’50s Euro Bottles

Out in our garage, there’s an accumulation of bottles. Collection’s too dignified a word. Some of them have already been photographed for posting, generally for the oddity of their labels.

My parents brought home some bottles from their time in Europe in the mid-1950s. Some time ago, I decided to take pictures of them at my mother’s house.

A Chianti. I assume Rigatti is the brand. For a Chianti to be a Chianti, it must be produced in the Chianti region and be made from at least 80% Sangiovese grapes, Vinepair says. Also: “Almost none of the Chianti sold today comes in the classic straw basket.”

Clearly not true 60-odd years ago.A grappa. The brand label is partly missing, looks like. According to Rome File, the main ingredient of grappa is pomace, which consists of the grape skins, seeds and stalks that are left over from winemaking.

And something German.

I didn’t know this until I looked it upSteinhäger is a type of German gin, flavored with juniper berries. It’s local to Steinhagen, North Rhine-Westphalia.

It makes me glad to think that my parents, or at least my father, sought out a few local liquors while in Europe. Not only that, they kept these aesthetic bottles as no-extra-charge souvenirs.

Casablanca at 75

Yesterday we all went to see Casablanca on the big screen. It was in a few theaters nationwide on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of its late 1942 release.

At $4.50 a pop, how could I pass that up? I checked, and the other movies showing at the same multiplex are Thor: Ragnarok, Daddy’s Home 2, Murder on the Orient Express (starring Kenneth Branagh’s facial hair, I’ve read), A Bad Mom’s Christmas, Jigsaw, Boo! A Madea Halloween, Happy Death Day, Geostorm, It, My Little Pony: The Movie, Seven Sundays, and, interestingly, two Bollywood features: C/o Surya and PSV Garuda Vega.

I’ll never live long enough to confirm this, but I suspect that not a single one of those other titles will be revived for a 75th anniversary showing, or for any other year.

Ann had never seen Casablanca before. I didn’t expect her to know, for instance, much about the geopolitical background of the movie, such as why “Vichy” might be important, so I spent a few minutes beforehand explaining a few things to her. I went as far as whistling a few bars of “La Marseillaise.”

She said that sounded familiar — of course it does, it’s an aural shorthand for “France” in English-speaking media — but she didn’t know what it was. I said it was the national anthem of France, and that the movie puts good use of it.

Rick Blaine has been characterized as a stand-in for the United States and its isolationist ways before Pearl Harbor, and I suppose there’s something to that. After all, Victor says to Rick (and I think it’s too-good-by-half Victor Laszlo’s best line): “Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know our side will win.” An optimistic line, that. It’s sobering to think that the movie was not only set when the fate of mankind was in the balance, it was made then.

I’ve seen Casablanca a number of times (not sure how many) since the first time in film class in 1983, so I could focus on details, such as the evocative sets, especially Rick’s. Carl Jules Weyl, who did the splendid sets on The Adventures of Robin Hood not long before and on The Big Sleep a few years later, was the art director.

It also occurred to me how well Victor and Ilsa were dressed. Awfully stylish for a couple barely staying ahead of Nazis pursuing them across the Mediterranean and then North Africa. We never see the luggage that Rick sends Victor off to deal with at the airport, so he can have a moment to tell Ilsa what’s what, but it must have been a steamer trunk or two.

But that’s overthinking the matter. This is the Golden Age of Hollywood. Of course the luminous Ingrid Bergman is going to be dressed to the nines, even in a war-torn world.

Something else I noticed this time was a line with distinct foreshadowing, spoken by Major Strasser to Ilsa: “My dear, perhaps you have already observed that in Casablanca human life is cheap.” Indeed. As it turns out, cheap for Major Strasser, the only major character who dies on screen. And I never get tired of hearing Capt. Renault say, “Round up the usual suspects.” When my film class heard that, we cheered.

Ann wasn’t entirely sure what nationality Renault was supposed to be, so she asked me after the movie. I suppose that’s a function of not watching enough old movies with French policemen or soldiers in them. The kepi is all earlier generations needed to spot a Frenchman, but that must not be so any more.

I also suggested to Ann that she pay attention to the supporting and minor characters, who are widely regarded as one of the chief delights of the movie. Especially these two.

I’m glad to report that Ann liked the movie. It’s entirely possible that she’ll see it again when she’s older, and get more out of it, as one does with good movies re-watched or books re-read. Maybe she will see it around the 100th anniversary. I’m sure Casablanca will still be watched then.

