Category Archives: Geography

Quick Post: NYC

[Note: For some reason, writing this on my iPad results in no apostrophes showing up online. My apologies in advance. First time Ive really tried this for a lengthy post.]

I keep having the idea to ask for suggestions on what to do on my first trip (ever!) to New York City next week. Karen and I will be flying there for the national AAG conference, and we will be there for about a week.

Weve already thought of several things to do while we are there, but Id love to hear more advice and suggestions from those of you New Yorkers (or at least NYC aficionados) out there. Although I will not have every hour of all seven days to do touristy things because Ill be at sessions, I do plan to get in as much as I can while there! Plus, Karen will have even more time, and shes looking for interesting things to do that arent too far from our hotel. (Were staying in the Upper West Side, a little more than half way up Central Park.)

Heres a list of the things we are planning to do together, time permitting:

Seeing Wicked at the Gershwin. Expensive, yet oh-so-schweet.
Touring midtown (conference hotels are a few blocks from Times Square/Rockefeller Plaza area)
Downtown/financial district area, also going to the Brooklyn Bridge
Harbor tour of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty
Running in Central Park
Coney Island??

Karen is also thinking of going to the Museum of Modern Art by herself, and maybe the zoo. Shes also going to hit up some vegetarian restaurants, perhaps without me… 😉

——
Conversation from earlier tonight, which reveals how Karen and I think differently:
Me: I think Ill check the [UT] library to see if they have any New York travel guides.
Karen: Umm… Theres this thing…called the Internet.
Me: Well, yeah, theres that. But I like to have a book where I can be surprised by whats listed.

So, people of the Internets, what else do you suggest? I may not have time to do it all, but I can always start a list for next time.

Less than week before we fly away!

Dissertation thoughts

Today was the day that I faced the demon known as comps. That’s comprehensive exams, for those who may be wondering. To be entirely honest, they were not as brutal as I thought they may be. I don’t think my committee members took it easy on me (I did write almost 4,500 words today), so maybe I was just well prepared. For that I have to thank my advisor Micheline van Riemsdijk for doing her job of, well, giving me good, sound advice.

So what do I want to do with the rest of my Friday? Well keep writing of course! I did tease everyone a week or two ago that I would divulge some details about my potential dissertation topic, so I was thinking of writing about that. Then I started thinking that academia is rather hyper-competitive these days, so I decided not to share. But then I figured that happiness lies in the middle, so I’ll divulge a little but not enough details that in the event that someone other than my closest friends and family actually reads this, and that individual happens to need a dissertation topic, and furthermore that individuals happens to be a geographer… Well, then they won’t be able to replicate my ideas and take all the academic glory (is there such a thing?) for themselves. In the interests of time, I will copy/paste some sections from what I’m currently working for class papers and Ph.D. applications for your perusal. Feel free to ask me questions in the comments section below.

Continue reading Dissertation thoughts

Summer Update

I’m sure the few of you faithful readers out there might be wondering how the summer is going for the in-between-semesters grad student, so I’m going to try to update you with a brief post.

After returning from a month in Europe and two more weeks on the road to West Tennessee, I finally took the time for a real summer break. Whether or not this was actually a good thing is open to debate, because while my mental health greatly appreciated some down time, my work ethic has not yet recovered. And that is a really big problem, given all that is upcoming this fall semester!

During the downtime, Karen and I have lazed around the house, started watching LOST on Netflix, and last week had a Harry Potter marathon, culminating in seeing the final movie at the downtown movie theater yesterday afternoon. We also went to Sevier County (read: Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville) on Saturday to get our Pancake Pantry fix and shop the outlet malls whilst we had Gap and Banana Republic store-wide 30 percent off coupons… Banana Republic has become my all-time favorite clothing store, but only when shopping through the outlet store.

In a close second, my next favorite store has become Nike, but again, only the outlet/factory store variety again. (Note the grad-student-on-a-budget theme running here?) Speaking of Nike, most of you have likely seen my occasional post to Facebook about running with Nike+. I started the fifth week today, and though Karen dropped out on me after serious knee pain last week, I’m going to keep this up as long as I can! I don’t know if any of you are using Nike+, but if you are and want to add me as a friend, my username is matrcook.

