Sep 26, 2016

German stereotypes

After several years of living in Germany, I have finally found the perfect stereotype for Germans.

From the outside: Vulcan

Relating to outsiders, you, me, the rest of the world, Germans from different villages, the stereotypical German is by-the-book, supremely logical no matter how strange the outcome is. If you can show a logical chain of reasoning, you can convince them of nearly anything. Coming from a shockingly violent past, they are rooted to an ideal of universal peace and keeping their emotions deeply in check. Attire must be clean, subdued, sensible. They know most humans do not understand them, but they are patient and paternalistic with the knowledge that with the aid of science, and a calm and quiet optimism, humankind can be guided to a better future.

To each other: Hobbit

Among friends and neighbors, and when they look in the mirror, Germans are complete Hobbits for the best and worst. When you are one of the Kumpels (drinking buddies), life is revealed to be a simple thing: build a cute and comfortable little house in the village and keep it tidy, don't take big risks, enjoy the sunshine and the forests, and never shy away from festivals where you can dress nice with lots of drinking, feasting, singing, and dancing. Don't trust outsiders, but make sure they're treated fairly and politely. Predictability and Tradition, taking time daily for coffee and cake, no work on Friday, no disturbing noises on Sunday. Politics is local- don't go off on any crazy adventures, but if you happen to go, pack appropriate weather gear.

Sep 7, 2016

thirty two

Friday morning I had a thoroughly normal day at the office. A one-day week, and then it was the weekend. Why just come into work on a friday? Everyone left Rome Thursday morning, and every day I can save on vacation time is another day I can use.

Friday night, Saori invited her yoga instructors over for drinks and to hang out on the roof. O, an American-Turkish woman with a German upbringing founded the yoga studio in Stuttgart after getting burning out working in the financial sector in New York. P is O’s squeeze, a meek Italian guy from Milan who tolerates being the butt of jokes he recieves from the other instructors. E, a dude my age from Connecticut is a permenant teacher (co-owner?). A is the newest instructor, a rail-thin eastern European woman who started learning yoga the same time as Saori. For people who do professional yoga, they do seem to take the six flights of stairs a lot harder than we do- maybe we’re just used to them.

Saori mixed up a mean cocktail for them- a spicy grapefruit margarita. A mixture of lime juice, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, a surprisingly lot of tequila, agave syrup, and fresh sliced jalapeno rounds. It’s a slow drink with a double burn: stronger than you think, and the longer the jalapeno infuses into the tequila-citrus mixture, the spicier the margarita. They brought guacamole and tortilla chips and we basically just hung out on the roof, snacked, talked, and listened to bad rap music (according to Kanye, the only word that rhymes with “asshole” is “asshole”) until it was very late.

Saturday we slept in and had a late breakfast. We did a bit of housecleaning and went for a stroll around Stadtmitte before meeting up with Saori’s coworker Daphne and her husband Georg downtown. Daphne is Taiwanese, and hasn’t worked at Behnisch that long, but she and Saori quickly became friends. We actually had them over first a few weeks ago, and they were happy to have some company out in Zuffenhausen.

Georg grilled up a fish and Daphne made some good fried pork rice and it was all pretty tasty. After dinner, we borrowed a headlamp and followed them into some pitch black woods to look for local deer and other critters of the night. We spotted some small deer, but they bounded into the brush before we could really get a good look. At any rate, it was nice to get out in the woods at night. The most dangerous thing out there is that you could slip on a waylaid beer bottle.

They walked us back to the metro station and we took a train full of drunks home, also late.

Sunday morning, Saori made me quark and blueberry pancakes. Quark is a German dairy product somewhere between sour cream and buttermilk. It’s about as thick as sour cream, although much more mild in flavor. It gave us really thick pancakes.

Then Saori immediately got busy again with my birthday cake. Last year she went on a sugar scavanger hunt through Stuttgart, hunting down exotica like treacle and dates to make me some STP. This year, I felt like something a little lighter, so I requested a matcha roll cake with white chocolate cream filling. The ingrediants were actually all on hand, so she got to work and despite some setbacks (like the roll cake turning accidently into a layer cake) she and I ended up laughing quite a lot. She brought it out to me with three tiny sheep on a green field, with a lit cactus candle on top. It was great but really really rich since we managed to basically whip the white chocolate cream into butter.

I lounged around the house most of the afternoon since the weather was rainy, and given the weather, I decided we should go see a movie. StarTrek was still out, so we trekked ourselves out to the original language cinema close to the American army base. Even though the screen was smaller than most movie theaters, it still beat a laptop screen.

After the movie, we took a metro over to Bonnie & Clyde, ostensibly a typical corner bar of the type seen all over Germany, but actually well known for and specializing in their hamburgers and fish and chips. Too many German burger joints are all about the accessories. Actually, there are some very fancy burger restaurants around, but if your cheddar, egg, avocado slices, and grilled onions are resting on a quarter-inch of hackfleish than you are kind of missing the meat. This burger we ordered was good, a solid and delicious burger with eat-them-all fries, and washed down with a beer.

I’m 32 years old. I’m married, living in Stuttgart, Germany. I had a 20 minute phone conversation with a structural engineer in German last week, and this week, both of my bosses approached me separately that I need to improve my German. This is an order. Something also needs to change here since we have some choices to make.

I bought a box of Dunkin’ Donuts for the office which was greatly appreciated and a welcome surprise. In a land of corner bakeries, DD still delivers a sweet surprise (considering there’s only one or two in Stuttgart).

Sep 3, 2016

Eating on the Piazza

Waking up was hard. I was tired and sore from the crappy bed. But I hauled myself up, repacked, checked out, and got a coffee and a sweet croissant at the cafe outside before slowly working my way over to the less seedy side of Termini to meet mom, Tay, and Larry.

The hotel Ivanhoe (I’m 70% confident Sir Walter Scott resided in Rome, possibly even writing the book there) is in a surprising pleasant neighborhood, a kind of trendy place based on the number of filament bulb lit boutiques and vegan gelato offerings. I was at the hotel first, and met their transfer when it pulled up. Everyone looked excited but exhausted from the long flights.

We checked in and reconvened downstairs. We started on a walking tour towards the Pantheon, which is actually quite a long way from the hotel, and when we got there, it was still closed for church services. So we wandered over to Piazza Navona where the group decided they needed some rest and coffee. We knew it was going to be all tourist traps ON the plaza but we pulled the trigger anyway. It was a typical application of “eat when you are tired” rule, but I may have to add the Piazza Exclusion (Don’t eat on the plaza) on top of the Gothic Caveat (Don’t eat at the first place you see). We got four coffees, two croissants, and a small pizza. Based on our bill, I can only assume that the coffee was sourced from passed beans of extinct mammals, the croissants were sculpted by Bernini, and pizza was baked by his Holiness.

After our snack, we wandered back through the various alleyways, as I tried to find a restaurant/store/point of interest I’d marked on my Google Map of Rome. Unsuccessful we headed back to the Pantheon, which was surprisingly open, and surprisingly, we were able to shuffle our way inside. It was crowded but not insanely so. I guess most people come to the Pantheon, gawk at the occulus, check off that box, and move on to the next thing.

Our next thing was the Trevi fountain, where mom dug out some coins and we fought our way past the selfie-stick armed hordes to toss in a coin over our shoulders. We were the only coin tossers at that particular moment, although based on the coins lining the bottom, the custom has not totally died out.

We called it an afternoon and headed back to the hotel. I wanted to pick up a few more things at Muji so I invited Tay out with me and we took the metro to the shopping streets around the Spanish Steps (closed for August) and I hit Muji again and we poked our heads into a few other stores before heading back to the hotel.

