Monday, April 21, 2008

The Claremont Theorem

I have a theory I'm calling the Claremont Theorem:

In a given group:
-If the total number of Claremont alumni, x, is two (2) or greater...
-and the total group size exceeds x by at least one...
-Then all Claremont alumni in said group will not stop talking about how awesome Claremont was.

Tune in next week for my work in progress, the Non-Claremont-Alumni-Blunt-Object Theorem.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Daedalus on Shoestring Wings

RyanAir, one of Europe's budget airlines, ends every flight the same way: upon arrival, a bugle call plays over the intercom. I can only assume this is to awaken those lucky stragglers who slept through landing. Evidently, there are some among us who find being slammed around in RyanAir's Fisher-Price plastic seats comfortable.

After the RyanAir Reveille, a recorded message thanks the passengers for flying RyanAir, the "most on-time airline in Europe." Well, hoo-rah. I might be more excited were the record not so low. RyanAir maintains their number-one slot while still only arriving and departing punctually 90% of the time. Nor are they ashamed of this low bar. Indeed, they actually announce this percentile -- quite proudly -- during the message. When I first heard this statistic, I thought there was some kind of joke at work, or perhaps the captain was being ironic. Not so. RyanAir pronounces their A-minus record with the bald pride of a four-year-old hanging his first finger painting on the fridge.1

I, on the other hand, was astounded by this paltry number. Remember: 90% on-time is the record. What does that say about the industry average? I've flown quite a bit over the last seven months. I can safely say it's generous to estimate that most European airlines are punctual 80% of the time. Imagine those kind of numbers in another industry. If you finished 80% of your assignments at work on time, how happy would your boss be? Would 90% make you the darling of the department?

I certainly recognize that airports are hectic places, and in a post-9/11 world2 they have only become more so. But it's been over six years. One would think that extra security procedures would have been streamlined into the systems by now. Even more recent hiccups cannot account for one of every five planes being late. Surely these delays are not because people try to fly with hair gel?

While everyone gripes when delays affect them personally, Europeans do not seem flustered by delays in general. Thus I suspect delays are not some insurmountable difficulty that the airports and airlines cannot resolve. Rather, I think they see little reason to try. If customers aren't complaining, why should anyone else worry? For that matter, while RyanAir is certainly financially successful, they remain a niche supplier. They still have not expanded beyond their provision of bare-bones flights for low-budget travelers. Nor does there appear to be any evidence that wealthy frequent fliers flock to RyanAir and their counterparts for those low prices and timely transits.

So why have RyanAir's plastic planes not shot tardier providers clean out of the air? Simply put, it's probably because ameliorating delays would be expensive. If the airports can't manage the daily number of flights in a timely manner, they would either need 1) More staff, or 2) Less flights, both of which would probably mean lower profits.

Forgive me if this all sounds excessively fundamental. Though my degree says I studied at least some economics, my knowledge is cursory at best. My personal term for it is "Muppet Economics:" what I say may sound intelligent to the young and uninitiated, but to everyone else, it's clear I've got my hand up my ass.

And I know I lied about the Dvořák. It's forthcoming, I assure you.


1You know the one: the mix of yellow and blue splotches that are supposed to form a bird but are much more reminiscent of a primary-colored coffin with wings... a lot like a RyanAir jet in that way.

2Forgive me the use of this phrase. Usually, I think it shows a certain ignorance, a misperception that the world somehow became more dangerous on September 11, when truthfully we just became more aware of the danger that had been there all along. In discussing heightened airport security, however, I think the phrase is apt.

Also, I'm not running for office, so I think the phrase is less insidious when I use it.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Karnivorous Behavior

For what seems like ages now, I’ve been struggling to write something of substance about Karneval. The party-to-end-all parties,1 that raucous din that consumed the city with costumed bedlam for almost a week, surely I needed to write about that.

For me, Karneval fell flat. Karneval is party without purpose, festivity following no particular event or cause demanding celebration. For five straight days, Cologne brimmed with merrymakers drinking themselves silly with what sometimes seemed to be desperation. I’m told Karneval originated as a last hurrah before the Lenten season began. It was, I can only assume, an attempt to load oneself with such a vicious hangover that the puritanical proscriptions of Lent would be seen as a sweet relief rather than a restriction.

For the most part, Cologne today is a Catholic city in name and skyline only. The beginning of Lent does not herald teetotalling so much as the mixing of pain-relief medications. So what was everyone celebrating? If the desperation to eek every last drop out of those days did not come from the approach of Lent, then where? Given the maturity2 of the average partier, I find myself entertaining depressing theories about German denial: a generation rejecting a two-fold truth: 1) Eventually, youth passes you by; and 2) after a certain age, no one pulls off the drunk tooth-fairy look. The spectacle was, on the whole, a little sad. It reminded me of a theme party in Claremont, but less fun, and with more anonymity, rain and wrinkles.

