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.

Halt Your Enthusiasm!

I am here in Germany visiting my gf, and I happen to be here when the city of Mainz is celebrating their annual Johannisnacht festival. Last night was the final night, and it was celebrated in style with a 15-minute firework display, which my gf and I watched from Theodor-Heuss Bridge that links Wiesbaden and Mainz.

Johannisnacht 1On the first night of the festival, Friday night, my gf and I walked to the city center where the festivities were held and ate a bit of food and had a beer or two. That was the night I learned my first lesson in Germany enthusiasm: Wait until the song, event, phenomenon, is completely finished before celebrating. I am quiet serious. That Friday night we enjoyed a few songs from an all too impressive Black Sabbath cover band playing at one end of the festivities. Being a Sabbath fan from my teenage years, I sang along and cheered whenever I was struck with excitement. And for this, I received some good ol’ fashion German upbraiding: the stare! First, yes, I was the only one clapping… of which my gf informed me I was, um, premature in my celebration (soooo American, she says). And then I got a stare. The stare from an older German gentleman whose fun I was apparently ruining. Lesson learned.

Three night later and I am about to test my new found knowledge at the final celebratory night. It was tough. It was tough for this red-blooded “didn’t-know-how-American-he-was-until-fireworks-came-out” guy NOT to “oooh,” “aaah,” and cheer every time some pretty colors burst over the Rhine. So, I was quiet. I stood and listened to some sparsely hasty, yet hushed, German excitement over the larger fireworks. But for the most part, the collection of citizens in the photos below didn’t make as sound during the whole fiery procession.

Only one dared to make a sound. As an acute cluster of fireworks dissipated, one promisingly remarkable firework shot forth into the sky. As the dormant firework traveled upwards, I heard from a man on my right as the rocket shot high, a barely audible remark; a lovely admission of the pretense of excitement echoed in the most German way possible. A small, yet significant, word was uttered in an almost official tone: “Jawohl…”.

Fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Fireworks 3Fireworks 4

Jawohl. You’re damn right, “Jawohl”.

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.

Woodbury, Walt Disney, The Walking Dead, and Why Plants are Better than Zombies

PVZ 1Over three years ago a co-worker of mine at ye old coffee shop was playing a game on her iPhone entitled, “Plants vs Zombies“. I was neck deep in my Literature MA at the time, and I thought quit well of myself for having never succumbed to such plebeian banality. Well, let me tell you something: I was wrong. It is now April of 2013, and I have completed “Plants vs Zombies” in its entirety three times. And it was fun.

What I noticed over the past few months is that not only was I playing “P vs Z,” but I was also deeply involved in watching AMC’s “The Walking Dead” every Sunday night. I had watched all the previous seasons via Netflix, and I was very excited to watch Season 3 on a weekly basis. I’ll leave criticism of that show to the professionals (check out The Atlantic‘s weekly series on TWD), and instead I am going to attempt to figure out exactly why I like zombies so much.

These supernatural beings should have some psychological relation and reflection to our own selves, right? Frankenstein is an allegory for capitalism, and as is Dracula, but what’s with zombies? Some are fast. Some are slow. Their origin could be a toxic event, a plague, or more often something unexplainable. But what do they represent for the fan? There is a bit of Biblical references, right? The dead rising from the grave and all that—”Judgment Day” as Ray Stantz so eloquently states in Ghostbusters. And fans of other horror genres, and critics of zombie films, will often argue that zombies are boring due to their horde-like, slow movement. After all, you just keep killing and killing, as though there is no end! But here’s the thing: that is exactly why I like about the zombie genre.

