Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fitting Inn

I have returned to the hated rigamarole of daily gymgoing. Oh, how I hate it, but the only way to be free of it is to keep doing it, so I do. Part of what prevented me before was that I wanted to go to Schwarzenegger’s gym, hoping that I would get stronger via a contact high from the Ahnold-steroid-sweat that he left on the dumbbells 40 years ago. Alas, that gym is gone. There is the Giants gym, where the Graz football team practices, but they have no cardio machine, lousy hours, and the risk of catching whatever loathsome social diseases that Gerv had when he was there. I was also put off by the lack of any gym near my office or apartment. So, after returning from the states, I had to lower my standards and go for somewhere that is not close, but at least easily accessible by public transport. Some clever Austrian built a gym called Fit Inn right on top of Hauptbanhof. I learned that this word means "Main train station" the dumb way. I noticed that both Bremen and Hamburg had a main train station called Hauptbanhof. Then I saw the same in Hannover. Wow, I thought, Mr. Hauptbanhof must have been a major contributor to the German train industry. Nice of them to name all the main train stations “Hauptbanhof” in his honor.

Fit Inn is an odd mix of high and low tech. After I started there on August 7, they added a drink bar. You pay €1,90 per week for unlimited drinks. The complete menu is: water, mineral water, and four fruit drinks (lime, apple-orange, peach, and black cassis). This may not sound impressive to readers who are very likely resting at the moment, but trust me, they seem much better after an hour abusing yourself. How do they tell if you paid for the drink bar? They have a fingerprint ID device next to the drink bar. It even works. The fingerprint device uses red laser scanners and then presents your fingerprint on a monitor, with an impressive-looking array of dots and lines much like something out of a crime drama, then presents your picture. This is actually neither expensive nor hi tech, but it seems cool to me. Fit Inn also has several TVs, like many modern gyms, but no fitness machines with their own video screens, like many modern and more expensive gyms. This leaves me spending literally an hour per day with 3 viewing options: something to read (hard to keep it steady while I’m vibrating a treadmill or elliptical); the blank machine or person in front of me (usually fat, sweaty, and male); and TV. I can’t hear the TV, which doesn’t really bug me, since I couldn’t understand it anyway. They play lots of things, including sports, talk shows, news, and music videos. Sports are best, since you don’t really need to hear it, and the more violent ones are inspiring when you’re trying to stay there for a full hour. There are exceptions; bantamweight boxing is demoralizing, since you have to watch two people with half your weight and a third your muscle mass who could both kick your ass. I swear they had a man wrestling a woman on WWF, and wonder if they actually have an inter-gender wrestling championship. They should call it the Andy Kaufman belt.

I got to see a lot of tennis, which I normally ignore, but is lulling and rhythmic when you have no other choice except jogging uphill in undistracted agony. Once, the channel changed from grown-up tennis to table tennis. Never do this, as it greatly erodes the majesty of the latter. The stadiums have fewer people, and they’re as glamorous as poker or Nascar fans. They have no ball-boys to run and pick up the ping pong balls and run out of the way as quickly and obsequiously as possible. They instead have to bend over and get them themselves. The players also periodically wipe off the table with their bare hands, a task that could also be delegated to ball-persons, and might even fool some viewers in to thinking it is necessary. (Why? The middle of the table gets sweaty? Dust accumulated over the last 10 minutes? Contamination from ping pong ball paint?) Players don’t even try to jump the net to shake hands, which would really add some good theater. The judge sits in a little chair, not an imperious throne where she can look down on an abusive McEnroe or Williams. I think Serena’s tirade would not have been so intimidating anyway. Threatening to cram a tennis ball down your throat is scary. A ping pong ball might cause moderate indigestion at worst. Or you could try to recover it via the Heimlich maneuver, and I think you should get double points if you can ace your opponent that way.

For such a formal and polite people, the Austrians have a bizarre take on locker room privacy. Your entry to the locker room is greeted with the famous “video überwaschung” sign that seems increasingly ubiquitous. The privacy people warned that accepting them in public squares meant they would migrate elsewhere. They were right. Video cameras in locker rooms! Worse, there is a cleaning woman there in the mornings. I learned this the hard way, changing at 6:30 AM, then looking up to see a maid clearly looking at me. At first, I thought, dagnab it, I dropped my trousers in the wrong place. Now I’ll get busted and humiliated and have to head home in ignominy. If I’m gonna suffer such a fate on an act of public indecency, I’d like to plan it out much better. But there was another guy changing not far away, so I realized this is evidently normal around here. At least the maid should learn not to gawk. I wonder if it’s a dream job to her, if she pays them for the privilege. And it is blatantly sexist; reverse the genders and you’d have a lawsuit.

