Karneval Alaaf

Like all of Rheinland, carnival is a major celebration in Bonn. There are dozens of events, of which the highlights are possibly Weiberfastnacht, when women snip off men's ties, carnival Sunday, when the old town hall is stormed by soldiers, and Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), when a parade winds through the city.

The gist of Rosenmontag is to wear a crazy costume and stand at the edge of the parade route...

Then as so-called regiments pass by...

... raise your arms and shout "Alaaf." Then the soldiers will throw you something good from their floats...

... such as Kamelle (candy) or Strüsschen (flowers).


As I've alluded to previously, we have been living in Bonn since the beginning of February.

It's a shock to the system to move from Berlin to Bonn. The current capital is not only a much larger city, it's dynamic urban landscape, and magnet for all types. The former capital, derisively known as the Bundesdorf (i.e. federal village, as opposed to federal capital) is quaint and provincial by comparison. In the time it would have taken me to get to my U-Bahn stop in Berlin to go somewhere, I can walk to most places in Bonn I would care to visit. In less than the time it would have taken me to get from my home in Prenzlauerberg to a destination in West Berlin, I can now travel to Cologne, the closest major city.

In Berlin, wealth stands out (because most people are poor, or artists, or both). In Bonn, poverty stands out (because most people are affluent.)

Having spent some time in Holland, I can tell that Bonn is far enough west in Germany that some things feel Dutch. The train station is ringed by crammed bike racks. The churches are brick rather than stone. The city and the countryside intersperse. (My travel guide says that two-thirds of the land within city limits hasn't been built on.) Bönnsch, the local dialect, begins to sound like Dutch.

The world looks different from Bonn (402 km to Paris) than it does from Berlin (877 km to Paris, but just 516 km to Warsaw). When Bonn was the West German capital, inevitably politicians must have had their eye on relationships with the Brussels (the EU), London, and Paris. Now that the German capital is in Berlin, they can't help but think about eastern Europe.

Our apartment is slightly southeast of the main university building, a former palace.

Stand by the main university building and look southwest, and you'll be looking down Poppelsdorfer Allee. E. gets this view every day on her way to work.

It's not a city with many major landmarks, but one of them is St. Martin's Basilica (Münsterbasilika), a late Romanesque church with Gothic elements.

Canary Islands, Part 5

This is absolutely my last post about the Canary Islands. I promise.

There are countless tasty things to eat in the Canaries. One of the most typical and well-known dishes is papas arrugadas con mojo--salty potatoes with red (chile) or green (cilantro) sauce.

We discussed these potatoes with Luis, and my impression based on that conversation is that there is no such thing as a secret recipe, as the ingredients are basic and well known. With that in mind, here is a link to a food blog with recipes for papas. Yummy.

Canary Islands, Part 4

Many years ago when I lived in Vienna I was acquainted with a man named Luis Hernandez. At that time I was sharing an apartment with Eva Springer, and the two of them were dating. To collapse a decade's history, Eva and Luis are now married and living with their daughter in Tenerife, where he'e a hotel manager. Eva and the kid were visiting her parents near Vienna when E. and I visited, but Luis graciously offered to show us a bit of the island.

On the evening of day five, Luis met us in La Orotava, and drove us down to Puerto de la Cruz, where we had dinner.

Luis spend the night with his parents, who live nearby, and then met us again in the morning. We drove up through the clouds, not to the top of Teide, but close enough for a good view. (Tourists with time, money, and inclination can take a gondola to the top. Hikers with good boots, warm clothes, and lots of trail mix can also get to the top.)

Then Luis drove us down to San Cristóbal de la Laguna, another historic old Spanish city. Unlike La Orotava, its old town is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though both are similarly noteworthy. Unfortunately, the weather was damp, and we didn't see as much of La Laguna as we would have liked.

This former monastery, which has been given a new purpose as an art gallery, is typical of the architecture we saw.

Luis was an unerringly gracious host, and it was great to see him again.

One last thought about La Laguna. Luis needed to go back to work, and we spend the last part of the day on our own. We really got the impression that in La Laguna, at least, people speak Spanish. It's not La Gomera, where German is surprisingly common, or a resort city on Tenerife, where English is in the air. In La Laguna you have sufficiently escaped the crowds that you are actually in Spain. It would be a nice place to explore further.

