This gallery contains 17 photos.

For all the amount of effort Berlin has put into memorializing its history -marking where the wall once ran, planting informational signs at significant Third Reich sites and now, rebuilding its Prussian castle, there are still pieces that have almost been lost to time. One of these places is in the far corner of Moabit …

Read More

I am taking a German correspondence course at the Volkshochshule (VHS) in order to improve my writing. There is an entire verb tense that is only used in written German -almost never in spoken, so you can see why this is very important.

But weeks into the course, my writing is not getting better. Or at least each writing assignment I have turned in comes back with as many marks as the last. This is really frustrating for me because I love to write. Germans are really good at understanding non-native speakers despite their grammatical errors, but writing has many rules which cannot be broken, including writing-reform rules from 2006 that were supposed to standardize things and greatly reduce the use of the “ß.”

Still, I really like the class, the teacher and my classmates. We are all women for some reason – three Italians, one Chilean by way of Spain, one Azerbaijani by way of Norway, one Brazilian, one Japanese and one German -why she is there I don’t know, but perhaps it’s a good indication of how hard it is to write correctly in the language.

Here is my first homework assignment, a one page description of my first day in Berlin. I tried to write as simply as possible, but I still made a ton of mistakes.Mein erste Tag-1

The Berlinale Film Festival has come and gone, briefly lighting up the dreary winter like a meteor streaking into the Russian atmosphere. I had been looking forward to it for sometime and was still surprised by how good it was. There were simply dozens and dozens of really interesting films from all over the world to see, great Q+As with the directors and screenings in beautiful theaters across the city. I am a bit sad that it’s all over and still have the Berlinale jingle (played before every film and looped over speakers during the red carpet arrivals) burned into my brain.

Here are a couple highlights with pictures from the post-screening discussions:

Naked Opera, Austria

I wanted to be sure to attend the premiere of this documentary in part because my friend Mieke made the beautiful titles and some special effects for it. It’s a very unusual, funny documentary about a gay man in Luxembourg who has a terminal disease and travels around Europe to see different productions of Don Giovanni, staying in five star hotels and dating call boys along the way. Mieke told me that later in the festival, the director Angela Christlieb won a prize for the film.

the cast and crew of Naked Opera

No Man’s Land, Portugal

This was the most difficult film I saw but maybe the best- a very minimal documentary in which a man is interviewed about his former career as a military commando in Angola before the Carnation Revolution and his subsequent work as a mercenary in El Salvador and Spain. Unfortunately, many people walked out during the film and missed the ending, which completely changes one’s perception of the whole story. A friend moderated the Q&A, during which in an awkward moment he made the hilarious comment, “Bigamy. It happens!”

Tobias with director Salomé Lamas

Leviathan, USA

I had seen Véréna Paravel’s film about the Iron Triangle at Exit Art in NYC last winter with an audience of about 30 people. I talked to her for a while after the screening and she told me about the new film she was working on, a documentary about fishermen in New Bedford. Never would I have guessed that I would see this film at the Berlinale’s only screening of it with an audience of hundreds. It’s an awesome movie that was fantastic to see in such an immense theater.

Véréna Paravel speaking to the audience

Véréna Paravel speaking to the audience

It’s been very, very, very, very, very cold in Berlin and the canal behind our building has frozen over! But after a week of dark, snowy days, the skies cleared on Saturday and beaucoup people came out to enjoy the sunshine (though the high was still only -5C/23F) and even go ice skating on the canal. Here’s the view from our balcony:



Christian pointed out that the scene looks like a Bruegel painting:



Last week in Hamburg, the annual swan transport took place – all the swans that live on the Alster were rounded up and taken to their winter home, a northern spur off the river where an artificial current keeps the water from freezing over. Swans need water in order to survive, so for hundreds of years Hamburgers have been making sure they can access it through the most frigid months of the year.

Hamburg has a long history with swans. When it became independent around 1400, Hamburg adopted the graceful waterfowl as a symbol of its new status. Previously, swans were only owned by counts, dukes or kings. Now they belonged to all the citizens of Hamburg, a living embodiment of the new republican city.

As early as April 6th, 1674, Hamburg assigned the task of caring for the swans to one person. A senate protocol in the city archives cites the specific need to watch the eggs to keep boys from stealing them. Today this tradition continues in the role of the Swan Father, a city employee who oversees the swan transport every November. His official title is “district hunting master” and he actually oversees the safety and control of all wildlife that wanders into Hamburg year round: seals that swim too far up the Elbe, wild boars that appear in the city parks and even deer that get lost in the giant maze of containers that makes up the huge city harbor. But it’s mainly the swans that keep him busy and what he’s most famous for, as hundreds of people come to watch the fall round up -a public event that’s become a sure sign that winter is on its way.

So I went to Hamburg and filmed the transport, using it as an opportunity to try out some new equipment and just get out behind a camera again. It was a long, cold day but with my friend Simon’s help we managed to capture the whole process –from the boats herding the swans into a lock, the Swan Father and team grabbing the swans out of the water, binding their wings and feet and putting them into two small motor boats, and then the whole flotilla traveling north to their winter home. I was also able to get a longer interview with the Swan Father and my hope is to make a short film about his unique work and the transport.

