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The blueberry jam backstory

Three humble jars of homemade wild forest blueberry jam sit in the coolness of our apartment thanks to a clash 300km east of here between a bridge construction crew and technology gone wild.

We were staying for the weekend near a lake in a small corner of eastern Germany because an old friend from our Hong Kong days was celebrating his 60th birthday.  It was a huge bash.  He’d invited his whole extended family and everyone he’d known from those days, so there was a good crowd of more than 120 people.  We were all crammed into a discotheque in this tiny town that didn’t seem to have much else going for it aside from being surrounded by wonderful rolling countryside of forests and farms linked by shady roads lined with thick oak trees centuries old.

The party got off well and people danced and sang and talked and drank a bit so that most everyone was well-oiled by the time it was to take our leave.

The next day I had to be at work at 4 in the afternoon, so we tried to time our departure so that we’d be back in Hamburg with not too much time to spare.

We were using our GPS to find our way through the back roads of the former East, but after a half-hour of driving, we’d run into a problem.  The GPS gizmo was telling us to take a turnoff to a road that was blocked for construction work a little further on.  Unable to take the turnoff, we kept driving straight, but after five minutes of the machine blabbering on about how we really must turn around and plow into that construction crew, we turned the thing off, eased to the side of the road and found crammed in the glove compartment one of those things that in the past always proved useful , even if you could never fold them back up the right way.

A map!

TURN HERE! my wife said almost as soon as we got up to speed again, so I turned sharp right onto a narrow, one-lane road leading into a pine forest.  It was paved, with wide shoulders, so we were making good time, but after a few minutes we came upon a couple of cars parked off to the side, so we slowed down.

There were people off in the forest bent over and looking at the ground.

“Hey, I know what they’re doing,” said my wife.  “They’re picking BLUEBERRIES.”

So we parked the car a bit further along and rummaged around til we found a couple of containers, and got to picking some ourselves.  After an hour we’d had enough – about a pound and a half as it turned out – and headed out on our way again.

The whole time I was telling myself I should stop the berry-picking and go back to the car to get the camera, because the scene was so idyllic.  A forest thick enough for shade but leaving dappled noonday summer light on the carpet of berries, stillness except for the buzz of the occasional bee… to heck with it, I said.  Sometimes you just have to carry on with what you’re doing in the moment you’re doing it.

As we got going again I did take the opportunity to teach my wife a word she’d never heard before.  That’s rare, because her English is very good.

Serendipity: the happy accident that happens when you find something good you weren’t even looking for.


A week in Paris: Day 1

I may be pining for the canals of Holland and hoping they freeze over again, but for now, a trip that’s been in the planning for quite a while before Europe turned hard and frosty is finally under way.

It’s great to be back in France.

Things have changed a lot since I was this blond kid of 22, faking a photo in front of a wall plastered with pissing forbidden.

I’ve come to Paris to meet up with an old, old friend, who’s so old he’s here because he just retired from 25 years of teaching and is on a celebratory tour of France and Morocco.

By the end of this week, we won’t have spent this much time together since we tramped through forests and across beaches far beyond the last reaches of Tofino, BC more than 10 years ago.

We met 26 years ago at university in a programme of professional teacher training.  My friend went on to have a fine, rewarding career in teaching for which over the years he won the respect of countless students and colleagues.  I found I hated teaching and failed the course miserably, starting what turned out to be a four-year downward spiral of failed attempts to get going in another direction that only really stopped when I left Vancouver for good.

We’ve remained good friends all this time, but don’t see each other that often.  In the last 10 years  I’d say we’ve hung out fewer than a half-dozen times.

But meeting him today at his short-term apartment in the 20th Arrondissement, it was like he – and the way we’ve always been hanging out together – had never changed.  We had breakfast together jabbering for what seemed like ages about our lives, wives, plans, and such before heading out in the cold.

Day 1.

We walked for miles through the streets of Paris, my friend as my guide.  We saw a few old men along the way, and I remarked that you don’t see many of them of that age in Germany.

We ended up inside Sacré Coeur at the summit of Montmontre after running the gauntlet of an extremely aggressive gang of Eastern European street thieves.  A tight pack of 20 or so girls between I’d say 16 and 22, they swarmed around us like hornets, thrusting petitions in front of our faces to get us to sign – and hopefully distract our attention – while accomplices threw their hands all over our clothes in a brazen attempt to figure out where our wallets were hidden.  Turning around and hissing DON’T TOUCH ME, GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME was the only thing I could do to get them to back off, but they only paused for a second or two before attacking a passing Japanese tourist with the same tactics.  As the poor woman tried to flee down the steps of Montmartre, we yelled at them to leave her alone or we’d call the police.

