Articles posted by Karl Schaefer

Signing Off (28 April 2017)

April 28, 2017

Rathaus Platz Hamburg
22 April 2017

On Sunday I make the trek back home. It seems as though I have been away forever and Vibs tells me it seems like twice that long. An entire season (granted, not one of the best in Minnesota) has passed and the landscape will appear much different than when I left. Much more green and much less white and brown. The weather gods seem to be taking some perverse pleasure in teasing me; after an unseasonably cool Spring here in Hamburg, next week promises to be wonderful, with temperatures reaching the mid-60s and more sunshine. May Day, a major holiday here (and across much of the rest of the world) is supposed to be very pleasant.

As many of you will know, last Saturday, Marches for Science were held in more than 600 cities across the world. Hamburg had one and I attended. The rallying point was the plaza in front of the Rathaus and, as you can see from the accompanying photo, the crowd was of a respectable size. The proceedings started with speeches by the organizers (in both English and German) and then a brief address by a professor from the university. Lots of signs and costumes reflecting the numerous issues people felt needed to be addressed rationally. Perhaps needless to say, Trump caricatures were prominently featured. The event carried on despite a stingingly cold rain shower and swirling winds. At two points along the march route the assembly stopped to hear remarks by certain learned folk about the importance of reason and rationality in a time of increasing ignorance and misinformation.

This past week has seen a continuous round of goodbyes and social interactions. I have also been fortunate to encounter more people whose work gives new direction and focus to my own research. For example, a young Italian PhD student at the Center is doing experimental work attempting to re-create ink recipes found in certain medieval Arabic books. We were able to try making prints using the inks she made and the fact that inks used to write with are not so suitable for printing suggests that there may be, somewhere, recipes for printing ink and that would be awesome to find. So much work to do…

On one of my last days at the Center, about mid-morning, we were told we had to evacuate the building. This information was conveyed in person by one of the stalwart student workers who told me that the fire alarm system was temporarily out of order. (I flashed back to the numerous fire drills we endured over the years at Drake, always on the worst weather day of the season, it seemed) In point of fact, there was a small combustion event that had taken place in one of the kitchens (each floor has a small one where there are coffee makers, refrigerators,  and tea kettles, no stoves). It turned out that someone unfamiliar with the technology had left a package of paper coffee filters on the heating element of a coffeemaker– with predictable results. So, we had some excitement. No major damage was done and we returned to work with a faint whiff of burnt paper in the air.

Up In Smoke
26 Warburgstrasse

Two days to go and suddenly I’m at loose ends. I will start packing today—putting the suitcase out on the spare bed will be a reminder that this chapter is nearly at an end. Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I actually did this, that someone thought enough of my work to allocate a sort of investment to it. Of course, that means I am now under some pressure to produce something and so I must re-order parts of my life to make it happen. Funny how life throws you curves when you least expect it. Time will tell what the result may be. Thanks for reading. Auf Wiedersehen.

Odds and Ends (18-22 April 2017)

April 22, 2017

Odds & Ends (18-22 April 2017)

So, a week to go. It seems that no matter how much planning one puts into a schedule, there’s always a flood of unfinished business at the end. The last several days have been full of “goodbyes,” promises to keep in touch, pledges of “let’s get together one more time before you leave,” and other assorted affairs to be attended to. Slowly, I’m beginning to discard the clutter that seems to accumulate without effort, despite my best intentions of keeping it to a minimum. What notes should I keep? What things can I send home, being fairly certain that I won’t need them in the next seven days? Is there someone willing to take my leftover groceries? It’s such a shame to throw out a nearly full box of muesli. (The answer is yes, my Fulbright Fellow neighbors are happy to have them so they won’t end up in the landfill or wherever they take such things.)

I’ve begun to think about the places I want to visit one more time, the restaurants I want to have a meal in because they serve something special, the coffee shop I found tucked away on a residential street that has REAL homemade pastries and good coffee and where I can sit with the newspaper or a book for an hour or so without being disturbed. Aside from these pleasures, I also have been busy consulting with as many of the bright young minds working in the center as I can. It’s amazing how a casual forty-five-minute tour of someone’s workspace can prompt new ideas, a potentially useful avenue of research that would not have occurred to me otherwise. Not to take advantage of such opportunities would border on the irresponsible.