Many thanks to Simon, without whom I couldn’t have done the shoot. At one point as we were standing above the lock where the swans were being gathered, my camera and tripod almost fell over onto the boats. They would have hit and probably killed some of the bound swans patiently waiting in the bows for the transport to begin. Luckily, Simon was able to grab the tripod before this happened, preventing us from becoming front page news ourselves since there were dozens of journalists standing at the ready with their cameras.

Also many thanks to Anne and family, with whom I stayed during the shoot and made me feel very much at home!

tender flakes of bacalao in a casserole, made by Sara

On Friday night, Sara celebrated her birthday by making a big, delicious bacalhau dinner at her place. Bacalhau is cod fish that has been dried and salted, and is a staple of Portuguese cooking. It sounds terrible but Sara who is proudly Portuguese herself, made it in part to show everyone how good it actually is -which everyone agreed it was after a couple bites in.

Sara is always quick to extoll the cultural impact her country has made all over the world throughout history (the Japanese word “arigato” being derived from the portuguese “obrigado” as one example). So an interesting debate started up over dinner about the German and Portuguese words for cod -kabeljau and bacalhau respectively. The words are so similar, there has to be some etymological relationship. But which came first? Who is influencing whom?

Sara of course claimed it’s a Portuguese word that the Germans adopted. Bacalhau is such a huge part of Portuguese cooking that it has to have a longer history there. But some of the German guests demurred. Cod is fished in the cold waters of the North Sea -not off the coast of Portugal. In fact, the reason that bacalhau cod is dried and salted is to preserve it for its long journey to southern Europe. Therefor, the Portuguese name must be derived from a northern European language.

Curious about what the origins of the word might reflect about early European relationships, I did some research and found that while there is no definitive answer, there is a surprising theory.

According to Montgomery Schuyler Jr. in an article in the Journal of Germanic Philology (1902), all sorts of languages in western Europe had early, similar sounding words meaning salted, dried cod:

old Dutch (1350): kabelaw and kaplawe

Middle Dutch: kabelow, kabbelow, kaplawe and kabbelaw

Swedish: kabeljo, kabbiljo and cabiljo

Danish & Norwegian: kabeljau or kabliau

East Frisian (German): kabbeljouw

English: cabilliau and kabbelow

French: cabillaud (old French: cabillau, cabellau, cabliau, kabeliau and kableau)

Portuguese: bacalháo and bacalhau

Spanish: bacalao

Italian: bachalao

But while the names are similar, there is a weird inversion between the Teutonic languages that have the “kab” or “cab” at the beginning and the Romance languages that start with “bac(k).” France is the exception, which Schuyler claims has to do with the old marketplace. The Dutch had strong trading ties with France, a good way to disseminate their name for what that was probably one of their largest  exports. This suggests that the word came from the Dutch, but Schuyler believes that the word was actually introduced by the Basques, who “are known to have been the first Europeans to engage in the cod-fishery at the Banks of Newfoundland and on the coasts of America, and it is probable that they introduced the word directly to their immediate neighbors.” (Unfortunately, there is no explanation of the inversion).

So we’ve traced the word in Europe to the Basques, but wait -they got the fish from Newfoundland and America. Schuyler writes:

“It is certainly possible that as the Basque fishermen brought back a new fish from the coasts of North America, they brought back also the name which was current among the aborigines of Newfoundland, Labrador, New England, or wherever they may have landed during their adventurous voyages.”

In other words, the origin of the word kabeljau/bacalhau is not German, Dutch, Portuguese or even Basque. It’s probably Native North American! So I’m so happy to say we can put this EU debate to rest, thanks to the new world and its delicious inventions.

southern & northern Europeans -friends and enemies for thousands of years

the bacalhau is gone, the etymological debate continues

nothing to do with bacalhau, just a really cool horse in Sara’s courtyard

It’s getting colder, so I guess it’s acceptable to eat kale here now and you can even find it in the grocery stores. But it comes in a kilo bag all washed up, chopped into smaller pieces and ready to be put in a pot with some wurst and cooked forever, to make a traditional German winter dish.

Today however, I saw fresh leaves of it for sale at the farmer’s market, and even better was able to harvest it myself in Prinzessinnengarten, a really special community agriculture experiment in Kreuzberg. Throughout the summer, I saw it growing there but it wasn’t for sale yet. Finally as the garden gets ready to close for the season, you can buy it but at a pretty steep price -eight leaves for 1.5 Euro ($1.90). I bought 16 leaves and at home, Christian weighed them -250 grams, meaning the kale costs 12 Euros ($15.35) a kilo!

Still, the pleasure of eating raw kale salad again was worth every Euro cent. In fact it’s only renewed my craving, and I will probably resort to trying to work with the grocery store kilo bags before the winter is through.

you tell them what you want, they give you a knife; this is the kale patch where I was instructed to harvest

Eat fruit! This bouquet cost 3 Euros ($2.80)

like everything else at Prinzessinnengarten, the kale is grown above ground because the soil is possibly contaminated

I’ve never seen such stalky kale, but it’s still growing