Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pie in the Sky

I never should have started this blog. Now that my kids have discovered it, they are constantly badgering me to write more.

At the dinner table my daughter asks, "Dad, when are you going to post something new?" I reply that nothing interesting has happened to me lately so I don't have anything to write about. "Write something about your wife's funny quirks," suggests my son. "Yeah," says my daughter, "write about how at the dinner table Mom always…"

"NO," interrupts My Favorite Wife, most emphatically. So I won't be writing about that. "Then write something about the Pfalz," says my daughter, referring to the Palatinate, the region in southwestern Germany where MFW grew up. It's a place famous for potatoes, white wine and an extremely rude-sounding and loudly spoken dialect that is largely incomprehensible to people from other parts of the country.

Hmm, I don't have a whole lot to go on here. A large part of what I've posted so far is driven by comparisons of peculiar American behavior vs. peculiar foreign behavior. It might be wearing a little thin for my loyal readership of at least two followers. (I've never had "followers" before. Now I have two, according to my blog page, which is a tremendous ego boost. I am trying to figure out how to transform them from "followers" into "minions" so I can get them to do my evil bidding.) So, lacking any other ideas, and wanting to get my kids off my back, I think I'll combine their suggestions into an "all of the above" approach and tell you a little story about pie.

For a number of years now, we have celebrated Thanksgiving at the house of some friends of ours. Not every year, but most. Besides us, there's a whole core of regulars who attend, consisting of their family and friends, with slight variations from year to year. It's a big group of people and there is a lot of food to be prepared. So the first time we went, MFW, who loves to bake, volunteered to bring a dessert, and she has done so every year since then.

Now I have to tell you something about the culture of baked goods in the Pfalz. By the way, for you Gringos out there, that's pronounced Pfaltz, with a "t" in it, to rhyme with "salts". As noted above, in English it's the "Palatinate", but that's a mouthful to say and a pain to type, so I'll just use the term "Pfalz". Incidentally, that's the High German name for the region; the local dialect doesn't know the "pf" sound, so the locals call it "die Palz", i.e., with just a "p" sound at the beginning. It seems that they weren't paying attention to something called the Second Sound Shift that occurred around 500 AD—they were probably too busy eating potatoes, drinking wine and yelling at each other to notice. Also incidentally, there's a town in New York called New Paltz that was founded in 1677 by people who emigrated from that part of Germany. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yes, baked goods.

There is a whole culture of baking among the Hausfrauen of the Pfalz. I think this extends to some degree to the rest of the country, but it seems to be particularly pronounced where MFW comes from. In the Pfalz there is an unwritten law that every social event involving food must include vast quantities of cakes, pies and tortes, which will be collectively contributed by the women in attendance (baking apparently not being considered a manly pursuit). On the surface it's a friendly kind of thing, but in reality it's a cut-throat competition in which recognition is given for both quantity and quality.

Quality will be recognized by requests for the recipe for any well-received item. Unacceptable quality will result in the shame and humiliation of having most of your cake left on the tray for you to take home again. Consistent bad quality will subject you to the insulting behavior of MFW's aunt, a famously blunt person who is rude in a kind of charming way, a favorite family story about her being of her once having taken a piece of her own cake along on a social call after announcing that the baked goods proffered by the hostess on previous visits were of substandard quality ("Dere ihr Kuuche schmackt mer nit!").

Quantity will be recognized by, well, quantity. The prevailing standard, as nearly as I can tell, is that at any such gathering there must be at least one cake for every man, woman, child and dog in attendance.

Let's Party

The curious thing is that the cake is not eaten for dessert. Rather, it is part of Kaffee und Kuchen, which is the lead-off event at all of these gatherings, typically sometime in the early afternoon. Everyone drinks a few cups of coffee and eats eight or nine slices of cake. And then it's time for lunch. If you can only manage two helpings of the main course on top of all that coffee and cake, the hostess will assault you with the question, "What's wrong? You don't like it?"