There’s still time to enjoy the city and to do things. This afternoon a March for Science is being held in the Rathausplatz, the big open square in front of City Hall. It’s one of many similar marches being held in about 400 cities around the world. The purpose is to show support for rationality and the exercise of reason in everything we do, a tough row to hoe in the current climate but activism of this sort is still alive and kicking in Europe and it seems to be taking hold in the States as well. We hope someone is watching and listening. Tonight, there is a city-wide event called the “Long Night of the Museums.” Museums across Hamburg will be open until late and will be hosting all sorts of cultural events. If I can stay up, I just may have to check this out.

And the weather is slowly improving. Hamburg is apparently notorious for quickly changing conditions (sort of like Iowa) so you take an umbrella whenever you’re out. This morning I ran some errands and within the space of two hours I experienced a deluge with whipping winds, a smattering of hail (about 10 seconds worth), a few errant flakes of snow that never even reached the ground, and sunshine. As you can see from a couple of the pictures below, it’s getting green and it’s a bit sad to be leaving just as the warm weather is arriving, but I’ll catch it in Minnesota.

View from my window
Note sun AND dark clouds

Park behind Dammtor Train Station: Ice Cream in 50° weather! But look at the flowers…

A quiet street in my neighborhood. Probably not named for THAT Bieber…

As Time Grows Short… (5 April 2017)

April 5, 2017

With a month to go, I have been thinking about what’s changed here over the course of my nearly forty-year association with the country. I first visited Germany in 1983 when I was finishing my graduate degree. A return flight from the Middle East had a transfer in Frankfurt and I took the opportunity to break my journey and visit some of my father’s relatives in that city. I remember that some buildings, bomb-damaged during WWII were still standing. Not many, but a few, and there were a number of vacant lots where destroyed structures had once stood. All of that is gone, now. Damaged buildings have either been rebuilt and restored (mostly architecturally important public ones) or replaced with new construction.

The population has changed dramatically, too. Since Germany began to admit Turkish “guest workers” in the 1970’s, the face of Germany has become much more diverse. The recent admission of a million refugees from Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa has only intensified the heterogeneity. It is not uncommon, as I think I mentioned in an earlier post, to hear fluent German being spoken by people who are obviously of African origin, or Asian for that matter. In that way, Germany is not unlike many other places in the world where a multiplicity of ethnicities and cultures are showing up where they wouldn’t have been found, at least not in great numbers, even twenty years ago.

The influence of the United States is also increasingly apparent. Commercial television is one example, something else I’ve also alluded to before. There seem to be a great many more English words used than there used to be, too. The standard greeting is no longer “guten Tag,” but “Hallo” or even “hi” among 20-somethings. Passing by a group of students the other day, I overheard one say, “Ich hab’s ge-Googelt” (I Googled it). Well, why should I be surprised? Germans use Google, too. “Hotline” is hotline in German; “cool” is cool.

I took an extensive walk today, the primary purpose of which was to find free jazz performances being held somewhere in the city center (it was a big disappointment not to be able to find them) and I saw several American muscle cars being driven about by their proud owners who were eager to get them out of the garage after a long winter: a 1962 Corvette (sweet!), a 1960-something Mustang V-8, and a couple of others. Motorcycles—a bunch of Harley Davidsons—cruised about in their annoying, rumbling, blatting way, many ridden by too-stereotypical guys in t-shirts and over-ample girths. It could have been Des Moines!

Trying to find anything of the “old” Germany takes time and luck. Of course, we don’t want to look too hard for it in any case, but for some things—like beer for instance—you want to be able to trace a heritage. Bread is a case in point. You can buy the plastic wrapped sort in any grocery store, but most places will still have a proper bakery where you can buy a freshly-baked loaf. But that bread is usually the sort of bread you’d find in any bakery. On one of my strolls, I happened upon a small neighborhood bakery that sold varieties of old fashioned peasant rye bread, the kind of loaf that can serve as a doorstop after three days on the kitchen counter. The shop does a pretty good business judging from the line I had to stand in to purchase an experimental half-loaf a few weeks ago. But the customers were pensioners by and large and I wonder how much longer they’ll be able to keep places like that going. Other minor things also retain a sense of earlier times in Europe. Commercial toilet paper, for example, could easily serve as a substitute for materials used to give a final smoothing to fine woodwork. The Germans are a hardy lot, it seems.

