Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ego Surfing

Ever Googled yourself? Bet you have. It’s called “ego surfing” or “vanity searching” and, according to a study by the Pew Internet & American life project, 47% of American adult internet users have undertaken a vanity search in Google or another search engine.
An “ego surfer” is one who surfs the Internet for his or her own name, to see what, if any, articles appear about himself or herself. The term was coined by Sean Carton in Wired (Wikipedia).
I did it today myself in order to see how often my blog would come up on Google. Of course, once I got started, I couldn’t stop until I’d gone through multiple pages to see anywhere else my name appeared. Didn’t matter whether it was in connection with something recent or decades ago. Didn’t even have to be about me; it’s amazing how many other people share my name (public officials, jailbirds), which I’d always thought an uncommon one.
Yes, such is vanity--and we are all vain.
Artists (like dogs and perhaps all God’s creatures) have always tried to leave their mark behind, whether in the form of cave paintings like the Paleolithic ones at Lascaux in southwestern France, whose age is estimated at over 17,000 years, or monuments like Mount Rushmore, which was completed in 1941.
Personally, I wouldn’t dignify carving one’s initials on a public park bench or tagging someone else’s property with graffiti by calling it art. But even these reprehensible acts probably stem from the same primal impulse that moves inventors to try and leave their mark in inventions, athletes in record books, and even some business tycoons by starring in their own cheesy commercials.
Writers, of course, try to leave their mark in books they have written (as opposed to vandals who leave their mark in books someone else has written). Likewise, musicians leave their marks in the songs they’ve made, from the earliest wax recordings to today’s digital technology.
Now that same digital technology is being used by ordinary shlubs to see their name in lights, if only on a computer screen. This is not surprising. The Anglo-Saxons of 1,500 years ago would’ve understood it perfectly. Beowulf, for instance, makes an heroic boast about his past glories before taking on a terrifying monster unarmed. We remember him because 1) he lived to tell the tale and 2) someone wrote it down.
More recently, Muhammad Ali boasted he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Also, that he was “the greatest.” He backed it up, too. Now look at him--he’s got his own museum.
Even before late night talk shows, boasting was a way to achieve fame. And fame mattered because life was short and who knew what came next? The Anglo-Saxons had a fable about a bird who flies out of the darkness into the light of the mead hall, but only for a short time before vanishing again into the night.
Is it any wonder we put tombstones on our graves--or ego surf?

Journey's End (Germany #20)

