Thursday, December 10, 2009
It should be no surprise to anyone that there are a great many differences between the US and Germany.
Americans are gregarious, enjoy large servings of food and drink, and seem to live out of our cars.
Germans rely more on public transportation, are sparing in their food consumption, relocate less, and are more likely to rent than to own their home.
We have baseball, they have team handball. Sure, go ahead and try to explain the rules of one sport to a citizen of the other country. I dare you.
And then we have NASCAR, and they have Formula One. Try to explain either to a nuclear physicist.
One thing each country shares is a deep appreciation for hair coloring.
We dye and tease and color with the goal of masking age, highlighting skin tone, and providing an enhanced sense of self and at times even character.
In Germany, the widespread use of radiant dyes and colorings seems intended more to provide for individuality, shock value, and as a way to further define one’s place and position. Either that, or there’s a Dada movement going on atop women’s heads.
Let’s illustrate. In the US, it is very difficult to find a woman over age 35 who does not dye her hair. It may be difficult to find a woman in this category who will acknowledge coloring, who will acknowledge the nod to vanity, and the desire to maintain a degree of her youth through her enhanced locks. But it’s a public secret. Everyone does it. Whether it’s professionally done at a salon each month, or in the private of a bath every so often, it happens. And in many estrogen circles, it’s discussed.
“Oh, I love what you’ve done with your hair.”
“Have you gone lighter?”
“Is that a new color?”
And even American men are comfortable with coloring. For years there have been ads promoting virility through dark hair. Retired sports stars Walt Frazier and Keith Hernandez shill products, explaining that without dye, there’s ‘no play for Mr. Gray.” Can’t say I would know. Lucky genes, I guess.
But it is a whole different approach, and appearance, in Germany.
There’s absolutely no hiding one’s color. Sure, fewer mature women allow for a natural gray, but the bold streaks and bright blotches that seem to top the heads of German women of all ages come out of nowhere, It’s as though they were zapped in the morning with a smattering of red that rained down from the sky. Occasionally it’s purple, though that seems to be the preference of older teens, with long, dark hair, who want to make a statement by being different from their unnaturally read headed colleagues.
Just today a saw a woman at the market in the University town of Heidelberg who matched her purple hair with identically colored purple stockings. It worked, and was striking, but can you imagine women in America going this route?
And then there are those free radicals who go for a multi-colored hue. Perhaps a few strands of yellow to accentuate the purple tuft over one eye. Some different shades of red, a range of that aspect of the color spectrum, to note a unique style. Or a mahogany to contrast with jet black, either natural or artificial, for the goth look that you would have thought had left Germany centuries ago, when there were in fact Goths.
But it’s really the age thing that is fascinating. Typically, youth and seniors do not share many trends, habits, or customs. Find a teen who listens to the Stones, or anyone carrying an AARP card into Lady Gaga, and you know you have tripped over something special.
But with color and appearance, you could literally take the head of a student at the University of Leipzig and a train conductor in Bremen and swap them for another, and neither look would be different. Could we say that for a HS student in Atlanta and a soccer mom in Kansas City? I think not.
There must be reasons for the passion for bold colors, the sustained use of these colors by women of all ages, and the ability of many of these women to leave their homes without there being any consistency to the quality and evenness of the coloring.
That point, and how the coloring appears to be haphazard, and done too quickly with the intent to just brush over the previous color scheme that lies just beneath, is what really provides some shock value to those of us accustomed to seeing streaky hair only when blond is painted in. It’s literally as though they left the job undone, and decided nonetheless that it works for them. Hmm.
So while I am not sure today’s soundtrack is from Dylan’s ‘Blond on Blond,” it’s a bit closer to Springsteen’s bawdy ‘Red Headed Woman.”
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
“On the roof it’s peaceful as can be.” Carole King, Up on the Roof
It’s another cold and damp morning in Berlin. Seems to be the pattern. I suppose it’s Seattle with a disturbingly dark and still rich history. But without the coffee.
