The prospect of undergoing surgery in a foreign land can be somewhat alarming. One often presumes that medical specialists are more reliable and more competent in one’s own land than in an unfamiliar country. Still, one can overcome anything with a sense of humor.

Act I – Discovery

Doc: “Wir wissen nicht genau was es ist, also wann Sie nächste Woche kommen, machen wir die OP, und dann sehen wir. Aber kein Panik, es ist kein Grund in der Saar zu springen!
Me (to Sab): “Huh? What’d she say?”
Sab: “She says they’re not quite sure what it is, they’ll find out when they do the operation, but don’t worry, it’s nothing to jump in the Saar about..”
Me: “Oh well that’s good.”

Act II – The Paperwork

Nurse: “Do you have any allergies?”
Me: “Yes. Apples and apricots.”
Nurse: … writes down ‘Apfel und Aprikosen..’

Nurse: “Any hearing impairments?”
Sab: “Uh, she speaks English?”
Nurse: … writes down ‘spricht English..’

Nurse: “Any special considerations, like a rug to pray on?”
Me: “Uh, no…”

Nurse: “Any addictions?”
Me: “Yes, the Internet. I need it through an IV.”
Nurse: “Ah sorry, ‘fraid I can’t help you there. Anything else?”
Me: “Coffee?”
Nurse: … writes down ‘Kaffee’
Nurse: “I think we can manage that.”

Act III – Aftermath

Sab: “Are you okay? How are you feeling??”
Me: “..chapstick..”

On friendship

A friend is the only person you will let into the house when you are Turning Out Drawers. ~Pam Brown


To an American, it is always something of a slap in the face to be told you are “not friends” with someone, even if you are only just getting to know that person.

To be sure, one of the critiques from Europeans that I often hear about is how superficial the notion of ‘friendship’ is in the US. We smile too much, make promises we don’t intend to keep (“We really have to get together sometime. Do call me!”), and effortlessly prattle off intimate details of our personal lives – whether it’s salaries, the number of houses/cars/boats we own, or famous people we’ve met and/or dated – to relative strangers.

This, of course, tends to horrify our neighbors across the pond. In fact, I really should not have been so surprised; I still remember those painful experiences at our Grenoble flat back in the day, when my French flatmates would invite their friends over, who always seemed so sullen and reserved, and I would smile and laugh in my overly-friendly expat way, chatting animatedly about myself and so on, hoping they would relax a bit and open up as well. Later, my flatmate told me quite bluntly how in doing so, I came off as (and I quote) self-centered, over-bearing, and arrogant. On one particular evening, I remember rushing to my room, utterly crushed, and sobbing as they continued with their party.

I am told that the meaning of ‘friend’ for the French, Germans, and others is considerably more profound as a concept. You don’t call just anyone a ‘friend’ here, certainly not. Friendships are only built after many, many years of connaissance and cultivation. Not to mention the fact that you will rarely get a glimpse into the personal life of a prospective friend until you acquire that esteemed status. Which of course, makes it terribly difficult to get there in the first place. Therefore, when two Germans or two Frenchmen initiate friendly relations, they do so by expounding on their political opinions, breadth of literary and historical knowledge, and/or the weather. Trust and mutual respect is obtained by how well you can match the other in these discussions.

So but, how are close friendships made in the US? Is it really true that Americans make no distinction in their notion of friendship? Perhaps it is linguistic problem; with only the singular term, we often fall back to the, “Oh, that’s just a friend, but she’s a friend friend” or “she’s a close/good friend of mine”.

As a disclaimer, what follows is entirely subjective. But it seems to me that Americans often put up a front to the outside world. This image is usually made up of our own successes and achievements. Name-dropping is quite common because it shows our importance and influence in the world; the amount of money we make, the toys we own, or the awards we win, illustrate the fruits of our hard work (which we value above most all else); and our personal preferences for books, movies, music, hair stylists, and so on, reflect our individuality and unique personality (also strongly valued). Therefore, when two Americans go about striking up a friendship, they tend to share these personal facts, little by little, as appropriate, and trust and mutual respect is built by gauging the similarity of values. In fact, not sharing personal information of this sort is likely to be mistaken as mistrust and dislike, and would be difficult to overcome in the long term.

