Friday, June 30, 2006
In the earlier post I suggested that an ambiguity in the national pride of Germany results from the fact that Germany was defeated in World War II. However I have been shown that the deeper, more effective source of ambiguity is the nature of German national pride during World War II: the spirit of Nazi-ism. The Nazi party, while it was in power, equated German national pride with the destruction of all “impure” German races, including and especially the Jewish people. It is this equality, still heralded by contemporary Neo-Nazis and still remembered by most people in Europe and North America, which really makes the idea of German pride and nationalism seem awkward.
I was reminded that losing a war is not necessarily a long-term embarrassment. But the desire to violate such a deep-seeded principle as respect for other faiths, ethnicities, and nationalities does produce such embarrassment. Losing the battle was not the sin of Nazi Germany; what they fought for was. It is for this reason that we still shudder to think what the world would be like—especially what Europe would be like—if the Nazis had not been defeated.
Now with the World Cup in Germany and all those flags flying, I wonder how the German sense of nationalism will evolve and find new expression. It’s a shame we can’t remain in Germany to find out first-hand.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
I think somehow we missed out on something in the United States. Somewhere, somehow, trains just didn’t catch on as a reliable, fast, and extensive network of transportation. Having traveled Europe in this fashion, I now sense the lack of trains in the United States and I mourn it. I know there are planes and automobiles that will get you from point A to point B just as safely, but give me the slight rock and roll of a TGV speeding through beautiful countryside anytime.
Sunday, June 25, 2006
On the daybreak side of early on Saturday morning we were back at the train station heading for Nice, France. Our mission: a day at the beach. Blue Mediterranean waters on the French Riviera were calling. We arrived on Friday afternoon, witnessed the setup for the IronMan triathlon and lots of construction and went to find dinner. Since the night before had been so short we crashed and had a lazy morning on Sunday; which was followed by a lazier afternoon as we slopped on the sunscreen and headed surfside. With books to entertain us we spent the afternoon in and out of the water and generally relaxing. I know- it’s tough. A romantic dinner out, and a stroll along the coast, punctuated with fireworks made for the perfect beach holiday. Next time I think we should stay longer!
Where to this week you ask? Arriving in Paris on Monday and Dublin on Thursday. Saturday it’s off to camp for a week with Dublin Christian Missions as volunteer staff. You can keep us in your prayers as we minister with DCM to inner-city families taking a week’s holiday.
Internet connections are in and out so our response time on e-mails and Skype may be longer.
Saturday, June 24, 2006
When you travel the world you expect to see some strange things. You also expect to learn a few lessons along the way. For instance, you might see a giant industrial pink metronome slowly ticking on the spot where a statue of Stalin once stood. Or you might learn that no food is served in restaurants in New Zealand between the hours of two and five o’clock in the afternoon. You just never know what you might learn or experience while you’re abroad.
Sometimes you learn about things that no one talks about. Like toilets.
The toilet as we have come to know and love it was invented by a Thomas J. Crapper, if the popular story has any credence. (Even if it doesn’t, can you really resist passing that one along?) It has a porcelain bowl that holds a certain measure of water whose purpose is both to subdue the noxious odours emanating from human effluence and to resist the rise of similar odours issuing from the sewer below. I trust that you are familiar with the various designs and accoutrements of the standard toilet. I know that if you have spent any length of time around college freshmen you will be more than familiar.
While staying in Salzburg I discovered a variation on the design of the toilet bowl that charity drives me to describe as . . . interesting. Indeed, some people visit Salzburg to see the salt mines; some visit to see where Mozart grew up; some visit to tour the prominent spectacle of the fortress on a hill. We did all those things, but I discovered something more.
