Friday, June 27, 2008

To the American Tourists on the Train from Berlin to Potsdam

Hi. You don't know me, but I'm sitting in this train with you. Because I'm speaking quietly to my companion, you may not realize that I'm speaking English - or, that like you, I am an American. But I've been in Germany for several months now, and if you don't mind I'd like to pass on some information that I've learned. The man beside you doesn't care that you've had both your knees replaced. Neither does the woman beside him. Nor do the people on the other side of the train, including myself. But because you announced it loudly to the man (who may or may not speak English) every English speaker on the train now knows. I also struggle not to reveal irrelevant personal details to strangers. But trust me - it's better to refrain.

Another thing I might mention is your wardrobe. I don't mean to be unkind, but if you'd like to blend in fanny packs are unacceptable. I'm aware that the fanny pack (when worn in the front) is extremely convenient. The map, the chapstick, and the wallet are all easily accessible. You may also feel that Berlin is a big city and wearing your belonging in a pouch strapped to your belly enables you to watch it carefully at all times. But in my experience I find that many, if not most, Europeans are law abiding citizens. I suggest you take a chance and carry a purse or a backpack. You'll be glad that you've branched out.

I've noticed that you also spend a lot of time trying to figure out where you should get off of the train. Navigating public transportation in a big city can be really confusing! I know - I frequently find myself standing in front of a table of arrivals and departures trying to decide which bus/train/tram I should ride. And you've done a good job so far. You're on the right train so relax a little. Potsdam is the end of the line. You'll know when we've arrived, because the conductor will tell you. Sure, the announcements are in German, but the name of the town will be the same. If you'd like to know which stops we'll be making in the next few minutes, just look at the sign at the front of the car. In the meantime, just do what I do. Sit and quietly judge all of the people around you.

Please, enjoy the rest of your time here in Berlin, and wherever else your travels take you. But also bear in mind, as you enjoy the finer things that old Europe has to offer, that the impression that you make on the citizens of the countries you visit colors Europeans' perception of all Americans. And frankly, I'd be embarrassed to be seen with you.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

This post is not about football

Okay, actually it is about football. But I sense that my loyal readers (both of you) are a little tired of hearing about it, so I was trying to draw you in with the title.

Here's the New York Times article about the game. Detschland wins.

These are some fans cheering in Hamburg. Jena was sort of like this, except smaller. Lots of flags and people hanging from traffic lights cheering. Jenny took lots of pictures, and says that she's planning to post them to her blog. Not sure when that will happen, but check it out if you're interested.

So here's how it has to go down for me to win: Russia wins tonight, 2-1. I get the correct score, so then I move even with Astrid, and within striking distance of Matt. Then, Germany (of course) wins the final. Astrid and I both overtake Matt, and much rejoicing ensues. I'm not sure how I can overtake Astrid, unless I predict the correct score of the final game and she does not. I realize that it's a long shot, but I'm hopeful. Georg, by the way, is in last place.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Berlin: a list

