Traveling In Your Own Back Yard


Like many people, my family and I were shocked and saddened to learn that Mr. Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States, has cancer. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise since so many of his relatives died of cancer, but still…

The 90 year-old seems to be handling the diagnosis and first round of treatment with a good humor; he was nothing but smiles when he held the press conference to let everyone know.

Mr. Carter grew up in Plains, Georgia, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from where I grew up. We all knew that he regularly taught Sunday School lessons at his church when he was home and not away advocating for women’s rights or building homes for the impoverished all across the globe, and just generally practicing what he preaches. But, we never made the short drive to attend one of these lessons until I was 24. (I had spent that summer home from grad school, and after months of eating my mom’s and grandma’s home cooking, I could no longer button my only pair of nice pants. So, I had to go meet the former president with my pants undone, nothing but my belt holding them up. I wrote about it HERE.)

Since that first trip, I had visited again, and my family had gone a couple more times. I started reading An Hour Before Daylight, Carter’s memoirs about his childhood, a couple of months ago, and we’ve all been talking about taking another Sunday trip over to Plains.  So, we decided to go this past weekend. We normally show up at the church around 8:30 or 8:45am for Sunday School to start at 10, but we knew that we should probably get there a little extra early this time. So, we got there at 8:00, thinking that was “early.” Boy, were we wrong! People had camped out the night before, and they had to open up the Plains High School as an overflow space for the hundreds of people who couldn’t fit in the church.

That’s where we were directed. But even with this new space, we had come too late. Nearly 450 had fit into the church itself, and the high school building down the street could fit another 250.  But we were around #275 in that line, so we were unfortunately turned away…along with about 250 other people. Of course it was a little disappointing, but I really felt bad for the people who had driven so far and yet didn’t get to hear Mr. Jimmy speak.

But, I’ll say that it was simply heartwarming to see such support for the Carters. People had driven from far and wide not only to hear his spiritual lesson, but to let him and his family know that their thoughts are with them.

When the secret service agent let us know where the cut-off would be for admittance into the high school, not a single person groaned, complained or made a scene. Everyone said, “That’s okay, we understand.” I later told one of the organizers: “Of course, we were all a little disappointed, but please just let Pres. Carter know how many people showed up to support him.”

But of course, he knows. In fact, this was the first time in the three decades that he’s been teaching Sunday School that they’ve had such a crowd; no one was prepared for it. Sunday morning, when they realized that there were way, way too many people to fit in the church sanctuary, Mr. Carter said, “Okay, open up the high school, and I’ll go down there and give a second Sunday School lesson to them.” He could have said – What is this? This is not a spectacle or a campaign rally; it’s my personal worship service. But instead, he accommodated as many people as possible.

He’s said that he’ll keep teaching Sunday School as long as he’s physically and mentally able. Bless his sweet, compassionate heart.


On my way back to Atlanta, I began noticing signs for the Andersonville National Historic Site. Again, this was only about 30 minutes from my house, but I had never visited.  So I pulled in and spent about half an hour driving around the park and reading the placards about the former prisoner of war camp. They had marked out the perimeter of the prison walls, and as you stood overlooking the rolling hills below, you could really imagine how large of a prison camp it was. I couldn’t believe that none of our history teachers had brought us there on a field trip.

The National Park Service has recreated some of the pieces of the prison cap walls to give visitors an idea of what it looked like.

The National Park Service has recreated some of the pieces of the prison cap walls to give visitors an idea of what it looked like.

It’s strange how much of an effect time and maturity can have on a person. I’m a historian and I spent 15 years growing up a short drive from so many historical sites: the home place of a US President, the Andersonville site, Selma-Alabama, numerous Native American sites. The only one I remember visiting with any regularity is Westville, a living museum that recreates the daily life of those from the 1850s. But now, I realize how much of a treasure it is to have had these things so close by.



It was nice to take some of the back roads home. Instead of being inundated by the interstate billboards and strip malls, I got to roll my windows down and take in the beauty of southwest Georgia’s rural countryside. It’s scenery that I saw every single day for years…and never thought that there was anything particularly beautiful about it. But, once you’re gone and spend time surrounded by asphalt and concrete, the rolling green hills seem more liberating…not quite as confining as they seemed to a restless teenager.

Of course, this landscape only appears to be “natural.” There’s nothing natural about the tidy pecan orchards or the hundreds of acres of crops, all neatly aligned. Even the pine tree forests are arranged in perfectly straight rows. The fields that aren’t planted in cotton at the moment are tilled up or mowed nice and neat. This isn’t natural, untouched wilderness; this land has been put under the yoke of agriculture. But still, it’s pretty.

A few years of age can change your perspective. It can turn a drive down ordinary, everyday back roads into a trip, a chance to do some traveling, even if it’s in your own back yard.


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Mapping the World

Here’s a really interesting map that shows what Americans in different parts of the country call soft drinks.  I remember moving to Buffalo and laughing at how they call it “pop”… and I also remember having to TRY to explain to my students why we Southerners call every damn thing Coke.

Waitress:  “What would you like to drink?”
Me: “Coke”
Waitress: “What kind?”
Me: “I guess I’ll take a Mt. Dew.”


Me: “I’m heading to the store – I’m going to pick up some Coke – what kind do y’all want?”


X softdrinksmap


X World per America


Europe According to the United States of America


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I love to travel – the new experiences, meeting interesting people, trying good food – it’s all great.  But as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve realized that traveling is not nearly as fun when you’re by yourself.  That’s why these past four months have been bittersweet for me.  I’ve gotten to see new cities and do some extensive travelling.  But every step of the way, I found myself wanting to turn to my partner and tell him about it – only to be painfully reminded that I’d just have to take a mental note and tell him the next time we Skyped.

But, I guess that’s what makes traveling for work different than a vacation!  As much good research as I’ve been able to do for my dissertation, I’m so. very. glad. that I’ll be flying home in just eleven days!  Because, I’ll admit that I’ve got a bad case of what the Germans call Heimweh – or pain from being away from home.

Great things about these past four months: 

  • Getting to know Berlin, from its glitzy city center to its grungy neighborhoods (being able to see the Berlin Wall from my courtyard was pretty fun, too).
  • Strolling through the gorgeous Christmas markets in Cologne.
  • Enjoying a gigantic BBQ Burger from a cheesy American bar & grille in Hanover.
  • Getting to spend a week in Munich.
  • Sharing meals and wine with great people from around the world this past month.
  • Conducting interesting interviews with people who deserve their own book.
  • Making some very useful contacts for my career.
  • Visiting with some of my best friends from Marburg!
  • Getting to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Mumbai with my future in-laws!
  • Having that thrill of finding something new and exciting in the archives.


What I’m looking forward to: 

  • Snuggling with my boo!
  • My pillow
  • My bed
  • Cooking in my own kitchen!
  • Going back to all of my favorite restaurants in Boston.
  • CRAFT BEER!  I know that Germany’s supposed to be the land of beer, but they don’t have anything on America’s microbreweries and Sam Adams’ seasonal brews.
  • Being in the same time zone as my family.
  • Not having to talk to a screen when I’m talking to my family and friends.
  • Waking up, making coffee, and watching CBS Sunday Morning  until my boo wakes up, then relaxing on the couch with him for the rest of the day.


What I’ll Miss about Germany: 

  • The excellent assortment of fresh baked breads every day
  • All the delicious pastries from the bakeries (not having those is enough to make a grown man weep)
  • I guess that’s about it.