The toilets in our hostel were designed with a poop shelf. No, there wasn’t any engraving telling me that’s what it was, but the purpose became clear upon first use. The water hole (apologies to those plumbers out there who cringe at my ignorance of toilet vocabulary) was pushed forward in the bottom of the toilet and the rear half of the bowl elevated to produce a shelf with a lip. Thus the steady-state condition of the toilet was to have the usual pool of water in the hole and a thin puddle (maybe one quarter of an inch deep) on the shelf. Enter user. When the toilet user makes his or her, um, deposit, said deposit lands squarely on the shelf and stays there.
Most of us have been camping at some time in our lives, and we are therefore familiar with the result of making a deposit without the benefit of water to subdue the essential aroma of our efforts. The Austrian Poop Shelf, like the side of a tree or a grassy knoll, makes it impossible for the water to do its job. Mr. Crapper would be, I think, sorely disappointed.
The flush, rather than issuing from all sides of the bowl, comes in a wide stream from the back of the bowl. I surmise the intent of this design to be the movement of the deposit forward and down into the water hole. The effluence is then carried by gravity into the hungry sewer system. Right now you’ll be wondering, as I did: can one’s deposit be of such magnitude that the flush-stream cannot move it off the shelf? The answer, I discovered all too soon, is yes. So the Austrian Poop Shelf presents hazards both for the present user and the next victim, whose only crime is the call of nature.
There is one relative advantage to the Austrian Poop Shelf design. It overcomes the problem presented by a toilet bowl so deep and with so little water that any deposit becomes a bomb. But I shall save my analysis of the Czech Wet-Bottom design for another day.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Salzburg is a great little city nestled in the Bavarian Alps. Jagged peaks lay in the distance, reminding me a lot of the Rockies in Southwest Colorado. Today we’ve been to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, Hellbrunn Trick Fountains, Salzburg Zoo, the home of the Motzarts and other meanderings through small cobblestone streets, soaking up history, cultures, sights and heat. Now we’re trying to cool down before dinner. One display thermometer we passed declared 38 degrees Celsius which would be about 104. Emrys doesn’t think it was accurate- I’m not so sure! It’s pretty toasty. We’ll explore Salzburg again tomorrow and then Thursday it’s off to Geneva. At least if its 104 there, we’ll be close to a lake!
Monday, June 19, 2006
We just spent a few days in the Berlin area with a friend who is German. She recounted the story of a television campaign in Germany some time ago the aim of which was to inspire a sense of civil and political responsibility in the citizenry of Germany. How to do so? Tap into the human need for identity, for association with or membership among a greater social body, and lead people to identify with the nation of Germany. The tag line in the campaign was “You are Germany.” Since your identity as an individual and the identity of the nation are somehow intertwined, it is then your duty to do what is good for Germany.
Yet for Germans there may be an inherent ambiguity in German national pride. Remember, in Germany (and the United States, to name one other) the spirit of Nazism still exists. This spirit posits a “pure” German race violently opposed to other races and other nations. Thus to speak with pride of one’s “Germanness” makes one liable to misinterpretation by others, and especially by those who have poignant or polarized memories of World War II and Nazi Germany. Yet people cannot live without some source of identity. So what are Germans to do?
The hosting of the World Cup in Germany brings this matter to the fore. German flags are everywhere. A new pride in Germany arises from the desire for Germany’s World Cup team to win the final. Our friend tells us, as we look around at all the flags flying on cars, out of windows, and carried down the street, that such a display of flags—and thus German pride—is unusual. Yet there it is. Just like the famous zeal of Brazil, the staunch pride of France, and the powerful chanting spirit of Korea the German sense of collective identity rises to the surface during this time of athletic competition. Shall we not applaud this uprising of spirit, of identity, of zeal in the German nation? What better place is there for people in this country—the seat of the EU, the wellspring of engineering excellence—to lodge their sense of enduring selfhood?
The (Neo-) Nazis want to stage demonstrations. Should they be allowed? Germany is as interested in the protection of free speech as the United States, but here the Nazi organization remains a rot that threatens to corrupt any good sense of identity. This problem is acute when the world is watching the country during the World Cup. The world would be offended by many of the principles of the Nazi movement; yet it is a world that also tends to divide itself along lines forged by the embrasure of national identity, of which the Nazi movement is but an extreme (and extremely negative) example.
