Sunday, December 26, 2010

On Krampus

I spent some of today in the lab, catching up on things and recovering from two days of generous feasting. Since I am on campus, I thought it would be fitting to write on Krampus. More on Him later.

It was a pretty generous Christmas, much more than I expected so far from home. I was invited for Christmas Eve dinner at the home of one of my labmates, which was quite kind. I brought some wine, chocolate, and T-shirts, the latter two from California. We had very good chicken soup, and a huge and generous platter of meats and egg and potato salad and numerous breads and lots of other things, then for dessert, roasted apples with cinnamon and raisins and walnuts. And plenty of nice conversation in a cozy home. I was quite happy. Badly overfed, but happy.

The next day, I was invited to Christmas lunch at another home, with people I knew even less, so I thought it especially nice to be invited. I again brought that trio of gifts, with 4 bottles of wine this time. This Christmas lunch was around noon or one, so I am not sure exactly what to call it. It was certainly cozy and Christmasy, with trees and decorations and a happy family. They had me fooled until the whole Krampus thing. Anyway.

The meal was, again, quite generous and tasty. The main meat element doesn't really exist in English, but it is essentially a slab of meat, rolled up and cooked, with gravy. And dumplings. And red cabbage with chestnuts. Then dessert was a sliced fruit bowl with cream. All of this was new and sumptuous. Also, in both houses, they had huge platters of assorted mini cakes and cookies, just in case you hadn't eaten quite enough for the week. I talked about Christmas turkeys with mashed potatoes and gravy and stuffing and cranberry sauce. And I told of my brother, teaching the Chinese how to cook such turkeys, and other Amerikanisch fare. I talked about exchanging gifts, which seems to be similar to the American way, except for the timing. And they had a wonderfully charming Christmas tree, just like one at home, with lights and ribbons and tinsel and hanging red balls and little alcohol filled chocolates hidden amongst the needles. All the gifts were glistening and well wrapped and inviting. I told them about the stockings (or perhaps there was a grievous mistranslation on my part). I said that Santa would bring a lump of coal for bad children. Note: Yes, this really is the absolute worst thing that ever happens to kids in American Christmas mythology. At the very worst, very bad kids get no toys from Santa, only a lump of coal. I say this to contrast him with Krampus.

Krampus is a mythical Austrian tormentor who hangs out with Santa Claus. While Santa rewards good children, Krampus punishes them, by beating them with chains and sticks and then putting them in baskets and hauling them away. They tell this to little 4 year old kids! Wide eyed and trusting, vulnerable, sweet. And I was just getting to trust Austrian people. Huh. Well, it figures. Same people who make little kids learn German.

On December 5, Austrian men play Krampus. This means that they dress up badly, go out in public, and get drunk. So far, no problem. I do this during Weinachtsfest a lot. It sounds like lots of holidays. But here is the evil Krampus part. They have chains and bells to frighten children. They go to shopping malls and other places, hit little kids (yes, I confirmed this part), chase them, ring bells, and try to scare them. Oddly, they do this indiscriminately, without even determining whether the kids were bad. I asked my hostess, and she said that she was chased and beaten as a little girl by scary Krampus man. In public. Didn't the other people do anything, I asked? Yes, she said. After a while, they told the Krampus men to stop. I said this would go much differently in the US, Texas in particular.

I had brunch this morning with a colleague and his family, including 2 little kids. I asked about Krampus. They confirmed it. They said it is used sometimes to motivate kids. Clemens told me something like this, but I didn't take it seriously, because he seems like a nice man. Sorry. Seemed.

I said that we have nothing like that in our Christmas mythology. We do have an old man that visits, sometimes two. He is often badly dressed, and sometimes drunk. But, he is not mean, but very loving and happy to see the kids. He brings presents and sometimes dresses up like Santa Claus. The men are not called Krampus, but Grampas.

One of the big headlines in Graz last year was when a man kidnapped his daughter and locked her in the cellar, where he beat her and was generally mean to her for 35 years. A few months later, it happened again. The Austrians were in shock. No, they said. Why? Why do they do this? I asked about it, and people said it was just a fluke. Yeah. They said that. Then, when I wasn't watching, they dressed up like Krampus, and went to public places, and threatened them with bells and chains and cellar damnation. Don't act all innocent.

To be fair, we do have Halloween. Old men dress badly, get drunk, go out in public, and scare children with bells, chains, ghost moaning, and bad breath. Other people confuse the kids by giving them candy. But that's totally different. For example, we also have the slutty costumes I mentioned before. What about that? (Not for the drunk old men.) What about some cultural merging, and we also say that on Dec 5, appropriate people also dress slutty? And, to further draw from this opportunity for cultural exchange, I should also tell you of the other part of our Halloween mythology, which is that they buy drinks for American BCI scientists. Let's get that tradition going, and it will really counter that Krampus grumpiness, at least for me.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Eternal SiSiSi

Greetings from Rome, where the second TOBI workshop just ended. The workshop was generally successful, although bad weather and other factors caused all kinds of travel problems for many attendees. I was no exception; took me 14 hours to get from Graz to Rome, and the arrival time of my luggage remains unknown.

Rome is quite charming nonetheless. Our local hosts did a great job organizing, and were characteristically effusive and enthusiastic. I noticed that the locals seem unable to say yes once. Instead, just as Spaniards tend to say "vale" three times instead of once, Italians usually say "si" three or more times. Hence I redub the Eternal City: The Eternal SiSiSi.

And I bet it will catch on! Someday. If the city really is eternal, then I have lots of time.

The eternality of the city is best reflected in this conversation, which I had while sharing a taxi from the hotel to the conference site:

Me: "And so the hybrid BCI approach we are doing now is different from the - hey, look, Roman ruins!" (Everyone stops and stares.)
Colleague: "Yes. Um. Right. Uh. Where were we? Oh yes, hybrid BCIs. So - look, more ruins!" (everyone stares.)

After a few iterations of this, we kind of habituated, and even kept on topic for a little while.

Colleague: "But how can you resolve the - ah, more ruins up there, we must ignore them - how can you resolve the increased illiteracy risk?"
Me: "Well, it can reduce illiteracy if - wow, those ruins are huge! Anyway, so, um. You know, that looks a lot like the Coliseum."
Taxi driver: "That is the Coliseum." (everyone stops and stares.)

Long delay. Quite a shock to see one of the great edificies of world history, just, well, there, on the side of the road, coincidentally along our taxi ride. I guess I assumed it would be elevated, cloudborne, gleaming, surrounded by gold and the finest possible staff in resplendent raiment.

Me: "Dudes, why don't we enjoy the ride through Rome, and discuss work later?"
No objection.
"Sir, can you tell us about these new ruins up here?"
Taxi driver: "Si, si, si."