I have to work at ye old coffee shop at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Sunday. When we open—about 6:30 a.m.—they will pour through the doors not saying a word; not a greeting, a hello, a thank you; they will throw their remaining pocket change in the jar, go about their day reading the paper or making conversations with their neighbor about the weather. At 9:30 a.m., the masses will come. They will come after early church, before the later service. They will come in their sweatpants, their suits, their bow ties, or their stocking caps. They will come in SUV’s, on bikes, by foot, or lumber down from their condos right above us. And they’ll play noisy games like zoozit and kazay, a rollerskate type of lacrosse and croquet! … Oh, wait. That’s the Grinch. Sorry, I was on a roll…

Where was I? Oh yes. It is mornings like these when I realize my fascination with the zombie film: the horde. Retail/food service (the number one employer in America) is a special animal. They just keep coming. It is the nature of the business, I suppose; and if I wasn’t there for any other reason than health insurance, it is possible that those folks in their Sunday attire would not be starring in my own version of the zombie apocalypse. But they are. To me they are the walking dead. Sure, there are a few who make an impression, but for the most part I am fighting to stay alive. I am feeding them lattes and brewed coffee so they won’t eat at my flesh. I toss them a 400-calorie donut or two so they won’t tear off my arm and make me one of them. It’s life or death.

Main StreetSo, why Walt Disney? In March of this year, I went to Disney World in Florida (with my daughter, x-wife and my mother. Yeah, I know. That’s a whole ‘nother post.). I did a bit of research and discovered that Mr. Walt himself designed Disney World’s Main Street after his own home town’s Main Street; thus mimicking this 1950s era Americana nostalgia that may or may have not existed for the burgeoning middle class—only with hourly parades and a life size replica of Neuschwanstein Castle at Main Street’s end. Sheesh. I truly think that Walt’s Main Street resembles the Governer’s town of Woodbury in TWD (non-fans, I may lose you here).

Woodbury is modeled after this Disney-esque, Norman Rockwell Americana of some bygone era (pre-zombie apocalypse). It is fortified with large pieces of welded steel, on which a cat-walk is located for snipers to shoot incoming zombies, so that the people on the inside may live their “normal” pre-zombie apocalypse lives—barbeques, picnics, an evening stroll, etc. There is also ammo, food, normalcy, and a low zombie to people ratio. The problem is that both of these spaces rely upon a falsification of reality. No, I’m not taking the fun out of Disney World (it was a blast!), I’m simply interested in why we need to shield ourselves from reality. Why this facade of nostalgia as a precursor to enjoyment? Or, rather, enjoyment in the form of peaceful consumption? (Beyond the obvious not-taking-out-your-wallet-because-a-zombie-may-eat-your-hand reason).

PvZ 2Our narrative is often that these utopians cannot exist without a catch. There is one little, insignificant detail that requires this peace. For Walt it’s that crazy castle bearing down on us, reminding us that his homage to Main Street is just as fatuous as Ludwig II’s efforts to build a castle in honor of Richard Wagner with German public funds. And our concentrated belief in Main Street as representative of some blissful nostalgic love of what we think of as a “simpler time,” without our modern problems. For Woodbury it is, well was, Penny: the Governer’s zombified daughter in whose name he was running experiments on Woodbury’s citizen’s in order to find a “cure” for her. And the fact that none of the citizens faced the reality of the zombie apocalypse, and were thus unprepared for the real world. Yeah, it’s a stretch to make that comparison, but I beg this question: to what lengths will we go to secure normalcy? What will we ignore so that we may consume peacefully? Who will we keep out so that we may keep ourselves in? I for one am arming myself with a Snow Peas plant to slow them down even more, a Wall-nut or two to keep them at bay, and a Potato mine to blow them to smithereens. Trust me, I know my zombies.

A Slight bit of Complaining and Humor

WeatherIt’s Tuesday, April 9th in Minnesota, and it’s raining. Tonight it will snow. Tomorrow it will sleet, and snow again on Friday. Last year it was nearly 61 degrees Fahrenheit by this time. This state amazes me (or as our local weatherman said, “Considering it’s April 9th, these temperatures are pretty incredible”). But, to my point.

My girlfriend arrived from Germany this past Wednesday, and she is leaving one week from now. We made tons of romantic plans, and are even prepared for a nice trip to Chicago from this Thursday through Sunday (yes, it will be raining and cold in Chicago). Amongst the weather, the front brakes on my vehicle started grinding the day I picked her up! I noticed a squeal or two the days before that, but paid it no mind. Now they are full-on grinding. So, I have to drop my car off tonight and borrow my mother’s car to use while my brakes are being fixed tomorrow. Sheesh!