Christmas market under the Cologne cathedral



And of course, Cologne had a gay Christmas market



Bombed out church in Hanover. Left like this as a reminder of the cost of war.


The best way to do research – with strudel, coffee, and good tunes.


Henry’s American Bar & Grill offering monster burgers and chicken wings to folks in Hanover (



Hanover’s court house

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Here Comes the Bride!

My last post on my trip to Mumbai is actually about the main reason I flew to India in the first place: the wedding of my future sister in law.  I had always heard how grand and extravagant Indian weddings are, so when I found out that not only was I getting to go to India, but I was getting to go to an Indian wedding, I was just beside myself. 

I should also note that, because of the fact that, for most of its history, what we today know as “India” was actually a collection of hundreds of kingdoms, languages, and cultures, it’s a little misleading to speak of a traditionally “Indian” wedding.  If you told an Indian that you were going to see an Indian wedding, they’d probably ask, “Yeah, but what kind?” – Meaning: which of the myriad of traditions in India is the wedding going to follow?  The wedding that I went to was a Punjabi wedding, since the bride’s mother comes from the state of Punjab.  So, all of these traditions I’m going to describe below are characteristic of a Punjabi wedding.  Here are a few of the things that I enjoyed the most – or just found noteworthy:

1) It lasted FOUR days!  Now, that doesn’t mean that we were all out Bollywood dancing in the streets for 96 hours straight.  But there were big, important ceremonies for four days in a row.

Day One: That night was a religious ceremony to kick off the wedding.   Drapes were hung on the apartment courtyard walls and a shrine was set up front and center for an idol of the goddess Durga.  Catering, a band, and a priest were brought in for the evening.  Family started showing up the night before, and it was a festive occasion.

But of course, the real stars of the show were the bride-to-be and her mom.  They. Were. Decked. Out.  The sarees they wore looked like they had just stepped out of the tales of splendor from the ancient days.  There was also bling.  Lots of bling – jewelry everywhere!  On the wrists, fingers, neck, on the saree, in the hair!

So, that night, the priest led some type of worship/blessing ceremony.  I didn’t have a clue what was going on, except that this was meant to bless the coming wedding.  Beyond that, I had to only imagine – the family was too busy with the rituals to have time to translate everything – and I think that even if it was in English, I still wouldn’t really understand it.  But, there were songs, and prayers, and some chants.  And then folks danced for a while.  During a pause, folks paid their respects at the altar, and then there was a little more dancing.  And then, there was eating!  Like most of the time, I had no clue what I was putting on my plate and in my mouth.  I just took my platter and got a little of this, a little of that, and hoped for the best.  And I wasn’t disappointed.


Day Two: This was the cocktail party – this was the one night we could indulge in our vices like alcohol and chicken.  The family had rented out a dance hall, which was nice since dancing was the focus of the night.  The bride, siblings, cousins, and even the little kiddies had prepared dances to perform.  So, one-by-one or in pairs, they got up on the stage and danced their little Bollywood asses off!

I think I had inadvertently offended some people – or at least disappointed them – when I didn’t dance with them the night before.  But, I really didn’t feel like breaking it down in front of people I’d only just met…to the tune of religious chanting.  So I promised them that I would dance with them at the cocktail party, even though I wasn’t doing anything for the ‘prepared dance’ portion of the evening.

So, when the last performance was done, and they opened up the dance floor, I finished my whiskey and Coke, and headed out there (I’d like to think that my royal purple and gold kurta was billowing in an unseen, slow-motion wind while dramatic music played, like in some Bollywood movie).  As I dared to glance back at the seats, I saw a look of excited surprise on everybody’s face, and that gave me the courage enough to break it down as far as my white rhythm and moves would let me.  But, it didn’t matter if I was a good dancer or simply having epileptic seizures, they were just happy that I got up there and danced with them.  The photographers loved it, too, and lots of people took turns taking pictures with me on the dance floor.  When they finally turned the music off and we decided to raid the buffet, no one would let me fix my own food.  They just asked what I wanted and then brought it to me.  I guess that’s the closest thing to feeling like a celebrity that I’ll ever experience!

Once I danced with them that night, I was inThat sealed my fate as one of the family.

Day Three was full of more religious ceremonies that I didn’t understand.  The bride got something that looked like turmeric painted on her face – and my fiancé was inducted as a Brahmin, which means that he’s supposed to renounce all worldly pleasures and devote his life to education.  We’ll see how that goes! Later that evening, one of the aunt & uncles placed some blingy, red bangles on the bride’s wrists.  I’m still not sure what that meant exactly, but I think those bangles were blessed, too.


The bride getting her henna tattoos


Henna tattoo for one of the cousins

Day Four:  This was the day of the actual wedding ceremony.  The families had rented out a resort – there was a stage set up outside, lights, palms, fountains, and even a red carpet.  The stage was set up in front of an amphitheater – and every seat was filled.  I’d estimate that anywhere from 400 to 500 people were there that night.

The bride’s family arrived at the resort early to get dressed and make sure everything was set up.  Around 6pm, I heard a commotion in the distance – – a band, cheering, and then I saw fireworks.  “I wonder what’s going on over there,” I said to my fiancé.  He suddenly looked a little panicked, “It’s the groom’s family; they’re here…We’ve got to hurry up and get finished.”

Wait – what?  That’s the groom’s family?  I remember thinking to myself (my fiancé had already run off to let everyone else know – as if they couldn’t hear the commotion, too!)  So, yeah, the groom showed up with his own parade – marching band, performers, fireworks, and all.  And he was riding a horse.  Once they arrived at the gates, the band played another song, everyone danced, and the groom finally dismounted.  The bride’s family (all except the bride) was there to greet everyone and give them gifts.

The groom made his entrance and then went for a costume change.  Only after he came back and took his place on the stage were we allowed to go get the bride.  I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful she was.  Six of us held a cloth over her head and escorted her onto the stage where her groom and the world saw her for the first time that day.


The stage for the wedding couple

And then, for hours, everyone who was there filed onto the stage to congratulate them and get a picture with the couple.  The gigantic buffet was open during all of this, and I snuck off stage a couple of times to go graze.

Then, by 11pm or so, everyone left except family and close friends.  I was afraid I had missed the actual wedding ceremony and I wasn’t sure when they had become man and wife yet.  But that was because they hadn’t.  All of that was just the reception.  The actual ceremony wouldn’t take place until two o’clock in the morning, which was when their priests had told them was the best time for their union.

Eventually, the date changed, people came up and wished me Merry Christmas (it was the wee hours in the morning of December 25 after all!), and then the couple went to the alter and spent about an hour doing some more rituals and saying, what I guess were their vows.  Finally, everyone clapped, and they were married.  Then her brother had to escort her to her new husband’s house as a symbol of her making the transition from one family to the other.  By the time we finally got to bed that night/morning, it was 4:30am – the wedding had lasted almost 12 hours.

2) The bride and groom were kept separate until the actual wedding day. One thing that I noticed about this Indian wedding, was that it seemed like it was more about the joining of two families rather than being just about the bride and groom.  One thing that led me to that conclusion was that the bride and groom didn’t celebrate together – even spend any time together – until the wedding night.  Both families had their own four days’ worth of ceremonies.  The groom and his family did make a short appearance at day one’s religious ceremony, but apart from that, everything was separate.  The wedding night was the first time that both families mixed together in a large celebration.