I suppose at this point a disclaimer is in order. I had fun at Karneval, and my negative opinion on Karneval only developed later. Like everyone else, I looked forward to it. I assembled a pirate costume from odds and ends and a few accessories bought for pocket change on the street.3 I went to parties and watched the parade. But a celebration is meant to… well, celebrate something. Karneval is the quintessential party qua party. I just prefer having cause for my revelry.

Take Meagan’s last visit. She arrived off the plane terribly sick, so rather than castle-hunting along the Rhine, as planned, we spent the weekend recuperating. Though we took in some sightseeing4, most of the weekend was spent on my couch.

I haven’t been that happy in ages.

Celebration is good. But the desperate groping for happiness uprooted from cause, well, I’ve found it wanting. If you want to enjoy Karneval, by all means visit Cologne, or Essen or Rio or Venice or any of the other cities where the festivities at this time of year are famed. But bring your friends. They’re what’s worth celebrating.

So much for Karneval. Next time: Dvořák.

1Well, until after Lent, anyway.

2Biological, that is.

3Actually, my costume has yielded a lot of compliments. I don’t know how I feel about near-universal consensus that I look better in a bandana, buckles and breeches than I do in modern clothing. Probably just further evidence, alongside the stodgy timbre of this post, that I was born in the wrong century.

4Including the hospital. Calm down – she’s fine, now. I had fun, actually. I’d never been in an ambulance before.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Oh, Right -- This Is What Working Feels Like

As of today, I am two weeks through the third and final phase of my program here in Germany. My internship1 proceeds apace, and I am enjoying it immensely. My friends know I thrive on stress, though not always with much grace or stoicism. I prefer activity, even stressful levels of it, to lethargy. Thus I had looked forward to once again being truly busy.

Somehow, though, I had forgotten that with being busy comes... well, being busy.

Hence the pause since my last post. My job has me writing almost constantly. I have found little energy for blogging after writing for nine straight hours at work. On the plus side, I have managed to find even more respect for certain bloggers who've kept that pace for some time now. My next topic will be Karneval... but not yet. That pandaemonium of pageantry has aligned itself in constellation-like fashion with a few other events in my life, which I will be tackling collectively in the near future. Don't worry: I won't be assaulting you with any rambling diatribes just because Europe's getting all serendipitous on me.

For now, let me just say this: Cologne has a Karneval rallying cry, "Kölle Alaaf!" Hearing that everywhere made the whole event sound like some sort of call to a jovial jihad.

Stay tuned.


1I use that term loosely. The responsibility and feeling of satisfaction are decidedly job-like. The pay... well, not so much.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Recent Reflections on a Sensitive Subject

Outside my window, Karneval season kicked into high gear today. While Cologne's Karneval is particularly famous, the holiday is celebrated far and wide, including in Munich, where it is known as Fasching. Though Karneval technically began months ago, heavy-duty merrymaking only commences in the days prior to Lent. Munich had one of its first major Fasching festivities, a parade, this past Sunday. The parade caused a storm of controversy in the press because it conflicted with -- and drew attention from -- International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This blog has been almost silent until now about this particular period in Germany's history. That was deliberate. The Holocaust is an immensely complicated topic, and the current German political climate regarding the Holocaust is equally intricate. I did not want to add needless blather to a knotty and emotionally charged dialogue.

At this point, I have some thoughts to share. The topic of the Holocaust weighed on my mind in Munich last week. While there, I and the other participants of my seminar met with a high-ranking official of the Bavarian state government. He was obviously an intelligent, articulate man. He spoke fluidly and charmingly about Bavarian history and culture. He also made some very flippant remarks about the NS-Zeit.1 At one point, he said that Bavaria is where all the "nice" elements of German culture come from, and that the negative elements -- here he actually listed the Holocaust as an example -- came from elsewhere.

The Nazis did not exactly enjoy overwhelming support in Bavaria, but it would be a lie to say the region opposed the Reich. Conversely, though it is an egregious exaggeration to claim Bavaria has "all of German's good culture," it certainly has its share. Bavaria birthed Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss; Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg; Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. But it is also where the Nazi movement began in the early twenties.

I recognize that I tread on sensitive territory here. Especially dangerous is the drawing of inferences about modern Germans from historical lessons. The general rule, as I have seen it, is that contemporary Germans are exceedingly aware of their history, perhaps even haunted by it. The generation raised in the wake of World War II was taught, at home, at church, in school, to retain a sense of Schuldgefühl, a feeling of guilt for the sins of their country. Germans are by and large saturated with their history, and while this has occasionally created blowback, more often, I have seen it lead to a greater concern for human rights and a stronger belief in international cooperation.

