Thursday, December 28, 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.





Saturday, December 23, 2006

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 ads from 1931 on, Santa Claus' costume became red and he grew into a life-size fat man (who could no longer fit through a chimney, but let's not squabble).

Where did Nast get the idea? Besides the popular English poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" or "The Night Before Christmas" from 1823, which describes the reindeer and the chimney thing, Nast probably knew a similar character from the old German children's book called "Struwwelpeter." The original Santa Claus was the ancient Saint Nicholas, who is traditionally depicted as thin, tall man wearing a bishop's mitre. Nast wanted to make an American version: He did away with the mitre, which challenged the equality of religions, and gave the guy a cheerful, positive-thinking laugh (which probably came from "A Night Before Christmas"). The name Santa Claus, by the way, is not Nast's invention: It comes from the Dutch name from Saint Nicholas, "Sinterklaas" (Nikolaus = Claus).
The original Saint Nicholas is still known in Europe, but he is not a European invention. The thin, tall Saint Nick comes from what is now Turkey. The first Saint Nick was the Byzantine bishop of Myra, who liked to give money and gifts to virgins and other needy types. When he was killed by the evil Romans in the fourth century, the Christians made a martyr out of him. His legend was incredibly popular for centuries in Christian Byzantium, especially in Constantinople (today Istanbul). When the Europeans of the early Middle Ages began to get a taste for Byzantine art, they imported the legend of Nicolas as well. It was only a small step from major stardom in the heaven of Catholic saints to the saint of Christmas.
While the rest of the world remains true-blue Saint Nick fans, the Germans introduced a weird variation in the 16th century. It was Martin Luther's idea. The Lutherans were doing their best to drive out the pagan Catholic practice of worshiping saints, but try as they might, they couldn’t kill Christmas. So they thought to themselves: If this gift-giving thing is supposedly a symbol for the gift of salvation to mankind, why not make the presents come not from some guy, but from Christ himself? From then on, German protestant children were visited by the "Christ child", who gave them gifts on December 24. How the "Christkind" knows what gifts to give, seeing as He is too young to read Christmas letters, I can’t say. (To be fair, there is some uncertainty as what the "Christ child" was originally meant to be – it could have been the Baby Jesus, but it could also have been a "Christian child" visiting the Manger with gifts for Baby Jesus.)

Then a very German thing happened: the Protestants adopted the "Christkind" but refused to give up Saint Nick; at the same time, the Catholics adapted the "Christkindl" for their own in addition to Father Christmas. Germasn are always doing this. When they see another chance to party, they grab it, whether it be an American tradition like Halloween or a belief from another religion. They just like excuses to party, that's all. Today, most German kids get gifts from Saint Nick on December 6, from the Christkind on December 24 and from Santa Claus on December 25 (or some combination thereof). You gotta hand it to them: For all their complaining, they know how to live.

As far as I can see, the German Christkind hasn’t been adapted by other cultures, but most other German traditions have been.

The Advent calendar or Christmas calendar probably comes from Germany, as does the Christmas tree itself. Though the tree clearly has pre-Christian origins, the earliest historical evidence of a true Christmas dates back to Freiburg in 1419 and then to Strassburg in 1539. It was also Germans who brought the Christmas tree to North America – more specifically, the family of a German officer from Braunschweig in Canada during the War of Independence. But that's not all. A big part of our Christmas ornament tradition comes from Germany. Glass Christmas balls probably come from the Thuringia region, and those little wooden ornaments that you hang on the tree, as well as the Nutcracker and the Christmas pyramid, come from the mountainous region of Erzgebirge.

How the Erzgebirge came to be the world's foremost producers of high-quality Christmas kitsch is the most heart-warming stories I know about the commercialization of Christmas: At one time, most villages in those mountains lived from silver or other precious metal mines. When the ores gave out, the villagers looked around for other sources of income. There were plenty of trees up there, and they began carving. Soon they were specialized in Christmas decorations. And there's much more than most people know about – the Erzgebirge invented all kinds of Chistmasy knickknacks that have yet to be discovered by Americans.