Bremen, West Germany, 1983

Around this time of the year 34 years ago, I spent a couple of days in the north German city of Bremen. City-state, actually: Freie Hansestadt Bremen, the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen. Once a state in the German Confederation, then a component state of the German Empire, it was merely a city according to the Nazis. Since 1947, it’s been a state again, the smallest in area of the Federal Republic.

Odd, Bremen and Hamburg got to be states again, but not poor old Lübeck. Such are the vagaries of history.

I had a fine time. How could I not? I was a young man with exactly nothing else to do at that moment but see a new city in an interesting old country. I was a free man in Bremen/I felt unfettered and alive… Well, that lyric wouldn’t have quite the same vibe, but that’s not too far off. Anyway, my tourist impulse was in full flower.

This is David and me. He was the brother of a New Yorker friend of mine in Germany, Debbie. Mostly I was by myself in Bremen, but I met up with them toward the end of my visit. The background is the Schnoor, more about which later.
BremenJuly2.83The following is an edited version of what I wrote at the time.

“Rode a morning train from Lüneburg to Hamburg-Harburg. Some punkish fellows sat across from me: colorful pants & leather jackets with steel studs & short, almost crewcut hair with a mandatory earring each. One wore a digital watch.

“At Hamburg-Harburg, I had 40 minutes to wait. I met a fellow, more conventionally dressed and only a little older than I am, who spoke British English so well I wasn’t sure whether he was British or German for a few minutes. Turned out he was from near Lübeck. His book for the ride was an English-language edition of The Lord of the Rings. The German translation, he told me, ‘is rubbish.’ We talked about a number of other things as well. He told me he didn’t like the prospect of Pershing IIs stationed in West Germany, but he thought they were necessary.

“At Bremen I exited the station, got a map, and experienced the first-time rush of a new place. You aren’t tired, you feel open to the world, you want to look at everything you pass by. I crossed downtown Bremen’s large fussgangerplatz, walked by shops and goods and people, and enjoyed the sights and sounds. That kind of rush doesn’t last long, but it’s great while it does.

“I found the Jugendherberge, an ugly squarish building between downtown and the industrial Weser riverside. Check-in wasn’t until 1:30, so I sat under a bridge near St. Stephen’s and ate the bread and wurst I brought. The brot was a little dry and the wurst something like raw hamburger, but I needed the sustenance.

“Then I checked in and began wandering. I found the Rathaus first, then the famous 1404 statue of Roland. I spent a good while in Bremen Cathedral (St. Petri Dom zu Bremen), marveling at its intricate, aesthetic wonders, such as the painted pillars and the statues illustrating the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Went to the crypt, thought to be the oldest room in Bremen, dedicated in 1066.

“Sometimes I mulled a bit gloomily that time will sooner or later reduce the cathedral to dust — via nuclear attack in August or 10,000 years of erosion or something. But it’s here, now, and so am I. Before I left, I bought a little book about the cathedral.
Bremen Cathedral“Not long after I left, I spotted a series of white dots painted on the sidewalk, with the words Zum Schnoor –> every 30 or 40 feet to go with them. I followed them to the Schnoor. I’d heard that the Schnoor was the oldest surviving section of the city, and so it seems. The Schnoor is focused on a narrow street of that name, lined with aged shops and other buildings. Some of the side streets are even narrower, barely wide enough for two people to pass.

“En route to a church I never got into because it was always locked, I came across Böttcherstraße. Every ten feet or so is another work by one Bernhard Hoetger, some interesting stuff dating from pre-you-know-who Weimar years. Apparently the Nazis didn’t much like the works, but they survived them and the war. [Brick Expressionism, I’ve read, is the term, at least for some of the buildings.] There was also a small cinema tucked away in the area. Showing that evening: Death in Venice. An Italian movie with German subtitles, probably, or dubbed in German. I decided not to go.

“I walked further afield, near some small city lakes, and then to the Übersee Museum Bremen, near the main train station. It’s an ethnographic museum, complete with huts from New Guinea, a Japanese shrine with a manicured garden and a pond with goldfish, and a elegant Burmese temple. All of the labels were in German, but that didn’t matter much [I experienced something similar some years later at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka.]

