Why I learned German

Last week they stopped offering French at my kids’ school in Portland. They sent out a school-wide e-mail. It’s the trickle-down result of school budget cuts – budget cuts with stock markets where they are. Just a few weeks earlier, they decided languages would no longer be a a requirement either – the sole remaining foreign language, Spanish, is now just an elective, also a victim of the budget cuts.

There’s already no music. No art. And I’m sure Fun is only offered as an elective in the third quarter.

I’m pretty sure this was my textbook. Mostly sure. Well not this exact one. But German Today One, in any case.

I’ve read about the gutting of humanities at U.S. schools for decades but it only tangentially bothered me – at first I didn’t have kids and then, when I did, they were in German schools. Even when my kids moved to U.S. schools it only nagged at me because I figured we were doing well counteracting the lack of anything creative – piano lessons on Tuesdays after school, for instance, and they go in an hour early twice a week for choir club.

But it was strange watching the gutting of humanities unfold in real-time, like stumbling upon the mating ritual of some exotic bird or the time we watched a homeless man in Chicago throw three cases of Sprite in his pants and run out of Safeway.

These are things I knew happened but never expected to witness first-hand. Yet there I was opening an e-mail from the principal of my kids’ school … and watching a homeless man throw three cases of Sprite in his pants.

The e-mail bothered me and I did what any concerned citizen does these days – posted to Facebook. And then I went for a run.

“Stop being dramatic,” I told myself while thinking about it during my run. “It’s just a class. You didn’t even take French in middle school so what do you care?”

And that’s when it hit me: If Laredo Middle School in Aurora, Colorado, hadn’t offered three languages – Spanish, French and German – to fulfill the language requirement, my life would have been dramatically different. Portland Public Schools isn’t just taking French out of my kids’ school, it’s removing opportunities.

My family moved the summer between 6th and 7th grades, which meant I had to register for a different middle school than I had planned. My mother took me into the office of my new school in July to sign me up. At some point, the secretary pushed a green piece of paper at me and said I had a choice of three languages to fulfill my language requirement.

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German

I had to think fast. I didn’t know there was going to be a language requirement and now I had to choose something.

Spanish? No, I figured pretty much everyone took Spanish.

I wasn’t everyone.

French? Nah – all those Depeche Mode-listening, Duran Duran wannabes would take French, I reckoned. Though this describes the ‘80s me, I was aspiring to something better.

German? Absolutely, my adolescent brain said, and I placed a check mark that would increasingly guide my life from that point on.

If you asked my family, they would universally say I picked German because of my great-grandmother Sophia, who emigrated to the U.S. from Meldorf, Germany, when Taft was president and Germany still had Kaisers.

And my family would be wrong.

To me, Grandma Sophia was always old and transitioned to ancient as I aged. I figured she’d once shared the earth with woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. She seemed a combination of German accent, nylons and odd smells. I once used my rudimentary German with her only to discover she spoke Plattdeutsch. We only had blood in common.

The reason I picked German wasn’t because of her. The reason I picked German was because that day at Laredo Middle School, I figured the punk rockers, the real intellectuals, the thinkers – they would all take German. And I wanted to be a punk rocker, a real intellectual. I was convinced I was a thinker.

Of course, I was wrong on all fronts – Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo was mostly full of misfits and the most punk rock we ever listened to was The Clash. And a thinker? All I thought about in middle school was how much I wanted to be Alex Keaton from Family Ties (I even wore a tie!).

But German class brought with it German textbooks and the pictures intrigued me. Germans all drove around in cars covered in advertising, the textbook told me. They also sat around in cafes all day and played chess with giant, knee-high chess pieces. How cool is that? Also: Lots of old buildings.

I was sold. And so, after four years of mediocre grades, difficulties conjugating and countless hours daydreaming about cafes and giant chess pieces, I decided I should become an exchange student in Germany.

Also, it would allow me to sidestep the new unit we’d started on the genitive case.

I became an exchange student and learned fluent German. I returned 10 years later to become a correspondent for a major U.S. newswire and just a few short years later I had a German wife and two half-German kids.

All because my middle school offered three languages.

That’s an opportunity the students at my kids school may never have.

 

 

 

 

Those German words mean more than you think they do

Here’s a secret Germans won’t tell you: Sometimes even they get tired of those big long words. Sure, they’ll post jokes about the never-ending nouns on their Facebooks and like all those joke memes on Twitter – especially that one about why Germans don’t play scrabble. But while they’re in on the joke of infinite infinitives, they too get tired of using them all day.

So they often shorten them but don’t tell the outside world.

They excel in what I’ve discovered are called syllabic abbreviations. Germans are syllabic abbreviation pros. A syllabic abbreviation is when you take the first syllable from each word in a series of words to form an abbreviation, which can then seem like an acronym.