On day seven we traveled back to the south of the island to catch a flight back to the cold, dark, snowy north.

For anyone who can't get enough, here is a slideshow of more photos from our trip to the Canary Islands.

Canary Islands, Part 3

On day four we took a boat from La Gomera back to Tenerife, and then made our way by public bus to La Orotava, on the north side of the island.

Tenerife, by the way, has a great public transit network. The buses are called "guaguas," which is either a term that Canary Islanders brought with them when they immigrated to Latin America, or a term Latin Americans brought with them when the immigrated back to the Canary Islands.

La Orotava is one of the oldest cities on the island, and feels more like an old Spanish city than a tourist resort. Looking up the hill, you see Teide.

Looking down the hill, you see Puerto de la Cruz, a resort town.

La Orotava itself is romantic and quaint, and we spend most of day five exploring.

Lunch, by the way, was a picnic consisting of fresh papaya, fresh avocado (amazing!), and a bread both sweet and savory (anise seeds?), bready and cakey. The combo of the bread and the buttery avocado was especially good.

Canary Islands, Part 2

We spent day two and day three hiking La Gomera. We joined groups of German-speaking trekkers organized by Timah Travel, which arranged transit to the trail head, and back to town at the end of the hike, and provided a sure-footed guide so we weren't lost in the mountains.

We didn't get any photos that do justice to the twists and turns--not to mention the vistas--as the driver navigates through Valle Gran Rey. But if you look at this topographical map and follow the road with your eye, you'll get some notion of what I'm talking about.

On our first hike, known officially as "Forest of Fables," we walked through the northwestern part of Garajonay National Park. UNESCO has designated the park a World Heritage Forest in acknowledgement of its unique ecosystem.

What makes the ecosystem so unusual? Because the island rises dramatically out of the ocean, there are huge variations in elevation, so within a very small area, the temperature varies significantly. Another factor is that the prevailing winds bring moisture from the north, meaning that the northern slope of the island is wetter than the southern side. So La Gomera has what are called "micro-climates." Furthermore, the Canary Islands were completely unaffected by the ice age, which means that you find plants there that you don't find elsewhere. And because the island is remote and rocky, parts of the forest have been left pretty much the way they always were.

As you emerge from the forest and climb down the hill, the air gets warmer, and there are more traces of human activity. The island is covered with old, mostly unmaintained terraces. (These days, there are easier ways to get food than to terrace a cliff.)

On day three we tackled another hike, "The Scenic Way." Our first target was the peak of Garjonay, the highest point on the island (1,437 meters / 4,714 feet). Regrettably, the clouds were not cooperating, and we merely shivered in the mist.

Our second target was La Fortaleza (1,243 meters / 4,078 feet). It's not an easy peak to photograph from up close, because you actually can't see how tall and large it is. So let's paint the scene by showing you this big scary rock from a distance.

The hike to Fortaleza is gorgeous. One thing that really struck us is that you can't tell where the ocean ends and the sky begins. Actually, because you're looking down from high up, the horizon line is much higher than you might think.

Fortaleza means fortress, and according to legend, a group of native Gomerans fought their last stand against the Spanish conquerors there. It would be an ideal defensive position. But according to the story, when the aboriginals concluded they couldn't hold off the Spaniards, they threw themselves off a cliff. The story also goes that they were blonde, and that their suicide meant there were no more blondes on the island. Until the Germans arrived, I suppose.

The climb up induces vertigo, the climb down, panic. You get a bit of a sense of the steepness in this photo.

Canary Islands, part 1

As you may have gathered from previous posts, Europe has had a cold, snowy, dark winter. Berlin broke a record for most consecutive days without seeing the sun. Fortunately, E. and I scheduled a get-away to the Canary Islands in the gap between the conclusion of Bosch seminar II, and the start of her new post in Bonn.

In the wee early hours we stood freezing in little more than our windbreakers to hail a taxi to Tegel airport. Several hours later we had arrived in Madrid. As we stood on the jet bridge, preparing to board our second flight, a hot, high-in-the-sky sunlight poured down on us, and we knew were were doing the right thing to escape from northern Europe.

