Non-Bear Shaped Gummi Bears

Sex toys have been a topic on this blog before, albeit in the context of taxation. Now they’re back: a trip to the store turns into a journey of erotic self-discovery when Harald Martenstein discovers (G) that his local department store now sells sex toys.

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Harald Martenstein discovers an “erotic goods” section in the department store

I’m not really a lady. That’s why I rarely visit the ladies’ underwear department in the Karstadt department store. However, it came to pass one day that I got lost. I wanted to go to the CD section. Do not buy the so-called new Beatles CD Love, by the way, it’s horrible. I didn’t find the CD-section. Instead, I was suddenly standing before a gigantic, knobby dildo. The term dildo denotes a stylized recreation of the male reproductive organ. It is designed for leisure pursuits. There are ones with and without motors, just like with boats and two-wheelers. I explain the word because once, when I was a young man, I had to admit at a party that I didn’t know the word, and that was embarrassing. I actually thought “dildo” was that large, extinct Australian bird. It also wouldn’t be such a bad name, when you come to think of it. Dildo DiCaprio. Dildo Jetengine. Suddenly it came to be that if Ildikó von Kürthy tried to pep up a Franz Kafka novel with sex scenes, you would have something that would be about as patchy as the Love CD.

I then ascertained that in the Kreuzberg (Berlin) Karstadt there is an “erotic goods” section, right there next to the ladies’ underwear. It’s just like a grocery store. About 30 different kinds of dildos sit there in the racks. There are also handcuffs, oils, and fluids, and various kinds of literature in word and image (with relatively discreet covers). There is also underwear that doesn’t cover exactly those things that one ordinarily expects underwear to cover. Finally, there are Gummi Bears that were not shaped like bears.  All of this is right out there in the open in the middle of the store landscape. Most of the shoppers were women; there is almost no men’s underwear there. Once, at a seminar, I learned that “lady”, which is supposed to be a polite form of address, is perceived as ironic or discriminatory by today’s women, one should instead say “Mister” and “Miss”, since we men have maintained an unbroken relationship to the word “Mister.” However, in Karstadt, it’s still “ladies’ underwear.” …

I thought: Don’t they have trouble with the child-protection laws? Kids are, after all, constantly running around in the department store. However, when one looks closely, no graphic pictures can be seen, they obviously thought of that. All of the objects possessed a certain degree of abstraction and ambiguity. Perhaps the underwear were factory rejects which just happened to have a hole at the most important spot. The handcuffs could be for playing policeman, which is pretty much accurate. The dildos basically looked like avant-garde rolling-pins or meat tenderizers, and in fact could probably be used for these purposes, if necessary. Only the Gummi bears which were not shaped like bears were pretty explicit.

Then I moved on. Because I absolutely wanted to exchange Love.

[Note: one sentence, which contained an untranslatable pun, has been omitted.]

Correct Use of Apostrophe’s

Even native English speakers have a hard time using apostrophes correctly. I don’t see why this should be, since the rules are fairly simple, but it is so. In fact, I’ll confidently say I’ve seen more correct use of apostrophes in English by Germans than by most native English speakers. Nevertheless, there’s still some confusion even among detail-oriented Germans.

Fortunately, Bob the Angry Flower has a quick chart explaining when you do and when you don’t use an apostrophe in English:


Michael Henderson on Schubert

A nice little encomium to Franz Schubert, coupled with some bitching about how the world’s gone downhill since. Let’s stick to the encomium:

It is unwise to claim he was the greatest composer, but it is the unvarnished truth to say he is loved as no other, and for fairly obvious reasons. There is not a single false note in his music, particularly his chamber music, which ranks alongside that of his hero, Beethoven – who, oddly enough, he didn’t know, even though they walked the same streets.

What you hear in Schubert is what you hear in Chekhov’s plays and stories: the unfathomable mystery of existence, treated with the pitch-perfect ear of one who understands the fragility of life, and the vulnerability and yearning of each human soul. It is also important to note what you don’t hear. There is no bombast, no vanity, no "leading on". The music springs naturally, fountain-like, from an open heart.

