Wanderung 5

Happy Haus for Holt’s in Hamburg.

February - April 2004

March 15 - Shopping Trip to Hamburg

During breakfast we turned Gustl’s old radio to the northern-Germany channel (Erste Programm) for a news report at 8:30. The speaker had quite an accent and many of the words seemed strange at first, but then I found that I was understanding the news report quite well despite the strangeness. The anouncer was funny, too. When he discussed the weather he mentioned the chance of sunshine in the afternoon, but then added quickly under his breath “if we’re lucky!” The announcer’s language turned out to be Plattdeutsch (often called Low German in English), which really is a distinct language that is in between High German and English. The resemblance to English of many of the Plattdeutsch words was helping me guess their meanings better than I can manage to do in High German. For example this guy used the word “tein” (pronounced like tine) to mean “ten” whereas the High German word for 10, “zehn”, has a ts sound for the “z” and a long a sound for the “e”, plus the final “n” (phonetically it is something like “tsane” in English). I hope you can see from this example that hearing “tine” and guessing it meant “ten” was just heaps easier for me.

But the big advantage of Plattdeutsch is that the language does not distinguish between masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, and that distinction is quite critical in High German. Part of the reason I am so tongue-tied in speaking is that when I form a sentence I have to do two extra steps. First, I have to decide what gender each noun is, and that’s not instinctive for me like it is for native High German speakers. In fact, I guess correctly only about 1/3 of the time, almost exactly at a chance base rate!

Secondly, I have to use the gender of the noun and the case it is being used for (nominative, accusative, genitive, etc.) and then select the appropriate ending for any article like “a”, “the”, “his”, “hers”, “that” and the like. That requires that I remember the right type of ending for the gender and case, so I have to get both of those things right to speak correctly. When I get it wrong, as I usually do, everyone including myself tends to get very confused. Monika’s French grandmother used to cope by simply using all three of the articles (masculine, feminine, AND neuter) just to cover all the bases, as in “Gibt mir der, die, das Butter” (Give me the-masculine, the-feminine, the-neutral butter). That worked, but it struck me as an awkward solution and anybody outside of my very forgiving German in-laws might perceive it as quite odd. Plattdeutsch just ignores the noun genders and uses one word for each article; for instance, “dat” stands for “that” and can be used for any noun.

So for all the High School aged children out there (yes, both of you!) who are facing the dreaded “Foreign Language Requirement”, here is a Big Fat Tip from Uncle Bob: Ask specifically for a class in Plattdeutsch from your High School. This will irritate all the responsible adults because finding a teacher fluent in Plattdeutsch and instructional materials will be almost impossible. And if they do manage to find someone, having a language this close to English will make taking German as easy or easier than learning Spanish, which was the favorite easy language to pick back in my day. If you later visit Germany and break out in Plattdeutsch, the Germans will know it’s some kind of German but they won’t be able to understand it, which will again irritate the responsible adults. And you will be able to superciliously look down your nose at them, instead of the other way around, because they don’t speak your kind of German! (Bru hah hah hah hah hah!) Anyway you look at it, asking for a class in Plattdeutsch in High School will irritate enough adults on both sides of the Atlantic that it’s a sure winner!

A repairman for the hole in the plaster wall of our dressing room was scheduled to come at 2 p.m., but we thought we still had enough time to take the train downtown and do some shopping (which by the way, is now called “schoppen” in German). That’s one big advantage of have a precise time-oriented culture—not only do the trains (buses, ferries, and airplanes) run on time, but appointments are also scheduled for exact times. That contrasts very favorably, in my opinion, with the U.S. sloppy-time culture where the best precision I can get for repairmen appointments is “sometime before 12:00” or “sometime after 12:00”, which makes me sit (patiently, patiently) around home for at least half the day waiting for them. And sometimes even then the repairmen don’t make it by the appointed time! Have you ever sat around the whole day waiting for a repairman or installer who never came? Argh! Given our experience, that will definitely not happen in Germany.

