Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving.  As far as American holidays go, Thanksgiving is definitely my favorite.  Hang out with friends and family all day, eat til you explode, watch some football in between napping, and just enjoy yourself.  No big religious overtones, no gift giving.  The only real obligation is to wear loose fitting pants.

I guess with all that gluttony in mind, it'd be difficult to write a heartfelt song about Thanksgiving.  Leave it Ray Davies to come up with one. 

Hey, come on over, it's Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Day.mp3

The table is set.

The dessert table is almost set too.  Left to right: Pumpkin Pie, cookies, Carrot Cake, Marble Cake and Apple Pie.  Missing in Action: Raspberry Cheesecake.

The Spread. Clockwise from 1 o'clock: salad, green peas, mashed potatos, turkey, sweet potatos, stuffing and green bean casserole.

Round Two.  On my second plate I only left room for the essentials: Stuffing, turkey, peas and mashed potatos.

Her dessert "sampler" plate: a bite of carrot cake, raspberry cheesecake and apple pie.

Preparing to dig in.

 Quite possibly the most underrated part of Thanksgiving.  Left over Pumpkin Pie for breakfast the next morning.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hit it

Friends and family in Chicago, we'll see you soon!
For those of you here in Germany, see you in two weeks!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Wow, it has been a heckuva week.  Busy, busy, busy.  And before you know it, we'll be on our way to the States for a couple of weeks.  I can't promise many updates from there but we'll see.

In the meantime today is a big day around here.  If you're here, you already know.  It is 11/11.  Karneval.  For those not in the know, the festivities begin today at 11:11am.  Get it?

So what is Karneval?  I am not too sure to be honest.  I was here once for Karneval two years ago and I can tell you what I saw.  Drunks.  Lots and lots of drunks.  Most in funny costumes which makes it all a little more entertaining.  There was beer bottles all over the place.  More than you could imagine.  And yet, everywhere I looked, people were wheeling around trolleys full of more cases of beer.

So, as far as I can tell, Karneval is pretty much the equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans or (obviously) Carneval in Rio.  Although there's a big blow out today, the main celebration is in spring just like Mardi Gras, and it lasts about as long.  So why today's celebration?  A friend in the States told me his opinion.  According to him it is all very German: today the Germans celebrate that they can now begin to plan for a celebration in the spring.  Today is the beginning of the Karneval season which ends with said spring celebration.  In between today and next spring, serious committees will be planning the festivities.  Although it is roughly the same every year, this is apparently serious business.  Lest you think my friend was doing a little too much stereotyping, I asked my teacher why the celebration in November.  Her answer: because we can now start getting ready for next spring. 

Here's a little more background on the festivities.

And here's a video that tries to explain Karneval as well.  Not sure if that goal was accomplished, but you get a pretty good idea of what it is like around here.  If you're planning on coming over to visit in the spring, plan according to your tolerance for public displays of drunkenness.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have an old Halloween costume to dust off...

Viva Colonia.mp3

Monday, November 9, 2009

Where were you?

Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  1989.  I was just 13 years old.  There was no way I could possibly comprehend the impact of that event.  I only remember being told that this was "really important" as we watched the news together.  With the build up to the anniversary, I've been fascinated reading accounts about that day.  If you get a chance, take some time to read up on it too. 

The New York Times has an amazing reader submitted interactive photo guide. The captions are as interesting as the photos.  Don't worry, there's local sources, too.  German magazine Der Spiegel has plenty in English as well as Deutsche Welle news.  DW also features a lot of radio and video reports in English.

Here's another reason to remember today.  Hopefully this doesn't get lost in all of today's reflections, too.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Passing of a Generation

Earlier this week we received some sad news.  Our Great Uncle Marvin passed away on Monday.  He was the second of three sons born to Russian immigrants on the old west side of Chicago.  Children of musicians, it was only natural that all three boys would grow up to be musicians as well.  Norman, the eldest, played piano and accordion.  Marvin played guitar.  Anatol, the youngest of the three (and my grandfather), played bass fiddle.

What I remember most as a child were the family get-togethers at my grandfather's house.  When two or more of the brothers were together, you could always count on music being played.  Jazz standards and old blues songs, traditional Russian songs they learned from their parents and anything else that struck their fancy.  Stories were swapped and jokes were shared. And there was laughter.  Lots of laughter.  All of this was the soundtrack to a lot of happy memories.

Occasionally at those family parties, my grandfather would slip a cassette tape into a boombox to record the music.  Sometime after he passed away, I came across a box of those old tapes.  At that time I was working as an audio restoration engineer, restoring old time radio shows.  Before I left that job I made sure to bring in those tapes and transfer them over to a digital format for everyone in the family to enjoy. 

I still have a hard time listening to these recordings.  I always get a little choked up, especially when I first hear everyone talking and laughing together in between songs.  By the time I'm done listening, however, I'm smiling too.  I know some can't bear to hear these.  And I completely understand.  But I'll put it to you this way: if they didn't want the family to enjoy these, I don't think they would have bothered to record them in the first place.

Below are a couple songs from the Berkman Brothers.  The first is a Russian ballad they learned from their parents.  I don't know the name of it.  If you do, please let me know.  It is from the earliest tape I found, dated September 15 & 16, 1981.  The second might be the last song the three ever recorded together, from a tape labeled July 19, 1994.

As sad as this week's news was, I am happy the three of them are back together again; playing music, joking, arguing and sharing stories.  And maybe they can finally learn the words to all those Russian songs from their parents, too.

Russian Song.m4a

Those Were the Days.m4a

By the way, here's a heartfelt memorial written to Uncle Marv by one of his neighbors. Make sure you check out the video of him playing at the end.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Drawn Butter

It's awful undermining to the intellect, German is; you want to take it in small doses, or first you know your brains all run together, and you feel them flapping around in your head same as so much drawn butter.
- Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

I've come to the realization that I may have hit the wall in regards to my German language abilities.  I've been going to class five days a week nearly nonstop since mid-July.  There simply is no more room left in my brain for anything new at this moment.  For the past two weeks, my attention span in class has completely disappeared.  Each day this week has been a bit of a struggle to get up early and get ready for class.  In one class last week, for no apparent reason, the teacher announced we'd go one hour later.  It was like watching the clock run backwards.  And I'm paying for this!

I'm tired of coming up with dumb little memory tricks for remembering how to spell certain words or their definitions.  At this point, I don't really care why the verb goes in this position or that.  I'm putting it wherever I damn well please for the time being.  While I'm lightyears ahead of where I thought I'd be with the language, I'm flat out pooped.  Needless to say, I am really looking forward to our trip to the States for Thanksgiving.  When we return I have the option of jumping back into the class I am currently with, although I'll have missed two weeks.  Instead, I might take another two weeks off and join the class that is currently behind us by one month.

Those of you following along who might be taking German lessons (or have tried in vain), here's some reading I'd recommend.  One of my previous teachers made mention of this.  I didn't bother to look it up until recently.  Apparently Mark Twain once spent time in Germany trying to learn the language.  He got so fed up with it, he took his anger out by writing this appendix in A Tramp Abroad.  If you're in the midst of studying the language, I recommend saving this until you're near your breaking point:

Hey, at least I know I'm in good company.