Man, I Love Christmas

As a student, you tend to discover certain aspects of your surroundings which you might not notice as a salaried adult. Like the herb garden on the south side of campus, because spices and herbs are so expensive. Or the flammkuchen at Canossa, because after 8 on campus, everything else is closed. Or the silverware with no pfand attached at the Mensacafe, because you lost all your forks in the grass after several rounds of ‘schwenker’ nights.

Okay, I was only kidding about the last one 😉

In any case, the longer you spend on campus, the more you become aware of these interesting tidbits and keep them in mind when future needs arise. Still, the one thing I have always regretted, living in Saarbrücken, is not having found my ideal place to study.

Different people have different needs when it comes to studying. Some students require absolute quiet, some are lucky to have offices as part of their hiwi positions, and still others like to bring flashcards into the forest. For me, none of those options suffice. My ideal study place is in a loud, busy cafe, with a cup of coffee or tea by my side, and a fast internet connection for my laptop. It may seem strange, but the louder the chatter, clanging and banging, the more focused I am in my work, and the more work that gets done.

Nevertheless, this bizarre need is surprisingly difficult to satisfy in Saarbrücken. As I do not have my own office on campus, and the lab is full of scary linux boxes, and my own bedroom is a disaster for distractions, I have searched high and low for a spot that I might call my educational haven. I’ve tried Grandma’s, where the coffee is good, but the grumpy Grandma always comes to shoo anyone with a laptop away from the power outlet. I’ve considered Ubu Roi, the cafe downtown, but like all cafes in Germany, there is no free wifi (or any wifi at all). And in the end, I have often settled for the Mensa cafe which has an abundance of coffee, campus internet, and power outlets galore.

Which works, for the most part, except for Friday afternoons, like today, when you are kicked out at 3:00 so they can close early. Then where to go?

Luckily this holiday season has been good to me. Out of a lack of better options, I finally found myself at the AC, the foreigner’s cafe on campus, which is open until 8pm, where I can access the campus network, but which typically has no power outlets available. Except at Christmastime, where, if you look carefully, you can find a nice power strip behind the Christmas tree connected to the outlet in the ceiling.

Man, I love Christmas.

The Winds of Change

On my last day at Apple, I walked through the glass doors into a purple twilit sky, where the lamplights cast a silver glow on the bare branches of the alder trees, their yellow leaves damp and trodden on the ground below. Fall was approaching gently, the cool breeze causing only a faint blush on my cheeks as I wrapped my thin sweater closer about me.

After as graceful a landing in Saarbrücken as that back home (in which I missed one leg of my trip, having to spend two nights in Phoenix — apparently, Arizona is the one state in the entire U.S. that does *not* observe Daylight Savings Time), autumn has abruptly turned into full-fledged winter. Only a few days ago, I witnessed the first snow of the year, and have since pulled out my mitts and gloves.

One would think that, after all this traveling back and forth to European countries, one might become adept at quickly switching gears into the prevailing customs of the pertinent land.

Not a bit of it.

Just this morning, I went to buy bananas at the local biomarkt, presenting myself at the cashier with my pickings. The young man looked up at me, said something quickly to the effect of “Haben Sie blah blah blah..”, then ran over to the little machine to accomplish what most normal denizens would have themselves completed, which was to weigh the fruit and place the printed sticker bearing the price of the fruit on the bag. After a mortifying blush upon his return, I thanked him, gave him the money, and hurried out, kicking myself all the way home for not having known better.

Another incident had me all in a huff when, after bringing my roommate to the gym I belong to, I later found out (as the entire exchange was in German) that the owner had lied to her right in front of me, stating that the deposit for the membership card was 12€ down from 15€, which she should consider a good deal (when I and my other flatmates had paid 10), and that it was non-refundable (which was not the case for me). I began to rant about the ridiculousness of playing such games in front of a client who had been a paying member for over a year and was bringing in a new paying client (typically considered a good thing for a small company)— until I realized that we were in Germany, and that European countries have a long history of not *getting* customer service.

Ah, well. With time, familiarity returns. And this year, I am determined to really learn German. With two new Deutscher additions to the flat, things have been going quite well. I seem to amuse my flatmates quite regularly with my efforts, but hopefully these little customs will become more intuitive with true mastery over the language. Here’s keeping my fingers crossed.


If I were a classifier, I’d be a maximum entropy model.

Most of the time, one tries to make decisions that result in the least amount of entropy and which are clear indicators of what the future might hold. Our experience is our data.

But then comes the paradox: better performance is gained by classifying only what you really know, and preserving the maximum amount of uncertainty about what you do not. Favoring the unpredictable. Admitting the outliers.

Coming to Germany was a result of this. Even the weather in Saarland tells me so. Just as in winter, the Saarland cannot seem to make up her mind about the season. One minute, she is sure it is summer, blasting us with a sultry sun. The next, it is certainly winter and she releases a tempestuous deluge. Both are short-lived. At least her conviction shows at these times and the periods of indecision are few. Gives me something to look forward to.

