Me: I am so looking forward to starting this new chapter of my life, although I know that I’ve got to keep scrudging through.

Be: Scrudging?

Me: Yeah. I made that up. I am so good at that.

Be:  Well, you are a linguist.

Me: Not just a linguist, mind you. A computational linguist. Which means, my point is validated if I can find a google search with that word.

Me: One sec.

Me: Ha! 81 hits!

Be: I am not convinced you used it properly, though. UrbanDictionary:scrudge

Me: Ah.

Be: #2 is most useful…

Monumental Discoveries

A few days after Christmas, I was taking a little stroll through Dormagen, a charming German town with Roman roots, nestled against the river Rhein. I was admiring the red brick buildings covered in ivy, the quaint german gasthäuse and restaurants with large red candles housed in black cast-iron and glass shelters, the smell of apfelstrudel wafting on the cold, crisp winter air, and…

I stopped short, unable to believe my eyes. There, in the middle of the square, was a herd of bronze pigs shuffling beneath a tall stone monument. I burst into laughter; and that was before the inscription was translated for me (paraphrasing): Here commemorates the victory of the people against the bishop of Dormagen in the great pig feud. Pig feud! Fresh onslaught of giggles.  

Certainly no European town is quite complete without a monument of sorts gracing the town center. Most often, it is a memorial to a heroic deed, or of great suffering in war, and the brave soldiers who fought for their homes. But never, in all my European travels, have I encountered a tribute to victory in the sobering event of a Schweinefehde.

The Visiting

Last night, I was sitting at the kitchen table, desperately hoping to resuscitate a beloved gadget that had crapped out on me, when the downstairs buzzer rang. I answered:


“Süß oder saures!” cried a million high-pitched voices.

“Was?” I asked, mystified.

“Süß oder saures!” they sang again.

I remained at the buzzer, puzzled, and unable to comprehend what they were saying, until the resident in the flat above answered with, “Mmh, okay, dann, ganz nach oben.”


And then it hit me: Trick-or-Treat! I was so taken aback, I just sat down at my computer and listened as they shuffled up the stairs. They eventually rang at our front door. I considered not answering; but this plan was dashed when Pierre came out of his room and opened the door. They again screamed “süß oder saures!” and I heard him say, “Ah, ehm, okay. Uh, ein moment.” Then he came into the kitchen and asked if we had any chocolate. I was about to throw a shoe at him, but luckily I remembered the fun-sized butterfinger I had just brought back from the states for my flatmates. I tore into my suitcases looking for them, and ran out to see five little rugrats dressed up in costume. They looked rather askance at the candy I was throwing in their bags, but I think they’ll have fun when it comes to rummaging their loot.


For those of you who are wondering how this all started, the answer is: no, it was not a conspiracy cooked up by the supermarkets to mass-produce/consume candies. Actually, it was originally called All Hallows’ Eve, which comes just before All Saints’ Day, the night when spooks are said to come out and walk the earth. The idea was that everyday citizens would dress up as witches and warlocks, ghouls and goblins, and walk the streets, hoping to trick the evil spirits and stay safe. And then, no holiday is complete without chocolate (Hear, hear!)…


Halloween was such a great adventure when I was young. We lived in a condominium complex where many small apartments were squashed together in diversely aligned rows, which provided the most maximally efficient trick-or-treating route. We would bring pillow cases with us that would quickly fill to the brim after just an hour of skipping from house to house. And at the end of the night, my sister and brother and I would spread out our loot in three large piles, carefully take stock and categorize the goods, making faces along the way at those who threw in toothbrushes in lieu of chocolate, before commencing barter for the candy we liked. At the end of the evening, Mom would make us store our candy in large jars above the fridge, and only allowed us a few pieces each day or so. As the weeks passed, and the jars slowly emptied, the bartering became even more of a challenge, as we’d try to save the good pieces and trade them off for several not-so-good pieces (a monster chocolate coin might be worth three tootsie rolls, for example). 


