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. 


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..”


Me: “So what’s the word for a yogurt pot in German?”
Nele: “Becher?”
Me: “Ah, see Roland? You have so many geschlagtensahne bechern here to choose from for your kaffee..”
Nele, laughing at me: “No, no, plural is just becher.”

Michael: “Also Roland, ist concubine eigentlich auch negativ connotiert in der Schweiz?”
Roland: “Uhh…”
Me: “Well you can’t ask a guy that..”
Michael: “Do you even know what I asked?”
Me: “Yes, I do. You asked if the word concubine has the same negative connotation in Swizterland.. but you can’t ask a guy that! Cause of course he’s gonna say.. ‘Ohh… not at all! I think concubines are great…'”
Pierre: “Wait, wait.. so a concubine is a becher?”


(Michael finally hands in his thesis, the last day of the semester comes and is gone, he is no longer a student. He also finds out that he will not be paid wages at Siemens, only a ‘living stipend’)
Michael: “My car won’t start…”
Me: “Oh, did the battery die?”
Michael: “I can’t even take the train… or the Saarbahn… I’m not a student anymore! And I don’t have a job!”

Michael, standing at my door, moping: “I’m just a… I’m just a jobless!”
Me: “Oh Michi…”


Michael: “I’ve given up myself..”
Me: “You mean you’ve given up on yourself.”
Michael: “I’ve given up on English too..”

Michael: “And you’re just making fun of me.”
Me: “Aww, Michi-michi…”
Michael: “And my car is making fun of me. Do you know how sad that is when your car is making fun of you?”
Me: … stifles a giggle…


So I finally paid the bill for the Frankfurter Allgemein subscription the other day. It had been laying on my desk for a few weeks now, as I clung to the hope that, with a little bit of neglect and show of disdain, it might one day slink away in dejection. But, once you’ve been hornswoggled by that friendly chap who came to your table in the mensacafe, offering a free two-week subscription to a German newspaper that you know you will never read, and you don’t even have to give any bank details, and they’ll send you an email and everything, and all you have to do is reply to cancel it.. well, these things have a tendency to persist.. and with an impressive display of tenacity.


My friend Sabrina, who drank that fateful coffee with me during the aforementioned encounter, was likewise bamboozled and similarly dismayed when, after a several weeks’ lapse in memory regarding the incident, found a bill for three-months worth of issues that we neither of us had read. Fortunately for me, she managed to produce for each of us one of those proper, formal letters needed to negotiate the 110€ bill down to 54€ based on the student rate, a small detail which the Frankfurter had conveniently disregarded.


I’m such a sucker sometimes.


So of course, upon my return to Saarbrücken after the winter break, I discovered with slight annoyance that my gym had closed down. This was something of a frustration, as early morning jogs in sleet and bitter cold really do not appeal to me. As I shopped around for an alternative, I found myself visiting the posh Fitness Company downtown, with their red carpet entrance, wall-length windows over-looking the city, and fancy machines. I figured it didn’t hurt to look.


On entering, I was approached by this pretty little Italian girl, who was positively chirping and bubbling over (or I’d say gurgling, like a babbling brook), who utterly charmed me over. Tell me, what is one to do when thus confronted? Ohh, you speak French? How delightful! And ohh, everything’s just gonna work out perfectly! You’re only here for another 6 months? Not a problem. You can just sign up for an 18-month contract.. they can’t enforce it if you have to leave the country.. aaand we’ll even give you a discount on the membership fee!


I left that day feeling completely befuddled, and with one of the most expensive gym memberships I’ve ever had in my life. It’s quite possible that roughly *half* of their current members were brought in by this girl alone.


Once a sucker, always a sucker, I suppose.


On the upside, paying so dearly for gym access appears to have a positive effect on my attendance. I’m finally starting to shed some pounds, have recently become a huge fan of the Dampfbad, and furnished at least one person in our flat with news of the world and beyond.

15 Minutes of Fame

They say that everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame at least once in their life, and I am proud to say that mine came in lil ol’ Saarbrücken this morning, all à cause du 15th of February 2008, the day when all of Saarland turned to smoke-free bars and cafes.

Sitting at my favorite table in Ubu Roi, drinking my milchkaffee from a bowl, I watched as a cameraman, sound guy, and newscaster entered each of the cafes around the Nauwieser Viertel, and proceeded to interview die Leute on their thoughts about the new policy. As I was plumb in the center of their panning shot of the cafe, I like to think I’ll be in the evening news some time tonight, forever memorialized in the annals of Saarbrücken life. This is, of course, not as terribly exciting as it would have been had I owned a television (or had I actually given an interview), but well, what the hey.. I’ll take it.

