Showing posts from 2006

A Walk Through the Christmas Market

When all the stress of Christmas was finally over, I had a chance to take a stroll through the Christmas Market at Postsdamer Platz with a beautiful woman on my arm. That made everything worth it.

Mele Kalikimaka

If you think globalization is something new, take a look at the history of Christmas. Not the Christmas story in the sense of the birth of Jesus Christ, but the way we celebrate the event. (By the way: this post is based largely on an article and research done by my partner Astrid Ule, the real expert in matters Christmasy.)

Let's start with America's contribution. The fat, merry fellow in the red costume who we know as Santa Claus is based on an ancient Catholic saint and was – like so many things in America – created by immigrants. Thomas Nast was born in Bavaria and came to America with his mother when he was six, in 1846. He became a leading illustrator and caricaturist known among other things for newspaper illustrations from the Civil War. For a series of Christmas illustrations, he invented a small, round, elflike Saint Nick – small enough to fit through a chimney. His illustrations were still black and white – when Coca-Cola decided to use the character in a series of …

Another Messy Fight with My Annoying Know-It-All Invisible Book Reader

I don’t know how many of you have ever written a book, but if you have, you will probably know what I am talking about. Every writer has an Annoying Know-It-All Invisible Book Reader, who always hovers in the background somewhere and pops up at the most tiresome moments and asks you annoying questions about something that's in the book or something you left out of it that you can’t answer.

I was sitting in a nice Italian restaurant which Malgorzata the Wild & Crazy Pole (pictured here with her husband Denzlerowski the Wild& Crazy East German) had rented out to show some of her friends her new documentary TV-film called "The Vietnam Express" (soon to run on Arte), about a train that runs all the way from the north to the south of Vietnam. It takes days, mainly because the quality of the train and the tracks forces the train to crawl, but you see everything, including some breathtaking scenery in the green, lush mountains.

As I watched, I couldn’t help notice that a…

The Romance of Self-Defeating Behavior

If you ever wanted to see a good case study for people zealously and happily pursuing self-destructive courses of action, I got one for you. No, I'm not talking about the mating habits of Hollywood stars of the voting habits of conservative America. I'm talking, of course, about Germans.

I recently sat down to a cup of coffee with a respected and highly intelligent professor and he lit up a cigarette with the words, "I am one of the last of the valiant ones." He was referring to the increasing trend in Germany to ban or frown upon smoking. The professor was being ironic, of course, but at the same time there was a bit of truth in it. I remember well those kinds of comments in Germany in the 90's, when America started banning smoking in public places and Germans loved talking about how silly and Puritanical that is.

Then the rest of Europe also realized that smoking is a major health hazard and began banning it, too. Only Germany held out. Now, not smoking is beco…

What Germans Really Think About Themselves

All of a sudden, I understand why Germans are always discussing and searching for their "identity".

A friend of mine - Dom the Computer Whiz - asked for my new book, "Planet Germany," in a bookstore in Frankfurt the other day. The book is about German identity seen from an outsider's (American's) perspective and in it I basically claim that Germans don't see themselves as others see them.

The bookstore had my book. In fact, the bookseller said, the subject of German identity has become so popular recently, they they had set up a section devoted to the subject, with all the books they have on German identity.

And what were those other books that I shared the section with? They were not about Germany's culture, cars, economy, fast food or mentality - they were about Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust and the Third Reich.

No wonder these Germans are desperately trying to redefine themselves. The poor guys secretly think worse of themselves than even the mea…

It's Hard to be a German

Pity the poor Germans. They try their best not to be racist and discriminatory, and in most ways they succeed, but just before they can say of themselves, "We as a nation embrace racial equality," wham! They hit a brick wall: Their language. The German language is just not built for ethnic equality.

Over the past few years, Germans have made several torturous attempts to revamp their language to not discriminate against so-called "foreigners". While Americans think of "foreigners" as people from another country, Germans formerly applied (and sometimes still do) that word to people who hold German citizenship, were born and raised in Germany, speak German as their mother tongue and are German in all other ways, including their mentality – except that their skins are not white (like Alfons Stöberlein in the photo above, black German and patriotic Bavarian, whom I met on my Middle Ages trip the Nibelungenreise).

Germans, aware that there's something wron…

Anyone Wanna buy a Tiki Bar?

It's been over 20 years since I've been to a real luau. Now there's a chance that we can hold luaus right here in Berlin.

Sonia the Beautiful Tongan and Metaeta the Gorgeous Tahitian run one of the smallest but funnest ethnic clubs in Berlin: PolyCult, or the Polynesian Cultural Association ( They put on hula shows and run a Polynesian float in the annual Karneval der Kulturen parade. There aren’t many Polynesians in Berlin, so they have to put in a lot of effort if they want to get Polynesian culture out there.

Now they need a clubhouse and they have set their eye on buying buying the Tabou Tiki Room, Berlin's best (and only real) Tiki bar. If they can buy it, they will set it up as their clubhouse and cultural center. They could put on shows in it, entertain visiting Polynesian diplomats and rent it out to big companies for events, alongside running it as a café in the daytime and a bar at night. And maybe the occasional Luau.