Oh the taxonomy!

Syllabic abbreviations are such an integral part of German culture that they’ve leaked into other cultures too. All the way over the Atlantic, even!

Germans love syllabic abbreviations and I can prove it to you.

You know Haribo? That maker of spongy gummi bears? Syllabic abbreviation. It’s based on the company’s founder – Johann Riegel, who went by Hans. They took the first syllables of his first and last names and, because they apparently needed a third syllable, the first syllable of Bonn, where the company was based.

This created Haribo, or Hans Riegel Bonn. Cool, eh?

Szllabic abbreviations haribo
Photo thanks TuiFLY.

Syllabic abbreviations. I had no idea there was a term for it! I thought Germans were just making this up.

It gets worse – or better, depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of human.

The Dassler brothers in pre-war Germany started a shoe factory in the sleepy village of Herzogenaurach, which is within running distance of Nuremberg. The brothers were named Rudi and Adi which, yes, is short for that German name no one wants to be called anymore. But Rudi and Adi didn’t get along and they divided the shoe company into two in 1948.

Rudi would end up calling his half of the company Puma – because how lame does Ruda sound? – but Adi called his – wait for it – Adidas (Germans pronounce it Ah-Dee-Dass, if you ever wondered). Adi Dassler! Adidas! Mind. Blown.

syllabic abbreviations adidas

These are pretty common schoolyard truths in Germany. Just ask a German, they’ll tell you everything I just told you, but there’s one many Germans don’t even know: Milka.

Milka is Germany’s Hershey’s or Cadbury, if the chocolate actually tasted like chocolate and the packaging was always purple.

Even Milka’s cows are purple.

Full disclosure: I love Hershey’s because it tastes like Halloween and childhood and, come on, Hershey’s kisses y’all! But the first time I tried European chocolate it scared me. I was in third grade and snuck pieces of Toblerone at the Koernig’s house and it freaked me out – partially because I thought Mrs. Koernig was going to catch me and partially because it tasted amazing.

So amazing it scared me.

So Milka: It’s short for Milch Kakao (milk chocolate). Milka! I only learned this a week ago myself.

syllabic abbreviations milka

Oh there are more. Lots more. Hanuta is this great hazelnutty chocolate snack that’s a kind of cookie/candy bar thing that’s known as a Tafel in German. Hazelnut is Haselnuss in German so even you might be able to do that math: HaselNussTafel. Hanuta! They taste a million times better than they sound.

syllabic abbreviations hanuta

How about Aldi? No I’m not kidding. It’s owned by the Albrechts and the stores are considered discount – or Diskont – stores. Go on. Get some scratch paper and work it out. They’re taking over the world now so you’ll be able to use that one in the checkout line soon.

But these are just commercial examples. The German culture is filthy with other syllabic abbreviations. And by filthy I just mean they’re all over the place. Parents drop their kids off at a Kindertagesstätte (nursery) every morning, for example, but they call it a Kita. Some of those parents might work for – or be investigated by – the Kripo, or the Kriminal Polizei.

Oh! One of my faves when I first moved to Berlin was Vokuhila. Sounds exotic, right? It’s not. It’s German for mullet, that haircut favored by ‘70s soccer stars and the guy the changes the oil on my Chevy Tahoe. It’s short for: vorne kurz, hinten lang (short in the front, long in the back).

I liked that syllabic abbreviation so much I used to get my hair did at a salon called Vokuhila on Kastanienallee.

syllabic abbreviations vokuhila

So there you go. German syllabic abbreviations are a secret no longer!

TschüLe (Tschüss Leute or good-bye y’all! Except that’s not a real syllabic abbreviation. I just made it up).

 

 

 

Secret to the people who read this far: Here’s one more that I cut from the blogpost but is kind of cool. So consider it a linguistic present from me to you. Because I really like you.

 

Edeka is a Berlin grocery chain that varies slightly from the basic scheme of syllabic abbreviation and that has a name with a bit of uncomfortable history (but not that history). Einkaufsgenossenschaft der Kolonialwarenhändler im Halleschen Torbezirk zu Berlin is what it stands for – the purchasing collective of the colonial goods dealers in the Halleschen suburbs of Berlin.

German, amirite?

Anyway, You get the “E” from Einkaufs…. The “de” from Der, the “k” from Kolonial and the “A” from thin air because apparently Edeko wasn’t what they wanted (but I think it sounds kinda cool).

 

 

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German Cafes Do Coffee and Cake Right

I was watching Tagesschau (German news) the other night and saw a report about an exhibition in Dusseldorf on (West?) German café culture and it reminded me of yet another corner of Germany I found magical – the café.