That the “old” Germany is disappearing is a fact and not too many people will be sad to see it go. Yes, there are some things, like high quality craftsmanship and durable goods, that are also harder to find. Even some of my students here lament the “decline” in quality. But the streets are clean, the parks tidy and well tended, the people are still assured of good health care, education, and quality of life, for the most part. The economy is strong. It seems that people are always working. It’s a bit depressing to see beggars, panhandlers and homeless people on the streets. The “safety net” isn’t catching everyone, it appears. The infrastructure, like ours, makes the news because it’s failing in some places. Stretches of highway are in need of major overhauls and the quandary is how to fix them without causing huge traffic jams. Sounds familiar. But I have the sense that here they’ll decide what the best way to proceed is and get the work done. And it’ll be done well.

Another indication of new sensibilities is the official signage one finds posted here and there. This sign, telling people not to fasten their bicycles to the iron fence, is in a type face that we associate with a rather dark period in German history. My reaction to it is one of anxiety because I think of the Nazi period when I see it.

Like these guys…

The last thing I would want to do is to lock my bike up to that fence. But for those Germans born in the 80s, 90s, or 00s, this style of text won’t have that resonance and so it loses its force.

The danger, of course, is that people will forget the horrible things, too, and that could lead to very bad things happening all over again. One always hopes that our values and our institutions are so well established that they will make it difficult if not impossible for those bad things to occur, but history doesn’t hold out much hope for that outcome. Whether we’re all just three missed meals away from total chaos is a hypothesis I don’t want to test.

Sunday Reflection

A quiet Sunday in Hamburg. Another sunny day but a bit cooler than yesterday. Being here is so much easier when the weather is pleasant. Granted that most of my time is spent inside, either in the office, in a classroom, or in the library. And speaking of libraries, it has occurred to me that I haven’t said much of anything about the libraries here in Germany and as a former librarian, I think I should make some observations about that institution.


The print world seems to be alive and kicking in Germany. When I am out in the evenings and apartment lights are on, I cannot but be amazed at the number of homes that have bookshelves prominently featured. The walls of nearly every living room have bookshelves—floor to ceiling bookshelves—filled with books. Bookstores seems to be numerous as are newspaper vendors. The university libraries are huge (I think I mentioned that the Staatsbibliothek in Munich has some ten MILLION volumes). The library for the University of Hamburg, which also serves as the state library—hence the designation of “Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg,” meaning the state and university library of Hamburg—has 3.7 million bound volumes, 886,000 electronic resources, 7,500 western manuscripts, 1,500 eastern manuscripts, 3,200 music manuscripts, 5,800 print journals and 69,000 e-journals. This serves 40,000 students as well as the 1.2 million citizens of Hamburg. (There are other public libraries in the city as well.) The main library, Carl von Ossietzky Library, is located on the university campus and other branch libraries are scattered about.

University and State Library Hamburg

The law library is on Rothenbaumchaussee, across the street and down half a block from where I am; the Asian and African and social science libraries are just near the train station, also a five-minute walk away. Then there’s the reference library in the Center for the Study of Manuscript Cultures where I spend most of my days. It’s small, occupying a room about 20 x 30 feet and devoted, as you might guess, to works on the history of manuscripts and books from Asian, Africa and Europe.


Using the library is pretty straightforward and incredibly efficient. I was issued a library card during my first week here. It has a personal number and a PIN associated with it. With this information, I can access the catalog, all the university databases and check out books. When you want to borrow a book, you find it in the catalog, tell the system you want to borrow it, and enter your card number and PIN. Within eight to twelve hours, your book is ready to be picked up. You go to the library, drop all your gear—coat, hat, bag—in a free locker and enter the borrowing area. Here, you find rows of numbered shelves. The last digit on your ID card tells you which number shelf holds your material. You then use the first four digits to locate your book. A paper slip bearing your ID number and the first four letters of your last name has been inserted into the book so you can identify it. You then take your book to a check out machine. There you place your ID card, bar code up, on the table. The machine reads your number, then you place the book on the table and the machine reads the RFID tag attached to the book. You complete the transaction and you are done. The book is de-sensitized so you can pass through the security gate and you’re off. The slip of paper tells you when the book is due and if you want to renew, you simply log into your account on the library system and renew, just like at Cowles.


One big difference is the classification system; no LC here. I haven’t tried to figure out the entire scheme, only what I need for my particular area. The library has the obligatory café and the librarians are, just like at home, very helpful. The place is also, ALWAYS, full of students and faculty. I think it makes a big difference that university students in Germany, as in most of western Europe, do not pay for their educations, or at least only a very modest amount. In addition, they are provided with stipends that enable them to live while they are studying. Of course, the other major difference here is that only the best of the best, historically, have been granted this privilege. A university education here is not, unlike the States, considered a birthright. But then, also unlike the States, there are many other opportunities to receive training that will provide you with a way to make a living.