As for me, from everything I have learned about the Holocaust, the only sure conclusion I have reached is that it was an immensely tragic and immensely complicated event. There is still much to be learned from the Holocaust. Some Germans have gone to great lengths to do so. We can learn from them as well.


1The most commonly used term among Germans today for the Nazi regime. NS-Zeit translates to the "time of national socialism."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Teutonic Travels, Part Three: München and the Staatsoper

Ludwigstraße, one of the main thoroughfares of central Munich, does not hint at its Italian influence so much as revel in it. Ludwig I, the first king of Bavaria, had a great love for Italian architecture and art, and he wanted as much of his capital to recall that tradition as possible. Thus does a visitor to Munich find himself walking through a number of Florentine arches. More often, however, Munich reflects its true position as the largest and wealthiest city of the Southern German world.1 As one moves away from Ludwigstraße, the decor rapidly dissolves into the deep-red roofs and painted stucco walls that characterize picturesque southern villages. Alongside this old-world flair are the imposing edifices of some of Munich's monuments: the Frauenkirche, the Neues Rathaus2 and the Theatinerkirche. Munich's appearance is therefore at once complex and forthright. The streets elegantly trim the city's many modern amenities with the ornamentation of Bavarian history, including Italian flourishes.

Following these streets leads to some pretty impressive places, as I learned throughout the past week. InWent assigned me to Munich for my mid-year seminar. There are worse places to deflate for a few days. Munich is Germany's most expensive city, and it shows. Besides the city's beauty, both art and industry thrive here. Munich houses BMW's headquarters, a bizarre edifice that seems to erupt from the ground like some massive piston. More memorable for me was the Bayerische Staatsoper, Germany's most important opera house. Fitting with the city's Italian undertones, this past week saw performances of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia, a fairly typical buffa with infidelity, death threats, and all the other clean family fun for which opera is known.3

The performance was weak for a stage like the Staatsoper. Most of the leads struggled to keep their runs audible and in tempo. At times the orchestra swallowed them completely. David Alegret, whose name I can only assume means "aggravating" in Spanish, was particularly bothersome as Don Narciso. I suspect Mr. Alegret feared he would be unable to provide sufficient resonance, because he sang through his nose the entire evening. Insult joined injury when Maximillian Schmitt, playing the relatively small role of Albazar, sang his first notes late in Act Two. Here was a perfectly competent tenor relegated to comic relief while a Spanish Paul Lynde honked his way through the night. A miscasting if ever there was one.

The silver lining of this so-so ensemble was Valentina Kutzarova, who captivated my attention with luscious coloratura every time she entered. Her Zaida was the treat of the evening, especially compared to Alexandrina Pendatchanska's Fiorilla. Though Ms. Pendatchanska improved enough in Act Two to give a massive performance of her closing aria,4 she tended both to warble and to slide lazily during cadenzas into colorless, indiscriminate vowels.5 Alessandro Corbelli managed at least to amuse throughout the evening, if not impress. With a stocky frame, rumpled garb and a wiry gray disaster of hair, his Don Geronio resembled no one so much as Peter Falk's Columbo, pacing hunched about the stage with pensive hands clasped behind his back.

If some of the leads were not up to the task, their support certainly did not falter. Herbert Murauer supplied sets that were clever without intruding. Opting for contemporary setting, Murauer initially decorated the opening scene, a gypsy camp, with a single modern camper trailer. Through terrific use of the trapdoor, over thirty performers entered from that one camper. The directorial team kept the audience laughing throughout this entire procession. The leads may have failed to grab the baton from their ensemble, but not for lack of a strong setup.

Perhaps I wax a little too critical. It is not every evening this American expatriate gets to visit one of Europe's best opera houses free of charge. Would that my program bothered to bribe me more often.


1Vienna is in fact slightly larger, but the Münchner economy is much stronger. Conversely, Vienna has a higher overall quality of life, and is the home of Sacher Torte, arguably the best chocolate cake in the world. So it balances out.

2Firstly, this is something of a misnomer. The older city government building was destroyed in the war and subsequently rebuilt. Thus, the "new" Rathaus is actually the older of the two buildings. Given its massive size and drippingly Gothic style, it looks it, too.

Also, you have to love any language that calls a political office a "Rathaus."

3Il Turco also has a memorable mistaken identities cliché, but mentioning that didn't really fit into the above wisecrack. But yes, masquerade party, dramatic irony, blah blah blah, the whole shtick.