My friend said they’ve actually been hauled to Paris and are held in a type of slavery, forced to steal upward of €300 a day and if they fail to do so, they get the shit kicked out of them by their captors that evening.  Forget having police patrol the area so the tourists don’t get hassled, what about throwing in jail the mafia that organise it all?

With that happy thought in mind, we went down the hill to buy cinema tickets for a showing at 3pm.  It turned out to be one of the most horribly depressing movies I’ve seen in ages, highly inadvisable if you’re suicidal or have loose razor blades lying around.  It’s called Louise Wimmer and tells the story of a fiftyish woman who’s left her husband and is waiting endlessly for a place in social housing, sleeping in her car, working as a chambermaid and pawning off her few possessions in a slow, desperate attempt to stay afloat before she finally goes under.   I suppose if you’re in France anyway and haven’t had your daily dose of Albert Camus (everything is meaningless, the best thing you can say about any day is that you haven’t decided to kill yourself –  hah-hah, Gosh, don’t you just love the French…) Well, just go see this film.

After the film we parted.  He went home to bed, I went over to the Théâtre Antoine near to where I’m staying where I bought us two tickets to go see a play for tomorrow evening: Inconnu à cette Adresse.  (Address Unknown)

This time the choice was mine.  It’s a two-man play based on the book by Kressmann Taylor and tells the story of the relationship between a Jewish American and his German business partner during the early 30s as the Nazis were gaining power.  I’m sure it will be equally as uplifting.


Cologne on high alert as Germany expat bloggers gather

by Dirk Dajerk

COLOGNE (CP)  A special task force has been set up in the western German riverside city of Cologne to prepare for what officials are calling “a catastrophe waiting to happen” as Germany’s band of English-speaking expatriate bloggers prepares to descend on the city in late October.  Police have already booked reinforcements from neighbouring Bonn and Aachen to help cope with the threat.

“They trash practically every place they visit,” moaned Cologne police desk sergeant Pensell Puscha.  “Just look at what they did in Dresden.”

Now generally known as the “Dresden Disaster,” in public safety circles, the 2007 bloggers’ meetup/donnybrook at the eastern German city on the Elbe is now used in training sessions as an example of how not to prepare for a visit from Germany’s English-speaking bloggers.

“Dresden was hit totally by surprise,” said Cologne city counsellor Bieriz Mylaff.  “By the time we called in for extra help, the rioting was totally out of control.  We’re definitely not going to let that happen to us.”

The annual bloggers’ meetup has grown from an informal gathering eight years ago of five online droolers desperate for the real-life company of anyone willing to tolerate for more than five minutes their tedious whining about the trials of expat life to an unwieldy gaggle of at least 25 who plan the event down to the last triviality for months in advance on three different platforms: their own blogs, an event website and discussion board, and now Facebook, that death of all blogs.  That’s not to mention the usual slurry of time-sucking drivel on Twitter.

“You’d think they could just decide they’re going to get together somewhere and have a few beers, but no-ooo,” lamented Cologne police detective Slyck Dyck. “From the morning after the last meetup ends they start planning the next one.  They plan side trips with Umlauts.  They plan Friday night dinners and guided tours the next morning.  They kick back for the afternoon, but that has to be planned, too.  They gather for a Saturday evening dinner and then go out to a frickin’ gay bar!  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“Then they all have this thing they call brunch when they’re all hung over on the Sunday.   They even make allowances for kids, the annoying little brats.”

The choice of Cologne as a meeting point and the timing itself has been the subject of controversy ever since both were decided months ago in an online poll.

“Cologne?  Nothing but a massive pile of bricks, bells and gargoyles surrounded by whackos, clowns and an ugly shopping centre,” lamented one blogger from Hamburg.  “I haven’t even considered going there for years.  That part of Germany is so full of whores, they outnumber the cars!  Even the neighbouring city of Bonn has decided to take action, setting up parking meters so the city can recoup a few losses on the clean-up.

“And while we’re at it, what about the timing?  Why hold it at the end of October? It’s damn near winter!  Didn’t we decide a few years ago to hold it closer to summer so we could at least have half a chance to enjoy a warm evening or two?  November in Dresden, we had to burn buildings just to keep from freezing to death.”

Critics are also pointing out the dangers of just walking around Cologne, citing the tendency of entire buildings to suddenly collapse in on themselves, swallowing up irreplaceable manuscripts by, among others, Karl Marx and Heinrich Böll –  along with the odd human life or two.  They’re calling for safety checks to ensure visitors won’t end up in some sort of black hole.

Feeling stung by the criticism, organisers are scrambling to reassure attendees as well as the general public.