In the last two weeks, I have slowly gotten the ball rolling on my to-do list for the fall. It’s quite extensive because I’m teaching a section of Geography 101 – World Regional Geography to approximately 120 students. Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:10 a.m.! It’s slightly daunting for my first real teaching assignment, but at least it’s only one class and I have had a lot of time to prepare for it. Last week I laid out the rough draft of my syllabus and this week I plan to hammer out the rest of the nitty-gritty details. The course focuses on five world regions: Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. For those of you who know me best, you know that I have never been to ANY of these regions. While that is not a major problem, it does make it a little more difficult to gather materials, and it makes me a LOT more dependent on the textbook and other sources rather than my own experiences, photographs, etc. Still, my goal is to help my students have a better understanding of the world by the time the course is over, while having some fun along the way.

Also accomplished last week was the beginnings of what I’m calling my “List of Ph.D. schools under consideration.” At this point it stands at seven schools in the U.S., two overseas, and (surprisingly) *none* are in Germany. Not saying it couldn’t expand at this point, but I will have to start narrowing it down once the semester starts. Application deadlines for some programs are as early as Dec. 15, though a majority are in January. I’ll keep you up-to-date as often as I can throughout the semester, provided busyness doesn’t have me hanging from the ceiling by my ears.

In other news, my biggest concern for the remaining part of the summer is my thesis research. I have seriously neglected it for a few weeks, and it is now time to remedy that. I’ve started by writing down the common themes that kept popping up in my observations, interviews, and conversations while in Berlin, and from there I will start to work on transcriptions that fit into the different themes. This qualitative data analysis is definitely difficult if you’ve never done it before, but my advisor pointed me in the right direction last week during a two-hour meeting! I’ve now got a couple of books to help steer me for the next several weeks. Beyond this analysis work, I’ve quickly got to start working on a paper for some conferences I’m attending this fall. I was accepted to present a paper on my Stolpersteine research at the MTSU Holocaust Conference in October, and I plan to use many of the same ideas from that paper in another to submit to the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers (whew. That takes a while to write! That’s why we just call it SEDAAG – pronounced “see-dag.”) The SEDAAG conference is in November, but I have to submit the entire paper in about a month. Scary!

That’s all the time I’ve got for now, so I hope you’ve enjoyed the update. I’m sure there are things I’m forgetting, but they’ll be saved for another day!

Initial thoughts on Paris … An unbelievable city!

Bonjour from Paris, everybody!

On Monday, Karen and I flew in to Charles de Gaulle Airport outside of Paris and stumbled our way around a new airport until we finally figured out how to get our bags, find the free shuttle bus to the hotel, etc. Fortunately we are staying very close to the airport, but unfortunately we hopped on the wrong bus. However, it stopped at another hotel just up the road from ours so no worries!

Then we checked into the hotel (Park Inn Roissy-en-France) and proceeded to not successfully get in our room! Turns out there was some kind of problem with the handle. Two maintenance guys and an hour or more later, we finally had a functional door handle. Then we figured out the plans for the evening, and headed in to Paris. Our hotel is close to the airport, so it takes about half an hour to an hour to get from hotel to whatever the destination is in Paris. In short, we got off the metro, after much confusion about how it works, near Notre Dame, ate supper (I had Nutella Crepes!), and walked around Ile de la Cite and the Louvre area. We stayed out a long time because it stays light out until around 10 p.m., and finally got back to the hotel around 11:30.

So here are my initial observations about Paris. Let me start by saying that these are very likely skewed because of, and also in comparison to, my favorite European city, Berlin.

Paris is unbelievably:

  1. Larger. Both in size and in population, Paris outduels Berlin. Paris, for example has a metro population of around 10.2 million while Berlin has 4.4 million. With a larger population base, one can imagine how much worse the typical European stereotypes of smell, crowding, etc. are in Paris compared to Berlin. Trust me, they are justified.
  2. More Confusing. Paris, and perhaps the French in general, could be really nice and learn from the Germans when it comes to efficiency and adequate signage. Seriously, the French metro is much more difficult to navigate than Berlin’s, and if you don’t believe me just compare their maps. (Berlin vs. Paris) We’re getting the hang of it, but sheesh.
  3. More Diverse. Because of France’s, ahem, colonial history and Germany’s shadowed 20th century past, Paris is much more diverse. There are a lot of Africa migrants and first generation French-Africans here, and from what I can tell, a lot of them are completely integrated into the Parisian lifestyle. Compare this with Germany, and Berlin in particular, where only one ethnic group tends to be noticed as “different” – the Turks. It seems to me that France has done a lot more to help with integration.
  4. More Expensive! Berlin always seems expensive to me, but then again, I’m from the good ole state of Tennessee, which almost always ranks at the bottom in the U.S. for cost of living. This is good, while living in Tennessee, but “movin’ on up” to a city like Berlin (whose motto is “Poor, but Sexy”) or Paris (easily a world-class city) is hard on the pocket book. I’m sure if you are from London, New York, or D.C., Paris seems right on par, but as for me? Give me a break!