3) There was enough gold to make Smaug jealous.  Seriously, I’ve never seen so much gold in one spot.  Let’s not even taken into account all of the jewelry that the bride was wearing – I’m talking about just the gold that both families gave to her on the wedding night.  But, I don’t think it’s really just about jewelry and bling.  It’s also about financial stability for the new couple.  Those gifts of gold are meant to be investments in their future.  The bride will keep those necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings – maybe even wearing them on special occasions – as her own wealth, which she can rely on to support her family if something should ever happen.

4) My god at the food! Lastly, I’ll just quickly mention the food again.  Can you imagine four days of wedding feasts?  Sometimes I still dream about those spreads of food – those platters of Indo-Chinese food, pani-puris, noodles, curries, sweets, and naans.  Since I’ve already posted about Indian food, I won’t waste any more time on it here, but I just thought I’d mention that these folks barred nothing when it came to providing excellent meals for all their wedding guests.  It was simply marvelous.

Damnit…I’ve made myself hungry.  But, now that I’m back in Germany, I guess I’ll have to settle for a bratwurst.

To see my general thoughts on my three weeks in Mumbai, see my post “Welcome to India!”  Or, to read about Mumbai traffic, see “Hey! Rickshaw!”  And if you want to drool over some descriptions of Indian food, check out “Bo-Hawt Atcha-Hey!”

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Hey! Rickshaw!

Where I’m from, drivers generally only honk their horns for two reasons: 1) to tell people (or, if you’re from the country, perhaps animals) to get out of the way; or 2) to let someone know that they’ve pissed you off.  A third reason for honking may be to say hi to someone you recognized as you drive by.

I stopped counting the number of reasons drivers in Mumbai honk – – partially because all of the honking was distracting me from my counting.  Folks in Mumbai honk to let others know they’re there, to scorn pedestrians that walked in the way, to greet a friend on the street, as a way to let others know that you’re about to pass them, or simply because there’s nothing else to do.  When we’d get in the car, the first thing the driver would do was give a few quick honks to let everyone know we were leaving.  But, there’s a practical reason for that – the driveway was only wide enough for one car at a time, and it was curved, so it was smart to signal your departure.  But, when we got to the street, he’d give another few honks to, I guess, hope the cars, bikes, and auto-rickshaws on the street would open up a small gap in the flow of traffic, just large enough for him to squeeze in.  Then he might give a honk of thanks.

The result of all this is a constant symphony of horns that goes on well into the night.  Every now and then, a train would barrel by, lending its deep air horn to the mix.  During my first few trips in the city, I could barely contain my giggles – not because it was actually funny, but I just found it so…..much.  Like I said before, Mumbai is a bombardment of the senses – and there was just so much honking that I couldn’t do anything else but laugh.  After a week though, I didn’t really notice, because the horns in Mumbai were akin to hearing birds chirping in a forest.  It was just something that belonged there. By the end, I was wondering why our driver – whoever it happened to be at the time, on the bus, the rickshaw, or in the family car – wasn’t honking even more.

The main mode of transportation in Mumbai is by auto rickshaw.  They’re little, three-wheeled carts that zoom down the streets, and you flag them down as you’d hail a cab:  “Hey!  Rickshaw!”  At least that’s how I thought it would go.  In reality though, my efforts were too much – all you had to do was barely raise your hand from your side, and you could flag one down.  They’ve got a backseat built to take, what I would have guessed to be, two adults.  But, during my three weeks there, I saw up to five folks piled in a rickshaw, with the fifth guy snuggled up close to the driver.  Rickshaws are good for just about anything – long or short distance.  While the family’s apartment was packed full of people during my future sister-in-law’s wedding, my fiancé and I stayed in a hotel down the road.  Each way, the trip between the apartment and hotel would take – depending on traffic – about 10 or 15 minutes.  And the bill for the trip?  15 rupees….about $0.25.  I couldn’t even hail a cab in Boston for a quarter!


Some rickshaws, bikes, mopeds, and a train.

But, the rickshaws are good and cheap for longer distances, too.  We went to a big party at a beach resort for New Year’s Eve, and decided to take a rickshaw home instead of making someone come pick us up. We hopped crawled and folded ourselves in, and sped off, letting the first night air of 2014 rush in our faces.  I had had a few to drink that night, so I wasn’t so worried about the red lights we ran, or the people we pushed off the sidewalk to get around traffic – no, I was just enjoying Mumbai…and having occasional flashbacks of my childhood experience on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Walt Disney World.  An hour and a half later, we paid our tab – about 250 rupees, or $4.  Boston’s T ain’t got nothin’ on Mumbai’s rickshaws – dirt cheap transportation and a good dose of exhilaration at the same time.

toads wild ride

I suppose there are traffic laws in Mumbai, but I didn’t see any enforcement – or any way to enforce them, with tens of millions of vehicles on the roads.  The one main law of the road seemed to be:  get where you want to go as quickly as possible, and forget everybody else.  On the highway, there were actually lanes indicated on the road, but they were merely a waste of paint.  While those lines suggested we had four lanes across, it was nothing to see six vehicles side-by-side as they sought to get around each other.  Granted, rickshaws are pretty small – in fact, that’s one of their greatest advantages!  They could squeeze in where cars and trucks couldn’t.


A woman with way more courage than I have – riding side-saddle on a moped, racing down a Mumbai highway

Traffic lights were mere suggestions.  Once, just after we drove on through a red light (the driver did take his foot off the gas for a moment so he could make sure the coast was clear), my fiancé told him, “You know, in America, a camera would take a picture of your license plate, and then you’d get a ticket in the mail, plus you’d get points on your license.  You have to always wear your seat belt, stay in your lane, and follow the speed limit.  And if you get enough tickets, they take your license away.”

The driver’s response:  “That sounds horrible.

But, I must admit, that what appeared at first glance to be one big clusterf*ck was actually somewhat of an organized chaos.  Not once did I see an accident, even if there were multiple times that I couldn’t even see any space between our rickshaw and the car next to us as we passed it.  Everything just always worked out; I quickly realized not to be nervous and to trust the drivers.  They really knew what they were doing (and they must have nerves of steel).  But, I think that’s because there are unwritten laws about driving in Mumbai that you have to learn through experience.  Even I could pick up on the three different sounds of the horns in all of the commotion.  Rickshaw horns are shrill and high pitched.  Cars’ horns sound like what we’re used to.  And bus horns were deep and sounded like a fog horn.  Judging by the sound of the horn coming up behind or next to you, you knew how far (if at all) you needed to get over to let them by.  The constant cacophony of horns was like an echo location system, allowing everyone to know where boundaries were. The Rickshaws gave way to cars, and everyone got over for the huge, old, flat-nose Blue Bird city busses.  It was the traffic food chain.


A truck load of sugar cane – saw this on a day trip we took outside of the city

And it always seemed to me like the people driving must have three more sets of eyes than I do.  Even without a rearview mirror, they’d know what was around them.  But then again, maybe they just didn’t care what was around them, and they just changed “lanes” whenever they wanted to, expecting everyone else to adjust.  But that’s okay – because that was normal, and everyone expected it – that was calculated into their reflexes.

One of my favorite experiences that I can remember most vividly happened on our trip home from the New Year’s Eve party.  It was two in the morning, and we got caught by a red light.  We actually stopped, because the cross traffic was thick.

But, as the seconds turned to minutes, and our lanes (as well as the oncoming traffic’s lanes) got longer and longer with stopped cars, something funny happened: the first vehicle at the light  inched forward, and the rickshaw behind him moved up to fill in the gap.  Some rickshaws (including our own), crawled up on the sidewalk to become part of the widening front line.  Everyone else followed suit.  The shifting headlights across the way told me that the oncoming traffic was doing the same.  It was as if all of the vehicles had melded into one living thing, and this thing was impatient, ready to move.  It crept forward as a mass, like a dam slowly blocking off a river, until the cross traffic (which still had the green light) had no choice but to stop.  Their turn was over, no matter what the light said.

