Thursday, February 26, 2009

Vorfahrt gewähren!

= Yield!
(right: one of the pics used on the theoretical test which I took)

"Rechts vor Links" (right before left) is a mantra for those learning to drive in Germany -- because they have more uncontrolled intersections than we do, and unlike in the states people actually tend to follow the rules, this one is actually important.

An American license is only valid for 6 mo. upon entry into Germany, after which it must be transcribed, the process for which varies in difficulty depending on the US state where you license was issued. Out of MN only the theoretical test was required -- however even this was rather tricky, and filled with tricky questions regarding weight limits, indicators for various specific car problems, myriad signs, and how to react in specific situations. A far cry from what is required in the US. Seeing as I need to be able to drive for work, it was worth the hassle, and even though they took my old license... it expires in March anyway, so I will be able to simply replace it.

Immediately following my last entry I started a 3 week block of school, during which, aside from studying for and taking the drivers test and going to school, included 2 trips to Berlin (one to see these American friends (Lea and Kurt):
...the second trip (deep breath in...) was largely on behalf of my teacher (and leader of the trip our cultural exchange group is planning to Mozambique in August) who was unhappy with how a public forum on basic education in Africa was organized largely because we didn't get any donor leads for our trip and wanted to express himself in person to the organizers, who, as it turns out are only bitches for the Federal Department of Economic Cooperation and Development next door. (whew).

...oh, and I moved. Away from my suburb and home of 2.5yrs and into the city and closer to work. I'm now in a place I found online with a 30-something guitar teacher and a girl my age in the computer design industry. Both nice, quiet, low maintenance. Pics and more details will follow as soon as the boxes have been unpacked and my desk (still in slow process in the shop) is finished and delivered. Katja is moving as well. Just down the street as it happens. She has been spending the week (using vacation time) to lug boxes, paint, and chase down furniture. The last push in on Saturday when we rent a van and drive through the city picking up the furniture she's found at Ikea and on Ebay -- it won't be very relaxing.

Moving and work
and private projects
hectic now, but
On the bright side,
it's getting lighter:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Arbeit macht (gerade) Spaß!

In the Winter in the afternoon the sun comes in low through the windows in the machine room.

Work has been interesting and engaging since I returned from the holidays at home. One of our clients, Herr Besser (literally, Mr. Better) has a condominium in a high rise overlooking the Batic Sea. We made the hour drive up their three times to install the extensive bedroom cabinets we built for him. From his ninth floor unit the view was beautiful, with water out one side of the apartment and the tips of tall trees at eye level out the other. Going out on a build/installation (Montage) is always exciting for the change of scenery, new places in Hamburg and elsewhere, as well as snooping through other people's homes. Mr. Better--who is recently retired--and his wife have rather quaint, kitschy, and cheap taste in furniture for their weekend second home, so the view was in fact the most exciting thing there. He has nothing to do during the golf off-season, and thus spent the entire three days hovering over our shoulders, asking questions and wanting to help. Aside from this breathing-down-our-necks serving as a good source of humor, due to his easy-going character and utilitarian sensibility, this also proved to be helpful when a couple of small problems in our process surfaced.

On a recent weekend Katja and I made it to an indoor Flea market and antique convention here in the city... if you like garage sales in the US, image how interesting it is to rummage through people old junk (and some nice antiques) from a different country. This yellow leotard-ed fellow reminds me of a different item I did not muster the courage to photograph with the owners in front of it. It was the book, "Zehn Kleine Negerlein" (yes, "Neger" means what you think it does, and "lein" is the diminutive ending). As I found out online, this relic of a more racist (recent) German past, which was a counting rhyme book for kids, was the German version of the American rhyme Ten Little Indians. The book was published as late as the late 1950s.

Another "Montage" I was involved with for work took us to Kiel, another Baltic Sea coastal city, this one on bay that cuts in from the ocean. The work itself was a laundry list of rather small items to improve previous work we'd done for them before and take some measurements. Like Mr. Better, these clients had a nice view too, as well as an untreated wooden floor of Jatoba (Brazilian Cherry), and sweet cat on top of it.