At the Hauptbanhoff, or central train station, there are myriads of options for the traveler. Fast food, fast clothes, papers, trinkets, souvenirs. A lot of junk, and a number of kiosk with information and assistance. It’s a busy place, with tourists leafing through, looking around at the modern glass structure. Inter-city travelers move briskly to get to their appropriate track.
But down on track 8, waiting for the ICE to Hamburg, there’s a dead quiet. Amidst this bustling city, above which move millions, a river, several large trains, and the weight of the past century, it is calm. Perhaps it is because I arrive early, for once. Germans are efficient, as we have been told. And the trains really do run on time here. Which means that if you have a 10:17 train, it will arrive by 10:13, and leave promptly at 10:17, regardless. So people know how to budget accordingly, and while they don’t tarry, they also don’t cue up early for these long distance expresses, at least not in the late morning.
So I seem to have the entire station, or at least a couple of tracks, alone. There is a futuristic feel to all of this. A Will Smith last man standing, minus the detritus and the dog. But it’s the sound that keeps returning. The absence of sound. The deadening of sound. The quiet that usually only comes with expensive Danish headphones, or post-concert ear ringing.
The occasional interruptions from the deliberate voice of the station master, announcing arrivals, making the rare announcement of an upcoming 45 minute delay on the Hannover train, only emphasize how otherwise quiet this significant station can be.
It is unclear to me how glass, steel and concrete can soften sounds, and create a studio like feel, but that’s what you have in the Berlin train station, below grade. It’s literally cool, as ambient air passes through, and the movement from bodies provides a sense that life does continue. But it’s eerie, it’s almost surreal, and it has the feel of a post-apocalyptic vision, one none of us want to experience up close.
And it’s nice, even though it is wholly unfamiliar territory. The question is, can I get used to it?
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
It’s multiples day.
One time only.
Though we’ll see, for sure.
Leipzig is a dreary city on a good day. At 40 degrees with a cold rain, it’s downright challenging. But the multitude of Christmas markets inspire the public, provide sustenance, and add color to the monochromatic gray of this otherwise historic and still intriguing city.
And yet students await. They sit patiently in a small conference room, anticipating a 2 and ½ hour discussion on the American media and coverage of President Barack Obama. I am interested in the subject, but I can’t imagine anyone sitting through 150 minutes in another language on any topic. Well, perhaps Robin Williams in gibberish, but me on media and political coverage. Hardly.
But they waited, and participated, and questioned, and challenged, and inquired again. Students in Germany are not the students we think of when we think of college students. Though the Germany post-secondary system has recently undergone significant reforms, and is seeking to more closely mirror the UK and US schedule for courses and graduation after 8 semesters, there are still students toiling under the old system. That system allows students to continue with their studies for as long as they choose, as students qualify for significant benefits and subsidies by way of transportation, education, and rent. And in turn the typical German student does not complete her studies until she is around 25, much older than in the States.
So the students awaiting the good lecture were experienced radio journalists, many of whom had visited the US before, and were somewhat familiar with American media, and in their early 20’s, still working on finishing up their undergraduate schooling. They were more mature than typical undergrads, and more engaged in the subject matter and the material presented.
This led to a series of wonderful exchanges, curious inquiries, and somewhat confusing responses when the answers did not all meet with the expected retort to a question. Suffice it to say that the German students professed a love for the American NPR, a disinterest in commercial new radio operations, and a commitment to obtaining an internship in the United States.
We will see if they get there.
There will be the first in a series of four daily long train rides starting tomorrow. At that time I will begin to coalesce thoughts on the range of hair colors, dye jobs, and unusual visual presentations of head and hair that appears commonplace in Berlin and across Germany. It’s bold, but it loses potency with continued viewings and appearances. And I will try to explain in a way that is both fair and balanced, while recognizing style and criticizing shock for the sake of appearances.