Dinner was nearby at an ok place, although the wine was pretty good. Tay had a gelato place picked out for dessert, close to Trevi fountain, but the only catch was we had to walk about 200 meters through a traffic tunnel under the Quirnal Palace to get back to the picturesque city. The number of gelato stands in Rome is its own hyperbole, but surely one of the best has to be Gelato Valentino. I ordered two scoops of dark chocolate and pineapple, and the pineapple, which I expected to be a just quiet and refreshing foil to the chocolate turned out to be fresh and zingy. The chocolate, which was tar black and about as thick and rich was like eating cold, creamy fondant- in the end, much too rich.

Mom bought a paper woven hat from a street vendor who was happy to negotiate with her. Actually, he got so excited his partner got in on it too and Tay and I played backup, disparaging the quality and suggesting repeatedly that the price was too high and we should just walk. Mom negotiated them down from $15 or something wildly audacious to $6 which was merely overpriced. We walked back over the hill, passing a surprising number of restaurants offering gluten free pasta dishes before we arrived back at the hotel.

Rome is really a lovely city to stroll in the summer evenings, ideally between the verge of sunset and 9pm. A city of little lights and intricate surfaces. A few mosquitoes nibbled on my exposed ankles, but really that was all.

Back at the hotel, we got four cold cans of peroni and took them up to the roof terrace where we sat chatting and drinking a bit. I was quite surprised that my jet lagged family was able to stay upright past 9pm, let alone nurse a beer on the first day across the Atlantic.

Sep 1, 2016

The Eternal Return City

August is the best time to visit Rome. While the city is sweltering hot and muggy, perhaps there are more tourists in the city than residents, it may be true that half of the businesses close up shop and go on vacation, but August is when my mom and her husband and my brother came to Rome, which makes it really superior to any other time to visit.

They flew in bright and early sunday morning, so to meet them when they arrived, I had to take a flight the day before they arrived, which is not so bad since Rome is a fantastic city. What is not so fantastic is that it meant I had to find accommodation for a night. Like a cheap ass, I booked a hostel at the Yellow, which is one of the more prominent backpacker hostels in Rome.

Saturday morning I made breakfast with Saori and then jumped on the metro to the airport. With my boarding card on my phone, and nothing but hand luggage, I breeze straight through security to my gate, without even an ID check along the way. The flight is Germanwings, basically Ryanair but with less active hate towards passengers. It’s delayed half an hour getting out. I feel bad since it looks like I am the only one who doesn’t get a cheese sandwich, but then I remember that I’m saving $20 on the fare for this. The flight is a little over an hour, direct to Rome. It’s as sunny and warm as I had hoped.

This is technically my fourth trip to Rome, although the first time to fly in. My first trip was a few hours as an excursion from a Mediterranean cruise and I was sick the entire time. So it really doesn't count that much. And I was only eleven or twelve at the time. Second trip was a week with Chase about 11 years ago, and then I was here again about five years ago as my own side trip from an architecture studio trip for grad school with Saori. Only in Rome for two nights that time.

Mom booked a transfer to meet her at the airport but I decided to try the typical bus. It’s slightly complicated. You need to go to a ticket counter first outside of the terminal to buy the ticket, but then they tell you where to find the bus. It’s a quick-moving line and I find the bus easily. My seatmate is Chinese: he plays a game on his phone the entire 45 minute drive into Rome. The comic-sans sign at the front of the bus tells me I’m not allowed to eat anything on the bus, and gives me the password to a wifi connection that does not connect to the actual Internet.

I enjoy the ride in actually. We pass EUR, notable for its chunky cube Colosseum erected under Mussolini, and then we drive through the city, passing aqueducts, the circus maximus, the white Egyptian pyramid, and even the Colosseum as a kind of preview tour before dumping us all out at Termini. 

I cross through this massive train/metro/bus terminal and find my hostel. I’m pleasantly surprised. They have expanded across the street and recently renovated an old building to create a modern, warm, and fresh feeling reception and communal spaces, a far cry from the dinginess I remember five years ago. I check in and cross the street back to the other side to my dorm, where I rediscover the exact same dinginess. 

Leaving my bag behind, I head out into Rome. I stop and buy a big wedge of fresh watermelon from a street vendor and it’s fantastic. With sticky hands I purchase a 72 hour metro ticket and take the metro out towards the Holy See, where there is a Italian store I wanted to check out. It’s in a market and the market is closed. It’s a pattern which would repeat itself over and over again. I decide to walk over to my other shopping destinations- I heading back to the ancient city, I cross the Tiber and after a long walk find myself in the Piazza di Popolo. There I find another closed store. But the cobblestone streets radiating out of it are filled with shops ranging from Italian fashion powerhouses to more commercial stationary stores. It’s a nice area and I wander through almost to the Spanish Steps. There, I finally find one of my stores open: a specialty cookware store. I look but nothing jumps out at me. Around the corner, I buy a cellophane box of freshly made pasta alla’amatricia from a take-away pasta place. Failing to look both casual and local, I wolf it down mostly standing as I lean on a barrier around a nearby church. The pasta noodles are great, the sauce is so-so. I continue on my shopping quest to my favorite Italian store: Muji where I pick up a few things. I swing back by the hostel to drop off my purchases. Despite the fact that it’s around 7pm, there is already someone sleeping in the room. He smells terrible.

I head back to the metro station make my way towards the Pigneto, a bit farther from the tourist zones but a fairly local neighborhood rising in popularity as it’s relaxed working class charm gets it’s bars and restaurants a spot on various “X Hours in Rome” travel sections. It’s a lot of walking since I don’t realize until too late that the B line and the C line of Rome’s metro system are “connected” by a 30 minute walk on the surface streets between stations. Part of the way, I walk through a long park which runs along a crumbling city wall or aqueduct. People are out in the late golden light, walking dogs, playing with their children, jogging. There are dozens of jet black cats lounging in the base of the ruined wall. In Pigneto, I cross a small pedestrian zone filled with cheap Aperatifo bars and get to Birra Piu, a craft beer bar and store. Of the nine taps, only one pulls American. I try two beers, and stand outside, watching the night fall and young people meeting up for the Saturday night.

I find the tram, old and rickety, and ride back from the stop under the freeway underpass back to Termini and from there a walk back to the hostel, which is absolutely hopping. The hostel has a big bar which spills into the street, and it is filled to capacity, as is the communal spaces inside. I can understand it now, but when I was backpacker, it seemed such a waste to travel so far to spend your time drinking with other backpackers.

Anyway, had a pretty bad night at the hostel with the constant interruptions and noise in the room the entire night, but from the sound of things, I probably had better nights than most of the rest of the room.

Aug 19, 2016

Barcelona Sunday

Sunday morning we were up early enough to breakfast downstairs at the bakery before going back up to finish packing and checking out. We left our bags at reception and dived back into town. We struck out in a different direction this time, to Montjuïc, the vaguely soviet quarter filled with massive empty plazas, oversized monuments, exhibition halls and crowned with elaborate stairs and fountains leading up to the national palace / art museum. First stop was the Barcelona pavilion, which is an architectural icon by Mies Van der Rohe. It was the perfect time to go. So few people we thought it was closed, and the low morning sunlight was ideal for casting deep shadows on the compositional masterwork. And also empty enough to take goofy photos of me “levitating” and Saori doing yoga in front of the reflecting pool.

We climbed the stairs to the palace and sat on the top, drinking some kiosk coffees and enjoying the view. We made a quick detour by CaxiaForum, a renovated industrial complex, all in brick, before pressing on to the Sagrada Familia.

I was given the opportunity to see this building under construction about once every decade. I saw it first with mom and dad as part of a cruise when we were still living in Beijing in 1999 or so, then again with Chase as a backpacker in 2005. This is the first time I’ve seen it enclosed with a roof. I’d booked tickets online in advance so our line to get in was only about ten minutes or so. It was of course, pretty packed.