Pulled Over

Yesterday I was pulled over by the German police in downtown Saarbrücken.

Who knew that you can’t run a red light while riding a bike in a three-way intersection? If there is no road to the right, I have always assumed that the traffic light simply does not apply to me, and have always gone through it. Regrettably, I did this right in front of the coppers who immediately drove up and pulled into the shoulder ahead of me.

So I did what every foreigner would do in such a situation:
pretended not to understand German.

They, unfortunately, spoke English.

In the end, they made a big deal about the 25€ ticket for such an infraction, but I think they were just trying to prove a point. After all, I ran the light right in front of them; they couldn’t just drive away without saying anything. I was actually prepared to take the ticket, but instead they said only, “Not today. Today is just a warning,” looked sternly at me, got back in their little green car, and drove off.


Another thing I learned from this incident is that you can only make a right turn on a red light if there is a special arrow indicating that you may do so. This also applies to bikes apparently. However, as in the case of crossing the street (by foot) on a red light, I was told you can simply hop up onto the sidewalk, turn the corner, hop down again and all will be well. In some ways, this reminds me of the French ‘D’ mentality.

In the U.S., it is completely the opposite. You can make a right turn on a red light (assuming you stop first), unless there is a sign specifically stating that you can’t. On the other hand, they will pull you over if you’re under eighteen and not wearing a helmet.


Viva die Sonne!

This morning I woke up to a low, grey sky that huffed and puffed and pouted all throughout the day, until it finally broke into a torrent of steamy rain drops just as I ventured out to take the bus home. Lucky that I did not ride my bike this morning.

It turns out, however, that the lack of April showers succeeded in bringing no May flowers, which in Germany means barley and wheat. The unseasonably warm Spring has been bad for crops, driving up the price of beer, their most darling commodity. Conversely, it drove hordes of Germans out to the biergartens to consume it.

I guess a little rain never hurt anyone.

Walpurgis in Saarbrücken

The night before Labor Day is Witches Night in Germany. We certainly had our share of them. All along the streets, cars had been TPed, and adorned with stunning modern art, typically of the ketchup and k-y jelly variety.

And last night I could hear the labor day tension brewing outside my window as a mob of drunken German men gathered in the streets. They started bellowing and shoving each other around, so I had to peek my head out the window to see what it was about. It was incredible: big-bellied men, hollering and pushing each other around as if they were ten years old.

Soon I got a bit frightened: two guys finally started slugging it out on the hood of someone’s car, trying to strangle each other and yank out the other’s hair. I was so afraid of someone pulling out a knife. Cars driving up stopped and tried to back up and take another route. Eventually the mob made it to the sidewalk outside another bar, bashing one guy up against the cigarette vending box. The guy fell to the floor while the others stood around kicking him. Then, just as suddenly as they had gathered, they got bored and wandered off to their respective bars.

It was one of those times that it is good to know the equivalent of 911 in the country where you live. Of course, had I even known that at the time, I would never have been able to explain what was happening outside my window, let alone understand their questions over the phone in German. The police did eventually show up, but by that time, everyone was gone, except the guy on the ground of course.

Still, it was fascinating how people would just walk by, unconcerned for their safety, during such a ruckus. The same thing actually happened last Friday night after we packed up our schwenker to go home. We had to pass by a big mob of dark-haired boys (Turkish? Algerian?), some of whom were shoving each other, others who were trying to hold the shovers back. We walked right through them, but they paid us no attention. It struck me as very Fight Club.

The Algorithm is From Jersey

Sunday Frühstück

Now that Spring is here, my favorite day of the week is Sunday. That’s because I have taken to frühstucking at the Nauwies café Sunday mornings, sitting in the sun, listening peacefully to the chirping of birds and the soft pat of yellow butterflies, sipping milchkaffee and enjoying my three euro French breakfast. Time just seems to stop while I am there, and the stress of the week just melts away.

It’s strange, but there are many things I do now that I have trouble getting myself to do in the US. Two weeks ago, a group of us rode our bikes along the Saar all the way into France, until we found a pretty river-side town and stopped for ice cream. The other night, Pierre threw a barbeque on the river, and we schwenked and talked on the grass till the wee hours of the morning. Soon, there will be salsa music at Potato Beach along the Saar, and there I will be too, dancing away under the stars.

I bought myself a road bike last Spring in California, and used to ride to school. It was 40 minute one-way and I loved it. But never could I feel that I had the leisure to take a day trip riding around somewhere just for the fun of it. There is always something you should be doing, never enough time to do it in.

The Algorithm Killed Jeeves

Gebühreneinzugszentrale der Öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten

Otherwise known as the GEZ, this is Germany’s public media content which everyone must pay for who uses it. However, unlike in the US where public television is federally funded and accepts donations/sponsorships, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland has made it a law that anyone owning a television must pay the television license (around 17 Euros/month). This is whether you watch the public channels or not. You are given no choice, but are made to pay just for the fact that can switch to that channel to watch.