Germany finds itself on the cutting edge of a dilemma that all of us in an age of “nationalism” ultimately face. If our identity is derived from an entity whose existence depends on worldly success and power, what happens to our identity when that power is rendered ineffective? What happens when evil or ineptitude prove the source of our identity to be fallible? What happens when the source of our identity is defeated in worldly terms—especially when the defeat comes at the hands of others over and against whom we have chosen to identify ourselves? This is a question rarely faced by citizens of nations with power while they possess their power. But for citizens of defeated nations or nations in-between, the dilemma must be excruciating. It must drive people to ask if there is a source of social and collective identity that does not depend on worldly power. Is there?
*see later post entitled "An Amendment"
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
You may have read in an earlier entry that Geo and I had an adventure in home-made escargot. By popular demand (which means that at least one person has lodged a request) I shall relate the story of snail consumption.
[For photos, see the album labelled "Escargot" on the sidebar.]
The question about using snails for a culinary delight is not whether or not they will serve in such a capacity. The real question at hand is how best to move them from the form in which we are used to finding them—squishy, slimy things creeping on the ground in a trail of mucus—to a form in which, with a little stretch of the imagination, we might find them palatable. Certainly you will quote to me the common refrain, “Use a good sauce!” It is true that good escargot requires a good sauce. Snails served in even the finest restaurants are slathered in some sort of butter or cream sauce, for good reason: cooked snails, if left to their own devices, have the taste and consistency of vulcanized rubber. But, again, this is beside the point. When standing in an open field, in the morning just after heavy rains, with hundreds of these lethargic mollusks inching around you, the question stands: How do you get them to the point where they taste like vulcanized rubber?
In answer to this question I consulted two sources. The first was an employee and student in Prague who had prepared snails with a Greek Orthodox priest here a couple of years ago. He harvested the snails, rinsed them off, threw them in a pot, brought the water to a boil, and boiled them for three hours while continually scraping the foam off the pot with a spoon. (“Scraping the foam off the pot,” you ask? Yes—more on that later.)
The other source, which I don’t recommend to the casual user, was of course the internet. After some digging I found a consensus among restaurant and recipe websites that the best (i.e. gourmet) way to prepare snails is to harvest them, purge them, rinse them, boil them, salt them, rinse them again, give them a foot massage, boil them some more, salt them, ask for last requests, rinse them again, then boil the heck out of them. This process—recommended by all the experts Google could find—takes anywhere from three to five days.
I started out with good intentions to try it the gourmet way. On Sunday morning I went out before 8:00, when the grass was still wet from last night’s rain, and collected 25 snails in a plastic grocery bag. I brought them in and placed them in a basket with a quarter-head of lettuce and a few pieces of wet bread. The bread keeps them moist and the lettuce gives them something clean to eat. This is the “purging” phase, intended to “fast” the snails until their little GI tracts are empty. (It’s akin to “deveining” shrimp, but kindler and gentler. It’s good to be kind and gentle to animals you’re about to boil to death.) I covered the basket with a towel, after returning those snails that were already about to escape, and set them aside.
While the snails were fasting I found the translation for “I ate snails” in Czech: Já jedli šneci. Sara insisted that I know how to say it, in case I had to explain to the paramedics why I had stomach pains later that night.
Then I talked to Geo. It turned out our travel plans made three days of purging impossible. So I compressed the process. (Sorry, Emeril. I tried.) That afternoon I took the snails out of the basket, rinsed them in cold water and vinegar, then put them in a large pot of cold water on the stove. Over about thirty minutes I brought it to a rolling boil. It was only about two hours until we had to eat, but it would have to do.
