Saturday, October 28, 2006

River valleys, bright lights, stupidification and the end of an era

Last Sunday I set out on my most ambitious walk yet. My starting point was Monschau, the picturesque little town I mentioned earlier - which, on second viewing, gets an upgrade from "picturesque" to simply "beautiful". Stopping briefly to grab a few Brötchen for the day's lunch, I set off down the Rur valley.

The river Rur was to be my companion for the next 20 miles as I followed its development from streamlike status into a vast reservoir providing much of the water and power for the Rheinland. The first few hours were some of the most lovely of all. Dew still sat on the fallen leaves on the path underfoot, and the air still held that refreshingly sharp, prickly quality peculiar to rural mornings. Most importantly, for about 8km downriver from Monschau there is no road in the deep valley. Having grown up in the UK, where almost every valley of any size has its own metalled road and the accompanying insectlike buzz of traffic, I immediately fell in love with the place. Another Vorteil for Germany.

After meeting a road, the path crosed the river at a bridge and then rose up onto the wooded hillside on the other side, hugging the contour. At a particularly spectacular viewpoint I stopped for a Streuselbrötchen (German speciality: a shortbread-encrusted bread roll. Sounds weird but is delicious). From this point onwards villages started to emerge in the valley. A good while later, about lunchtime, I arrived above Einruhr, where the reservoir proper begins. Here, again, I got to follow a path along the edge of the lake, watching cyclists zip past me and the occasional boat chugging through the water. 5km later I was in Rurberg, where a dam separates the upper from the lower reservoir. I grabbed an ice cream and pondered my next move.

The problem was that the path along the lakeside was awfully long: 13km, to be specific. The map clearly showed a more direct route over the hills, so this was the one I took. Mistake? I suppose I'll never know. In any case, the ascent, about 500m of height in 1.5 km up the hillside, was ache-makingly persistent, and combined with the bright sunshine nearly did for me. Still, the views from the top were amazing. The Rurtalsperre reservoir is incredibly wide at its end point, and in its centre is a wooded, uninhabited island, of the sort you just want to grab a boat and row out to. I descended the hillside by way of a bendy mountain road, and after being passed by at least 50 motorcyclists I reached the Rurtalsperre dam, an incredible edifice. On one side is a beautiful view of the lake; on the other, the valley floor, a dizzying distance below, makes it clear just how deep the reservoir really is. From this point it was only a few more k to a little railway station at the end of a branch line to the middle of nowhere (Heimbach).

In other news, I'm writing this from an Internet cafe again, as my home connection is broken, a mere few weeks after being set up in the first place. The man at tech support seemed to think it was to do with the modem being switched off at the mains every night. I personally think that it's fair enough to do so, as the modem doesn't have its own on/off switch and bright lights in a room where I'm trying to sleep really annoy me. Leaving it on while not in use (as seemingly advocated by Alice tech support) is a waste of energy as well as an annoyance. This particular bugbear is one I've been fighting against for years. In my room at home I have a stereo, and an expensive one, too, with a little light that stays on even if you press its off switch. The only way to kill it entirely is to switch the thing off at the mains - which has as its side-effect the loss of all radio station settings. I had to live with it, in the end. In my opinion, though, it's just bad design to create appliances which aren't allowed to lose power. It is irritating to the consumer and a waste of energy, as I mentioned, but it also displays an incredible lack of foresight on the part of the manufacturer. In Derbyshire, at least, power cuts are far from uncommon, and nowhere is entirely safe from them. (For example, when I was in London the Haagen-Dasz cafe I visited was pretty much taken out of action by an outage in Leicester Square). Surely it can't be that hard to make appliances which need to store information actually store it, as in computers?

One rant is over; another begins. This one's about literature, or, more specifically, a tendency in literature: the tendency to present people as "simple".

