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.

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