The first time I encountered one was when I was an exchange student and we had just completed one of my guest family’s weekly shopping excursions to Mönchengladbach. We had just gathered everything we needed from the shops in the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian street) when my guestmother announced that we’d be making one final stop.

“Can’t we just go home?” I thought. I wanted to go back to reading Asterix and Obelix in my room rather than sweat through more small talk in my emerging German.

Inside, the café was as busy and crowded as the shopping street outside. A glass counter full of cakes and pastries ran the length of its lower level and was backed by middle-aged women in what looked like maid’s outfits. They seemed harried. But what cakes!

“Pick out any piece and I’ll find a seat,” my guestmother said. I started to sweat. I’d been in-country about two months, my German wasn’t even at immigrant cab driver level and I had no idea how a German café worked.

I had no idea how to pick out a piece of cake.

My guestmother sensed my confusion and said as she walked away, “Tell the woman what piece you want and bring me the piece of paper.”

A piece of paper. Right. I thought I was supposed to get cake.

One of the maids behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I pointed at a piece. She then handed me a slip of paper about the size of a price tag. It was yellow with a printed number in black. And she had scribbled something in red on hers. Maybe a number. Maybe code. Maybe a plea for help.

The piece I ordered probably had chocolate pieces on chocolate icing spread on top of chocolate cake with fluffy chocolate filling. I know my teen-age self. And knowing my guestmother, she probably had something with fruit.

Guestmothers always get something with fruit.

After ordering, I found my guestmother upstairs perched at a two-top against a window. We could watch the chaos outside while suffering from the chaos inside. There were people everywhere, inside and out.

German Cafes

I wondered how my cake would make it from downstairs to upstairs. How it would make it through all those people. I figured it probably wouldn’t but I masked my disappointment and smiled in agreement when my guestmother offered to order me a hot chocolate.

At least I’d get some chocolate.

Kännchen oder Tasse (pot or cup)?” my guestmother wanted to know. At the time, I had no idea what she was asking so I just stared back. She waved me off.

Our waitress arrived, also wearing a maid outfit, and my guestmother ordered our drinks and handed her our pieces of paper. I had no idea what was going on but I was confident I wouldn’t be eating cake.

Would our new maid try to describe us to the maid downstairs to get our cake order? How would that work? What if their descriptions didn’t match up and we ended up with cookies or, worse, no cake?

I had no time to make small talk with my guestmother, I was busy mourning the loss of my cake.

Then, a few minutes later, our waitress reappeared with our drinks. Our drinks! I didn’t just get a hot chocolate. I got a kännchen – my own little pot of hot chocolate! What? Magic!

Also, the waitress had our cakes. The right cakes.

I know, right? More magic!

Kaffee und Kuchen

The system made no sense to me so my guestmother explained it to me – the first woman-in-a-maid’s-outfit behind the counter put a piece of paper identical to my piece of paper on a plate with my cake order and our waitress just matched up the pieces of paper.

It still seemed miraculous to me, as if my cake had floated out of the display case, through all the people and up the stairs to me. In Mönchengladbach.

“It still seems magical to me,” my wife said last night when I recounted this story. We used to go to Café Richter in Charlottenburg in Berlin because they sometimes had the tiny pieces of paper. The Tagesspiegel last summer did a story on what it dubbed Schnipsel-cafés (scrap of paper cafés) in Berlin, after the pieces of paper used to record the cake orders.

The magic of that Schnipsel-café in Mönchengladbach stayed with me for over a decade until I returned to Germany as a reporter in Frankfurt. I made my co-workers go with me to Café Liebfrauenberg because I knew they’d do the German trick with the kuchen (cake) and paper there.

My co-workers weren’t impressed by the ordering system but they loved the cakes. And they thought the Kännchen were pretty impressive too.

 

How Germans Puke: Das Speibecken

It was supposed to be a harmless bit of day drinking. Me, my cousin-in-law and a vanilla small-town pub in central Germany. My wife had supported the decision because it got me out of her hair as she wrangled our kids and her parents – my in-laws – over coffee and cake at grandma’s. I was out of her mind, I figured, and could concentrate on the beer, and she figured I was safe with her cousin.

Nobody would have suspected something unsettling was about to unfold.

It happened when I had to pee after the second beer, or maybe the third, depending on how much juice I’d had with breakfast. As I came into the pub’s bathroom everything seemed normal. I noted a sink on my left and floor-to-ceiling tiles in that light-brown tint that’s so popular in public restrooms in western regions of Germany.

Speibecken
Thanks for the pic, Basti!

“What is Germany trying to tell me with that color in a bathroom?” I always think. I’ve never gotten an answer because I’ve never asked the question out loud – the Teutonic propensity for shelf toilets and public discussions of bathroom visits has me fearful of the answer.

