Friday, February 20, 2009

Trip down memory wane

When I was an undergrad, I was at Longs Drugs in the shopping center at the corner of Nobel and Via La Jolla. I don't remember why, but do somehow feel confident that I wasn't buying anything, just accompanying Andy, and also that we were not buying beer. There was only one checkout counter open and a long line. We were at the end of it, and in front of us was a decrepit old bag with posture that made a candy cane look straight. Someone opened the adjacent checkout counter and announced that he would take the next person in line. The shriveled caterpillar didn't budge. Andy asked her, quite politely, "Excuse me, ma'am, are you in line?"

She replied, in a voice that wavered and cracked under its own sarcasm, "Am I standing here?" Andy said nothing, and moved to the front of the new line. He bought his stuff and we looked back and there was the old saddlebag, still in line, with a bit of a smug glare like she just told off that young whippersnapper. 2 other people in line gave us a conspiratorial grin.

Fast forward to this morning. I was walking to work along a dirt road through a forest. It was pitch black. The dirt road does have some street lights, but they are poorly positioned and pine trees are opaque. I heard some rustling to my left and froze. This was startling at first, but with my handy little pocket LED light, I soon discovered it was a deer. I was in no hurry at all and so I decided to sit at a local tree and watch. The deer did not seem to care, and after a minute I didn't either, so I quietly stood up and continued walking.

After another few hundred meters, I encountered a nice old lady heading the opposite direction. Her face was more wrinkled than her cortex, and probably had more live neurons. She was with a massive German Shepherd who probably outweighed her by 20 kilos and was on a leash that she had wound tightly round her hand, several times. Now, we both know that ostensibly domesticated dogs and deer don't mix, especially when the dog is far stronger than the leash holder. The following conversation ensured (in German):

Good morning.
(no reply)

Good morning!! (quite loudly)
(no reply)

Excuse me!!
(she turned)

Excuse me.

I can hear you. (looks at me quite sourly, as if greatly put out.)

Excuse me, ma'am, you should know that there is a deer ahead on to your right, about 300 meters.

(cocks her head)

There is a deer ahead, on the right. I tell you, for it is likely, your dog will run, and try to eat it. (I do not know "chase" in German, though surely Gerv does.)

He is just a puppy.
(in German, all dogs are male.)

Ma'am, that is a large dog, and he will try to eat the deer.

I said, he is a puppy. You do not listen.
(unlike the beginning of the conversation, she switched to the informal "you," which is normally reserved for friends, children, or morons. I doubt I was in category one or two. I remained formal.)

Ma'am, I think, that your dog could eat me. He is a very big dog.

I know that.

Ma'am, I only tell you, because there may be a problem. An emergency. When your dog sees the deer, he will try to eat it. Maybe you should remain here.

(no response)

Ma'am, I recommend, you remain, or return. The walk up the hill is not safe.

You are stupid.

(pause) Sorry ma'am! Have a good morning.

(mutters something incomprehensible, but clearly not nice. There are rare occasions when I am delighted to speak poor German, and this was one of them.)

So this served as a reminder that not all old ladies are nice. Positive prejudice is no more intelligent nor accurate than mainstream prejudice. Ah well. The two bitches kept walking up the hill, and I continued down it. Hm, my streetcar plans are now in disarray too, and they don't run that often in the mornings. I probably won't make the 1 like I planned, but I think if I turn left on Hilmteichstrasse, I can get the 7, or just walk to Jakominiplatz, it looks like a clear morning. I can just follow the streetcar lines, or I have my map, right? Yes! Plan: go to the streetlight up there, check the map for shortcuts, and-

(collision sounds)
Oh, oh! Rauwven! Halt, Rauwven!
WOOF WOOF! (Branches break. Or maybe it was a hip.)
Oh! (also something in German I couldn't understand, but I could certainly detect a dramatic change in tone from her last words to me.)
(Clear sounds of thumping hooves, excited barking, and more broken branches, all waning like my memory of ages past.)

And, let's see, the 1 and the 7 are staggered, so if the streetcar that just went by is the 1, my best bet is the 7 in front of the hospital. OK, so I basically walk around the hospital along the western side, then go left, and that's the closest stop. Or maybe the other one, on what is it, Lenaugasse?

Sunday, February 15, 2009


(written 14 Feb)

I arrived in Graz last night. My friend and, now, co-worker, Robert Leeb, met me at the train station. The last time I saw him, he was fretting over his PhD thesis like all good PhD students do, worrying way too much about details. I told him the same thing my Mom told me when I was revising my PhD- you are not writing for the ages. Meet the requirements for your PhD, get the signatures from the committee, and move on. Save the obsessive mastery for work that will be read by more than five people. Harsh, but true.

