I Am A Donut

Now that I have been back in the U.S. for several weeks, after a month of travel in Europe, particular experiences stand out. For example, as we cruised the River Elbe from Prague to Berlin, our riverboat guide, Stephanie — a tall, young, red-headed Germanic woman – got a good laugh when she informed us that President Kennedy, in his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, had actually declared himself to be a donut. She explained that a Berliner is a popular German pastry, essentially a jelly donut, thus when Kennedy proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner”, he was actually saying “I am a jelly donut.”

I Am A Jelly Donut

And since we are currently absorbed in remembering JFK as we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination, this matter of the jelly donut is timely and thought-provoking.

Anyway, Snopes.com, which is a useful touchstone for fact-checking stuff that floats through the internet (much of which turns out to be drek), lightens the stigma of Kennedy’s potentially silly and embarrassing words. Yes, “Ich bin ein Berliner” could be taken to mean “I am a jelly donut” – it would be a correct literal meaning – but it would be like hearing someone say “I am a New Yorker” and taking this to mean they are a glossy magazine of the same name. We could focus on the magazine interpretation if we were being silly, or perhaps stupid. But we would more likely understand that the person meant they were from New York.

Contemporary language studies inevitably lead back to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and we can find comfort here in Meister Ludwig’s definition of meaning, i.e. “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” So we should be able to tell from the context what JFK meant.

Irony and humor often depend on twisting words into misrepresentation or confusion of meaning — “Haha did he really say he was a jelly donut…?” One of my favorite twisters is “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” Or, if you are old enough to know who Groucho Marx was (hint: he did not write Das Kapital), you might remember him saying “While in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pajamas — how an elephant got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

[BTW, the historic origins of Stephanie’s red-headed gene pool might make a good future blog topic. Stay tuned.]

Trabi Safari in Berlin

So I’m walking down the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, on my way from a visit to the cutting-edge Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, toward the Brandenburg Gate, when I see all these weird little cars in a parking lot behind bars, some painted strange colors and patterns, like zebra stripes, and all with the words “Trabi Safari” on the side. WTF?

Trabi Behind Bars -- Click To Enlarge

So I walk on and do my tourist thing — the Gate, the Reichstag, the Museum Island — until I’m sitting weary at sidewalk café table, and what comes around the corner but the Trabi Safari!

And after much Googling, I learn that the Trabi (nickname for “Trabant”) is a crappy little car that was produced in East Germany under the Commie regime. It took years to get one, and then its weenie two-stroke engine smoked and stank, one of the worst cars ever produced. East German joke: “What’s the best feature of a Trabant? There’s a heater at the back to keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it.”

But now it’s kinda cute, a piece of pre-reunification nostalgia. And you can see Berlin while driving your own Trabi, if you just sign up for the Trabi Safari!

Trabi Safari -- Click To Enlarge

Myron In Prague — Kafkaesque?

Kafka Memorial -- Click To EnlargeFranz Kafka is perhaps Prague’s best known author. He died of tuberculosis in 1924, but his three sisters lived long enough to perish in the Holocaust. Here is a photo of the bronze monument dedicated to him, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, as enigmatic as Kafka himself.
In one of his novels, a man awakens in the morning to find he has been transformed into a giant cockroach; in another, Josef K. is accused of, and punished for, a crime which is never revealed, neither to the reader nor to Josef, even though he resolutely flails his way through a maze of incomprehensible court proceedings; and in yet another novel, the narrator, K., arrives in a village governed by a mysterious bureaucracy operating from a nearby castle, the purpose of which is never explained nor understood.
The Dancing House -- Click To Enlarge

And so Prague today is a city of resplendent architecture, block after block of Baroque, Art Deco, Cubist, Modern and Post-Modern buildings — like “The Dancing House”, shown here — full of color and decoration above, but tainted at street level by massive graffiti as well as the scourge of contemporary signage and commerce.

For example, the Charles Bridge and its approaches, historical gems, are polluted with trinket shops, pizza parlors, “museums” of medieval torture, street buskers, panhandlers, pickpockets, caricature artists and a never-ending flood of tourists. Kafkaesque? Yes. But like plucky Josef K., we must keep moving forward to focus on the beauty above and not be baffled by the Byzantine hub-bub around us.

Shouldna Parked There -- Click To Enlarge

Oh, by the way, don’t even think about parking illegally — you won’t just get a ticket, but a lift truck will arrive with lights flashing and in a few moments your car will be plucked out of the street, placed on the back of the truck and whisked away, no doubt disappearing into some bureaucratic hellhole of which Franz Kafka himself might have conceived.

Myron In Paris

The transatlantic flight arrives at Charles de Gaulle airport at 8:30 a.m. Groggy and jet-lagged, I wait interminably for my suitcase at one of the most inefficient luggage carousels known to Man, vision obscured by the many other passengers crowding and craning in their attempt to see past each other and glimpse their valued belongings. Finally, my bag comes, blissfully intact.

Next, there is the shuttle to the train which will take me into Paris, but the shuttle is a mistake, wandering for half an hour into and through distant corners of the airport property, until I arrive at the station and realize that an easy five minute walk would have brought me to the same place.

The attempt to buy train tickets at the automatic kiosk which will not accept my credit card fails and is followed by a long wait in line to purchase the necessary billet from an attendant who gives directions to the proper train in rapid, incomprehensible French, so I end up on the local, rather than the express, and bump from one filthy station to the next through the post-apocalyptic neighborhoods which rim the northern approach to central Paris, among rag-tag local passengers whose hands, touching the same bars, poles and handles which I must grasp, have been God-knows-where…
Myron In Paris -- Click To Enlarge
Need anything be said about the search for the taxi queue at the Gare du Nord, and the long, anxiety-filled wait? When my taxi comes, will it be the sleek new Mercedes, or the dirty and disreputable aged Peugot?

But ultimately there is arrival at the hotel, check-in, deposit of luggage, escape into the freedom of the streets and… Voila! It is, after all, Paris! Ca va bien — all goes well. How can it be any better than this?