Thursday, December 16, 2010

The International Unity of I*KEA or Why I feel symbol-challenged

[Note on reposting this entry 4/8/2014. As I recall, I hid this post because of heavy robot traffic, presumably because of the popular store name. I've disguised it, so let's hope the robots stay away.]

It has come to my attention that I am seriously symbol challenged. The other day, I snipped care tags off a pair of curtains that Miriam and I bought at I*KEA for her bedroom window. The tags were affixed along the top band of the curtain so that they made neat, opaque squares where they blocked the daylight. Exactly the wrong look for a curtain, in my opinion. Risking that I would never again know what those washing instructions were, I removed the tags for aesthetic reasons. Before setting them aside (should I affix them to the wall in the utility room where the washing machine stands?), I took a moment to notice the list of words for "cotton" on the reverse of the labels. 31 different languages.

Fascinating. These curtains--a soft, semi-transparent white cotton weave with an attractive nubby texture--might find themselves hung in any and all of the countries where the associated languages are spoken. KZ. Kazakhstan? PT. Portugal and Brazil. If you're curious, take a look at Wikipedia's entry on ISO-3166-2, International Standard codes for countries around the world.

The care instructions on the other side offer a row of those symbols, the ones that always have me wondering just what they might mean.
Use water that's 60 degrees (celsius, I assume). Don't triangle. Sew on a button? Wear a strange boot. Never use a circle. *SIGH* I know it must have to do with things like dryers and bleach. And then I notice that just below the line of symbols, there's a special set of instructions preceded by the term, "US." I relax. That's what I'm used to. Plain old words that tell me what to do. Right, the triangle is about bleach. The box that looks like a button is a dryer, on medium heat. The next one, the iron, is high heat (so that must go one dot, two dots, three dots). The x-ed out circle is about (not) dry cleaning.

I'm a little mortified to acknowledge that a good deal of the world seems to get along by agreeing upon symbols they can all interpret, whereas I, from my monolithic culture, am accustomed to having things spelled out exactly for me. Likely the US market is large and profitable enough (and Americans inexperienced enough with the symbols and inclined enough toward filing liability lawsuits) to make it worth it to IK*EA to follow our custom. The label is like a little tutorial for me, quite helpful, really.

But, honestly, who the heck thought up these symbols? What aspect of a triangle reminds you of bleach, or a circle of dry cleaning? I kind of get the ones that are supposed to look like a dryer and an iron. I'm interested to see that another strong market has made it onto the label as well: Japan. (I recall enough Japanese to discern that the symbols include katakana.) The Japanese symbols work a lot better for me. I see a washer, 60 degrees. I see a crossed out beaker (seems like bleach). I learned the iron from the other symbols. And the last one, by process of elimination (and the kana that say "do-ra-i," which is the closest you can come in Japanese syllables to the word, "dry") is about dry cleaning.

IKE*A. There's one 15 kilometers to the south of us in Ludwigsburg. A few years before we left Utah, one finally came to the Salt Lake area. Before that, we were I*KEA tourists in the US, loading up when we visited my sister in Canada, or when we made it to the San Francisco Bay area. I have a mixed relationship to the place, but I do admit to owning a number of their products, notably storage units and linens. Have you ever been to IK*EA on a Saturday? Regretted that choice? I like to take a moment on a Sunday afternoon, though, and imagine just how many thousands--millions?--of people across the globe are puzzling over the same wordless drawings to guide the assembly of a bookshelf they lugged into their home on Saturday from IKE*A.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I'll get to the title of this post in a few paragraphs. I'm assuming that, for non-German speakers, it's one of those German words that looks both indecipherable and unpronounceable.

