Can All Germans Swim?

There's a heat wave going on in Germany right now. Trains are screeching to a halt, asphalt is melting, and people are flocking to local lakes to cool off. Yesterday, in this part of Germany alone, four adults drowned (g) in those lakes, and one six-year-old boy almost drowned.

This is pretty shocking. Four people in one day! Is this because they can't swim, or can't swim well enough? I wonder whether Germans routinely learn to swim during their education. This is standard in most parts of the USA, where hot weather and swimming pools and beaches are a fact of life. Maybe not so in Germany, where there are perhaps 15 really hot days in any given year.

Or perhaps it's a combination of (1) no lifeguard supervision; (2) alcohol consumption; and (3) murky water and uneven surfaces. Any other theories?

The King Must Provide All IOC Members with One (1) Comely Concubine

Oslo, Norway is out of the bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics, in part because of the demands of the International Olympic Committee:

[T]he International Olympic Committee is a notoriously ridiculous organization run by grifters and hereditary aristocrats. Norwegian citizens were particularly amused/outraged (amuseraged) by the IOC's diva-like demands for luxury treatment during the hypothetical Games. Here's a piece in the Norwegian media about the controversy, with translation provided by a generous Norwegian reader named Mats Silberg:

  • They demand to meet the king prior to the opening ceremony. Afterwards, there shall be a cocktail reception. Drinks shall be paid for by the Royal Palace or the local organizing committee.
  • Separate lanes should be created on all roads where IOC members will travel, which are not to be used by regular people or public transportation.
  • A welcome greeting from the local Olympic boss and the hotel manager should be presented in IOC members' rooms, along with fruit and cakes of the season. (Seasonal fruit in Oslo in February is a challenge ...)
  • The hotel bar at their hotel should extend its hours “extra late” and the minibars must stock Coke products.
  • The IOC president shall be welcomed ceremoniously on the runway when he arrives.
  • The IOC members should have separate entrances and exits to and from the airport.
  • During the opening and closing ceremonies a fully stocked bar shall be available. During competition days, wine and beer will do at the stadium lounge.
  • IOC members shall be greeted with a smile when arriving at their hotel.
  • Meeting rooms shall be kept at exactly 20 degrees Celsius at all times.
  • The hot food offered in the lounges at venues should be replaced at regular intervals, as IOC members might “risk” having to eat several meals at the same lounge during the Olympics.

I Have Herpes, and So Does Justine Henin, and So Do You!

And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"

I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected...

...lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.

As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

Which brings us to the tale of how Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin unwittingly became a poster girl for venereal disease. In a 2007 interview, she stated: 

Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?

JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”

So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.

I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.

But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:

With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.

With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.

Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.

And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:

Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?

I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.

Remigius-Ekkehard Scores!


Look at the German men in those photographs. Erect, athletic, courteous, stylishly-dressed, sexually chaste* and happy. They surely bore, with pride, real Teutonic names like Wolfram, Ekkehard, Adalbert, Friedhelm, Karlheinz, Ulf-Wotan, or Eike-Siegfried. Names that evoke crystalline mountain lakes, Wergeld, jousting tournaments, roving bards, sacred groves, and unmixed ancestry.

Yesterday the German men's national soccer team won the World Cup. But what sort of names did these "'Germans'" have? Per and Philipp are just barely acceptable, but Toni? Kevin? Mario? Sami? Manuel?


Did we lose a war, people?!

(picture here)


* This 1925 poster, from the collection of the German Hygiene Museum (!), reads: "Strive to remain chaste! The best way to do so is bodily exercise! Sports and games, swimming and hiking -- along with serious work, these make it easy to remain sexually continent. Continence is not harmful."

Speak for yourself, German Hygiene Council.

UPDATE: I bet these guys had Real German Names®:



In Which I Reveal My Views on Soccer to a Breathless Audience


The New Republic analyzes Borges on soccer:

In his lifetime, he saw elements of fascism, Peronism, and even anti-Semitism emerge in the Argentinean political sphere, so his intense suspicion of popular political movements and mass culture—the apogee of which, in Argentina, is soccer—makes a lot of sense. (“There is an idea of supremacy, of power, [in soccer] that seems horrible to me,” he once wrote.) Borges opposed dogmatism in any shape or form, so he was naturally suspicious of his countrymen’s unqualified devotion to any doctrine or religion—even to their dear albiceleste

Soccer is inextricably tied to nationalism, another one of Borges’ objections to the sport. “Nationalism only allows for affirmations, and every doctrine that discards doubt, negation, is a form of fanaticism and stupidity,” he said. National teams generate nationalistic fervor, creating the possibility for an unscrupulous government to use a star player as a mouthpiece to legitimize itself. 