Trying to keep in shape for our weekend walks, we chose to walk down to the Reinbek station and take the earlier train to Hauptbahnhof and then on to Jungfernstieg, where the Alsterhaus department store was located. We figured we would hit the Alsterhaus store first and then work our way back along the main street to Karstadt. I was searching for CDs of German folk songs, which are plentiful and often on sale in Germany, but which would be hard to find and expensive to boot in the U.S. Also, CDs are small and I thought that they would pack well for the trip back to the U.S., whereas I had grave misgivings about my monster hammer-drill since it was roughly the size and shape of a mini-jackhammer

We were 10 minutes before opening time, so we wandered about the downtown area a bit and looked at some of the large, painted “Hummel” figures that were scattered around the streets. “Hans Hummel” was an actual person several centuries back whose job was to carry water to customers. The story goes that kids would tease him by yelling “Hummel, Hummel” and he would reply angrily “Mors, Mors” which Monika says is an unflattering (and Plattdeutsch) way of referring to your derriere. Since then he has become the quintessential symbol of Hamburg. So there were “Hummel” statues, a man carrying two pails of water, all over Hamburg. These statues were painted in different ways and located in front of Hauptbahnhof and along the Inner Alster, among other places. The basic idea seems identical to the large painted fish I saw on the street corners of Baltimore a couple of years ago, and I have heard of other U.S. cities doing things like this, often to raise money for charities, etc.

I found some German folk music and Monika found some German opera songs, so we ended up purchasing a total of about 6 CDs at the Alsterhaus and later at Karstadt. Monika also found a video of “Rasmus und der Vagabond” (Rasmus and the vagabond) at 10 Euro that we bought to try out since I had read that book in German and enjoyed it very much. Since we both apparently had too much spare time, Monika picked up an embroidery kit plus the necessary needles and I found a book of German translations of English short stories. I bought the book because, first of all, it was cheap at 2.95 Euro. But I also broke down and bought it because I recognized some of the authors like P.D. James and I thought I would have better luck reading German where the story plot revolved around English situations and customs since they are inherently familiar to me. If worse comes to worse, I could also try to find the same stories in English versions and use those as a springboard to reading the German versions. I guess I was trying to accumulate a “fun and easy reading” library of German books (Kaestner, Kirst, Komics) to increase my language facility. Ultimately, I knew that I wanted to read certain German authors in the original versions, but anything really deep (Kant, Goethe, Einstein, Freud) would be very slow, painful going at my present level of inexpertness!

As we walked from Alsterhaus to Karstadt, I was impressed on the one hand by how little had changed in this area since I first visited Germany in 1973. Monika confirmed that the basic downtown stores of Karstadt, Alsterhaus, and Kaufhaus dated back to the 1950s, so basically the downtown hasn’t changed in 50 years! That’s stability! Where I live it sometimes seems that I’m are afraid to turn my back on a store for fear someone will demolish it by the time I look back! That goes particularly for the stores that I like since I’m something of a Jonah for commercial enterprises. That is, If I really like some store and start to patronize it regularly, it is almost certain to go out of business! Very frustrating. Maybe I should hire myself out based on this anti-expertise, but I haven’t been quite able to figure out how to sell myself in that fashion. (“If Bob likes it, you’re in deep trouble!”?) My last victim was a German bakery in Alexandria that had great German cakes, chocolate, and what not. I patronized it and the last time we went by it was closed.

One thing that has changed since I first visited was the number of beggars lining the streets. I definitely had not seen anyone on the downtown street corners the previous two weeks, but I expect the winter weather had a lot to do with it. With the temperatures now hitting the 40s and no rain (no sunshine either, but at least no rain!), the beggars were perhaps just another sign of spring. About 50% of the beggars seemed to have dogs, usually big ones. I thought that was curious because straight off if someone asks me for a handout but has a big German Shepherd sitting there, I’m going to think something like, “Well, why don’t you save some money by getting rid of the dog?” I have similar thoughts if beggars are smoking or drinking—it may be heartless of me but it seems like someone asking for donations has at least some responsibility to try to minimize their expenses before hitting up other people to take up the slack.

As usual, we had to wait a bit at Hauptbahnhof for the train to Reinbek because about half of the trains stop at Bergedorf, which is the station just before Reinbek. Still we got home in plenty of time for Monika to fix a nice, hot lunch before the repairman rang out doorbell at 2:01 p.m. Can you imagine that level of punctuality in the U.S.? Actually, my watch might have been off by 1 minute so it really is possible that this guy punched the doorbell precisely at the appointed time. How refreshing! He asked us for some newspapers to catch the old plaster and in 45 minutes he was done and gone. Skilled craftsmen may be expensive in Germany, but goodness are they competent and quick (see also Wanderung 2).