A Scottish Respite and Back to Work (3/24-3/31)

April 2, 2017

The past ten days or so have been a bit hectic. It appears that I contracted a rather nasty chest cold somewhere between northern Germany and Copenhagen. I felt pretty okay, but my ribs ached so much that I almost cancelled my long-planned trip to Kinross in Scotland last weekend. By the time I left last Thursday, though, I could tell that the worst was over and I was fairly sure I was no longer contagious. Just in case, I had my Scots hosts swing by a chemist’s shop and I picked up some good ol’ Robitussin. That did the trick.

Loch Leven

Kinross is about an hour outside Edinburgh and my friends’ cottage backs onto a nature preserve that surrounds Loch Leven. The loch is idyllic; lots of wildlife, birds especially, along with cows and sheep. Rabbits abound as do foxes and badgers, apparently, which has compelled the wildlife authorities to build a rather elaborate fence around much of the grasslands bordering the loch so that the birds can nest without fear of having their eggs poached (so to speak…).

Four days of eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, drinking when thirsty and chatting whenever the occasion arose did much to re-energize me. The sun had followed me to Scotland and we had four brilliant days with springtime temperatures. Lots of walking.

My flight back to Germany took about ninety minutes but we lost an hour of time because of the time zones. Nonetheless, I was back in the apartment at a decent hour and managed to get a good night’s sleep before my second seminar on “agency” on Tuesday. That went well and four of us, two students, another professor and I went out for dinner afterwards. The sun had set by then but even though the temperature had dropped, we sat outside at a café with a bunch of hardy Hamburgers and enjoyed our meal. One thing I’ll say about the Germans: they are a hardy lot. There are many cafes that offer outdoor seating, even in March. They simply provide cozy, colorful lap robes for people desiring to enjoy their food and beverages outside in twenty degrees. Kids play outside even on the greyest of days; parents watching over them with their shoulders hunched and hands stuffed deeply in their pockets. With the weather improving, there’s work being done everywhere to freshen paint, repair winter damage and make the plazas and courtyards inviting.

Spring has definitely arrived here. It gets dark much later now (thanks in part to the clocks being set forward last Sunday) and the grass is greening daily. Flowers are everywhere and flowering trees are already beginning to drop their blossoms. Runners have shed their insulated running pants and ice cream parlors are doing great business. The streets are a-bustle with Hamburgers enjoying being outside without raincoats, hats, gloves and all that. Time to turn your face up to the sun.

Plantings in the Gästehaus Courtyard

34 Rothenbaumchaussee

Copenhagen (March16-17)

March 19, 2017

There’s one more trip I must take. In Copenhagen, Denmark is a small museum called the David Collection. It owns another of the block prints I’m pursuing and I’m off to see it. I bought my train tickets a couple of days ago so all I had to do this morning was roll out of bed and make my way to the central station in Hamburg. I was excited to make this trip because the it involves the train being loaded onto a ferry for the trip from the north coast of Germany across a bay of the Baltic, the sea that separates the Danish island of Sjaelland from continental Europe. The first part of the trip went along the same route I had taken with Jim to Lübeck but continued on northeast to a little seaside town called Puttgarden. The town itself lies on the northern edge of a German island called Fehmarn. The names are more than slightly Danish and it’s no wonder. The Danes and Germans fought more than one war over this real estate up here. For the present, it’s German.

Public works projects generate intense debate everywhere. It’s no different in Germany and Denmark. Up here, there is a proposal to replace the ferry service with a bridge or tunnel or bridge/tunnel combination between the two countries at this point. But there’s opposition:

You can tell you’re getting close to the ocean because the land flattens and marshes, ponds, and inlets start appearing. Before you know it, the train is creeping onto a boat—a BIG boat– and then it comes to a stop. The train is only four cars long because it has to fit on the ferry, but even so, that’s a lot of train to carry on a boat. Then, it’s “everybody out” for the 45 minute crossing; train passengers as well as car and truck drivers are required to leave the vehicle decks while we’re underway. I spent the trip on the ferry “Princesse Benedikte” wandering around on the observation deck in surprising sunshine and browsing the duty free shops and restaurants in the enclosed areas.