I couldn’t help but laugh (I did a lot of laughing and giggling in Mumbai), because here was yet another example of how organized chaos works.  By our – by my – standards, this was preposterous and actions such as these (disregard for order, disobeying the rules) should lead to the eventual breakdown of organized society as we know it…or at least that’s what one might think given the West’s devotion to law and order (especially in some countries, *cough, cough * Germany!).  But, it worked in Mumbai.  Just another example of how different cultures organize the world and reality in different ways…

A quick glimpse of Mumbai street life:

Just as the streets were crowded with people and vehicles, the trains were packed full, too.  I’m sure a lot of people have seen pictures or videos of Mumbai’s infamous trains, packed to the brim with people (all you’ve got to do is Google “Mumbai trains” and you can see what I’m talking about).  People stand in the open doorways, women with their colorful sarees billowing in the wind.  Sometimes men sit on top of the train, or hang on between the cars.  I was thankful that the day we took a train to the city center (where the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel are), the train wasn’t crowded.  We went on a Sunday, so no one was rushing to get to or from work.

Before heading to India, I read Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found by Suketu Mehta, an Indian born journalist who spent his early adult life in New York City, but who moved back to Mumbai to reacquaint himself with his hometown.  The title “Maximum City” says it all.  Mumbai is a city of extremes.  Mehta devotes several pages to the trains in Mumbai, and one thing he said in particular stuck with me:

No matter how many people are packed into a train – despite the fact that the number of human bodies packed into a finite space seems to defy the laws of physics – despite the fact that it’s probably hard for those on the inside of the crowd to breathe because little fresh air reaches them – Despite all of this – if you are about to miss your train, and it’s already pulling away from the station and you start to run, you will see a sea of hands reach out to grab you, miraculously making an inch of room for you to balance on.  Because as uncomfortable as everyone onboard is, they know that if you miss that train, it could mean you arriving at work late and getting fired, and your family may have to go hungry.  So, no matter how full a train is, you’ll always find room.


For my overall impressions of my three weeks in Mumbai, see my earlier post “Welcome to India” and my post on Indian food, “Bo-hawt Atcha-hey!” Check back soon for my post on my experiences at an Indian wedding! 

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Bo-Hawt Atcha-Hey!

To say that I am a foodie is a grave understatement.  Food is one of the things that brings me the most joy in life, and trying new food is perhaps the main reason that I love to travel.  Beyond the awesomely-humbling array of tastes that exist around the globe, the preparation and sharing of a meal is a heart-fulfilling experience.  I believe that to eat with people is to get a glimpse into who they are.   Just like language, music, and dancing, meals are a manifestation of a culture’s spirit.  Because, when you take that food from your plate or palm leaf, you’re not just ingesting calories, you’re accepting the time, effort, care, and expenses that went into preparing it for you.  And you can tell a lot about people by how they eat: whether it’s loud and hectic, formal and “proper,” sitting on the floor, using forks and knives, or eating with hands, tortillas, or rotis.  People tend to let their guard down when they’re eating within the comfort of their own home.

I have tried a lot of different kinds of food during my travels, and luckily, I seem to have a stomach of steel, so I can handle most all of it.  From home-cooked Southern food to the surprisingly delicious creation known as a Kümpir (an Istanbul street food that is a baked potato packed full of cheese, corn, peas, ketchup, carrots, pickles, red cabbage, black & green olives, sausage, lintels, and yogurt sauce), I love it all.  I’d have to say that the craziest thing I’ve ever tried was either alligator tail in the backwoods swamps of south-central Florida (which was excellent, by the way), or freshly-killed and boiled capybara in the rainforests of southern Belize.  My first reaction upon seeing the hunks of capybara simmering in broth over an open fire was, Oh man. That looks weird.  I can’t eat it.  But then, I knew that I couldn’t turn down an offering made by this stranger, who had welcomed us into her home and taken us in for the day.  I knew that their family would only eat meat perhaps once a month for special occasions, and to turn down her food would be to turn down her hospitality, and in essence to turn down her.  So, I took a bowl of rice and capybara, and while I would have added some cilantro and hot sauce, it wasn’t bad.  We stayed with her and talked for hours, until the sun started going down and we had to walk back to our own village.

My love of food was one of the reasons I was so damn excited to visit India.  Sure, I was looking forward to meeting the future in-laws and seeing where my fiancé came from, but I kept thinking about the taste-adventure I was about to have.  And after spending three weeks in Mumbai, I was not disappointed!


The first thing I can say about Indians – or, I guess I can only talk about my fiancé’s family in particular – is that I’m not sure how they’re not all morbidly obese.  We ate around the clock while I was there!  We’d wake up late, have chai – maybe with some cookies or something to dunk in the tea.  Then would come breakfast, which was never anything sweet, unlike American breakfasts.  Then lunch would be a few hours later, around 1pm.  By 4, it was chai-time again, but this time with a lot of snacks served with it.  Indians love their chai, and it’s not like it’s as easy to prepare as just turning on a coffee-maker.  You’ve got to boil the tea, add the spices, boil the milk, and know just how much of everything to add.  It seemed like every time I turned around, someone was offering me chai, usually served in small glasses, just enough for a pick-me-up.  Men gathered around chai stands on the street and caught up on the day’s gossip.

By 7, you may snack again, because supper isn’t for another few hours.  Indians eat supper late. Really late, judging by my American inner-clock.  Even if you decide to go out for dinner, you may not leave the house until 9pm.  Here’s one story to make my point:

One day, my fiancé told me that we were going to go to the beach for supper.  There was this one spot that was similar to a boardwalk back home, minus the games and rides.  His family loved getting a little something from all of the different food stands, and hearing them talk about everything (through translations, of course – I can’t exactly put “Gujrati” down on my resume just yet), got my mouth watering. That evening arrived, and by 9pm, his parents heated up some left-overs, and since I had eaten some street food a little earlier, I assumed we were all fed and watered for the night. I thought the beach plans had been postponed.  At 10:30, everyone started getting dressed and putting on their shoes.  Again, thanks to the language barrier, I spent about 95% of every day in India having zero clue what was being said or going on.  I asked where we were going, and my fiancé answered, “To the beach!” and there was some serious Jeez, I’ve told you about ten times today, so what’s the confusion? in his voice.

We hopped in the car, made a quick detour to pick up the ten-year-old nephew, and then made the hour long drive to the beach.  At almost midnight, we arrived for supper.  Or second supper.  Whatever it was, I’m not complaining.  I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, with all of the food stalls, bright lights, smells, and sounds spread out before me as if they had just descended from some great heavenly kitchen.  I was almost paralyzed by indecision over what to try first.  Actually, that’s a lie – I knew what I wanted (mainly because it was one of only two things that I actually knew):  Pav Bhaji (pronounced “pow bah-jee”)

Cooking Pav Bhaji

Preparing the pav roll (Note: you can click on any picture for a larger version)

Pav Bhaji is a favorite fast-food dish for folks in Mumbai.  The ‘bhaji’ mixture is prepared slightly differently, depending on who’s making it, but it generally goes something like this:  Vegetables are cooked down on a large griddle – first come mashed potatoes, followed by tomatoes, onions, peppers, cauliflower, peas, carrots.  These are all sautéed and cooked down with generous portions of butter or oil.  You mash up the vegetables, and then cook them down further, throwing in handfuls of spices.  (In most Indian stores in America, you can find a “Pav Bhaji” spice mixture.) Then, once the bhaji vegetable mixture has reached the right consistency and taste, the cook will halve a pav (what we’d call a dinner roll) and toast it in butter on the griddle.  The pav bhaji is then served up on a plate with a lemon wedge, diced red onions, some cilantro, and yet another dollop of butter.  Then, you just use the pav to sop up the bhaji, and DAYUM it’s good!