Which brings us back to tonight's dessert, which will in fact be treated as dessert and not as a kind of auxiliary main course. I would not describe MFW as a Hausfrau, as she would probably do me an injury if I did, but one thing she did bring with her to the Land of the Free is the aforementioned Pfälzer Hausfrau baking aesthetic, in which "enough" is never enough and "way too much" will just barely suffice. She spent most of yesterday and much of this morning baking. I generally dread these baking sessions because she starts out with way too much ambition and way too little time. She of course means well, because she's just trying to make everything everyone likes, but she becomes totally stressed out trying to make the deadline and terrorizes the whole family as all other needs and priorities are sacrificed to the Imperative of Pie. We try not to take it personally, because we know that she is just following the ancient instructions that are encoded in her genes, not unlike the mysterious instincts that send the eels to the Sargasso Sea, but we're always glad when it's over.

Fortunately, this year was much better than most in the time department, so it wasn't the test of domestic tranquility that it has been in other years. And now I am looking forward to finishing my Thanksgiving dinner with an excellent piece of MFW's cherry pie that she made especially for me.

These Are Only Some of Them

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Elephant in the Room

I stay in hotels frequently because I have to go on site to spend time with my company's clients, who are distributed all around the country. I'll stay in the occasional hotel for private travel as well, although I'm mostly too cheap to spring for a hotel when I'm paying for it out of my own pocket and prefer instead to have the family scrounge up a few scraps of cardboard that we can lie on under a bridge. After many years of staying in places that ranged from crappy to really nice and everywhere in between, I think I've seen pretty much everything there is to see in terms of hotel amenities.

One thing about most of the hotel rooms I stay in: they always have a lot of towels. Way more than I know what to do with. And in the last couple of years I've observed an innovation in how they present all those towels. It used to be that when I went into the bathroom in my room, there'd be a couple of hand towels and a washcloth or two hanging over the towel rack by the sink. Nowadays the hand towels are usually folded so that there's a little pocket at the bottom of the half of the towel that hangs over the front of the towel bar, and the washcloth has been arranged to stick out of this pocket in a sort of scallop pattern. This is one of the little things that I, as a business traveler, really appreciate. Damn it, if I can't be at home with my family, then I at least want a bathroom full of nicely arranged towels.

Cotton Splendor
Occasionally, one of the hotels I stay in will have a white terrycloth bathrobe in addition to all the towels. I'm never quite sure what to do with this; if I had wanted a bathrobe, I would have brought one along with me, and when I'm in my room alone, I'm not sure why I even need one. It's not like I need to spare anyone from the sight of my unclothed self. Besides, I'm an average-sized guy, but whenever I've tried on one of those hotel room bathrobes, it's always been hilariously small on me. Maybe they're only meant for the ladies.

There aren't always enough towels in the room, though. The most extreme example I experienced was some years ago when my family and I stayed in a Formule I hotel on the outskirts of Paris, France while driving long distance across France and Germany. This particular hotel chain caters to long-distance travelers on the Autoroute who just need a cheap place to stop over for the night on their way to somewhere or other, sort of like a French Motel 6. Except that F1 hotels not only all look alike in the way that all Motel 6's (and other chains) do, they look like they were actually produced as part of the same batch in some kind of hotel factory.

Living in a Box
This factory-like atmosphere is reflected on the inside as well. The rooms have an ultra-compact, spartan design. About the only thing that isn't bolted down is a chair and a couple of mattresses. The (tiny) bathroom of the one I stayed in looked like it was molded out of a single piece of plastic; maybe that's so the staff can just hose the whole thing down after you leave (I don't recall whether there was a drain in the floor). And it had all of two towels for our family of four.

This is the Life!
The towels were not that great, either. You know that one old towel in the back of the closet that you took with you when you moved out of your parents' house twenty years ago? The one that's so worn through that it's almost transparent in the middle? The one that's barely big enough to be even considered a bath towel? The one that you're only hanging onto because you don't want to use your other towels to wipe the mud off the dog's feet before you let him in the house on a rainy day? Well, that towel's a lot nicer than the ones in our F1 room were. But crappy as they were, a couple more would have been useful, so I went to ask for them at the front desk.