Snails are animals that spend sixty percent of their lives perambulating on a moving sidewalk of slime. Whence does this slime come? Snails produce it themselves, excreting mucus from the bottom of their feet. Next time you see a snail, notice the shimmering trail behind it. Since snails (like all animals) have to be on the move constantly to find food, they produce a lot of slime.
Even when they’re dead they produce a lot of slime. Especially when they’re being boiled. Hence the foam.
The most labour-intensive part of preparing snails is standing next to the boiling pot, scraping off the foam that immediately develops on the surface of the water. Scoop some off, and it’s quickly replaced by another rising mountain of light brown fluff. For about two hours I scraped and sloughed, scooped and lifted. At long last, when the water boiled (relatively) clear, I rinsed the snails in cold water and pulled them out of their shells with a fork.
Our sauce was a basic garlic and butter sauce—you can probably make used tires taste good with enough garlic and butter—with some dill. I set the snails in sautéed mushroom caps, just for effect. Then Geo and I dug in, with our wives sitting at a conspicuous distance and making disparaging remarks about our choice of appetizer.
How was it? Much like vulcanized rubber with garlic and butter. But as anyone who’s eaten snails knows, it’s not about the taste of the snails; it’s about being able to say, Já jedli šneci!
[One note is in order for those adventurous souls out there. The restaurant websites I found refer to two kinds of snails: gros gris and petit gris. (“Gris” is grey, in French, and seems to refer to the internal organs—the tripe—of the snails.) They say to cut off the body (the “gris”) of the gros gris variety, but you can leave the body on the petit gris. Well, Prague doesn’t have gros gris or petit gris snails. Here live Burgundy snails. Hence I didn’t know whether to cut off the tripe or leave it on. Having now chewed on the gritty tripe of Burgundy snails I can offer an educated recommendation that you cut off the gris. Just eat the muscle of the foot.]
Monday, June 12, 2006
Our loaded blue duffle bag matches the blue sky, although not quite as big. We’ve loaded it up with everything we don’t want to carry for the next 7 weeks and it will take an early trip back to the
So as our time in
P.S. American guys played poor football... 3-0 Czech Republic.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
We have had the blessing of friends here in Europe who are willing to use English—their second language—in order to make it easier for us to visit and experience their home lands. For instance, in Norway our friends Maria and Martin spent six days with us, taking us around Oslo and points south, all the while operating entirely in English for our sake. I was given cause to reflect on my own attempts to learn the most basic Czech and similar attempts to revitalize my French for our later travels. Speaking and conversing in a second language makes communicating a greater struggle than usual. Conversation is, at its best, an attempt to convey what we are thinking to someone else; when both partners are speaking their native language then the full array of linguistic and cultural expressions and connotations are available by which to make meaning. When you’re speaking a second or third language, however, the range of expressions is smaller. Thus communication of your true thoughts—especially those that emerge from the core of your being, where only metaphor will serve to communicate them—becomes more difficult. It takes more energy, and you have to live with ambiguity about whether what you really meant to say is what the other person actually heard.
We had friends also here in the Czech Republic who were so eager to visit with us that they spoke English during our time together. The only times they stepped back into their native tongue were when they needed to ask each other how to say something in English. I felt embarrassment sometimes at my place in this interface of cultures: here I am, visiting their country, and they are obliged (though very willing) to use my language in order that I may understand them. At the same time I felt honoured and blessed to receive such a gift of others’ time and effort. They have nothing to gain from spending that extra energy save our friendship; yet they are willing to put forth that energy for us.
These friends made room for us, not only in a physical way—in their homes—and not only in a manner of service—sharing their meals with us—and not only in a temporal way—in giving up time to be with us. They also made room for us with their language, coming to us by speaking English when we could not come to them by learning Norwegian or Czech. This kind of hospitality is a special kind. A home is a home in any culture; food is food to any stomach; and time passes the same for all humanity. But language is a special kind of hospitality requiring more effort, more concentration, and more expertise because a foreign language is not something you use in everyday life.