I first came across this when I was working on a production of Shakers, by John Godber. I loved the play, the director, the cast, the adaptation - but there was something about the characters that bugged me. It was this: they weren't very clever. Now, don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no objection to lack of intelligence. What I objected to in this case was that entire scenes of the play seemed to be predicated on a certain "simplicity" on the part of its protagonists. Laughs were being drawn from it. Not hearty guffaws, but polite, elegant chuckles at the basic nature of these cocktail waitresses and their "amusingly" blunt or insightless statements.

This came up again when I was in Paris at the Sorbonne. We were reading a text by Maupassant about the commoners of his (rural) region going to market. The course teacher asked us if Maupassant was laughing at these "simple", "basic" people. NO! was of course the answer that was required. Maupassant has, of course, much affection for them, and is simply reporting things the way they are. But I wanted to stick my hand up and say YES! You can't write about how simple and basic these simple, basic (hereinafter referred to as SB) people are without a certain imagined superiority creeping in. Even the implication that these SB people's minds were somehow closed to "higher" things reveals this. I was only prevented from saying this by the fact that my French really wasn't good enough to discuss that kind of thing back then.

I put it out of my mind for a few years - until I read Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Now I could devote several blog posts to a full explanation of why I hated this book, but the linchpin of my many diagreements with it is the characterisation. Not a single character in the book was believable to me. The village in the book was clearly the sort of "pastoral idyll" inhabited by SB people that I can't stand reading about. You've got the SB communist, the SB royalist, the big strong SB man, the young, carefree SB man... a full cast of them. There are, of course, exceptions. The young, zealous Nazi who comes to realise that what he's doing is wrong. The bold, cheerful, dashing, stiff-upper-lip British officer whose honour proves to be the end of him. These are just clichés. Then we have the central characters, Corelli and Pelagia, each of whom would in roleplaying terms be described as a "Mary-Sue" (or, in Corelli's case, perhaps a "Gary-Stu"). They can do no wrong and are devoid of any particular failings whatsoever, save those which are excusable as fundamentally human. As protagonists they simply managed to infuriate me through their constant, tedious perfection. The nail in the coffin is Pelagia's father Iannis, a man who has travelled the world and holds a doctor's qualification yet shows no signs of any kind of irony when he advises his daughter Pelagia against moving to Italy on the basis that they can't make good meat pies like the Greek can. Hm. Seems that once SB, always SB, no matter where you go or what you learn. He was the hardest to swallow of the whole two-dimensional lot of them.

At the moment, I'm reading "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith. An enjoyable, insightful book in many respects, but even here a bit of SBness creeps in, such as when Joyce Chalfen, an Oxbridge-educated middle class woman, asks a pair of lesbians who've been brought round to visit by a friend whether they use each other's breasts as pillows.

I'd love to say that I have absolutely no idea why writers do this, but the truth of the matter is that it's all too clear. This "affectionate" presentation of SB people is there for cheap laughs. So that the university-educated reader can sit back in his armchair and internally go "Ho, ho, ho. These SB people and the things they say. I'm so glad that I am middle-class, educated, tactful and well-rounded, and all in all a level above these SBs. But I do love to read about their delightful little antics."

Rural people suffer the worst from this (which I, as someone brought up in a small village, strongly resent), but the last example shows that urban dwellers are not immune to it either. However, my experience shows there are very few communities of SB people. In fact, there are very few SB people, period. People have different priorities, different motives, of course! But the sort of shit-headed SB oblivion that "good-hearted, affectionate" literary fiction portrays is virtually non-existent. Writers: pack it in. These people are not a fair target, whether existent or not. The truth is far more complicated. People are far more complicated. And I for one would like to read about real, perceptive people, rather than being assailed with stupidification intended to elicit a few cheap laughs and a fleeting feeling of superiority.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Rum, Raisin & Nut: 8/10
I was surprised to find that I preferred this one to its non-alcoholic counterpart. The rum hits a taste register that otherwise remains unused, in effect adding another dimension to its taste. Not just crunch and squish, but crunch, squish and oooooh.

Whole Almond: 4/10
Nah. Having tried the Hazelnut varieties so recently, I found that almond is a poor substitute. It's that bit squeakier between the teeth, and its crunch is feeble compared to that of the mighty hazelnut. Not a winner.