As I stood there doing my business, I noticed a second sink off to my left. It was shaped differently and seemed to have supports on one side.

“Must be a utility sink for mops,” I thought. When I was done, I took a closer look. It was a weird sink with a wide drain, like on American sinks with garbage disposals, and a water switch. Something told me this wasn’t a utility sink but I had no idea what it was for, the same feeling I get every time I’m confronted with a salad bar.

I went back out to the bar and asked my cousin-in-law Basti what the weird sink was.

Das Speibecken?” he asked, as if that would settle it. As if hearing that word would clear up the confusion.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s it for?”

Because ‘Speibecken’ sounded like German for “Weird sink” but I still didn’t know what it was.

Speibecken

Basti started to laugh and announced to the bar what a funny foreigner I was – I’d never heard of a Speibecken! The bar (one other drinker and a bartender) laughed with him.

We all had a good laugh.

I still had no idea what a Speibecken was.

“It’s for when you drink too much and you have to puke,” he announced, as if every bar in the world had a Speibecken. The entire bar looked at me with great sympathy, wondering with their eyes if this was the first bar I’d ever been in.

This must happen to every ex-pat every now and then – you stumble into something the natives think is part of the human condition but isn’t. It’s that weird moment where Germany doesn’t know it’s doing something strange and you have to be the one to break the bad news.

“Puke?” I wondered.

With that, Basti leaped off his stool and he, I, and the other drinker headed into the bathroom for a round of simulated puking. I don’t want to say that Basti seemed to have experience, but he seemed to have experience.

Das Speibecken

I took a picture and showed it around the office on Monday.

“Oh yeah,” my German co-worker said. “They’re also called a Pabst (Pope) and when you use it you’re papsten (poping).” Which is taking the colloquial saying, ‚Praying to the porcelain god‘, to the next level.

My co-worker said Speibecken are especially popular in German fraternity houses, something Wikipedia backs up. As a journalist, I’m skeptical of Wikipedia but I’m not sure who to call to double-check the info on a puke sink.

As it turns out, my German wife is more of a puke sink expert than I would have thought. “You have to mention how there’s standards that call for a specific diameter of drain to accommodate the half-digested food,” she said as I wrote this blog. “That’s important.”

Important to who?

She didn’t know much about the terminology.

The word Speibecken actually means ‘spittoon’ and is also used for that little sink at the dentist’s you spit into – or in the saloon, presumably.

And the term Pabst apparently has less to do with that grown man in the Vatican who wears pajamas all day than the Latin for puking – because we all know the Romans invented leisure puking.

The Germans just seem to have perfected it.

How Berlin communicates: Berlinerisch

Nothing defines native Berliners more than their accent, known as Berlinerisch. The accent is more than just a staccato ending to words and pronouncing Gs as if they were Js. Berlinerisch is also an attitude that combines indifference, hostility and humor in differing degrees. As an outsider, I often sense more hostility where there’s more indifference and, as a humorist, I’m often jealous of the quick wit sometimes injected into mundane situations.

Berlinerisch is best summed up by a popular Berlin saying: “Nich anjeschissen ist jenuch jelobt,” or: Not insulting you was compliment enough. It’s like the city saying to you: If I didn’t call you an asshole, I must like you. Now shut up and eat your Currywurst. It’s like hanging out with an old man.

Berlinerisch

Once, a gay friend and his then-boyfriend were visiting from London. We’ll call them Scott and James, because that’s their names. We took them for beers in Schöneberg since Cologne was too far. The idea was to knock back a few and then head home, leaving Scott and James to explore Schöneberg. After the first beer, Scott said he wanted to start exploring early while we were around in case he had any questions.

Turns out, he would have questions.

He headed to a bar called New Action around the corner alone.

A few minutes later he stormed back, flustered.

“You would not believe how that bartender treated me!” he said, and recounted his story. He had been alarmed by a sign announcing a dresscode outside the bar – patrons must wear pants and a shirt, it said. Scott met the code but James did not. Scott thought he’d ask the staff how serious the dresscode was.

“I’m dressed OK but my boyfriend just has on shorts and a t-shirt – can he still come in?” he asked the barkeep.

“I don’t know,” the bartender snapped back in English, backed by Berlinerisch. “IS HE HUMAN?”

To which Scott took immediate offense. He understood the tone and the generalizing as an invitation for him to leave and a hint that his boyfriend would not be welcome.

My wife laughed: “He was trying to tell you that everyone is welcome. It’s fine.”

“Are you sure? It’s like he barked it at me. I think he hates me.”

“Welcome to Berlin,” my wife said. “Go back with James and if you don’t get in we’ll go somewhere else, otherwise we’ll see you when you get home.”