There is something valuable here for those of us who want to welcome people from other cultures or countries. I think especially of the current quandary in the United States regarding the increasing number of immigrants who speak Spanish as their mother tongue. If we want to help these folks, to really engage with them and discover what their greatest needs are and how to help fulfill those needs, then language is a good first step. (Perhaps I should call it an essential first step.) I mean specifically learning Spanish in order to begin to cross the linguistic and cultural divide between the English-speaking inhabitants of the U.S. and those who speak Spanish. Learning the language of a foreigner is the greatest gift that a “native” can offer that foreigner. It requires giving up a certain amount of our power, certainly: we will be unable to speak some of our deepest thoughts and, worse, we will embarrass ourselves as we stumble through new pronunciations, words, and images! But the work of learning someone else’s language in order to make them feel welcomed is one that will bear fruit. All hospitality reveals our willingness to make space for the stranger in our lives and by doing so offer the opportunity for the stranger to become more than a stranger. It is the first step in friendship.
Is this not what Jesus Christ did for humanity? Christ came to humanity, taking on its language, its thought-forms, its bodily condition in order to reveal Yahweh’s hospitality to us. Likewise this is what we are called to do for those who need our hospitality—not only Spanish-speakers but also those who speak Mandarin, French, or Swahili: whatever our neighbour speaks.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
The longest train station name in the world is “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantisiliogogogoch” the station is found on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. Translated it means “the
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Five parties dominate the political scene in the Czech Republic: Civil Democrats, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, the Green Party, and the Communists. Our friends are hoping that in this year’s election the Civil Democrats will outpace the Communists. Apparently there are still large numbers of people in the Czech Republic—mostly those of an older generation—that look back on the communist years and see something better than what they have now. This is especially true of those who worked labour jobs: factory workers, farmers, and construction workers. In the communist era these occupations paid well, for the government valued basic labour as the foundation of society and economy. Alas, educated professions like physicians and engineers were not looked after so well; they fare much better under a government supporting a free-market capitalist structure. (Our friends are engineers who see the great improvements in life since the Velvet Revolution.)
We spent the afternoon wandering around Brno, the central town in the region known as Moravia. The city is an industrial centre but also boasts many historic buildings and beautiful churches. For us it was fun to have locals (our friends come from Brno) give us the “real tour” of the town. I had hoped to see some traces of the radical reformation that gave birth to the denomination known as the “Moravians.” Alas, though their name does come from this region, their geographic traces have faded. The trail starts in Germany now, where Count von Zinzendorf lived with this sect after they fled Moravia in the fifteenth century. But not all history was lost to us on this trip.
In central Brno there is a monastery with a large lawn in the middle of it. On that lawn—which was a garden at the time—the monk Gregor Mendel conducted his experiments with pea plants. His gardening and observation established the foundations for the present understanding of genes and inheritance. I got to stand where all that “AA, Aa, aa” stuff from my biology classes began. Very cool.
So we had lunch, toured the town, had coffee, said good-bye to our friends, and hopped on the train back to Prague. It’s a three hour train ride that, unless you have a good book, can be relatively boring. Well, you can have a book or a diabetic episode. Take your pick.
About an hour into the ride I heard a shout from the end of the car near the washroom. I looked down the aisle and saw an arm sticking out, near the floor. As I stood up and moved toward the fallen man I realized that he was one of the three Italian men sitting in the group of seats right next to us. I summoned one of his friends to follow me.
The man had passed out at the washroom door. They didn’t speak English and my Italian is horrible, so my attempts to offer assistance were largely unhelpful. But he was conscious now and hadn’t hit his head, so things seemed alright. I took our water bottle over to him as he lay in the end of the train car, but he shook his head. He and his friends fumbled with words until they arrived at “sugar.” I proffered an apple we had, but he insisted, “Sugar, sugar.” (Glucose, I guess, not fructose. Isn’t that the same in Italian?) It wasn’t until one of his friends went to the dining car and came back with three packets of granulated sugar that I understood: he needed the real stuff, straight up. Our best guess is that the guy was diabetic and hadn’t eaten for a while. But after some time with his feet up, some sugar and some water he was able to make it back to his seat. Two hours later he had made it back to Prague well enough, but he looked like the episode had spoiled his journey. I’m glad it wasn’t worse; I don’t think the train crew includes a physician.