Today the export continues. Christmas shops like Käthe Wohlfahrt make sure of that. Wohlfahrt sell Christmas kitsch all year round and has stores in the US as well as in France and Belgium, not to mention a good international online venture. The German tradition of Christmas markets is also growing in the UK and the US (in the US, the tradition started in Chicago and Denver and went on form there). My prediction: in a couple of generations, the "Christkindlmarkt" will be as popular in the US as Oktoberfest is today.

There is one more interesting American tradition that comes from Germany. Europeans are always making fun of Americans who smother their houses in tons of colorful lights every year: "Look at the American kitsch!" But this tradition, too, probably comes from Germany.

The tradition began in the Erzgebirge, back when the mines were still full of silver and other precious metals. In the dark winter months, wives would put lanterns before their houses in the evenings to welcome their tired men home from the mines. Eventually some of these villages became known as "Villages of Light," and when the mines ran out of metal, they kept up the tradition. Soon the brightly lit houses were no longer associated to mine life, but to Christmas. Today, villages in the Erzgebirge like Grossrückerswalde, Mauersberg and Schneeberg still decorate their houses with bright lights and even celebrate Christmastime "Light Festivals."
Here's wishing a Merry Christmas, Froehliche Weihnachten, Joyeux Noel and Mele Kalikimaka to all of you and all God's blessings in the New Year - may all your hopes and dreams come true.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

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 lot of Vietnamese wore baseball caps – which I assume (but cannot be certain) is a tradition imported to Vietnam from America.

Not just a few Vietnamese wore them, everyone wore them. Old, young, male, female. It was hard to pick out anyone not wearing a baseball cap. They were everywhere I looked.
Suddenly, my Annoying Know-It-All Invisible Book Reader popped up. "See? Everything is Americanized. You were wrong. You can see that for yourself." In my new book, Planet Germany, I claim there is no such thing as Americanization, that's it's an illusion, a fata morgana, that people imagine there is such a thing because America is so big and threatening, but in reality America doesn’t export more culture than any other country.

Then this. All those baseball caps. What if I was maybe wrong after all? What if I had really got it all wrong? My God, the world really is Americanized! And the voice of that Annoying Know-It-All Invisible Book Reader sneering in my ear.

I started fidgeting in my chair. I couldn’t concentrate on the movie. The waitress asked if I wanted another beer and I nearly lunged for her throat.

Then I told myself – "Think, Eric, think. There must be a way out of this. If you were MacGyver, you would figure it out. You would think clearly and open your eyes and see everything that's there, not just the baseball caps. There must be something you're missing."
So I took another look and soon realized that there was one other thing that everyone had: mopeds. Everyone was riding one. There were no cars on the streets, just mopeds. It's the basic mode of transportation now. Where did they all came from? Probably they came from Japan, Korea or China. Not America – America makes cars, not mopeds.

In fact, America worships cars. Cars are a more important part of American culture than baseball caps any day. Any culture that prides itself in being Americanized would have cars, not mopeds. And mopeds had certainly had more influence on Vietnamese culture than baseball caps. The moped has changed Vietnamese life more than anything else. It determines how far from home you can get a job, it determines how much stuff you can carry to and from the marketplace. It determines how cities are structured. Not to mention the pollution which, to judge from reports, is horrendous.

Clearly, the mopped has much more influence than the baseball cap. But still, no one ever talks about the Japanization, Chinesation or Koreanization of countries like Vietnam. It was just a bad instinct that made me focus on the baseball caps and not see what was clearly in front of my eyes.

After that, that Annoying Know-It-All Invisible Book Reader vanished again and I could lean back and enjoy my night out.

Let me tell you, it takes a lot nowadays to get me to enjoy a night out.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

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 becoming the trend and fewer and fewer Germans are romanticizing it.

