Bezirk [1] in Berlin© – 14:  September 12, 2011


 Sometimes the simplest things turn out not to be universally standard across the planet.  You wouldn’t think that there are different conventions for ordering something from a menu or using your fingers to indicate how many things you want.  But, of course, that’s a provincial point of view.  Here’s what I’ve discovered so far:

  •  Ordering from a menu:  On more than one occasion, the dish I’ve been served in a Berlin restaurant has not been the dish I ordered.  After awhile, it came to me that it probably wasn’t because all of the waiters in Berlin were incompetent nor were they intent on denying me what I wanted.  That meant that I had to be doing something wrong.  I eventually noticed a pattern—I always received the item on the menu immediately beneath the one I thought I’d ordered.  My approach to pointing to an item on a menu has always been to carefully place my finger beneath the object of my desire, with the logic that the waiter needs to see the words, such as “Scampi und Spaghetti.”  Although that logic has served me well for the past 6 decades, that is not the case here.  It seems that, when pointing at an item on the menu, you must place your finger on (not below) that item.  No doubt the waiters are typically quite familiar with the menu and don’t really need to read the words.
  • Counting on your fingers:  This doesn’t work the same way here as it does in the US.

To indicate







Add middle finger

Add forefinger


Add ring finger

Add middle finger


Add pinkie

Drop thumb; hold up fingers


Thumb + 4 fingers


Today, there are no consequences for doing it American-style; they’ve seen it before and they can count, so they know what you mean.  However, during World War II or the Cold War, if you were a spy posing as a German, using the wrong fingers to order a beer could blow your cover and get you killed.


We lived in Northern Virginia for 36 years.  During that time we may have had a hurricane or two (but however many there were, that number pales in comparison to the number of hurricanes we experienced during our years on the Gulf Coast of Texas).   We experienced only one, very minor earthquake, with virtually no damage.  In the year since we left, the area has begun to experience heat waves more like weather in Amarillo, TX, and in the past couple of weeks had a 5.9 earthquake and a hurricane (which ended not affecting Northern Virginia as much as had been anticipated, but nonetheless was an annoyance).  Following the hurricane, there’s been high water, strangling traffic and causing minor nuisances (for example, the back wall just fell off of our friends’ office!)  I’m not sure I’d be surprised if a volcano emerged from the earth and erupted, given these other unusual happenings.  It made me start thinking that the next thing might be a plague of locusts.  But then I remembered that there’s a creature that’s similar to a locust that does indeed visit Northern Virginia once every 17 years – the cicada.

This lovely creature has an interesting life cycle.  It comes out with a vengeance and fills the word with the most irritating, continuous, noise for several weeks, during which time it shed its disgusting shell, dines on carefully cultivated foliage, breeds, and then its progeny burrow into the earth to take a 17-year nap and then do it all over again.  I’m trying to figure out what place this beast has in our ecology.  Exactly what devastating consequences would result if they were rendered extinct?  (I have these questions about skunks and jelly fish, too, by the way.)  As I pondered the return of the cicadas, it reminded me of an old song – When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano –and made me wonder if someone might come up with a similar homage for the cicadas.  What do you think?  Would you enjoy hearing “When the Cicadas Come Back to Old Virginny”?   And, by the way, I checked on when they’re due to arrive again in Virginia – Brood I isn’t due until 2012, and then only in the Blue Ridge Mountains; Brood II is supposed to emerge in full force in 2013.  (But what if the crazy weather and the earthquake made them want to jump the gun?)


 What IS it with Europeans and pillows?  You come into your hotel room and you see what looks like a mini-mattress on your bed.  It turns out that this big square thing is your pillow.  And quite often it’s fluffy, and looks like it might actually be useful (if a bit larger than you think you need).  But then you place your head on the pillow and its substance virtually vanishes!  It’s like cotton candy – take a humongous mouthful and it totally disappears!  OK, so it’s big and maybe you can fold it over to get the support you’re used to.  Nope.  Doesn’t work.  After all, what happens when you multiply zero by 2?  Not much, right?  And propping yourself up to read in bed?  Forget that, too.  Why even bother to have these things?  Why not save all the goose down and just put a pillow case on the bed?  Thank God we knew about this before we moved, so we brought our hefty pillows.  And, props to IKEA – you can buy real pillows there.


As most of you know, in the US – the only place I have ever driven a car – has the following protocol for traffic lights:

  • RED = STOP
  • GREEN = GO
  • YELLOW = [Unless you’re already in the intersection] STOP

 Granted, most folks act as though they think that YELLOW means SPEED UP.  In fact, if you’re among the few who actually obey the law with respect to the yellow light, before you decide to stop, it would behoove you to check your rear view mirror to confirm that the person behind you is also among those limited few who obey this law.  Otherwise, you may well have a body shop, a hospital, or even a morgue in your future.

In Germany, the RED and GREEN lights mean the same as they do in the US.  I suppose 2 out of 3 isn’t bad, but here’s what the 3rd means:


If it was RED, it’s changing to GREEN.