The Canary Islands are off the western coast of Morocco. They are to northern Europe as Hawaii and the Caribbean are to the mainland United States: it's where you go to warm up during winter. The Canaries are subtropical, not tropical, so the weather is springlike, rather than summery, but we weren't objecting.

Here's the view flying into Tenerife. That's Teide in the background, a volcano that dominates the island. Elevation 3,718 metres (12,198 ft).

When we got out of the airport it was warm and breezy, and there were palm trees lining the street. Wearing windbreakers didn't seem so crazy as it did back in Berlin.

From the airport we took a bus to Los Cristianos, and then sauntered down to the port...

... where we hopped on a boat to Valle Gran Rey, on the southwestern edge of La Gomera, the next island to the west of Tenerife. The water was rough, and everyone on the boat was on the edge (or over the edge) of seasickness.

On arrival, we walked through the dark to our hotel. Had I not investigated where I was going, I'm sure I would have been nervous. Everything was dark, the sidewalk was narrow, and the ocean was crashing on the other side of a breakwater. But we found our hotel quickly and easily, and at the reception we were greeted in German.

Yeah, La Gomera has a reputation as an outpost for German hippies. If you can speak German, you've no need for speaking Spanish. You can even buy your groceries at a Spar.

Anyhow, by daylight, the valley and the little encampment at water's edge (three mostly contiguous villages, La Puntila, La Calera, and La Playa Calera) are something else entirely. Dramatic volcanic cliffs rise steeply above a tidy, quiet seaside resort.

I'll blog more about the rest of our trip as time permits.

Berlin Graffiti

As some readers may know, I am no longer living in Berlin. Before I lose track of my thoughts, there's one more Berlin topic I want to tackle: graffiti.

To say that Berlin is covered in graffiti is merely to state the obvious.

Close your eyes and imagine Germany, and visions of beer steins and BMWs probably dance in your head. And you imagine a well-run place. Ordentlichkeit (order, orderliness) is a national virtue, right? So why is the capital city covered in spray paint and stickers--strong evidence of the absence rather than the presence of Ordentlichkeit?

In another city in another country, graffiti would be a sign of urban blight. In Berlin, it's art.

Where there's art, there are art books. Urban Illustration Berlin is essentially a museum catalog, except that the art is all over the city, and may have been painted over by the time you get there. Click here to peek inside the book.

E. and I purchased, as art, a photo of graffiti by an artist known as xoxo. We paid money so we can look at graffiti whenever we want.

What explains the Berlin's love affair with graffiti?

My first hypothesis has to do with history. The Berlin Wall was an endless canvas, an eyesore, and a reminder of the German fissure. The solution? Paint it. Hide it.

Here's a scene from what's probably my favorite film, Wim Wender's Wings of Desire.

That's the great Bruno Ganz walking along the Berlin Wall. See the graffiti in the background? I don't know the whole story but 1) I believe it was commissioned for the film 2) it's definitely by a particular artist 3) any Berliner would recognize it. It's famous. It's art.

Remember when I took a photography course? The Volkshochschule (community college) uses a version of the recurring image as its logo:

This hypothesis will only take you so far, however. The West Berlin side of the wall was covered in graffiti, but my understanding is that the East German authorities kept their side of the wall clean. These days if anything graffiti is more evident in the former east, whereas the west is a bit cleaner.

My second hypothesis is more abstract, but it strikes me as the best explanation. In the absence of graffiti, the "meaning" of a wall is whatever its owner choses. A shiny coat of white paint on your Gründerzeit home tells the world you have money and a well-engineered car. An abraded wall of crumbling stucco and leftover war damage tells another story. And so does a wall that's been tagged, stenciled, and illustrated.

The historical narrative of Berlin is still up for grabs. Is it a Prussian city? A Nazi city? An East German city? A world capital? A squat? A yuppie paradise? No one is sure, but everyone has ideas. Each new graffito is a fresh assertion: This, not that, is what this wall is about. This, not that, is what Berlin is. And until there's consensus on a narrative, no blank wall is safe.