The Croatian Communion of Cookies and Coffee

They smuggled cookies everywhere, like children sneaking JuJuBees into a movie theater within the lining of their jackets.

During my last visit, her parents brought a package of cookies to a mountain top cafe where we opened them quietly while the Fraulein was in the kitchen watching for our Café au laits and macchiatos. The restaurant provided cookies. They were individually wrapped, laying leisurely on the saucer, and shaped like spoons to better scoop our cappuccino foam, but it was so impersonal. So individual. Those German wafers were held singularly in captivity, annexed from the true communal nature of their existence. And so they stayed that way throughout our respite.

MountainMaybe it was a survival strategy, or perhaps it was culture, but those cookies that the cafe provided always found their way into her and her mother’s stylish Croatian purses. They were rescued refugees, just like their now owners, and deserved a good home with friends and family to support their struggle for freedom.

Later on, I would recognize those mountain top wafers looking comfortable, yet a bit apprehensive, on the porcelain plate that came out of the fridge during our coffee conversations. Now, finally out of their plastic coffins, they were free to live with their fellow cookie, joyously preoccupied with idle conversation and gossip, exempt of the existential knowledge of their basic function: to be eaten.

I never quite grasped eating cookies and coffee after climbing a mountain. I thirsted for water, Powerade, Gatorade, something that would aid me in my climb, something that Michael Jordan endorsed. Something that promised the replenishment of my electrolytes. So I sat at the cafe sweltering in the tight mountain air, that much closer to the sun, sipping coffee and lightly snacking on the orange chocolate wafers that supposedly bridged the language gap between all of us.

Because of all this, now I crave sugary confections with my coffee. I search through the empty spaces of cupboards. I peer in pantries. I open the fridge, hoping that a cookie has miraculously appeared during my absence.

Cupboard, pantry, fridge. Cupboard, pantry fridge.

Sometimes I vary the routine, but it still yields the same result. The very definition of insanity. It didn’t used to be this way. I took my coffee with cream. No sugar. Half & Half. Breve. But I stayed far away from sugary morsels that usually accompanied coffee to the tables of bourgeois homes.

At her parent’s home—after the soup, salad, and meat course, each course with its own set of dishes and silverware—we had coffee.

Small, white porcelain cups with gold etching encircling the rim would escape the small dishwasher along with their matching saucer, but for only a moment to be used and immediately shoved back in once the discussion dried up. They were the unfortunate ones that barely saw the light of day.

As for the lucky ones, first there was the shiny, metal cream dispenser that sat in the fridge perpetually full, as though magic had replenished it. The only sign of use a slight drip languidly trailing down its spout, or the surfacing and eventual receding of condensation as it was lifted from its natural home within the chilled refrigerator and out into the open Swabian June air.

The other fortunate son was the cookie plate. It was white with blue, sometimes maroon, etching that showed a distant farmhouse of what may have been a Croatian or Bosnian countryside. It looked breakable. As though one more cookie heaved on its lightness would bring it down with a smash on the table. But it never did.

Bday CakeThe chilled plate contained at the very least three variations of sweets, which, like the cream, were replenished through either magic or a craft of secrecy that no guest would, could or should ever puncture for the very lack of decency that knowing might betray. These cookies never failed to appear whenever or wherever coffee was served.

And we endlessly drank coffee. The coffee-stained, glass pot in their kitchen was kept warm throughout the morning, but one never drank coffee alone. It had other functions than fuel for individual achievements. It prodded discussions. It cajoled tears and remembrances. It told our futures.

Like the day before I flew home from Stuttgart airport to Minneapolis, I was the last one to empty the coffee pot at 9pm at night. Her mother smiled at me a smile that squished her eyes and tightened her lips, and then she said in a broken English mixture of Croatian, Bosnian and German accents that now it will be my turn to host.

A flood of images and lingering questions corrupted me: how will I get these people to Minnesota? Where will they stay? How will our families communicate? My mother is infamous for her passive aggressive nervousness and judgmental facial expressions, and her mother’s overbearing nature crams the air with an anxious eagerness that bemoans the fortunes and struggles of two piqued immigrant refugee daughters who no longer need her; and not one son, nor the promise of a grandson, to delightfully and thanklessly devour her food or drink her drink.

