Thursday, November 30, 2006

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 myself a little bit differently too. Can't really say how. And no one else noticed it, I think, but I did.

Late last night around 1 a.m., I put on my headphones, found Bob Dylan's latest record on my iPod, cranked it up and wandered outside into the damp, deserted dark. I danced. Through the parking lot, around the Villa, into the park and around it, through the sculpture garden and back home. Don't know why i did that. Haven't ever done it before and will never did it again. But let me tell you: If you've never played air guitar in the dark in the fog in the middle of the night alone in the park behind the Villa Decius, you haven't lived.

Time to go.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

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 Andi, who came to visit me about a week ago, who are hanging around in Crakow on a Saturday night with nothing to do. So when Erica was invited by a handful of adoring lesbian woman to go on a pub crawl, Andi and I tagged along.

And what a pub crawl it was. Our experience included insulting a non-lesbian Polish agent (I was just trying to make a joke), insulting a non-lesbian Polish writer (it was just a joke!) and trying to convince a non-lesbian writer-to-be to come meet the non-lesbian agent and non-lesbian writer (how could she reject my offer and instead she chose to stay at the bar talking to the drunk Scotsman? Was that some kind of a joke?).

Not to mention the voluble Polish guy we met in Kasimiersz and only managed to escape from after promising to buy him a single malt scotch if he found us in another bar during the course of the night. He found us.

One of the final bars we ended up in was the best: the Red Dog or the Red Dog Vomiting or something like that. Erica claims it was not a lesbian bar, but that doesn’t matter to me.

Maybe I should insert a caveat here. It appears that Erica is monitoring this blog, having heard silly, inflated rumors that I am spreading outright lies and slander about her person. Oh, these paranoid artists!

So let me state for the record that when I call the bars we attended “cool lesbian hang-outs,” they may not have been lesbian hang-outs in the sense of “actually” being lesbian hang-outs; and the women we were with may not have all been lesbians in the sense that they were “actually” lesbians, but that is just reality.

But don't forget one thing. I'm a guy.

The very thought of hanging around with someone who attracts lesbians drives me nuts and thus the entire evening was one solid blur of lesbians in bars. I can't help it. It's in the genes.

Still, for me, Cracow will always be the place of the Ultimate Cool Lesbian Hang-Out.

Trans-Gender Literariness

This is a famous non-lesbian Polish writer by the name of Joanna Oparek who apparently likes to write novels featuring male lead characters, in whose voices she writes.
When Erica asked her why she, as a woman, chose to speak though male characters, she uttered a great line: “When I write as a woman, I am either too soft or too hard.”

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Anyone want to bet on the Warren Jeffs trial?

If you want to know how tough it is to be an American, watch the trial of Warren Jeffs, the self-named prophet and leader of a polygamist sect based on outdated Mormon beliefs, which began only a few days ago. (As an ex-Mormon, I am very interested in the trial, even though the real Mormon Church has rejected and even prosecuted polygamy for the last hundred years. More importantly, his monotonous, mesmerizing voice is part of a great album by Godspeed You Black Emperor, entitled "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven.")

The first reports from the trial show what a horrible torment this trial is going to be. Though the goal is clearly to get rid of the embarrassment of polygamy, Jeffs is being tried for accessory to rape. As "prophet," he ordered an underage girl to marry (and then consummate the marriage) a man she didn’t want to marry. The girl is testifying against Jeffs. I predict that the defense will bring about two thousand friends of the "prophet" in to testify that the girl consented to the marriage then tried to back out of it.

I also predict that Jeffs will go free. Not only because American prosecutors nowadays are inept, but because at the heart of the trial, this is about polygamy, and even though it is against the law, you cannot stop polygamy in the US.