We didn’t see them until the next morning.

Berlinerisch: Se können hier schwimmen …

Another time I stopped at a combination café and Spätkauf (convenience store­) in Mitte for a quick machine-generated coffee while I waited for an appointment. It was the kind of spartanly decorated place that opened shortly after the Wall fell and was staffed by robust, well-built women who can operate heavy machinery, slaughter all kinds of livestock with a pocketknife and make perfect Schwarzwälder Kirschtorten.

After a few minutes an aging gentleman entered. He was clearly from somewhere in Lower Saxony (probably Hannover but maybe Detmold) and was probably visiting an adult offspring who had recently located to the Hauptstadt. He was neatly but not fashionably dressed and probably drove a C-Class Mercedes. Germans would recognize him as a special breed known as a Spiesser, which is best translated as “squares” but is most often referred to by their colloquial title: Dad.

“Excuse me,” the man said to the ladies behind the counter.

Ja!” they bellowed back. In normal customer service the “ja” would be couched as a polite question. In Berlinerisch, it’s intimidation.

“Can one drink a coffee here?” he asked.

I almost pitied him.

“You could go swimming here if you brought enough water!” the woman behind the counter bellowed in perfect Berlinerisch.

The man turned bright red and stammered a bit. He may have been close to tears.

The woman saved him from herself: “Black or with milk?” she wanted to know.

He ended up ordering some bread with cheese as well.

“Is everyone here like that?” he asked me. He was realizing all the documentaries, news reports and first-hand reports of Berlinerisch he’d seen were true.

“Yes,” I said.

“Interesting,” he answered.

It always is, I said. It always is.

You guys! Tatort is American (sort of)

There comes a point in the timeline of every ex-pat in Germany when they discover the TV crime series Tatort (crime scene) and think they’ve discovered a window into the Teutonic soul – some friends even do an English-language version.

For me, it was because television is culture in the U.S. and I made the false assumption that it is in Germany as well. But I’ve since realized that I hadn’t so much discovered a window into the German soul as a long lost cousin; The child of Aunt Doris who fell in love with a German philosophy student while doing her Fullbright at Cambridge and then moved to Bergisch Gladbach and got married.

You guys, Tatort has American roots.

Bear with me.

American Tatort
I have no idea where this pic came from.

Back when I first moved to Germany, there wasn’t even streaming video let alone Youtube and Netflix. Apps? What? So what you did in those dark days during moments of boredom was watch whatever was on TV.

Can you imagine? And not much was on TV because Germany thought it had cable TV but it didn’t really. We’re talking like 10 channels, maybe 12, one of which was NBC Europe, which was just Dateline re-runs.

One evening I stumbled into this goofy, black-and-white crime drama based in Hamburg. The caper itself seemed as oddly familiar as did the setup: Dry voiceovers alongside about 22 minutes of show. It was so familiar, I felt like that time I ran into my professor at a Bruce Springsteen concert — I couldn’t figure out where I knew that man from, or why I was at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

When the TV show ended I watched the credits and the title of the series and thought, “Stahlnetz (steel net)? I’ve never watched Stahlnetz.” A beat later I realized I’d just watched the German version of Dragnet, a childhood fave (back when the U.S. didn’t even have cable TV). They’d just translated the scripts.

The next time I caught it I discovered it even used the same theme music but lacked the subtle dry humor of lead character Joe Friday. Stahlnetz was huge in Germany, kind of like how Dragnet was in the U.S., and ran from 1958 to 1968 (and again briefly in the ‘90s) and it spawned additional crime shows.

When the series ended, regional public broadcaster WDR wanted a replacement and Tatort father Gunther Witte came up with the genius idea of basing each episode in a different German city – and allowing the regional broadcaster in that city to produce the episode. Tatort’s been on the air since 1970.

The constantly changing locations gives the series a varied texture and anthology feel but, more importantly, spreads out production costs.

The creative head behind Stahlnetz, Jürgen Roland, actually directed a number of Tatorts but died in 2007Tatort’s Witte is still around.

Tatort might not be the porthole to the German psyche I once believed it to be but I’ve since found a glimpse of the inner workings of my Teutonic friends (and family): Wetten, Dass …. (I bet …)

Perhaps in a sign of the complexity of the German soul, I’ve never been able to comprehend the show. And if it has American roots, I don’t want to know about them.

The reason Merkel’s not at risk

At the moment, Chancellor Angela Merkel feels like that big sister that annoyed you your whole life but, sometime in your 20s, you realized had been OK all along. I’m still no fan but she’s a welcome lifeboat on this all-too-familiar sea of nationalist, fascist tendencies.