But what a building! A baroque fantasy. By turns severe and harsh, then whimsical and exuberantly floral. The stained glass filling the nave with red and orange light, the amazing beehive like spiral towers. The two main facades on either side are astounding. One depicts the nativity, the other, the passion. They are less facades and more sculptural and symbolic ensembles which hypnotize, haunt, and fascinate. One thing which struck us odd was the central crucifix above the alter. Jesus was doubly suspended- once to the cross, and the cross suspended in mid-air, ringed by floating lights like candles, and a giant round canopy in red and white stripes overhead. ...which makes it look like He just came parasailing in from the nearby beach.

We did a quick spin through the gift shop (there’s actually two, and that’s just INSIDE the cathedral), returned our audio guides and hit the trail back to Barceloneta for lunch. Walking through the crowded Sagrada Familia subway station, I felt a jostle against my backpack, and acutely aware of the pickpocket problems of Barcelona (wasn’t this where dad also had his run in with a pickpocket?) I whirled around to see a bunch of people, any of whom could have been the picker. They didn’t get anything. Just time enough to unzip my outer backpack pocket. I carried my backpack backwards at Saori’s suggestion after that.

We went to this great little tapas bar in Barceloneta for lunch. Jai-ca, the same place we were for lunch less than 24 hours prior. The food was that good. This time we branched into some grilled prawns and tried the chorizo along with the fried seafood. Good, good stuff. We took the rest of the afternoon to slowly make our way back to the hotel, pick up our bags, and mosey on out to the airport. We could have taken our time to see one more thing, actually. Our flight was two hours delayed. Direct, but we didn’t get back to Stuttgart until nearly 1 am, which was unfortunate.

Overall, it was a great trip. I didn’t need to take any time off work, it was expensive but not blisteringly expensive, and it was Saori’s first time in Barcelona, someplace she had really wanted to go for a long time. We ate some great food, walked a lot, and enjoyed the light feel of a summer vacation. A weekend is nice- mentally, you give up on a bucket list of must-see, after all what can you do in a weekend? But the trip still ends up feeling like a weekend stretched into a week.

And what a contrast between Barcelona and Stuttgart! These are two cities which share a time zone and are only a 90 minute flight away, but are separated by a worldview. Pleasure, for Germans, is the fulfillment of a thorough and detailed plan, the sight of a shelf of black binders with everything inside hole punched and organized, drinking the familiar beer at the familiar biergarten, and very occasionally eating something or going someplace ‘exotic’ for the thrill of the unfamiliar, like wearing a costume, rather than the possibility that the unfamiliar might change something in them. Rather like Hobbits living in the Shire.

It should also, perhaps, be mentioned that Germans and the culture here power the biggest economic engine in Europe, unemployment levels, social benefits, and vacation time are the envy of most of the world, while Spain continues to languish, and many Spaniard professionals who can speak other forms of Spanish (like Mexican) or other languages have left to seek their fortunes abroad. I digress.

Barcelona. Would definately go again. Next time, maybe a crappy hotel by the beach, a day on the sand, and maybe exploring the edges of the city a bit more.

Aug 18, 2016

Barcelona Saturday

We were going to make an early start of it Saturday, but as wiped as we were, we just missed the end of breakfast at 10:30 when we headed out. First stop was a few doors down: Gaudi’s El Pedegral (€20 adults) a.k.a. Casa Milá. It was a good time to go, we didn’t have to wait much at all for the elevator or tickets. There were lots of visitors already but it was still possible to take photos without people in them.

How can I describe what an intriguing delight Gaudi’s works are? Is it enough to point out that the biggest attractions in Barcelona are the works of an architect who was working less than a hundred years ago? We spent a long time roaming the undulating roof and admiring the sculpted openings for chimneys, drains, ventilation etc. It was a beautiful sunny day and the strong sunshine was perfect for shading the sculptural forms. The hundreds of thin brick arches supporting it in the attic made me think about today, it could be not be even marginally economic to build in this way with the current European standards of workers wages.  Especially for an apartment building.

We took the subway to Mercat de Santa Caterina on the outskirts of the gothic quarter. This is a public market hall by spanish architects EMBT who architecture superstars in the mid-noughties. In the vein of Gaudi, they also constructed a mossaic-covered organically undulating roof over the big market hall, but structured it rather conventionally. We marveled at the crowded meat counter selling specialty spanish suasages and cured hams and moved on.

Next stop was a return to Gaudi, the Parc Güell, which, if you come by subway, requires a lot of walking to get to. In the eleven intervening years since I was there, Barcelona has become even more like Disneyland: a timed entry ticket city. Even, as I was shocked to learn, Parc Güell, which closed off access to the area around the famous lizard steps and massive terrace. The fee is nominal- a US movie ticket price. But when we got there a little after one, they were effectively sold out for the day and most of Sunday.

We decided to check out what we could see in the garden and it turned out to be quite a lot actually. Old, giant agave in craggy, Seussian planters, nice views of the city below the hills, the blue of the mediterranian, and the giant W hotel tower on the coast (which one American tourist hilariously misidentified as a “Westin”).

It was pushing three so we decided to get a bite to eat for lunch so we took a leisurely stroll down the hill back into the city and then hopped the subway to Barceloneta. This is a very tightly gridded neighborhood sitting on a small peninusla between the harbor and the sea. It’s fantastic. It’s full of 5-6 story apartment buildings which shade the narrow streets from the hot sun while the cool breeze from the ocean blows through. A few small cheap shops, a bunch of tapas bars and restaurants, some liquor stores, a market hall, a church and plaza. In short, a perfect neighborhood for a beach.

The NYT named a tapas bar in one of thier famous “36 Hours in x” peices, and that was our destination, actually not all that far from the subway station and located at the head of one of the quiet narrow streets running the length of Barceloneta. Jai-ca. We snagged a small tiled table. The door glass was so heavily tinted and the place was so austere from the outside, Saori thought it was closed. Fortunately for us, they were not.

The service was not so great. Even for Europe. The crowd at 3pm seemd to be a mix of tourists and locals, more towards the tourist side, but we still found a seat. Seafood tapas and cold Estrella Damm beer were the order of the day. We started with a plate of fried baby squid which came out quite promptly actualy, and was followed by this kind of Catalan bread which was like a light cibatta, lightly toasted and spread with tomato and really really good olive oil. Then came the salad, which was tuna fish on fresh sliced tomatoes with sliced onions, and the fried whitebait, which was revelatory in a zingy vinegar marinade and a crispy fried coating. Finally, steamed mussels. And everything washed down well with the lager beer.

It was supposed to be a snack since we had dinner reservations, but it was all too good. We paid (so, so cheap!) and walked a short distance to the beach, where we kicked off our sandals and strolled up to our shins in the mediterranean. We walked along the beach, all the way to the giant copper fish by Frank Gehry, and then we walked back along the club storefronts lining the beach. We still had some time to kill before dinner, so we crossed Barcelonetta once more and settled into a beer at a craft brewery “Black Lab” not too far on the Gothic Quarter side of the intersection. We had a leisurely beer there, and then sauntered back into Barcelonetta for dinner at Barraca.

Barraca was another pick from the NYT “36 hours on the beach in Barcelona” and it is quite literally across the street from the beach. We were there right on time, precisely when it opened for dinner, and snagged a window seat on the second floor terrace. We were still a little warm from the beers we had been drinking since Jai-Ca, so we stuck with sparkling water. Barraca was also a seafood restaurant, which also catered heavily to tourists, but it really didn’t bother me that once more we were sitting next to a table of Americans and a table of Germans. I’d much rather go to a delicious tourist trap than a mediocre local dive. And the food was so good. We ordered some kind of white fish dish which came with a seafood sauce with white beans and mussels, bonito tartare, and cerviche for dessert. It was great, but we were so stuffed. We decided to stroll a bit to bajar la comida and of course we instantly run into more gelato. So we had to bajar la comida a little more which turned into walking all the way back to the hotel. Naturally, a little exhausted by the time we got back.

