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German Word of the Week: Marienkäfer

What is it about ladybugs that inspires such affection? 

Is it their pleasingly symmetrical half-oval appearance?  The fact that they don't sting?  The splotchy decorations on their carapace, which resemble a child's first attempt at fingerpainting?  Or perhaps their dogged, mild-mannered way of crawling to the top of whatever they land on, spreading their outer shells to reveal an unexpectedly complex structure of hidden wings, and flying gracefully away?

Whatever the explanation is, people love ladybugs.  Europeans, in fact, put them under the protection of supernatural forces.  In Germany, these critters are called Marienkäfer -- "Mary beetles" (yes, that Mary).

Not to be outdone, the Dutch take ladybug adoration to its logical conclusion.  I have it on good authority from a Belgian friend (and remember, Flemish Belgians don't speak Flemish, they speak Dutch.  Note that well.), that in Dutch, a ladybug is an Onze-lieve-Heersbestje.  Literally translated, "Our-dear-Lordbeastlet", or more flowingly, "the little beast of our dear Lord." 

Almost makes you want to move to Holland (or Belgium), doesn't it?

[Hat tip to PDK]

P.S.  Off to England tomorrow.  Hope to post some updates while I'm there, but in any case check back next week, when I'll resume "providing content."

Why Marx will Never "Sell" in the U.S.

One of the things that sometimes irritates me, as an American living in Europe, is the fact that Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore take up so much oxygen in Europe.  When Europeans want to read an analysis of American society or policy that makes them feel good, that seems to be written from a "European" perspective, that confirms their existing prejudices and stereotypes about the United States, they turn to these two figures.  Almost everything they write is translated immediately into German, and the books are displayed prominently in all major German bookstores.

News flash to Germans: Michael Moore is regarded as an amusing prankster, nothing more.  He often goes far beyond what the evidence justifies in his critiques, which has caused many folks on the left to distance themselves from him.  In, a left-of-center website, Stephanie Zacharek reviewed the film quite critically, and advised them to go see a real documentary instead of Moore's hype:

But I'd also urge moviegoers to see "Control Room," Jehane Noujaim's documentary about Al-Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq War, a piece of filmmaking that, like Moore's movie, is antiwar in the broadest sense. But it's also one that, unlike Moore's, is well aware of the dangers of self-certainty and easy answers.

Noam Chomsky, by contrast, doesn't get much coverage at all in the United States.  Sure, he produces plenty of books, some of them very interesting, some of them weirldy conspiratorial.  They tend, however, to be read mostly by people who are already Chomsky fans.  (To put it in German terms, would you go right out and by the latest book by Gregor Gysi, assuming he wrote one?)  Chomsky's books make no impact -- zero -- on the opinion of the average American, and even on the opinion of the average left-of-center American.

Continue reading "Why Marx will Never "Sell" in the U.S." »

Richard Wagner, Bone-Crusher

The Bayreuther Festspiele are now in full swing.  Unfortunately, the German Joys Cultural Affairs Unit was not able to finance a trip to the festival this year, so there will be no live reports. 

As a pale substitute, here's something I came across while reading a biography of one of my favorite composers, Gabriel Fauré:

In 1884, as the result of a ‘weird and wonderful lottery’ organized by [a patroness] to assist the impecunious Fauré and Messager, the pair were at last able to travel to to hear Parsifal.  Fauré later wrote to his benefactress:

If one has not heard Wagner at Bayreuth, one has heard nothing! Take lots of handkerchiefs because you will cry a great deal!  Also take a sedative because you will be exalted to the point of delirium! 

He told her that he had left Parsifal with ‘broken bones’!

(Robert Orldedge, Gabriel Fauré, p. 12)

A Masterful History of Hail Insurance

Last night, as usual, I poured myself a nice steaming mug of hard liquor and curled up with a good book before going to bed.  Hours later, I was still awake, still flipping pages, transfixed.  I had stumbled on Detlef A. Huber's magisterial treatise Die Hagelversicherung -- "Hail Insurance."  Of course, every educated adult is familiar with this extraordinary legal institution, but rarely do you see its history recounted with such verve and imagination as by Detlef Huber. 