“We’re gonna have like, fun and stuff, so they should just lighten up, you know?” said one organiser.  “Besides, if they don’t like it they can just stay home.”

The Cologne engineering department is taking no chances as the group is set to storm the upper reaches of their famous cathedral sometime on the Saturday. “We’ve installed structural reinforcements, so we’re reasonably confident the building will withstand the extra burden of the lot of them humping up those stairs to the upper reaches,” said chief city engineer Helmut Askew.  “We’ve also taken the precaution of installing audio reminders at every level suggesting they look up from their smartphones once in a while at the amazing artwork surrounding them.”

Participants are expected to hold a vigil in memory of one member who has been to every meetup since the beginning, but will no longer be attending.  J, or J for short, has finally decided that Germany – or at least Bonn – indeed does suck, and has voted with his feet accordingly.

J’s absence will most be felt on Saturday evening when the evening’s traditional gay bar outing will take place.

“He never really used to know whether we were in a gay bar,” said one blogger, “and so we had to remind him that yes, indeed, we were in one, even though he might not have realised it at the time.”

Other absentees include Eurotrippen, holder of much of the blame for the 2007 Dresden Disaster.  Having lived the expat life for a number of years, Eurotrippen and brood returned to the States in 2009 to become ex-expats, then returned to Germany not long after to become ex-ex-expats, but are now back in the States, finally having decided that the status of ex-ex-ex-expat is what they enjoy the most.  For now.

Any illusions the gathering is attended by all of Germany’s English-language blogging scene will be shattered by a brief Google search.  Perennial hold-outs include the culprits behind Observing Hermann, Planet Germany, Charlotte’s Web, Ich werde ein Berliner and some guy in Cologne itself who calls his kid His Holiness.  The Irish Berliner, voted in an informal poll of one as Germany’s most outstanding blog, is a newcomer to the no-show crowd.

“Well, that’s a good thing,” said one Cologne officer. “The damage would be much worse if they showed up, too.”


Shirt happens


I hope you get your shirt together soon. 🙂


How to tell people you’re a blogger

In less than a day I’ll be flying back to Canada.  I can’t wait!  After a few days’ work I’ll be re-connecting with friends and family I haven’t seen for 20 years or more, many of whom I’ve lost touch with for so long, the person they see might be vastly different from the one they remember.

So before I set off for memory lane trips through Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal – and even Sherbrooke, Quebec –  I’ve been trying to come up with ways to break it to old friends and family that among the many things I’ve done since the last time we spoke in 1993, I’ve become a blogger.

I know it’s not as if I’ve grown a second head or have one of those dumb-looking disks dangling from my earlobes, but still I hesitated before telling them.  I was thinking: will they receive the news like the people did at a grill party last summer in Canada?

Short anecdote:

Last summer in Canada wife K and I are visiting an old friend of mine at his summer place on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia.  It’s so warm, we’ve been swimming naked at midnight and lounging away the afternoons with cool drinks and conversation.  Invited one afternoon to a barbecue at his friends’ place across the road, we arrive and settle into get-to-know-ya chit-chat.

Sooner or later the subject comes around to online life and I reveal that I’ve been blogging the past couple of years and quite enjoy it.  The lady of the house, a woman in her early 60s, looks across the table at me as if I’ve just let loose a loud, wet fart at her only son’s funeral.  Her husband snorts and gapes at me as if my sulphur-laden winds have been aimed directly at him.

“I’ll never understand how or why anyone would want to put personal details of their lives out there on the Internet for all to see,” the woman says in a withering tone.  “What’s the point of it?”

Because she’d been going on about golf and how she’s SO disappointed that a back injury has been forcing her to stay away from her beloved greens, I feel like shooting back at her that I’ve never on earth understood how anyone who considers herself a sentient being could find any point in paying a hundred bucks in a hundred-degree heat ticking off whacks at a white ball, but I hold off.

Instead, I try to assure them I’m aware that the secret to being a complete bore is to tell all, that nobody cares what I had for lunch unless it’s in a detailed restaurant review, that my most personal details will remain offline, and that the goal of blogging for me is to try to describe aspects of my life and things that happen to me in a way that other people can find relevant to their own.

They’re not in the least bit convinced, but I know it’s pointless to keep trying.

So back to telling people.

I know it’s irrational to be hesitant.  Everybody is online, right?  There are tens of millions of bloggers, nearly a half-billion baring all on Farcebook, and for the past couple of years already the cool kids have all shunted over to Twitter.  But in a lot of minds there remains this aura of dilettantism around blogging, that it’s mere teenage scribbling, that sooner or later they’ll put down their toys to do something more serious.

