Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eurodining IV

How do the Germans do it? How do they fend off the winter depression that follows cold rain like more cold rain? Quite aggressively. Bremen has a huge Christmas market every day, with an ongoing carnival in the city center and lesser festivities throughout town. The city center has a little ferris wheel, 2 carousels, stages for little plays (guess which fairy tale they keep re-enacting), dozens of booths selling food, trinkets, clothes, and of course gluehwein. The gluehwein is the dominant feature; in addition to the many booths that sell gluehwein, and its variants, most booths that sell other things also sell gluehwein. I saw a cigar stand, cheese stand, and mittens-and-hats stand that each sold it. And why not? The Germans buy gluehwein everywhere.
Gluehwein. I had never heard of it before, yet gluehwein is the, um, sticky stuff that holds German society together through the long winters. Gluehwein is made by boiling red wine, then adding sugar and spices. At first, this struck me as way too sweet. But after trying some more of it, and after being cold and wet, and then trying some more of it, I suddenly realized it is quite good. There is a variant called feuerzangenbowle that is less-sweet gluehwein with rum, cooked in a huge copper kettle. Mmmmmm. At the booths, there are little tables without chairs where people mull and laugh and sip their gluehwein. Germans of all ages are there, unselfconscious as usual about being publicly drunk, 70 year old men laughing loudly at the same table as kids who had to be ditching high school.
Food booths are also busy, mostly selling crepes, pastries, grilled sausages and pig steaks, French fries or fried sliced potatoes with various toppings, and kartoffelpuffers. The latter is basically a latke. Mash some potatoes, maybe add some onion or thickening agent, shape like a cow patty, deep fry, and serve with applesauce. Good, and warm, and easy to eat. Not too healthy, but neither is gluehwein. Which the food booths also sell, of course.
Another new facet of my eurodining life is Mexican food. I returned from America last month with a bag full of refried beans, Tabasco, tortillas, three kinds of enchilada sauce, taco sauce, cotija cheese, and a bag of proper tortilla chips. My first weekend back, I was invited to Bernhard’s home to cook for him, his family, and some neighbors. They seemed quite delighted. Last week, I cooked carne asada for my friends Ola and Jonna. 2 days ago, I cooked for my landlord and his family, and they were quite pleased. Although there are Mexican food restaurants in Bremen, the Germans, with their poor judgement, seem to think that I can cook considerably better. So this is kinda fun. Even a simple quesadilla is exotic out here. Carne asada, which is simply marinated meat, is all the rage. I made guacamole and salsa and they didn’t know what to do with it, and were thoroughly confused by the refried beans, arguing briefly that they were not in fact beans because they did not resemble beans. I had to show them how to open a tortilla, fill it with these goodies and lettuce, tomato, cheese, etc, and roll it up. Actually that was very fun.
My grand plan to get a piƱata out here has failed so far, though. That is a goal someday - after returning from the US (which will next occur in April), bring back enough gear, and a pinata, to support a large outdoor feast for 30-40 people in my lab. Grill pollo asado, carne asada, some cebollitas, make big bowls of guac and salsa, and serve with cotija cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pico de gallo, onion and cilantro garnish, etc. I am making myself hungry, and hence am off to get some nice Swabisch food here in lovely Tuebingen.

The root of all evil

In an ironic follow up to my last blog entry, I have news to report from my professional writing career. On Oct 9, I submitted a 125 page grant application that was my biggest writing adventure since my thesis. The 10 days preceding its submission were among the busiest I can recall, featuring 4 all nighters. All this for a generally futile effort, since there were over 40 proposals submitted for the same pool of grant money, including one from a consortium of 15 of the best BCI labs in Europe.
It was thus with some surprise that we found out last week that my first grant earned a score of 14.5 out of 15, a legendary score, and is ranked first among all proposals. Neither my boss nor several veteran euro grantwriters even heard of such a high score; a 12 is considered quite good. Hence I will oversee a 3 year, €4.1M BCI research project featuring Bremen, Philips and another company in Holland, Telefonica in Spain, a university in Warsaw, and 2 entities in Ulster. Travel to these places will occur, and I will finally have some flexibility and resources to do the work I want. Not much, but enough to produce some good work and position myself to get more.
Now I am on a train to Regensburg, in southern Germany, to goof off for the weekend before meeting with Prof. Dr. Niels Birbaumer in Tuebingen next week. This trip was planned for months, with the goal of discussing a new grant proposal, and I do not know if Niels knows how well I did with my last proposal. So it should be a fun visit. I know how his proposal did (it was ranked eighth), so it is likely he knows that we got first. This puts me in a great negotiating position for discussing the next grant. Actually, nailing the grant proposal puts me in a great negotiating position in many other ways, with many other entities, but for now I am focusing on executing this grant.
The train ride, and indeed Germany in general, is decidedly less pleasant than before. Winter has covered the land like a thick dark blanket soaked in cold pee. Bremen’s reputation for lousy weather now makes sense to me. It is consistently cold, cloudy, wet, and gloomy, and the fact that the average day is literally seven hours long does not help. When you sleep in until 8 AM, and it’s still dark outside, plus cold and wet, you can’t help but be affected. Hence gluehwein and the Bremen Christmas market, which merits its own blog entry.