It’s the 29th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. RAI Italian television has a retrospective. Even without translation, the story is universal. And the loss remains great.
Music still courses through the mind. Songs heard some time back, but not currently, seem to fill the void left by the quiet. Some Beatles, mostly melodic sounds from Roxy Music, Talking Heads, material from U2, Lou Reed, and even David Bowie have made it past the subconscious gates. The latter three primarily due to their Berlin based recordings from the 70’s, 80’s, and with U2, 1990. It’s a decent soundtrack, but needs an update with another screening of the Wenders classic ‘Wings of Desire.’
The muzak system in the hotel plays a rarely heard song back home, but a personal favorite with deep meaning. Springsteen’s ‘Secret Garden’ is a fave, but not for any anthemic like quality, but for it’s humanity, emotion, and depth. The Boss can bring it to the heart when he wants to. Great to butt this song up with ‘Red Headed Woman’ as part of a Springsteen ouvre. Each has it’s strengths.
Actually on the street, the sounds are more of silence and calm than what we expect from a major metro, one with almost 4 million people. It might be the languages. The harmony of alien tongues, allowing a non-speaker to move quickly past a conversation not understood. We seem to linger on conversations and dialogues we can follow. But when the language is foreign, it’s simpler to literally glide past, and avoid the awkwardness of not being able to communicate, or having to explain, and having to translate.
Italian, Vietnamese, plenty of German, some Russian, some Spanish, and I am sure some other languages as well that are too distant to even be understood. They all fall off the ears like rain on slate roof, while still providing a background, and a soundtrack, to the sounds of the city.
There are very few emergency vehicles racing about. Very few polizei, sirens blazing, hot to collar a suspect, or accost a disorderly person. In fact, very few visible police at all. Among the many contrasts with the United States, this has to be up there. Not a quarter hour goes by in a major US metro without hearing a siren’s wail, and seeing a cruiser race past. Over 48 hours in Berlin, there has been just one situation, and it seemed completely out of the ordinary to all the pedestrians compelled to stay out of the street for those moments when it passed by.
Behavior on the street similarly is distinct from that in the States. People just do not jaywalk here. Perhaps there’s good reason. It seems as though pedestrians are fair game in Berlin. While there are sidewalks, and crosswalks, and signs directly peds to walk or to not walk, there’s an inverted attitude towards peds from ours. This is a significant contradiction, as there is great German pride in being green, in being environmental, and in avoiding large cars, and significant driving. Yet if you take to the streets by foot, it’s you and your body weight against Hans’ Audi, Katerin’s Smart, or even Frederic’s Porsche. You can’t even categoriz the drivers by cars. You are just as likely to get run over by a grandmother in a Subaru Outback as a teen in a tuner, using American cars as the standard.
And bicycling is little different. I have a significant fondness for the two wheeled steel propulsion machine. Have logged thousands on a handful of rides. Even commute from time to time on one. But the way commuters used the dedicated lanes in Berlin you would think they were hustling to be on the autobahn. Forbid you err and cross into a bike lane, a folly easy enough done by shifting a few inches left or right while on any given street. The domino effect this could create is too great to fathom, let along document. The damage to your face, extremities and torso may well be significant. And you’ll be out of sync, and out of sorts, for days to come. So watch out for the mom coming up on your left, from behind, quietly pumping away, racing to get to her cubicle just off Friedrichstrasse, and to start her day.
Then there’s what’s hip, what’s cool, and what just passes. I can’t even begin to get started, but at least the old adage about sneakers being out in Europe is as outdated as that attitude. Which is a good thing for a recovering sneakerhead. And beer drinking, as to be expected, is a participatory sport in Berlin. It is widely practiced, starting with teenagers on trains, and including daytime workers in art galleries and studios, and tourists seeking a respite from a hard day’s viewing of art and other anomalies.
