Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ines and I visited Ines' cousin Alex in Hamburg yesterday. It was the first time I was in Hamburg, with the exception of a few transfers at the main train station. I had high expectations because Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, is considered one of the hipper cities in Europe. I'm not so sure if we partied in the hip, cool parts of Hamburg, but we at least experienced the most famous. We went out on the Reeperbahn last night. Numerous bars, discos, fast food joints, sex stores, and strip clubs are located along the Reeperbahn and its surroundings. Just like Las Vegas, the whole area appeals to that part of us that just wants to get drunk and be naughty (I was neither drunk nor naughty last night, for those wondering if this post would get a bit more sordid). Though it doesn't have as much of an international reputation as Amsterdam, Hamburg is famous for the conspicuousness of its prostitutes, and perhaps the most interesting sight in this regard was Herbertstrasse (see the wikipedia link above). The street is blocked from view by a wall. Behind the wall and along the street sit prostitutes in tall glass windows lined with red lights. Only males above the age of 18 are allowed in; women cannot go and gawk at the hookers (and they also prefer to have only serious male customers on the street). Actually, last night felt more like a sight-seeing evening than a night out. Next time, hopefully, we'll find some of those ultra-hip clubs and avoid the tourists. The city is less than 2 hours from Ploen by train, so the next time could be rather soon.

Also, just as a follow-up to the last post. I discovered another thing that makes N. Germany like America. The bars and restaurants here offer pitchers of beer, something that I have not seen outside the U.S. before. I'm happy that this wonderful aspect of American drinking culture (there aren't that many) has been adopted somewhere outside the States.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

As a warning, this post may involve some over-generalized stereotypes that some will disagree with. If you don’t like agree with me, comment or start your own blog. After such an ominous forewarning, you may expect me to write something stupid, like Nobel winner and DNA pioneer James Watson recently did. For those that don’t know, he inferred that blacks were inherently less intelligent than Europeans. Oops. No surprise that he was then suspended from his position at Cold Spring Harbor. Nice to know that a Nobel prize doesn’t give someone unbridled freedom to say whatever offensive thing they want. I’m digressing. This is the thought I wanted to share: regional cultural differences in Germany have taken me a step closer to America. After leaving America, I spent over 2 years in Finland, a land known for the quiet, withdrawn nature of its citizens. Finns just are not big talkers. Adjusting to Finnish culture was not difficult for me, because I was never very good at forcing petty small talk, a skill that’s often expected of Americans. From Finland, I moved into another stereotypically quiet culture, Germany. The Germans, though perhaps more outgoing than Finns, also tend to maintain a social “wall” when meeting new people, and cheery American yammering is often met with suspicion, even if it is well-intended. In my experience, this has been kinda true. Germans, like Finns, tend to be pretty quiet unless you know them, but my experiences are largely confined to Leipzig. It has been two weeks since I moved from Leipzig, in East Germany, to Ploen, in North Germany, and my opinions about the German character are changing. Here, most everyone in the office says “good morning”, which was not the case in Finland. When I go jogging, the people nod and perhaps utter a greeting, something that never happened in Finland or in Leipzig. Two days ago, a little old lady kept telling me how nice it was that I held the door for her. In Finland or Leipzig, I expect I would have received a “kiitos” or “danke”, but nothing more. A realtor that I met with in Ploen was more than happy to discuss various things about America (e.g. dollar to euro exchange rate, weather in Florida), instead of getting straight down to the details. Such social interactions, in my opinion, are more typically American, so, by moving here, have I entered a culture more compatible with my own? I have to admit that the difference between Leipzig and Ploen may reflect differences in city size than regional differences in culture, i.e. small town folk are just uber-friendly. Seems like I need to consult more Germans on this…maybe they could tell me an appropriate way how to end this post.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I feel like I'm moving up into the scientific big leagues. Some of the work done here (not mine) is of interest to a general audience, i.e. it does not strictly revolve around exotic parasites. How do I know that laypeople are interested in this research? I saw this article on the msn homepage after signing out of hotmail this afternoon. Some of my new colleagues published a very interesting study on how gossip affects people's willingness to cooperate. It seems that a comment or "gossip" about someone can be more important than that person's actual behavior with regard to forming an opinion about the person. To me, this suggests that we can be rather shallow and lazy creatures. Instead of forming an opinion by honest observation, it might just be easier to trust the gossip we hear. Though I'm working with worms and not humans, my work isn't likely to turn up on or any other website for that matter. However, if it does, this blog will be the first to break the story.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