Soon the crew of the ferry announces that we were approaching our destination, the Danish port town of Rødby, and we return to our seats on the train. The train is among the first vehicles to disembark; we set off on terra firma but halt at the first train station, about a quarter mile from the dock. Here the train is boarded by Danish police who politely ask all passengers for their passports. Despite Europe’s generous policy of accepting refugees, Denmark has decided it has had enough so they restrict entry to those who are carrying valid passports or other travel documents. I don’t see them remove anyone from our train…

We arrived in Copenhagen (I should probably write København since we’re now in Denmark—oops: Danmark!) about mid-afternoon. I checked into a modest hotel right next to the central train station. It’s called Nebo and I’ve stayed here before when Vibs and I have had occasion to visit the city. It’s a so-called “mission” hotel because it reflects a “Christian” philosophy that everyone deserves decent lodging. At about a hundred bucks a night, in the city center; it can’t be beat. Some of the rooms have shared baths and toilets but hey, they’re clean and neat.

I spent a bit of time in my room on the computer calculating a route from the hotel to the museum. Once I had done this, I headed out to reconnoiter my path. With a city plan firmly (more or less) in mental grasp, I walked the route I planned to take the next day. Contrary to expectations, the sun was out and the streets were busy. I walked the kilometer or so to H.C. Anderson Boulevard, which runs adjacent to Copenhagen’s grand Parliament building, the Rådhus.

Crossing its plaza, which is a bit torn up due to the construction of a major subway project (the work has had Copenhagen in a traffic and aesthetic uproar for several years, now, but progress is being made…) and the erection of tents. The Danes were getting ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The Danes, supposedly the happiest people on the planet, are always up for a good time, even if it’s imported. On the other side of the plaza, I head up Strøget. Strøget is a main commercial street running for a mile or so through central Copenhagen. It’s a pedestrian street and the location of a number of iconic stores and businesses, some of them Danish—like Ilum’s and Georg Jensen—but increasingly American and European shops like Abercrombie & Fitch, Body Shop, Seven Eleven and, of course, MacDonald’s. Street performers were out in force: living statues of Elvis (in the later years), a black guy in dreads performing Bob Marley standards, another artist with a bucket of soapy water and a loop of rope lofting huge bubbles into the breeze. A typical city in other words.

Having determined that my route was accurate and walkable in a reasonable amount of time, I wandered slowly back toward my hotel, scouting out potential dinner locations along the way. The variety of cuisine options has greatly expanded here as it has elsewhere and the thought struck me as, later that evening, I sat at an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. It seems that food as a cultural marker is losing its distinctiveness. That evening, across the room from where I sat, was your “typical” Danish young girl of about eight or ten: blond hair, blue eyes, Nordic to the bone. She was picking out dishes that her grandparents would never have heard of and that her parents had probably come to only as adults. Yet sushi would be a part of her cultural reference for all of her life, as natural as any other on the Danish landscape.

At ten the next morning, I presented myself at the David Samling. The building is on Kronprinsessengade, which borders one side of the park that surrounds Rosenborg Castle, the official residence of Denmark’s royal family. I met Anne-Marie Keblow-Bernsted, a conservator at the museum, who led me through a labyrinth of passageways to her workshop, where she does the labor necessary to preserve the textiles, paper, ceramics and other materials that constitute much of the collection. She had prepared the block print for me to examine and I spent a couple of hours doing just that. I also had the opportunity to talk with Ms. Keblow-Bernsted about her own work and particularly her study of Islamic ceramics. She had written a book on the subject of pigments and deterioration of glazes and such, a study of major importance in the field.

After expressing my thanks to her and the museum, I wandered back to toward the hotel, stopping off to make a few small purchases of items that are still hard to find outside of Denmark. The skies had been cloudy all morning and now the weather was definitely deteriorating. Taking a stiffening wind as a hint, I found a café where I could have some lunch and watch people through a window. Rain pounded down for a while, chasing pedestrians off the streets. A few disappointed St. Paddy’s Day revelers hustled past, shoulders hunched, hands buried in pockets, their green hats and fake red beards looking a tad bedraggled. By the time I finished my meal, the rain had let up enough that I could make a run for the hotel, retrieve my bag and make the short walk to the train station without getting soaked.

The train journey back to Germany was uneventful. Riding through the dark, we could have been anywhere. The ferry ride was a bit choppy, the boat shuddering through waves and wind but we docked without incident and by midnight I was snug at home.

