Monthly Archives: November 2012


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

After a straight month of hard searching, we finally found a new apartment! It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, just as difficult as it is in NYC I’d say. Luckily, the prices here still aren’t as high but I just looked at my calendar and counted fifteen apartment viewings that even I bothered to write down! It’s really quite competitive.

But now we have a place and we got the keys today. It’s in Kreuzberg, so we’ll be living in a completely new neighborhood that’s very different than Mitte. Before we move in, there’s a lot of work to be done -namely, tearing down the Raufasertapete, a horrible wallpaper that’s ubiquitous in Berlin apartments. It looks like someone vomited on the wall and painted over it. I guess it’s a cheap way to renovate -rather than repairing all the dings and holes before painting, you just lay a sheet of Raufasertapete over everything.

We also have to build the kitchen. When you rent an apartment in Germany, you get a stove and sink, and usually the cheapest models the landlord can buy. We have to bring everything else, including the refrigerator. The one plus to this all is that we really have a blank slate to work with. It’s going to take time, but slowly we’ll build the place up the way we want it, make it cozy and call it home.

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