In any case, whereas spending ten minutes in a cafe before would have you smelling like you’d spent the night in a bar.. on the floor.. in a pile of cigarette butts.. and you’d go out into the fresh air with a raspy voice and feeling as if dirt had sifted into your lungs.., now you can leave with only the rich, warm smell of coffee permeating your hair, your clothes, your soul.

Alle, Hopp!

Karneval is one of the more peculiar of German traditions, and this year’s manifestations, as the year before, provided me with no end of amusement. It is a holiday predating Christianity, yet revealing deep-seated religious roots, replete with whimsical customs bordering on the superstitious, and steeped in proletarian mores.


The preparations for Carneval begin away back in November, and more precisely, on 11/11 at the 11’th minute of the 11’th hour (makes me wonder what’s in store for 2011). Its mascot is the court jester, the one who could safely make fun of kings and rulers without punishment, and its motto being, “If you are not a fool during Carneval, you will be one the rest of the year.” The festivities typically begin on January 30th and last until Ash Wednesday, with balls, parties, and parades, and children young and old dressed in outrageous costume.


In Saarbrücken, the weekend that makes up Carneval begins on Thursday, the day I like to refer to as “tie-cutting” day, that is, the day when anyone, anywhere can take a pair of scissors and cut off a man’s tie (the ultimate symbol of toppling power and authority – I’ve not yet had a chance to do this).


This is followed by the childrens’ march through town on Friday, when store owners come out and throw candy at them (conveniently staged in February, the lil lads and lasses often wear coats and gloves over their carneval costumes, and the candy lands in the rain-and-mud soaked streets). For the past two years, the kids marched right under my window, singing and yelling and making a mad dash for the candy. I was in stitches when the woman from the bakery, known for her grouchiness and scowls, came out with a bucket full of bonbons, and suddenly found herself buried under little bodies and snatching hands, which fairly knocked her over. The candy was gone in seconds.


Lastly is the parade on Rosenmontag, to which my roommate Michael wanted to go. To save him from himself, my other roommate Roland and I agreed to accompany him. The parade began at… wait for it.. 1:11 in the afternoon and featured the usual marching bands, baton girls, cigarette-puffing nuns, and floats with dancing lunes tossing out candy to the crowd.


I am not particularly fond of parades, especially after getting knocked on the head with a cherry taffy, but as soon as I saw that they were handing out cups of glühwein and beer to the adults, I was in. Once I saw a girl carrying a wooden tray on a post with tiny plastic cups, just like the ones they use in church when they serve grape juice and crackers for communion, only these were full of schnapps. Alas, the girl eluded me. I even saw evidence of tiny bottles of brandy and various other kinds of schuss which were thrown out alongside the party poppers.


At this point, we became impatient standing in one spot waiting for them to come, and proceeded to take them on through the ranks, passing one group after another in the opposite direction, trying to get them to throw us their bags of chips, popcorn, candy, and even marshmallow-filled kissenkuchen. Everyone sang “Alle, hopp!” and someone hit me with a nice dose of paper confetti, right in my hair. It was a party every time I shook my head.


Then it rained. We drearily walked several miles back to the bus stop, and I reflected that perhaps Halloween was much nicer as it takes place in the wind of fall rather than the drizzle of a rainy winter.

Water is Water is Water

One thing they always tell you to pack before going to live abroad is at least one good book in your own language, one that you love and which can help ward off early signs of homesickness. Of course that doesn’t really help much in my case, as I am constantly speaking English, and rarely venture into fanciful flights of the lingua Germanica.


So last night, craving some good, homey Mexican food, I found myself in front of the only restaurant in Saarbrücken that could provide it. I didn’t feel like staying there to eat, as the place smelled of old cigars, so I asked the waitress if I could have their taco plate to go. They said it was fine, so I went outside to wander the streets till it was ready.


Ten minutes later, I walk back into the restaurant as the waitress heads over carrying a huge foil-wrapped mound in her hands. She apologizes, saying they had no plastic bag to put it in. I look at it rather askance as she sets it down, but pull out my wallet to pay. She walks off as I pause for a moment, wondering if there is any way to stuff it into my backpack, then pick it up.


Lo, and behold, there was my dish served in two of their ceramic plates (one would have been too hot on its own), and the whole thing covered in aluminum. I stared in amazement before flagging down the waitress, to whom I helplessly cried, “but.. but.. I can’t, I can’t take your plates!” To which they only shrugged their shoulders, stating matter-of-factly that they had nothing else to put it in.


To punish myself (there was no way on earth I was going to march through Saint Johanner Markt carrying such a bundle), I sat right down at the nearest table to eat it.


To boot, the waitress asked me if I wanted something to drink, and brought me a glass of sprüdel with lemon when I asked for water. Will I never learn?


Ah, homesickness. You win this time.