Diet Half Dark Chocolate: 1/10
Eeeeew. Ritter, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? This is just as dry as the non-diet variant. In addition, it tastes of nothing very much, except possibly bicarbonate of soda. Ick ick ick. What a terrible way to end a great series.

End, yes. This is the end. For, ladies and gentlemen, in my two months in Germany so far I have now tried out every brand of Ritter Sport available in German supermarkets. The league table is presented below. Fear not, for I will try my damnedest to get my hands on others, because I know others exist. In Munich, for example, I remember sampling a Cognac flavour Ritter Sport, and of course the legendary Baileys flavour. Sadly my memory is not good enough to compare one I ate three years ago to one I ate today. But I will hunt them down and bring them to you, my dear adoring public!

League Table
1. Rhubarb, strawberry and yoghurt: 9/10
2. Milk Chocolate: 9/10
3. Alpine Milk Chocolate: 9/10
4. Crunchy Biscuit (Knusperkeks): 9/10
5. Nougat: 8/10
6. Cappucino: 8/10
7= Hazelnut (milk chocolate): 8/10
7= Hazelnut (dark chocolate): 8/10
9. Fine Dark Chocolate (Edel-Bitter): 8/10
10. Rum, Raisin & Nut: 8/10
11. Marzipan: 7/10
12. Blood Orange: 7/10
13. Raisin & Nut: 7/10
14. Vanilla Liqueur Truffle: 7/10
15. Knusperflakes (Crunchy Flakes): 7/10
16. Sunny Crisp (sunflower seeds): 6/10
17. Espresso Crunch: 6/10
18. Half Dark Chocolate: 6/10
19. Amaretto Truffle: 6/10
20. Hazelnut (white chocolate): 6/10
21. Dark chocolate with Creme a la chocolate mousse: 5/10
22. Jamaica Rum: 5/10
23. Kakaocreme (Cocoa cream?): 5/10
24. Peppermint: 5/10
25. Whole Almond: 4/10
26. Golden Peanut: 4/10
27. Yoghurt: 4/10
28. Lemon: 3/10
29. Coconut: 2/10
30. Diet Half Dark Chocolate: 1/10

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Winter Sets In In Aachen (2)

A short post this week, mainly because it's late and I don't have all that much to say. Dutch classes have started again, and I've been busy with that, although my Dutch is coming on a treat. Two new members of the group for the second part of the course: an old man, must be in his early sixties, and a young Italian girl who speaks no German whatsoever, which is interesting and at least makes me feel good about myself (especially as she's been living in Germany for a while now). We also all get the chance to laugh at the fact that she pronounces every word ending in a consonant with a final -e (ik-e woon-e in-e Aken-e). Yeah, it's harsh, but it's also funny and she doesn't mind ;)

Today I watched V for Vendetta on DVD. A good film, I must say, all the more surprising because me and Muso Dave had watched the trailer on the internet and agreed that it looked rather lame. I now suspect that we came to this conclusion because, like most trailers for such films, it only focused on the action scenes - which were actually quite few and far between. While the political content was nothing I hadn't seen before, really, and certainly nothing very profound (there was a surprising lack of any kind of real moral ambiguity; the bad guys were very definitely bad guys), it was still quite refreshing. Hugo Weaving does a damn good job as V despite never getting to use his face, and Natalie Portman keeps the side up despite being (I think) a bit miscast in this role. The real star is Stephen Rea, who does a lovely turn as the hard-bitten inspector who slowly comes around to the side of the terrorist he's trying to track down.