Now that Merkel’s seen as the final outpost of humane, sane governance, everyone keeps asking me if I think she’ll survive the populist virus afflicting most of the rest of the western hemisphere – she’s up for re-election this fall. My parents want to know. The neighbors want to know. Even the guy in line for the porta-potties at Saturday’s Women’s March wanted to known after he saw my wife’s German-language sign (the sign said, in Bauhaus simplicity, “Achtung”).

So will Merkel survive?

merkel re-election
For years, my daughter called the chancellor, „The juice press woman“.

The TL;DR version: Yes, because Merkel’s been part of the right-of-center festivities all along. The right may not be too enamored with their guest of honor at the moment, but they’re not going to ask her to leave just yet.

For longer attention spans: Merkel’s part of the Christian Democrats, Germany’s dominant conservative party which is better known as the CDU and is like the Republicans in the U.S. and the, uh, Conservative Party in the U.K. Lazy conservative German voters and German voters worried about upsetting the status quo have likely been voting for her party (and indirectly her) all along. They’re not going to change.

That gives her a base.

And being atop the conservatives and sporting the incumbent’s privilege – her party wanted her to run again – she can’t be bumped aside by a populist, reality-TV star like now-President Trump. By not spouting nationalist, protectionist propaganda like the Brexiters, she’s galvanizing some of her more level-headed support but also scaring away the right edges of her party – she just lost a long-time critic within the CDU this month, for example.

But she’s doing fine. At the moment, the CDU would get 37% of the popular vote if the elections were held tomorrow (that’s according to Germany’s favorite poll, the Sonntagsfrage, or Sunday question, which isn’t whether or not to go to church. It’s: “Who would you vote for if the next election was on Sunday?”).

Merkel’s re-re-re-election

For perspective, the CDU got 41.5% in the 2013 federal election, which was higher than everyone expected and was even part of the Rechtsrück, or shift to the right, that continues today.

In 2009, they pulled in just 33.8% of the vote and she still got to keep her job.

Her support, like her demeanor, is rock solid. After that, keeping her post at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy is just a matter of math, because this is Germany and Germans love math.

Math says Germany won’t even change the coalition of political parties that govern in the fall (but possibly the composition of ministers within that coalition): The Social Democrats polled at 21% in the most recent Sonntagsfrage. That would give the current CDU/SPD government, known as the Grand Coalition, a 58% majority if the elections were held on Sunday. In fact, math says it’s the only possibility – the left can’t muster enough support to dream of its own coalition.

And the far-right, the despicable Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, which unfortunately will likely get seats in Germany’s parliament in the fall, wouldn’t be able to find any coalition dance partners.

Let’s hope it stays that way (I think it will).

 

 

Yes I drink non-alcoholic German beer

It’s a lot easier to keep my annual super-secret New Year’s resolution in Germany than in America. My super-secret resolution is always to quit drinking. I keep it secret because I know I have as much chance of success with it as with my yearly public resolution: To become the first female president of the United States. Up until November, I thought I lacked the actual qualifications to become the first female president but now I know the only thing holding me back is a sex change.

And maybe a reality TV show.

But keeping my super-secret, no-alcohol resolution in Germany is easier because the country is awash in tasty non-alcoholic beer. Or, alkoholfreies Bier. Or, when I was a kid, Near Beer. Quality non-alcoholic beer is such a thing in Germany that there are already derivatives, like alcohol-free Radler (that’s beer with Fanta or Sprite for you noobs). Or alcohol-free wheat beer with lemon. Or even organic alcohol-free.

non-alcoholic beer Germany
So much beer. So little alcohol.

Every January, the non-alcoholic trend makes it easy to stick with my super-secret resolution while mounting my presidential campaign: When I belly up to the bar, the little voice in my head reminds me of my resolution and I say: “Ein alkohol-freies Bier, bitte!”

Sometimes bars even offer me a choice.

Becks oder Jever Fun?”

I’ve drunk so much non-alcoholic German beer that I can even tell you that Jever Fun is anything but while Becks is a solid alcohol-free beer. Rudely, it’s called Becks Blue in the English-speaking world, because drinking it makes you feel blue? Incidentally, feeling blau in German means being drunk.

Who says Germans have no sense of humor?

Alcohol-free in Ger-ma-nee

I got into the whole non-alcoholic beer thing when my wife was pregnant. Pregnancy and alcohol are a no-no. But so are Germans without beer. We traded off the tiny amount of alcohol in alcohol-free beers (~0.5% ABV) for her sanity. Alcohol-free was just getting going as a trend back then so choice was limited but she quickly found a favorite: Krombacher Alkohol Frei, which foodie website Eater also says schmeckt (tastes good). Also: The non-non-alcohol version happens to be her father’s beer of choice.