This week I'm at the handworker's guild doing the first in a series of workshops required during my apprenticeship -- this one is on basic, hand-crafted joinery. We've thus far practiced several kinds of mortise & tenon joints (for frames, and for table legs), and spent the day today working on dovetails, which are tedious but rewarding to make.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Zusammenfassung: Schule

A lot has happened in the last four months! much as it sounds like a tacky, self-indulgent holiday letter with such a start, I'm using it anyway for this recapitulation:

Since receiving my permit to legally work as a fine woodworking apprentice my whole outlook has relaxed quite a bit -- no matter what you're doing, it's a relief to have a sturdy plan and secure job guaranteed for a couple years. That certainty has not made the grunt work in the shop any more exciting, but it feels good to feel work and the procedures I've learned move more smoothly and naturally, and I've started thinking more about my goals during my time and how I can ensure that I reach them.

The required trade school (Berufsschule) has proven to be rather underwhelming while not uninteresting. I've enjoyed learning the properties of trees for example, and of their wood, how to identify them, and about various products into which they are processed , but have thus far been disappointed by the shallowness with which the topics are addressed. This has largely to do with the average age (about 18yrs) and education level (Junior High) of my fellow students, which are further sticking points at the Gewerbeschule 6 in Hamburg.

Perhaps it's unfair of me and the several other Twenty-somethings (I'm a close second to the oldest) to expect the same level of interest and desire to learn, but mustering a bit of attention span and maturity shouldn't be too much to ask even of the 16yr olds in the class. Yes, I'm back in school with Sixteen-year-olds.

Annoyances aside, I've gotten to know a selection of the more interesting and engaged students through an African exchange forum with which I will be traveling to Mozambique in the summer. My primary class teacher, who leads this trade school exchange, has proven to be one of the more positive surprises I've found at school.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


So, a large part of my reluctance to write new entries here had been the expectation (self-inflicted) that I update people on my future in Germany and corresponding status of my long sought after work permit.

...well, I got it. :)

And I was so glad to have received the news while I was home, so I could share it with my family, grandparents, and friends at home, who, after all, would be the ones most aware of my absence. As it happened, I opened the e-mail with the news from my boss while I was on the phone with Katja, so she found out right along side me. This event proved to be the icing on what was already a wonderful vacation:

It was a strange experience initially, to come out of a long night of air travel and drop back into life with my family after so long away. The cultural readjustments, language shift, and reminders of old modes of interaction were all fairly quick, but left me mulling them over as I quietly made personal sense (or tried) of these two very different identities and worlds of which I'm a part.

These different identities are not divergent ways in which I present myself--although assimilating a new culture/language has develop new traits/habits in me--but more how I see myself as fitting into each place. For example, how do I reconcile my being American (and being back in my native environment) with what I have grown to see as negative aspects of our culture and way of life?

In any event, the readjustment to family proved to be a pleasantly surprising one. We all seem to have matured together, leading us to get along as a unit far better than we had ever before; the intensity of sibling quarreling and conflict with parents was greatly reduced and had in many cases fully dissipated. Certainly a natural shift in family structure, but a welcome one.

I was especially glad to catch up and spend time with both of my brothers -- it is fascinating and enjoyable for me to see how they've changed develop, handled problems similar (and not) to those I did, and admire them for strengths I lacked and choices they've made. This rosy outlook may have been supported by the brevity of my visit--interrupted by two Midwest trips to see friends--but I doubt much would have changed it.

The highlight of our time together was a kayaking trip on the Kinnikinnick River starting in River Falls, WI., during the 4hrs of which the five of us and Martin's girlfriend, Elise, alternated drifting slowly through deep regions and barreling swiftly down rocky ones under clear blue skies. The stretch was secluded and mostly peaceful, except for the couple instances of capsizing at ill-placed tries downriver of swift rapids. To make up for those, we made a couple stops to swim and relax, one of which adjacent to a sandstone cliff that Martin and I semi-successfully attempted to climb.

