Recently by Bernd Brunner:

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Did Montezuma II, the legendary king of the Aztecs, really imbibe 50 cups of a special thick chocolate-vanilla-honey potion every day? We will never know, but we know for sure that vanilla flavoring in any of its many forms is one of the substances that people just cannot get enough of. It can be found in more obvious places like ice cream, cakes, liqueurs, perfumes, tobaccos, and soaps. It is an open secret that Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola buy the naturally produced substance in large amounts.

But vanilla flavoring is also where you may not expect it — such as in cough and cold preparations or pet food, where the cheaper, artificially produced substance helps to mask undesirable tastes. It makes most mouths water, which explains why it is also used as a supplement for fodder. Vanilla used to be extolled for its alleged aphrodisiac properties. Curiously, Chandler Burr, one of the world’s most renowned cologne critics, sees vanilla eternally associated with the oldest profession. “Men love vanilla, which is why whores the world over smell like it,” he told me recently. He didn’t tell my why women love it, too, though. More… “Vanilla Mania”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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The railway combined rapid movement and the possibility of transportation across large distances. As difficult it is to imagine today, in the age of jet travel, the transition from stagecoach to train was a rocky one. In 1843, after the railway lines from Paris to Rouen and Orléans had been inaugurated, German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote:

What changes must now occur in our way of viewing things and in our imagination! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. … I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my doors.

In the words of cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the railway created “a revolutionary rupture with (all) past forms of experience.” His book The Railway Journey remains the eminent source. The railway freed travel from the constraints of human and animal muscle power (and stench) and — to the extent that the network expanded — from geography itself. It also introduced a number of new sensory and psychological experiences. In this context, the mechanical vibration from the engine was seen as particularly threatening, often inspiring fears that the train would derail. Drivers complained about “the trepidation of the machines, the regular but perpetual movements that it transmits to the entire body and to the lower extremities in particular,” as a French article about influences on the health of train conductors recapitulated in 1857. Some early drivers came up with arrangements to cushion the shocks and jerking vibrations, but over time they got used to them. First- and second-class passengers profited from upholstery, but for some time they still suffered from fatigue as a result of the unfamiliar movements. Train passengers also experienced a sensation of disorientation, but gradually got accustomed to the new mode of travel.

More… “Adventure and Pain…”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Is there a place on Earth where people had to shovel snow from their roofs during winter every day? Where they lived like moles under the snow? Where there was never a question whether or not there would be snow at the end of the year?

In fact, there was: near the western coast of the Japanese peninsula, where weather conditions have always been markedly different from the coast of this country facing the Pacific Ocean. The seasonal winds coming from Siberia pick up evaporation from the Sea of Japan which helps to increase their humidity. Clouds form and as they pass the high mountains they cool and transform into masses of snow that almost defy description. Snow begins to fall towards the end of October. More… “Creeping Through the Snow Womb”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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The moon was shining on the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and ethnologist, reached Tebach, a village in the barren Amur region in easternmost Siberia. He was traveling in the name of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, who had made it all the way to the Chinese border. Von Schrenck is among the handful of Westerners who had the opportunity to participate in a bear festival with the Nivkh people (formerly called Gilyak). As he approached the village, the inhabitants were out and about. The women stood in front of the houses carrying babies and watched as the men and the older children held hands and spun rapidly in a circle. Once the dance was over, von Schrenck accompanied the group into a yurt — a kind of oversized tent. Three bears were bound to the two central support poles. Care had been taken to allow the bears room to lie down, stand up, and move from side to side. The visitor also had to take care “not to be struck by a bear’s paw.” More… “Bearing Witness”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Çukurcuma is an unusual neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul. Though quite central, just a short walk from the Bosporus or Taksim square, it has survived the recent wave of modernization: its many wooden houses in different colors give it a similar aura to the photos taken some 50 years ago, except that the cobblestones have mostly given way to more modern paving. Antique stores are typical for this quarter, and over the past couple of years, gourmet coffee shops have sprung up on almost every block. Then there are the cats: they are ubiquitous, dreaming their days away on car roofs. On the corner of Çukurcuma Street and Dalgiç Street, just a few blocks down from the hammam, there is a house that fits in perfectly — and yet it doesn’t. It has an unusual dark red color, and the windows hint at the fact that no one actually lives here. There is something otherworldly, almost ghostly about this house, especially during evenings and nights when it seems abandoned in the dark.
More… “The Museum of Innocence”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Did it ever strike you as a strange thing to drag a living tree once a year into your home and set it up to worship? If you are old enough, you may have seen decorating fashions come and go: fir cones painted in gold, cardboard adornments — preferably in red or green — artfully sculpted little angels, fragile glass balls in all colors. And you may have noted that the tree itself has transformed from real to artificial. Fiberglass trees in vivid colors, such as bright blue, are popular. There is a small rotating porcelain tree that plays Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” Presley himself decorated his ranch house with a nylon tree that had red ornaments and a revolving base tootling Christmas songs. Let’s leave it to others to discuss whether this is still a “real” tree or not. More… “Branching Out”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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We expect fruit to not make it too difficult for us to have access to its inner parts. Many varieties fulfill this expectation, while some put up a fight. Quinces, for example, have to be cooked before eating because otherwise their flesh is too hard. Beneath the tough skin of the pomegranate hides a complex center that seems bound to mysterious laws: Inside are chambers divided by membranes, which in turn are filled with hundreds of tiny, angular sacs of juice that burst easily to the touch, each of which contains a pip. You can squeeze a pomegranate or cut it into pieces and pull the seeds out with your teeth. After a bit of practice, you get the hang of it. Cutting one of these fruits open requires some caution, however, as the juice is notorious for causing stubborn stains. To a greater or lesser extent, the fruit has a tart taste, but it is not very aromatic and its flavor is short-lived; the small pips are resinously bitter. The hermaphroditic pomegranate blossom doesn’t even have a scent. This mysterious “berry” seldom brings on love at first sight, but it’s worth taking a closer look.