For poor, starving students as ourselves, this was no good. Although we were all very grateful to our landlady for providing us with a free television for our arrival, we decided in the end that the fine was not worth it.


The dilemma, however, was which action to take. How would the GEZ even know we had a television? We could just as well keep the television and not pay. According to Tobi, however, the GEZ like to pull clever tricks to get you to let them into your house. Pretending to be electricians, officials from the state, etc. And they are not afraid to be aggressive. The fine, if you are caught, is upwards of 2,000€.


This is why we all came to a flat-wide agreement to return the television to our landlady as soon as her next office hour rolled around.


No sooner was this decided than a strange man rang our doorbell one Monday morning. I answered and he asked for ‘Ms. Moore’ by name. I asked who he was and he replied that he was conducting a survey of Germany and it’s future.. what people think, from the perspective of natives and, in my case, foreigners.


I was immediately suspicious, but figured that if it really was a survey, it would be nice to help out. So I told him that I was heading out to class, but that we can reschedule for another day. Thursday.


While I was having this conversation with the young man, Tobi happened to be on his way downstairs and ran into him at the door, taking down all of our names into his Palm. He asked the strange man what he was doing there, but the stranger was evasive, saying only that he wanted to speak to ‘Ms. Moore’.


At that point, we were all suspicious and agreed to take down the T.V. as soon as possible and bring it back that Thursday morning. We also formed a plan of attack: Tobi would ask him up front Thursday morning whether he was from the GEZ or not (they are not allowed to lie, and you are not obligated to allow them into your house).


Thursday morning dawned. Tobi could not be there, so Michael took his place. The stranger rang the bell again and down we went. I opened the door to a nice-looking man in his late 30’s, who held out his hand and began to talk.


The guy: Hi, you must be Jennifer. In English, right? Well, you must be wondering why I’m here.
Me: Yes.
The guy: So, I just wanted to ask you a few questions on how you feel about the future of Germany. I mean, unemployment is very high…
Me: Oh.. well… I don’t think things are so bad. Germany’s economy is actually doing pretty well.
The guy: Ok, then. What do you think about war? Do you think there can be a future without war? Or that there can be peace on earth?
Me: No. There will always be cultural conflicts because different people have different standards about what is right and wrong and how to punish offenders.
The guy: I see. Well, do you think we would ever be able to live in a world without poverty?
Me: No. There will always be poor people.
The guy: And just why do you think that is? Did you know that Ghandi once said that if everyone were happy with what they had…

I raised my eyebrows at this point..

Then he reaches into his black suitcase and pulls out a black book:
The guy: And in the bible, Jesus writes…


I tried my very best to smother my laughter. We gave him another ten minutes to finish his spiel, then politely shook his hand, and giggled our way up the stairs.

Winter in Saarland

It’s been something of a pathetic winter here. Some days are very cold, others are like a warm, rainy day in early Spring. It makes it very difficult to dress for school. The other day, I went out in thin linen pants because it felt so balmy, even though there was a slight mist, then as soon as I arrived at school, it was snowing.

I love the snow. But I can’t help but feel sorry for the snow here. The skies above Saarland are doing only a half-assed attempt at making snow. The fluffy white flakes fall down in droves, but melts into slush the moment it hits the ground. No lovely white roofs, nothing to crunch underfoot, just wet, green grass.

Foreigners in a Foreign Land


Last week I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner by one of the administrative faculty, Bobbye Pernice, who hails from New York. Several other Americans attended, including an American couple with their sixteen year old son, and Marty, one of the professors in psycholinguistics at Coli. It was a wonderfully satisfying experience.

There is something comforting about being amongst those of your own in a foreign country. Granted, it doesn’t much feel like a foreign experience when half of my friends here are Canadian, and the other half speak English just as well as I can speak French. Even spending the day downtown doesn’t help. The other day in Saturn, for example, I asked in my very best German (halting and sputtering), “Sie haben kein mehr Xavier Naidoo. Wenn..” and it was at this point that the sales clerk grinned, “It’s so charming when Americans try to speak German.” That was, of course, one of the rare moments I actually spoke German. Most of the time I look around and say to myself, “Germany, really? Where!”

Still, it was comforting, as I was saying. Ex-pats will always notice the things you notice. And one of the topics that night was gestures. Like knocking on your desk at the end of a lecture to express your appreciation, rather than clapping as we would. This one threw me for a loop in the beginning, and for the first week or so, I refused to do it. Now I think it is amusing, especially when we find ourselves in the conference room and have only our legs to knock on, which needless to point out, doesn’t work so well.

Another peculiarity someone once mentioned to me is that, instead of raising one’s hand to ask a question during a lecture, German students will snap their finger. I found the idea extremely disconcerting, considering that is what one would do to a lowly serving girl if one were not so polite. But then, I saw someone in class do it! The nerve! Yet, no one seemed to notice.

Someone also mentioned that night that German lecturers sometimes have a habit of pointing at the whiteboard with their middle finger. But I have yet to see this.