WineThat favor, and slight responsibility, fell upon me. And drink I did:

One shot of home-made plum Slavonian vodka before eating.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One glass seltzer water during dinner.

One more shot of home-made plum vodka before the main course.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One cup of coffee. Cream. No sugar. With cookies and cakes for dessert.

One German bier with her father after the table is cleared, with salted snacks emerging from cupboards.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One more German bier, if her father was feeling talkative.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

I have been spoiled by the attentiveness of a mother whose only heterosexual daughter has brought home a boyfriend from across the Atlantic Ocean. The first boyfriend they have had the pleasure of hosting and being introduced to in over a decade. The pressure was grand. It was bulky. Fat, yet dexterous.

It tied our tongues. It spoke up in between the silences or the lost moments of translation. It coughed when I nodded in agreement to a word or phrase I did not understand. And it eventually wore her and her parents out.

They would have liked my coffee. I make it four cups at a time in a metal, double-lined coffee press. I ground it one pound at a time and kept it in an airtight container. I would have had snacks ready. Confections of the American breed. Oreos, perhaps. Sugar cubes for her and her father.

I could imagine hearing the dismissal of apologies for mismatched coffee mugs while I poured. A lingering disapproval as I offered cream from the Land O’ Lakes container. The subtle noise the plastic flap the Oreo cookie wrapping made each time we wanted one would be like a siren warning us that something isn’t quite right. Something is mismatched. One of these things is not like the other.

But that moment never arrived.

So, now I’ll continue my search for cookies, and pour myself another cup of coffee while I write about a distant land and a distant way of life. A life without the constant hum of American television, or the hopelessly forlorn pride of single parents, or an inharmonious collection of dishes that betray an utter unpreparedness for guests, or the clenched beauty of traditions that are to be cherished and passed on with force against reluctance.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and consider what I’ve gained and what I have lost.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and ruminate on how my past informs my future.

But first, just to make sure there are no cookies, I’ll check the pantry again.

The Aura and the Art Museum

This post has been inspired by a fellow blogger, one Peter Galen Massey. Recently, he and I had a reply-style discussion that mentioned the value of art and Walter Benjamin‘s interpretation of “aura”. This discussion has inspired my reconsideration of Benjamin’s work, and my own recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago—where a Picasso exhibit is currently featured.

MonetSo, let’s start with the basics. Walter Benjamin, an exiled German Jewish philosopher, critic, historian, etc. wrote a significant essay entitled, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. (Here’s a link to the pdf). Benjamin defined something he called “aura”. This “aura” is a work of art’s unique presence in time and space. So, one would feel this “aura” if one viewed Monet‘s original Lily Pad paintings. It is akin to authenticity, except “aura” is a thing (for lack of a better term) that the original art work possesses (due to its history, its changes in ownership, its chemical changes, etc.). The thing is that this “thing” that the original work of art possesses can not be felt/interpreted/experienced by a subject, e.g. you, if it is a copy. So, that Mona Lisa on your coffee mug does not possess “aura”. You dig?

You know why? Because, as Benjamin states, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221 of Illuminations). So, any replica loses this “aura”. Only the original possesses an “aura”. (In an exchange of letters between Georg Lukács and Benjamin, Lukács told Benjamin that he was (paraphrasing here) not Marxist enough. I totally understand that now). And with that, let me make a bold statement: that aura stuff is bull**it.