If it was GREEN, it’s changing to RED.

So, if you see a yellow light without having seen the previous light, you haven’t a clue what you should do.  In addition to confusing me (which, I admit, is no major feat), it would seem that not having a single meaning for the yellow light would increase the statistical probability that any given driver might interpret it incorrectly.  Whether they respond by jumping the green light or running the red light, there’s no good outcome for either scenario.  Kinda gives a whole ‘nother interpretation of the ‘Yellow Peril.’


I was riding in the bike lane (on MY side of the street) when I look up to an on-coming cyclist.  This is not particularly unusual.  If you have bike lanes on both sides of the street, you should be riding in the same direction as the cars on the your side of the street, but folks don’t always do this.  Normally, the one going the wrong way yields and so you can just stay in your bike lane.  This cyclist followed protocol and the incident would have been unremarkable, except for one thing—the guy coming at me head-on had four full-grown parrots riding on his handle bars (well, actually 3 parrots and one Macaw).  For the briefest of moments, I thought I must have been totally wasted away in Margaritaville.  [How totally lame is Word spellcheck?  It wants me to use ‘Margaretville’ here!]  Fortunately, Harvey was with me and he witnessed this, too.  We later told our grandson, who has also seen this guy, which gave us even more confidence that our eyes (or, of more concern, our brains) weren’t deceiving us.


Ah, how lovely it is to stroll down the sidewalk, shaded by trees, with a gentle wind blowing the branches about, so that little bits of sunlight dance about merrily on the sidewalk.  How this experience changes when you’re on a bike!  With the increased speed, the changes in light take on the quality of a mirror-ball in a discothèque.  And, as with everything else as you age, your pupils’ ability to continually adapt to changes in light levels is diminished so that, invariably, your eyes are one step behind where you want to be – pupils are wide-open when you’re in the bright light and tiny pin-holes when you’re in the shade, effectively making you blind under both conditions.  Naturally, pedestrians are blissfully unaware that a blind biker is within centimeters of rendering them a pile of bruises and broken bones.


I’m sure on some level this makes sense, or maybe it did one day, but I’ll be hog-tied and horse-whipped if I can figure it out.  When you go to a German grocery store, you have to put a 1 Euro coin in a slot to get a grocery cart.  You get the coin back when you return the cart.  Presumably this is to keep folks from walking off with carts.  Well, let me see:

  • The grocery store doesn’t get the Euro if you steal the cart – the Euro is still in the cart itself.  Theoretically, the person stealing the cart can’t get the Euro, either, so the coin is in limbo until the cart comes home.
  • If I really needed a cart, I’m pretty sure that trading 1 Euro for a cart would seem like a pretty good deal.
  • If you’re a customer who needs a cart and you don’t have the right coin when you get to the store, it’s annoying.  There’s a solution to that problem, though.  For ½ a Euro, you can buy a token that serves the same purpose; it has a little hole in it so you can keep it on your key chain and always have it when you need it.  So, if I really wanted to steal a cart, I could get an even better deal if I just bought the re-usable token.
  • If you’re a cashier, it’s annoying to get interrupted to give someone change so they’ll have a Euro to get a cart.
  • If you’re a customer trying to check out, it’s annoying to have to be delayed while the cashier makes change for someone who needs a Euro for a cart.

Undoubtedly, these devices add to the cost of the carts, which much be borne by the grocery store (but, of course, passed on to the consumer).  Please tell me how there’s a net gain for anyone on this arrangement.  Oh yeah—the company that makes the devices (and the alternative tokens).


  • N-DAY:  The flat is particularly quiet this morning—no 10-pound cat thundering down the hall; no elderly cat hissing, spitting, and growling in response to being pounced upon by the aforementioned thunder-cat; no ominous thuds of various objects falling off the bookshelves; no mystery sounds (as in, “I don’t know what just happened, but I’m pretty sure it’s not gonna make me happy”).  Alas, poor young Master William is spending the morning in the company of the vet, and when he returns home, it will be without his manhood.  Normally, he could have avoided this for several more months; however, not surprisingly (given his rapid growth), he’s a particularly precocious cat, so at 7 months, he’s sufficiently sexually mature to warrant being neutered.  Please, a moment of silence for poor William…..
  • N-DAY + 1:  William the Wonder Cat is, not surprisingly, fully recovered.  The thundering, hissing, spitting, and growling have resumed.  We were also treated to another thud; this time, it was a book falling off the bookcase (far more welcomed than something more fragile hitting the floor).  In this case, William exhibited his feline erudition – of the 600+ books on the living room bookcases (a mere fraction of our pre-Berlin collection), the book he selected was The Encyclopedia of the Metropolitan Opera, shunning the books we would have expected he would prefer (e.g., Cat, by B. Kliban, or I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume).  For you humans, this last book is a particularly fine read.  As described on the book jacket—

 Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature—from the dramas of businessmen and schoolteachers to the foibles of priests and potentates.  From this unique perspective, the author offers a biting commentary—shaped by his training in Chinese philosophy—on the social upheaval of the Meija era.