Monika started in on her embroidering that afternoon while I was trying to catch up with the journal. We took a break to make our daily shopping expedition to Aldi’s, and along the way I took a picture of the “Tobaccoland” vending machine. This is a machine that sells packs of cigarettes for 3 Euro each—about 50% more expensive that the approximately 2 Euro per pack that packs of cigarettes cost in the super markets. So who, you might ask, would pay the extra money for a pack from the vending machine? Well, consider the fact that these machines are sitting on the streets where people of any age can walk up, put their money in, and walk off with some cigarettes. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to conclude that these machines are targeted at getting the children and preteens addicted to cigarettes. How vile. These machines are put there by U.S. cigarette manufacturers like Marlboro, and it is clear to me that they would also have this kind of drug-peddling machine on street corners in the U.S. if we let them. I also saw ads for the “Marlboro Man” riding his horse thru a snow-covered landscape just like they used to publish in the U.S. Of course the original Marlboro Man is dead now—he died of lung cancer in his 50s, as I recall, after smoking all those cigarettes and in the interview I read before his death he seemed a little bitter about that. Like Yul Brenner, who also died of lung cancer, he wanted to warn people against smoking, but after all those years of encouraging youngsters to take up smoking with his “manly” advertisements it seemed to me like too little, too late.

Perhaps partly as a result of the relentless advertising, cigarette smoking is still very common in Germany (see also Wanderung 2). The long haul trains all have smoking carriages or smoking sections in each carriage, and after walking thru a couple of them to get to the bathroom, I can vouch for the fact that they really stink! If you are at all allergic to smoke, I would caution you to maybe reserve a seat in the non-smoking section of the compartments for long train trips. Unfortunately, that type of accommodation is simply not available in German restaurants—there are no non-smoking sections even in restaurants in public places like museums. When we had lunch at the art museum, for example, we had to look around for a table without an ashtray on it, but someone still sat down at a nearby table and lit up a cigarette. Fortunately I am only mildly allergic to cigarette smoke, so I just try to avoid it wherever I can, but for people that have strong allergic reactions the prevalence of smoking in Germany could cause a real problem. The irony is that I think the German lifestyle has inherently more activity and exercise in it plus less fat-laden fast food, so if the Germans ever stopped smoking they would probably outlive Americans by a good bit. As it is, I think both countries are about the same in life expectancies.

Of course, I found myself lighting yet another fire in the fireplace that evening, and I must admit that after two weeks of fires every evening my sweater was beginning to smell like Smokey the Bear. Still, I didn’t seem to be having any allergic reactions to it and it was immensely enjoyable, so I kept at it. It was almost an evening ritual with the dinner in front of the fire with books or TV. We watched the German version of a police series before the news—the police wear green in Hamburg so it was exactly like Hill Street Blues, but in green uniforms. The other surprise came when I tried to play the DVD of “Rasmussen and the Vagabond” we had purchased earlier. First I was told I had to change the Region setting of the DVD player, but when I started to do that I was informed that I could only change the Region setting 4 times for the entire life of the computer and DVD player! Toshiba even specifically warned that neither reinstalling the operating system nor switching the DVD player to another computer would reset this limit, so it appears to be a limiting counter in the firmware of the DVD drive itself. As Riley would have put it, “What a revolting development that was!” I was particularly surprised because we had been playing the German folk music CDs with absolutely no problem.

The net result was that our plan of buying some German movies that simply aren’t sold in the U.S. and playing them on our computer was still possible, but then we wouldn’t be able to view our U.S. DVDs! What if we want to switch back and forth to view both types? At least Toshiba could have a prominent warning on the highly-touted DVD player that is could only be used to play Region 1 DVDs. That would be have been honest. But how could have I known that the world was divided into 4 exclusive marketing regions for DVDs and that computers cannot be switched back and forth to play DVDs from different regions. This seemed to leave me completely at the mercy of the monopolies that have set up this exclusive marketing arrangement, and I have to admit I was incensed. I’ve never tried to illegally copy anything, but here I was being prevented from playing legally purchased DVDs by some commercial film cabal in cahoots with Toshiba! Argh!

After that I gave up on the movie issue and returned to reading books, grateful that some cabal of publishers didn’t get together with printers to make books with ink that would disappear when we took them back to the U.S. (Whoa! Don’t blame me if they try to do this! I was just joking!) I am curious as to what part of international law makes this kind of limitation of use, or restraint of trade, legal, and how far it can be taken. Could they make appliances that would sense an “incorrect” voltage and immediately burn up? The appliance manufacturers seem to be going the other direction in making multi-voltage appliances, so why isn’t Toshiba making true multi-format DVD players for its computers? I know I’ll be asking some hard questions about the DVD player in my next computer!

Copyright 2004 by R. W. Holt and E. M. Holt
Prolog Map Epilog

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