Works of art are locked up behind gates, guarded by numerous security guards, and under constant surveillance. You know why? Aura. Those paintings represent a movement, a theory, a statement, a something; but, Man must eat first, before he or she contemplates art. So, we set aside our earned $30 and stand in line to enter our local Art Institute that houses works of art that should make us feel something (aura, perhaps?). And we see said art, and, lo and behold (!), it produces this feeling! “Yes, I am inspired! I will paint! I will draw! I will siiiiing!” But what inspires this inspiration? Is it aura? No. I will not grant mysticism to oil on canvas, nor charcoal on paper. What inspires us is our own expectation: the room, the lighting, the locks, the guards, the waiting, the entrance fee, etc.; that is what produces this so called “aura”. We don’t need to know about aura to feel this feeling. It is already in our collective consciousness simply by the fact that these works of art are placed in special spaces that are reserved just for them. This grants them an “aura,” not some mystical pronouncement or terminology. It is a collective will to place a value on certain objects (reification…), a value that does not exist, that is what makes these objects special and elite.

PicassoInside the Picasso exhibit, housed under a long wooden table with glass mounted on top, there were roughly a dozen early sketches of Picasso’s before he began painting a series of portraits featuring the infamous Minotaur. These sketches were unfinished and meant to be understood and valued as such. As I walked around the table, I noticed that I was in a room full of people looking at drawings of a Minotaur f*cking a lady, or sometimes two ladies. And I thought this odd. My second thought was: this Picasso guy is a hornball! Drawing pictures of bestiality and such. What a silly fellow! I laughed a bit out loud and caught the eye of my gf who was earnestly studying the sketches, as though she was imagining the burgeoning genius that was Picasso furiously creating this bestial sketch. She shook her head at me and walked on.

After the museum we stopped at ye old coffee shop and discussed “art”. My gf called me cynical due to my slight scoffing at Picasso’s Porn. I took offense. The last thing I am is cynical, my dear reader (a philistine, most likely. But, cynical? far from it). Her defense to my above accusation of Picasso is that he is a genius. My reply was that Picasso was a man. And the sketches of porn he was drawing proves that he eats, sh*ts, loves, f*cks, and drinks just like any other man. Period. He does not possess a gift or genius, he is a man with significant artistic skill, important social connections, and the right social conditions provided so that he could develop that skill and those connections. Punkt. Full stop—as my lady would say.

My point here is not to argue that art and its value is good or bad. No. Our esteem for art reflects our own cultural value. And our culture values art. It shows that despite decades of simulacra, postmodernism, mechanical reproduction, Mickey Mouse, far too many Transformers films, and thousands of $10 Monet Lily Pad prints adorning hundreds of college dorm walls so that some girl will think some boy is smart yet sensitive in the hopes that she will have sex with him, we still value art. It is one of the best ways in which we know how to reproduce and share the human experience. It is one of the best ways to demonstrate to past and future generations that creativity is valued in our society. It is one of the best ways to inspire passion, beauty, love, hate, honor, envy, morality, sex, lust, war, happiness, frustration, etc. And it is one of the best ways to communicate our Truth. Even if it is a sketch of a Minotaur f*cking a lady… or two.

What Are You Thinking?

@MSP 3What are you thinking, my darling daughter?

Are there fears?
Like magicians. Swirling, whirling, making confusion and dust. Tornadoes of glittering wonderment—
No appeasement of thought while you gaze, adrift.

Is there innocence of what will be?
How will my bag fit? Where will I sit?
Will my feet touch the floor? Will the plane make a roar?
When I arrive,
Will Mickey like my smile? Will Cinderella talk a while?

I wonder what she thinks—her first time in the air.
I surely don’t remember mine,
And she may not remember this first time.
But if not, then I’ll remind her
Of that time I took a picture
While standing not far behind her—
As she gazed longingly at the great blue and orange plane, enormous in stature, standing quietly, gently still on the tarmac, as a sleeping dragon, a 485-ton flying carpet, to be filled with people of all shapes and sizes. A marvel of man. That magician.

A Pragmatic 7 Day Reflection, and a Slight Rant

“I leave in 7 days, and I have only now grown accustomed to that queen size piece of cardboard she calls a bed.”

For those of you just tuning in: I’ve been in Deutschland for the past 23 days, of which 7 remain out of a 30 day sojourn. My gf has lived in this beautiful and highly organized nation for the past 20 years, and she is currently completing her PhD in British Literature here in Mainz, Deutschland. My position as an adjunct professor allows me a break from time to time, where I can, let’s say, skip a semester (which are only 5 weeks where I teach), and fly here to be with her. Plus, I earn enough vacation from my other job at the international coffee production line to take off for a month or so. This isn’t too bad of a life, but that is now what this post is about.