Welcome, Weary Traveler
The front desk folks were cheerful enough, but found my request for an additional one or two towels completely unfathomable. I tried to explain in my fairly limited French that if the room is meant to accommodate more than two guests, it would stand to reason that it would be possible to obtain more than the default set of two towels per room. Mais non, mon ami! This is not the F1 way. Towels are a valuable and limited resource and not to be handed out to any joker who comes begging for one. One room, two towels, how could it possibly be any other way? It's not so much that they were arguing from a standpoint of policy, as nearly as I could tell, it was more like they were just perplexed by the request. After a few minutes of trying to pursue this fruitless discussion with my somewhat rudimentary language skills, I remembered that we had a couple of towels in the car, since we were at the time returning home from a rented guest house to which we were required to bring our own bedding and towels, so I didn't pursue it any further. But I think this is the only hotel I've ever been in that was so stingy with something as basic as towels.

So, returning to the present, what a relief to be in a hotel in the Land of the Free, where the streets are paved with towels. Freedom Towels, I shall call them. But behold: towel arranging technology continues its inexorable advance. When I came to my room after checking in, the towels were arranged as shown in the very first photo above. By the time I left my room the next morning, they were no longer arranged so nicely. But when I returned to my room that evening, what did I find in my bathroom? Why, it's a cute little towel elephant!

The Little Cotton Elephant in the Room
I hadn't seen this before. The elephant has been there to greet me every evening this week. I feel truly pampered!

I wondered whether there is more of this kind of hotel towel origami to be found. So I did a Google search on "hotel towel origami". Wow! I had no idea that this was such a widely practiced art form. The possibilities seem endless! I can't wait to show that to My Favorite Wife and tell her that this is how I always want the towels at home folded from now on. I bet she'll be thrilled!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's the Dead Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

The Pumpkin Graveyard

I was looking at the pile of rotting jack-o-lanterns in my compost pile and reflecting on how we have a whole industry of growing a vegetable that few Americans, if any, actually eat. Every October piles of pumpkins appear in all of the grocery stores, produce markets etc. We buy them, cut the tops off, scrape out the seeds and other goop from the inside, carve scary faces or other patterns into them and then put them on the front porch with a candle inside. Only the more ambitious among us might bake and eat the seeds or otherwise try to turn some of this poor humiliated vegetable into food.

There is, of course, the matter of pumpkin pie. I am not sure where pumpkin pie filling comes from, other than a can that you buy at the grocery store. I don't recall ever seeing anyone I know turn an actual pumpkin into pumpkin pie. Maybe when your jack-o-lantern disappears from your front porch late at night on October 31 it's actually not the doing of those pesky teenagers from down the street, but rather the work of the Secret Pumpkin Recycling Mafia, sent out by the likes of Dell and Libby's to collect the ingredients that will become this Thanksgiving's pumpkin pies. Who knows? I sure don't, but since I never liked the stuff anyway I'm not going to waste another thought on it.

Our pumpkins end up in the compost pile after they have completed their service on Halloween night, so I guess in the end we do eat them, at least indirectly, since the compost gets worked into the soil in the garden and then we grow food in it. I love my compost pile. It's an opportunity for me to manufacture my own dirt. You can never have enough dirt.

I made this dirt myself!
I'm especially proud of my three-chamber compost thingy that gives me plenty of space in which to regularly shift the compost material back and forth between chambers so that it breaks down in a nice even way. I put in all of the non-meat kitchen scraps, but the main ingredients are lawn clippings mixed with leaves. Every fall I collect the leaves that rain down from the many trees on and around our lawn, run over them with a lawnmower and then dump them into a pile. Over the course of the following summer I draw down the pile of processed leaves as I mix them with lawn clippings. It takes a few months for a batch to break down enough to be usable, at which point I pack it into big heavy-duty trash bags for storage until I can work it into the soil at the beginning of the next growing season.