A Short Week

Since I returned from Munich only on Monday evening last week (3/6), I was already down a workday. In addition, Cousin Jim was due to arrive on Thursday evening for a brief visit with me. Now, I had known that he was coming and I had been looking forward to seeing him. This was his first visit to Europe and he was taking advantage of my presence here to see that he didn’t get lost. The three days before his arrival flew by and, because I felt that I had been keeping my nose fairly close to the grindstone, I was not feeling the least twinge of guilt about taking Friday and part of Monday off so I could show him around.

His visit also gave me the opportunity to get a bit more familiar with Hamburg. Although I had taken the bus tour of the town, I hadn’t veered too far from my day-to-day route or routine. When Jim arrived, we immediately set off for a jazz club that I had found online. Jim likes music and he was looking forward to hearing some. Despite the usual fatigue generated by trans-Atlantic air travel, Jim insisted on scoping out Birdland Club. It was more of a hike than either of us anticipated, but we found it, tucked into a too cozy cellar on a main thoroughfare about a mile from my apartment. We ran the gauntlet of young smokers puffing their carcinogens on the stairway and entered a low ceilinged space with wall to wall bodies. The music hadn’t started yet and the crowd was overwhelming. Disappointed, we retreated to the street and wandered our way back home. Jet lag had finally hit and Cousin Jim collapsed into bed the minute we got home.

The next morning, we ate breakfast in a rather upscale hotel just down the street. Elysée Palace (SO pretentious!) has it all for those who have it all. Spa, health club, four restaurants, a shoe and clothing store (just in case you left your Guccis at home), and lots of other amenities. Despite this, they served a nice breakfast and a good cup of coffee at a reasonable price. Thus fortified, we set out to walk the city, across the Kennedy Bridge, which divides the Outer Alster Lake from the Inner Alster Lake, and into downtown. Having seen much of this part of Hamburg from the tour bus, I was able to point out some of the sights. We walked down to the harbor and saw an area that has recently been rehabilitated. Lots of old brick warehouses turned into office flats and apartments. It was easy to get lost, but people were helpful in pointing us in the direction of landmarks—like the grand Gothic City Hall—so we could get our bearings again. We had a couple of beers along the way and a late lunch at home. That evening, we decided to try the bar in the fancy hotel and, to our delight, they had live music. A jazz trio, composed of three guys in their eighties at least, was doing a fabulous job with the standards and we spent a pleasant couple of hours listening.

On Saturday, I had arranged train tickets to Lübeck. Lübeck is a well-preserved town that dates back a millennium or so. It was one of the original members of the Hanseatic League, that medieval precursor to the European Community. The old town is surrounded by twin moats and boasts the requisite monumental city gates and tilting 500 year old buildings, centuries old churches and cobbled streets. It was cold when we set out but Jim had brought the sun with him to northern Europe and by noon the sidewalk bars and cafes were filled with people enjoying themselves.

Earlier on, we had noticed what looked to be a concert cranking up in a park near one of the city gates. We paid only casual attention to this, but the crowd continued to grow and by the time we stopped for a noontime beer, a substantial crowd had formed, complete with banners bearing the logos of the SPD (the German Socialist Party), a drum and brass ensemble, people in 19th century costume, and other political signs and flags. The biggest surprise: pussy hats! Many, many pussy hats! Okay, so they weren’t true pink—more magenta, or maybe fuchsia—but the form was the same and so was the message. Probably the best American export in decades.

After the parade passed us by, we had lunch and one more beer before we boarded the train for the return to Hamburg. We ended the day in our now favorite hotel for dinner and another evening of music by a different jazz trio composed of even older white guys.

Sunday was a bit of a rest day; we scouted out a part of my neighborhood that I had not yet had a chance to explore and found a couple of gems. One bar that could become a local for me on those Fridays when I can’t stand another minute of the inside of the office and the lure of the apartment is weak. There was also a nice Italian restaurant that has the perfect combination of atmosphere and food that warrants return visits.

All this was a most welcome respite to my existence here. Jim got to see a bit of Europe and I got to speak something other than German for a few days. Not that I mind speaking German; I need to do more of it so my ability improves. I’m a long way from fluent, but a steady diet of newspaper, radio, tv, and conversations with Germans is moving things along.

