in line to save a spot before ordering and may not even know what they want to eat before getting in line. If you would like to experience the German level of frustration go to a McDonalds drive through in the US. How it takes five minutes to order at a McDonalds is a mystery to me. It isn’t like the guy taking your order is going through the wine list or telling you about the specials, it is McDonalds! It is the same stupid menu almost everywhere you go in the world. It isn’t like you are going to pull up to a drive through menu and suddenly be confronted with a choice between carved turkey breast and alder smoked salmon.

My final mistake isn’t one that the bakers explained to me but one I discovered on my own. In the US we have regional differences, but for the most part we have a shared expectation of what is socially acceptable. In Europe these shared expectations are wildly different from country to country. I assumed that France and Germany would be very similar except for the language. When I looked at a map my brain said, “Look how close it is. I should learn how to say two German words so I can survive in Germany.” But once I was in Germany I realized that I was totally unprepared for the cultural differences, or what Ruby Payne would call the “unwritten rules” of the culture. These hidden rules are really at the core of how we view the world. Now prepare yourself for some wide generalizations. I think the German people are very friendly and helpful, but their priority or primary mode of thinking is task oriented. They want to get stuff done. They do not dilly-dally. They get joy from accomplishing tasks and they want everybody following the same rules they have to follow. If you try to do something different Germans are not afraid to let you know. Try walking on a bike path in Germany (the bike paths in Berlin and Hamburg are on the sidewalk and colored red.) If you are walking along and step into the bike path and there is a biker nearby Germans don’t politely ring a bell or say, “On your right.” No they give you the business. Shouting at someone in Germany is not personal or emotional, it is efficient. When Germans are out for a walk, they are walking, don’t try to say, “Hi” or smile, they are walking don’t bother them. Stay out of the damn bike paths unless you are on a bike and for God’s sake, if you step into a bakery know what you want. It is Germany, people have things to do. Tourists should be aware that the unwritten slogan for Germany is, “Welcome to Germany! Now get out of the way!”

Angry German Bakers: Lunch

Dat Backhus: HafenCity, Hamburg

This trip to a German bakery went badly. Usually I could soften this statement with an addition like: The trip to the bakery went badly, but at least I had a delicious, sweet pastry. When you end up with a cold fish sandwich you can’t really soften a bad visit to a bakery. How does one end up with a cold fish sandwich? Well, you order it because you saw a couple other people in line order one and assumed that it must taste good. Here is a word of advice for people traveling in Germany, local tastes may not match your own.

The journey to Dat Backhus had all of the usual foibles I force upon my family when traveling. I wanted to visit HafenCity and I really didn’t plan out much beyond the arrival in HafenCity. I like to explore, to allow myself the freedom to wander around and get lost, wandering aimlessly is not something my family enjoys. What did I know about HafenCity before arriving? There was a miniature world museum and the industrial docks were being turned into cool modern buildings. My plan was to arrive, go to the mini-world, find lunch and then look at the construction of the opera house.

We arrived near HafenCity and within ten minutes I managed to get us lost. It wasn’t like I was trying to get lost, it is something I am just really good at doing. To me lost is an opportunity to see Russians selling drugs out of a van, or to stroll through a private country club without knowing where I am, for my family it is simply a long walk with no end in sight. It took a little time to find mini-world and then it took a little time to decide whether we wanted to eat lunch before going to mini-world or wait until afterwards. I think my family thought we would get lost again if we tried to eat first, so we went into Miniatur Wunderland. Have I mentioned how much Germans love lines? Well, Germans love lines like Disney Imagineers love lines. What looked like a short line from the outside of the building ended up snaking around an entrance and then up a bunch of flights of stairs. We ended up in an empty room with about 50 other people. Then a teenage boy came out from behind a door and started yelling at us, at least that is what it sounded like. He was probably just speaking German loudly, but I felt like I had done something wrong. When he was finished yelling, a door opened and the crowd started moving through it. I waited and then asked the teenager if he spoke English. He did and all of my problems were about to be solved, that is until he told me that this was the line for people who purchased tickets on-line. Only Germans would wait 30 minutes in a line for tickets they already purchased: Germans and stupid Americans like me.