I notice an interesting psychological schism in late stage PhD students. You hit the extremes of stress and peace. Femke Nijboer, who successfully defended her PhD in the Birbaumer lab last year, called herself the “freakishly calm late stage PhD student” at the time. I called her a couple times planning on calming her down and instead found myself getting more relaxed talking to her. There are so many stressors, fears, and consummations devoutly to be wish’d, all at the mercy of five mysterious committee members, you get all confused about just how stressed out you are supposed to be. I find myself in a similar situation now. I am starting what is, and should be, my highest pressure job ever. Working at the Wolpaw lab was close, but I had little direct contact with him. Not so here. When Dr. Robert Leeb met me at the train station at 8:30 PM, he said we should get to my apartment by 9 PM since my boss Prof. Dr. Pfurtscheller wants to meet at my apartment at 9 PM to discuss the grant proposals I am working on. Now there’s a devoted boss. He is one of the original giants of noninvasive BCI research, along with Birbaumer and Wolpaw. However, Niels is distracted with a new son and Jon somehow manages to run a separate, larger lab that does spinal research. So I have the twin turbochargers of a top BCI lab and being under a magnifying glass held by the big boss. Bring it!!

Inspiring, but confusing. On the bright side, things seem fine at the moment. Pfu told me last night that I did a “very good job” and indeed it’s hard to have an unhappy boss when you’ve essentially been working for his lab for free for months. On the other hand, he seems eager to put me on as many grants as possible, including one with Bremen that screams disaster from every pore. I can already sense that being forced to work with Bremen will be one of the major stressors of my new position. However, time is on my side with that one. As news of what really happened in Bremen percolates through the community, this pressure should abate. Until then, I must eat shit, waste time on poorly conceived projects, and whine appropriately- enough to make damn sure I am heard, not enough to alienate bosses.

I spent much of the day catching up on emails and grant work, then headed back to my apartment to avoid the sickening Valentine’s Day crowd. Yup, they have it here too. My new pad is quite unlike anywhere I lived before, and totally unexpected for university housing. The apartment is in the middle of a little forest next to a tiny lake. It can only be accessed via a ten minute walk up a dirt road that does not allow vehicles except for residents. This apartment complex is the only building I can see, excluding a small shed. The building is surrounded by pine trees. Further, the building is quite old, and seemed a bit too fancy for us meager academics. Pfu explained that this used to be the Lord Mayor’s house, and it was adapted for uni housing. I feel flattered. While the building itself is old and pretty stylin, the inside of the apartment has modern furniture and fixtures, a TV, even a full kitchen with oven. Seems like a good combo.

It also brings back memories. When I was 7.5, we went to Kansas to visit some relatives. I know my age because I can distinctly remember sitting around a table with Dad and maybe 15 other people, having a great outdoor feast, when I felt the urge to inform Dad it was my seven and a halfth birthday. Dad said, “Brendan asked me to announce that we are here, not just to celebrate that it’s Wednesday, but also that Brendan is now 7 and a half.” The table sang Happy Birthday. I was later told that we were going to the mayor’s house. Wow, I thought! The mayor! Didn’t know our family was so connected. In retrospect, I had an overly fanciful view of mayoral regality. Being the mayor of a small town in Kansas is not such a feat. But I didn’t know that. That night, we went to visit the Maher residence and I was thoroughly disappointed by my misunderstanding. Perhaps one of the Mahers is also the mayor? No. Sorry, kid. But the evening was saved by an imminent hurricane. Mom pointed to it and there it was, a dirt brown wriggling twister, just like the pictures. We all had to get to the basement, where Dad told me that it was the only safe place and we might go out tomorrow and the whole house would be gone. I thought this was too fucking cool, and remember thinking about whether I could put some kind of movie camera up there to watch the house get torn apart. (Note this was well before webcams; a 7.5 year old American kid today could probably rig such surveillance without any trouble.) I was again disappointed to emerge the next morning to an intact house. Now, in curious narrative closure, I live in the Lord Mayor’s house. And it is a pretty phat house, as if the mayor of Graz is indeed a VIP. There is thus some restoration of childlike marvel. My new mystery is what difference exists, if any, between a Mayor and Lord Mayor.

The main drawback to this pad is obvious. You can’t get from the middle of a big city to the middle of a forest easily. It’s more than 10 minutes to the nearest streetcar stop, and at least 25 more to work. This is not such a bad commute, and walking 10 minutes through a forest twice a day is much better than driving through heavy traffic on 52 east. However, walking uphill on an unmaintained dirt road without drainage will be far less charming through rain or sleet. I see i cee sludge in my future.