They have tried to do it before, and every time it was a disaster. American polygamists of various stripes have existed in little out-of-the-way towns in Midwest America since the 19th century and since then the government has tried to persecute them. Polygamy is, after all, against the law in America and is considered by most to make a victim of women. (In Europe, it was the Catholic church that put a stop to polygamy in the early Middle Ages, which was one of the reasons so many pagan women gladly abandoned Thor and Odin for Christ.) But again and again the sentiments of the people have been with the underdogs and the Feds have always looked bad and ended up retreating with nothing accomplished (Read "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer).

But America loves and respects religion too much. Most Americans you talk to will tell you that the polygamists should all be thrown in jail. But put these same people in a jury, they will start thinking about it, and most of them will say: If you tell a polygamist today that he can't do what he believes in, they're going to find a way to tell me what I can and can't believe in tomorrow.

That's a torturous decision to have to make. Not all women in the polygamist sects suffer. In fact, you can argue that a single mother in the Bronx also does her share of suffering. On the contrary, in news reports, a lot of polygamist women, having grown up in polygamist families, are coming out and defending the lifestyle, much like Islamist women defend their inferior status. And in America you can worship the way you want to worship, that's one of our oldest and most important laws. It may seem dirty and disgusting to all the Europeans out there who think the world of worship should be reduced to Lutheranism and Catholicism (but don't actually go to church), but religious freedom and the craziness it brings is one of the things that makes America great.

On the other hand, what would happen if Warren Jeffs took the matter, for example, to the Supreme Court? There is a serious chance that the Supreme Court would rule in his favor and allow polygamy on religious grounds (if the gays knew what they were doing, they would found a gay church and claim that homosexuality is a religious belief and then take the question of gay marriage to court). What kind of a world would we be living in then?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Content vs. Form


There it was: The glass of Nutella, just sitting there on the breakfast table.

Nutella is a creamy, chocolatey, nutty breakfast spread that is very popular in Germany and is becoming more and more popular in other parts of the world as well. It comes in a hundred different brands and flavors (This particular jar is a different brand and thus not officially Nutella, which is a trade-marked brand, but still I call it that.)

Seeing it there on the table was a clear sign that were would soon be a fight. A fight about aesthetics. That’s how things happen in these literary houses: All it takes is one little thing like a glass of Nutella to set us off and we’re at each other’s throats. This is how it happened:

Erica: Who eats Nutella around here? Isn’t that something that kids eat?

Eric: Oh my God, you just made me realize that there is more meaning in that glass of Nutella than there will ever be in a beautiful poem about a tree.

Katja: You filthy bastard, there you go disparaging the beauty of nature again, if you don’t take it back I’m going to pour this scalding coffee right in your face!

Kobus: You dirty dog! I’ve had enough of your disrespect for poetry. If you open your mouth one more time I’m going to ram this kitchen knife right into your gut!

Eric: Just you try it, you literary wimps! I’ll show you that a glass of Nutella has more meaning than a whole book of poetry! Erica would never walk through the park and say something like that about a tree: “Oh, that kind of tree is for kids.” In the Middle Ages they did, of course: Trees, birds, weather all had meaning, a crane was a symbol for Jesus, everything had meaning, but today it’s no longer the case. We see the beauty of nature and we feel transcended, closer to God perhaps, but there is very little real meaning in it.

This glass of Nutella on the other hand is full of meaning. It means childhood for most Germans, and because of that to see someone eating it makes him or her appear to be endearingly nostalgic for his/her childhood. For me, it says something specifically about German women: I have never met a German woman who doesn’t love Nutella despite all talk of diets and will secretly eat it with a spoon when no one is looking.

And there’s more: Nutella is a huge success in Germany and I think of it as a German food, but I believe – correct me if I’m wrong – that it was an Italian invention that didn’t quite work in Italy but became a big hit when exported to Germany. That’s a little piece of ironic globalism right there, and it tells you a lot about Europe, about the relationship between Germany and Italy, and about the German perspective on their own live and environment (Germans complain a lot about Americanization and hamburgers and Hollywood influencing their culture, but not many know that Nutella is from Italy).