Two Days Away (March 4-5, 2017)

March 15, 2017

I have been trying to keep myself on track with all the varied activities I have promised to undertake during my stay in Germany. So far, I think I’ve done pretty well. One month into my residence, I have completed one of three planned research trips, participated in one of two seminar sessions and done some writing. I think that’s not bad, but from experience I know that all of a sudden, one looks up and the time has all gone with too much left to do. A bad feeling.

Wanting to do whatever I can to prevent this from occurring, I set off this past Saturday (March 4th) for Munich where two more block prints reside. It’s a six hour train ride from Hamburg to Munich so not possible to do in one day. I had recently re-established contact with a former professor of mine from graduate school who has spent most of his professional life at Goethe University in Frankfurt. When he learned that I was going to be in Germany, we arranged to meet and since Frankfurt lies between Hamburg and Munich, this was a perfect opportunity.

I spent a very pleasant evening and morning reminiscing with David King and his wife Pat—I had not seen them in thirty years!—and then continued my journey south. In Munich, I spent the night in a small hotel which was so tucked away that it took me a good half an hour to find the street it was on. Even the locals weren’t exactly sure where Amalienstrasse was! In desperation, I walked into a competing hotel and the desk clerk cheerfully told me my hotel was in the next street!

This morning (Monday, March 6th), I walked the three short blocks to Ludwigstrasse, a grand, wide thoroughfare lined with Gothic piles of tooled stone to find the Staatsbibliothek, the state library.

After going through the obligatory check-in, shedding my jacket, hat, and briefcase, and sliding the pieces of paper, ruler, and magnifying glass into the transparent plastic bag I was given, I was admitted to the manuscript reading room where I spent two intense hours examining the block prints. The librarian who had discovered these block prints, Helga Rebhan, came out to greet me and introduce herself. We arranged to meet for coffee after I had finished looking at the block prints and we had a very informative conversation during the course of which she told me that she knew of another example that a colleague of hers had seen in southwestern China! The story of the block prints grows ever more intriguing…

Helga was able to provide a bit of general information about the Staatsbibliothek as well: ten million, that’s TEN MILLION volumes of print plus a couple hundred thousand manuscripts. The building was put up between 1832 and 1839 and is glorious both inside and out. The outside is solid stone, made to last; the inside has high ceilings and broad staircases. The reading rooms have all been modernized, but in a tasteful way; comfortable seating is everywhere and there’s plenty of light. It was busy on that Monday morning, due in part to the fact that the university is just a stone’s throw away down Ludwigstrasse. But the manuscript reading room was populated as well.

Very impressive all in all.

Now I’m on the train again, headed back to Hamburg and my apartment. I’d like to think I could kick back for a couple of days, but the fear of running out of time makes that seem unlikely. A cousin of mine comes to visit for four days at the end of the week and then we’re into the second week of March already. Nearly half of my time here will be gone. So, it looks like I’ll have to press on for a while before I can put my feet up.

Catching Up

February 25, 2017

What to do on (yet another) rainy Saturday afternoon in Hamburg? I managed to get all my errands run this morning while it was merely cloudy. Now the showers have returned so rather than venturing into the damp before I have to, I thought that it would be a good time to formulate another post.

This past week, I finally succeeded in taking the bus tour of the city (Stadtrundfahrt) that I had been promising myself I would take so I could get my bearings here. The pressure to accomplish this was increased due to the fact that a cousin of mine is coming to visit and he no doubt expects me to not get us lost. I took the train and a subway line to the Hamburg waterfront on the Elbe River and found waiting for me a red double decker bus. Boarding the vehicle, I surrendered my ticket and was given a pair of airline-type headphones. Once I took a seat, I plugged them in and turned the dial on the panel to “English.” I opted for the headphones because my German is fair at best and I thought I would get better information if it were in my native language. That may not have been a good choice since the English guide was pre-recorded and was more of a highlight reel, a “best-of” program. I probably should have struggled with the live-action German guide.

Off we went, first through the harbor district where an entirely new residential area has been constructed where warehouses once stood. The ground was raised 20 plus feet so it would be protected from flooding, an ever increasing risk due to climate change. The Elbe is being hemmed in by new higher flood walls, too, for the same reason. The city government realized some time ago that a city center devoted only to corporate offices meant a dead city twelve hours a day, so they began building AFFORDABLE housing and amenities (shops, services, infrastructure) to support it. It’s based principles of sustainability so all buildings are energy efficient and public transport is the rule. The gizmos you see on the roof in the photo below are wind powered generators–a new generation configuration.