Now we’ve seen the capitals of both major regions in the Czech Republic: Prague in Bohemia and Brno in Moravia. With some politics, history, and excitement along the way.
The Czech Republic is full of “pivnices,” or beer halls, which usually serve a home brew along with the classic favourites of the nation. Some of them only serve their home brew, which means that patrons come just for the specialty beer and the atmosphere of the pivnice. U Fleku is one of those places.
We sat down at the long table and immediately a server brought us each a pint of dark beer. That’s right: we didn’t order them. It’s assumed that if you show up, you want beer. So they give it to you. In fact, they keep giving it to you. Have you ever wondered what those cardboard squares in bars are meant for? They’re not originally meant to put under your beer. They’re meant to put over your empty glass to tell the pivnice staff you don’t want any more beer.
The U Fleku brew is very dark but does not have the bitterness of a Newcastle or a Guinness. In fact, it’s rather sweet for a beer. Quite good.
They (several servers tend the large dining rooms squeezed together in what seems like a hot cellar) passed by to throw down two menus for the six of us. After a few moments another waiter appeared, tablet in hand, to take our order. I think he greeted us with one word before standing expectantly with pen in hand. We stumbled through our half-Czech, half-English orders. The waiter scribbled. With brusque deft strokes he snatched the menus from our grasp and disappeared.
In a few minutes we were feasting on the Czech classics of meat, potatoes, dumplings, gravy, and kraut. The sound of a two-man Oompah band echoed in from the next dining room, where a baritone and an accordion serenaded other patrons. Several languages thickened the air with conversation. And the U Fleku beer flowed. For a unique and quintessential Czech experience, it doesn’t get much better than U Fleku, although 95% of their patrons are now tourists. I guess that’s what happens when you make it onto the list of the top 1,000 things in the world.
We’ve been to U Fleku. Only 999 things left to do before we die.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Thursday, June 01, 2006
Were this petition with its 100 (or 200 or 300) names to reach someone in a position of power or responsibility for the aforementioned cause, how would she check to ensure that the names were real?
How would she know that I hadn’t fabricated 99 names and places, tacked them on to an email with a row of “>” symbols in the left margin, and sent it to her?
How do we, as petitioners, know that this petition will be taken seriously after we click “Send”?
It is our responsibility to ponder these questions, because they bear directly on whether all this petition-signing is worth our effort!
I decided to do a little research. According to an article published on Salon Technology’s website (http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/1999/05/10/petitions/index.html), email petitions have very little effect. Another site not only recommends against signing email petitions (for practical reasons), but offers suggestions for how to find effective e-petitions (http://michaelbluejay.com/main/petitions.html). I’ve only read it briefly, but it seems to make sense to me.
I particularly appreciated the latter article’s admonition to 1) contact the originator of the petition to see if it’s genuine (or still an issue) and 2) find the website of the cause in question and sign the petition there. Not only do these suggestions make it more likely that your signature will matter; they also increase the chances, by asking for some active involvement on the part of the signers, that signers will sign after some critical thinking (rather than following a electronic mob with its torches and pitchforks).
Thus, while I agree with the negative admonition so often heard, “Don’t send email petitions on!” I also want to add a positive admonition: “Check the source, consider the cause, and sign responsibly.” Then this wonderful technology or ours will have a chance to work for the democratic process rather than gumming it up.
If you must send emails for petitions, send them with a single link to a site with a verifiable petition. Then we’ll thank you for helping to make the world a better place.