So all this meaning is in that glass of Nutella. You can’t say that about any of the beautiful trees in the park, though you can devise a thousand ways to say the same thing over and over again: That a tree is beautiful. In fact, I would go one step further and say that glass of Nutella is of much higher cultural value to Germany than about 80% of all poems written in German.

Next time you’re in a non-German country, like, say, Poland, try this experiment: Go to a café and talk to a table with three or fours Poles sitting at it. Ask them: “Can you tell me who Lessing was? Who Heine was? What is ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’?” Then ask: “Can you tell me what a Mercedes is?” Clearly, products are just as important to German culture as “culture” is, in many cases more important.

Of course, the whole point of writing poems about a tree is that you can use the tree to create an analogy to some part of your own soul. You can’t do that with a glass of Nutella. It is so fraught with meaning of its own that it overpowers the poet and defeats him entirely.

Kobus: That does it! Take this, you swine! Aaaargh!

That’s when things really heated up.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I Miss Someone

Sunday Morning. A little hung-over, a little lonely.

Listening to Hank Williams again.

He's telling me: You've been away from home for quite a while now.

I have been, Hank. But I have one or two things more to do here.

How long is too long? When is it time to hit the road back home?

Soon, I tell him. Very soon.

How To Insult a German

I still feel horrible about insulting my good friend Christoph the Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor when he was here for a wild weekend. In the heat of late-night conversation (this was after he prepared his great post-midnight pasta meal for all of us) I called him “typisch deutsch” – “typically German.”

I don't know how I could have said such a thing! It just slipped out. 20 years in Germany and I still can't get used to all the unseen pitfalls in daily communication. "Typical German," you see, is not considered a compliment by Germans. I could see his face kind of sink: “Ah hell, even Eric thinks I’m a typical German. I’ve failed as a human being.”

When Germans call me “typical American”, I take it as a compliment. True, sometimes there’s a bit of joshing there, but in general when people call me “American” it’s more or less good. We Americans, too, talk about ourselves in a generally positive way: "That can only happen in America," for example, is a phrase we use to describe a poor man who invents something unnecessary and becomes rich, not to describe a man who walks into a school and starts shooting kids. "Typical American" refers to our good side. But if you call a German and “German”, he takes it automatically as an insult.

It isn’t an insult at all, of course. On the contrary, Germans today are great examples of modern civilized people. I'm not talking about the lower murder rate in comparison with the US, either - I'm talking about the people you meet on the streets. I enjoy meeting Germans.

Christoph the Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor is a perfect example of the modern German:

He is responsibly and happily married, with children, true to his wife and a good, loving, providing father. At the same time, he is no suburban stick-in-the mud and does not exude a feeling that he is trapped. On the contrary, he stills lives his life more or less the way he wants to. You cannot apply the term "lives of quiet desperation" to a typical German. A man living a life of quiet desperation does not have his own rock band on the side. Christoph is liberal (but not ideologically inflexible - most liberal Germans, like most liberal Americans, are ideologically inflexible, which makes Christoph a cut above the rest); he is interested in new things, in art and culture, both of the “high” and the “pop” kinds; he plays in a rock and roll band and composes his own songs, but doesn’t go around wearing black and three-day-stubble and pretending to be someone he isn't. He is “Protestant” in the sense that he’s a hard worker and good provider, but “Catholic” enough to take the time to enjoy life - something that some of us ultra-Protestant Americans (like me) sometimes have a hard time doing.

But the “typical German” he envisions when he hears those words is someone else: stubborn, backward, unhappy, chauvinistic, small-minded. In fact, I don’t even know any Germans like that and I suspects he knows very few of them, too. Maybe they did exist once, maybe there are still a few of them out there, but they are not at all typical. The Germans I know are pretty much like Christoph: modern, world-experienced, interested, moral, tolerant, with a good sense of humor and a kind of ironical distance to themselves and the world (that means they don’t take things more seriously than the things deserve).