I know the arguments that beer without alcohol isn’t beer. And coffee without caffeine isn’t coffee. And tofu hot dogs aren’t hot dogs. Heck, I even used to say them. But they’re no argument at all. Sometimes I want to have a beer without getting drunk, drink coffee at 10 p.m. or eat a rubbery tube with little taste.

non-alcoholic beer Germany
Probably don’t drink the Sternburg alkohol-frei. Or the Jever Fun.

Since I’m a grown up, I get to make decisions like that (quick aside: Germany also has Malzbier (malt beer), which is basically unbrewed beer and which they feed to kids and which I loved back in my exchange student days, but let’s just agree to blog about that some other time, OK?).

Why would I want alcohol-free beer rather than something else? When I’m trying to not drink, if I order a Coke in a bar it’s gone in seconds. Same with water. But a non-alcoholic beer I can nurse for awhile and trick my friends into believing I’m drinking a real beer without endless discussions of why I’m not drinking. And, since I’m a grownup and my tastebuds are dying off, I still yearn to nip at a bitter brew in the evening without the side effects.

With all the beer culture and craft breweries fermenting in the world (you know, all those IPAs that taste like liquid thistle), I think it’s time to get a few more non-alcoholic brews in the western hemisphere, like they do in Germany.

A country that knows its beers.

This is how you beat the Zollamt

Ah, Christmastime in Germany. Glühwein. Adventkalendars. And at least one trip to the Zollamt (customs office) to retrieve seized packages. I always enjoy the Zollamt because of a luxury unique to Germany: The ability to have heated arguments with armed government officials without ending up in jail.

Or the hospital.

The argument-with-a-cop thing is something I discovered after living in Berlin for a year when a German friend shouted his way out of a ticket from a tubby Polizist. It was like the cop was even thankful to have a discussion.

Every visit to the Zollamt starts with a letter saying they’ve seized a package and suspect the contents may exceed the €45 limit on gifts sent from abroad. A bit rude and presumptuous, really. They then invite you to stop by for a chat to retrieve your package.

Zollamt Berlin
This is an old picture of the place but it still looks like this.

The Zollamt in Berlin is a mid-sized warehouse sandwiched into a No Man’s Land between a sketchy corner of Schöneberg and the northern tip of Friedenau, a borough no one’s ever heard of. The Hauptadt’s Bielefeld, if you will. It’s filled with vanilla customs officials whose dream in life is to catch a 21-year-old student trying to sneak a cut-rate iPhone into the country via Deutsche Post without paying sales tax or duties.

You’d think a customs officer would want to break up an international poaching ring or discover 1,200 tons of cocaine hidden in a teal teddy bear but you’d be wrong. They want to pop Kai from Heidelberg with his hands in the customs cookie jar.

And they suspect everyone called to their place of work of being Kai from Heidelberg.

On my last visit there, I was paired with a dour customs officer convinced she was facing her daily Kai. I knew I was anything but. Every year, German customs seizes packages filled with gifts from my stepmother for my kids. And every year I leave smiling without paying a dime because I know something the Zollamt is incapable of learning: My stepmother knows international law in deep detail. Not because she wants to exploit it, but because she’s so fearful of breaking it.

Every one of those packages contains less than €45 worth of gifts, which is also a great reason to limit your spending on your grandkids.

The customs official met me as I entered the rear warehouse and pushed my stepmother’s package at me across the steel counter.

“What’s in here?” She asked.

“Gifts for my kids from my parents.” I always like to throw the kid thing in there. I like to hint that they’re harming the bond between child and grandparent. That they’re trying to take something from my children. Like they’d even take candy from a baby. Because they would, actually, if it wasn’t declared and exceeded €45.

“We’ll see about that,” she said, going on the offensive. “Please open it.”

At this point they hand you the box and an industrial box cutter, which seems odd. Customs officials are armed, presumably because dangerous people end up there. And the first thing they do is hand you a weapon.

And I always want to say: “You’re the one so eager to see what’s in it – you open it.” But there’s probably some goofy legal reason they’re not allowed to even though they’ve probably x-rayed it, which is little different.

Ok, someday I’ll say it. Actually, no I won’t.

I opened the box and pulled out the gifts. My stepmother no longer wraps them because every one of her packages gets seized. Every. Single. One. I get to wrap them.

The customs official quickly grabbed a paint-by-numbers set in a futuristic packaging. You know, the kind of thing your mother might buy at Safeway to shut you up while she tries to pick out a cantaloupe.

“A-ha!,“ the customs officer said, “What do we have here? Electronics?”

“It’s a gift for my daughter. Paints, not electronics,” I offered. The kid thing again. I’m ruthless.