Last weekend I went on a little walk to a nice town called Kornelimünster. As well as exploring some wooded hills, a ruined Roman temple, an art exhibition in the old monastery and a disused chalk kiln, I went to the restaurant "Bahnhofsvision" in the old station house. For a train buff like me it was heaven, and the food - a Leberkäse (meat loaf) and Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) lasagne - was very rich and enormous. There was even a dialect poem in the menu, written in Öcher Platt (Aachen Low German). Here it is:

"Os Mönsterland"

Schön lit et - kot bei Oche,
freuer de au Lü - die sproche
jär do va - et wod jenant,
os Heimat - et Mönsterland.
Mönster, Brenich, dr Bäresch on Vönwäje
ös, wie jesaat - hill schön jeläge,
enge met dr angere - warr bekannt,
än os Heimat - äm Mönsterland.
Me hel zesame - me kom beijee,
dat kannt me nät angesch - dat mott esu see,
de Meiesch, de Schmäzze - se warre verwandt,
esu warret freujer - äm Mönsterland.
Sich ze besökke - dat warr e Verkiihr,
kom da noch Pastur - mein Jott, wat en Ihr,
ver Känger jeve - däm noch de Hand,
esu warr dat freujer - äm Mönsterland.
Me stäng noch frösch op - me warr net ze mö,
se hodde fast all - Schof, Mägge en Köh,
de jo Botter - die war ä Oche bekannt,
se wod jestosse - äm Mönsterland.
Ä Mönster, do wäd - de Oktav jefihrt,
op dr Luckas jehaue - dr Konälles jeihrt,
ä Brenich, do jäddet - on dat ös bekannt,
de beizde "Brettwosch" - vam Mönsterland.
Die wäd hü noch jässe - bis op de leizde Fissele,
doför nennt me os hü noch - de "Brenijer Pissele"!
Vam Knöppche nom Bäresch - do hat me nät witt,
onge äm Lauch - dr Balkan litt,
do wohnde dr Därres - mät singe Trödel,
de enzije Wetschaff - die hott dr Vödel.
Va Vönwäje - do weeß me ze berichte,
do jängener or - va Brenich bischte.
Esu ös os Heimat - de Lü send va Kär,
he sett me ooch atenz - "Läck mich de Brär",
et ös om Oche - de schönste Kant,
et jeeht nüüs övver - os Mönsterland!

Ritter Sport Ratings

Alpine Milk Chocolate: 9/10
Surprising what a difference alpine milk can make. This one is a lot thicker and stickier than the plain milk chocolate, but what the two have in common is that they are both amazing. Denser, drier and stickier, this one. I very much enjoyed sucking it rather than biting into it.

Kakaocreme (Cocoa cream?): 5/10
This one was the boring one I've been waiting for. Another one where I didn't know whether to keep it in the fridge and have the cream solidify or to put it in the cupboard and have it excessively melty. This doesn't add anything to the basic quadrant formula, just replaces some of the chocolate with a relatively bland and boring creamy stuff. Yawn.

Raisin & Nut: 7/10
A classic combo the world over, and successful here, although lacking in the novelty common (!) to most Ritter varieties. The combination of crunch, squish and mmmm is a basically admirable one. Look out for the Rum version of this one next week!

Half Dark Chocolate: 6/10
Good chocolate, but too dry. Eating it dried my mouth out completely. It still went down a treat, though - even the worst Ritter Sport, remember, is worth most of the world's other chocolate bars put together. Qualitatively, not quantatively. Well, when you quantify the quality and then add them all together quantatively, anyway. Look out for the Diet version of this one next week!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Winter Sets In In Aachen

Well, sort of. The weather seems to be maintaining a strange but pleasant ratio of darkness and rain on weekdays, sun and breezes at weekends. I can live with that.

Last weekend, for example, I went for two lovely walks, both ending up in the same place (Stolberg) but starting from two different points. The first started from my front door and went through my local nature area, the Brander Wald (Brand Wood). This nature area doubles as a military training area, which is somewhat weird, as every now and then you come across a rusty old tank. Even weirder is the fact that you're allowed to walk across it at all. In England such places are invariably fenced off and out of bounds to the general public. In Germany, however, they are available to (and freely used by) the public. The necessary health warning is provided by the signs around the perimeter that state, in more words than this: "You can use this area freely until nightfall. We accept no responsibility if you get shot."