But there is still an underlying feeling that smoking is morally correct and shows character (the smoker is not killing himself, he is staying true to his principles in spite of the peer pressure); that not smoking is somehow following a trend and non-smokers are not trying to live healthily, they are conforming to the masses.
You can find that same instinct in America too, of course, but somehow it seems to typically German to me. Germans see depth of character in things that are old – traditions, bygone culture and out of date technology – and superficiality in everything new.

Maybe that's the real reason why Germany is the last country in Europe (anyway I think it's the last country) to refuse to ban smoking in public places. While my first heimat Hawaii just implemented the most modern and most encompassing smoking bans in the world, my second heimat Germany refuses to leave the eighties, when smoking was cool.

That might also explain why Germans refuse to institute speed limits on the autobahn. Some people say it's the strong cigarette and car lobbies that keep change from happening, and it's true that industry lobbies are probably even stronger in Germany than they are in America, but if the voters really wanted safe autobahns and less cancer risk, they would let their politicians know.

The truth is, Germans are die-hard romantics. They romanticize non-conformity so much, it's a wonder they even made it into the modern age. Back in the Middle Ages it took them centuries to adopt paved roads and coin money. They eventually adopted indoor plumbing, but I can just imagine guys sitting around muttering, "Ja, we caved in and got a toilet, but a real man goes out behind the shed."

Saturday, December 16, 2006

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 meanest German-hater does.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

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 wrong with that, have invented a number of terms designed to be less exclusionary, but in fact these terms only confirm that non-white Germans are not considered Germans. The politically correct terms are "ausländische Mitburger" (foreign co-citizens) and "Burger mit Migrationshintergrund" (Citizens with immigrant background). The problem lies with the language.

Of course, those words might be slightly less discriminatory if white Germans then referred to themselves on an equal basis as "inländische Mitburger" (non-foreign co-citizens) or "Burger ohne Migrationshintergrund" (Citizens without immigrant background), but of course they refer to themselves simply as "Germans", which implies (accurately) that they really believe only whites can be truly German and all others are really outsiders.

And it's true: "non-white Germans" are always outsiders, Even though they enjoy all the legal rights and duties of an ethnic German. I recently got an e-mail from a self-labelled "Afrodeutscher" or Afro-German, who complained (when I asked him about it):

"Would you for example ask a black American where he "originally" comes from? You can’t imagine how incredibly pushy people can return to that question again and again, really rubbing it in. And everyone knows what they mean. I come from a town in Germany, but making it clear that I "come from somewhere else" means that I can't be German. The impertinence of that question, which is in itself a judgment, is that is automatically accepts the discrimination." We Americans define "American" as "a person with an American passport." It doesn't matter if this person is black or white or whatever: It's all about the passport (and the taxes and being willing to send your kids to wars in foreign countries). "American" refers to a nationality, not to an ethnic group. My nationality is American, my ethnicity is Swedish/Danish.

"German" refers to both an ethnic group and a nationality, but mostly to ethnicity. This drives the Germans nuts. If an outsider like me becomes a "German" national, that doesn’t make him an ethnic German, so referring to him as "German" is utterly confusing and just plain sounds wrong to most Germans.

That is inherently racist, of course, but try as they might, Germans can't find a non-racist alternative term. There is no term for "white Germans" because a "real German" is always considered white. Under law, non-whites are equal to whites, but in the language they are not.

There are a number of terms you could start applying to mainstream Germans – "ethnic Germans" or "white Germans," for example, but to Germans, that is like saying "feline cat" or "female woman".

Writers tend to talk a lot about how there is only truth and beauty in language and how language is our greatest good, but this is a good example of how language (which is, after all, just another man-made product and thus just as imperfect as we are) can be a hindrance rather than a help.