Day Off

That’s right, folks. I gave myself the day off in Berlin.

But, um… shouldn’t you be doing work?

I know, I know. I feel a little guilty about taking off an entire day, but Karen and I have gradually been getting worn out as the last two weeks. And it was supposed to rain today. Then it didn’t. Oops.

At least we’ve managed to rest our cobblestone-wearied legs and get a couple loads of laundry done! It was seriously piling up, and it’s not exactly an easy or quick process when everything takes hours to dry on the laundry rack.

As far as the research goes, it’s coming along fairly well. I have two interviews scheduled this week, and I’m changing up my tactics a little to try to get more responses before we have to leave. I’ve made an online survey, which some of you may have noticed on the new Stolpersteine Befragung page here on the blog. I’ve made some flyers to post around the city with the Website address in hopes that more people will take the survey.

Since the surveys have not (yet) turned up many people to interview, I’m also going to start doing semi-formal interviews: basically, just approaching someone sitting on a bench or people who don’t seem to be in a hurry, and asking them a few questions about the Stolpersteine to find out their opinions about the memorials.

Karen and I have also been having some fun along the way this week, so don’t feel too bad for our tired feet. A group of students from UT lead by one of the German faculty have been here for the last few days, and we went with them to tour a WWII-era flak-tower on Friday morning and also toured the Museum of Musical Instruments at the Kulturforum yesterday morning for a couple of hours. They were both amazing, and it was good to see some familiar faces – I audited the interdisciplinary-part of the course with these students during the spring semester. They get credit for both the class and the trip!

Finally, I know you are all probably begging for some eye candy (and by that I mean photos) so here are some of the most recent.

Kid with Marx and Engels
What a priceless face! Random kid with the statue of Marx and Engels in Berlin.
Karen at the Berlin Zoologischer Garten
Karen at the Berlin Zoologischer Garten – The Elephant Gate
Museum for Musical Instruments @ Berlin Kulturforum
Museum for Musical Instruments @ Berlin Kulturforum. Our tour guide could play almost every instrument in the place!
Crumhorn player
Our tour guide gives us a sample of some crumhorn music. So awesome!

The Best Laid Plans…

It’s the beginning of the fieldwork grind – the part where I put in a lot of work and make something out of this trip. Today I observed Gunter Demnig install Stolpersteine at three different sites around the northern Tiergarten area of Berlin (the Hansaviertel, as it’s known locally). They were very different and all very interesting.

We had no idea what activities would be going on at the different sites, but when Karen and I showed up at the first site we could make it to this morning (after a bit of a late start out the door…) we found not an empty sidewalk, but a gaggle of school children,  teachers, and family members.

My initial instinct was to think that this group had to be an example of the school groups who help Gunter Demnig with the Stolpersteine project by doing the research about Holocaust victims’ last home or business. I asked around and ended up striking up a conversation with someone that I thought was a teacher accompanying the group. He said he was actually a social worker from the school, but close enough for me. He informed us that the students were from the local elementary school, and while they had not helped do the research for this site, one girl’s mother was the sponsor for the stones being installed. (Each Stolperstein costs about €95.) The students, it turned out, were the school’s choir program! So they sang several songs accompanied by their music teachers (on acoustic guitar – think of the style of Edelweiss from The Sound of Music. Yes, I know it’s technically Austrian, and technically that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote it. That’s beside the point.) At any rate, the students were very good at singing, and nearly every song was sung as a round with three parts to make it that much harder.