En route now to Leipzig, the ICE or inter-city train is super fast, and super quiet, both inside and out. Germans seem quiet, as though raising a voice will bring unwarranted attention. Don’t they know that’s the reason to talk aloud, to act out, to solicit perspective. Perhaps they do, and that’s why they don’t.
More tomorrow, I promise. Probably on hair dye, the German compulsion.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Sunday, December 6, 2009
The words still have an allure. Overseas travel. Heading to Europe. Going to the continent.
And the reality can meet that attraction. It can. Once you’re at a restaurant in Roma, or walking along the left bank in Paris, or crossing through the Brandenburger Tor while in Berlin.
But getting there, well, that’s another story.
Airports have become large transit stations for us, the commuter rail centers for the 21st century. There are people rushing to make the last plane out, whether it’s Geneva, Frankfurt, or Brussels, it’s not all that much different from the 7:48 to North White Plains. Hustle, wait, clutch your gear, shuffle ahead a few steps, wait, oh, this line please, wait a bit more, strip down a bit more than you had planned before this many people, take a little radiation, recollect your stuff, and then resume all hustling and waiting, minus the clothes stripping.
Red carpets draped over heavy traffic carpeting don’t really convey respect for the elite flyer, nor distinguish a slot for those of us not airborne enough to merit star treatment. Overlapping and conflicting boarding messages from gate agents can either go unheeded, or more often, lead to confusion, herd activity, and a press at the aforementioned red carpeted gate. Flights booked with several hundred eager passengers are required to pass through one narrow corridor, steered into a line that may or may not move, may or may not test your patience, may or may not bump against you, and may or may not actually cause some pain and suffering.
The flight. Well, we’ve all flown. What else can be said. Though overseas travelers are still provided an unfortunate meal, and a bevy of beverages. That’s far better than what you get from the mainland to Hawai’i, a distance greater than that between Washington and Frankfurt, Germany.
It’s upon arrival that you realize you are somewhere else.
The faces have a different look. The eyes a different gaze. The clothes a different drape, and a different cut. The eyewear more intent on showcasing the designer brand. The hairstyles are distinct, and the colors are bolder, and often redder, than they should be. A quick glance while moving between gates reveals 20-something Italian men aiming for style and hipness, in that Eurotrashy way. A Mediterranean couple near, engaged in what appears to be an intense conversation. The man tired, and seemingly withdrawn. The woman, well, it’s hard to say how her face expressed itself, as she was wearing a black chador, with just a narrow slit for her eyes. Still, hand movement speak universally to meaning. Americans move aimlessly through the terminal, seemingly oblivious to signs and direction. The only Americans to whom this doesn’t seem to apply are the burly white males with short hair, mostly headed to a connection en route to Kuwait.
And don't even think about accomodations for special needs. For ramps, rails, or walkways. Got a 40 pound bag. Good, hump it up 30 steps to get to customs. Want to get on the train. Good, drag it back down 20 dirty steps to get to the Bahn. Lovely. Very old world, and delightful, of course.
There’s such an efficiency to all movement, that even while exiting passport control, it’s quite easy to find yourself outside the airport, and having to return through a separate area to be screened and admitted back to your connection.
Not sure if TSA could learn from Germany security, or the other way around, but each has it’s own eccentric behavior. While TSA barks reminders about what can be taken through screening, and how to pack the cart, German security is solemn, leaving you to guess what goes through the detector. Laptop. Yeah, that needs to be screened. Shoes, not here. Liquids? Same standard here. Belts? Well, you better take yours off prior to entering the magnetometer, as they will assuredly do a secondary search if you fail to pass this pop quiz of a test.
And then you’re back in, ready to grab a free newspaper (oh, that’s how they survive in Europe!), trip over information and food kiosks, and glare at overpriced yet duty free items that people no longer seem to use in this day and age.
Ah, overseas travel. It’s sleek and sexy, but in a cramped, crowded, and all too familiar way.