Monday, December 11, 2006

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 (www.polycult.org). 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 happen unless they find a handful of sponsors or investors. So if you know anyone out there who's willing to invest in the smallest but coolest ethnic club in Berlin, give a ring to Sonia (her myspace site: www.myspace.com/lovelyzoanna) and Mataeta of PolyCult.

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 www.ethansen.de) 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 center of attention.


But beyond all the emotions, the question is still: Is the Neo-Nazis party NPD as dangerous to democracy as many Germans think? Is it a sign that Germany is sliding back toward fascism?

Many Germans won’t like me for saying this, but the answer is: No. There will be no Fourth Reich. 1933 will not return. The NPD and its various little sister groups will never gain enough popularity to influence German democracy.

The original Nazi party grew out of the chaos and poverty of the Weimar Republic after World War I. The NPD exists within a very stable, content and economically sound society. That makes it far more comparable to the KKK than to Hitler's party. Like the KKK, the NPD is, literally, a party for losers.

The NPD arose in the sixties, got into about a dozen regional parliaments, then virtually disappeared until the fall of the wall in 1989, when it began gaining momentum in East Germany among the neglected and unemployed. In both cases, the core audience for the NPD was a small group of losers – literally. At first they were people who lost WWII and couldn’t come to grips with the democracy that followed, and today they are the ones who lost the Cold War and can't come to grips with the democracy that followed.

That makes the NPD much more comparable to America's own Ku Klux Klan (of course the KKK at least has the decency to hide their faces).

The KKK, too, arose from the losers of the Civil War, people who could not adapt to a changed world and romanticized the glory days of slavery. But they are a relatively small group: Most people can come to grips with modern society and most intelligent human beings can easily see the value and advantages of democracy and equality.

So how long will Germany have to live with a small group of embarrassing losers? It's been 60 years since WWII, after all, and another 15 since the fall of the wall.

The answer: Germany may have to live with these people for hundreds of years, maybe forever. America has lived with the KKK for over 200 years. It's infuriating and disgusting, but it hasn’t corrupted our democracy. My prediction: The Neo-Nazis will keep going strong a few more years and eventually fade into the background again, but they will never fully disappear.

That's embarrassing, but it's how a democracy works. Even the dirtiest and smallest-minded of us have a right to our opinion. But not to worry: Even if the Neo-Nazis never fully disappear, there will never be as many NPD-flags waving in Germany as Confederate flags still wave in America's South.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

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: http://kalman.blogs.nytimes.com/

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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 in UN peace keeping missions). Now things have once again come to a head and the Indian commander of the military has disarmed the police and taken over the Polynesian/Melanesian government.

So far, it has been a bloodless coup, and it may stay that way. Polynesians can get hot-blooded, but they aren't necessarily the types to get involved in bloody armed conflicts, like, say, in Haiti or Congo. Neither New Zealand nor Australia are sending troops, though both are threatening embargoes.

In the end, there is no way of knowing whether commander Bainamarama will be good or bad for the country. A military dictatorship, as long as it is benign, can be endured; a failed economy cannot. As long as a lot of Polynesian countries live in poverty, we in the west will continue to look down on them as cute tourist destinations.

Fiji is a well-run country and one of the economically most successful island states in the South Pacific. The CIA World Fact Book puts Fijis' population at just under a million, and claims that the economy (with only 7.6% unemployment) is doing well. But that depends on stability and also on the tourist trade. Stability counts for a lot. But that presumes that Bainamarama can hold the coup.

The Fijians and Indo-Fijians have been at each other's throats since the eighties, and this looks less like the beginning of a dictatorship than it does like just another battle in a pseudo-civil war that won't end in a long time and may eventually lead Fiji to economic ruin.

So as you go through your day-to-day worries about Iraq, Putin, Israel and all the rest of those big, flashy hotspots, save a prayer for the people of Fiji. It would be a tragedy if racial conflict rode Fiji down the path to poverty that so many small Polynesian countries suffer under.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

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 her viewers are only waiting to see Eric T. Hansen goof off in front of the Brandenburg Gate).