Herr Demnig was running nearly a half an hour late, so we had a lot of time to watch the children sing and talk to the social worker, who also introduced us to the sponsor. When Demnig arrived, the installation only took about five minutes, and then he hurried off to lay a few more stones in northern Berlin that I knew Karen and I would not be able to make it to fast enough by public transit. I found out that Demnig and his assistant travel in a red working van with a lot of room in the back for the stones, tools, cement, dirt, etc. So while Demnig and his assistant drove on to the next few sites, Karen and I stayed to listen as the patron told the story about the girls who lived at this site during the Nazi regime. I didn’t catch all of it, but the important part was easy enough to pick up: “Ermordet in Auschwitz.” Murdered at Auschwitz.

During this mini-lecture, the social worker came up to us and explained that there was another group of students who were also there – a group of middle school-age students from a nearby Jewish school, with their teacher and a rabbi (or at least, I assume he was a rabbi.) They were the group that helped with the research, and their teacher said a few words about the process as well before the rabbi sang a very haunting chant in Hebrew and said the Kaddish.

After this was over, and I handed out some of my business cards to people I thought would be nice to stay in contact with, Karen and I headed off to find lunch before meeting back up with Demnig for more installations. I have the entire list and a map of the locations, by the way, which is how I knew where to find him at different points throughout the day. I’ll be doing the same thing tomorrow.

After lunch, Karen and I went to the next site on the list and met back up, quite unintentionally, with the sponsor from earlier. She had evidently sponsored four more Stolpersteine at this location, and again we waited several minutes for Demnig to arrive. There was no ceremony at this site because the sponsor, Demnig and his assistant, a couple of people from the Berlin organization that coordinates the legal aspects of placing the stones, and Karen and I were the only ones there. Demnig was much more open and congenial at this site, and he didn’t seem at all rushed like he did when surrounded by 50 or so kids earlier in the day! He strikes me as a very kind man with a huge heart to take on a project of this size, despite a somewhat gruff exterior.

The third installation was much like the first. This time, a high school class promoting diversity and tolerance had researched victims who lived at what is now the location of their school. The three new Stolpersteine were added to several that had been placed in the sidewalk in front of the school. Demnig was again surrounded by the students as he worked, and again did not say a word. After the installation, he hung around for a few minutes as the some of the youth talked about fighting against racism but then headed off again for the next site.

I hope to follow him around tomorrow to several more installation sites, and hopefully can talk to him a bit as we go along. As always, I’ll keep you posted as time allows.

Survey Says…

Stolpersteine at 15 Prenzlauer Allee
Stolpersteine at 15 Prenzlauer Allee

Well, one day into my fieldwork and the initial results show:

 

This is going to be hard.

Well, maybe not too hard, but nonetheless at least as difficult as I thought it might be. I observed 90 pedestrians today at three different Stolpersteine sites in our neighborhood, and two people looked at them. And by looked at them, I mean they glanced at them. No one stopped to read them, but I kind of expected that with these particular Stolpersteine because they were located in out-of-the-way parts of the sidewalk.

One, in fact, was almost covered up with a restaurant menu/sign. I plan to follow up with the owners of the restaurant in the next few days, after I build some rapport with them. I just had a coffee today as Karen and I used their space to do observations, and I didn’t explain what I was doing, but I’m going to attempt to show up regularly over the next few days to strike up more conversations and see what happens. Despite the menu board almost covering up the memorial, this was the best observation spot in our neighborhood because I could sit at the outdoor table and observe people without looking awkward (walking around with a brightly colored clipboard and pen.)

However, before anyone things I’m discouraged or anything, allow me to explain some of my other thoughts about this set of observations. First, Prenzlauerberg is well-known as a hip district that has been thoroughly gentrified. What was once a squatters neighborhood has been replaced with trendy 30-somethings, including quite a few Americans, with baby strollers in tow. Seriously, I would bet that more than half of my observations today were women, and quite a few men as well, with kids in strollers, babies in slings, or with slightly older children riding bikes at pace with their (walking) parents. Makes for a great neighborhood to stay in while abroad, but it might not be the best neighborhood to find people interested enough in the past to be on the look out for small memorial stones.

At the same time, there are some interesting things that can be gained from this observation: A vast majority of Berlin (geographically) and Berliners themselves have moved on. From the Holocaust, from the Cold War. They have come to terms with the past for themselves, and I think that will be confirmed once I get survey and interview information as well. I don’t really want a hypothesis to skew my research in any way, but I have a hunch that this might be the major finding.

At any rate, there is still much to learn and much to uncover. Hopefully I’ll find the time to keep everyone posted!