Last week I went to the dentist for the first time here in Flein. True to compound word form, the German word is Zahnarzt (tooth doctor). You can also visit an eye doctor (Augenarzt), skin doctor (Hautarzt), women's doctor (Frauenarzt), nerve doctor (Nervenarzt), and so on. Quite practical. The Latin terms are also listed in the dictionary, as in Ophthalmologe, Dermatologe, Gynäkologe, Neurologe, but the more descriptive names tend to be what people say. In fact, the only medical specialty that I recall hearing in the Latin form with any regularity is Urologe (what would the compound word for that be anyway?). The dictionary mentions the word Dentist (or Dentistin, if she's female), but I've never heard anyone say that.

We found this particular dentist about three weeks ago when Miriam broke a tooth out while eating a snack at school. She was chewing on a Mamba (perhaps the stickiest, hardest candy there is), and off cracked a molar, followed by a gush of blood. She was alarmed, especially since she'd been unaware that the tooth was loose. When I came to her classroom to pick her up, I was alarmed, too, by the white flecks I saw on the napkin holding the tooth. We left the school, and I called the two new friends whose cell numbers are stored in my phone. One of the recommendations was indeed a short walk from the school, but the office was closed. The other was back in Flein, and the receptionist offered an immediate appointment.

Perhaps it's a symptom of the craziness of the move, but I wasn't clear if Miriam had lost a molar before or if this was the first one. I assumed it was a baby tooth, but I wanted to be sure nothing untoward had happened. We met a friendly dentist (Dentistin) named Dr. Jasmin Schallock, who speaks superfast German and who spoke fluent English with Miriam. It was indeed a Milchzahn (milk tooth), and all was well. Dr. Schallock pointed out four other loose molars. Miriam lost another one last week and was pretty mellow about the experience, blood and all.

My own dental appointment was routine. Here's the routine: Wow, you have really good teeth. (To the hygenist) Take a look at these teeth. You don't see that every day. A tiny bit of gum recession here, a surface filling there, nice bite (did you have orthodontia?). You do have some calculus (Zahnstein--tooth stone) on the front lower teeth, but otherwise, I can see we're not going to make any money on your mouth! It's a nice routine. Dr. Schallock was even complimentary of my bite guard, which was fabricated for me in Salt Lake City. I've ground my teeth (especially at night) for a long time, and I finally went for a bite guard in the fall of 2004. In the early months after my son died, I would wake up to find that I'd loosened a few teeth in the night. The bite guard still fits tight and looks "pretty good" (I think that's a relative perception because the plastic has yellowed, and I think the thing looks pretty icky). Gouges into the plastic from my lower teeth attest to the fact that my grinding habit continues.

I attribute my good teeth mostly to the fluoridated water I drank as a child in the 1960s and 1970s in Ohio. It's a perception fostered by my parents, both of whom have significantly more difficulty with tooth decay and breakage. A little research shows me that the debate on the usefulness and safety of water fluoridation and fluoride supplements continues. Interestingly, Utah was introducing water fluoridation, county-wise, when we moved there in 2003. Miriam and Simon drank fluoridated water in Ann Arbor, and both had sturdy teeth.

Aside from brushing (I'm a twice a day brusher: very first thing in the morning or I feel like I'm going to die of morning mouth and again at bedtime), I have become a pretty proficient flosser. I did not grow up using dental floss, but I've managed to instill the practice in my forties. A particularly painful tooth cleaning in Salt Lake City seems to have been the impetus I needed to take better care of my own gums. When Dr. Schallock asked while admiring my gums if I use Zahnseide (tooth silk), I was happy to say, Ja!

And that brings me to the word Erfolgserlebnis. I felt good about myself while riding my bike home from the dentist. I felt good about being from the USA, where we seem to know how to take care of teeth. Moving to a new town, especially in a different country, inevitably brings moments of frustration, feelings of not belonging, and plenty of time feeling just plain lost. My forty-five minutes in the dentist's chair yielded a solid bit of positivity, an Erfolgserlebnis (literally, success-experience).