For such a courteous, organized, and obedient people, Austrians are abysmal at reracking their weights. It is not a difference in expectations, since there are signs all over that tell you to do so. But they don’t. You want to find a pair of 12.5k kilo weights, you look on the ground, not on the racks. And they are typically separated, so you see a lot of people holding one weight in one hand while looking for its mate. Last night, the gym attendant saw me doing this, got up from his desk, and walked toward me. Good, I thought, he’s gonna do his job and rerack the weights. Instead, he asked me if I was done with the weights I was using. I said no. He asked if he could use them. I said, sure. He did a set of tricep kickbacks, put the weights on the bench, thanked me, and went back to his desk to attend to a customer who had been waiting for him.

Weights scattered on the floor at Fit Inn over Graz Hauptbanhof. Notice the gap on the right side of the weight rack, partly hidden by the incline bench and flat bench that are surrounded by unracked weights.

Speaking of racks, Fit Inn, like most public gyms, is 90% male. This is not because women don’t go to gyms. Rather, they go to gyms for women only to avoid men like me. Fitness For Her of La Jolla = Curves of Graz. There were some cuties there today, and they should get free membership or something because it does make men more likely to go and more happy about going. (Not unlike free ladies’ night at a bar.) This morning, I was starting my uphill trudge, trying not to think about the fact that I would be doing so for the next hour, when some local ladies mounted the treadmill in front of me and started a workout they really didn’t need. Now, where else should I look? It’s a choice between the really boring LED display on my elliptical machine, a TV that happened to be showing an infomercial for gambling (which are quite common out here), a sweaty copy of the IHT with maddening typos, the wall, or them. And the irony was, they had no idea I was paying any attention to them, yet they kept trying to run away, but didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know why you say goodbye; I say hello. (And, yes, you do too understand English.)

In related news, I hate losing weight in kilos. You feel like such an underachiever! And, thanks to more than a year of abstinence from gyms but not beer and schnitzel, it’ll probably be the end of this year before I can fit inn to those damn size 34 Levi’s 505s hanging in my closet in la Mesa, which were quite comfortable in Feb 2007. It’s tough staying motivated. I wonder how much makeup and bribery would be needed to get me in to Curves.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brussels Pouts II

I survived another visit to Brussels, this time to negotiate not one but two grants. The work part of the trip went quite well, and I think I pulled off an unprecedented feat of coming out of there with more money than we requested when we arrived. Brussels itself remains unimpressive. Eurosnobs who complain about the American capital should look at Der Spiegel, and I don’t mean the German periodical. Brussels does not deserve to be the capital of Europe, which has so many cities that are far more glorious, beautiful, and tourist friendly. Their grand plaza is feeble by European standards. The monuments in DC are more open, accessible, and impressive. DC is not my favorite city for various reasons, but I vastly prefer it over Brussels. Indeed, one of my gripes about DC, the unbridled bidirectional racism, was gone when I was there last year for the Neuroscience conference. It was a totally different experience talking to black people there, who were stunned and oddly grateful that we elected a black president. Two taxi drivers actually thanked me, and said they felt like it was all one country now. Of course, bro, I told them. Sorry it came as such a shock. It should have happened decades ago.

Brussels has much of the snobbery of Paris without the history to back it up. That requires a very selective interpretation of French history, but we can go with it; just ask any Parisian. Food in Brussels is good, but quite overpriced; for the same amount of money, you can get two equally tasty and unique meals in neighboring countries, or six of them in some Eastern European countries. Their mass transit system is so bad that it gave me flashbacks to living in Atlanta. The air circulation is terrible, and hence the underground metro is hot, smoggy, and dusty. The ticket vending machines do not accept coins or bills. To be fair, this is true of many other ticket vending machines. For example, both Schipol and Amsterdam Centraal Station have only a few machines that take coins, and you always see tourists milling around, confused and sometimes frenetic, before they work this out. Paint them red, or put flashing lights on them, or something. But the ones in Brussels’ Centraal Station are worse; they also do not accept credit cards, or even my European funky Maestro card, or yet another European card that I never use and keep in my backpack for just such an occasion. I think the only acceptable form of payment is telepathy, and then only in Flemish, Dutch, or French. Rush hour is as bad as anywhere I have seen. Taxis are pointless. The trains and metro lines are late. Worse, they do not adapt accordingly.