Mom has the camera, so I can't post pictures from our weekend in Berlin. Instead I'll just hit the highlights. I'm also going to try to avoid talking about stuff that you can read in your own travel guide/history book.
  1. Food. I have two things to say. First, I enjoy currywurst, but the stand that sells it in Jena is probably just as good. The second thing is that THEY HAVE MEXICAN FOOD IN BERLIN!! German food is good and all, but sometimes you just want a burrito. We actually ate at two places - the first was operated by a Mexican couple. I had the veggie tacos, 'cause I was craving the refried beans. The second was an American-style burrito place (like Willie's or Moe's). My cilantro lime chicken burrito was quite good. Normally, when I'm visiting a place as a tourist I feel bad ordering food I could easily get at home. But since I live here now, I'm not ashamed of getting a taco fix every now and then.
  2. Potsdam. If you get a chance, take the train out to Potsdam and ride bikes around the Park Sanssouci. It's a lovely was to spend a day. However, you should take care not to let the key fall out of your pockets so that you have to spend a long time retracing your path and looking for it. It, um, happened to a friend of mine.
  3. Ali. This is the name of the Egyptian guy who tried to pick me up outside the bar where Mom and I were having a well-deserved beer at the end of the day. Ali works as a painter/electrician and has lived alone for three years. He claims that living alone is not good. He also dislikes Berlin, because a person has to work very hard there. He was disappointed when I insisted on going home with Mom rather than staying at the bar with him. But he gave me his phone number and e-mail address just in case I come back to Berlin. Thanks, Ali.
  4. Football. Although Mom and I are currently spending the evenings watching my new Firefly DVDs (Thanks Tracey!), sometimes we had the muted football game in the background. So, um, I didn't do very well this weekend, but neither did anyone else. I'm currently tied for 3rd place with Jenny and Carsten. Unfortunately for them, Jenny bet that the Netherlands would win over all, and Carsten bet that it would be Italy. So if Germany wins those two will be toast. Also, if anyone has advice for the semifinals, please let me know.
Yeah, so those were the highlights. I mean, we saw some other stuff, like Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Tor, and the big GDR TV tower - all of which were fun(ish - I guess the cold war wasn't really so much fun for Berlin). Mom leaves a week from today, so we're making a list of all the stuff she wants to do before then. Actually, I'm not sure that painting my apartment is something that she wants to do...but it's still on the agenda.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Fortunately I have faith in Deutschland (unlike many of my labmates) so I moved up in the rankings last night. Ahead of Carsten.

I suppose that it's possible that some of you Americans (and I say that in a snobby, derisive, European way) may not have heard that Germany advanced to the semifinals in the European Football Championship last night. Mom and I met Jenny and Sebastian at a bar downtown last night to watch it. We ended up squeezing into a tiny space in the Irish pub - possibly the last remaining seat in any bar in Jena. The Germans are crazy. Here's a picture I've stolen from the internet to illustrate my point.

I didn't actually see this guy, but I did see many like him. I think I may go with the face painting next time. You know - 'cause it's less permanent than dying my hair. Although it might be ridiculous to paint my face when I don't know who the German players are (although the keeper's name is Lehmann maybe?) and don't really understand the concept of "offsides."

Then, after the game - while I was trying to sleep - people were driving down the streets honking and cheering. I can only imagine that the excitement will intensify if they make it past the semifinals.

The whole thing is kinda fun, I must say. Not the actual soccer, but the drinking in bars, the rankings in the lab, and the drunk Deutschland devotees (impressed by the alliteration? You know you are.).

Tonight (or this afternoon for you) it's Croatia vs. Turkey. If you're undecided, cheer for Croatia so that maybe I can move up in the rankings.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Football Quarterfinals

Okay football fans, I need your help again. I found this e-mail in my inbox this morning.


tomorrow the quarter finals will start. I need your bets for the
following games

Portugal - Deutschland
Kroatien - Türkei
Spanien - Italien
(the last one will follow tomorrow)

If you bet a result like 2:1, it doesn't matter whether the game ends
after 90 or 120 minutes. If you bet a draw, please tell me who will win
the penalty shootout.


The last game will be between the Netherlands and whichever team wins tonight between Russia and Sweden.

Currently I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm four points out of first place, so it's still possible. But more
importantly, I'm currently tied with Carsten, and he since doesn't want to loose to a girl (especially girls who
know nothing about football), I'd really like to beat him. Thanks team.

Is anyone watching the game there? I'm considering dying my hair in Germany's colors. But since it's not looking
good against Portugal, maybe that would be premature.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

More Pictures!

Have any of you been to Frankfurt? I have. It was exciting, sort of, to be in a city again. I saw a Mexican restaurant! Unfortunately the Mom and Aunt Diane have eaten Mexican food recently, so we ended up going to have schnitzel and apfelwein.

Here are some things you might like to know about Frankurt.

1) It's a major banking center. And they have a giant statue of the Euro sign in the park.

There were other statues nearby, which are less related to Frankfurt, but were more fun, if your primary objective was to embarrass your aunt.

2) In Frankfurt they eat some Rinderwurst - some sort of beef sausage. We agree that the wurst in Jena is better. This is me, eating a sausage. Hehehehe. Aunt Diane does not seem amused.