The weak points of this fruit – if you can call them that – haven’t diminished its attraction. It caused a welling of “desire and anticipation of foreignness and southernness, and the allure of great journeys” in the German poet Rilke, according to a letter he wrote to his wife Clara. All over the world, there are stories linked to this astounding fruit; its blood-red color even inspired the surrealist Russian-Armenian film The Color of the Pomegranate.
More… “Picking Pomegranates”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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I approach this city with a spiraling movement, whose beginning and end I can’t determine. I conquer the town on foot, often on the move for so long that I feel nothing but muscle, bone, and heartbeat. Once I am past a certain stage, I am no longer thirsty, let alone hungry. Heat like this would normally slow me down, but my body reveals strengths that I didn’t know it had. I have a personalized map with spots marked on it wherever there is some association for me. These markings become gradually denser until they spread across the city like a spider’s web.

Everything feels different. And sounds different too. Early in the morning, I’m awoken from a deep sleep by the chanting. Some voices rumbling from the city’s belly are louder than others, and the singing comes from different directions, out of step. But perhaps each voice is aware of the others? I’m promptly wide awake, and rise to lean out of the window to hear them better, my eyes still closed. There are moments when I can’t tell if the ezan from the next-door mosque is echoing off the walls on my block or if I can hear the calls to prayers from other mosques.
More… “When I Told Them Where Mecca Is”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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I am not interested in writing about the deafening kind of noise that causes irreversible damage to the human ear. Nor in the wide range of sounds that you can hear outdoors, like the roar of surf, birdsong, or wind. What interests me far more is that elusive category in-between. Ranked highest among the sounds I find most unpleasant are: compulsive and demonstrative finger-cracking in libraries, and the high-pitched squeal of feedback from PA systems. Others can be driven insane by a dripping faucet, or even a ticking alarm clock, elevator music or in-store Muzak — noise that we have to hear whether we want to or not. My neighbor owns an admittedly quite attractive hunting dog that is genetically hard-wired to bark incessantly, or so she tells me. Why she has to keep this dog in the middle of a city is beyond me, but that’s beside the point here.

If you think you fall into the category of noise-sensitive people, you are in good company. It is known, for example, that Proust’s smoke-filled study, which doubled up as a bedroom, was completely soundproofed with cork. Hypersensitivity to noise doesn’t automatically qualify you to write masterpieces. But the renowned Frenchman knew how to tap his remarkably acute perception to be extraordinarily, even enviably prolific. Noise, in his opinion, was a kind of assassination of the senses. However, his labored breathing was beyond his control. Luckily, it was so loud that it not only drowned out the sound of his quill, but also the construction work being carried out on a bathroom a story above him.
More… “The Art of Noises”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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When German historian’s Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World was published in Germany four years ago, reviewers of the major newspapers were in complete agreement: this voluminous book of history would do more than change the way we looked at the 19th century. They saw a new kind of history at work here, not a sober historical treatise, but writing at its best, packed with facts and peppered with eye-opening insights, moving from panorama and zooming in to detail and back again. Osterhammel, a tenured professor at the University of Konstanz (next to the lake of the same name, separating Germany and Switzerland), is probably the best known of contemporary historians. The weekly Die Zeit called him “the Meryl Streep of the German humanities,” due to the number of awards he has garnered over the decades. He gave the commemorative speech at Angela Merkel’s 60th birthday last year.

Jürgen Osterhammel revised the text for the English-language edition of The Transformation of the World, translated by Patrick Camiller and published by Princeton University Press. The volume will soon be available in paperback. A very relaxed Jürgen Osterhammel reacted promptly and kindly to our enquiry to ask him a few questions about his book. We feel honored, because Osterhammel doesn’t grant many interviews.
More… “The Transformation of the World”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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