“There was a special exhibit of schoolchildren’s paintings: ‘Japanese kids see us and German kids see Japan.’ A funny mix of cultural and political images, mostly, tending toward the stereotypical. My favorite was a Japanese drawing of a German with a grinning Volkswagen for a head, eating sausage and drinking beer. Hitler’s face and swastikas were common, as was Beethoven’s face, and some drawings showed Germany torn between the Stars & Stripes and the Hammer & Sickle.

“After the museum I had dinner at the Restaurant Belgrade. For DM 16, I had an excellent Hungarian goulash, potatoes, salad, bread and beer. Returned to the hostel at about 10, very tired, and went to sleep almost at once.

“At breakfast at the hostel I talked with a Japanese girl who’d been to the Bremen Geothe Institut and who was about to go home. She was pleasant, and showed me postcards of Japan. After checking out, I wandered the streets on the other side of the Weser a while, then at 10 took a harbor cruise.

“It was a busy place, with ships from all over, and vast industrial areas along the banks, including a huge drydock belonging to Krupp, and a Kellogg’s factory with enormous murals of Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle & Pop on its side. I couldn’t catch a lot of the narration, but it seemed mostly about ship sizes and carrying capacities, so I didn’t mind.

“Back on land, I visited the church opposite the Dom, Unser Lieben Frauen Kirche, the second-oldest church in the city, and not as ornate as the cathedral. I took a tour of the Rathaus, and as Steve promised, the place has remarkable woodwork. For example, the puti-like faces on some of the chairs managed to have lustful and leering expressions. The Rathaus also has a fine collection of model ships, mostly the 17th-century Bremen fleet, and an assortment of portraits of Holy Roman Emperors.

“As if that wasn’t enough, I then went to the Ludwig Roselius Museum, which houses paintings & furniture & gold & maps from the 17th and 18th centuries. Saw the original black painting of Martin Luther that I’ve seen reproduced a number of other places [Lucas Cranach].

“My energy was low by this time, but I walked some more, returning to the Böttcherstraße at 3 and hearing the chimes of the Glockenspiel House and seeing the rotating woodcarvings of explorers and airmen. Met Debbie and David soon after, and we repaired to a nearby cafe for beer. They’d been there the day. Returned to Lüneburg soon after on a faster direct train, and had dinner together at another Yugoslav restaurant. For DM 14, got Serbian combo of meat, rice and beans, along with beer.”

One more thing. In Bremen, near the Schnoor, I found a memorial I didn’t expect. I made notes about it in my Bremen Cathedral book, which is what I had at hand.
Bremen CathedralUnsere Jüdischen mitbürger

Martha Goldberg
Dr. Adolf Goldberg
Heinrich Rosenblum
Leopold Sinasohn
Selma Swinitzki

Wurden in dieser Stadt in der Nacht vom 9. zum 10.11.1938 ermordet.

Murdered during Kristallnacht, in other words. This is what the plaque looks like. Remarkably, Adolf Goldberg has a Wiki page, which also tells me that the memorial was erected in 1982, only a short time before I saw it.

Old Town Ramble

Been going to the city more than usual lately. One destination for a recent walkabout was Old Town, a near North Side Chicago neighborhood that I’ve passed by at the edges countless times. Walked through it, not so much. On a warm day this month, when I did finally take a walk in the neighborhood along such streets as Cleveland, Hudson, Sedgwick, Orleans, and Menomenee, all north of North Ave., I had the strange feeling that I wasn’t quite in Chicago any more.

“There is a scale to Old Town, a closeness of building to street and street to cross street and curb to curb that you simply don’t find anywhere else in the city,” one Vince Michael wrote in the limited but informative blog Renown Old Town.

“It is not so much about the rope mouldings above the windows or the paired brackets and dentils at the eave or even those Furnessian ornaments on Adler & Sullivan’s Halstead Houses. It is about a premodern relationship of buildings and streets and narrow alleyways – something not unusual in Rome or the old part of Edinburgh but exceedingly rare in Chicago.”

I didn’t think of Rome during my Old Town walk, and I’ve never wandered Edinburgh, but even so something about the alignment of the neighborhood is atypical for Chicago. It doesn’t really come through in pictures, though you can get a sense of some of the area’s handsome buildings that way.

Old Town, Chicago

Old Town, ChicagoOld Town, ChicagoOld Town, ChicagoEvery interesting neighborhood worthy of that adjective has its spots of whimsy. So too with Old Town.

