Thursday, April 17, 2008

flippant flipping

The reaction to jaywalking may help explain how Germany is different.

I think I commented before that jaywalking is far less common in Germany. In crowded public areas, a red halt signal at a crosswalk actually makes pedestrians stop. This produces a crowd on the curb waiting for the light to change. In Manhattan, red lights are purely decorative. Regardless of the light, you look both ways, then dash across the street. If traffic is at a standstill, no need to dash, just make sure no taxis are about to jump into an adjacent lane.

A month ago, I was waiting on the curb by Bremen Hauptbanhof waiting for the light to change. I tend not to jaywalk there since that region has lots of cops. One skinny short guy, with tiny horn rimmed glasses and a face wrinkled by glowering, started jaywalking. He thus caused a truck to slam on its brakes and honk. He flipped it the bird and kept walking across the street. Sirens blare. A police car pulled up behind him. The cop in the passenger seat got out and confronted the man. He argued emotionally and jumped up and down twice, which looked quite funny. I wanted to explain to him that, while I appreciated his consideration of the Urban Hop maneuver, he had it wrong: short people should be the hoppees, not the hoppers. But I thought, he's getting a ticket right now, maybe he would not appreciate it.

2 days ago, a similar situation began on the corner of Market and Stockton in SF. A jaywalker crossed the street, blocked an SUV (the American equivalent of trucks), got honked at, and flipped off the driver. A beat cop walking the street saw the whole thing, and did nothing. Just not a big deal here.

But hopping a running cable car is. A few days ago, I wanted to get from 335 Powell to the corner of Kearny and Broadway, since I had to meet David Leland, Jon Nelson, and Flavia Filimon at Tomasso's magnificent Italian food. There was a cable car heading up Powell, so I ran after it and jumped on the back. Great fun. And I thought this is part of the fun of cable cars - they are open, slow, and friendly. I expected a welcoming ding ding, and perhaps some Rice-a-Roni. (Whatever happened to that Rice-a-Roni ad campaign? It still sticks with me today, 20 years after they stopped running that ad.) None of the above for me. The cable car conductor chewed me out and told me to leave. I tried to plead my case, not really because I cared, but because the longer I argued, the closer I got to my destination. After 3 stops, he relented and said, OK, you can stay on the car but you must buy a ticket for $5. Um, can I just leave? Yes, he said politely.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Brussels pouts

Whew! Had a tough ending to the DoW that was due for Brussels. But, it is done and now they will probably sign the grant proposal.

nocturnal emissions

I am on a night train from Maastricht to Liege to Aachen to Bremen. This morning, I flew from Alicante to Maastricht with considerable regret. Alicante was sunny and thus glorious, like the town 2 hours south of it where I hung out for five days, Alcazares. I made the wonderful discovery that Spain is substantially more obsessed with fresh squeezed orange juice than anywhere I have ever been, including southern California and the Netherlands. I learned that they call this zumo (pronounced thumo) and not jugo (like other spanish speakers), who they consider a soccer player. In one of my first blog entries, I gushed about how happy I was that my hotel in Bremen has a fresh OJ machine. That was pure coincidence. The Hotel Innside in Bremen remains the only hotel, restaurant, or other edifice in Germany with a fresh OJ machine. The Spaniards are one up on you there.

But not height – which explains a lot. Indeed, the sometimes subtlely supercilious Krauts can literally look down on most Spaniards. The Germans and Dutch seem to be the tallest people in Europe. Spanish men are comically insecure about height, and this is reflected in that they are by far the least polite people I have yet encountered. They are constantly posturing. When you go to a restaurant, bar, or hotel, the waiter says digame, which is the command form of to tell. Tell me. Not, can I get you anything? What would you like to drink? Tell me. It is an order. Men always greet each other with the little 15 degree head tilt. Lift your chin a little bit so maybe you will look a centimetre taller. They view please and thank you as signs of weakness and submission.

This also gives me a new take on the famous Spanish racism directed against Mexicans. This is legendary in Mexico, where a Spanish accent buys you clout and respectability like a High British accent in Alabama. Part of this racism is the usual – Mexicans are darker, and never had an empire, and I have yet to talk to any Spaniard who spouted against Mexico and was ever there. But it is also that Mexicans are polite, funny, warm, and informal. If any man acts this way toward a Spanish man, this fosters perceived power inequity.

I got a sleeping car on this night train, which is a first for me. My brother Steve loves them, and although they are both Spartan and Lilliputian, so do I. It’s easier to sleep while horizontal, but the other advantage is that it is the most private and isolated travel option. You get your own little room, and none of the doors or walls except the window to the outside is transparent. You can forget that stressed travellers are lugging heavy bags through the aisles, pleading with conductors, etc. I got the sleeping car by the latter tactic, which works fairly well. I only paid for a seat, which cost €95. The German conductor then realized that there were no seats left. He was firm. You will proceed to car 104, the seat car, and stand. Aw dude. Come on. It is after 1 AM and 6 hours to Bremen. Have mercy. Nein! And you may not change your ticket because you already purchased it! He briefly lectured me on the importance of following rules. I amused myself by biting off all kinds of racist ripostes. I can’t wait to pull mein FührerStreich on you. Then the Belgian conductor showed up, a short bespectacled man. The German conductor began enlightening him in German, assuming I spoke none, and I wish that were true cause he was bitching about me. BTW, Germans who want to covertly insult Americans: as you know, your word for American is quite similar to ours. So, even if the American standing next to you speaks no German, if you keep gesticulating negatively and using the word ‘Amerikaner’ then you are not being nearly as subtle and clever as you think.