Pav Bhaji


Pav Bhaji actually has a really interesting history (but don’t worry, I’m not about to go all official historian on y’all and whip out my footnotes or anything).  The dish originated in Mumbai (then called Bombay) in the mid-1800s.  Laborers in Bombay didn’t have a long enough lunch break to have a full Indian meal with rice, rotis (Indian version of tortillas), and curries.  Plus, such a heavy meal wouldn’t settle so nicely when you had to return to work, especially in a Mumbai summer.  So, lunch vendors replaced rice with the pav rolls, and combined the ingredients of other dishes to make the bhaji mixture.  It was quick and cheap to serve and eat.  Now, it’s caught on all over India.

After I stuffed my face with pav bhaji, we moved on to other stalls, trying all kinds of taste combinations.  Someone even had a pet monkey that walked around, snacking on food, too.  We stayed for about an hour, and when we pulled out of the parking lot around 1am, people were still showing up – and not just youngsters; I’m talking about whole families – mom, dad, the kids, and grandma showing up at one in the morning for something to eat.

Each Indian meal is an ordeal – that’s because every dish requires a dozen ingredients and a lot of time and attention to prepare.  My fiancé once told me that American meals are so primitive.  After getting my feathers a little ruffled (I would never call my Mama’s, Nanny’s, or Grandma’s cooking primitive!), I now see what he meant, even if I would have chosen some different words.  In America (and I think in “the West” in general), our meals consist of one main item (usually a piece of meat), served with a couple of vegetable sides.  (In my fiancé’s words: How hard is it to grill a piece of meat and boil some vegetables?)

In India, this “entre + sides” equation doesn’t exist outside American restaurants.  Instead, a meal consists of rotis (or another kind of bread, like naan, that’ll be used as the utensil), and at least two different curries or dry dishes (I’m using ‘curries’ as a generic term for the many, many different stew-ish dishes in Indian cooking, for which there are specific names and categories that I haven’t been begun to comprehend, yet).  Once you’ve had your fill of eating with the bread, you’re served rice to mix with the remainder of the curries.  And each of those curries or dishes are something that would be considered a main dish at a meal back home.  So, in that sense, the amount of time and ingredients that go into an Indian meal (resulting in MANY more different tastes) are more complex than in a Western meal.

Even when you go to a restaurant to eat, the manner of ordering and eating is different.  There aren’t “whole” meals on the menu (X dish served with Y and Z).  Instead, there are individual dishes, which are too large to be eaten by one person.  So, as a group, you decide what you all would like to eat, and then you order a couple of appetizers, two or three ‘curries’/dishes, and breads.  Then everyone shares everything.


I mentioned earlier that I have a stomach of steel.  I should add here that Mumbai humbled me in this regard.  Actually, it broke me down and forced me, begging for mercy, to admit that I couldn’t just run all over the globe devouring everything in my path without also experiencing some less-than-pleasant repercussions.

On my fifth day in Mumbai, which also happened to be Christmas day, I got sick.  That night, I got a fever, body aches, and by the next day, it was impossible for me to be more than 30-seconds away from a bathroom.  After a day, the aches and fever were gone, but I was still chained to the toilet (We dared to go to the movies to see The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smog, and about halfway through – just when the dwarves were about to find away into the mountain – I realized that I needed to embark on an epic journey of my own at that very moment, and not a second later).

That night, the family took me to their doctor, and after telling the doc my symptoms, he laughed and told me I had caught the Welcome to India Disease.  “But, I’ve been eating the food for five days and didn’t get sick,” I protested, not wanting to be forbidden to eat anything.  “Who knows what it was that made you sick – maybe it was one thing, or a combination of things, or maybe your body was just already weakened from dealing with the pollution and the oily, rich Indian food finally caught up with you. Just take these meds and take it easy for a couple of days.”  He gave me some medicine, some electrolyte packets to get some nutrients back in me (I felt like a shriveled up California Raisin by that point), and within a day, I was back on deck, ready for more.

After that, the family was happy for me to try new dishes, but they were definitely protective over me, scrutinizing what I ate.  They wanted me to fully enjoy the rest of my stay!

Eating supper Indian style!

Eating supper Indian style!


The food was one of the things that I enjoyed most about my three weeks in Mumbai, but it was more than just pleasure for the senses.  It was also one way I that was able to enter into the family.  One of the things that I heard most from the family and friends was that they were surprised that I ate everything that they did.  More than surprised, I think they were impressed that I could handle the spice and the flavors, and that I never turned anything down.  It was one way for them to offer comfort, joy, and fellowship, and by accepting and enjoying their meal, it was one way for me to let them know that I loved and accepted them and their culture.  Making sure my plate was never empty was a form of taking care of me – as soon as my last roti-full of daal, curry, or rice had left my plate, someone was already spooning out the next round.

Before I left America and came to Germany for research, my fiancé made 5 or 6 index cards with Hindi phrases that I could learn – How are you? I’m fine, thanks for asking – basic stuff like that.  Two of those cards had to do with food:  Bo-hawt atcha-hey = “This tastes really good!”  And Moo-jhay or-dough = I’d like some more.”  Those were the phrases I used the most, apart from Moo-jhay zyada Hindi nuhee atee (I don’t know anymore Hindi.)

Bo-hawt atcha-hey!

Bo-hawt atcha-hey!

One thing that impressed me about the food I ate in Mumbai was its freshness.  While I was there, I never ate anything out of a can, jar, or package.  Every morning, the mom would go to the farmer’s market to buy all the vegetables she’d need for the day.  Normally, the family (like most in India) is essentially vegetarian, only occasionally eating chicken, goat, or fish.  And, when she does cook meat, the mom will go to a butcher, the fish market, or even to the “chicken stall” to pick out the chicken she wants, only to come back and pick up the meat later once the butcher has prepared it just for her.  Milk is delivered to them daily, and the mom even takes her own grain to the mill across the street to be ground into flour.  So despite the amount of carbs and oil used in the Indian food, maybe this freshness – and lack of artificial preservatives – helps keep one’s weight in check.  Despite eating like a glutton for three weeks, I actually lost a few pounds over the course of my trip (but, then again, I think my case of “welcome to India disease” probably had something to do with that!)

The Market

Fresh fruits and vegetables at a market

Mountains of Cilantro

Mountains of cilantro

Fish Market

Buyers haggling at a fresh fish market

A very busy market outside one of a main train station.

A very busy market outside a main train station.

So, my food adventure in India included fiery-spice, sweets, street-food, home-cooked meals, and even Pizza Hut.  During the often-chaotic and wonderful wedding events, I learned to eat standing up, balancing the huge plate on one hand, while using my other to do everything else.  I learned how to use my thumb and forefinger to tear off the perfectly sized and shaped piece of roti to eat my curries (and felt especially proud once I even learned to use the roti to spoon up some daal [lentil stew]).  Despite my legs falling asleep, I grew to love eating on the floor with the whole family.