First off, her orchid has returned. The blame for the resurgence of her rather delicate and fussy orchid is placed squarely upon me. It seems that all the flowers bloom just a bit more when I am here. I think that’s fair. Personally, I believe it has to do with the fact that I open up the curtains first thing in the morning; her, being a more romantic, less pragmatic individual, believes it has something to do with the presence of Love. I like that idea too. We have done so much in my time here, but I cannot remember much. I have a feeling of normalcy, though; and that is what I wanted from this visit. I wanted that normalcy that couples feel when they are near each other enough to lose that intensity of focus; just so that they can return to it later. We established that one week before I left from my last 18-day visit in February 2012. It was intense. We went to London and Rome over a 5-day period, but settled quietly with one another upon our return to Mainz. The time before that was a hefty 9 days, where we visited Undenheim, the town of my ancestors and went to Mainz’ Oktoberfest. After February, we met in Boston for 6 days. I think 30 days is the right amount for a lovely visit.

We attended a soccer game this past Saturday afternoon, where Mainz conquered Düsseldorf in a blazing 1:0 victory! We are hosting an “American style” party Thursday evening for 11 individuals in this rather quaint 1-bedroom apartment that is generous for two, but crammed for 11. She is cooking cheeseburgers and french fries, and I am making Jack and Coke‘s for her fellow German friends. We have selected the playlist of cliché American tunes from the American Graffiti soundtrack, and are going to be cleaning and food shopping most of the day tomorrow; but that’s not what this is about.

I don’t rant very often on this blog. I find it a bit cliché, and I tend to accept and welcome life’s absurdities as they come. Only, last night I got a taste of the German system. Oh, it was just enough to leave a bitterness on my tongue, but not enough to tarnish my vision of this nation. We attended Mozart‘s “Cose Fan Tutte” opera last night at Mainz’ State Theater. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was sung in Italian and the “subtitles” were in German, so I didn’t understand a damn thing, but it was fun.

My gf’s ticket was free because she is a student, mine was 15€. We looked marvelous. All dressed up: new sport coat, blue tie, scarf, dress shoes; leggings, black dress, black clutch; to the hilt, as they say. We went to sit down and the seat attendant wouldn’t let us sit down because my gf’s student ID had expired by 9 days. 9 flippin’ days! We bought the ticket only 2 days ago, and no one bothered us then. But this little man held us up and caused a “Männchen-Stau” of rather pretty looking Germans to back up behind us. My lovely & patient gf told him she would run home then and get her new ID, and then he told us to wait a little bit while he would “see what he could do”. I, of course, ranted that we should seek someone higher up, but instead we waited like dummkompfs for about 3 minutes while he made up his mind to let us in to our seats, and other attendees passed us by.

Now, here’s the thing: really? Do you really have trouble with students sneaking in to Mozart! Friggin’ Mozart! Do you think students sit around and hatch ideas about how to best avoid the hefty 15€ for a night at the opera!? No. And let’s put this in perspective, roughly 65-70% of the attendees were conceived the night of the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty. They lack the youthful ingenuity & tenacity of a Lady Gaga crowd. What a silly, particular, and thorough little man this seat attendant was; and although we may have learned a lesson about the German penchant for dates, tickets, and numbers, I do hope that this little ticket attendant learned to be a bit more forgiving and sympathetic toward his patrons.

The night ended well with the elderly couple to our left saying a gentle farewell after the show, a free bus ride with the purchase of our tickets, and a quiet discussion of the night’s events over a glass of wine. I think the Germans are wonderful people, and once you establish a rapport, they can be some of the most opening and genuinely welcoming people. They say “hello” and “good bye” when they share a table with you, and they find small instances of affection and love absolutely endearing. BUT, you have to make sure your paperwork is in order, or else the most charming smile and delightful laughter will fall silent against a concrete penchant for order.