3) Some history and stuff happened here. Here are some pictures that may or may not be related to that. I think the statue is of Karl de Grosse (or something). Who knows? At this point some people from Chattanooga TN came up to us and asked where we were from. Since we didn't want to be associated with American tourists (yuck!) we resolved immediately to buy better shoes and speak in softer voices. Anyway, we had to get out of there kindof quickly.

4) We took Aunt Diane to the airport today. Sad, but I think that she missed her grandchildren, and so she was ready to go. Goodbye Aunt Diane! This picture wasn't taken in Frankfurt, but it's one of the few I have of us together, so I'm posting it as my goodbye picture.

Friday, June 13, 2008

"Poor Me" or "Why I Should Not Have a Venue for Complaining"

We were discussing yesterday how fighting off the constant onslaught of pathogens may be all a person can be expected to do in a day. So even though it seems like I'm not working, my immune system is going full speed ahead to keep potential invaders at bay. When I couple that with all the time I spend each day just repairing my DNA it's really amazing that I manage to get out of bed every morning.

Today, I especially wanted to spend some time doing routine maintenance in my cells. And while my DNA repair enzymes (10 points to anyone who can remember what they're called in mammalian systems) were excising thymine dimers, I figured my conscious mind could get a little sleep. But alas, it was not to be. The 4:30 am sunrise and the damn birds woke me as usual (although I stayed in bed until 6), only to pedal my bike uphill through the rain to arrive at the lab - wet, and seriously winded.

I usually think that by the third paragraph I should get to the point on a given blog posting, but since I don't really have one today, I'll just use it to transition to the conclusion paragraph. Be warned - if there's an award for the whiniest post ever I may win.

It's raining. I'm tired, wet, and cranky*. I fear that the opportunistic pathogens may be gaining an advantage over my beleaguered white blood cells. In 4 hours I'm going to be explaining COSY and HMQC to a group of students who may or may not be able to decipher my strange English dialect. In short, I want to go to bed. Instead I think I'll have another coffee.

*"Cranky" is not a term that many of the non-native English speakers I interact with on a daily basis know. If any of you read this, it means grumpy or irritable

Monday, June 9, 2008

Different Strokes

I'm sorry I've been slow with posting recently, but having visitors seriously cuts into my slacking off time. We took a day trip on Saturday, and since both Mom and Aunt Diane have functioning cameras I'll edit this post soon and add picture. Just let me say for now that Mom and I have a different picture taking philosophy than Aunt Diane. Here's a little tidbit of the conversations.

Mom: "Let's take a picture on the alter. You can sacrifice me."

Me: "Good idea - it's pretty high, can you get up there?"

Mom: "Yes, okay - now hold your hand above me like you're going to stab me."

Me: "Come on, Aunt Diane, take the picture quickly before they send us away."

Diane: "You two are idiots."

But she took the picture.

Now, when she wanted to take a picture it was something like this.

Diane: "Oh, look at the houses nestled among the mountains. I could paint that."

Me or Mom: "Do you want us in the picture?"

Diane: "No."

Me/Mom: "Oh...."

See! Different picture taking philosophies. Hopefully tomorrow I'll put some pictures in the post to share with you. The alter one turned out well, but not as well as the "dancing on the stage one."

We also took a picture of someone that we didn't know at all, in honor of Quinton's picture taking philosophy.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Communication Failure

I'm going to try to tie some random thoughts that have been floating around in my head together under the theme of "communication." You see, I sort of got in trouble yesterday when I failed to sign a form. I got a letter, which may have told me to sign a form, but as it was in German I didn't understand it. The subject seemed to be about the termination of my contract at the University (because I'm paid by the NSF now). And so I guessed that the letter was just informing me of that fact, until Georg got a phone call from a frustrated administrator wondering why I hadn't come down to her office to sign my termination form. I went today, by the way. Apparently Frau H and I are cool now.

I had a similar experience the two days ago when I went to purchase a pre-paid cell phone for my mom (she'll be here in 2 hours - yay!). I think I said something like "Ich möchte einmal Handy" which I imagined was "I'd like another cell phone" but it isn't. I'm not sure it makes sense at all. Anyway, the girl didn't understand me, so we switched to English and after only moderate communication troubles, a cell phone was purchased. Plus, I got a free schedule for the European Football Championship (since I'm invested in it now) and a cell phone sock thingy in the colors of the German flag.