Old Town, ChicagoOld Town, ChicagoThen there was this charming building, Schmidt Metzgerei. Butcher’s shop, though the it looks like Mitzgerei, except there’s no dot over the first i. (Vince Michael posits that Mitzgerei is an older variant spelling; I couldn’t say).
Schmidt Mitzgerei, Old Town, ChicagoIt stands out now, but probably didn’t when it was new, as a butcher’s shop with dwelling space on the second floor for the butcher and his family. “The mitzgerei, built in the classic German fachwerk style, utilizing heavy timber framing, was established in 1903,” writes Vince Michael. “Today it is the home of the Sullivan Law firm. It is a fine example of the early German immigrant construction that at one time was quite common throughout the Old Town Neighborhood.”

There’s a broader context, of course. The AIA Guide to Chicago tells us that Old Town “was settled by German produce farmers, who were numerous enough to establish St. Michael’s parish in 1852. After the devastation of the Fire of 1871, wooden cottages sprang up to house the homeless. Most of the ‘relief shanties’ are long gone… The area remained heavily German throughout the following decades, and by 1900, North Ave. as far west as Halstead St. was known as German Broadway.”

Afternoon Music Selections

Ann and I were in the living room yesterday, and I called up YouTube on the TV. It’s one of the things you can do with a modern TV and wifi. She wasn’t really paying attention, since she had her smaller electronic gizmo handy, so I decided to play “Telstar.” The video shows mostly unrelated space images, but never mind. I thought it might get her attention.

I was right. “What is that?” she asked. Or maybe it was, “What is that?” But I don’t think she really wanted an answer.

After it was over, naturally I had to play the Tornados’ “Robot,” whose Scopitone doesn’t look very good on a bigger screen. But the YouTube poster’s (in 2006!) description is apt: “Tornados rock the twang in a back-woods sci-fi robotic dance party! And then kiss girls!”

She wasn’t impressed by that, either.

If it had occurred to me, I would have dialed up “Trans-Europe Express” (English or German). It’s been 40 years this month since the album of that name was released. Of course I didn’t hear about it at the time, but in the early ’80s, and even then I had no idea that it had been received so well by critics, for what that’s worth. All I know is I’ve always liked it.

When I looked it up recently, I was surprised to learn that the Trans-Europe Express, as in the train system TEE, doesn’t exist any more. Probably because I confused it with the TGV, which is very much still around.

Or maybe I could have played Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France,” another fun tune from some other zone, or “Beatbox” by Art of Noise. If your children don’t think you’re just a little strange, you aren’t trying very hard.

End of the Week Debris

Rain, I don’t mind. Miserable cold at the end of April, that doesn’t seem right. That’s what we have, with the promise of slightly less miserable cold during the early days of May.

Here’s a picture of my nephew Dees, taken (probably) by one of his bandmates while they were in Atlanta. I doubt that they’d mind me posting it.DeesAJA fellow I don’t know, who seems to be an Englishman — or at least an English-speaker — living in Germany, left me a message at BTST, asking whether I knew the exact location of the Goethe Institut in Lüneburg. He’d attended classes there the same summer I did in 1983, though in August, and if you Google “Goethe Institut, Lüneburg,” I’m the first hit. He must have found me that way. Guess not many other people have posted about their fond memories of the place.

He had the chance to visit Lüneburg again and wanted to see the school. Sadly, I had to tell him I didn’t know the address after all this time. It isn’t on Google Maps, so my suspicion is that it’s long closed. I vaguely remember hearing about plans to close it, even when I was there, but wouldn’t swear to anything.

Apparently he made it to Lüneburg in late April and didn’t see the school. He did find that it was snowing.

If I remember correctly, that’s the handsome Lüneburg Rathaus. But I never saw it during a light snow.

Thursday Tidbits

Cool air to begin October. Fitting.

I saw part of The Iron Giant on TV a few years after its 1999 release, coming away with the impression that I ought to see all of it someday. That day was Saturday: Yuriko, Ann and I watched it on DVD. Upon its theatrical release, apparently the studio dropped the ball in marketing it, so the movie didn’t do well, but it caught the attention of critics. I can see why. Not flawless, but high-quality animation and a fun story.

Occasionally we still discover another food that the dog will eat. This week it was refried beans. She was pretty enthusiastic about them, in fact.