Thanks for reading!

Of Mineral Water and Cultural Adaption

“Alright, I’m going for a run. I’ll be back soon.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Hmm… probably 45 minutes or so. Why…?”
“I would just like to know whether I should make reservations tonight for only one.”

I have a confession. No, it has nothing to do with the neglecting of this blog, and the blogs I follow, for the past 12 days–although that may come up.

My confession is simple: I like bubbly, mineral water.

There. I wrote it. It is on the great and powerful Internet now; possibly forever. First, I have decided that this inkling toward the bubbly makes me European (specifically German, since I am now in Germany until Oct. 17th, and technically ethnically nearly 80% German). And second, it is a testament to my level of comfort here in Mainz, Deutschland.

A bevy of beautiful, beautiful bubbles!

Water became a topic of conversation between my gf & I, when we decided that Americans generally do not drink bubbly, mineral water (or, with gas as it is sometimes called). Personally, I drink my water from the tap, or from a Brita filter. It has fluoride. It has minerals. It has stuff I should be consuming. But I was told not to do that here in Mainz, Germany. So, we, and everyone it seems, drinks large 1.5 liter bottles of H2O, and then returns them for 0.25€ each at their local grocery store. Bubbly water, like San Pellegrino in the States, is, as I referred to it, “hoity toity,” and it requires a certain comfort level for the middle-class American palate.

In 2003-04, when I was living in Rome, Italy, I tried the whole “with gas” thing. It didn’t take. Again, last time I was in Germany, February 2012, I didn’t like the bubbles or the minerals. But now something just snapped. We were at lunch two days ago eating Vietnamese food (Ha Noi, definitely eat here!), when the waiter brought bubbly water with a lemon slice and it matched the yellow curry perfectly. I haven’t looked back ever since. In fact, I bought a 6-pack of still (for the gf) and a 6-pack of medium bubbly (for me) last night. I’m a changed man.

For your amusement: some silly questions I asked my gf about the bubbly water for which I received perfectly serious answers:
—”So, is it more expensive?”
—”Do the bubbles come first, then they take them out? or do they add bubbles?”
—”There are various degrees of bubbles?!?”
—”Do ALL Germans drink the bubbly water?”

The second part of this post refers to the introduction quote. I went for a jog yesterday. In the States I jog three times a week, three 5k’s, depending on the weather. I have never jogged here. It was uplifting. It was enlightening. It was peaceful. It was glorious. It was empowering. And, I successfully found my way back to our apartment. I jogged along the Rhine with the old couples slowly shuffling along together hand-in-hand. I jogged along the promenade with the young mothers and fathers calmly pushing strollers over cobblestones. And I returned home to the kitchen emanating a wondrous aroma of a boiling basil and tomato sauce.

You see, when I visit my gf here in Mainz, we are never outside of earshot of one another the entire time of my visit. We work peacefully and respectfully around one another, we can be silent for hours, we sometimes talk over a meal for four hours straight, we read together, we watch films together, or go on walks. Me going off on my own is a big deal. It is part of my comfort here in Germany. It is part of me finding my own way. It is part of me coming back to her; of absence being the beautiful knowledge of a return.

Thanks for reading everyone. I would love to hear your own silly cultural adaption stories, or your opinion on bubbly water!

A Lufthansa Arrival, or How I Almost Became an Overnight Male

“What should I do if my baggage is lost?
Please report the loss of your baggage immediately at the appropriate counter. If you do not report the loss until later, you will need to prove it retrospectively, which is clearly more complicated. You will find detailed information on this subject on our page Lost or damaged baggage.”

F.A.Q., Official Lufthansa website

Well, dear readers, I made it to Germany safe, sound, and all in one piece. And, of course, there are some stories. One I shall gloss over now, and one I shall share in another post.

The first is simple: Lufthansa lost my luggage. Naturally this is a small fear each of us has while traveling, right? Going to a foreign country and packing everything you need only to have it lost somewhere between Chicago and Frankfurt, and delivered far too late for your favorite toothbrush, soap, or underwear to be of any use. Well, as any good German citizen or entity, Lufthansa has a back-up plan.