Barcelona Friday

Friday I put in a normal morning at the office, surrounded by vineyards and the sleepy village, and left an hour earlier than the normal friday quittin’ time of 3pm. Instead of going home or towards the city, I met Saori at one of the Sbahn stations and we were in our way to the airport. No passport control, no check-in, just breezed through to our flight, 90 minutes direct to Barcelona, and fifteen minutes after wheels down we were sliding into a taxi bathed the mediterranean air and warm late afternoon sun. Yo voy a Casa Milá, por favor.

Stuttgart is a city of dark greens and grays. Barcelona is lit in golds and dusty sepia. The canopy of our hotel, Hotel Praktik Bakery, was also yellow. And it was, in fact, a trendy bakery, with a long line of peope queuing to buy some of the fresh bread and pastries before the weekend. Push past the temping display and windows looking in to the bread prep area, and at the end of the bakery counter is a reception desk, as though you might order a standard room with your matcha muffin.

Location wasn’t bad. Almost next door to Gaudí’s Casa Mila and close to Diagonal metro station. Room was small but comfortable and nicely designed. Nice tile everywhere, giant rain shower, big comfortable bed. We were on the same floor as the internet.

We were of course dying to get out, so we left our valuables in the room and started walking. We strolled past Casa Mila, Casa Batlló, and along the Passig de Gracia, a boulevard of luxury stores and Hôtel Exorbiant. Tourists thronged the town: jammed with  Japanese, groaning with Germans, bursting with British, choked with Chinese, awash with Americans. We crossed the giant Plaza Catalunya and walked down las Ramblas.

Las Ramblas is a massive pedestrian street with two small lanes on either side. The street is like many other “high streets” in Euope:  quick fashion stores like H&M and Zara every block, chinsey souvenier shops, American burger franchises, tabacco shops, pharmacies, and local restaraunts for the tourists marked by giant menu boards on the street reproducing the dishes at life size. There were less street peformers than I remember and more gelato stands. But still, what a street! As always, I am surprised by how much in the end I value the energy of the crowds and the architecture over the content. Ramblas stitiches together two ancient city core neighborhoods, Reval and the gothic quarter, and all along its length, narrow streets open up to reveal tantalizing views of the baroque neighborhood beyond, inviting us to dive in and explore each of them.

We walked past the pilar of Christopher Columbus, and continued to the Mediterranian. We left the throngs of people headed to the big island mall and walked along the port to the corner of the gothic quarter where we dived back in searching for food.

We picked the first place that didnt look too seedy since I have a tendency to be too picky about where we eat. Not normally a bad thing, but one of the rules of happy travel is “eat when people are hungry.” Although I may modify our rule to “pick the second passable place.” It was a basic tourist trap, behind us had some Bostonians and the table in the corner was full of Germans. Tapas were ok, but the chorizo was good and the beer was cold. Not the kind of place we would have ordered paella anyway.

We wandered our way through the gothic quarter at night, working our way by feel out and back towards the hotel. Bought a beer and some water from a convenience store but then realized that you can’t drink in the street. Technically. The immigrants quietly selling cold cans of Estrella Damm in the alley intersections suggest the enforcement is not too rigorous. We crossed the city once more, back to the hotel, where we collapsed in an exhausted heap on the bed.

Jul 30, 2016

Office stories

Eating lunch with one of my co-workers, Magda, she was commiserating over a kindergarten project she had in the office. I asked her, what was the deal with this kindergarten? She told me this story,

Once upon a time there was a Russian Princess who married a German king and came to live with him in Stuttgart. Princess Olga, to curry favor with the locals possibly, granted the land and a school to be built on it so that students could go for free. However generous her gift to the people was, she did not provide for the savagery of time on both monarchy and architecture. The kingdom became a republic and democracy, and the buildings wore down and began to crumble.

The ownership of the property, passing from the princess to the state, desired a new building should be built, reasoning that crumbling structures are poor for most purposes, and truly unwanted for housing small children. However, to finance the construction of a new building required the income of rent from the business of the kindergarten, which was still enjoying it's tenancy rent-free vis-a-vis the Princesses edict. They didn't want to give up the position and suggested that the state simply renovate the building to which the state declined, to which the kindergarten declared it would take a long long time to move out. It is, after all, nearly impossible to evict someone in Germany, and few politicians really want to be the ones who sign the eviction order against a kindergarten.

But up to the deadlock, the client was insisting everything move quickly and we stick to a very demanding drawing schedule, while for Magda it was very clear that the tenants were not going to go quietly. We are still waiting for the resolution.


Barbara was from a well-to-do Mexican family in Monterrey. She studied cooking for several years before abandoning it for architecture, and then after she graduated, her engagement to her fiancée was broken off. Desiring a fresh start and some distance, she turned her sights to Europe. "Don't go to Paris," her friends advised her, "it's so expensive!" "Don't go to Spain!" others cautioned, "there's no jobs!" Someone suggested Tübingen, the university town close to Stuttgart, and there she studied German for a half year before moving to Stuttgart. She found a boyfriend and he came to stay with her on the weekends in their apartment overlooking Stuttgart.

She successfully interviewed at our office, Schafe+Wein, and was granted a three month trial. Sadly, shortly after she started working, her relationship with the boyfriend ended, and feeling no connection to Germany, decided to leave. She whispered this conclusion to Rafa on Wednesday the second week into her new job. Rafa confided this to me and Magda Thursday, and I confronted her about it, and she confirmed and filled out the rest of the story as I have mostly told it here. We thought perhaps she would talk to the bosses or someone and let them know, perhaps on Friday, but she didn't come at all, and never again. I related this to our team leader Apo Friday afternoon, and he was quite vexed, partly  because the way this information had moved through the office (and the fact he would have to be the one to break it to the boss) but he understood her feelings and motivations.

Barbara's year in Europe was at an end. She returned the following Monday to the comforting arms of family and speculates on starting a new business. She is 30 years old.


The planning department of Schafe+Wein consists of four people:

Apo, a skilled Greek architect a few years older than I who dreams of fashion design, clean, beautiful drawings, and high-end Italian lighting who is also our team leader and has been a close friend since I came to Germany and met him at our old firm of Lüft+Licht Architekten. He brought me to the new office.

Rafa is Mexican, and now German, the same age as Apo. He is a man of few words, but with a big heart. He is happy to go with the flow, and has the same pragmatic approach to architecture which makes him very compatible with our boss and is in fact, well on his way to becoming a project manager kind of architect, capable of design, detailed cost estimation, and construction site management. He brought Apo to the new office, and most days, literally brings me to the office in his car (and drops me off after work).

Magda came from Poland, is the oldest, not quite forty, but still insists on calling us "Jungs" (youths). She has a three year old daughter and a Colombian husband. They live in the next village down. She has only been at the office a bit longer than a year. She is a skilled drafter and detailer and has a lot of experience taking projects from start to finish. She still plays CDs in the office over her headphones, mostly abominable American pop and sometimes sings quietly while she's working.

The forth planer is yours truly, without an architect license or a driver's license or even German proficiency. I can drive some software and draw and design but not with the same experience as the others. For some reason, the office management still likes me, but I'm not convinced that it is not due to some kind of totemic "American" enthusiasm that I bring to the office. My German really needs to improve.

Apo resigned on friday. He will have four weeks, and then we will have a lot more work to share among the remaining three planners.


The office is an old winery, built in the late 1700's. It has seen numerous renovations and additions. Among the interior design now, what stands out to me are odd details: a stuffed owl perched above the receptionist. A square pond in the front filled with tadpoles and lotus plants. A toilet which reminds me of a giant porcelain round sitting pouf. A drawer constantly refilled with cheap German candy. An expensive built in coffee machine which can make lattes at the push of a button but must be disassembled and cleaned nightly. A store room for material samples with an art installation of giant metalwork ants. New roof windows which punch through the old red terracotta tile roof like a transformer in disguise. Steel and glass doors reflecting cast resin garden angels and rusty steel welded heart decorations. A wooden sign in the office kitchen: "save the earth: it's the only planet with wine"

Jul 27, 2016

Photography II

In which Alec talks about how he got started on the latest photography kick, muses on German drugstores and what they say about Germany, and goes into detail about the provenance of their oldest camera.