COLOGNE--Hard to believe I’m nearing my journey’s end. This is Germany’s fourth largest city, and on this trip I’ve now seen all of the others except Hamburg. Day before yesterday, it took our bus about half an hour to climb out of the steep wooded Rhine Valley following our river cruise. We came back here, freshened up at our hotel, and dined at a French bistro on coq au vin and chocolate mousse.
Yesterday morning (Oct. 12, actually), we began our last full day in Germany with a lecture on “The Romans in Cologne,” followed by a visit to the city’s famous cathedral; built between 1248 and 1880, it’s the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. Cologne, which is located on both sides of the Rhine, was founded by the Romans in 50 A.D. It was the capital of a Roman province until being occupied by the Franks in 459, and later a sovereign state within the Holy Roman Empire until being conquered by Napoleon.
Cologne survived WWI without significant damage. But in WWII, the city center (including the famous Twelve Romanesque churches and many other cultural treasures) was almost completely wiped out by Allied bombing. Also, by 1945, essentially all of Cologne's pre-war Jewish population of 11,000 had been deported or killed by the Nazis and the six synagogues of the city destroyed. The synagogue on Roonstraße was rebuilt in 1959.
Following the devastation of WWII, Cologne suffered through another half century of Soviet domination and its grim architecture before Germany was reunited. Reconstruction of the center city (which was rebuilt to look old) lasted until the 1990s, when the Romanesque church of St. Kunibert was finished. Today, Cologne is home to more than 30 museums and hundreds of galleries, as well as its namesake university, one of Europe's oldest and largest.
Coffee houses have been a Cologne institution since Napoleon’s time, and for lunch yesterday we visited one of the city’s finest, the restored Gothic Café Reichard. Located on an elegant shopping street, the cafe seats 400 inside its glass pavilion, and 400 more on a beautiful terrace. But its most endearing feature was a magnificent assortment of cakes and pies that included gooseberry pie, something I’d never tasted and found delightfully tart. After lunch, we had free time the rest of the afternoon. At 6:15, we reconvened in the hotel lobby and went out together for our wonderful farewell dinner at nearby Renaissance Hotel.
Very, very early this morning (5:50), we were in the lobby of Hotel Flandrischer Hof waiting for our airport shuttle when my wife wished aloud for come coffee. There seemed little chance of this happening. Yet to our astonishment, a kindly hotel clerk immediately called across, “One? Or two?” and proceeded to brew us each a steaming cup. This small kindness typified our experience with the German people, who seemed so much like Americans.
Most everything on this tour was well-planned with lots of attention to detail evident. For anything that wasn’t, our amazing tour leaders made seemingly effortless adjustments (though I know they were sometimes exasperated). Throughout our stay, I’ve admired German cleanliness, up-to-date technology, style, and efficiency. This continued with our minivan ride to the shiny and apparently new airport.
Joachim walked us right up to customs, making sure we were okay before exchanging heartfelt farewells. As we showed our passports to German officials, I recalled learning on this trip that since I am of German descent (through my great grandparents), I could qualify for a German passport. What a strange feeling that gave me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Beautiful Grapes (Germany #19)

BACHARACH--2,000 years ago, this walled Roman city located at the foot of steep mountain walls was a Rhine Valley stronghold. For generations, it thrived by controlling the wine trade on the river through its customs house. Grapes still grow abundantly on the adjacent dizzying slopes and are used in fine Riesling wines produced here.
Arriving at noon from Cologne, we embark on a mobile wine-tasting slash walking tour of the town, which if you ask me is by far the best way to do it.
Every house in Bacharach has a wine cellar. The one we visit is more like a dark mountain cavern; nonetheless wine is still being made there, and by the most modern of methods. Our guide, a personable young woman who is both a Bacharach native and novelist, says one family now does most of the wine-growing, with Polish workers coming for a few weeks every September and October to harvest the grapes.
 Although Bacharach (pop.  900) relies on wine and tourism for survival, the season is short. There are not enough year-round jobs for the town’s young people, who thus must look elsewhere for employment. Knowing this makes me glad I’ve come and will spend some euros; a place so historic and beautiful deserves to survive and must be preserved.
And beautiful it is. Our tour takes us along a stone-walled stream running through the town. At one point, we come to a spot known as “Painter’s Corner” featuring a wonderful view of nearly vertical hillside vineyards. The name is a tribute to J.M.W. Turner (1775 - 1851), perhaps the most famous English Romantic landscape artist, who once painted it; a copy of his work still hangs in the town.
Our walk ends with a fine spread of sausages, cheeses, breads, and wine at Weingut Karl Heidrich, the oldest wine tavern in town (established 1505). When I learn how inexpensive their excellent Rieslings are (4-6 euros a bottle!), I decide to purchase four bottles. A fellow tourist warns that shipping to the U.S. will cost 45 euros, but we can take this much home in our suitcases--and we do.
When I wonder aloud if American composer Burt Bacharach has any connection to this town, Joachim asks if he is of Jewish descent, explaining that many German Jews took on the names of their towns. Later, I learn that Bacharach, son of Irma and Bert Bacharach (a well-known syndicated newspaper columnist), is indeed of German-Jewish descent.
We depart from Bacharach by taking an hour-long boat ride down the Rhine, which cuts through this high mountain valley. Stretches of woodlands and cliffs line both sides of the river, along with picturesque towns. Impressive castles perch on high bluffs. Grapevines grow everywhere.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rome to Marx (Germany #18)