The final sign that told me that our families were cut from the same cloth came on the day we were getting ready to leave Mumbai – my fiancé back to the US, and me back to Germany.  His mom had been planning for days exactly what type of and how much food she was going to send back with us.  She came back from the store one day with bags full of Indian snacks, and I thought that was generous enough.  But the night before, I had eaten a homemade peanut brittle and loved it, so she decided to make an almond-pistachio-coconut brittle that was out of this world.  As if that wasn’t enough, a friend came over to help her make two different types of homemade sweets, and on the last day, she made a batch of fenugreek rotis for each of us.  And then as we started packing, shoving stuff in each centimeter of open space, she looked a little worried.

And then she asked:  “Is this going to be enough for y’all?”

Bless her big, sweet heart.

Tastes of India to take home.

Tastes of India to take home.

For my overall impressions of my three weeks in Mumbai, see my earlier post “Welcome to India.”  Check back soon for my posts on Mumbai traffic, and my experiences at an Indian wedding! 

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Welcome to India!

I woke up early on the morning of Thursday, December 19th, having been too excited to sleep much at all.  I chugged a coffee, showered, and shaved, ready for the long trip.  I heaved my bags down the four flights of stairs and then reluctantly trudged out into the cold, German drizzle and made my way to the subway station.  My bullet train left Cologne Central Station at 5:55 that morning, and within fifty minutes, we covered the 120 miles to Frankfurt International Airport’s train terminal.  Naturally, my hand baggage weighed too much (I had been offered some free books from the Cologne archive, and there was no way I could turn them down!), so I was forced to check it, and carry on the bag I had planned to check in.  It wasn’t until the security checkpoint that I realized that, in all of the rush, I had forgotten to swap out all of my liquids, and I ended up having to throw away a lot – including my bottle of Slap Ya Mama Hot Sauce that had travelled with me for the past month and a half. 

Boarding was actually a smooth process, and luckily the seat next to me was left empty, so I had plenty of room to spread out on my 7 hour flight to Dubai.  By a quarter to ten, we were wheels up, on our way to the Middle East.  Emirates was by far the nicest airlines I’ve ever flown with.  The hours went by quickly, and before I knew it, we were landing in Dubai.  The tales of riches, splendor and excess that I had heard from people who have travelled to the United Arab Emirates were true – as I stepped off the plane and into the airport, I felt as if I had stepped into a palace.  Everything was newly renovated, immaculate, and on the verge of gaudy.  There was a three story waterfall, a full shopping mall, and even a small rainforest with walking paths and gently flowing streams.  And that was all in Terminal Three.  Instead of spending my 17 hour layover on a bench, I spent the night in a hotel in the city, and while I didn’t have any time to explore, I was able to lay eyes on Dubai’s impressive skyline.

The next morning, I was afraid I’d miss my flight.  My driver showed up 30 minutes late, there was horrible traffic, and the line for security in the airport was un-godly.  But, though the Dubai airport is huge and incredibly busy, I have to give it to them: they know what they’re doing.  Everything ran like a well-oiled machine.  Within 20 minutes, I was through passport control and security.  I met my partner fiancé (still not used to saying that – holla!) at the gate, and we hopped on the plane together.  I couldn’t stop smiling; we had talked about that moment for so long – we were finally on a plane together, heading to his home in Mumbai.


The first thing that struck me about Mumbai is that it’s a sensory overload.  After leaving cold, overcast Germany, it was a shock to step into the bright sunlight and warm “winter” of Mumbai.  The city’s smell was the first thing that I noticed.  I quickly learned that you never smell nothing – there’s always something in the air that piques your nose’s interest.  It may be the smoky scent of a fire burning, the pungent odor of the nearest open-air fish market, or perhaps the temptation of a home-cooked meal being prepared nearby…something that’s so good you wish it’d just lift you off the ground Yogi Bear style and pull you in through the window for dinner.  But if your nose isn’t busy sifting through any of those smells, you’ll notice some of the less-pleasant odors of the city.  Some of the rivers had that distinct rotten/stagnant water and mud smell, and every now and then a foul odor would rise up from an open manhole in the street.  Then, of course, there’s the ever-present smog.  The exhaust from the millions of cars and 3-wheeled auto rickshaws hangs in the air.  The city is in a constant haze due to the smog.  Even after three weeks in Mumbai, I never got completely used to the smell – it wasn’t that the smell was necessarily bad, but it was just that there was a smell all of the time (and most of the time, a mixture of smells).


a Mumbai fish market

Mumbai is also a noisy city.  Very, very noisy.  The sound of horns honking is incessant.  My fiancé’s family’s apartment was near the train tracks, so every couple of minutes we were treated with an air horn and the rumbling clickty-clack of the train barreling down the tracks, overflowing with people. When you walked down the streets, shop vendors called you to try their goods.  People yelled at each other across the street – sometimes to say hey, and other times ‘cause they were angry.  When folks had conversations with each other, it was loud and animated.  I always kidded my fiancé about yelling at his family when they Skyped with each other, telling him, “You know, even though they’re on the other side of the planet, y’all don’t have to yell to hear each other!”  But, now I’ve learned that it’s just a part of Indian culture.  On the night that I left Mumbai, my fiancé’s 10-year-old nephew told me:  “You know, all of the family likes you – they think you’re very kind. I heard them talking; they were saying “He’s so calm – he never even yells!”” But, it’s not just the volume; it’s the animation, too.  I’m convinced that if you tied an Indian’s hands behind his back, he wouldn’t be able to speak.  By the end of my trip, I found myself doing the Indian head-wobble when I spoke, and showing my palms as a way of saying no.


auto-rickshaws, bikes and trains

Beyond the assault on the senses of sound and smell, Indian food is always an explosion of taste.  But, I’ll dedicate a whole post to my love-affair with Indian cuisine, so I won’t spend any more words on it now.

I had always heard that India was a colorful place; when you see pictures in travel magazines, they’re always full of vibrant colors.  I personally found this notion to be a half-truth.  Nearly all of the buildings of Mumbai are the same brown or beige color.  Dust of the same color blankets the streets and everything on ground level.  But, the people!  THAT is where the color is!  The women wear saris and dresses of lime green, bright pink, fire-engine red, gold, royal blue, purple – every color of the rainbow and then some.  Even the men wear colorful outfits when they dress up for an occasion.  The family bought me two Indian outfits for my future sister-in-law’s wedding events.  The outfits consist of soft pants, which I just called pajama bottoms, and a long, solid-piece top.  The outfit I wore for the main religious ceremony was a pure white (with a bedazzled collar for some flair), while the one I wore for the cocktail party was a magnificent purple with golden pants.  I was lookin’ pretty fly for a white guy.


Indian men’s outfits are called Kurtas (photos courtesy of

But Mumbai can also be an overload for your heart, too.  Billboards of luxury goods and consumption stand above areas of abject poverty.  Slums cover the least-desirable real estate throughout the city to accommodate the gargantuan number of people living there. Even for someone like me who has done a good bit of travelling, and even to several poorer countries, the amount of poverty I saw in Mumbai surprised me.  I just hadn’t prepared myself for it.  I once saw a group of men sleeping in the gutter in front of a Catholic church and I became enraged, wondering why the doors of the church weren’t opened to these people.  What else was a church good for?  We saw people begging for food as we traveled downtown to see some sights…including the Taj Hotel, which can cost up to $1,000 per night.  A division of wealth exists in the USA, too, but it’s just more extreme in Mumbai.