Thinking of times like those do make me wistful for home, and certainly quell the negative sentiments for my home-country to which I alluded above. It's hard to say where I may end up down to road.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Urlaub von der Vorhölle's been a long time, I know. I've withdrawn a bit to avoid the topic of my future here, which is still uncertain. And I'll be lucky if my situation is settled before late July. He's working on it, he says, and I can't blame my (to be) employer for not moving faster -- after all, he is doing me a big favor.

In any event, the big picture has been good up in Norderstedt; work being fun, rewarding, and educational. However, the last two weeks have dragged a bit following the interview of one potential co-apprentice and a petering out of progress toward my goal.

And then today, I managed to embrace this limbo in which I'm trapped and simply enjoy the more tolerable temperatures and be reminded why I love this city so much:

After leaving work early from a job site near the city center, I headed to the vibrant, youthful, creative Altona district, a refreshing break from my generally older, more conservative Bergedorf. After checking out prospects for a short film festival at a local indep. cinema, I discovered a wonderful gallery housed in the same former Schiffsschraubenfabrik (manufacturer of screws for ships). It featured the work of an amazing woodworker whose complex and creative use of curves, joint, and above all, inlays, are technically awesome (think, original meaning of the word).

After snooping through a beautiful restaurant in the same complex, which showcases the dramatic size of the largely undisturbed and raw ruin, I got an ice cream cone from a little cafe and headed toward the city and through a neighborhood I'd never seen before. While architecturally dull, it was culturally diverse with a vibrancy not common in such neighborhoods (I may return there to try a packed, hole-in-the-wall Portuguese restaurant I passed).

As I approached the end of the district, I almost missed what could only be described as an anachronistic cemetery, hidden behind shrubbery, a high fence, and a row of old trees. The headstones, tipped and sunken, were decayed and moss-caked in a series of half circles weaving in and out of the ancient trees that darkened the whole plot.
Tracking the fence I was able to look back and make out that Hebrew was in relief on every one of them -- the Hamburg Jewish Cemetary, as I later read. This is the most significant and oldest (1611) of the handful of Jewish burial grounds in Hamburg, including the remains of composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

The last uplifting component of this afternoon was the podcast I was listening to as I walked through Altona. It was an NPR rebroadcast of a book-reading by a white, southern-African author (Alexandra Fuller) who had created a novel out of research she did while trying to write a critical expose about the oil industry in Wyoming, where she now lives. In pursuing the story of a young roughneck who died on a nearby rig while she was doing her research, she became obsessed with his story, and ended up recreating the entire world in which he lived, featuring the unique culture of these hardened cowboys in their rather barren and apparently limited experience. That I had already rented "There Will Be Blood" on iTunes for viewing this weekend proved to be a serendipitous continuation on the oil theme. Good film, incidentally.

I baked my very first loaf of bread last weekend (see below) and have been hooked. While initially uncertain of success, my fears proved baseless. I made a second batch this morning using a different recipe -- I look forward to a traditional German Abendbrot this evening before we head out to a free, end of semester concert on the Hamburg university campus.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Frühling der Unzufriedenheit

Easter Sunday Katja and I took the regional Bahn two hours north of Hamburg to the city of Flensburg -- directly on the danish border. This delicious foliage (see photo), soaking up the sunshine, was tucked away in a park we discovered in a corner of that city -- a perfect spot for an Easter egg hunt, perhaps.

[Flensburg, the Northernmost city in Germany, is known nationwide, perhaps exclusively, for its beer of the same name. Situated on a bay stretching in from the Baltic Sea, the city spreads out on the hills that rise on either side of that body of water. It is beautiful mostly for its aquatic views and diversity of architecture, including numerous war survivors]

Having spent a gorgeous, chilly day in the sun and fallen asleep digesting a delicious offering of the local catch, it was a bit of a surprise and disappointment to wake up the next morning to this:While unexpected, and too wet and melting for lengthy walking in leather womens shoes, the snow was beautiful, and their source had an insulating effect than left the air warmer than the previous day. We we both content to leave early, reading on the train ride home.