It is… The Male Overnight Kit!

Yes, the Male Overnight Kit. It contains everything the Overnight Male needs:

  • 1 plain, black toothbrush;
  • 1 plain, black, folded comb;
  • 25g Colgate toothpaste;
  • .85 fl oz Senzai shaving cream;
  • 1 Rexona, ice cool deodorant;
  • .9 fl oz Neutrogena shampoo;
  • 2 cotton buds;
  • 1 single, white, disposable razor;
  • 1 XXL, white, crew cut t-shirt;
  • and, 1 single, silver packet laundry detergent.

If I should ever join Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem, I shall be fully prepared.

So, armed with a receipt bearing a phone number and a reference ID and my lone carry-on, I went to meet my gf outside Frankfurt airport’s International Arrival gate. She was not there waiting for me. I later found out that after waiting some 90 minutes my plane arrival had disappeared from the electronic board, and, in a panic, my gf went in search of information. (“If I had to wait another 5 minutes, I would have died!” is the exact phrase). After having searched the dozen or so waiting tables in the international area and deciding to locate information myself, I spotted my gf coming toward me through a long hallway with two sliding glass doors. I calmly waited with a knowing and profoundly glad smile painted on my face, and we embraced like lovers will after not seeing one another for five months. Dear readers, allow me a personal note here: there is nothing, nothing, like the romantic airport kiss near the international arrival gate (Oh God, My Wife Is German, I know you know what I’m talking about!). One should really try it, or add it to a bucket list.

Jetzt Ich bin angekommen!

Well, later that evening, just as we were finishing our dinner conversation, a very nice, middle-aged German gentleman from Lufthansa delivered my luggage. How nice of the Germans, aye? My arrival was so special that they decided I did not need lug my 50 pound suitcase on the train from Frankfurt to Mainz and all the way through town, echoing the rickety-rickety-rickety sound of suitcase wheels on cobblestones, and that I should focus solely on being with my gf. So, thank you Lufthansa!

And, to make my point clear, now that my shaving mirror is firmly attached to the interior of my gf’s shower, my arrival in Deutschland is official.

Thanks everyone for reading.

London Feb 2012, Day Three: Zurück zu Deutschland.

Because I never thought I would say with a sigh, “I am so happy to be back in Germany”.

Flying back to Frankfurt-Finally, a seat together.

Continued from Part 2

Our journey began on a Tuesday morning, February 21st, very, very early. An early flight from Frankfurt-Hahn (the outlying, thus cheaper, airport that is a 45-minute journey from Mainz) to Rome, meaning we had to get up at 6am, which in US time was 11pm… my regular bedtime…

Rome was scheduled far in advance before I left the US. I hadn’t been there for years, and since I was staying with my gf in Mainz, Germany for 18 days, I suggested a 2-day stay in my former city. London was not planned. London was a weekend conference that my gf was accepted to only weeks before my departure; and we planned our trips so that Tue-Thu would be Rome, and Thu-Mon would be London. This is not so easy.

Thursday morning we had breakfast at the apartment we were staying at in Rome and left a bit early for the flight to Frankfurt-Hahn. Rome’s Ciampino airport was clear across the giant city from our apartment (from Metro stop Cornelia to Anagnina, then a bus), so we decided to cut our trip short by going to Termini and catching a bus to Ciampino where we would fly back to Hahn, and stay there until our evening flight into London departed. (I am working on a short story about this crazy trip, and will post it upon its completion).

We arrived in London Thursday evening around 10pm. We had been traveling for nearly 12 hours through three different nations and one timezone. By the time our taxi had arrived, we were exhausted. We arrived at our destination in South London’s Peckham neighborhood just before midnight. The first thing we did after the owner of the apartment left was take a shower, and crash, hard.

This third day of sightseeing was a relief. It was calm, relaxing, and, since we were riding on a tour bus, we didn’t have to worry about transportation. I recommend it to anyone who only has one day to see London, and truly wants to see all of London. Hope you enjoy the pictures!

Thanks!