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Polish Joys 4 - Cracow

I went to the main train station in Warsaw to buy a ticket to Cracow. The main station is located in the middle of the drab new urban center, but does have one interesting feature: the rear of it is attached to a gleaming new reflective-glass office complex by an undulating roof of steel and glass. It looks as if a bunch of shiny metal foam bubbled up between the two buildings and froze.

The man buying a ticket at the front of the line looked to be in his mid-30s, with patchy short hair, thick, smeared glasses, grey socks and well-worn sandals. He was discussing something with the woman behind the counter. These discussions are difficult in Poland, because there is always a pane of glass between you and the salesperson, and there is no face-high little hole to talk through. This means you either have to scream or bend down to the 4-inch slit at the very bottom of the glass. Both of which the guy in front of us did, for at least 10 minutes.

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Polish Joys 3 -- Warsaw

Apologies in advance for any formatting problems; I'm posting from a basement cage in Krakow. Here are a few loose, unedited observations from my visit to Warsaw:

I arrived on the 22nd in Warsaw and wandered up Nowy Swiat until I found a square dedicated to a famous bishop who died in 1981. There was an open-air history exhibition featuring photos and stories from the local newspaper in the 1960s. It was called something like "our little piece of stability." There were pictures of various incidents of Warsaw life: fashion shows on the wall of the old city, streetcar reppairs, street-beautification campaigns during which all citizene were encouraged to participate, lines outside food stores, beaches on the side of the Vistula, and many other things besides. One letter reprinted from the newspaper was from a man whose "diabolically jealous" wife refused to believe that his delay in returning home had been caused by tram repairs; he called upon other citizens who'd used the same tram to write into the newspaper and confirm the story. At around 9 pm, a film began on an outdoor screen. It was a collection of black and white documentary newsreels from the 50s and 60s. It wasn't propaganda, it just showed ordinary people at work -- steelworkers bent over forges, newspapermen delivering newspapers, one oddly well-dressed woman activating a railway switch almost in passing, old women collecting milk, and people lining up outside of food shops. I couldn't understand the narration, which was a pity, since the young, hip audience laughed frequently, and I couldn't tell whether the humor was intentional in the film or a by-product of its socialist quaintness. One particularly odd feature was that the film was interrupted by episodes that looked like spy documentaries, with stop-action surveillance photos and descriptions of "figurant" (subject) x or y. I got the idea this was ironic, perhaps they were trying to valorize the ordinary worker by implying that delivering newspapers was all part of the grand work of building a socialist utopia.

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Polish Joys 2

Another quick update from Poland. It was a hot few days in Gdansk. The old women walked around with parasols, and if they had no parasols handy, they used plastic bags. I and a friend visited Malbork, which is a gigantic castle whose heart was built in the 14th century by Teutonic knights. Polish trains are on time and pretty nice, but the train stations are stupendously confusing. Before getting on the train, I was treated to a loud debate between two platforms concerning which one was the right one for the Malbork train. Gdanksers took sides, and argued at length. Each side of the argument insisted they were waiting at the right platform. Then, as the train approached the right platform, the very people who'd been loudly insisting the wrong platform was the right one picked up their bags and sweatily made their way to the right one. Which is the one I happened to be standing on, purely, and I add purely, by random chance.

Malbork is stunningly huge and strangely beautiful, given that it was a purely functional defensive fortress.  To get there, you walk through a broad enclosed courtyard, then no fewer than three (3) defensive enclosures, each featuring its own moat. Murder holes, arrow slits, and crenellations abound -- northern Poland has for centuries been one of the most hotly-contested areas on the face of the earth, and even the Teutonic knights, who built the complex, could only hold on to it for a couple of centuries. It was heavily damaged during WWII, but like almost everything else in Poland, has been lovingly and faithfully restored. You can wander freely around, visiting the banqueting hall, kitchen, torture chamber (they stationed musicians outside to cover up the victims' screams), and the St. Anne Chapel, which is a ghostly ruin in the process of being restored. While we were there, a gigantic medieval fair was in progress, which meant plenty of re-created medieval combat, processions with standards, people walking around on stilts terrifying the passers-by, and music from sackbutters and fagottists.

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German Joys Book Review: La Mythologie Scientifique du Communisme

Lucian Boia, a Romanian historian and historiographer who specializes in the history of the imagination, originally wrote La Mythologie Scientifique du Communisme ("The Scientific Mythology of Communism") in 1993.  The French publisher Les Belles Lettres republished it in 1999; here's the book's website. As no translator is credited, it appears Boia wrote the book in French.