Misunderstandings occur both ways, of course. Today at lunch we saw a guy wearing a shirt that said "Save a tree. Eat a beaver." All of the Germans at the table got the literal meaning, but no one knew what the other meaning of "beaver" was - or "eat" for that matter. We wondered if the guy wearing the shirt knew what it meant.

The language barrier is tricky (especially since it's more difficult to understand me than other English speakers), but not the only opportunity for communication breakdowns. Cultural misunderstandings are frequent as well. For example, several people in the lab occasionally walk around with their right pant leg rolled up. Jenny's taken to asking the "What up, G?" when she sees them - which requires a lengthy explanation. Here, pants are rolled up so they don't get caught in bike gears.

I saw this article in the NY Times this morning. It's about the neurological changes in a person unable to detect sarcasm or irony. If you follow the link be sure to watch the video. It shows actors having the same conversation twice. The first time sincerely, the second time in a nasty, sarcastic way. Now, I like to think that I'm fairly well-versed in using both sarcasm and irony in English, but since I can rarely figure out even the literal meaning of a conversation in German I imagine that I seem a lot like a person with a traumatic brain injury. And the fact non-German speakers seem a little brain damaged might explain the note that Jenny's roommates left for her on her loaf of moldy bread. I think it was something like "Dein Brot ist verdorben" - your bread is spoiled.

The communication failures between the city of Jena are me are usually sort of minor. Things are very similar to the way they were in my old life: I live in an apartment, I work in a lab, I spend too much time drinking coffee with people instead of working. Not to mention that Germans and American think the same things are funny, eat more or less the same foods, and dress in pretty much the same ways. And yet there are these constant little things that frustrate or surprise me. It makes me wonder how I would have survived if I had chosen to do a post-doc outside of Western Europe.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Another Post in List Format

I don't have to enough to say about any one subject today, so I'm presenting you with another random assembly of things I've been doing/thinking about.

  1. Katy sent me this link a week or so ago, and it's interesting if you haven't seen it. The article, about women in science, isn't arguing that it's more difficult for women to advance in their careers than men per se, as that it's more difficult for women to advance in science and technology fields relative to other professions. The reason may be the "pervasive macho culture." I think I can safely say that I haven't been in very macho labs, but from the outside I can think of a few that would fit the description. Plus, I've been a grad student (and now a post-doc) but as the article points out, 46% of the Ph.D.s in the biological sciences go to women. The rate of attrition increases dramatically after that.
  2. Mom and Aunt Diane are coming to visit me this week. I'm excited - I won't lie, but I'm a little worried about the size of my apartment. It's one room. Great for one person, possibly a little cramped for three. We'll see how it goes. On the plus side -
  3. I went to IKEA last week and bought some stuff - bedding, a rug, and (most importantly) a fold-out chair/futon thing. Hopefully the sleeping will be okay.
  4. I'm starting to teach NMR on Thursday, and I should be working on the class instead of typing this. My students were having a hard time understanding me, so I'm making an effort to slow way, way down. And to force myself to go very slowly through examples. It's tricky to know what they're thinking. On the plus side, I signed up as an instructor for the book I'm using (why it took so long to realize I could do that, I don't know) so now I have lots of examples with answers.
  5. My cultures haven't bee growing well (the word dying comes to mind) so I ordered some new media and made it in natural seawater. Hopefully they'll come around.
Okay, I think that's it for right now. I'm going to do some real work now, but I'll leave you with the thought of "geek culture."

“Most people just don’t look at a woman and see an engineer,” Ms. Muller said.

The result, she said has been a work environment that dismisses women. Female employees come up against “the kind of culture that evolves when women are in the extreme minority,” she said. (Think “Lord of the Flies.”) The ideal worker in this realm is “the hacker who goes into his cubicle and doesn’t emerge for a week, having not showered or eaten anything but pizza. Those people exist and they are seen as heroes.”

I can understand that women would have a hard time in such an environment. It makes me shiver just thinking about it.