So much for the meaning of the word. But how do you pronounce it? The biggest secret to any German word is determining where the syllables and word parts divide. In this case: Er-folg-s-er-leb-nis (air-folks-air-layb-niss). Erfolg=success. Erlebnis=experience. The "s" in the middle is a genetive (possessive) sort of connector, imparting the sense of "experience of success." Each word part happens to begin with the prefix "er-" (whose meaning is abstract and difficult to define); folg is from folgen=follow; lebnis is a noun derived from leben (to live). For a German speaker, grouping words into their components is a matter of course. It helps me a lot to locate suffixes, prefixes, and word roots (i.e., what's the underlying verb). If I can do that successfully, I can see the word for its parts. Then, mercifully, German pronunciation follows a rigid and easily learned set of phonetic rules.

I was hoping to offer a gender rule here for all nouns ending in the -nis suffix. It's "das Erlebnis" (so it's also "das Erfolgserlebnis"). However, I just found a listing of "die Kenntnis" (from the verb kennen) at BEOLINGUS (the online dictionary I usually consult). So, I'm stumped. This sort of suffix can almost always be counted on for gender consistency (like -chen is always "das," and -ung is always "die"). Does anyone out there know anything? Maybe it's that "t" on the end of the verb stem "kenn" in Kenntnis. Hmm. (By the way, once you're on to the prefix/suffix and compound word situation, it becomes a whole lot easier to look at words that have four (or even more) consonants blithely in a row, as in "Kenntnis." No problem.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Big Store Paralysis

We've just come home from a late afternoon shopping trip. It's a Wednesday, so not a huge crowd day. First stop was the Toyota dealer in Heilbronn to test drive a Prius. Contrary to our Utah community, the German auto scene (especially in this more small town/rural location) is almost devoid of hybrids. You spot a lot of Audis, BMWs, Mercedes, and VWs, sprinkled with a few Toyotas, Opels, Peugeots, and Fords. You even see a fair number of Smart Cars, but I have yet to see a Prius out and about. Still, we happen to believe in the car's reliability based on positive reports from so many of our friends.

The big question for us was about the feel of the Prius on the Autobahn. Would we feel we had the power to maneuver and respond to the Autobahn's fluctuating speed demands? (If you've never driven on the German Autobahn, the main thing to know is that there are stretches that have no speed limit. None. Depending on your wheels and nerves, you can go as fast as you like. One big difference from US highways is that it is illegal to pass on the right (which I actually think is discouraged in the US, too, although you'd never know it from driver behavior). Thus, you stick to the lane that works best for you. Far right: trucks, exiting vehicles, and anyone willing to hang out at about 100-120 kilometers/hour. Middle: those passing the folks in the far right lane and hanging out at about 140-160 kilometers/hour. Far left lane: vehicles that approach like viciously determined bees. I have no idea how fast they might be going. 200 kilometers per hour is a good possibility. You don't "hang out" in the far right lane.)

So, how did the Prius do? Just fine. Compared with the Mercedes A-Klasse (our current rental car), it felt roomy, and the driver/car relationship felt natural to me. On the highway, I took it up to about 140 kilometers/hour. It has a bit of a guttural hum at that speed, but no sign of weakness. Markus also took a turn, and he may have gone up to a slightly higher speed. During our 41 kilometer test drive, we had an average gasoline usage of 5.2 liters per 100 kilometers (that's about 45 miles per gallon, according to a pretty cool calculator I found on the web).

Now we have to figure out what we want to do, as far as buying a car goes. We have some funds, having just sold two cars and a house in the US, but all of it is in dollars. Today's exchange rate of $1.4048 to the Euro is the lowest in the two months I've been here. Not exactly a good time to make large purchases here with dollars. And then there's the look and feel of the car. And three family members with opinions.

From the Toyota dealer we went to the pet store, where we had the chance to drop a quick 95 Euros on cat food, cat litter, and liner bags for the "litter locker." Sheesh.