The first hail insurance policy was written in 1733 near Leipzig by one Carl-Gottlob Waldscheisser.  Business rapidly took off, but was crippled when Kant, in 1774, published his Zur Entwicklung einer philsophischen Stellungnahme über die Hagelversicherung ("Toward the Development of a Philosophical Position on Hail Insurance"), in which he argued that the idea of insuring against weather phenomena which reflect manifestations of the innate order of the universe could not be tolerated in a just and rational society.  Under Kantian influence, the Prussian administration outlawed hail insurance in 1778, and it was only Hegel's famously obscure treatise on the same issue in that set the stage for a lift on the ban in 1834. 

After that time, hail insurance played a leading role in German history.  Many historians believe that an extortion attempt based on Prussian Chancellor Otto Von Bismarcks' participation in a questionable hail-insurance syndication scheme were the real reason for his fall from power in 1890, and the Hail Insurance Riots, caused by inclusion of a clause banning hail insurance "on German soil" in the Treaty of Versailles, were an important factor contributing to social unrest in Weimar Germany.  Finally Huber recounts the well-known story of the 1936 National Socialist law -- the Gesetz zur Gleichschaltung des deutschen Hagelversicherungswesens ("Law on the 'Co-ordination' of the German Hail Insurance Industry").  With evident anguish, Huber chronicles how this law perverted the ancient German institution of hail insurance into a weapon of state profit and political oppression.

Continue reading "A Masterful History of Hail Insurance" »

Crime has an Ontology? I missed that memo.

Hello Joysters!  As we all know, things pretty much shut down in Germany as August approaches, since Germany is not yet a part of the Anglo-Saxon 24/7 Economic Productivity Coercion Zone.  Why, just today, as I shopped for furnitute on the Koenigsallee in Duesseldorf in the middle of the afternoon, I was surrounded by thousands of other people doing the same thing.  Most of them were well-dressed and of working ago, and many of them were not only not working, they were also not shopping.  They were doing absolutely nothing at all!  I thought: "hey, shouldn't a lot of you be in an office somewhere?  After all, doesn't someone have to actually produce something of value in this country to pay for goof-offs like me?"  Perhaps not -- at least until the conservatives come to power.  Let's enjoy it while it lasts. 

Continue reading "Crime has an Ontology? I missed that memo. " »

German Word of the Week: Zukunftsmusik

Thanks for the comments about the Element of Crime post.  Erdmöbel: "earth-furniture?"  Since I am also a big fan of Prefab Sprout, I will be going straight to the store to buy some Erdmöbel.

But now, to the GWOW.  I was spending a normal Saturday morning pursuing one of my favorite hobbies: watching documentaries about advanced weapons systems. 

A U.S. Marine engineer described the possibility of encasing torpedos and perhaps entire submarines in a giant air bubble.  This would allow them to slide through the sea-depths as fast as air bubbles themselves; that is, with practically no resistance at all.  One day, we might see submarines that move almost as quickly as airplanes.  However, the German voice-over cautioned, this idea remains pure Zukunftsmusik (futuremusic)., as helpful as it is stodgy and unimaginative, defines Zukunftsmusik as "dreams of the future."  (Titanic magazine regularly features surreal and dystopian paintings by the artist Nic Schulz entitled Zukunftsmusic, with a "c" at the end.  Creeping Anglicization of the German language, or irony?).

OK, nice, now we understand the basic idea.  But there is a much better English term for this notion, I think.  In fact, there are two.  "Pie-in-the-sky" (adj) and "pipe dream" (noun).  Both of these terms describe a worthwhile, idealistic -- but ultimately unrealizable -- vision.  The ideas discussed in this essay, perhaps, strike me as being in that genre.  But perhaps Zukunftsmusik really means something that is realizable; that will arrive in a few decades, if we only work at it.  A new idea or invention that so close we can almost perceive it -- like far-off music...