Maxim Gorky, grumpy and a tiny bit jealous of Chekhov, complained that "when you mention Anton Pavlovich, people sigh as though a baby deer had just walked into the room". That is how friends regarded Schubert, too, and how generations of music-lovers have responded to his work. Unlike Beethoven, he didn’t want to change the world, and yet, in his lyrical way, he scaled the emotional peaks that Ludwig climbed more dramatically.

Garden Gnome v. Jack, Elf of the Flickering Fairies

Germans have their boring old garden gnomes:


The Garden Gnome just sits there, smiling idiotically. He doesn’t even use any electricity. How pathetic.

Dynamic Americans, in line with their general tendency to kick ass (cf. moon landing, World War II, Cheez Whiz), have something much more, well, kick-ass.

World, brace yourselves for Jack, Elf of the Flickering Fairies:


Jack, the Elf of the Flickering Fairies, is a "typical elf": "rambunctious" and "mischievious." By day, he’s transparent. At night, when you plug him in, his rainbow light "will flicker for five seconds, and then will seem to disappear for six seconds. And just when you think he is gone, he lights up again."

Really, you ungrateful foreigners, how can you stay angry at a country that gave you — yes, I’m going to write the whole name again — Jack, Elf of the Flickering Fairies?

[Hat-tip: Ed Philp]

Satan-Worshipping Customs Officials

A few months ago my family kindly shipped some books to me from the United States. Instead of the books, I got a gray form telling me that I have to go to the Zollamt-Nord (Customs Office North) to explain what’s in the boxes.

I, of course, live in South of the city, but nobody thought to send the boxes to the Customs Office South, even though they obviously know where I live. The reason? There is no Customs Office South. There’s only Customs Office North, which raises the question why they would call it the Customs Office North when there’s only one of them in the whole city.

I’m sure everyone who lives in the West, East, and South of the city whips open their phone book upon receiving a notice from Customs Office North to try to find out whether they can persuade the customs goons to transfer the package to Customs Office West, East, or South. Only to be cruelly disappointed. Meanwhile, people who live in the North of the city get the notice and think: Kick-ass! Those friendly, efficient bureaucrats brought the package to the customs office just around the corner! Of course, they are deluding themselves, but really, aren’t we all?

Satan_sweatshirt_1But I digress. After a 1-hour streetcar ride I finally arrive at the Only Goddamn Customs Office in the Entire City to pick up my package. The young guy behind the counter didn’t look like what you might expect a customs official to look like. For one thing, he has a ponytail. For another thing, he wore a black hooded sweatshirt that says "In Satan We Trust — Do What Has to be Done" and was covered with these totally Goth, wikkid-cool occult symbols (see left).

Right next to the counter was a postcard taped to the wall that featured a strange-looking man eating an ugly sandwich on a linoleum table in front of some horribly outdated lemon-motif wallpaper. The motto was "Yes, I admit it, perhaps I look a bit outdated." Just to the right, a customs official had added: "But if love toward our clients is outdated, so be it!"

I’m happy to say that the Satan-worshipping customs official allowed me to take away my boxes of books without charging me anything. Let’s just say he did what has to be done.

Epidermis v. Bark

I came across this passage while reading an essay by Joseph Brodsky on the American poet Robert Frost:

There is a difference between the way a European perceives nature and the way an American does. Addressing this difference, W.H. Auden, in his short essay on Frost (perhaps the best thing on the poet) suggests something to the effect that when a European conceives of nature, he walks out of his cottage or a little inn, filled with either friends or family, and goes for an evening stroll. If he encounters a tree, it’s a tree made familiar by history, to which it’s been a witness. This or that kind sat underneath it, laying down this or that law–something of that sort. A tree stands there rustling, as it were, with allusions. Pleased and somewhat pensive, our man, refreshed but unchanged by that encounter, returns to his inn or cottage, finds his friends or family absolutely inteact, and proceeds to have a good, merry time. Whereas when an American walks out of his house and encounters a tree it is a meeting of equals. Man and tree face each other in their respective primal power, free of references: neither has a past, and as to whose future is greater, it is a toss-up. Basically, it’s epidermis meeting bark. Our man returns to his cabin in a state of bewilderment, to say the least, if not in actual shock or terror.