And still, how would a European know if they had made a ‘close’ friend with an American? Well, I think you would know this when you start learning about the not-so-rosy details of one’s personal life – the failures, disappointments, and humiliations – that one would not otherwise share, even with family.

In the end, the friendship, no matter what side of the Atlantic you’re on, does not change; I’m talking about the kind of friendship that never fades, never sours, never gets old, no matter how many years go by. It’s the getting there that’s the problem. I think I solved this with one particularly close friend upon arriving in Germany: after the third time we’d met, I simply asked her if we could be friends… and there you were!

Lost in Translation

To wish someone luck in the U.S., you cross your fingers. In Germany, you hold your thumb in a fist. Incidentally, crossing your fingers, in either country, means you’re lying.

At some point, these somewhat folkloric pearls of wisdom will manage to fall through the cracks of one’s consciousness, rattling around with all the other confounding and contradictory quirks of one’s native culture, such that one may no longer remember the proper split second reaction to certain social situations.

Case in point. At a coffee shop in Cupertino, a young woman comes up behind me, and exclaims, “Oh, do you work for Apple?” as she pointed to my blue t-shirt and shoulder bag, (not to mention my phone — just a coincidence, I assure you) bearing the familiar logo. She went on. “I know, because my boyfriend works there and he brought one back for me. He loves it there. I don’t work for Apple though,” waves her arms” I work for the city here. It’s pretty interesting actually, we’re trying to get funding for this project…” and so on, detailing her whole life, friends, family and career, quite cheerfully at that, as if we had known each other for years and years.

The thing is that, had I been in Germany, I would have found her behavior overly forward and rather rude. It took me a full three seconds to realize that, on the contrary, I was in California, and she was in fact being incredibly friendly, engaging, and nice. And once I had properly classified the encounter, I considered that, after all, I might have liked to get to know this person.

Three seconds, however, is too much time to reflect on niceties. Before I knew it, she had her coffee, waved goodbye, and was out the door.

Später Alligator, Geil Crocodile

Shit, sheiße, putain, and taddi were the happy words I heard as I sat on the grass Saturday afternoon. They were the sounds of the German, French, Indian, and Chinese playing football together on the campus field (sorry if these offend others).

I, of course, do not play football, but after being cooped up in a stuffy lab all afternoon, I thought it would be a nice change to continue my work out in a more natural setting. I was reminded, however, of how lucky I am to again be a part of the university bubble.

In the short time I have been here, I have made friends in the most unlikely places. From a group of geeky PhDs from MPI, to the crowd of clever Chinese students I have dinner with in the mensa, all the way to the gang of Indians and Pakistanis who made me chai, my life has been made richer by every one of them.

It is certainly their friendliness, but perhaps it is also their humor. Sprinkle in some non-native German speaking abilities, a quirky foreign accent, a dash of geekiness, and, due to the unexpectedness of a witty reply, often I am just stunned into laughter:

Me (to my Indian friend): “Did you know you can’t move the tables in the mensa because the university spent their cultural grant on it, so now the way they are positioned is considered art?”
Sikander: “No-oo! Come on, you are farsching me!”
|__ verarsching –> verarschen –> to fool

Me (to my Chinese friend): “My favorite thing is to curl up in bed with my laptop and code..”
Tianxiang: “Ah, you mean embedded com-pu-ting!”

Me (to another Chinese friend): “Mars tells me that you’re quite the playboy and that you skipped our party for a girl!”
Fu Yu (to Mars): “??/??..”
Me (to Mars): “Hey, what’d he say?”
Mars: “He says I should just broadcast it over a distributed network.”

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.


Thoughts of an Island

Puerto Rico - 224.jpg

I started this post sometime back, but never finished it. It was supposed to begin with: “Puerto Rico is a surprisingly interesting place..”

But since I was only there for a full two days, I do not feel qualified to remark on the people or the culture. Still, I learned a few things:

  • I get American cell phone service there.
  • Puerto Rico has been mulling over joining the US as a state for some time, however they have remained a territory due to economic concerns, mainly trade with Cuba.
  • Not all hot latin boys can dance. Rather disappointing, I’d say.

They also have these funny bananas that taste like potatoes. And they invented the Piña Colada, which is something.

The Algorithm Constantly Finds Jesus