Well, maybe you don’t care that much about the Meija era in Japanese history, but human nature is pretty constant, whether said humans are being ridiculous in Japan in the 1920s or in the US in the 2010s.


When you get to be my age, you spend lots of time hunting for stuff that you put in a really logical place.  Unfortunately, by the time you need what you ever-so-carefully put up, you can’t remember the exact location, nor can you reconstruct the logic that led you to select that location.   This logic has become increasingly convoluted since our flat is so small.  I used to be able to figure out where to put something based primarily on convenience.  If I was going to use the object in a particular room, then clearly I’d want to find a place in that room to put it.  Given our smaller living quarters, I now have to consider another factor – where will it fit?  And, after William’s appearance on the scene, I have to also consider yet another factor – where will it be safe from William?   [For example, I keep the paper napkins in the wardrobe in the spare room; even though I have room in the kitchen for them, they would be readily accessible to William, too, and he would turn them into confetti.]  That this 10-pound hooligan is also intent on hiding stuff from us makes this situation a lot worse.  This state of affairs, in combination with our Sometimer’s Disease [sometimes we remember; sometimes we don’t], causes us to spend the better part of our waking hours just looking for stuff.  [Maybe that’s why retired people stay busy all the time—they’re not really doing lots of stuff; they’re only looking for lots of stuff.]

We now have a way to substantially diminish the man-hours we spend looking for stuff in the flat—simply start the search by looking under our bed, on my side.  This is where William likes to store his treasures, and where he often sleeps with them firmly in his grasp.  For example, the other day I noticed that the little thingy where I keep the plastic grocery bags was missing.  [OK – what do YOU call that fabric tube with holes in both ends, where you can put a grocery bag in the top and take one out of the bottom?  ‘Thingy’ is the best I can come up with!  I decided that ‘whada-ya-call-it’ was a tad long; plus, I’m not sure how to spell it.]  I was truly puzzled because that’s not something I would have any occasion to move; it stayed on a hook in the kitchen.  I never have been very successful in finding things (and this has only gotten worse with age), so whenever possible, I ask for Harvey’s help.  After all, he definitely has that ‘hunter-gatherer’ gene.  It was his brilliant idea to look under our bed in William’s treasure trove.  And, behold!  It was there!  This freed up enough of my time so that I could fix us lunch!


Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the number, scope, focus, and expressions of remembrance were countless.  This made me start thinking about how we remember people in our lives in general.  People we have lost had full lives, and had done many things, yet the ways in which we remember them don’t really reflect the complexity of their lives.  For instance, Harvey had an aunt who, among other things, was very controlling.  And when she wanted you to do something, she not only felt compelled to tell you what to do, but she also instructed you on how you would feel about doing it.  Instead of saying, ‘Would you please take out the garbage?” she would say “You’ll be wanting to take out the garbage, Sweetie.”  Well, no, I can’t ever remember actually wanting to take out the garbage, nor can I ever anticipate EVER wanting to do this.  I’ll certainly do it, though.  So now, when I ask my husband[2] to do something, if I simply say, “Please hang up the laundry” he’ll respond by telling me to ask him properly.  So I’ll say, “You’ll be wanting to hang up the laundry, Sweetie.”

He had an aunt and uncle who were wise enough to get a hotel room when they drove 100 miles to attend a big party (rather than try to wend their way back home over the twisted back-roads of Southeast Texas after they were four sheets to the wind).   Naturally, the floor plan of the hotel room (in terms of the path from the bed to the toilet) wasn’t the same as it was at home.  So when they got up the next morning, Aunt Verta Lee started cussing a blue streak when she opened the closet to find her fancy dancing shoes full of Uncle Pete’s pee.  So that’s what we remember most about these two.  And there’s something else—Verta Lee (bless her little heart) never could say ‘breakfast’ – she always said ‘bref-kust’—which is pretty much how we say that word now.  In fact, we have to really think about it if we want to say the word correctly.

My grandmother was amazing!  She gave me lots of memories.  For example, once when my cousin and I were pretending to be horses under the dining table, she fixed us corn on the cob, which we ate off a plate—without using our hands.  But the way I memorialize her most often in my day-to-day life is making her peach cobbler.

I think the one defining memory that our grandkids will have of me is…Gummi Bears!!  Because Grandma always brings Gummi Bears.  In fact, I’ve been considering having my name legally changed to ‘Gummi Bears’—but doubt that Haribo would let me.  We’ve now begun a new ritual.  I give them 5 each, and we count them into their hands.  But then, after their hands are full, I pretend to gobble up the Gummi Bears myself.  They pout and say “Mean Grandma!  There’s nothing here but air!”  Either that or they’ll remember me by how piteous my German pronunciation is….  Or maybe they’ll choose something totally different.

[1] ‘Bezirk’ is German for ‘neighborhood.’

[2] And HERE, Word grammar check gives me two options: ‘when I asks my husband’ or ‘when I ask my husbands’!  The first option isn’t even grammatically viable, and the second, well – one’s quite enough.