It has been quite a while since a post…3 weeks to be exact. Those three weeks can be broken into 3 distinct phases: (1) travelling with my parents, (2) preparing to move from Leipzig to Ploen, and (3) moving to Ploen and starting my new job. So, obviously there has been material for me to blog about, but I’ll simply say that an overabundance of anxiety has proven an effective obstacle to more prolific blogging. Anyways, I’ll try to report here and give some reflections on the last few weeks following my PhD defense.

After my defense, we had quite the party, as would be expected, lasting until well after 3. The very next day Ines, my parents, and I took the train from JKL to
Helsinki at the unfortunately early hour of 1 p.m. (I slept off my hangover the whole way). The rest of that weekend was spent seeing the sites in Helsinki before flying to Berlin on Sunday. On Monday, I showed my parents around Berlin, and we took in the major sites. For both my parents, Berlin felt somewhat unreal. The history there is so fresh...and no city has a history like Berlin. Since I’ve been there several times, my fascination with the city’s cold war history has been partially replaced with my enthusiasm for its nightlife and overall vibe. Nonetheless, it was kinda fun to share in my parents’ astonishment while touring the city. That evening, we took the train to Leipzig. After a morning spent seeing Leipzig, we headed south to Sprechtsbrunn, Ines' home town. We arrived in the evening to meet Ines' parents. A homemade sign hung from the door and said (in english) "Welcome for Dr. Dan, his parents, and our Ines". Awesome. The crash of cultures that Ines and I feared was certainly dampened by our good friend alcohol. Language barriers really do get much lower after a few glasses of wine. Actually, I think the whole experience of dealing with language barriers made a big impact my parents; it was probably the first time they’ve been in a situation where they just cannot communicate. Of course, Ines and I spent the night translating back and forth, which also kept the conversation dynamic and humorous. The next day, we drove to Dresden. The entire old town in Dresden is a UNESCO world heritage site, perfect for touristy Americans keen to experience old Europe. The last stop on the trip was Prague and more touristy excursions. Besides a bit of trouble finding the hotel and some heavy rain during our city tour, Prague was relatively enjoyable.

My parents flew from Prague back to the States. I went back to Leipzig to think about the next phase of my life: a move to Northern Germany and the tiny city of Ploen (13,000 inhabitants). I spent a week in Leipzig trying to get my head about me…it took a surprising amount of time to actually realize that the PhD thesis and defense were finished and behind me. While soaking in that realization was (and is), naturally, pleasant, I began to focus on moving and beginning a new job. I must admit, I was sad to leave Leipzig. In the 9 months I lived there, I managed to become comfortable in Germany and I developed a fondness for the city. Such is life though. Moving and leaving one’s comfort zone are sometimes unavoidable, often unpleasant, but also frequently beneficial. For example, if I never left Nebraska for Finland, then I would not have met Ines and we would not have a blog with the ludicrous title “parasites and rock n roll”. The worse part is not what I left behind in Leipzig, but who. Ines has to stay in Leipzig to work and write her thesis. So, for the second time in our relationship, we are separated by some distance. On the positive side, the distance between Ploen and Leipzig is much shorter than between Finland and Germany.

For those who don’t know, the reason I moved to Ploen is that there is a research institute located here, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. For reasons which are still not entirely clear to me, this prestigious Institute offered me a post doc position for an undetermined amount of time. I’ll be studying the evolution of complex life cycle parasites using a particular tapeworm species as a model organism. Actually, the topic fits my interests very well and it’s related to my previous research, so that is probably the reason for their job offer. Hopefully, I’ll be able to work here for a couple years, but one can never know. At the moment, I’m just trying to stay positive in the face of all the unfamiliarity (a more positive thinker would say novelty): new colleagues, new boss, new city, new lab system, new expectations. Ines is, of course, keeping me focused on the opportunities, not the challenges, presented by this new situation. I can never thank her enough for that.