Saori and I had toyed with the idea of buying a bunch of disposable cameras for guests and having the film film ourselves, but we abandoned it as too complicated. We would need, after all, a system of distribution, recording who got what camera, collecting the cameras, and developing them, et al.  

Instead, we went the easy, self-indulgent route, and got an Instax camera. Instax is basically a mini-polaroid camera. The thought was we would pass it around at the wedding and let guests play with it and shoot us and each other. It didn’t really happen because we frankly didn’t tell anyone about this plan or bring out the camera and pass it around, although our friend Emily was game enough to take it and shoot a bit when Saori gave it to her at the reception.

The Instax is quite fun- credit card sized photos, perfect for selfies and textured photos of whatever, all with instant gratification. And importantly, a print. A chemical process which creates a tangible artifact, a photograph in your hot little hands, which has really made the difference between the success of the Instax vs a cell phone camera or even Polaroid’s digital camera attached to a miniature printer which prints out instantly your photos. Polaroid totally missed it.

Anyway, the other advantage of the Instax was that it was fun to take around and use before and after the wedding too, and to use around the house and experiment. We tried some long exposure shots where Saori drew a penguin with light from my cell phone screen. I bought more film cartriges for it from a camera shop downtown and the seller and I got into a converstation about Instax and he showed me a book of architectural photography, some of which were actually shot with the Instax.

Not really happy with the credit card sized images, I scanned them all at high resolution and took them into Photoshop, when they took on a new definition and a new life with cleaned up toning and levels. I know this is something that purists would decry, insisting that the expertise with the camera and the film be the only artifice, but this is not about photographic purity.

They were still too small and too grainy, so I bought a dispoable film camera, and used it to shoot some summertime life here, as well as some of the European Championship events we went to. And the photos were so much fun.

I had been eyeballing some used cameras (“No Guarantees!”) at one of the big camera stores downtown, and took the plunge buying one. In true German style, the clerk we asked to help us had this “you customers are the reason I can’t enjoy my afternoons” attitude, but he struggled his way across the store and retreived the camera we had been eyeballing, and we excitedly looked it over. We decided to buy it.

A Minox 35 PL. Tiny, tiny, camera. Minox also makes basically spy cameras for tiny format film, but this one took standard 35mm film, actually one of the smallest cameras in the world to use this format. It actually feels like a toy. Good lens though, and an automatic exposure control. I learned later that Andy Warhol on a tour through Germany had picked one up and delighted in shooting with it back in the US. He sold a book, mostly selfies and party shots from the big clubs.

Anyway, It was made in the 60s and 70s and 80s, and miraculously, ours came with the original box. The battery it used was no longer in production but it came with an adapter, so the clerk, unprompted, brought out the batteries we would need, and helpfully loaded it up with the fresh batteries and even a new roll of film. $40, or, the equivalent of four disposable cameras.

We shot about a third of the roll before figuring out the camera wasn’t really “on” because the clerk who works professionally at the specialty camera shop had put the battery in the wrong way. But we flipped that sucker around (the battery, not the clerk) and to our delight all the lights lit up that were supposed to light up and we were on our way.

I was a little worried I was going to have to take it to speciality camera stores and labs to get it developed, but for once, Germany’s refusal to leave the 1980’s paid off- you can get film developed practically anywhere. We have a DM five minutes walk away.

DM, which stands for Droggerie Markt, I’ll let you puzzle the meaning out, is a typical German drugstore, which is to say, basically a Walgreens or CVS but a smaller selection of everything and nothing with an actual medicinal value. No aspirin, no cough syrup, no cough drops. They do have an aisle of bad-tasting teas and herbal supplements. They mostly sell toiletries and hair tools, with some organic foods, baby supplies, etc. Every time I go in, women outnumber the men five to one. I am worried I am making this place sound more interesting than it actually is.

I will add they have a photography wall with some Kodak instant-print kisoks set up so you can order prints from digitals, OR print directly from the machine. They also have a film drop. You write your name on the envelope, drop in the film, and then seven to ten days later, you fish around in the big drawer for the envelope with your name on it with the finished prints inside.

Actually, the whole thing is quite typical for Germany- you could, and quite easily, take your envelope, or hell, a handful of envelopes and walk right out the sliding doors (since it's right next to the door) and nobody would even notice. And then when you get in line at the cashier to pay for your envelope full of photos, they ask you for photo ID to make sure that the photos are really yours. When I think of the story, now, about the bank robber who was caught because he put his name and address on the deposit slip he filled out right before robbing the bank, I think, “ah, he must have been German!”

Inspired by the first prints we get back from DM (I think it was only about $5 to develop a roll!) we pulled out and cleaned off the old Rolleiflex automatic I salvaged from the house on the hill before I left.

This was the boarding house where I lived for a few months before Saori and I found our current apartment. The old man, a one time evangelist and textile merchant by the look of it, passed away, and his wife, for various and unknowable reasons, lost the house and it’s contents to the lawyers. She was actually barred from the premises. She told me that I was free to take anything I wanted, *ok, so actually, it was actually probably all at this point, property of the law office, but we we took, no one missed, and frankly would have been tossed at the curb anyway.

In the study, piled high with dusty and musty books about politics and religious tracts, I found a beat up leather case containing a boxy camera. Like most used things, condition is key, but I think this one would be worth about $200-$300 on the market. Rolleiflex cameras are known for high quality optics, build, an a unique configuration where there’s actually two lenses, one above the other, and you look down into a clever viewfinder which shows you exactly what the camera sees, on a 2” by 2” window. The camera is supposed to be very easy, intuitive, and fast to use, despite the medium format film, which is a big square. Fortunately, it is a film format which is popular enough today that I could go to a specialist film store and buy a roll. Unfortunately, the camera I brought back was also filled with what Saori identified as “roach droppings” so we had a bit of cleaning to do before we could even start testing it. Could be a lot of fun.

Next step- dark room?

Jul 24, 2016

Prairieville: a low-budget wedding

Saori and I tracked carefully what we spent on the wedding, and we have some rough ideas on what other people spent on the wedding. So here is a pie chart of what the wedding cost by percentage of the total. According to one source, the average cost of a US wedding is around $26,000. Tallying up all the totals, not just ours, I think we can say we had a extremely low-budget wedding.

This chart includes only direct wedding and reception costs: sparklers, food, wedding photography, tent rentals, bus transportation for guests, etc. Not included:
  • hotel
  • the rehearsal dinner
  • other transportation
  • wedding rings, since I got mine from Saori who made it, and I bought Saori's for an amount which would not even be visible on this graph.
  • possibly things (please forgive me) that other people contributed to the wedding but that I failed to recognize or remember. For example, I know someone, possibly aunt Kim, bought more flowers, but I don't know how much.
  • cleanup costs outside of the scope of the tent and catering people
  • bridesmaids and groomsmen attire and accessories
  • gifts to family and attendants
I should also note here that Saori and I did not bear all these costs ourselves. Our family graciously stepped in. We had a lot of help from everyone, but especially from Kim and Tracy who covered the majority of the catering, rented tents for us, and all of the alcohol.

We paid nothing for the venue, we had no real wedding favors apart from the fans, and uncle Tracy played DJ (you can blame me for the playlist though), so we avoided these major wedding costs. We also got a really lowball photographer.

Some surprises from the chart- my outfit (shoes, suit, tailoring, accessories) cost more than Saori's. (But only when you discount the hair and makeup!) Flowers ended up being a relatively minor expense in the scheme of things, considering how much emphasis we put on them at the beginning, but everything really paled in comparison to the cost of the caterers. To be fair, we wanted to pay a premium for amazing food and catering, and most of our other wedding costs were either really low or non-existent. Had we shelled out for a ballroom, DJ, or not-so-popular historic plantation, the percentages would have looked a lot different.

