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Thistle or artichoke?

17 Sep Schloss Oranienburg - photo by Freddie

During Freddie’s recent visit to Berlin, we spent a night at my friend Margareth’s garden house to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The small house is on a plot of land in a kleingarten community in Oranienburg, a town on the outskirts of Berlin accessible by a short train ride. Walking from the train station, we passed the Schloss Oranienburg, the oldest example of a Baroque palace in the district of Brandenburg, according to my hasty spoken translation of the sign for Freddie’s benefit.

Schloss Oranienburg - photo by Freddie Chillin' out back - photo by Freddie

It was built in the Dutch style by Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, from 1650-52 as a gift to his wife, Countess Louise Henrietta of Orange-Nassau (or Oranien-Nassau in German), who apparently loved the region. I suppose the utter flatness of the landscape reminded her of her Dutch homeland. Having grown up in Denver, Colorado, forever watched over by the mountains to the west, I can’t get next to that, but different strokes. Freddie (the Elector of Brandenburg, not my girlfriend) named the castle Oranienburg, something like Orange Castle, in the Countess’ honor, and changed the name of the town too not long after.

It was lovely, the garden home. We cooked some food, went for a walk or three, read books, tried to get the television to work to watch some presumably bad German TV. Mostly we relaxed. Life is slower out there, in the garden.

photo by Freddie photo by Freddie

Sometimes we wandered through the extensive garden itself, pointing out this or that plant. “What is this plant, Ian?” “It’s a, um, I’ve heard the German word before, but I can’t think of it right now. Hagebutte maybe? I don’t even know if there is an English word.” “Isn’t it rose hips?” “Oh, right.”

I pointed out what I thought was a thistle, which Freddie identified as an artichoke plant. “Really? I had no idea artichokes grow like that.” Turns out we were both right! Wikipedia says that “[t]he globe artichoke … is a variety of a species of thistle cultivated as a food.” I won’t link to the article because it could change at any moment.

by me

Thistle or artichoke? This file photo shows neither.

Thinking of thistles got me thinking of history, and the connection between history and the present. In a couple weeks, I thought at the time, Scotland, a nation which has long used the thistle as a symbol, will vote on whether it would like independence from England. The roots of the two countries’ entanglement go back centuries, with decades of relative peace broken by many episodes of anger, unrest, war, changes in the balance of power.

Around the time Freddie (the Elector) was having the Oranienburg castle built, he and the Countess Louise got a new nephew, born in her hometown, the Hague. Almost 40 years later this nephew, William of Orange, assumed the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In what some people called the Bloodless Revolution (many Scots would disagree), the English Parliament invited Billy to invade their country because they didn’t like the king, a Scot named James (II or VII, depending on who you asked) of the house of Stuart. It was essentially a religious disagreement, as most political conflicts are. James was Catholic with French ties, Parliament and England were largely Anglican, which was essentially the same thing so who gives a fuck? A lot of people. Both sides said the other was intolerant, everyone tried to stir up public support by appealing to their own side, and James did not manage to play this game so well.

James escaped to France where he raised a couple generations of entitled royals sans land or people. Bored with court life, they longed for their rightful place on the throne of Scotland, welcomed by all Scots as the true Stuart king. Meanwhile Billy, or William III as he was more properly known, got to work trying to rule England. There were all sorts of dealings with Parliament, acts of official religious tolerance and of exclusion, and a lot more stuff that’s complicated and I don’t really understand. It was tough dealing with a large legislative body in a largely foreign country with many conflicting interests. Perhaps, as Mark E. Smith said, “[he] used to think [he] could do what [he] wanted to,” but was instead in the “wrong place, right time.”

