Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Pictures from Stockholm

Last week we were in Stockholm for a conference. Check out the photos.

Only in Germany...

Long time no post! Busy with my dissertation, sorry about that, but at long last here is a little list I made for you all. To be added to in the future as necessary.

Only in Germany:

1. American food in grocery store’s exotic foods section. Karstadt, a high-priced German grocery and department store has several shelves marked “American food” located in their exotic foods section, right between Mexico and Thailand. Some of the items found on this shelf include: Arm & Hammer baking soda, jalapeƱo pepper jelly, pancake mix, artificial maple syrup, and Marshmallow Fluff – in both regular and strawberry flavors. This is certainly exotic enough for the label, as I don’t think I have seen this frightening pink product even in the US!

2. The party streetcar. East Berlin is known for its bright yellow electric trams, which travel down the middle of many of the busiest avenues, a fourth means of public transportation. The other day we had just stepped off one, and were waiting to cross Prenzlauer Allee to go to my friendly second-hand English bookstore, when I heard a noise. This noise sounded strangely like a party, but appeared to be traveling towards us from the left. I looked up and discovered… the Party Tram! Full of drunken young Germans loudly singing in chorus, decorated with disco balls and flashing lights, and not yellow but with a festive purple and blue outer wrapping. Apparently, you can rent this thing out and have it drive you and your friends around the streets of Berlin all night as you get completely wasted.

3. “Bistro Firstaid” – this is the actual name of a fast-food restaurant on Schoenhauser Allee. Would YOU want to eat there?

4. Speakeasies. You thought these disappeared after Prohibition, but they’re still operational here in Berlin. Nameless, temporary, unlicensed pubs, they are open on an irregular basis until discovered by the authorities and shut down, but in between they usually have a few months of good business. To get in you need to know the address and the secret passwood. A Spanish friend told me of one called Mittwoch (Wednesday), possibly because it’s only open on that day. Can’t wait to learn the secret word…

5. Bureaucracy. This, and forms needing to be filled out, are a German specialty. Many of the world’s forests are currently being cut down merely to serve German bureaucratic needs. The size of the bureaucratic system is inversely proportional to the amount of work they produce and number of hours they work. Two examples will suffice.

First, I tried to get a library card to use the collections of the Ibero-American Institute. It is the largest library in Europe on Latin America, so it would of course be nice if I could use it. It is part of the same system as the national library, for which I already have a card, so it didn’t seem that it would be such a big deal. I even bothered to go to my local bureaucracy supplier to get a form showing where in Berlin I live and since when, so I’d be totally legit. Armed with this and my passport, I went and filled out a couple of forms for good measure… only to be told that with no visa I couldn’t get a card. Pointing out that I already had a card from the national library didn’t help – they just told me that “the national library has a big legal department, and we don’t.” Apparently they are afraid that I am a literary terrorist who might kidnap their books and take them out of the country. Result: I can look at any book in Germany that I want to, except for those that have to do with my area of expertise.

Well, I needed to get a German visa anyway, so then I proceeded to look into how this might be accomplished. I am just now recovering from the process. It took approximately one month from my communication with a German bureaucrat to when I was able to actually get together all of the paperwork she requested of me. At that point, it was just three working days before I was to leave for a meeting in Sweden, and I couldn’t leave the country without a visa ensuring I’d be able to return. One of these days was wasted in a health insurance office trying unsuccessfully to get a paper stating, in German, that I was insured. This, however, could not be accomplished because (a) my letter stating I was insured worldwide was in English, and (b) they didn’t have the time to have their legal department review Aetna’s entire policy brochure. So the next day we decided to just take our chances and visit the foreigners’ office with the stack of papers I already had. We were in line at 8 AM, but by the time we got to the front of it, we were told they were already closed for student applicants. They had opened at 7 AM, so apparently they were open for one hour only that day. The woman told us, “Come back tomorrow. But we might be on strike.”

As it turned out, they didn’t strike, we were in line at 6:50, and several waiting rooms later, at 8:30 I had a visa. Our plane left at 9:25. We got to the airport at 9:10. But in the end, we made it to Sweden, and I am no longer an illegal alien! (Put it down as a few months of participant observation.)