It's not going to …

The Fourth Reich or just another KKK?

Pity the Poor Germans! We Americans have to live with George Bush; the Germans have to live with Neo-Nazis.

Over the weekend, a minor controversy erupted on the pages of my guestbook (on about Neo-Nazis and how they should be dealt with. There's nothing that upsets a German more than the mention of Neo-Nazis.

It shames and angers them that 60 years after the fall of the Third Reich, some of their compatriots still believe in Hitler. If you were to measure a German's brain activity when you mention the words "George Bush" to him, you would see the computer screen boil with red. But if you then mentioned "Neo-Nazis" or the Neo-Nazi party "NPD," the screen would virtually explode.

In fact, Germans hate Neo-Nazis so much, if you feel neglected and down and you want to rebel against the establishment and get a lot of attention for it, the best way to do it is to shave your skull and join the NPD. It's guaranteed to make you the cen…

How Much Does America REALLY Know About Germany?

Germans think Americans know nothing about Germany and nothing about the German language, but not only is it not true, it's possible to learn something about Germany and German from Americans. I recently learned what "Ich habe genug" means. I learned it from Maira Kalman, the great artist, who has a brilliant blog on New York Times website that consists only of paintings with captions.

I always thought, like Maira Kalman, that it means "I've had it up to here." In fact, Germans today think it means that and use it like that. But it doesn't. Or at least not always. Or at least it didn’t in the 17th century. Read her blog:

Pray for Fiji

If you think the racial conflicts in Germany between Turks and whites are bad, imagine a Germany where the government was ruled by an anti-Turk populist, but the military consisted purely of Turks. That's an exaggerated description of the current situation in Fiji, which just erupted into a (previously announced and long-expected) military coup.

The situation in a nutshell is this: When the British pulled out of Fiji in 1970, they left behind a large population of West Indian guest workers. Over time, the Indians became more and more influential in the government until, in 1987, the Melanesian and Polynesian population staged a series of coups to get the Indians out of power. At that point, the bulk of the Indians left (current population breaks down to about 54% Polynesian/Melanesian and 38% Indians or Indo-Fijians).

Smartly enough, the remaining Indo-Fijians slowly dominated the military (for a small Polynesian island chain, Fiji has a large military and regularly participates i…

Those Crazy People From ARD

When the prominent cultural TV show "Titel Thesen Temperamente" in ARD called and asked for an interview, I thought it would be just a boring sit-down thing. But when the film team arrived (Michael And Andreas from Filmstrom in Berlin and the Scottish writer/producer Michael McGlinn from Hamburg), it quickly became clear that we were going to have some fun.

They drove me around Berlin and had me ask silly questions of Germans on the street ("What is Bahlsenism?" and of course the classic, "Name a German hero whose name starts with "H"), try (unsuccessfully) to hand out German flags and other do silly things. It was great fun and a real pleasure. Who said Germans (not to mention Scots) don't have a sense of humor?

If you're in Germany and want to catch the show, it's on ARD Sunday (December 3) at around 10:45pm (22:45), depending on when Sabine Christiansen, who precedes it, is done (she tends to take her time, not knowing, perhaps, that h…

Time to say goodbye

Time to go. It's been 75 great days in Cracow. The Poles are great people. Cracow is a great city. The denizens of the Villa Decius Guesthouse were great writers, interesting people and I hope they will remain good friends.

A few of us who were left - Erica, Tanja, Katja and her friend Katja - sat around in the Gosopda restaurant last night and discussed whether we had accomplished what we had set out to acccomplish.

The goals were wildly different: Erica finished her book but did not "finish" learning Polish; Katja did some writing and did not "find herself," but she almost did. Tanja just plain didn't want to leave.

And me? Did I accomplish anything here? I didn't finish my great renaissance novel, but I did sold two books, one of which is a comic novel, I finished the website and there was something else strange that happened. Spending 75 days surrounded by writers who take their work but not necessarily themselves very seriously, I began looking at…

The Night of the Cool Polish Lesbian Hang-Out

There were a number of great nights out in Cracow. Cracovians, so many of them students, know how to party. But the best night was the night of the Cool Lesbian Hang-Out.

There are a lot of misunderstandings about the great journalist and bestselling writer Erica Fischer (many of which I myself have helped to spread!), but of these, the greatest is this: She is not a lesbian.

Her big hit, "Aimee and Jaguar," was a lesbian love story about a Jew and a Nazi German woman during the Third Reich. As a Jew, Erica was most interested in the Jewish/Holocaust aspect of the story. But when the movie came out, young women all around Europe identified with the love story, and so when Erica today shows up at a reading or a movie screening to answer questions afterwards, she finds herself surrounded by young lesbians who want to get to know her. “Why can’t I attract MEN with my writing?” she says helplessly.

That is an irony, but more important, it is an opportunity for guys like me and A…