“Can’t dance can’t sing / Cursed forever is William of Oranj”

A couple monarchical reigns later, Great Britain was ruled by a series of Georges of Hanover. A lot of Scots were still not happy with this foreign rule and were suffering under perceived hardships — taxation and lack of access to food, according to songs written by the still extant followers of James, known as Jacobites. In “Welcome Royal Cherlie,” we hear:

We daurnae brew a peck o’ maut

Or German Geordie finds a faut

And for our kail we’ve scarce got saut

I’m no expert on the Scots dialect, but I think it means something like, “We dare not brew even a small amount of malt, or German George will find a fault with us. And we hardly have any salt for our kale.” This song was written on the occasion of the second (or third, or fourth, depending on how you count it) Jacobite rebellion since James II/VII was forced out some 50 years before, leaving “a dighty German” to “rule us all.” In 1745 his grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie, affectionately known to followers as Cherlie, left his comfortable digs in France to attempt a takeover of the British crown.

Support of the Jacobite cause was not so monolithic as the songs make it out to be. Quite a few Highland clans were with Cherlie and he had early successes in battle, but as he marched south towards lower Scotland and England it became harder to muster troops and supplies. It probably didn’t help that he was essentially holding cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow against the will of much of the population, demanding food and provisions under threat of force. My own ancestors, the lowland Clan Douglas, who some 400 years earlier gained massive pro-Scotland cred by fighting against the English alongside King Robert the Bruce and then carrying his heart to the Holy Land, by this time had risen a bit in the British aristocratic ranks and were quite comfortable, thank you very much. Cherlie’s troops burned Castle Douglas on their way somewhere.

Long story short, the bonnie prince didn’t make it. Not enough local support, allies in France and England didn’t make good on promises for more troops, and Cherlie had to sneak away dressed as a maiden, as immortalized in the “Skye Boat Song,” written over 100 years later. That was that! Who knows what kind of king the man would have been, anyway. He had no more connection to the land than the German-born ruler he sought to depose, and no experience with running a country.

But the songs from the Jacobite uprisings are great. The lyrics are nasty and specific in their anti-Englishness, proud in their proclamation of Scottish self-rule. “Johnnie Cope” tells of the cowardice of the titular English commander, who apparently, when confronted by the “din” of the highland bagpipes, would run away.

I wondered who was writing these songs. Most are called “traditional,” so it’s hard to say. Did they issue from the pens of proletariat rabble-rousers? From former aristocrats left without land and title for supporting the wrong side in a previous debacle, vying now for popular support for relatively selfish reasons? Anyway, there were more plants to look at in the garden, including several varieties of mint and lots of chard.


He’s still hungry

21 Apr

Here at superkuhlwunderblog we like to mark the changing of the seasons. As spring blossoms into summer, signaling a return from the moribund depths of winter and a renewed itching of the eyes, so too shall we spring back into action.

Our last blog post found your intrepid Berliner Ian starring in a YouTube film where he struggled to make instant ramen in a doomed attempt to fend off the twin forces of malnutrition and poor kitchen skills.

Thanks to the miracles of technology, YouTube has produced an automated transcription of the spoken text. As a part-time transcription professional I can say with some authority that it’s surprisingly accurate. For those of you who don’t have time to watch me fumble with noodles for 5 minutes, now you can read it at your own pace. Maybe run it through that new speed reading app, Spritz, so it demands even less of your time and attention.


the tears the firmware you’re going

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Azam coming year Berlin

headquarters those cool blog is

who wronged was feeling really low

miss hired I’m guy

now problem Trish bomb

use so in stock ROM


because your trash instant noodle she


kardasian up as a typical

his here I am so dollar

supplies you make from

if you will first visit the boils

water something to turn on the live show

preview in water


who is another there also

there greater so got my water

certain boy over here star

try the now

leaders said four hundred milliliters

water and it is by the book is so

best hi this

two hundred milliliters

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tried also for Trisha

land-use dread there

we have little

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pack or as Syria

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there’s a some you heard

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bombers sure miss the

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him hi

He’s Hungry

5 Dec

We made it through Ramendan, but just barely. This video is two days late and a few dollars short of a happy meal, but it will have to do.


Meta-Review: “Ramendan” (2013) — Duration as Subject

10 Nov

Film Review: Ramendan

directed by Jason Fox

starring: Steven Lee Lawson

rating: **(*)

With an ASL (average shot length) of 4 minutes, extensive use of improvisation from his actors, and implementation of once-cutting edge editing techniques (sped-up film, intrusive overlaid text), the short film “Ramendan” shows director Jason Fox’s indebtedness to the obscure nouvelle vague auteur Jacques Rivette‘s working methods.