And so it was that I was on platform 6 at Bruxelles Centraal Station with a ticket I purchased from a human after a very long line. That human, and monitors displaying departures, directed me to platform 6 to catch a 17:02 to the airport. At platform 6, there was another monitor that said the train at 17:02 went to the airport. One would think that boarding the train at that platform at 17:02 is a good idea, especially if you can see no other trains on that platform or anywhere near it. I was nonetheless suspicious, being no longer a virgin Eurotraveller, and tried to find a conductor or train employee to confirm. Although the train and the platform were packed beyond any reasonable limit, I found no such person. So I boarded the train, which left at 17:02. So far, we seem to have many cues I did the right thing. But, sure enough, by the time the train got to Braine-Le-Comte, I realized it was the wrong one. I got off and explained my situation to the very polite Belgian train attendant, who gave me a free ticket and a printout of how to get back. Sure enough, the train that returned to Brussels Midi was late, yet the train leaving there to the airport was not. I eventually made it, and ran pathetically to the Lufthansa desk. Expert’s tip: if at all possible, when sweaty and pitiable and late, go to the desk with the oldest person you can see. Go for the most senior person possible. I did this and told the man (whose nametag said supervisor) there was a flight leaving at 19:55. I knew this because my boss was on it. It was 19:20. I was doubly stunned that he gave me a ticket, and did not charge me for it. I made it just in time. The only fun part of this was the look of surprise on my boss’ face. She asked what happened. I was sorely tempted to tell her that I changed it just so I could talk with her about work, but I told her the truth and the rest of the trip was straightforward.

I went to Brussels by flying Lufthansa to Munich, then Belgian Airlines to Brussels. Lufthansa gave me a free sandwich, candy bar, and drink (they even had the option of free wine or beer), even though the flight from Graz was only an hour. The flight from Munich to Brussels was 30 minutes longer, but we got nothing except a menu trying to sell food that looked worse.

Munich airport has an appropriately secluded entryway in their mens’ bathroom, like most airports. No casual passerby can see inside. You have to go in, turn left, turn right, and then you’re in the sink area, and another turn to the urinals. There you find further proof the Germans really do have a sense of humor (they just hide it well, much like their chancellor). All urinals have a little fly painted right at the appropriate aiming point. It’s really fun. You really feel a sense of accomplishment, even though nothing happens when you win. How much more would it cost to rig a fly that blinks or buzzes or melts or something when hit? Or maybe you win tickets like in skee ball, or a siren goes off, or something? So many good ideas on this blog, and only four readers.

This could also be handy for potty training. Indeed, though there are more bloggers than flies, I am probably the only one who can honestly say that he directly inspired a toilet training book. The Toddlers’ Potty Book was written for me, because of me, and was a modest source of income over the years for my mother. And I can still use the potty today, even though the book mentioned neither urinals nor flies. The book was republished many times, which might lead smartass readers to wonder why I needed a potty book when I was in college. Hey, we all learn at different speeds, alright?

München fly
(not to be confused with Munching fly)

The Lufthansa sections of Munich and Frankfurt airport are excellent. They are well maintained, with clean padded seats and nice lounge areas. They have machines with free coffee and tea, and free newspapers, including several German ones and some English ones, namely the International Herald Tribune and USA Today. I first discovered this after transferring from Chicago, then buying coffee and an IHT. This annoyed me, of course, but the whole situation is probably far more annoying to the vendors there, who likely lose a lot of loot to Lufthansa’s largesse. The IHT used to be one of my favorites. A few months ago, they announced a new look (and price). Apparently, they decided to further jack their profits by firing much of their proofreading staff. I now catch an average of 2 typos per paper, when I formerly saw about none. Look, you greedy bastards, when you’re marketing toward intellectual snobs, avoid trivial mistakes. This blog has fewer typos than your paper, and I don’t get paid a dime for this. Get some copy editors in honor of William Safire, whose love for language leapt off every page and danced through my cortex many times. I don't know how many existing and new words I learned from him, as well as engaging verbifcations of existing words. Don't let future IHTs devolve in to a four letter word that he could surely have anagrammed.

My cellphone pic of a Bruxelles metro stop - not during rush hour, not a major stop, not even a transfer point.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Eurodining VIII

I returned from the US last month with only three bottles. Breakage prevention, about which I so gloated last time, was a minor issue. This time it was more mundane: weight management. I checked in a suitcase weighing 55 pounds and a box weighing 45 pounds. Perspicacious readers may note that 55 pounds is over the weight limit; I avoided paying by showily moving things from my suitcase to a carry-on bag until I sweated profusely enough to garner pity from the United check-in agent. My carry-ons totalled 45 pounds, for a total haul of 145 pounds.