Prairieville Photography

Originally, we weren't going to hire a photographer for the wedding.

How can you not hire a photographer for one of the most momentous occasions of your lives? You may ask. First, low budget wedding or blowout, wedding photographers still cost what they cost. On some wedding budgeting websites, the photographer is the single most expensive line item or category. Most wedding photographers sell packages which is the only way in which they will work. Even photographers who have mirror selfies, appalling Photoshop work in their gallery pages, and widespread spelling and grammatical errors still begin at $1000 and move up from there. The studios with more polished pages are more expensive. I saw one package for $2000 which included two photographers and up to five locations. Why five? Engagement photos and wedding right? Maybe three if you have your wedding and reception in two different places? You are missing the hair test and dress test and "trash the dress" photo sessions. If you want to be amazed start at and look up some of these photographers prices.

The wedding industry in America has clearly taken a page from higher education. It is a multi-billion dollar industry which has massively swelled. Why is college so expensive? They added a new tier of administration to squeeze more money from alumni, governments,and students while simultaneously adding additional amenities and specialized courses. And they all point at each other and claim that every school is building a Hadron collider and a water park these days to attract more students.

Similarly, there is now a level of customization and service to all aspects of the wedding to the point that even weddings which consist of two people exchanging twist ties in the food court still must have M&Ms printed with "Babs & Al at Tri-County Savers Mall." I read someplace that the average American wedding costs $10,000.

Between the insane costs for weddings, depressing levels of student debt, and the feeling of trying to simply keep with the Millennial Jones (Tiffany got married in an old barn, we need to get married in an old suspender factory with a tango band from Buenos Aires!") many people my age are simply dispensing with the wedding entirely. Which is really sad, actually.

I digress.

At one point were simply considering strapping a GoPro on a random guest, or Aunt Kim's trained Yorkshire Terrier.

We told ourselves, "Everyone has iPhones, we'll just get photos from them" which later became, "We'll ask one of our friends to be the designated photographer."

But it's a crappy thing to do to a guest who maybe had to burn some vacation time, and at a minimum bought a plane ticket and a hotel. So we wisely abandoned it and went back to the "no photographer" thought until we asked each other, "are we going to regret not hiring a photographer? " And the answer was, definitely yes.

I quickly abandoned The vendors on the site are outrageously expensive. I googled "photographer Baton Rouge" and got some photographers who wouldn't return my emails.

Before considering chloroforming a photography student from Tulane, I turned to Craigslist (Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap™) and hit up a few studios who had remarkably not terrible photos. What we wanted, at this point, was simply someone who could make sure a person was mostly in the frame and reasonably in focus. "We need someone to document our wedding," I said. I actually searched for crime scene photographers.

But in the end, we picked a good compromise. Jacqueline had a reasonable, flat hourly rate,  her gallery photos didn't suck, and she replied in a timely manner to our emails. Saori wasn't totally convinced but then I asked her to spend fifteen minutes searching for other studios and after comparing prices told me "BOOK HER IMMEDIATELY"

And I'm happy we did. Actually, I think from our planning side it was one of the better decisions we made for the wedding. $500 bought us four hours of her time (plus almost an extra hour she put in free there) a ton of photos, all free to download or post or whatever (!) and a nice mix of portraits, candids, and ambience. She was patient and great to work with and proposed some things that we liked.

Now we just need to consolidate all the photos from the wedding and make a book.

Jul 22, 2016

Accessories for the modern Prairieville Wedding: School Bus

The biggest challenges of what I should to wear to the wedding surprising came down to the issue of socks.

Half the content on Picasa must be wedding themed. A quick search for “plantation wedding” or “louisiana garden party wedding” brings up photos of the groom wearing either seersucker or linen vest/pants combos in either blue or beige. Tay actually turned me on to seersucker earlier since he sometimes wears it to court on muggy days in Indiana.

However, this being Stuttgart, where the weather is rarely pleasant and seldomer hot, seersucker is an unknown material, and I didn’t want to pay to ship a suit here from the US (since whatever I ordered could need tailoring). I liked seersucker though, so I asked all my groomsmen to wear seersucker pants and white dress shirts, to be jazzed up with teal blue ties.

I started trawling european online clothing shops like Gilt and Asos. I eventually found a sky blue linen vest and pants ensemble from an Italian label and had it shipped to my office.

The pants were way too long. Stuttgart is full of tailors, many of them immigrants judging by the names. It’s actually a surprising lot for the size of the city. Must be a high demand for tailoring here. Anyway, I found a tailor about ten minutes walk and went in and put on the pants.

I wanted the cuffs to fall a higher than than the usual length but both the tailor and another customer both chimed in and talking about it agreed it was too high and literally talked me down a bit. Which was good advice.

We struggled a lot to find the right shoes. Brown leather, naturally, but something a little lighter, a little lower, a little more casual that I could also wear to work. Lots of brown leather shoes in Stuttgart. Went to about a half-dozen shoe shops before settling on a pair.

Saori had first mentioned wearing my shoes sans socks a long time ago when we were first talking about what we could wear to a hypothetical wedding, and I had in my mind higher hemmed pants and cool shoes and no socks. To be fair, it’s a trend but mostly in the workplace among some millenials.

Back in the hotel room with Tay as I was dressing, we broached the sock topic with me trying on the socks of varying heights. The socks I brought weren’t working, the no-socks route was shot down by everyone with the exception of the hairdresser working on the bride and bridesmaids, who was also, apparenty, incredibly tattooed. Tay ran to his room and brought back a selection of socks and we picked out a pair together.

Tay presented me with a very nice watch from Junkers, a German automatic. But I have such small wrists the band didn’t fit, so I wore my old Swiss army watch I salvaged from the Ross Dress for Less a long time ago. I did upgrade the band, however, to match the caramel leather of my belt and shoes.

Tay picked out a tie for me, gold with a subtle paisly pattern in relief. But we rejected it, foolishly, as too dusty and went with the garish yellow, leading later to much hand wringing (mine) and wasting my family’s time at suburban malls.

I bought a practice tie in Stuttgart and found some success after an hour or so of going between youtube and the bathroom mirror, so I was satisfied I could replicate the feat. But it was a close thing. I cut my time too short working on my speech, so it was that twenty minutes before the bus was due to leave I was sweating and working fast. Hold the bow with the left hand and tuck the flap with the right? Cut the red wire or the blue? Tick. Tick. Tick.

I got it. But as soon as I did I got a knock on the door from Tay. He looked great and Chelsea, too. “Can you help me with my tie?” I assured him I would (actually he had it 90% already) but it would have to be on the bus. Grabbed a to go bag Saori had requested and hurried downstairs, totally forgetting some gifts I had brought, as well as to comb my hair.

The Bus

The fantastic wedding of Dew and Yoshimi had lurked nearly unspoken in the background of our wedding planning. One thing we really liked was the fact that they had provided a bus which took everyone there and back: it added a bit of building excitement, a bit of a road trip, and it meant nobody had to be a designated driver.

When we took Kim and Tracy’s offer, we knew they were an hour plus from New Orleans, but we wanted to keep as much as possible to the city to provide an added amenity to our guests and a place for us to enjoy with our families. And as long as one stays within walking distance to the French Quarter, there is really no need for a car to get the most out of a Big Easy weekend. $30 gets you an uber or cab from the airport. So providing transportation to the wedding and back was a high priority for us.

I started working on it, actually, as soon we announced the wedding. There are not so numerous ways to get to Prairieville from the French Quarter, and they are all really expensive. Here is a quick breakdown:

  • Charter bus
  • Charter yellow school bus
  • Party bus
  • Bunch of Ubers
  • Big limo

As we got more RSVP’s we realized that our number of riders was going to be about 15-20, which turns out to be a really annoying number: too many for private cars and really few for a bus. I solicited bids from five or six bus companies, asked for discounts, and put up with the very. slow. response time from the charter school bus company, which must be the actual school bus company.