The truth is,  beyond making the entry easier by pointing out stuff on this blog I’ve been most happy with, I have no other way to go about telling them.  None of it needs any justification, rationalisation or explanation.  It is what it is.

So yeah, I’ve been blogging, but I’m still OK.

If you want to start anywhere here, you could look at a few travel posts which have received a lot of feedback.

A month in South Africa and Lesotho about our 2006 trip there and  10 things I learned about skating in Holland – from January, 2009 – are two I’m quite pleased with.  Warning: very long!

Speaking of skating, this past winter it felt like I was living back in Montreal.  It was so cold, the lake in central Hamburg froze well enough to support thousands of skaters, strollers, golfers…

I don’t blog about work, but if I do on rare occasions, I make sure to reveal no details.

I don’t blog about the two ladies in my life unless it’s really special, or pertains to an issue others can relate to, such as asking the question: are we raising our kids to be wimps?

I love writing fake news.   It’s harmless fun, good practice and, because I’m a bit of a lazy sod, requires absolutely no research.

You might find a writing experiment or two, because I like to play with language.

I’ve been doing a lot of travel posts lately, because the places we’ve been going to the past year mean a lot to me.  Turkey and Egpyt were two stops on a backpacking trip 30 years ago, and there was a lot to catch up on.  I think between the two of them you’ll find 20 posts and dozens of photos.

Funny how the posts I’ve linked to so far aren’t the most popular in terms of the number of hits received.  This one – a scam email re-write – is still the top one.  The comment count is now at 112.

If that’s not enough to get you started, let me know. 🙂


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The German justice follow-up: you have to pay a little more

You might recall my friend S, whose story of a run-in with a bunch of hick-town vigilantes two weeks after he arrived in Germany a couple of years ago provoked dozens of comments and feedback on justice, or lack thereof, in this country.

Though he had to pay thousands of euro in fines and court costs, his story didn’t end there.  Turns out that the guy who jumped onto his car and then fell off as my friend was trying to get away from the lynch mob turned around and sued him in a civil case for a few hundred euro for damages for pain and suffering.

A few days ago I showed up in court to lend my friend a little moral support.  In contrast to his opponent, S. was alone,  representing himself because he could no longer afford a lawyer.

Without going too much into the details of nearly two hours of testimony, the other side had three witnesses who all said that S. was speeding like crazy through their neighbourhood.  They claimed that he could have driven around the man, but chose to try to run through him instead.  They also claimed there was nobody else around the car at the time.  All confirmed the man claiming damages was injured on his arm and leg when he fell off the car.

The fact the man had some scrapes and bruises is not in dispute, but their statements went completely against my friend’s testimony.  S. says that before he drove away from the scene, his car was surrounded by neighbours, one of whom tried to pull him out of the car, another who tried to wrench off a side mirror.  That’s when he decided to get the hell out, but that his way was continually blocked by the guy who first jumped on his hood before falling off and getting injured.

So the judge split it somewhere down the middle.  She said the guy claiming damages shouldn’t have been anywhere near the path of the vehicle, so he was partly responsible.  And S. shouldn’t have driven away, so he was also to blame.  He should have tried to get help…without, of course, offering any idea how anyone sitting alone in a convertible surrounded by an angry mob is supposed to do that.

S. has to pay a little over 400 euro for damages and court costs, or about one-third.  The complainant’s legal insurance will pay the other two-thirds.  The judge and the guy’s lawyer said he could of course appeal the decision, but that if he lost, his costs would be many times greater, and he’d have to carry them all on his own.  Because he’s got zero income, they worked it out so that he will pay out the €400  in drips and drabs over the next few months.

My friend was disappointed about the outcome as we hashed it out over coffee and a bite to eat after.  He said: the guy’s got a pretty good little business set-up, eh?  Shake down a few vehicles, get your friends to bullshit for you, get the insurance company to pay the costs.

Though I was sympathetic, I told him, look: it might not have come out the way you wanted it to, but sometimes you just have to pay a price for getting people out of your life and putting bad things in the past for good.  At least it’s less than they were gunning for.

A couple of observations:

The guy would never have taken this to civil court for the piddling amount he was suing my friend for if he didn’t have legal insurance.  It just wouldn’t have been worth his while.  Is legal insurance a good thing?  Not in this case.  It simply clogs up the courtrooms with minor cases that should have better been left to die.

And as my friend S. says, this whole thing isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong,  it’s about how much money you can negotiate.  I agree with him.  In the end, all it came down to was the money.

By the way…

I realise that not many bother to read comments, but one of the more than 50 that my first post on this attracted was a bit of a hair-raiser.  Read about commenter Keith’s story of German justice here. I tried to convince him to let me feature him in a post of his own, but he didn’t want to.

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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