Boia's subject is the role of science in Communist mythology. It was a relationship of mutual influence: Communism trumpeted its inherent superiority to "idealistic" or "bourgeois" Western thinking by stressing its roots in the objective, materialist scientific laws of social organization discovered by Marx and Engels. Once established, Communism, in turn, attempted to use scientific achievement, like sporting prowess, to demonstrate the inherent superiority of Communist society to the decadent West.

The problem, though, was that Communist thinkers and apparatchiks were driven by two foolish ideas. The first was that scientific procedures such as the scientific method and peer review were tainted by their bourgeois origins. The second, related mistake, was imagining that many limits on progress imposed by human nature, the natural environment, or even the laws of physics were artifacts of the ideology of capitalism and could be transcended with enough Stakhanovite effort.

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Polish Joys 1 -- Gdansk

Landed in Gdansnk yesterday, and find it charming. The customs officials were amused that an American was living in Germany, but let me in and gave me a nice, juicy passport stamp to boot. Then off to reside with a Polish friend in a small bungalow-style house in a suburb of Gdansk. As soon as you get out of Gdansk proper, the city sort of peters out and is replaced by winding dirt roads leading through private orchards and hillside forests, interspersed with Socialist-era housing blocks, which look pretty much like they look all over Eastern Europe. The countryside appears idyllic, with pleasant, airy deciduous forests ranging along gentle hills.

The inner city, which was painstakingly rebuilt after being annihilated by the Nazis (who started WWII in this city), is lovely. It features row after row of townhouses with colorful Dutch facades, and scads of pleasant Gothic churches, as well as a city hall with a delicate 81m spire. The fortress-like St. Mary's basilica isn't very pleasant from the outside, but features plenty of sensational Gothic church decoration from Gdansk artists and other artisans imported mainly from northern Europe. If you climb the 300+ steps to the tower, the view is amazing. You can event rent Lorgnetki (binoculars, spelling approximate!) from a sad old man with a big, bulbous nose.  Most of the church inscriptions are in German, since this city more-or-less belonged to Germany for most of its existence (don't ask me the details).

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German Words of the Week: Afterkind & Afterwelt

Translators live by one golden rule: if you ever see a cheap old dictionary in your source language (i.e., the language you translate out of), buy it. A German-English technical dictionary from 1955, a dictionary of turn-of the century German slang, a tourist phrasebook from 1970, they're all worth buying. In such books -- and sometimes nowhere else -- you can find out that the strange word you just red in a novel about Communist Party intrigue is 1950's East German slang for "nuclear meltdown."

Following this rule, I recently bought the Kleines Lexikon Untergegangener Wörter ("Small Dictionary of Lost Words") as soon as I saw it in a local bookstall. It was written by Nabil Osman (an Egyptian student of German lexicography) in 1972. It's a curious collection of words that dropped out of the German language around 1800 or so, for a variety of reasons (regularization of spelling, the substitution of German-based expressions for Latin-based ones, etc.). The words Afterkind ("After-child") and Afterwelt ("After-world) appear on pp. 26-27. Afterkind is an illegitimate child, one conceived "after" (i.e. outside of) marriage; the Afterwelt is the afterworld, just as it would be in English.

What's wrong with these words? After all, so to speak, they are nice cognates of the English word "after," so you could say they contribute to intercultural understanding. The problem, however, is that the German word After is a homonym (same word = different meanings). The other meaning of After, and the one that became dominant in Germany about two centuries ago, is, err, "anus". You can see the problem. But it wasn't just "Anuschild" and "Anusworld" that had to go, the change in the meaning of After, according to the Lexikon, triggered a regular verbal genocide -- 110 German words were ruthlessly exterminated in the early 19th century because of their "deadly closeness" in pronunciation to a certain piece of excretory equipment.


How Can Europeans Contribute to U.S. Causes?

If you don't fancy George W. Bush's policies, but you live in Europe, can you somehow donate to groups who oppose him?

Over at the American website Daily Kos, there's a short discussion about How can a European contribute money to US liberal causes?. Summary: You can't give to politicians, but you can give to independent non-profit organizations. While doing so, you might consider sending some Euros to the Texas Defender Organization, whom I used to work for, who are fighting the death penalty in Texas. They even accept paypal!


German Joys Goes to Poland

Hello everybody. Sorry about the light posting lately. First it was a rush of last-minute tasks as the semester ended, then, this weekend, I spilled coffee on my Toshiba Satellite laptop keyboard. The spill forced me to become much more intimate with my laptop, which is a healthy and natural process nobody should be ashamed of.