That was the final straw for my now famished family. We were not going to wait in line again, we needed food.

Now no one died on our long, meandering walk that ended at Dat Backhus, but some people were not happy with their husband and my father-of-the-year nomination was put on hold for at least six months.

There was a line in the bakery which I thought was a good sign because it meant the food was probably good and it would give my family the opportunity to get their act together and decide what we wanted to order. Unfortunately everyone in line was German and therefore had planned what to order around 8AM three days earlier. Before we knew what had happened we were faced with a German bakery worker who wanted our order. None of us were ready which is simply not acceptable in Germany. I quickly pointed at the fish sandwich, my daughter pulled the “I’ll have what he is having” assuming I had ordered something edible, my son ordered a couple pastries (which did not please the bakery worker) and my wife ordered something like soup. The Germans in line behind us were not pleased to see this typical American chaos in their orderly world and they expressed their displeasure by looking at their watches which I believe is the German equivalent of shouting “Hurry up!”

I did my best to gather our food, pay the bill (cash only in German restaurants) and then find a seat in the dining area designed by IKEA and Tony Smith. No one in my family was smiling. I felt like I had just gone through an unfortunate medical exam, my son had more confirmation that his father was really Clark Griswold, my wife was very quiet, and my daughter was crying because she had just ordered a cold fish sandwich for lunch. I ended up eating two cold fish sandwiches. My daughter ate some delicious German pastries.  It is times like this, that people like me, end up in places like McDonalds.

Angry German Bakers: Part 1

German Bakery

German Bakery (Photo credit: Alki1)

Where have I had my worst experiences as a monolingual person while traveling? This is an easy question to answer for me: German Bakeries. Now if you haven’t been to a German bakery or seen a German bakery you should visit one, but let me warn you right now that you better know exactly what you want and how to order because if you hesitate or do something wrong you will be in trouble. What kind of trouble? I’m not really sure because most of my German was learned by watching Hogan’s Heroes, but I will describe for you, dear reader, several of my experiences.

Hamburg Hauptbahnhof: The main train station in Hamburg. My family was grabbing a quick breakfast before hopping on a train to Berlin. It was earlyish and there was a German Bakery in the train station that we thought we would hit before jumping on board the ICE train and heading to Berlin. Now in the US (I realize we were in Germany, but in order to explain my plight I thought I would explain the cultural differences in ordering food in Germany verses the United States)  in the US a family orders one at a time. I might say what I want, then my wife and so on, but I don’t think that is the routine in German. I say I don’t think that is the routine because I am not sure about the routine. I just know that every time we ordered like this we got a scolding.

Another mistake I believe we made was not knowing exactly what we wanted before we stepped into the little shop. It seems to be the cultural norm in Germany that you must know what you are going to eat for breakfast a solid hour before you step into the bakery. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but if you go into a German bakery know what you want before stepping into line and don’t start looking at the baked goods before you get in line or they will think you are an Italian trying to cut.

So, back to the train station, I step up to the counter and begin my ordering routine which has all kinds of problems: 1. I speak zero German and even a “Guten Morgen” doesn’t buy you too much sympathy. 2. Pointing at food in German has all kinds of problems. They really do use their thumbs like in Inglorious Bastards. 3. I am American. The bakery guy gave me about five seconds before he started scolding me. Believe it or not, I was scolded many times in Germany, most frequently in bakeries. I don’t blame the German bakers, it was my fault for not being fully prepared. After the scolding the bakery guy just walked away with his tongs. My family was confused. We really didn’t know what had happened, but the lady in line behind us apologized to us in English as if she were somehow responsible for the angry baker. She then stepped in and helped us get our order taken care of. Once we had our delicious baked goods my son conjectured that the reason the baker was mad was because he had to wear his sister’s pants to work. (The baker was wearing those Capri pants that German men wear.)

Tomorrow: The Lunch Bakery

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