But again, as I did not understand until moving to Europe, commuting through traffic just doesn’t compare to commuting on foot and streetcar. On a streetcar, you can read, talk to locals, watch the news (Graz streetcars, unlike those in Bremen, have TVs with news), or just zone out. Yes, I know, you can do these things while driving, but you aren’t supposed to.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


(written 13 Feb)

I woke up quite early this morning to a heavy snow. This is eerily consistent with the experience Steve and I had on our travels. Each city we visited had great weather until the last day. Great by local standards, anyway. I brought a pair of shorts and sneakers and did not use them once the whole trip. Similarly, Bremen was cold, but at least dry, while Steve was there. The day after he left, Bremen returned to normal: drizzly. And then, the last night, heavy snow, leaving the roads awash in icy sludge. There’s nothing quite like icy sludge. Not mud, not slush, not mudwater, not dirty snow, not even ice or sludge; no single word captures it. But it struck me as a reminder of what I wanted to leave, and hence a reaffirmation I should be happy. Sure, Graz has icy sludge too, and I wish it didn’t, but at least it’s new icy sludge.

The first several hours were surreal because the heavy snow just went on and on. In previous blogs I commented on the changing terrain on the train ride from Bremen to Munich, a trip I took a few times now. This time, the same trip was like a slow ride through a huge straw. Looking out the window provided no info about where we were or even how fast we were going. No trees, no mountains, no rivers, just a long blur. I slept for a bit, worked on a grant proposal until my battery died, and then talked to three cute dental assistants who were heading to Munich to party for the weekend. The conversation was easy to start because I saw one of them reading an intro to English book, but thereafter quite difficult because my German was the best mutual language available. This is the first time I met a group of native Germans under 30 who did not speak English; I thought they taught it in all schools. Perhaps it is not quite as important for dental hygenists.

Indeed, as I told them, I went to the dentist last week. I was due for a dental checkup and wanted to get it out of the way before moving to Graz. Nobody there spoke English, as is reasonable for a German dentist’s office in Germany that caters to Germans, and the whole experience underscored the power of schema. This is really apparent at restaurants; without knowing the language, you and the waiter both follow specific procedures that are fairly consistent most anywhere. But these are relatively simple procedures. For example, would you normally spit on command? No. But if someone just scraped your molars, and then gave you a cup of water next to a sink, you would rinse and spit regardless of what she said. It might have been, “I pissed in your water cup, you fucking Yank” or “If you drink that, I will stab your gums until you wish you were doing airline stretches on an Atlas Poo flight.” But everything was very natural and I think that knowing German would not have made the process faster or smoother. If my bill exceeds the expected 47 euros, then I’ll eat my words. And then brush and floss to minimize future dental visits.

This reminds me of Steve’s comment about being a foreigner in Europe or Marrakech vs. China. He lived in China for 2 years now. He’s used to being quite obviously foreign. No matter how he dresses, what he says, or where he goes, he is instantly spotted as an outlander. This is what it was like for me living in downtown Atlanta; you stand out like a sore bum. It’s different here. You can sit in a restaurant, train seat, even dentist’s chair, and until you open your mouth or have to respond to a question, you may as well be a native. This happened with the 3 dental assistants I mentioned above. When I sat down, they lowered their voices a bit and covered something they were reading. I could have said there was no point in doing so, but was busy with my grant. 3 hours went by before one of them busted out the English book and I decided to be social.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: Better to remain silent and be thought an American than to speak and remove all doubt.

Now I am on the train from Munich to Salzburg. The snow just ended and the resulting winter wonderland is a welcome change. Snow is everywhere, and though I can see no nearby mountains now, I am sure the snow-capped peaks of Salzburg will be glory incarnate. I have a 1 hour layover in Salzburg and will certainly work on no grants. I am hoping to walk along the Salzach to the old city and back within an hour- a bit rushed for such a stately city, but a better plan than sitting in Salzburg Hauptbanhof, the only nonglorious part of that city.

Three hours later, and my mission in the preceding paragraph went as expected. Though it was about 25 degrees and snowing, Salzburg was refreshing and flawless as always. I’m on the train to Graz now and can see the mountains slowly turning into hills as the day becomes night.

I am also enjoying my last couple hours of keylessness. Yesterday, I left my work keys in Bremen where they belong, and this morning, I left my apartment keys in the apartment, where my greedy and dishonest former landlord will surely try to find all sorts of cockamamie excuses to gouge my security deposit. In a few hours, I will get the keys to my new apartment, and I will get my new work keys on Monday. But at the moment, I can’t get through any locked door anywhere without charm, recognition, deception, cajoling, threats, theft, begging, or gruesome mutilation of an innocent lock. Kinda nice, to imagine I have no responsibilities. But it’s only imaginary. In fact, now that the sun has set on my mountain views, I should get back to grantwriting.