You want more? Okay. So, on top of all this happening: I got sick. I get sick perhaps twice per year. It is bad: coughing, runny nose, fever, hot flashes, but then there is the worst part: the chills. I have this thing where when I am desperately sick, I get severe chills. So, Saturday night my gf, my daughter & and I are sitting and watching Disney/Pixar’s Brave, and we proceed to bed about 8:15. I can do nothing but fall into bed and shiver. I am freezing. Not 10 minutes later, I realize that there are 5 blankets on top of me and I still shivered for hours. Eventually I drank some Nyquil and my fever broke about midnight when I realized how many blankets I had on me and that I was sweating like a mad man! My gf spent the whole night next to me making sure I got better. After my fever broke and I woke up, she discovered we don’t have mint tea, lemon, or honey in our house to which she replied, “You guys conquered the whole world without lemon or honey!” The next morning she threatened me with her Croatian grandmother’s cure for illness by rubbing me down with vinegar and garlic. We bought some peppermint tea instead.

Silver LiningsSo now I am downstairs feeling better, and, you guessed it, my gf is upstairs resting her burgeoning soar throat. But we have had some amazing moments together. Last night we went to see Silver Lining Playbook—our first actual date-movie ever after 2 years of being together!—it was great, btw. We Skyped with her parents last week, and made meals together. She had her very first PB&J ever and LOVED IT! And I got to see my gf and my daughter interact. That was fun. Of course I was incapacitated, but I noticed my gf’s caring manner.

So, we shall see how Chicago fares. I shall pack an umbrella, honey, lemon, and tissues! No garlic…

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.

Those Moments

So, I am back.

Well, I have been back in the States since Wednesday, October 17th, but I have been under some heavy jet lag since my return from my thirty day trip to visit my gf in Germany. And it so happens that I am now aiming for a relationship post. I hope you enjoy.

Well… here it goes: people keep asking me what I did in Germany. What did I see. Where did I go. What did I do for a whole thirty days without a job! And I figured out the answer: I was a couple. You see, I have a very, very romantic relationship with my gf. It is full of beautiful moments, gargantuan undertakings, thousands of flight miles, people from all over the world, numerous languages and dialects, intercontinental cultural gaps, passport stamps, visas, borders security, long airport kisses, tears, smiles, currency exchanges, delayed planes, regional trains, and a few automobiles; but we don’t go to a movie every Friday; we don’t brush our teeth together; we don’t eat breakfast in a hurry on our way to work; we don’t do each others laundry; we don’t “peck” each other a goodbye kiss.

So, that’s what I did. We had those moments.

Yeah, we did laundry together. And it felt great. I even went out one evening with a friend of her’s who took me to a half-dozen bars in Mainz (he brought me home at 4am! That’s like 11am in Minnesota!). But the best part of that evening was giving her that “peck” kiss before I left the apartment with him. That was a truly memorable moment. We hosted a party with 11 people (four couples who all left at an appropriate time, and one single fella who stayed much too late for my gf’s taste). Organizing that party was everything to us, but I think it’s something people who live near, or with, one another take for granted. We purchased and then installed a modem/router together. That’s about as coupley as it gets. And these are the moments I remember most of all. Airport scanners and long awaited kisses are part of our routine relationship, but laundry, routers, and a whole evening apart is the stuff of our romance novel.

A few days after I left Germany, each of us had a friend ask us if we were sad. I said no. So did she. It’s not sadness. You see, over the last eighteen months we have been together physically for two (with all the days added up), and each time we have learned something amazing about one another and our relationship. So much so, that we talk about those experiences for maybe 3-4 months after, and then we talk about what will happen over our next visit. If I was still the 23-year old kid I was not long ago–without a 5-year old daughter, a job I enjoy, or confidence in my future–I would have moved. I would have left here in a heart beat to be with her for all the wrong reasons. And because of that, it would have been over just as fast. The weight of that decision would have been far too intense for either of us to handle. Now I treat it with the calm respect a decision of that magnitude deserves. We plan and think and dream and talk, but we both treat our relationship, and the knowledge that someday one or both of us will uproot, as though it is a given fact. And that kind of confident Love leaves little room for sadness.

I want to know your moments. Tell me the little moments that make your relationship amazing.