One of the first impressions that I got after arriving in the city was that it seemed that everyone was working hard all of the time.  There was someone selling anything you could imagine – whether it was a service or goods.  While there are large shopping malls in Mumbai (many of them, actually), I was impressed by how specialized everything was – there were shops for pipe fittings, while the shop next door sold only pipes.  One store sold cloth, another only drinks.  Hardware stores stood next to kitchen good stores, and they might be next to a cobbler, selling his homemade shoes.  People would come to your home, pick up your (clean) laundry, iron them for you, and deliver it the next day.  Most households paid someone to come in and help out with the housework.  Chai-tea stands were on every corner, and vendors selling all sorts of snacks weren’t far away.  Women would sell you flowers and crafts, and you could get a shave right there on the street.  It just seemed that everyone was busy and that’s what made the city feel so alive.  But then again, I guess everyone has to work and be so busy – because unlike in America, India has no welfare system to fall back on.  If you don’t work, you don’t earn money and you don’t eat.  It’s as simple as that.  And that’s why I think it’s really pretty cool that it’s the norm to pay several people to do a job that one person could easily do, even if they each receive less money.  People may have to work a couple of smaller jobs to make ends meet, but at least there is something for them to do.  At first I was shocked by the number of employees that would be working in any given shop, but I later came to appreciate it as a way of helping out as many people as possible.

My pampered, “first world” eyes were also not used to seeing the trash and pollution.  There was no discernible trash collection service that I could see, so every open space in the city (save the touristy section) had the potential to become a trash dump.  In fact, trash and litter were as much a part of the city-scape as the people, buildings, the laughing children, and the stray dogs.


BUT, what I can say with absolute certainty, is that Indians (or at least Mumbains) are the friendliest, warmest, and open-hearted people that I’ve ever come across.  The immediate and extended family were all around for the wedding, and though I came as a “guest” and friend, I was immediately treated like I was simply a part of the family.  They included me in their [very loud and animated] conversations, even if I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. The cousins and uncles who spoke good English stuck by me and helped me talk to everyone.  They all asked about my life, and enjoyed sharing theirs.  They loved it that I not only tried, but whole-heartedly enjoyed their food.  They seemed almost blown away that an American would eat on the floor with them, eat with his hands, and try whatever was cooked that day…and ask for more!  One of the things I loved the most was playing with all of the kids.  My fiancé’s niece and nephew were around all the time, but 4 or 5 other cousins ten-years-old or younger lived not too far away, and they were my best-buds (not least because they could speak the best English!) They’d climb all over me, quiz me on the list of random Hindi words they’d taught me, teach me some games, and occasionally touch my skin and say, “You’re so white!” Their parents would yell at them to leave me alone, and it’d work for a few minutes.  But, then I’d call them back over and we’d pick up where we left off.

For me, coming from a small town of about 3,000 people, the sheer number of people living in Mumbai was, at first, overwhelming for me.  According to Wikipedia, the city of Mumbai has just over 20 million inhabitants.  Just for comparison, New York City “only” has 8.5 million.  Mumbai is also the most densely populated city on the planet, with 59,400 people per square mile!  (22,937 km2).  The result was that the city itself seemed to be alive and moving, constantly shifting.  My friends and family know that I’m not exactly a people person, and while I love individuals, I hate crowds.  So, there were a couple of times that I thought I was going to have a panic attack and die in that distant land.    But, naturally, I didn’t die, and I got over it…partially because, while there are kajillions of Indians crowded in the city, they’re all tiny.  I was, on average, at least a head taller than 9 out of 10 people I saw.  At 6’, I towered over them, and I used that to my advantage – to get “fresh” air when there was a crowd, and to give the family great bear hugs, even though hugging is not so big in India.

So many people at the vegetable market!

The culture is, of course, strikingly different.  Coming from the West, with our infatuation with individuality, one of the biggest culture shocks for me was the lack of personal boundaries.  There, it’s all about the family.  Your whole family knows all your business – they tell you you’ve gained weight, ask when you’re going to get married, how much money you earn – all while sitting in front of 15 family members.  When you want to make a phone call, or write an email, someone may just listen in or look over your shoulder as you write.  If you get ready to leave, someone will certainly ask where you’re going, why you’re going, when you’ll return – and then they’re likely to get up and go with you – whether you asked them or not.  After I used the bathroom for the first time (#2), I thought it was strange that my fiancé asked me how it went, but I was struck dumb when he turned around and explained in Gujrati to his family how it went! 

There was a real sense of community there.  Everyone’s doors in the apartment building were always open, and people stopped by all the time to chat.  Random kids would come running in to play.  This actually made me think of a porch back home, where people stopped by to catch up on each other’s lives.

Hanging out in the courtyard downstairs

But, this tight-knit focus on the family is ultimately a good thing, I think, and it’s not too terribly different from my big, loud, Southern family. And, despite all of the yelling at each other that the family did (always knowing everybody’s business doesn’t always lead to harmony!), they are each other’s fiercest defendersThe capacity of their hearts was simply humbling, and knowing his family made me love my fiancé even more.  Now I know his roots and his family isn’t just a picture in a frame anymore.  I’m glad that they’ll be my family, too, one day soon.

Stay tuned for my posts on Indian food, Mumbai traffic, and my experience at an Indian wedding! 

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Street Cred

There are a few things that I have to get used to all over again whenever I come back to Germany.  One is differentiating between the proper/formal way of saying “you” (Sie) and the informal way (du).  Other things are more exciting, though, even life threatening.  Take the following example, for instance:

Bike Paths

What are these dangerous zones, you might be asking yourself.  The former “no man’s land” between east and west Berlin?  Nah – something much more dangerous.  They’re bike paths.

Oh yeah, that’s right – instead of having bike lanes on the side of the streets, part of German sidewalks are reserved for folks on bikes, which is like every fifth person.  All of these death machines are equipped with a sweet little bell on it to let innocent pedestrians know that they’re about to have tread marks up their back.   I remember the first time that I ever went to Germany, I had no idea why part of the sidewalk was marked off.  Later, I learned to fear that bell, that passive aggressive dinging.  Because bikers don’t slow down or even slightly veer out of the way.  Hell, no!  You’re in their lane. Once, while I was still in the fog of my first case of jet-lag, the incessant dinging didn’t register quickly enough, and some Deutschbag’s handlebars clipped my elbow.  I don’t know how it didn’t jerk his handlebars to the side, sending him sprawling onto the pavement.  Obviously, that wasn’t his first rodeo.

Even when I got here a month ago, I had to retrain myself to stay away from the bike lanes.  On my second or third day, I found myself walking along a sidewalk without paying 100% attention (heaven forbid!) when a bike nearly plowed into me.  I escaped without physical harm, but I did get a quick Verpiss dich! (piss off!) from the friendly biker as she peddled on.  But don’t worry about me – I’ve learned my lesson again.  Now I don’t even have to think about it when I hear a bell ringing even a quarter-mile away.  My legs just atomically jump out of the way, leading me to safety.  It’s like a nightmarish version of Pavlov’s experiments.

But don’t you worry – the bike lanes aren’t the only comment-worthy aspect of German street life.  What can be so exciting about German streets that I’d blog about them?  Street-crossing signs.   In America, we have a white outline of a man and a big, orange hand that flashes to tell us when we can and can’t cross the street.  Hell, sometimes, it’s even more straight forward and it’s just spelled out for us:  “WALK” and “DON’T WALK.”  In Germany, there’s a little green and a little red man.  In Berlin, the situation’s a little unique though – because the former West and East sectors of the cities had different Ampelmännchen, little street lamp men.