Nevertheless, this unexpected, rapid and jarring shift in weather was not unique to Flensburg, and far from new. Several weeks ago it seems, just after it started getting lighter outside in Hamburg, the temperatures rose a bit for the first time, and the buds showed. And what seemed promptly thereafter, the temperatures plunged and the clouds and snow returned.

It may not have been quite so harsh, but it seemed to me to coincide poetically with the news of the denial of my application for a work permit and the subsequent building anxiety as my dream of studying woodworking in Germany began to crumble; a fear that seemed only to be confirmed by every official I consulted, including a very generous and well-dressed lawyer who donated some of his time to my cause.

The weather has not changed, nor the bürokratic Frust(ration), but the unending generosity and patience of my employers, and their near-inexplicable willingness to fight for their would-be apprentice have raised my spirits and hopes somewhat (even as unpromising back-up plans--insurance against crippling disappointment--are readying silently for the worst)."Corruption and Abuse of Power; there are no reasons to trust politics" ...nor convoluted government machines, for that matter.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


26th February
The approach of Spring entered my active consciousness this morning with the startling departure of the bus stop fluorescents. While I've been enjoying the morning light for a while now, the shift seemed to stand out as I watched the sky while waiting for the 4th leg of my morning journey.

It actually occurred to me when I first left the dorm this morning to the chatter of birds --It has been a long winter of dark, night-like mornings-- and this new consciousness left me pondering the things that HADN'T changed in my morning routine. The middle-aged woman whom I appear to zoom past ascending the ramp to the train stop, her slow, excruciating steps doing their silent best to avoid some unseen suffering under the erect weight of her tall German body. Or the small mentally ill man in down winter jacket, knit hat and boots who seems always to be winning a race with her to the station entrance -- his stride is shorter, but with the quick, dragging sound of rubber on pavement that more commonly accompanies grade school recess; of course, the leather briefcase swinging with one arm is a clear reminder that we are beyond that stage.

Twenty minutes after having fought for a place to sit on the S21 I'm already securing a position at the door in the very first train car. When lucky, I have two minutes to make it down, up, and again down three flights of stairs to my next connection. While the trains tend to run on time, this window is usually closer to one minute or less; about half the passengers in this first car are in the same boat.

Sitting in my bus, the three trains behind me, I often draw the curious, little-girl stare of a graying, baby-faced forty-something. Each morning she gets on the bus with me at Norderstedt Mitte in her jeans and winter coat, free from purse or baggage, and rides to the industrial district one stop before mine on the 393. The picture suggests a job-turned-career at a machine on the concrete floor of a large one-story manufacturer. Her lack of the weariness and aging of regret hint at decades of settling in among a group of buddies and a comfortable routine; the coziness of a small bubble and the wide eyes of a wider world yet undiscovered. While her small talk with the young mustached man and his girlfriend seem to confirm this fantasy, it may well be far off.

Not infrequently I find myself conjuring false first impressions, an apparent product of a couple cultural factors distinguishing this one from that at home. While Germans tend to commit to and own their occupations more so than I feel Americans, they tend not to build an identity around those professions which might automatically set them apart from those of other classes or branches of work. As in the US, people still tend to group along similar education levels as well as according to class-related social factors. However, the practitioners of specific professions (whether in skilled labor or white color work)--that Americans associate much more readily with education level and social class--in Germany provoke a weaker and less biased first impression of an acquaintance.

The reasons for this may simply be the greater value and respect attributed all contributors to society, a bi-product of the social mentality of a welfare state. This respect and honor in each trade or business spurs the kind of commitment to and pride in one's work that is often evident where we might not expect it.

This is more of a discussion topic than a thesis; I welcome comments/other ideas.