After that, we headed to Media Markt, which is sort of a Best Buy, although I think the merchandise is even more bewilderingly displayed at Media Markt. We are in need of just about everything that plugs into a wall. We left our appliances behind in the States, with the exception of computers, printers, and cell phones. Everything else is market-specific, tailored to the 120 volts (alternating current), 50 hertz of the US electrical supply. (Germany uses 240 volts (direct current) at 60 hertz. You can convert power to change the volts, but you can't do anything about the hertz.) Good-bye microwave, blender, mixer, purée stick, food processor, toaster oven, vacuum cleaner, ice cream maker, waffle iron, griddle. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I had owned most of these tools for at least 15 years. Maybe it was time for new ones anyway.

So far, we have made the following new acquisitions for our German home: a washing machine (Bauknecht), a vacuum cleaner (Miele), and a steam iron (Tefal). Today's mission was to look into a mixer, purée stick, toaster (oven), and microwave. Only we ended up in the multi-level Media Markt, where, even if you don't want to, you can see 30 curling irons affixed to a shelf opposite 50 electric razors. The mixer aisle boasts more than a dozen options. What to choose? They all seem either large and heavy or obviously cheap and a little flimsy. Starting price around $45 for a reasonable mixer. Maybe it's the price that gives me pause: if it's going to cost something, I need to be sure it's a reasonable choice. And everything felt so clunky compared with the appliances I've recently left behind. Not sure I want any of them.

It doesn't take long for me to enter Big Store Hypnosis--soon, I can barely see, and it becomes impossible to keep the different products straight, let alone develop the sort of intimacy that can lead to actual purchase. Before long, I've reached Big Store Paralysis. My headache and I need to leave the building and its merciless light, avoiding eye contact with thousands of products that leer at me from the shelves as I seek the exit.

Large supermarkets have a similar effect on me. Let's not even talk about warehouse stores. I guess I'm the small retailer's demographic. I'm hoping there are enough of us out there to keep a few of these businesses alive. Meanwhile, I guess I'm saving electricity in my home life. If it isn't here, I can't turn it on. For now, that'll have to do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Harder than you'd think

Getting started in a new place turns out to be harder than I thought. Well, I'm not sure I can characterize my process as being very full of "thought." Mid-May 2010 we decided to move from Utah to Germany. July 28 we vacated our house of seven years. August 25 I arrived in my new hometown of Flein, near Heilbronn. September 13 all our stuff arrived.

Today, October 19 (a Tuesday), I am typing at my actual desk. Sam, the cat, is seated on the desk to my right, atop my journal book. Simon (the other cat) is tucked into a ball on the sofa behind me. We're all three pretty quiet, except for the clatter of my keyboard.

The large tree out back has lost half its red-brown leaves. A second tree, a hairy-looking weeping sort, has skinny finger-like leaves that are turning yellow. Still plenty to come for the rake. Grey skies and a nippy wind. It occurred to me this morning that it's time to turn on the heat in our apartment.

As noted in my post of 28 September, I did indeed return to the nearby vineyards to help with this year's grape harvest. I lost count, but I think I was present for eight days all together. Now I have sore muscles from unpacking and hefting boxes, from raking, and from bending over and snipping at grape vines. Which I can feel while typing. Hence the brevity of today's post.

I imagined when I set this blog up about three weeks ago that I was more or less ready to write on a regular basis. What I misestimated is the impact of upheaval on my ability to keep track of the days as they go by and to find the stillness I need to put words on the page.

Currently reading Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays by George Orwell (collected and edited by George Packer). What a master of the essay form. I'm inspired to return to 1984, which I have not read since high school. And I am old enough to have read it before the actual year arrived. I first encountered Orwell's essays in writing workshops, most memorably at the 2008 Wesleyan Writers Conference in a workshop with Katha Pollit. Orwell's most commonly referenced essays come from his time in India and Burma: "A Hanging" (1931) and "Shooting an Elephant" (1936). Both offer a compelling mix of narrative flow and incisive commentary.