In fact, I find it difficult to find bad things to say about the “typical German.” When I talk about “typical Germans,” I’m talking to the kind of person I’d like to have a beer or two with. They know the art of conversation, they are interested, they are interesting. There's only one problem with a typical German: Sooner or later, as an American, you make some kind of ill-considered comment like, "What's wrong with typical Germans? I like typical Germans." And you utterly insult them.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

THE NEW BOOK IS OUT!

This is it, folks: Today my new book "Planet Germany" hits the bookstores.

It's in German, it's a look at Germany and the Germans through the eyes of an American (that would be me), it's funny, it's insightful, it's true and it's good. Buy it if you haven't already!

Here's the book's website.


Here's the book on Amazon.de.


Here's my new website, which also launches today: www.ethansen.de.

What a coincidence: Today is Thanksgiving. What am I thankful for? That the book is out and that it turned out well. That I can write another book. I'm very thankful that my father is okay after his operation. I am thankful for my girlfriend and all the support she has given me (and not only that). I am thankful for my friends, new and old.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Krakau Diary, Day 67: The Rediscovery of the Drinking Buddy


After weeks and weeks of high-brow literary discussion and non-stop parsing of James Joyce and the aesthetics of the use of the qualifier in sentences under five words, I needed a break. So I imported my old friend Christoph the Rock 'n' Roll Doctor for a weekend.

Christoph has more of an artistic vein than I do – he plays guitar and composes (in fact, he revealed himself, standing before a busking guitarist at the Krakau Rynek, to be quite a guitar snob, if I may say so myself). But was less interested in that aspect of his personality than I was in another: He is also a great drinking buddy.

I know an old-fashioned drinking buddy may not be all that hip in certain circles, but sometimes that's precisely what a guy needs. We toured the clubs of Krakau, watched the beautiful women, watched the other guys watching the beautiful women and made jokes about to old to stand around watching the beautiful women anymore. (Though I have to admit I thought it was a little bit shameless the way he weaseled his way into everyone's heart at the Writer's Villa by whipping up an excellent pasta in the middle of the night, while I've been trying to get their attention using all my literary cunning and prowess and have made no headway so far. But that's all water under the bridge now.)
Nothing much happened, really. We bartered our way into a hip club that was closing. We sat in an old people's cafe where Lenin once sat. We climbed to the top of a mound outside the town said to be a place where old generals were buried. The strangest encounter we had was at McDonald's at four in the morning. While Christoph went in search of the toilet...

...I pulled out my camera and took a photo of a drunk Irishman. Some nights, you think drunk Irishmen are worth photographing, don't ask me why. Suddenly there was a security guard at my elbow: "No photos."

"Why not?"

"I don't know."

In the meantime, Christoph was getting closer and closer to the toilet.
"Well, if it's a rule," I said, "there must be a logical explanation. Can you get the manager to come over and explain the rule to me?"

In the meantime, Christoph was still getting closer and closer to bathroom.


A conversation ensured as the manager tried to think up some reason why it would be forbidden in a place like McDonald's to take photos. No one really seemed to know, and the greater their uncertainty grew, the more I rubbed salt in the wound, by saying, "There must be a rule book around here someplace, I'm sure there's a simple enough explanation, maybe we should all go into the back office and look through the bookcase, maybe we can turn it up."

In the meantime, that toilet was down there somewhere, for sure...

Finally the McDonald's security guard and manager decided the best thing to do was to just wander off and leave me, my camera and my two cheeseburgers alone. But as they left, I heard them mutter something in Polish. Though I can't be sure, I'm pretty sure it was, "I'm not paid enough for this crap." Or something very similar.

In the meantime, Christoph was still getting closer and closer and closer to the toilet...

Christoph never did find that bathroom.

It was a great weekend of a lot of nothing special. Nothing special. Hanging around. Goofing off. With a drinking buddy, you don't have to worry so much about impressing people. You can afford to make stupid jokes, stupid comments, do stupid things, just hang around like a loser and not worry about it. It's one of the simple pleasures that guys have, and it's been such a long time since I did it. Thanks for coming, Christoph.