TRIER--Founded in 16 B.C., this is the oldest city in Germany--and the birthplace of Karl Marx (1818).
Trier (pop.100,000) lies on the banks of the Moselle River in a valley between low vine-covered hills of sandstone. It’s near the border with Luxembourg and within the important Mosel wine region; another charming city with impressive ruins.
After arriving in time for lunch (we never miss a meal!) we have a lecture on Trier’s Roman origins (they defeated Assyrian colonizers who’d settled here around 2000 BC). The city later became the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Belgica and Roman prefecture of Gaul. Within its walls, as many as 70,000 may have lived.
Our guide, a local teacher who has discovered numerous artifacts (especially Roman coins from the river bed), leads us on a walking tour beginning at the Porta Nigra (180 A.D.), said to be the best-preserved of all Roman city gates worldwide. This gate to the old Roman city also is the beginning of the present-day pedestrian zone. As an unpaid volunteer, our guide also helped go through the excavated earth from the major Roman site in the middle of the town square, above which an impressive glass-walled building has been erected.
The Basilika, Emperor Constantine’s throne room, is the largest surviving single-room structure from Roman times. Going to the public baths was an important part of Roman life and Trier had three large ones. It also had an amphitheatre that is still used today for occasional concerts.
Leaping forward to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, we learn thatTrier passed to the Kingdom of Prussia. As part of the Prussian Rhineland, it developed economically during the 19th century. The city rose in revolt during the revolutions of 1848 in the German states, although the rebels were forced to concede. Trier became part of the German Empire in 1871.
During WWII, over 60,000 British prisoners of war, captured at Dunkirk and Northern France, were marched to Trier, which became a staging post for British soldiers headed for German prisoner-of-war camps. Trier was heavily bombed and bombarded in 1944; 40% of the inner city was destroyed.
At dinner, our tour leader Joaichim treats us to a bottle of wine out of his own pocket at a wine bar across the street from the Karl Marx House museum, where the author of The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Capital (1867–1894), both co-written with his friend and fellow German revolutionary socialist Friedrich Engels, was born.
The house’s significance went unnoticed until 1904. After working hard to buy it, the Social Democratic Party of Germany succeeded in 1928. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the building was confiscated and turned into a printing house. In 1947 the building was opened as a museum of the life and works of Marx. About 32,000 visit every year, 1/3 of whom are tourists from China, for whom it is one of the main attractions in Germany. This is why several large Chinese restaurants are situated nearby, according to Joaichim, who says many Chinese tourists won’t eat anything but Chinese food.
Little is known about Karl Marx's childhood. Born into a wealthy middle class family of Jewish ancestry, he was privately educated until 1830, when he entered Trier High School. The school employed many liberal humanists as teachers, angering the government; police raided it in 1832.
In 1835, the seventeen year-old Marx entered the University of Bonn to study philosophy and literature. But his father insisted on law as a more practical field of study. He was able to avoid military service because of a weak chest. Young Marx was more interested in alcohol (he was co-president of the Trier Tavern Club drinking society) and socializing than studying law.
Due to his poor grades, his father forced him to transfer to the far more serious and academically oriented University of Berlin, where he became interested in the philosophical ideas of Hegel and in 1836 became engaged to Jenny von Westphalen. Marx also wrote both non-fiction and fiction for his own enjoyment. In 1837, he completed a short novel, Scorpion and Felix; a one act drama, Oulanem; and some poems; none of which were published in his lifetime.
Following the completion of his studies, Marx became a journalist in Cologne, writing for a radical newspaper. In 1843, he married Jenny and moved to Paris, writing for other radical papers. In 1845, he became a leading figure of the Communist League, moved back to Cologne, and founded his own newspaper. In 1849, he was exiled and moved to London, where he and his family lived in poverty, and Marx continued writing and formulating his theories about the nature of society.
On the way back to our hotel from dinner, Joaichim tells me that Marx had an affair with Engels’ wife, and Engels tolerated it. Talk about to each according to his needs! I wonder how different the world might be today if they had never written anything.