NASA has just published remarkable images of Charon, moon of Pluto. Or are they considered twins these days? I haven’t kept up with those definitions. Anyway, how often do we see something that’s absolutely, for sure never been seen by humans before? Not often.

Around 30 years ago, when I bought my first car, I remember pricing some Volkswagens. As usual for a young man, I was looking for an inexpensive car. Volkswagens of the time weren’t as inexpensive as I thought they would be.

A decade earlier, when you wanted an inexpensive car, they would have been the thing. They were People’s Cars, after all. But somehow the brand had strayed away from the entry level by the early 1980s, and before long I owned an entry-level Toyota, a company that remembered to make models at a variety of price points. I’ve bought a number of other Toyotas since then, too, above entry level.

Now that Volkswagen’s been caught committing mass fraud, I imagine the talk a few years ago between two upper-level company managers (in cartoon German accents). After all, imagined conspiracy scenes can be fun.

Hans: Can we really get away with this?

Fritz: Ja, the Americans are too stupid to catch on.

Obviously they learned nothing from the history of the 20th century.

Thursday Scraps

Last year my part of the suburbs was lousy with skunks. For whatever ecological reasons, the population was up — so much so that both Lilly and I saw them prowling the streets at night.

This year, not so much. This year, it’s rabbits. Yesterday I looked out my office window, which faces my front yard, and saw two, each helping to trim the lawn. I’ve seen single rabbits frequently in both yards, and in parks, but never two at the same time.

rabbits June 2015The dog would have had a barking fit if she’d seen them. But she didn’t.

Not long ago I woke up thinking, why are sidekicks just for superheroes and singing cowboys? Why not for other, less fictional occupations? Some examples:

Ben Smith, CPA, and his sidekick Tuck.
Deepak Patal, Ph.D., and his sidekick Hadji
President Clinton and her sidekick Slick (still hypothetical)

Earlier this month I was driving west on North Ave. in Glendale Heights, Ill., which is a western suburb, and decided I needed to go east, so I turned north on Glen Ellyn Rd. to find a convenient place to turn around. And then I discovered Easy Street. So I drove down Easy Street, just to get a look at the houses of the people who Live on Easy Street. More carports than usual in the Chicago suburbs, but other than that it looked fairly ordinary.

Occasionally, as in once every few years, the urge to listen to early ’80s German-language rock ‘n’ roll is just too strong to resist. We all feel that way. No? Well, I feel that way now and then, and the Spider Murphy Gang is just the thing for it. There’s always “Schickeria.” or “Skandal im Sperrbezirk.”

Time for A Time for Gifts

Bitter cold today, and it’s only going to get bitterer. Maybe minus 15 F. by Wednesday, after another round of snow. At times like that, icy little puffs push through the cracks in your house to remind you that the chilly world is indifferent to your fate, you who came from subtropical climes but were headstrong about migrating toward the pole.

My reading material at the turn of the year is A Time for Gifts (1977), in which Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 at 96, recounts part of his walk as a very young man from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the winter of 1933-34. A remarkable story, well told, and reminds just about everyone else (such as me) that their travels are pallid indeed compared with his.

It features a lot of interesting detail: “I pestered Fritz Spengel, the son of my hosts, with questions about student life: songs, drinking ritual, and above all, duelling, which wasn’t duelling at all of course, but ritual scarification. Those dashing scars were school ties that could never be taken off, the emblem and seal of a ten-years’ cult of the humanities. With a sabre from the wall, Fritz demonstrated the stance and the grip and described how the participants were gauntleted, gorgeted and goggled until every exposed vein and artery, and every inch of irreplaceable tissue, were upholstered from harm… and the blades clashed by numbers until the razor-sharp tips sliced gashes deep enough, tended with rubbed-in salt, to last a lifetime.”

And musings: “The Thirty Years War, the worst of them all, was becoming an obsession with me: a lurid, ruinous, doomed conflict of briefs and dynasties, helpless and hopeless, with principals shifting the whole time, and a constant shuffle and re-deal of the main actors. For, apart from the events – the defenestrations and pitched battles and historic sieges, the slaughter and famine and plague – astrological portents and the rumour of cannibalism and witchcraft flitted about in the shadows. The polyglot captains of the ruffian multi-lingual hosts hold our gaze willy-nilly with their grave eyes and their Velasquez moustaches and populate half the picture galleries in Europe…”