[Joseph Brodsky, ‘On Grief and Reason’, in On Grief and Reason: Essays, pp. 225-26, New York 1995]

Testicle Nazis

This site contains the only known use of the phrase "testicle nazis" on the Internet. It occurs in a discussion thread concerning intellectual property, and was posted by a person who calls himself Devin, Student of Glosophopaphrology. But you probably already guessed that.

A Green Lowland of Pianos

I spent the day visiting the Carvaggio exhibition (interesting, but not unmissable), so I’ve got nothing to say.

Thus, I’ll turn the blog over to a poet. In this case, Polish surrealist Jerzy Harasymowicz (pronounced, approximately, yair-zhuh Hara-suh-movitch, according to my friend Kamila).

A Green Lowland of Pianos

by Jerzy Harasymowicz

In the evening
as far as the eye can see
of black pianos

up to the knees
in the mire
they listen to the frogs

they gurgle in water
with chords of rapture

they are entranced
by froggish, moonish spontaneity

after the vacation
they cause scandals
in the concert halls
during the artistic milking
suddenly they lie down
like cows

looking with indifference
at the white flowers
of the audience

at the gesticulating
of the ushers

[Source: Postwar Polish Poetry, Czeslaw Milosz, ed.]

Revelation in the Choir

Cologne, Germany has been an important Catholic bishopric since the 3rd century, and boasts many fine churches. The Cathedral of Cologne, that slightly menacing, spiky, monster crouching next to the main train station, is only the most famous.

Cologne also boasts a dozen nice Romanesque churches within its city center, built between 900 and 1200. I find Romanesque churches soothing. They’re not intimidatingly huge, and the interiors are filled with pleasant, rounded forms like arches and cupolas, instead of Gothic gloom and pointiness. I usually try to visit one or two of these churches when I go to Cologne, which I did for New Years’. This time it was the St. Aposteln Church, located near the big Neumarkt transit hub.

Eur_view_of_hideous_altar_in_church_of_sSt. Aposteln is kind of unusual because it’s successully solved a tricky problems: tasteful modern church decoration. If you don’t have any 16th-century frescos on your walls, or if the ones you did got bombed, what do you replace them with? Good old-fashioned pictures of conventional blond Christs with flowing locks and Marys with blue vestments seem anachronistic and stodgy.

But then again, a pure abstract composition will outrage the reactionaries, and just don’t seem churchy enough. "See that floating field of red? That represents Joseph." The result, therefore, is usually some sort of unsatisfying combination of figural painting and abstraction. An example can be seen at the left, the altar of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in the Roman suburb of EUR. A sort of horribly misguided arte povera mishmash that I calll The Redeemer of the Scrap Metal. Behold, and then avert your eyes!

But it can be done right, as St. Aposteln shows. During World War II, the 19th-century mosaics decorating the choir were severely damaged. The church authorities described this as good news, since the rather twee and saccharine mosaics looked extremely dated by the 1950s.

After what were probably dozens of  agonizingly long meetings and negotiations, the authorities finally decided to hire a ‘church painter’ named Hermann Gottfried to decorate the 3 conchas (or "half-cupolas") in the choir. Since the basic structure has been on this spot in Cologne for almost 900 years, Gottfried has to think about how people might view his work, say, 500 years from now. Assuming there aren’t any more world wars during that time, of course. Gottfried started his cycle of modern paintings, which are based on the Biblical Revelation to John, in 1988, and finished five years later. Here’s a page (G) with more information. St_aposteln_apse

The colors are mainly gray and blue, to fit the church’s subdued tone, but there are blazes of red (for the Woman Clothed with the Sun) and orange (around the Lamb). The composition makes fascinating use of the curved, recessed space provided by the cupolas. Energy-filled planes of abstract forms clash and meld. However, recognizable images (a lamb, a crowd of people, Mary) emerge from the abstraction. Some of the figures are surprisingly graceful, others distorted and slightly menacing, as befits this weird apocalyptic text. The picture at the right shows the painting behind the altar, which depicts the Throne of God. It’s completely abstract, but there are more figural paintings on the sides.

The paintings pulsate with energy and color, they blend beautifully with the church interior, and they have a challenging and not at all saccharine iconographic program. I emerged very impressed with Mr. Gottfried. Of course, my little picture really can’t do justice to the paintings, so next time you’re in Cologne, stop off at the Neumarkt station and see if you agree with me…