Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

New Photobook

This is my latest photo diary, describing a truly memorable 12-day trip through the Republic of Georgia, a small country that is fast turning into a go-to travel destination.
Preview at

In my humble opinion, the book looks particularly good on an iPad or other Mac device. Get it here: iBooks edition

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Word of the Month: Die Kulturbrille

Word of the Month: Index

I'm reading Helen Macdonald's book Falcon, where she introduces, on the first page of the introduction, our current Word of the Month. It is a term coined by German-born Franz Boas (1858-1942), who is considered the father of American anthropology (pictured at right).

The word has two compounds: Kultur ("culture") and Brille ("glasses" or "spectacles"). In Macdonald's words, it's "the invisible mental lens your own culture gives you through which you view the world". The author describes in subsequent chapters how our very human Kulturbrille makes falcons the "repository for human meanings". For Boas, it was important for anthropologists to become aware of their Kulturbrille to prevent them from making biased judgments about the alien cultures they encountered and tried to understand. The same is important for people like us, who increasingly live in a multi-cultural environment.

I like the present term because it captures an abstract concept through a very concrete image, a characteristic it shares with other words of the month I have introduced.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

FIFA World Cup 2018

Continuing a tradition I started many years ago, I'm creating again a post that allows the soccer fans among my friends to share thoughts about the tournament as it unfolds. The difference this time is that for health reasons, I cannot travel to Germany to watch the matches with my brothers. I have to find ways to do this here, which may mean that I cannot watch every match I want to see.

A few initial remarks. This Cup promises to be really exciting because there is no clear-cut favorite. In 2014, Brazil was expected to win. Especially the Brazilians themselves seemed to be believe that, which made their historic 1:7 loss to Germany in the semi-finals the more devastating. This time, they are again one of the favorites, and for much more legitimate reasons. But France, Spain, and Germany also have strong teams, and the English, Portuguese, and Belgians should not be counted out. All of this looks very promising.

Postscript: And it was an exciting Cup, which will go down in history as the Cup of Surprises. Upsets seemed to be the rule, not the exception, although the (well-deserved) winner, France, was not one of them. But Croatia made it to the final!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Word of the Month: Der Richtungsstreit

Word of the Month: Index

Richtungsstreit illustration
We are hearing that within the Democratic Party right now, there is a raging battle between its 'centrist' or 'moderate' wing and its 'liberal' or 'left' wing, recently energized by Bernie Sanders' campaign. At issue is how to respond to the loss the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, suffered in the presidential election of 2016. (I believe, by the way, that these labels are wrong, at least from a European perspective, but that's not the topic of this post.)

The Germans—surprise, surprise!—have a word for this type of debate: Richtungsstreit. The term combines the word for direction, Richtung, with Streit, the word for a controversy in which both sides are fully engaged. It usually involves strong language and may even occasionally end in fisticuffs (but nothing stronger).*

A Richtungsstreit, then, is an intense debate about the direction an organization, especially a political party, should take. One reason why the Germans have a special word for this may be that every political party of any standing in the country gets involved in a Richtungsstreit on a regular basis when it's confronted with a new challenge to which it has no ready-made response: If its base is broad enough, it will be almost impossible to "bring everybody under one hat" right away, to use a German idiom.

A very good example are the Greens (die Grünen), a party that grew out of the student movement of the 60s. To its ever-lasting credit, it succeeded in making environmental protection and climate change mainstream issues supported across the political spectrum in Germany. But the party is also engaged in what seems to be a permanent Richtungsstreit between 'Fundis' (short for 'fundamentalists') and 'Realos'.

The Fundis value ideological purity over everything else and would rather not join a coalition government if that would involve compromising some cherished principle. The Realos, on the other hand, want to participate in government in order to be able to influence the direction of the country and are willing to compromise, to a degree (they may also have doubts about the validity of some of the more extreme positions the Fundis have been taking, like their refusal to sanction any involvement of German troops abroad, no matter what the objectives are).
*Note that the s between the components Richtung and Streit is a Fugen-s (joining s), which we have encountered already in other Words of the Month: Its function is to make the pronunciation easier.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Scherbenhaufen

Word of the Month: Index

Scherben are potsherds or shards, and a Haufen is a heap. A Scherbenhaufen, then, is a heap of shards—think of what happens when a china cabinet topples over and spills its contents on the floor.

Image source: Langerwehe Pottery website

Why is this an interesting word? Because it's used most often metaphorically in German to indicate the complete failure by a person or persons in charge of some goal-oriented outfit like a team, a corporation, or a government. The term commonly appears in phrases such as "she is standing before a Scherbenhaufen" or "he left behind a Scherbenhaufen" when someone's attempt to reach some goal turned into its opposite and resulted in a debacle.

Depending on the context, the term may carry a mix of connotations, from the dashed hopes and heartbreak on the part of the person who failed to glee and Schadenfreude* on the part of observers who thought the effort was hopeless, or too grandiose, to begin with or who wanted it to fail for other reasons.

The very concrete image of a Scherbenhaufen thus can carry multi-faceted connotations, and that's why I like this word: When you use it, you say much more than a simple statement of failure could express.
*I never made Schadenfreude a WoM because it seems to me that it has entered English as a foreign word no longer in need of an explanation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Nervenkitzel

Word of the Month: Index

Nerven are German nerves, and Kitzel is a noun derived from the verb kitzeln (to tickle). A Nervenkitzler, then, is a "nerve tickler", something that significantly raises your adrenalin level.

The Skylodge Adventure Suites in Peru are a spectacular example. They consist of three 4-bed cabins suspended from a sheer, 1200ft-high cliff overlooking the Cuzco valley and reachable only by ropes and iron handholds anchored into the rock. Getting and staying there is indeed a "pure Nervenkitzel" as stated in a recent article about the lodge.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Winkeladvokat

Homage to August Sander

Word of the Month: Index

Winkel is the German word for 'angle' or 'corner', and Advokat is an old-fashioned term for an attorney or counselor (replaced in modern German usage by Anwalt). In its original meaning, a Winkeladvokat was someone who gave legal advice 'out of a corner', that is, without proper training and certainly without a license. Nowadays, the term refers to an inept or unscrupulous attorney. It's similar to English 'shyster', but I have the sense that a Winkeladvokat is distinguished more by ineptitude than questionable morals, while a shyster can be extremely clever.

My original motivation for selecting the present WoM was to use it as an excuse for showing a portrait labelled 'Winkeladvokat' by August Sander (1876-1964), perhaps the greatest German photographer of the first half of the 20th century. He spent most of his career building a collection of portraits, which he called Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century). Each image in the collection represents a person identified by his or her profession or status (the farmer, the brick layer, the tramp); that is, in Sander's grand design, the subjects are seen less as individuals than representatives of the role they play in society. But Sanders treated his sitters with great respect—he let them pose however they wished, and as a result, they speak to us very much as individuals. It is this tension between role and individuality that intrigues Sander fans like me.

Sander's portrait of a Winkeladvokat stands out, first of all, because of its caption—it's the only one in his entire work, as far as I can see, that is not purely descriptive. It may be that at the time, being called a Winkeladvokat was less derogatory—I don't know. But the portrait is memorable not only because of its caption. The subject sits at a table surrounded by his tools—pencil, paper, and, prominently, rubber stamps, and he presides over his world with a suppressed smirk as if he wanted to say, "Yes, I'm a Winkeladvokat—so sue me!" And that's why I am so fond of the photo.

Alas, I am not allowed to show the portrait here for copyright reasons. I drew a caricature instead and hope readers feel motivated to google Sander and his Winkeladvokat.