In the West, they were pretty straight forward and nondescript.  In the East, however, both Red and Green sported a fancy hat.  While the wall has since come down, the different Ampelmännchen still patrol the streets.  Or, maybe “rule over” is a better phrase for what they do, because in Germany, these red and green men are like gods.  They dictate when you cross the street, and they are not to be disobeyed.

Seriously.  It’s almost funny how Germans will not cross the street unless there’s a green man telling them it’s okay.  Forget that you have eyes and a brain and can deduce on your own that, if there’s not a car in sight, it’s okay if you cross the road.  NEIN!  Red man says NEIN!  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen crowds of Germans waiting at an empty intersection, glaring at the red man for not letting them cross.  I guess no one wants to be “that guy” and take the first step across the street and out of line.

I once crossed a street on red, and I heard a mother telling her young daughter, “See that’s what you’re NOT supposed to do, okay, sweetie?”  That’s no joke.  I would like to see these folks in Boston, where even my little heathen self cringes at the sight of pedestrians and automobiles playing a game of chicken at every intersection.

East Ampelmann

Meet the East Berlin Red and Green Men

West Ampelmann

And here you have the West Berlin Red & Green Men

And to end my post on peculiar aspects of German streets, I leave you with this picture.  Don’t worry, you’re just as dumbfounded as I was, and still am.  It’s on the side of a building in Berlin, near Checkpoint Charlie.  I think it’s meant to be art.


The man’s….ummm….extremity goes on for another two stories.

When I stopped to take a picture of this masterpiece, a few other passers-by also took notice.  My favorite moment – maybe from my whole stay in Berlin – was when a probably 85 year old woman giggled and told her best friend, “Oh my goodness!  Talk about an elephant trunk!”  

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Strolling Around

I’ve been in Berlin for almost a month now, and this is my last week.  Time really has raced by, and I haven’t gotten everything that I need out of this archive yet.  But, that’s why I’ve decided that I’ll be coming back in February to finish up.  Knowing that I’m coming back has kept me from getting upset that I’m leaving on Saturday, because I have come to love Berlin.  In fact, I can easily say that it’s my favorite German city, which is ironic being that – in so many ways – it’s not very German at all (I have to be careful when granting the “favorite city” award, because Marburg, a city with ancient charm – holds a special place in my heart ever since it was my home for a year just over five trips around the sun ago).

I’ve been impressed while walking around Berlin’s city center, with its sprawling government structures, monuments and war memorials.  I’ve taken a couple of strolls down the perpetually-under-construction Unter den Linden, and down Friedrichstrasse, Berlin’s swanky shopping district.  The cheesy Christmas Market (complete with mobile log cabins and fake snow in the shadow of Berlin’s modern, glass, Deutsche Bahn tower) was a weird, yet fun, place to have a Bratwurst and Glühwein.  And I’ve spent nearly $15 to go see a movie (Catching Fire, which was awesome!) in the futuristic Sony Center at Postdamer Platz.

Those places are cool and all, but I really love Berlin for the places like Kreuzberg and Neuekölln.  My bus to the archive goes straight through Kreuzberg, another multicultural, young district of Berlin.  When I leave the archive at 6, and my stomach starts growling, I have to drive through streets lined with temptation:  sushi joints, Italian pizzerias, Indian restaurants, Malaysian street food, kebab stands, schnitzel shops, Chinese takeout…you name it – if you spin a globe and stop it with your finger, chances are there is a restaurant in Kreuzberg that’ll serve food from there.  So, needless to say, on more than one occasion, I haven’t made it home for supper – after my mouth waters for several stations, I can’t take it anymore, and I push the stop button on the bus, hop out, and take my choice.  One night, the pun of the burger joint called “Kreuzburger” tempted me, but I decided to go with Mexican instead.  I’m not sure why I thought German Mexican food would be a good idea since I’m a Mexican food snob, but hey, it was happy hour, so that made up for it.

In fact, since I’ve been here, I’ve only had “typical” German food once – sausage, potatoes (with a bit of salad thrown in for good measure) and beer – doesn’t get much more German than that.


Guten Appetit!

I’ve already written about my neighborhood, Neuekölln, so I won’t take up more space on it here.  I’m going to miss it, but what I could tell from the 24 hours that I’ve spent in Köln (Cologne, which is where I’m heading on Saturday), it’s pretty diverse as well.  So, maybe not all is lost.

Here are a few more shots of my neighborhood, Neuekölln:


Heading to the archives. Despite spending 80 Euros on a month pass, I have yet to have a single person check for my ticket.


An Indian restaurant 25 steps away from my house. I’ve gotten spoiled on good, homemade Indian food, too, so – like Mexican food – I always find myself judging on whether it’s “real” or not. (Yeah, I know: snobfest.) I guess German tolerance for spice is even less than American, so the food lacked the typical Indian kick, BUT the Gulab-Jamun (think, balls of fried dough soaked in syrup!) made up for it!


The soul cat bar didn’t have any soul on Sundays, though.


Second hand vinyl shop, with a touch of German graffiti and a dash of the typical half-shredded posters


Sometimes the graffiti can be pretty good, though.


I love this: The Rosa Parks Elementary School


Rosa Parks Elementary School: Play together, Learn together, Live together. A pretty fitting motto in such a diverse neighborhood


And then right next to the Rosa Parks Elementary School, we have the Tempest Anarchist Library.


Neuekölln recycling


One block over, there’s a “free time colony” where people garden and grow things in the middle of the city. But, from the looks of it, they’re pretty selective about who gets in and who gets out.

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Grad Life: A Story Etched in Stone

During my research year in Germany, I came across a number of epic statues around the city, and they spoke to me.  Below is the story of graduate school as depicted by the sculptors of old Europe.

In the Beginning


This depicts your undergraduate advisor, guiding the young, naive, and still idealistic version of yourself to the hallowed grad school applications.

The First Semester


You enter the arena that first, exciting fall semester, and are armed with the basic history-grad student essentials: historiography, the latest edition of the Chicago/Turabian manual, cheap alcohol, and a diminishing sense of self-worth.  If you’re lucky, a more advanced warrior (otherwise known as “ABD student”) will take you under his or her wing and help shield you from some of the pressure of the academic battlefield: conference deadlines, seminar presentations, nagging undergrad students, and absentee advisors. 

In the Valley


Woe unto you: You enter your readings/qualifying exams year with determination, only to emerge as a shell of your former self 9-12 months later, barely clinging to an ABD status and letting all other accomplishments and pride fall to the ground.  Exhausted and with your soul crushed, you begin to wonder why flipping burgers or sleeping under a bridge is such a bad thing. Luckily, the angel known as Jack Daniels is there to lift your spirits and give you the motivation (delusion?) to carry on.



Supported by research grants, significant others, friends, family, and more whiskey, and armed with the spear of bitter determination, you finally slay the dissertation beast that has ruled every waking moment of your life for the past decade.  Having been safely sheltered inside the confines of the Ivory Tower during the entire duration of your epic quest, your doctoral committee signs off on your dissertation and you pass your defense.  At long last, you receive validation of your life’s purpose! 




You can finally sheathe your sword, for you are done.  Now that you are [far too] old and wise – symbolized by an awesome, manly beard – Academia places the honor of three little letters behind your name. (The actual ceremony involving hoods, cloaks and funny hats sounds just as fantastical as this statue is epic).  Now you are free to face the world as a revered Doctor of Philosophy, free to lead some other innocent soul to grad school applications. 

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