4("Warmups! I knew I forgot something!")

5To be fair to Ms. Pendatchanska, who is both talented and gorgeous, I am hopelessly biased against her. I hate Fiorilla. Hate her, hate her, hate her. My own mother could sing the role flawlessly, and I'd still be crotchety.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"An English Teacher," from Bye Bye Dignity

I used to think I would make a pretty good teacher.

Germany has discharged me of such delusions.

A few days ago, I visited a German Gymnasium1 to speak with a couple of upper-level English classes. I was invited on behalf of the American Consulate, which recruits young ex-pats living in the region for precisely this purpose. Two teachers at a Gymnasium outside of Bonn invited me to lead discussions with their students. The faculty at the school were all warm and welcoming, and their hospitality was greatly appreciated. Likewise, my first class greeted me with courtesy and enthusiasm. My second class flayed me by inches, but we'll come to that in good time.

Had my visit been solely for the purpose of mingling with faculty, it would have been a perfect day. They don't get many Americans at high schools in Bonn, let alone New Yorkers/Californians2, and the English teachers loved the chance to converse with a native speaker. Most of the faculty's English was spot-on, with only the occasional lapses such as pronouncing obscure words like "escapism" as ESS-cəp-izm.3 Perhaps most pleasantly surprising was my encounter with the school principal. She gave me a bottle of Mumm extra-dry champagne as a token of hospitality. In the classooms, I carried it in my attaché to avoid looking unprofessional. Had I known how the second class would go, I would have carried it in my liver.

The first class was warm and enthusiastic. Upon my entry into their classroom, they all stood and greeted me in unison: "Good morning, Mr. Gallagher." It sounded like nothing so much as the way we used to say hello to the principal at my elementary school as a child. My reaction, therefore, was a mixture of flattery, confusion and horror. Fortunately, the experience was uphill from there. Our discussion principally revolved around American school life. The kids were engaged and curious, and they worked hard to speak solely in English, especially their questions. Oh Lord, their questions. I give you my favorites, chosen because 1) they sparked the most discussion amongst classmates, and 2) I think these questions induced the most learning.

--"Why are there metal detectors in American schools?"

This led to a great discussion about what kind of environments German schools offer, and how they are different from American schools.

--"Does every American boy play (American) football?"

I made it clear to the young gentleman asking this question that not every American male had my obvious athletic prowess.

--"Do American teenagers smoke?"

Less than you do, which is why they all have perfect teeth in the movies.

--"Do American teenagers have house parties, as depicted in the movies?"

Okay, I don't think I was using the word "depiction" in 10th grade, and English is my first language.

And my favorite:

--"Do all Americans wear their belts inside-out?"

Erm... no. Just me... and just today.

It was a memorable experience. And as you can see, their teacher took photos.

The second class was not so successful, though that is at least partially my fault. I had overreaching expectations for our time together. Our topic was the American Dream, and since I was speaking with a senior-level group, I had hoped for a somewhat theoretical discussion about modern capitalist life.4 As it turned out, I spent almost the full hour pulling teeth, cajoling the kids' jaws open long enough to admit they even had dreams at all. With that accomplished, I managed to move the discussion towards the role of society in the pursuit of our dreams, but only for a tragically brief period.

As class concluded, I thought I would be ending my day at its nadir. But afterwards, two students approached me. They said they had loved my talk. They wanted to know about my exchange program, and what other opportunities they might have for study abroad. I offered to send their teacher more information, and they were obviously elated.

I have a few friends who are teachers. I often feel shock when I realize I have peers my age who teach. Now, I am equally amazed at the task they take on every day. It is one thing to educate the engaged. It's another to reach students, to get them excited about learning and improving themselves. It's not my strength, inspiring teenagers. The experience is quite a rush, though.

Not as much of a rush as that champagne, but close.


1Not, as you probably first thought, some sort of fitness facility, but rather the German term for a general-education high school. These schools used to be places where youth was forged into brave German industry in the fires of adversity. Thank God that's over. These young people no longer endure an opressive hierarchy... at least, no more so than at any other high school.

2Through trial and error, I've learned that if I'm struggling to engage Germans in conversation, I need only fall back on my own story: where I'm from or where I went to school. New York and Los Angeles are mythic for some Europeans, and the farther from a major city you go, the more entranced the locals become. By the time I'm in farmland, I get questions like "So, is Tom Hanks tall in real life?"

3I've been hearing this slip a lot lately. Since Americans are such expert escapists, perhaps Europeans think of American escapism as some sort of political theory. That might explain the misplaced emphasis, e.g. COMmunism, SOCialism, EScapism.

4If pedantry determined one's salary, I'd be a billionaire by now.