Why you should be listening to Element of Crime

German pop music rarely catches the rest of the world’s attention. Unless you live in Germany, your notions of German pop are likely defined by fleeting memories of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, Falco’s Der Kommissar, or Trio’s Da-da-da.  Good (or bad) for a couple days’ humming, but not much more. 

Many Germans, on the other hand, will harbor fond memories of the early 1980’s Neue Deutsche Welle (“New German Wave”) flowering, featuring bands like Markus and Geier Sturzflug.

No, you English-speakers have never heard of NDW.  Although the lyrics of some NDW bands could be clever and political, the music is little more than casio-generated, tinny, foursquare early-80s dance pop.  Think Flock of Seagulls or Bananarama, recorded in someone’s bathroom, and produced by their uncle.

After 8 or 9 of these numbers, with their repetitive, pounding march-like tempi, you’ll be thinking: Jesus, I’ve heard more syncopation in a Brahms symphony. On the other end of the scale are the genius-freaks at the fringes, such as the inimitable 70’s electro-glitch-click pioneers Kraftwerk (who come from Düsseldorf), operatic wild woman Nina Hagen, and industrial nutcases Einstürzende Neubauten. The icy genius of Kraftwerk, in particular, hasn’t dated at all.

But where, you ask, where is the middle ground between lollipop, chainsaw, and drum machine?Where’s a German band I can pop into my CD player, and enjoy even if I don’t understand the lyrics?

Continue reading "Why you should be listening to Element of Crime" »

A Poem: "Met People" by Gottfried Benn

Culture Week takes a literary turn, with my own translation of a poem by Gottfried Benn, a modern German writer little-known in the English-speaking world. 

Benn, a dermatologist and venereal disease specialist (the two disciplines are, for some reason, always studied together in Germany), lived most of his life in Berlin, where he died in 1956.  He wrote novels, essays, and poems -- some faintly gruesome and nihilistic, some limpid and lovely.

Continue reading "A Poem: "Met People" by Gottfried Benn" »

The Discreet Charm of European Movies

First, thanks so much for responses to the anonymous burial question.  I find them anthropologically fascinating.  As Clifford Geertz once said, "Society's forms are culture's substance."

And now, Culture Week continues at German Joys! We move from the sad subject of dead pets to the engaging question of What Makes a Good European Movie.

If you spend a little time browsing through the Feuilleton (Arts & Culture) pages of German newspapers you’ll soon encounter the insult Hollywoodmäßig (Hollywoodesque). A movie is Hollywoodesque when it displays some or all of the following characteristics:

  • The characters are slim and attractive, and brandish perfect, even rows of mercilessly white teeth;
  • Important plot moments are underlined with pounding or swelling music;
  • Characters always have a perfect wisecrack at the ready;
  • The male/female pair who distrust each other at first trade increasingly affectionate barbs, and end up in love (see Rule #98 of 100 Rules for Evil Masterminds);
  • The end must be, in the clumsy German formulation “Happy End.” As in: “Ein Film mit Happy-End!”

Continue reading "The Discreet Charm of European Movies" »

What Explains Anonymous Burials

Now I've got a real question for my readers.  When I walk through German cemeteries, there is always a section for "anonymous graves," and almost every funeral home offers anonymous burials.  As this article on German funeral customs explains: "many people choose an anonymous grave with no headstone (something that's found in Germany's European neighbors but virtually unknown in North America)."  According to the same article, 27 percent of the burials in Hamburg are anonymous. 

My question to my German readers, and to everyone else who might have an answer, is:

1.  What's the typical profile of someone who is buried anonymously? 

2.  Presumably you would have to arrange this before you die; how do you accomplish that?

3.  Most importantly, why would you choose to be buried anonymously?

I'm sure I'm not the only expat who's asked himself these questions.  Any answers would be much appreciated.