Nice walk, though, as was the next day's walk. This one was another section of the old Vennbahn railway track to follow, and it was really peaceful and beautiful. The paths and tracks paralleling the railway were hardly thoroughfares, and followed the course of a very rural little valley. It was great fun, until the end , when I ended up in a quarry.

Quarries, whether British or continental, appear to have mastered the art of protesting rights of way. They don't actively waste any energy doing anything as silly as complaining about the age-old path running through the middle of their operation. Instead they simply make it as unpleasant as is humanly possible for anyone to use said path: mounds of black grit, rusting machinery, lorries rumbling past with wheels twice as tall as you, even (and this was an experience I had in the UK) an overhead conveyor belt crossing the path and carrying rocks which frequently fall off onto the ground below!

I made it out the other side, and arrived in Stolberg. It's another beautiful town in the German mould: deep in a valley, castle on a rise in the centre of the town, with the old town clustered around it. (I always wonder how there come to be so many cool places to put castles in Germany. It's not fair on the rest of the world that there are so many dramatic mounts overlooking dells containing an abundance of natural resources.)

There was a harvest festival going on in Stolberg, which scuppered my plans of simply going somewhere and having a quiet Apfelschorle. Instead I had to settle for a noisy Apfelschorle and a piece of Apfelkuchen, albeit in the castle courtyard, where a quaint harvest market was taking place. All sorts of local produce was on sale, from wine to apple juice to fruit and vegetables to honey to arty-crafty things. It was beautiful - and the place was so busy. This only reinforces my view that the Germans in general are far more community-minded than the British at least.

In the streets below, there were many bands playing on podiums (podia?). Not good bands, but fun bands, playing old folk songs, most of which I couldn't understand because the dialect was too strong. I strolled around admiring the place for a while before getting the train back to Aachen. Train isn't the quickest way, but I really wanted to travel on that stretch of track, as it's all that's left of the old Vennbahn I've been harping on about. There were a few very excitable children on the train, and when the driver arrived they pleaded so eloquently that he let them into the cab with him as he was driving. Again, would never happen in England. All in all, a lovely day out.

Ritter Sport Ratings: HAZELNUT SPECIAL!!!! OMG!!!!!!11111

Hazelnut (milk chocolate): 8/10
This is a pretty 1337 R1tter 5p0rt. There are so many hazelnuts... and they crunch just right. Glorious.

Hazelnut (white chocolate): 6/10
Well, I had to admit it at some point. I'm just not too big a fan of white chocolate. It's a bit sugary, and not as elegant as dark or milk. This one isn't exactly the same as the other two, though, oh no. It also contains some random crunchy things. Why? I don't know. They don't help the cause of this quadrant. It only gets 6/10 because the hazelnuts themselves are great and because chocolate (of any kind) and hazelnuts are a good combination.

Hazelnut (dark chocolate): 8/10
Again, it's kinda the 5h1tz0r. Can't decide which is better, this or the milk chocolate. No, I really can't decide. Go away.

STOP POKING ME!!!! (what do I look like, an Orc?)

Saturday, October 07, 2006


After what seemed like an insurmountable series of obstacles and an excessive amount of time, I'm finally going to get my home internet connection on Wednesday! Yaaay!

I'm overly excited about this. With it comes a phone line with which I can make free calls to any European land line, so if you want to talk to me, just ask me to ring you!

This week was Tag der Deutschen Einheit - German Unity Day. It celebrates the reunification of East and West Germany, and is a national holiday in Germany. As with most national holidays, everywhere was closed and the weather was crap. Ah well. It was nice to have a lie in and a free day.

On Sunday I walked about 23-24 km to my local picturesque town, Monschau, starting out at Raeren where I ended up last week. Theoretically I was still following the route of the old railway, but in practice I was only following it in spirit. The line does some silly things at that stage to avoid steep terrain and to serve larger settlements, so I cut quite a few corners.