The film opens with a breathtakingly virtuosic 7 minute take wherein Steven Lee Lawson, a clearly non-professional actor, struggles to concoct an edible dish out of several unlikely ingredients provided for him by the director. Many filmmakers in the fledgling genre often called “YouTube video” would edit down or script such a performance for the sake of coherence, but Fox is unafraid to alienate the viewer in his search for a kind of verity and intimacy rarely seen outside of such contemporary masterpieces as “Bowl of Gravy” (2012).

As in Rivette’s 13 hour masterwork “Out 1” (1971), the long take here allows the viewer to grow bored with the actors, to become annoyed by them. Working with this kind of length, the actors can really put across their neuroses. Even with Lawson’s break of character late in the film, Fox mercilessly keeps the camera rolling and allows the viewer to share the awkwardness so common in daily life.

still from “Ramendan” (2013)

The director’s own innovation is his direct intervention in the film in an “intermission” 10 minutes in, and again with a kind of postscript. Introducing himself by name, Fox speaks directly to the camera in a kind of mimicry of an infomercial for an unspecified product in the form of the titular concocted fasting holiday.

Questions remain. Who is the third character, referred to variously as Jesus or Koshan? What does he mean by such remarks as, “this is what you guys do on weekends?”? What is the relationship between commerce and the preparation of unpalatable foodstuffs? Fox keeps these questions open, preferring to give the viewer something to chew on for a long time and then spit out.

Ramendan 2013: Day One

3 Nov

Behold, the new display at my local supermarket:


It promises the ever-eager German consumer “delicious treats from the land of boundless possibilities.” That’s right, dear reader, I now have easy access to all my favorite much-missed almost-food items. Swiss Miss hot chocolate, just in time for winter. Microwave popcorn that I will keep in my canvas bag at the ready in case I ever meet someone in Berlin with a microwave. Yellow mustard, because the mustard here isn’t yellow enough. Any kind of Jim Beam brand barbecue sauce I could possibly want (Spoiler alert (do people still say that?): I don’t want any kind). Campbell’s tomato soup, because the shitty canned tomato soup here isn’t shitty enough. Betty Crocker baked goods mixes, several varieties of “American peanut butter” all made in Great Britain, cheez whiz, Newman’s own salad dressing, and arguably my favorite — off-brand macaroni & cheese for €2.49 per box. That’s only three American dollars!

But none of that will do me any good for the next 31 days as I navigate the waning daylight hours with only one possible foodstuff in mind — ramen. Yes, it’s the start of Ramendan here ate Superkuhlwunderblog, and that other stolidly American nutrition source is conspicuously absent from these supermarket shelves. Ramendan, of course, is that anticipated and slightly dreaded time where Jason and I can only eat ramen products from sunrise to sundown, so it’s discomfiting that I can’t find any on the American treats endcap. How will I stay sated all day? Perhaps I will manage to cope by sleeping until the sun goes down, which becomes an easier task as the month goes on, but Jason over there in Denver, Colorado, does not live so far north as me. Fortunately he is a creative, experimental chef and has spent the last weeks brainstorming all manner of recipes to keep ramen fresh, which he plans to share with you via a series of entertaining video blogs.

Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, yeah, but why can they only eat ramen during the daylight hours from November 3rd to December 3rd? Well, it comes out of the mists of time and uh… well, Jason told me “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which seems like a foolproof policy.

The Roadless Traveled

26 Sep

The crazy lady who lives below us has taken to greeting me with non sequiturs — “schönes wochenende” on a weekday, or “guten morgen” when I’m coming back from the späti with a midnight beer. The former statement I had to think about for a bit; the latter was pretty obviously wrong even to me. Is she as oblivious to the days of the week as I am? Is she testing my grasp of the German language?