Hamburg Harbor City


The city is still  major port; more than 100,000 cargo and cruise ships pass through Hamburg’s harbor each year. This year Germany had its largest budget SURPLUS in modern history. It apparently pays to invest in infrastructure. Do you think the Trumpster and “fellow Republicans” are listening or paying attention? Three guesses.

Harbor View


Of course, there’s lots of “old” Hamburg to be seen as well. The city has been around for more than a thousand years and while the original settlement is long gone, there is still much evidence of its history. Great sections of Hamburg have been destroyed over the years. There was a “great fire” (like London’s) that took out much of the original merchants’ area in the 1800s; there has been the occasional flood and then there was the small matter of WWII and the firebombing of the city that was carried out. Despite this, as I said, there’s a lot of “old town” left. The grand Rathaus or town hall, dating to the 19th century, is standing, as are a number of churches and public buildings. The center of the city has a number of pedestrian areas and shopping streets. While modern skyscrapers stretch above many streets, the general sense of Hamburg is that most of the buildings are of modest height and, rather than being torn down when they have outlived their original purposes, they are renovated or remodeled and put to other uses. The old central post office, seen below, is now home to offices for doctors, lawyers and other professionals as well as a gym.

Old Central Post Office


Then there are the churches, of course. Everybody comes to Europe to see the churches. St. Michael’s Church is THE Hamburg landmark. Destroyed twice, to the foundations, since it was built in the 1800s and compulsively rebuilt and restored each time.

St. Michael’s Church


Hints of Spring

February 21, 2017

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Today seems like a good day to write. Overcast, gray skies are just not conducive to prose production, at least not for me. For Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps, or Steven King, darkness and gloom might just do the trick, but it doesn’t wind my watch. So, today looked like it was going to be another one of those. A peek out through the curtains when I awoke revealed rain-spattered windows and a stiff wind. It rained all last night and there must have been some wind, too, because the sidewalks and streets were littered with dead tree branches–anything from twigs to baby forearm diameter–and dotted with puddles of considerable depth. However, by the time I set out for my office at the center, the clouds had broken and patches of blue were everywhere overhead. It’s March cold, though; the wind has a bite but the grass in the parks is definitely turning green. No flowers yet, but there are the beginnings of buds on the trees. It almost made me want to blow off the whole office thing and be outside, but some sense of duty reined me in.

Tomorrow, finally, I have arranged to take a tour bus around the city. I tried to do this last week, but I misunderstood the system. I had been under the impression that the tours were all run by one company and that they commenced from the main train station. Turns out, there are at least three companies and the one I had signed on with departed from a street corner halfway across town and I was unable to get there in time. They were kind enough to let me re-book for tomorrow, though, so I’ll make sure I leave in plenty of time to get there. I’ve never done this sort of touristy thing before but since I’m here for a while, I thought it might be an easy way to get my bearings. In addition, my cousin is coming from the States to visit in a couple of weeks and I want to be able to show him around and this is a good way to get started.

One final story–which you librarians might appreciate: I have a University of Hamburg library card which allows me to use the facilities and to borrow books, among other things. Well, I needed a book for one of my projects and requested it online. The library here is “closed stacks” so the deal is that you place your order and when you know the book has been retrieved by a trusty student worker, you go to the borrowing section, a big room with lots of shelves. On the shelves are the books ready for loan. Using part of your ID number, you find out which shelf you should go to and then, using another part of the number, you find your book. You then take book and ID to a machine which reads the RFID strip embedded in the book somewhere and the bar code on your ID and off you go.

That went fine, but due to my nervousness, I ran into a problem. Before you enter the area where the books are held, you are required to place your coat, briefcase, beverage container, etc. in a free locker which you then lock using a PIN. There are four or five rows of these little cabinets, about five high and twelve or fifteen long. Each aisle is color coded and each locker has a name on it–a city name, an author, a country. Works fine unless you forget which locker you put your stuff in. Yup. I tried a bunch, thinking I was in the right aisle and in the right tier, but no luck. What an idiot! So, off I go to the front desk and ask for help. The folks at the desk apparently had experienced such requests before and they were quite helpful, if a bit annoyed. The guy who came to assist me opened about a dozen lockers, none of which contained my stuff. In desperation, I tried a couple of unlikely candidates, and voila! There’s my stuff. Enough embarrassment for the next three months. But the sun was still out and I walked home in the unfamiliar light with a new book to read.

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