I didn't know this before, but it's actually pretty easy to fix laptop keyboards (at least Toshiba ones, that is), unless the spilled liquid goes deep within them. Removing the keyboard is surprisingly easy: you pry up a plastic strip, remove three screws, and then you can lift the keyboard up, exposing the guts of the laptop.

The keyboard is connected to the rest of the laptop by a thin, flat brown foil strip with micro-thin gold connectors at the end. You can just pull these (carefully!) out of their socket, and walk around with the keyboard. I let the coffee drip out over my sink, and then cleaned the whole think with alcohol-based keyboard cleaner

The important thing is that afterwards, you have to let the keyboard dry completely before you reattach it. This means propping it in front of a fan for 48 straight hours, until every molecule of moisture deep within the plastic and foil guts of the keyboard is gone. (If you plug it in too soon, before it's totally dry, your computer will go crazy, thinking that you're somehow pressing the y,5,r,s, and control keys simultaneously, 4000 times a second). It takes a while, but it works, and it's a hell of a lot cheaper than the repair shop.

So now, after providing you with an excuse for the lack of recent posts, here comes another excuse. The German Joys editorial team flies tomorrow to Poland for a mildly-needed vacation. The team will start in Gdansk, then meander down to finally end up in Krakow, before flying from Krakow back to German Joys Plaza on the 29th. I hope a few posts will show up, since Typepad, in the course of recent service improvements, has actually fixed their email-posting option, which is a big plus.

But before I go, I will deliver you a very special Word of the Week, and perhaps one or two other things. Thanks for your patience.


Farewell, Zizou

Even for a relative football newbie, watching Zinedine Zidane was one of the highlights of this World Cup. Others have described his ball-handling skills far better than I ever could. I was fascinated by his on-field presence. His thin lips, hooded eyes, and guarded expression spoke of intelligence and dedication, and his every movement radiated pure, molten concentration.

A friend recently wrote this email encomium to Zizou to several people, which I'll now share with the world:

Farewell, Zizou.

You made us believe in magic - and no third-rate provocatore will make us forget that.

No matter who got that trophy - you are, and always will be, the winner.

Other people know how to kick the ball. You made it dance.

Farewell, Zizou.

Yes, the head-butt of Materazzi was uncalled-for, but, as a man who has smashed several expensive tennis rackets to flinders, while screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs, in the presence of children, I understand what adrenaline and competition can do. You can relive the genius' unfortunate lapse in judgment here, if you must. [Hat tip for everything -- SK].

Apologies for the light blogging recently. The semester is coming to an end here in Germany, and that always means a blizzard of last-minute details to take care of. But I haven't run out of ideas. In the near future we'll have some very special German words of the week, and some ultra-special German tax jurisprudence. Stay tuned!

UPDATE -- According to the Bild tabloid, always a reliable source, Materazzi called Zidane the "son of a terrorist whore." Zidane's mother Malika: "If he said that, then you should cut his balls off and serve them to me on a plate!" [Bild, 13 July 2006, page 17!]


Hairy Politician Sues Fearless Satirists

The day job is distracting me from the important things in life, but I thought I would write a short entry to express my "unlimited solidarity" with the good people of Titanic magazine in their time of need. They are being sued by humorless politicians, and need our help.

Brief background: a few weeks ago, middle Europe was obsessed by a bear called Bruno. Bruno was the first bear spotted on German soil for almost 150 years (or something like that). Trouble is, Bruno was a "problem bear," as the forestry officials put it. He ran around smashing things, eating lambs, and scaring people. Long story short -- after many attempts to catch Bruno peacefully, Bavaria allowed a team of hunters to shoot Bruno down.

The next day, tabloids featured a hand-drawn reconstruction of poor Bruno's last moments. The beast grimaced in agony, as a dinner-plate-sized blood-spatter rosette spurted from his shoulder. Maria, the Croatian woman who sells me my morning whisky mineral water, confessed that she had cried upon hearing of the "massacre" of poor old Bruno.

Ruthlessly_murdered_bearAdorable_social_democrat_mascot The lads over at Titanic noticed resemblances between the leader of the German Social Democratic party, Kurt Beck, and Bruno. Both are big, both are hairy, and both scare campers, kill small mammals, and propose complex healthcare  reforms. They put a smiling Kurt on the front cover of their latest issue, and with the subtitle: "Problem Bear Out of Control!"  In large letters underneath, the satirical request: "Shoot the Beast Down!"

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