Monschau really is picturesque in the best German tradition. It's situated at the confluence of two rivers, in a very deep wooded valley, and the old town quarter is incredibly well preserved. Inevitably it's a tourist honeypot, something I've learned to live with. Governing one side of the valley is a ruined tower, and on the other is an impressively intact castle. Within the castle is a youth hostel, which I think is incredibly cool. I went up to both the castle and the tower, and otherwise wandered around soaking up atmosphere and eating ice cream. (Chocolate ice cream while wearing a white sweatshirt. Error.)

For the last two days at work I've been one of only two people in the office, which has been interesting as I've had to deal with all the English queries that the more senior people usually deal with. I spent most of that time proofreading a 222-page document written in English by a Dutchman. It was not only full of the classic German/Dutch-into-English mistakes including e.g. the use of e.g. where it shouldn't be (e.g. the preceding); the subject material was also utter tripe. It contained the word "synergy", which is always a warning sign, and proceeded to talk about leadership "functions" and teamwork strategies.

It made me feel like I had to qualify what I said in an earlier post. I do love systems, but only when they're real systems, representing something that can and should be systematised. I loathe artificial systems constructed purely with words that attempt to formalise something that is for the most part self-evident. This is invariably the case with anything to do with management, marketing, and consultancy of any kind. It makes me furious that people are earning a fortune through sitting at PCs thinking up this crap, using new words to describe age-old ideas and concepts that are blindingly obvious and then selling their fabrications as new "theories" of people management.

I won't say there is no skill in this kind of formalisation. There is, but it's a pale, bloodless, pointless skill. The fact is that people do not need elaborate guidelines on how to deal with other people - or even simple theories. People need ideas, and they need practical help. And no, the sort of buzzword-ridden jargon-loaded "models" I've been discussing are not "ideas" and do not present "ideas". The seeming interchangeability of ideas and idle modellings and systematisations is a serious problem with the modern age. I suspect it is mainly down to people having easier lives. After all, it's impossible to imagine someone popping up during the time of the Black Death and saying "It's okay, people; all you need to do is follow my handy five-step avoidance model". In those days people just got on with it, because they had to.

Much as I hate to say it, it's probably a postmodern phenomenon. I hate to say it because "postmodern" is one of those words/concepts that tends to be used for all sorts of things by the sort of pretentious, parsimonious arseholes who pump out exactly the kind of crap I'm talking about. But one of its assertions, that medium equals message, highlights the problem nicely. Medium should not equal message. There are ideas, and then there are "models", and the existence of a model formalising an idea does not validate the model, just as it does not validate the idea.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Coconut: 2/10
With its incredibly thick layer of coconut, this quadrant is a must-have for any lover of the white stuff. I, however, am the opposite. I dislike coconut and only ate this one to complete the series, knowing that I'd have to do it some time and hoping that it wouldn't actually contain much coconut. Sadly I was wrong. Eew. It's mushy and crunchy and wet and dry at the same time, and it tastes like washing powder. Eew.

Yoghurt: 4/10
Given my unique relationship with yoghurt, you might have expected a higher rating for this one. The problem is that this just doesn't taste or feel like yoghurt. It tastes like some random filling that's been put into a Ritter Sport. While it may work as a background to some other flavours, on its own it is just a bit weird.

Jamaica Rum: 5/10
See last week's comments about liqueur chocolate. This one packed the most punch of the three liqueur flavours so far, and so in my view was the least enjoyable. It's still good fun and tasty, though, and feels a bit naughty to boot.

Marzipan: 7/10
I'm not a major marzipan fan, to tell the truth, but Ritter have done themselves proud with this one. The dark chocolate - an excellent choice - hugs the marzipan beautifully, supporting it and becoming one with it in your mouth. The proportions are absolutely spot on: neither the chocolate (a powerful flavour) nor the marzipan (which can be stodgy and texturally overwhelming) is allowed to dominate. The two are fightin' on yer tongue, but they're also making' love. An unexpected winner.

Tune in next week for a Hazelnut special edition of the Ritter ratings!