“He’s in a hospital, and if we felt anything but sympathy toward him, it was probably envy.”
--Pfc Philip Siegel, 29th division, in a letter to his wife Sylvie written Feb 1945 from Bremen. Phil and Syl were my grandparents. Obviously, Bremen in 1945 was dissuasive for reasons beyond bad weather, but the quote still fits.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Walk the Casbah

It's hard to follow a masturbating Greek.
(although, I guess it would quite risky standing in front of him.)

After the fun of Madrid, Steve and I went to Marrakech. The flight was late, but our ride from the airport was there, provided free from the hotel if you book for 3 nights. The Dar Touyir was a particularly enjoyable hotel - cheap, quiet, relaxing, with very friendly staff and tasty food. Steve planned to sign up for a Moroccan cooking class for 100 euros, but we instead learned that we could take a class at the hotel for 30 euro. Steve negotiated them down to 25 in French (which is not bad, since his French is) and we did this 2 days. Wake up, eat a good breakfast, meet our instructor (a wide and kind faced woman), follow her to the little shops to get stuff, cook with her for 3 hours, have a feast. I took notes the whole time and look forward to having a pressure cooker so I can try it again.

The markets, indeed the whole city, were just what we wanted: different. Unlike Europeans, even Eastern ones nowadays, the people and dress and decor were not quite what you see in the States. Cars and technology were everywhere and I sensed again the fortune of being able to make it to Marrakech while there was still some of it left, before the whole world gets homogeneous. The Muslim call to prayer rang loud and blear five times a day, though few people seemed to heed it. The shops were filled with all kinds of things, all hagglable, often jutting from really narrow dirt alleys. There were several central bazaars and one of them had a row of people selling fresh orange juice. Each of them sold for 3 dirham, or under 30 cents. After my yapping about how nice it was to have fresh OJ for 2 euros, this was just too much to handle. At first, anyway. I asked one if I could get 2 for 5. No, he said. Steve and I went to the next cart. Same question. No, he said. Next cart. Same question. Sure. Easy to haggle with such accessible competition.

Amidst the snake handlers, weird fortune tellers, oddly dressed but friendly cops, and various street performers, there were a lot of beggars. Some got quite obnoxious, and one followed us arounf for a good half kilometer pestering us for money on the grounds that he directed us to the central square. Counterarguments that we did not request that information, did not want to go to the central square, and already knew where it was (all of which were true) were totally unpersuasive. Nothing much you can do about such people, which I also encountered a lot in Atlanta. Guy just kept pestering, wouldn't take no. It can sour your afternoon, along with the choking pollution there. But overall a great time, can't wait to go back.

On the last evening, Steve's friend from high school came down. Sam lived nearby on a Fulbright and spoke some Arabic. We walked around the city, haggled, had lunch, and did indeed walk the casbah. It was a walled area, cool mainly in that the walls and indeed the whole city were in that Arabic style. I never really considered firsthand the proposal that it be rocked. We instead had a great dinner and crashed. That morning, our little breakfast table had a third setting that we were not charged for. We already loved the place, but that really sold it.

Now over at the temple
Oh! They really pack 'em in
The in crowd say it's cool
To dig this chanting thing
But as the wind changed direction
The temple band took five
The crowd caught a wiff
Of that crazy Casbah jive
-- The Clash, Rock the casbah

Gotta speed up to catch up to now in time to catch a bus. After that, we flew to Barcelona. It had a different style than Madrid and we had a lot of fun. The second day there, I had to give a talk and asked a guy named Felip from Barcelona Digital where he recommended. Senor Parillada, he said, and it was indeed a great meal. The next day I gave a talk too, and the last day we made it to the Picasso museum before flying to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam. What can one say? It easily deserves its own blog entry, and um.... yeah.

Then there were a few more days in Bremen before Steve left, and then sudden silence. Hadn't seen my brother in 2 years, and now he was gone for who knows how long. I had to refocus on my work and my move to Graz. All kinds of horrific, ugly last minute politicking from Ivan and the boss, but (as always) I got along great with eveyone here except those two and that makes up for a lot. We had a nice little going away party/movie night last night and I'll miss working with most of the people here. But, it's over. It's 11:45 PM on my last night in Bremen. I just burned my last DVD, printed my last article, and said goodbye to Ivan. I am about to take the last bus to my quiet and empty apartment. I got a train at 7 tomorrow to Munich, then Salzburg, then Graz. No return ticket.