Anyway, I’m usually rushing back up the stairs to escape the rain that starts every time I go outside, and only have time for a mumbled reply. Yes, autumn is here, and this year it’s really just a pre-winter. It feels so good, dear reader, to discuss such mundane topics on the wunderblog, like a homecoming of sorts. My last post here was… I’m too lazy to look, so we’ll just say a long time ago. I’m in Berlin, still, as usual, and Jason is not, as usual. Where is he? you ask. That’s the same question I’m always trying to answer as I run up the stairs, flinging off my raincoat, rapidly unwrapping my soaked scarf, pointing my internet browser to:

The Bikely Grind

wherein Jason chronicles his bicycle journey from some town in the middle of nowhere called Denver to San Francisco. He says he’s in Austin, Nevada now. I think he accidentally went southeast, found himself in the capital of Texas, and is telling a poorly thought-out lie to save face. Can’t fool me, buddy.

And hey, if you decide to open (another) bike-themed coffee shop in Denver, you’ve already got the name chosen.

On Eliane Radigue’s PSI 847

30 Mar

I was at a bookstore today flipping through Leaving the Atocha Station, a new book by Ben Lerner that I’d heard from the internet was supposed to be good. As the novel begins, the narrator/protagonist, a young American poet living in Spain on an academic fellowship, describes his routine on a typical day, which involves imbibing a hippie speedball and going to the Prado to spend some time sitting in front of a particular painting by van der Weyden or some other Flemish master. One day, he arrives to find another man sitting in his usual seat. The man begins crying. The narrator is surprised — did the man bring these intense feelings in with him, or was he having a profoundly emotional response to the painting? This leads to a self-examination of his responses to art over time. I myself, he tells the reader, do not have such strong reactions, in fact I distrust people who say that this or that song or book “changed my life” — I knew them before and after the supposed life-changing experience and they don’t seem to have changed.

I know where the narrator is coming from. Sometimes I look at (listen to/read/whatever) a work of art and feel like i’m having an authentic aesthetic experience. Other times I view the same work and, while I still recognize that I like it, don’t feel that… feeling from before. What has changed? Was my deep experience false? Has my relationship to the work shifted? Was it mostly my state of mind that caused the deep feelings, and the work merely a lens or mirror or inkblot?

But anyway, so what? To feel that my life has changed, it doesn’t have to appear different from the outside. This isn’t a movie. My life, my attitude towards it and myself in it and the world around me and the people I know, is constantly changing. A week ago I went with some friends to hear Eliane Radigue’s PSI 847 in concert. The piece is an 80-some minute electronic work created on an ARP synthesizer and played back from tapes that were recorded in the early 1970s. Like most of her music, it develops slowly over time. Because things happen so slowly, the listener is free to hear and explore different aspects of the sounds. The level of detail at any one time is astonishing. Within what sometimes, on the surface, resembles the sounds of idling household machinery, can be heard a world of elements working in subtly but constantly changing relationships. Perhaps halfway through the piece, something resembling a very slow melody appears, and you just don’t know what to do with it. But these are all cliches of writing about Radigue’s music, and the actual content and experience exists in that place that writers are afraid to deal with, a place outside of words.

After the concert I felt very strange. The consensus among my friends was that we felt high, but as with one’s first time being high on something (marijuana, alcohol, coffee, love), we couldn’t place these strong feelings. On a somewhat regular basis I come away from a concert feeling ecstatic, excited. This was different. I was turned inward. I thought about things about myself. I couldn’t put words to these thoughts, except to say that the music had deeply moved me. A quote from C.S. Lewis that I read in a Zizek book seems apposite: “Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me.”

If you look at an object from two different angles, it’s still the same object. Maybe the different vantage point strongly changes your opinions on the object because you see some aspect that you couldn’t see from the first angle. Or maybe it looks almost the same, but either way it’s still different. Your relationship to the object has changed. I’m convinced these feelings were “real,” brought about by listening to the piece of music. If I heard it again, would I feel the same way? Hard to say and, really, probably not. But I did learn something about myself from going to this concert.

[I wrote most of this a year ago. It has languished in my fireproof file cabinet until now. PSI 847 just came out as a 2CD set on Oral Records. One CD is a digital transfer of the tapes, the other is a recording of the described concert. You should buy it; I will too as soon as I have money again.]