The Belgian conductor then turned to me and asked me a bunch of conversational questions about Spain. I barely remembered to readjust from Spaniard rules – I was very polite, nondomineering, and chinflat. The Belgian conductor nodded and left. I went to car 104 and tried to curl up in a corner on my suitcase. German conductor saw this and started bitching more, so I stood up and prepared for 6 hours of travel hell. Five minutes later, the Belgian conductor came to me. Here, he said, please come with me. I did. Six cars later, he put me in a Belgian sleeping car. He said it cost €225, but I could have it if I did not make a mess. Sold, I said, and thanks!

Barely 2 weeks later, and I am immersed in travel hell. I was supposed to be in Rome for 2 days, then Florence for five. Due to a severe disagreement between me and Brussels over the necessity of remarkably trivial modifications to the grant – the majority of which were provably inconsistent with earlier requests – I had to leave Rome for an emergency flight to Bremen. Brussels also spontaneously decided that their final deadline for approving the grant would be 9 April, rather than 12 May, as they previously said in writing. Most Program Managers’ heads would have exploded, and I was decidedly grouchy. I then worked 70 hours from 5-8 April (which includes a weekend) to implement said modifications. On 7 April, Brussels again rejected my final proposal, I reworked it more, and they finally approved it on the 8th (yesterday). So, barring any new surprises, the BRAIN proposal will soon become the BRAIN grant, and I will soon officially be Program Manager.

I then tried to get a flight to Paris to catch my connecting flight to San Diego. No, I was told, you must fly from Florence. If you miss any part of the flight, your seats will be cancelled. Including your return flight from San Diego. It is a computer thing. Any programmer, engineer, or remotely intelligent layperson recognizes and hates this tactic: blaming greed or human error on technology. The source of the computer glitch is not an insurmountable software obstacle; it’s extreme greed to overbook seats and have any possible excuse to cancel tickets. Thus, at 2 PM yesterday, I had to find a way to get from Bremen to Florence within about 16 hours, or the whole trip would be ruined. Solution: €873. I arrived in Florence at 11 PM, went to the hotel, asked for a 5 AM wakeup call, and crashed. Now I am flying to Paris, then San Fran. Hence I got less than one day in Rome and only a few hours in Florence.

sound and führer

You knew it was coming.

You probably noticed some recurrent themes here – one is my fascination with racism, and its cognitive and emotive sources, and a somewhat related one is the tremendous fun to be had dancing around the most famous führer. The man single-handedly soured not just a nation and its culture, but also an otherwise perfectly viable verb and noun, first name, and moustache style. The word führer is still used, but I notice they tend to apply it more toward objects and animals. You can have a lead train car or lead dog or mule called führer, but never a title. Hm. I wish I recognized this opportunity earlier.

It happened at CeBIT last month. I was talking to a senior VP from a very major corporation whose name is the homonym of the nonexistent plural of the vulgar and colloquial noctural emission. Oh, and we talked in German, the native language of said company. I was trying to tell him that my boss was only there the first day, and would not be back at CeBIT this year. I referred to my boss as Direktor, which is correct. Then I thought, hm. Lemme try something. I instead referred to him as my leader, which translates as ‘mein führer.’ Slight change in his facial expression. I acted ignorant and obsessed with my own thoughts – not a difficult nor unpracticed act – and then used the term again. No, he said, that is not the best word. Ah, tut mir leid, ich werde Anführer benutzen. No, he said, anführer is not correct either. Is it word order? Führer an? He looked at me, and I could tell he was about 85% sure I was fucking with him, but not positive. Poker face. Do not bite inner cheek. Play dumb. Oh God, was this fun. I tried it four more times that day. Just start talking German, establish friendly contact, and a few minutes into it, drop an f-bomb. Then act totally confused and ignorant.

This is largely a play on the widespread view that Americans are grievously ignorant. This allegation is not without some merit, but having lived in Europe, I am not so sure. All countries have idiots. Some even elect them führer – or, 67 years later across the Atlantic – president. Much of the anti-Americanism stems from the presumption that we do not travel and do not know anything outside our borders. All politics is local. I do not think the average European knows African or South American geography better than the average American.

The fact that the trick works at all reflects that Germans actually believe that an educated American might honestly not have a clue why the word ‘Führer’ is verboten. If you think about this further, this would be a wonderful sign that the world is moving beyond WWII. Imagine how nice it would be if a German named Adolf could be elected leader without any gossip. Some obscure academic would write a popular article introducing the earlier history of the once infamous Adolf way back on Earth. It would earn minor amusement but have no effect on the campaign. A couple people might whine, but would be dismissed as backward and racist Chicken Littles. And, of course, THAT is when the Germans will send their darttroopers blitzing through the Ardennes.