In the end, after my family tried to tell us we were working too hard and spending too much on this project, we were happy and surprised when one day they took charge of it. I handed it off to Tay and mom, although Tay took lead.

It was good timing too, since less than a week later the school bus company came back with the best price for an air conditioned bus. I forwarded the email to Tay with the recommendation he go with it. It was going to be cheaper than the 8 Uber trips we were going to need. 

Jul 14, 2016

Prairieville: Wedding day I

I slept fairly well the night before my wedding. Rolled out of the quiet hotel room with a plan in mind for the day. First of all, my belt was really not fitting. Saori and had I both lost a fair amount of weight leading up to the wedding. Saori’s yoga studio couldn’t beleive she looked the same after skipping yoga for a season. Nothing like too much stress and too little sleep for a few months to shed the pounds.

I remembered an H&M not far from Cafe du Monde so I slipped out of the hotel and hiked over. Picked up the new, right sized belt, and a few other things before Tay texted to see what I was up to and if he could help me with anything. I invited him out and we met up outside of the H&M.

Next step was to the groomers for the groom. I’d had my hair less than month before but my hair and beard both needed a trimming. I googled a barbershop which turned out to be in a large luxury mall on the third floor behind a bank of bathrooms. It was a small place, but nearly a stereotypically perfect barbershop of the type regularly visited by regulars in their 70s and served by two barbers who had been plying their trade a long time. Lino tile floors, bright light, beat up chairs from the 70’s in the waiting area, lay-in tile ceiling.

The barber settled me in the chair and asked what I would like. I told him I was getting married today and needed a light trim for my hair and beard and just to dapper everything up. It ended up a rather lengthy affair, but really interesting since its the first time I’ve had something like this. He trimmed up my hair and then leaned me back and put some weights on my eyelids to keep them shut before going to work with shaving my neck and trimming and grooming the beard.

While he worked, I asked Tay about his home intruder, which is an interesting story with many great lessons like: get to know your neighbors, don’t turn a blind eye in your community, and if you’re going to commit a flagrant crime with a good chance of getting caught by the police, don’t carry your entire stash of illegal drugs with you.

Anyway, the barber did a great job but it a little spendier than I would have imagined- $35 without tip. But then I am realizing lately how much I tend to devalue everything based on how much I’ve paid at the cheapest, most exploited places. $7 haircuts from BudgetCuts contractors without benefits in the most abysmal strip malls. In short, fueling and driving cheap crap work and cheap crap jobs in cheap crap buildings making cheap crap neighborhoods. And I also said “wedding” which probably bumped the price up $10.

Anyway, afterwards we ran over to Minon Fagot (?) a local famous silver jewlery and accessories boutique featuring designs by a woman with a long creole family history. In fact, all the shop keepers spoke French. They things like crawfish tie bars and okra pendants and fluer-de-lis earrrings. Nice stuff, but expensive. We went back to the hotel afterwards, since it was time to resolve the great sock debate.

Jul 7, 2016

Football Season

If you are going to spend some time in Germany, one of the best things about the country is that every two yerars there is a big soccer tournament in the summertime right around the time when the weather is nicest. 

All over the country, there is a culture of going out and watching the game in the thousands of outdoor biergartens, corner pubs, and big public plazas. There is always beer, radler (half beer and half lemonade), and sometimes apple juice mixed with soda water, or white wine mixed with soda water. Since the last decade, it's also been a time when Germans have started flying thier flag and getting more patriotic about these games. Many older Germans, still haunted by the history of nationalism in Germany, still refuse to fly the German flag, or they fly, instead, all of the flags of the teams playing. 

But it's a sad night in Germany as the Men in Monochrome bid farewell to the European Championship of soccer as they lost to France in the semi-finals 2 to 0. To be perfectly honest, all of the major teams have slept their way to the top, lethargically dragging themselves around the pitch for 90 minutes before drawing or squeezing in a goal somewhere if it makes sense in the bracket. Really there are have only been a few good games, and only a few really inspirational goals, and I have to say that Germany's defeat of Italy was astounding in how many shots on the goal wouldn't have gone in even without a goalkeeper, and they should have just decided the game with a coin-toss.

I'm getting ahead of myself. We watched most of the games at home on Saori's laptop, streaming from whichever of the two German stations was streaming it. The streams were always a minute behind. It was nice they were in HD, but I have mixed feelings about knowing something good or bad is going to happen based on the yells and whoops from the street outside, so we would rush over and watch expectantly.

We saw Germany play Italy one afternoon in Bad Canstatt at a kind of alternative arts center, where we met up with a bunch of the Behnisch architects. There was a big screen and a pretty big crowd which meant there were really no seats to be had in the hour before the game, but there were on the higher terrace, where there was a beamer set up to project the game on a screen. But it was too light out, so you couldn't make heads or tails of what was going on on the field. So we got greaat seats and watched the game on our phones until it got dark enough that we could see the screen, and then we had GREAT seats. Germany won and the arts center courtyard exploded.

We watched Wales vs Portugal play last night at a restaurant. Not so many people interested in this game- more people just wanted to see if Wales could continue the dream they have been playing, and many also secretly hoped for a catastrophic Portugal collapse like what happened to England. 

Today was a big day, a semifinal. Saori's coworkers decided they were going to try to watch it in Schlossgarten, which is the closest equivilant to saying you'd like to watch new years in Times Square. I got there two hours early, and there were already no seats to be had. If you wanted a seat, you had to be there at least five or six hours ahead of time. It was packed. Saori sent word that two of her coworkers were already there, and sent me their numbers. I actually ran into them before they had a chance to reply to my message. It helped that I was hanging out by the food line. 

Where most people come in, checkpoints had been set up to look through bags for food? beer? water? IEDs? but I came in from the schlossgarten side (which was lovely bathed in the late afternoon sun) and I walked right in without being checked. Which was good, since I was toting a liter and a half of contraband water, and also some kettle chips (but I heard later they were not as concerned about food). Anyway, I jumped in the beer lineand picked up two beers- one for Saori who was on her way, and I. The beers were each $12. You would get about $2.50 back if you returned the cup, which was plastic, but at least you got a liter of beer. A liter of German beer is not a joke. For one, it's heavy. For the other, if you're not drinking that water you couldn't sneak in, then you are getting slammed with booze unless you drink real slow.

Anyway, I set up a small picnic blanket for the coworkers who wanted to eat, and then we met up with Saori and a few others. Once the game started, Saori and the other girls wriggled thier way deep into the crowds and staked out spots to watch where we could stand and not get sworn at in German too much. 
The game was a bust. Not much fun to watch, honestly. Better was watching the crowd, the thrown beer, the small and vocal contingent of French fans, etc. 

Around the time when all hope was lost for the German team, I decided to make a pit stop and headed to the bathrooms. The upside was they were free since I guess it is too hard to try to wrestle coins out of 5000 drunks and give correct change, but the downside was they were built according to the usual planning which meant there was a huge, huge line out of the women's restroom, and a constant changeover in the men's. Actually, I was a little shocked to see a line of mostly women INSIDE the men's restroom, waiting to use the WCs. I mean, like inside, with a line going past all the urinals. It was a little unusual, but I shrugged and relieved myself. For one, this is Germany. There is not only "free body culture" here, but also the mixed thermal baths which are totally normal. To be perfectly honest, this is the future of bathrooms in Europe and the US. No mens room, no womens room, just a bathroom with a bunch of urinals and WCs. It solves too many problems about gender identity and too few women's toilets for it to be not inevitable. 

After the game, there were a few fights which broke out. There was a small altercation between two men, who where quickly separated and calmed down by their friends. However, five minutes later, nearly a dozen private security personell swoop down and start throwing people into holds like the slightly drunk and overly emotional combatants were terrorists. It was overkill.