Where Dirt Comes From
This past summer I actually ran out of leaves while I still had plenty of lawn left to mow, so this year I asked one of my neighbors for some of his leaves in order to have enough next year. He was a little perplexed at this because for most people in our leafy suburb, the question is, "How do I get rid of all these damned leaves?" and not, "Where can I get more?" So he asked what I wanted them for and I told him I was planning to eat them, which, as noted previously, is at least indirectly true. He gave me a bunch of leaves but he didn't ask any further questions.

But I digress… this is about pumpkins and not compost. I'll tell you more about that some other time.

My Favorite Wife, who grew up in Germany, is a devoted pumpkin carver, having adopted this peculiarly American custom with the zeal that is generally only observed in late converts to a cause. She has presumably amassed a huge collection of little knives and saws and other specialized pumpkin carving tools; I say presumably because nobody can ever remember where the little tools we bought the previous year are, so off we go to Walgreens every year to get more. I assume the missing tools are in the same place as all of the left-over Easter egg coloring equipment that we also can't seem to find from one year to the next. Maybe all of those missing socks that seem to have never returned from their journey to the dryer and back are there too.

The practice of pumpkin carving was actually brought into the family by me, then an American expatriate in Germany, when my daughter was small and needed to be introduced to Proper Culture. They don't grow pumpkins in Germany, but there are some fairly large yellow-orange squash that show up in the stores in the fall and make a pretty reasonable pumpkin substitute. So one year I bought one and showed my daughter how to make a jack-o-lantern. Then we put it on the front porch of our ground-floor apartment for the admiration and wonderment of the many neighbors in our apartment complex. It wasn't long before we had a whole phalanx of little neighbor kids and their parents showing up every evening at dusk to witness the lighting of the Kürbisgeist, or "squash ghost".

Vegetables of our Forefathers

Sunday, November 7, 2010

On the Road with Kris

A couple of nights ago I was on a plane once again, flying off to yet another glamorous and exotic location to do some work for one of my company’s consulting clients. Seated directly across the aisle from me was a guy with white hair and a long, bushy white beard. He was about average in height, late middle age, with a pronounced paunch. He wasn’t wearing little spectacles but he was wearing some faintly spectacle-like wire-framed glasses. It appeared that I was en route to Minneapolis-St. Paul with Santa Claus.

He wasn’t wearing a red suit, but he was wearing a red plaid flannel shirt, jeans and sneakers. Basically, he was dressed the way I'm often dressed when I'm in my garage workshop, or generally any time I'm not wearing the slacks and jacket I put on to signal to clients and co-workers that I am a responsible professional. It would stand to reason that Santa Claus would also put on his fancy red suit for official appearances of a professional nature and, like me, prefer something a little more comfortable and casual when he's in Santa’s workshop or otherwise out of the public eye. It being a couple of months before Christmas, maybe he was using this more conventional form of travel than his flying sleigh to do a little business travel.

Now, just in case you're wondering at this point, I do know that Santa Claus is a fictional character. So I had to wonder: Is this guy deliberately trying to look like Santa Claus? Or is he a big chubby guy with white hair who just doesn’t care much for shaving and trimming his facial hair, and that’s all? Intentional or not, surely he is aware of his resemblance to old Kris Kringle.

Maybe he really enjoys looking like Santa. Maybe he's spent years perfecting the look, and plays the part at shopping malls and department stores so well that he only has to work for the approximately one month per year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maybe he pines all year for that single month, when small children will look on him with awe and wonder, and he goes from being just an average guy to being treated as some kind of demigod.

Maybe he’s relatively indifferent to the whole thing and isn’t particularly going out of his way to look like that. Maybe he laughs about it with friends or family, but doesn’t make any effort to capitalize on his resemblance to Jolly Old Saint Nick.

On the other hand, maybe he really hates the whole Santa thing: “This is the way I look and I’m not your holiday icon, so leave me alone.” Maybe he despises Christmas and looks the way he looks as a deliberate act of defiance. Maybe he’s a mean old guy who delights in scaring the bejeezus out of little kids who come running up to him on the street to tell him about all of the presents they want for Jesus’ birthday: “No, you don’t get the Hot Wheels. For you there will be only PAIN!”