It is incredibly striking, when I think back on it, how our country could have developed such a tradition on such a massive scale. After all, in order for it to continue, it requires the participation of everyone in the country, and they do! Sure, there is the occasional sour puss who turns off all the lights in their home, or the paranoia over poisoned bon-bons, or sadly, the one-off crazies who open fire at little boys, but for the most part, it is a fun, safe, family event.


In Europe, you can of course find Karneval or this bizarre Swedish tradition where girls dress up as witches and go begging for candy (boys not allowed)… The difference is that these events are usually organized either by people who know each other, or by local businesses. You would never have strangers randomly show up at your doorstep all evening demanding candy.


I have a feeling that this is the true reason why Halloween has failed to take off in Europe. They certainly try — every year. But it takes a lot to convince people that they should let random strangers invade their personal space (homes) and that they should reward them with chocolate to do so.

My Favorite Error Messages

“This process is taking longer than expected. Odd.”
|–> Linux error.

A fatal error
Continue, SmartStart cannot
Agony reboot
|–> SmartStart haiku

“You don’t exist. Go away!”
|–> after removing the /etc/passwd file

“Some evil bastard moved the damned config file on me.”
|–> some ftp program

“you mispeled a keywurd”

$ make love
Not war?
|–> from the good old days

|–> garbled command in vi

From the Thirteen Greatest Error Messages of All Time, the comments section.


Whenever I get sad or lonely or afraid, I like to think back on the years at home while growing up in Carmel. We were always safe, sheltered (in more ways than one), and surrounded by beauty and sweetness on all sides. Even now, I need only to read the local newspaper to feel that warmth of home again.

My favorite section is the Police log. Seems odd, I know, to find a sense of peace and happiness in the world by reading the significant calls logged by your local police department; nevertheless, when I read stuff like “Caller reported a dollar bill on Ocean Ave,” or “Victim called in a possible break-in after returning to his house to find a window pane was broken. After further inspection, a pine-cone found resting nearby was determined as the culprit. No valuables or property were reported missing,” how can one possibly be sad when such as this goes on in the world? It’s enough to break a stitch from the giggling…

Here are some good ones from this week:

Carmel-by-the-Sea: Report of male selling puppies in the downtown business area (Ocean Avenue). Officer contacted subject and advised him of business license requirements. The subject stopped soliciting the sale of puppies and left the area in his vehicle.

Carmel Valley: Reporting party stated his daughter and her boyfriend were in a heated verbal argument.

Carmel Valley: A supermarket employee reported a customer had her wallet stolen. Before deputies arrived on scene, the customer said she found her wallet in the store.

Schlaaand, Schlaaaaaand!

There are more important things than Football… just not right now. 
––Bumper sticker in Berlin


Go on. Try to find a single American sport even halfway commensurate in its ability to draw its citizenry nation-wide into the streets, shouting triumphantly over each and every win, with that quaint form of ball-kicking in Europe known as football (a.k.a. soccer). Simply put, there is nothing like it. 

And this year was different. The World Cup in 2006 was perhaps the first to inspire this nationalist sentiment, to persuade the Bavarian, the Schwabian, the Saxon, the Saarlander, and so on, of their German identity above all. This year’s European Championship (EM) bore witness to this effect. It was the first time that the average German across the country draped his windows with the German flag, hooked mini-flags to the doors of his car, and wore the German colors painted on his cheeks to every game.

Of course, they were not the only ones. Our own Swissman was just as bad: the white cross of the Swiss flag was prominently displayed from his window over-looking Blumenstrasse, and every time we went to a public viewing of a Swiss game (at one of Fleur, Potato Island, or the Congress Hall), he carried his mammoth cowbell. I also carried it once, on the handle of my bike on our way to the Saar for the opening of the EM. The sound of it could be heard changing and chiming all through the streets of Saarbrücken as we rode past.


You wouldn’t think it now, but for three long weeks in June, there was no sleeping at night for the sound of honking horns and rabble-rousers shouting down in the streets. If you had the unfortunate luck of bussing it home from the university, you were in for a long ride as celebrating drivers crowded the streets and blocked all routes. Because someone would always win each and every night. The Turkish, the Czechs, the Croatians… not all of them would last each round, but every time a country won a game, their nationals would hit the streets with their horns and flags. From the din, I now know that Turks make up the largest minority population in Saarbrücken.