This is a pretty good summary of what many bourgeois Germans think about soccer. To them, too, flag-draped cities and mass 'public viewings' uncomfortably recall the Nuremburg rallies, of individuals sinking rapturously into the blissful Wir-Gefühl (We-feeling) of ideological consensus. Add to that the bloodless siege of marketing that surrounds every World Cup, and you have a perfect storm of mass culture and consumerism, enough to curl the toenails of any self-respecting turtleneck-wearing aesthete.

But let's not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Stuffy Germans turn up their noses at lots of stuff that's really fun, like cheap liquor, guns, porno, naked sledding, dope, tabloid newspapers, and sex with 60 kilos of ground beef. If you studiously refused to enjoy everything they studiously refuse to enjoy, you'd end up as dull as they are.

So Europeans who proudly despise soccer do so because it's favored by beer-swilling chavs. Intriguingly, soccer has the opposite reputation in the USA. It's a complex, oustside-the-mainstream, English, low-scoring game which people from Europe and developing countries are hella good at. This makes it fair play for hipsters and Europhiles. Further, it requires no expensive equipment and isn't dominated by freakishly tall or muscular people.

No, Americans who dislike soccer because they find it boring and / or pointless. The Simpsons, as usual, has this covered (unembeddable video here). What do I think about soccer? Speak for me, bullet-points:

  • Yes, the masses' obsession with soccer is tiresome and alarming, and the cliche that soccer is a religion in country X is beyond tiresome. Whenever I hear that country X is soccer-obsessed, that the nation stops functioning and planes drop from the air when a game is on, that mothers are having the names of the latest stars tattooed on their babies' eyeballs, I think: "Good God, what a bunch of lazy sods. Why don't they think up their own games?"
  • However, the mere fact that many people who love soccer are mindless clods doesn't mean I must hate it.
  • And in fact, I rather like it. If you learn the rules and pay a bit of attention, a good soccer game can be totally engrossing. This World Cup, in particular, has offered up some thrilling games so far -- think of the epic second half of Germany v. Ghana. What's most mesmerizing to me is the continuous flow of the game. And soccer also seems to be a bit more competitive than many other sports. Sure, there are occasional 6-0 blowouts, but team that are clearly less talented than their opponent can still stage tremendous upsets.

So I will be there tomorrow in Boui Boui Bilk watching America v. Germany, drinking copiously, and cheering on the American team.

But my face won't be painted in red-white-and-blue -- that's strictly for morons. 

Neanderthal Descent and Rock-Crusher

Last weekend I took my GoPro on this fantastic mountain-bike tour (g) through the Neander Valley and nearby areas. The first bit is a fun descent down a hillside road (pardon the stabilizer artifacts, still working on the technology), the second is a panning shot of a 'rock-crusher'. Part of the bike tour goes through Grube 7 (g) (Quarry 7), a former chalk-quarry pit that was closed down in 1964 and allowed to return to nature. There are a few reminders of its former purpose, though, including this huge platform, which was the above-ground portion of a rock crusher, now left to be slowly reclaimed by ivy and mosses. 

A Stylish Final

Brian Phillips on why you should want Spain to beat Holland:

Compared with other major sports, soccer can easily become chaotic and incoherent. This is one reason unconverted fans find it boring: Watch a random passage of play, and you're likely to see players booting the ball out of bounds or frantically kicking it nowhere in particular, so that what ensues looks as much like an accident as a series of intentional actions. Teams that play it safe tend to go along with this entropic tendency, disrupting their opponents' play, creating long periods of stalemate, then haphazardly smashing the ball toward their own strikers in the hope of a lucky bounce. The teams that become beloved, on the other hand—Leo Messi's FC Barcelona, Pelé's Brazil, and Cruyff's Holland—are the ones that bring order or clarity to the game, so that the randomness and dullness fade out and the play assumes the shape of perceptible intention.

Great teams in other sports beat their opponents. Great teams in soccer beat both their opponents and the game. That sounds like a critique of soccer unless you've seen for yourself what a marvelous thing this can be.

Playing stylishly might not be more important than winning. But teams that play stylishly make the game worth watching, and thus assume an importance that can't be reflected by wins and losses.

During the era of [Dutch legend Johan] Cruyff and total football, the Dutch played as stylishly as anyone in the world. Over the last few seasons, that mantle belongs not to Holland but to Spain. Spain's tiki-taka soccer—inexorable passing, patient build-up play, constant pressing on defense—isn't much like total football, though it can also be traced back to Cruyff, who spent eight years as the manager of Barcelona. Nevertheless, Spain's style is a similarly coherent, and similarly beautiful, approach to the game. And that's why I hope Spain will win the World Cup on Sunday. It's not because I don't like Holland; it's because I like the history of Holland so much.