Reflecting on all this I found myself reminded of the origins of this peculiarly American incarnation of St. Nicholas. One of the many people who shaped our American idea of what Santa Claus looks like was Thomas Nast, the nineteenth-century caricaturist who also gave us the donkey and the elephant as symbols of the two major US political parties. Nast was born in the town of Landau/Pfalz, not far from where my wife grew up, where he is one of those long-ago German emigrants who remain their home town’s main claim to fame.

In Germany they don’t have Santa Claus as we know him. Instead, they have Nikolaus (St. Nicholas), who looks like a Catholic bishop in a red, faintly Santa-like robe. Nikolaus has various regional names; for example, where my wife grew up I have heard older people refer to him in the local dialect (Pfälzisch) as "Belzenickel". Whatever they call him, German children wake up on the morning of December 6th to find that the shoes they put outside their front door the night before have been miraculously filled with fruits, nuts, candy and maybe a small toy or two during the night.

Nikolaus doesn’t frequent department stores. Instead, he comes to your house pretty much any time between Nikolaus day and Christmas bearing a big book and often accompanied by his scary servant Knecht Ruprecht (“Ruprecht the servant”). Nikolaus consults the big book and reads out to the awestruck tykes all of the things that their parents have previously instructed the college student in the Nikolaus costume to tell them about their various good or wicked deeds of the preceding year. There is a sort of implied threat that Knecht Ruprecht is going to do them harm if their transgressions have crossed some unspecified threshold, so the visit from Nikolaus is not all candy canes and ho-ho-ho.

There are various other characters that show up around Christmas time in Germany. The American-style Santa Claus sometimes shows up in decorations and is referred to as “der Weinachtsmann” (“the Christmas man”). He doesn’t seem to have any discernable function other than decoration, i.e. there isn’t any kind of lore or activity associated with him as nearly as I can tell. He's just sort of there. I've asked my wife to explain this to me but she can never really give me a satisfying answer.

Another character that shows up at Christmas is the “Christkind”, which would translate literally as “Christ child”. In my wife’s family, the giving of gifts on Christmas eve (not on Christmas morning, as in the US), or the gifts themselves, are sometimes referred to under the loose label of “Christkind”. The Christkind as an entity is somehow the source of Christmas gifts, but the system by which the gifts are selected, procured and conveyed to their intended recipients is essentially unspecified. One may see decorative images of the Christkind as a sort of small child with wings like an angel's. So, I have asked, does the Christkind come to you and give you the gifts, or does he leave them under the tree when you are sleeping, or something like that? No, apparently not. How does the Christkind decide what to give you? Unknown. Is the Christkind baby Jesus? Negative on that one too. My German in-laws seem entirely unbothered by this sort of vagueness, whereas I’m a names-and-dates guy who needs to know exactly who’s responsible for what and when.

Of course, being a member of the Chosen People, even in the country of my birth I’ve observed all this stuff through the lens of an outsider all my life anyway. We don’t have any holidays on which a guy comes down your chimney and leaves you cool stuff in exchange for some milk and cookies you put out for him. The closest thing we have is a prophet for whom we leave a glass of wine on the table during one of our holidays, but we also leave the front door open because apparently Old Testament prophets prefer a more conventional means of entry into the home.

I have a very vague memory from when I was about five of being in a store or shopping center and seeing a guy in a Santa suit, and asking my mother what that was all about. She explained to me the basic tenets of Santa Claus theory, then told me in so many words that it was bunk, but that under no circumstances must I tell that to any of my non-Chosen friends because they would be severely traumatized.

A cousin of mine was not so well informed about these things at a similar age, although he apparently was slightly little more informed about current events than I had been as a five-year-old. The year was 1980 and the American hostages in the US embassy in Tehran were on the nightly news every day. At Christmas time he and his family were in a shopping mall where there was a Santa Claus posing for pictures with kids. Whereas I had been merely curious, he became quite unglued at the site of this man with the flowing white beard. He pointed at Santa and shrieked, “The Ayatollah!