Nevertheless, I heartily enjoyed watching the (German) games, and often listened in on talk of scores for other countries I supported (Sweden, France, etc). I knew what an amazing experience it could be to be present in the country that won the final game. I was living with my host family in France when they won the EM in 2000, and sadly, I had to go to bed early while the cheering went on in the streets. This time, as luck would have it, we would be attending a linguistic conference in Potsdam, not far from Berlin, and would be in the capital on the night of the final game.

And as luck would have it again, Germany made it to the final round and was to play against Spain. We therefore decided to watch the game in a Spanish cafe somewhere in Berlin. Well, what can I say? The ride was fun, but the destination left much to be desired. Spain won, and deservingly. And I’ll have another two years before the next opportunity.

Holiday in Fallujah

So it looks like I was mistaken and my brother will be stationed in the City of Mosques for the time being. The time difference is only an hour ahead from where I am, so this works out quite nicely as his new work schedule will be the morning shift from 4am to 12pm, with the rest of the day left to himself. According to him, his job will consist of checking convoys leaving and returning to the base so as to prevent friendly fire (cause it’s so easy to start shooting at something that looks armed). 

While sitting in my kitchen, we got a nice video tour of his new place: apart from the bunk-beds in military decor, it’s like his own hotel room, complete with mini-fridge, television, Wi-Fi (albeit for $75/mo), air conditioning, and a window with blinds overlooking we’re not sure what yet (the sun drenched the view to the webcam). The local currency among the marines on the base are pogs and apparently there’s no need for him to venture into the city for chocolate; he can get what he needs from the PX on base.

Still, if he ever did need to go amongst the Iraqis, the marines are given a card with important gestures to remember when communicating with the locals. Here are a few of them:

  Thumbs Up  Stop is the new Hello Wiggle up and down 

  • Holding your hand up does not mean Stop, but Hello –– rather, you should hold your hand out straight, palm down, and wave it up and down if someone comes at you. 
  • Never shake hands with an Iraqi with your left hand. The left hand is considered unclean in most of these countries, because guess what you use in the absence of toilet paper.
  • A Thumbs-Up is not a sign of support, but a foul insult roughly translating to ‘Up Yours!’

The most surprising news from him was that this entire base is supposed to be shut down completely within a few months, with everyone being transferred to other bases. Only 4 men killed within the past year (possibly only from accidents)… Okay, perhaps this is not surprising considering the various sieges since 2003 – what’s left to pose a threat? Well, let’s hope for successful reconstruction.

Gesellen Spotting

It was the usual Sunday Frühstück, sitting among friends at Ubu Roi. The sky was muggy, but spirits were high and the Milchkaffee was as ever excellent. I was hoping to convince the waiter to sing for us again, while recounting stories of the singing servers at the Max Opera Cafe – who will burst into spontaneous opera as they bring you food – for inspiration. Just as I was explaining the audition process for prospective servers, my last words froze in mid-air as a pair of the oddest-looking men entered the cafe. 

Wearing top hats and worn, muddy white suits with a Twainian flair, they carried with them cloth knapsacks and polished, elaborately carved walking sticks as in they walked. Saarbrücken, of course, has her share of nuts and crackers (and at first I thought this was no exception), but not one looked askance at these two, not even a second glance at their costume.

The others, noting my surprise, explained that they were journeymen, a breed of artisan carpenters on their way from apprenticeship to master of their trade. 

For a period of three short years and one long day, these men travel all over the world, going from one to another carpentry house, in which the master is obliged to provide food, perhaps lodging, and a small wage for their work during their stay. Today, these wandering craftsmen continue a tradition dating from the Middle Ages, and in my view, ensure that skill and artistry survive amidst mass production and profit.

I so wish I had known who and what they were before they disappeared; at the least, I would have tried to buy them a coffee and solicit them for tales of their travels. Alas, they said just a few short words to the barman of the cafe before walking out and heading off. And in my stunned and bedazzled state, another really cool opportunity slipped me by.