Germany is out, and now France and Portugal will play, and Germany will try to wake up again in another two years for the World Cup. 

Jun 30, 2016

Prairieville: Creole coffees, calcified cafes, and culinary cornerstones

I’ve been seriously hungover before, so I was very happy to roll out of bed (still early) with little worse than grogginess, a slight headache, and feeling more tired than usual.
Once Tay was up and ready to go look for coffee, we walked over together to the French Quarter to Addiction. This was a second-and-a half wave coffee shop. They had single-origin pour-overs and Chemex ready, but also sugary blended flavored coffee drinks. I suppose that since this New Orleans, even third wave coffee joints probably also serve irish coffee frozen daiquiris. Anyway, I got an iced coffee with honey, cayenne, and some other interesting things, which was pretty good.

Saori texted me to bring her some coffee too since she and her family were at the hotel cafe and she said “its bad” without clarifying whether the coffee or the cafe.

The Whitney hotel ground floor is a long hall which opens into the former bank lobby, which is partitioned in half since the other side is an actual bank lobby. Its a really beautiful space, cool, neoclassical, comfortable, and the hotel uses it as a cafe. The only  catch is that the cafe has one employee, Marge, who slowly shuffles between cooking, bussing, cleaning, and serving. To sit down to breakfast is to commit oneself to fully appreciating the details of the space.

Anyway, I brought back coffee for Saori and ran into her in the hall and we had a few minutes to talk before I went to join dad, Neri, Tay and Loretta for breakfast in the same cafe. Forewarned about the ponderous service, I ordered nothing but iced tea. I spent about an hour visting them over breakfast (about the time it took them to get their meals) before I had to go run to take care of something else.

Oh yes, we still had to conclude the wedding ceremony, something important to have hammered out before we met everyone for the rehearsal later that day. The way the wedding ceremony was written was like this:

  • Mom walked Saori and I though a traditional ceremony via Facetime
  • I typed up the notes into a rough outline of the ceremony and sent a draft to David
  • Saori picks the music she wants to have played for the beginning and end of the ceremony
  • We Facetime David and he suggests we ask a few people to speak at the ceremony. It was a quick decision who to ask and we were both totally on the same page about it.
  • Saori did a bunch of research online on wedding ceremonies and ended up basically re-writing the ceremony, basically the same, but a few tweaks here and there.
  • Weeks pass while we work on vows.
  • In Prairieville we decide if it rains, we’ll probably get married in front of the mantle
  • In the hotel room the afternoon before the rehearsal, I open up all the plans for the ceremony and using Saori’s draft as a basis, consolidate them by hand in my notebook, including the spoken parts by David and revising the seating schedule because Saori’s father would not be able to come.
  • We give my hand notes to David at the rehearsal and he directs, making edits with pencil.
  • Bridesmaid Casey tweaks the fine points and some major points and makes some great rough edits to the ceremony on the fly
  • Uncle David forgets the ceremony in the hotel room in New Orleans
  • Uncle David re-constructs the ceremony and simplifies with the help of all there for a living room ceremony without the seating procession

It was all great, but it was tense in the hotel room as we scrambled to finish writing so we would have at least something to work off of at the rehearsal. After that, I remembered I had book a new room at the Whitney starting that night. I went downstairs, checked in, and shuttled my luggage from Tay’s room.

I think I took a short, restless nap and then got changed for the rehearsal dinner as it started to rain. I wore a white dress shirt, no tie, and my lightweight Uniqlo blue blazer. Saori had a really pretty floral print pant-dress. I met Saori’s mom and brother downstairs and I got us an Uber together for the restaurant. Traffic in the french quarter was terrible as usual, and we ended up hopping out early and walking the rest of the way in.

Way back, or not so way back, mom said she would cover the rehearsal dinner and asked us to come up with a few places so she could call and ask around for pricing. Court of Two Sisters was one, Brennan’s was one, Arnaud’s was our top pick. We both said, wouldn’t it be fabulous to have a rehearsal dinner at Arnaud’s, but no way, it must be way too expensive, we shouldn’t even think about it.

Mom said, well, let’s ask and find out. And so she called them up and some other restaurants and did a bunch of other things and a few days later, she said, depending on the number of people you invite, we can make Arnaud’s happen, which made Saoi and I happy dance.

She and Tay worked on menus while Saori and I worked on the invite list.  Mom is a fervent believer in categories. The categories can even be tenuous like “cousins who are children of the host families” as long as it is a clear-cut category. It was a difficult excercise and we agonized being torn between inclusiveness to those who were putting considrable effort and expense to be in New Orleans with us and keeping the cost to the total budget.

Mom put Saori work designing the table cards to name the tables as well as the welcome sign and seating chart, a task well suited to Saori’s skills and interest in graphics, and we brought that with us on a usb.

But back to the rehearsal- we arrived finally at Arnaud’s and told the wait staff we were there for the rehearsal. They led us deep into the block, up and down stairs, through back corridors, and I realized that Arnaud’s had a bunch of old french quarter houses put together. We first met in a large anteroom where the bar was set up (mom also gave us a cocktail hour with passed hors dvours as part of the rehearsal). We met up with everyone, greeted uncle David for the first time and I quickly walked him through my hand notes on the ceremony.

He took over, corralled everyone, and we ran through the ceremony twice, making adjustments along the way. It was great to practice and to have David there directing, and Casey, Brenda, and mom giving feedback and suggestions. I felt a lot better after the run through, and then it was time for the cocktail hour! I got a drink and joined most of the crowd on the terrace. Oh yes, a wall lined with beautiful French doors opened up to a broad and high terrace overlooking nearly Bourbon street and supported by graceful wroght iron collumns. It was raining hard at that point, and a few people commented that the rainwater from the everyday normal flooding of New Orleans was even coming into the restaurant (!)

We mingled and chatted and then so soon it was time for the wedding couple to start moving people to the room to eat. When Saori and I sat at the table, we discovered that our place had been marked. A mysterious benefactor (later discovered to be Brenda and David) had put together a lego wedding arch with a minifigurine bride and groom. The groom’s facial hair had been carefully updated with a sharpie to approximate my own, and on the arch was written “Saori and Alec.” It was perfect.

We were served wine and bread before the first course, which was a delicious turtle soup. Turtle soup. Where else in the US can you find turtle soup? New Orleans should be declared a UNESCO world heritage site for its culinary traditions alone.

We ordered Arnaud’s famous crab cakes for our main and they were fantastic. The alternative, a steak, was lovely and everyone raved about as well. But for me, the star was the New Orleans staple, bread pudding, one of the best I’d ever had.

Between courses, mom came over to us and whispered we should do more table hopping and we tried but almost immediately the next course came out and then I felt a little strange because we are at this point preventing people from enjoying their meals, and then I snap out of it because our guests came to New Orleans to be at our wedding, not to eat. Anyway, we talked to a few people, although I didn’t get over to the table with Jeff and Ashley at all, before we returned to our table once again.

And far too soon, it was over! Guests were leaving and Saori and her mom and I were among the last to leave. What a fantastic dinner but what a whirlwind!

We walked through the small Mardi Gras museum on the way out. It was pretty much to ourselves. Looking at the historic photos of Mardi Gras parties and floats from 50-100 years ago, I thought, how bizzare it must have been, and also, remembering the beautiful buildings of a gilded era in New Orleans, how much the city has lost.

We walked back to the hotel and Saori and I joined a small party going on in mom’s suite. Brenda and David and Casey and a few others were there, but from what I remember we were all pretty tired at that point. Saori and I, continually wiped the whole trip, were no exception, and we bowed out relatively early after Saori started to fall asleep on my shoulder.

We parted for the night, a traditional last night that we would be apart before the wedding. I went to my room alone, and I don’t even remember showering and getting ready for bed (although I must have!).