What does this have to do with eurodining? Much of the haul was more Mexican food: enchilada sauce, beans, jack and other cheeses you can't find out here. Some of the bulk was 2 pinatas, which are also quite exotic. And lots of junk food to become gifts for various labmates and their kids. (They got some great kids' books too, thanks to my mother's grandmastery of both children's literature and hoarding.) I made a pan of enchiladas for the lab the following week, then a pan for the staff at Molly Malone's a few days later. That's right, I cooked food for an Irish Pub and restaurant, then brought it unannounced. My labbies also thought this quite odd. See my last Eurodining post; they just don't understand the tipping system out here. I got a free murder burger, chicken wings, and enough free Guinnesses that I lost count.

A few weeks ago, most of our lab went hiking at Zirbitzkogel, followed by a big meal. Yes, Austrians like to go hiking, then have a feast, often at a restaurant at the peak. Sounds American, much like the joy with which Austrians greet each meal (Americans have no analog to "Mahlzeit"), but I never once encountered any American restaurants full of tired and grimy hikers. Every hiking-restaurant I have seen is hardcore Austrian food, as opposed to ethnic food, fast food, or some franchised slop. So I was delighted to see all these unfamiliar dishes. I was even happier to be able to translate one of them: Fleishnudelsuppe, or meat noodle soup. Great! I ordered it. I caught our secretary looking away a half second too late. Great. I kept looking at her quizzically. "Do you know what you just ordered?" Great....

I said no. She graciously offered to tell me, or change the order. No, I said with poorly hid resignation, I'll indulge in the universal cultural initiation involving mystery meat. I guessed intestines. My Romanian mystery meat was intestine soup. I ate Chinese intestines many times. (I mean, I ate cow intestines served at Dim Sum.) The soup was good. I looked up, steeled for the punch line. Cow lung soup. I don't think anyone saw me gag, which temporarily brought some cow lung in contact with its human equivalent. This wasn't so bad; certainly better than puking on the table. We'll see if my labbies can avoid that when I introduce them to Rocky Mountain Oysters.

We then hiked some more, in little groups, and labbies Jing and Petar asked me to teach them American songs. I said no. We don't sing nearly as much as Germanspeakers, and I can't sing, I told them. Petar was insistent, so I began the American classic:

99 bottles of beer on the wall
99 bottles of beer!
You take one down
pass it around
98 bottles of beer on the wall.

I figured someone would tell me to shut up around 96 or so, and I'd be gracefully acquitted. Petar instead offered to buy me Guinness if I could finish the song. So I did, until suddenly realizing I didn't know the end. There isn't one. The song, like 99 bottles, isn't really meant to be finished. So I ad libbed the following:

No more bottles of beer on the wall
No more bottles of beer!
You fall down
Passed out around
99 bottles of beer on the ground.

I now have 4 bottles of Guinness hidden in my wall. Petar is an honorable man.

The following week, I met my old buddy Bernhard and we went to a Buschenshank. This is a restaurant with wine that is typically located in some pastoral area with nice views. You are also not allowed to serve anything that is not locally produced. Why not open a regular restaurant? Because Austrians pay lower taxes for buschenschanks. It's a great idea, one that would never fly in America. Oh, it could start. It would gain traction amongst my many countrmen who are sick of franchised prepackaged homogeneity. But within a few years, Coke would find some way to wrangle an exception, and soon there would be a McDonald's buschenshank in the middle of downtown Atlanta. Indeed, I have seen some erosion here. One of them serves bottled beer. I got mixed explanations for this, but evidently there are gradations of buschenschankdom. I blame globalization.

I also joined my labbies one Friday for "leberkäse Freitag," which greatly excites my normally equanimous labbie Teo. They ride bikes to a store that sells leberkäse, which I eschewed because it translates as liver cheese. I explained this to labbie Clemens. No, he said, it has neither liver nor cheese. We just say that to confuse Americans. Well, way to botch an otherwise totally successful plan, I replied. In fact, it is basically ground pork, and not bad on a roll with mustard. One of those sandwiches is filling but not fattening, which always helps with a mundane problem: weight management.

The next week, a couple American friends visited me in Graz. My first visitors here! I really wanted to get them cow lung soup, but Eli is just too trusting, so I would have felt guilty. I instead got him schnitzel mit kürbiskernmantel, aka fried pork breaded in pumpkinseeds. He was so happy that he returned on his last night, although he was only here 3 nights. He loved the salad with pumpkinseed oil too. I say again: it is an embarrassment to California's legendary fecundity, and its ostensible multiculturalism, and especially its govenator, that nobody figured out to grow pumpkin seeds out there. Do it. Import the Samen König. Get rich.

Here is our govenator on The Dating Game, asking a narcissistic question and badly parrying her subtly scathing response. For added amusement, the announcer mispronounced both his name and Graz. Also, I have never met any Austrian with an accent like Ahnold's.