In "The Case for the Open Fire" (8 December 1945), Orwell asserts that, in spite of technological progress in heating systems, society would benefit from keeping the open coal fire. He describes a family near the fire: a necessary closeness to the fire creates closeness among those gathered there. "[T]he survival of the family as an institution may be more dependent on it than we realise" (190).
Then there is the fascination, inexhaustible  to a child, of the fire itself. A fire is never the same for two minutes together, you can look into the red heart of the coals and see caverns or faces or salamanders, according to your imagination: you can even, if your parents will let you, amuse yourself by heating the poker red-hot and bending it between the bars, or sprinkling salt on the flames to turn them green. (190)
 . . . It is quite true that [a fire] is wasteful, messy and the cause of avoidable work: all the same things could be said with equal truth of a baby. . . . (191)
. . . [I]magine the dreariness of spending Christmas evening in sitting . . . round a gilded radiator! (192)
So, here I sit at a desk in Germany with the heat on for the first time. The radiator gives off a smell of burnt dust, one of the many unfamiliar smells to get used to in a new home. This particular smell, like the plentiful rotting apples along the bike paths of Flein, is seasonal.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Unceremonious Beginnings

I have been waiting . . . for what? For a desk to be clear and a light to shine so that I can sit down and begin a chronicle of this new phase of my life. I'm calling it Chapter This. (It isn't easy to find a blog name that hasn't already been taken.)

But the desk is not (yet) clear, and shining lights remain elusive.

My daughter, Miriam, and I arrived in Germany on Wednesday, August 25, 2010. We joined Markus, who had been in (and out) of our new German home since late July. A forty-foot container filled with our material possessions left Salt Lake City, Utah on July 28th to travel from Oakland, California via the Panama Canal to Bremerhaven in northern Germany (this link opens a world map that shows shipping densities, and you can imagine the route if you locate deep red area in the middle of the California coast, look for Panama, and find another deep red area east of the UK). Estimated arrival in Bremerhaven: September 6th.

It's not that I haven't blogged from the midst of chaos before. I have. Back before we even said "blog." In December 2001, Markus and I began Simon's Place, the website that helped us communicate about the illness and eventual death of our son (and Miriam's older brother), Simon. Hospitals. Medical procedures with a four year old (then five year old, six year old). A cross country move from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Salt Lake City. End of life care for a seven year old. Devastating loss. Grief. Looking for new footholds, tiny handholds. Six years have passed since Simon died. He would be an 8th grader now.

Miriam, who turned 11 last week, has started 5th grade at Justinus-Kerner-Gymnasium in Heilbronn. After 7 years on the faculty of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, Markus took a position at the German Graduate School of Management and Law (GGS), where he is Professor of Strategic Management and Leadership. So far so good in their new endeavors.

I have left a job at the Salt Lake Arts Academy (grades 5-8), where I taught German, choir, and creative writing. Here in Germany I am going to build my writing life. Perhaps I'll find my way back into teaching. For now, I'm butting heads with Miriam, who doesn't really want to learn German from her mother. But I happen to be a pretty good German teacher . . .

And so I need my writing desk. We're getting closer. Our container took another week in transit from Bremerhaven down here to Flein, just south of Heilbronn. It arrived on Monday, September 13. Try fitting the contents of a 2500 square foot house (plus full storage basement and garage) into a 1600 square foot apartment. We discarded like crazy before leaving Utah but brought the bulk of our household here (nothing in storage stateside). As our mover said, more than once, we have a lot of books.

Markus, my live-in electrical engineer, spent the last two weeks preparing for and teaching a 5-day intensive course. He basically disappeared into work right about the time the container arrived. So, it's been two weeks of me unpacking (with help from some kind souls) in a half-lit apartment. Now that Markus is back putting time in at home, lights and switches are going in everywhere, and pretty soon I'll have a working office.

Meanwhile, I am off tomorrow (Thursday) for a day of bringing in the grapes. Flein is in wine country. I've managed to volunteer myself onto a team of folks who enjoy helping a local wine grower with tending and harvesting the crop. Last week, we cut a red grape called Acolon. I'll be back to tell about what happens tomorrow.