“I’m going to look it up,” she said accusingly. She clearly thought my stepmother and I were locked in a conspiracy to smuggle paint-by-numbers sets. She grabbed the toy and headed to her desk. This woman would not only take candy from a baby, she’d make the baby unwrap it first.

This is what the Zollamt – the arm of the German government tasked with protecting Europe’s most populous country from nefarious and illegal shipments – does to determine the price of presents: Checks Amazon. Really. They do it so much Amazon should charge a commission.

I watched with joy as the woman discovered the non-value of the toy and returned to the counter.

Next, she grabbed a winter coat which, granted, could push the value of the shipment above the limit. That is, had the package been sent by anyone but my stepmother.

“What do we have here?” she said, accusingly again.

“A jacket for my son,” I said. Who would be so cruel as to deny a growing boy a jacket during a Berlin winter? This woman, that’s who.

She inspected the coat and smiled. Villains always smile.

“There’s no price tag on here! I think we all know why there’s no price tag!”

She thought she had her Kai. She grabbed the coat and moved back to her desk for a little Amazoning.

“You’re right,” I said. “We do know why there’s no price tag – or have you never received a present?”

This sounds rhetorical but at that point it seemed a possibility.

“Of course I have,” she mumbled. I knew I was nearing victory.

Her colleague must have sensed her impending defeat. He stepped in to help: “Why don’t you go wait in the waiting room and we’ll check the value of the shipment? We’ll call you when we’re ready,” he said.

I only had to wait a few minutes. When I was called back into the warehouse the first customs official had disappeared and the remaining officers were seated at their desks. The box had been repacked and was deserted on the counter.

“You guys done with your Internet research? Can I go?” I was probably smiling.

“Yes,” the officer said. He didn’t even look at me.

“Merry Christmas,” I said as I left.

Silence.

What’s the value of triumphing over German bureaucrats (with guns!)? It’s just an extra gift my stepmother throws in every Christmas.

The time I got serenaded on Berlin’s Ringbahn.

The Ringbahn (ring subway) in Berlin used to be the hinterlands. Few people ever ventured past Mauerpark, Tempelhof airport (when it was still an airport) or the Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), let alone ride the Ringbahn.

I always saw it as an adventure. As soon as the doors closed at Schönhauser Allee or Prenzlauer Allee, a time warp opened and I was somewhere near Bucharest. At every stop I expected people to get on with live chickens or maybe a goat. There were always colorful people on the Ringbahn, left over from what Berlin was and unaware of what it was becoming.

I liked it. It was that feeling right at the peak of the biggest hill on a rollercoaster, when you know it’s all going to accelerate and it might just come off the rails and kill you.

Ringbahn Berlin

Driving to a job interview last week reminded me of the Ringbahn. I had had to ride the looping Berlin subway the last time I interviewed for a job – over a decade ago. The job interview back then was with a newswire in Frankfurt and I had to wear a suit. Black. German designer. I’ve had it forever.

That interview went well but I turned them down. I’m pretty sure they’re still mad at me. Yes, all of a newswire is mad at me 10 years later.

The boss on the Ringbahn

After interviewing with the newswire, I had an argument with the voice in my head as I walked to the gate at the Frankfurt airport before flying home. If you’ve ever flown through Frankfurt, you know there are two things you do at that airport: Walk a long way to your gate and walk a long way to your gate.

Me: “Take your suit off before you fly back to Berlin.”

Me: “What? Why?”

Me: “It’s Berlin. Nobody wears suits in Berlin. You’ll look like a noob. Also: Where is our gate?”

Me: “Plenty of people wear suits in Berlin and this is me. I’ve lived in Berlin forever. I am allowed to wear a suit in Berlin if I want to. Plus, if no one wears suits in Berlin, then wearing a suit in Berlin is punk.”

Me: “Noob.”

I still wasn’t at my gate.

Then I got off the plane and onto a bus and then onto the Ringbahn. To get home I’d have to take a tram as well, because Tegel is the airport Berliners love to call central – so central it requires a bus, a subway and a tram to get there. Or a €30 taxi fare.

“Hey,” the voice in my head said as soon as I took a seat, “You should have taken the suit off.”

I finally agreed with the voice – the Ringbahn seemed allergic to suits. It was (is?) a working man’s train. About then two semi-threatening punks came tumbling down the aisle, loudly talking about where to sit.

Lass uns hier sitzen (Let’s sit here),” the man said, “Neben Chef (Next to the boss).” I was trying to avoid his gaze as he sat in the chair across the aisle. His female companion, who had apparently just partaken in a substance that made her very absent, sat two rows back.

He smiled at me – the boss – and I told myself that I had told myself to take off the suit. Since I’m a paranoic when it comes to personal safety, I was I hoping for a gentle mugging. Something short of murder.

“Na, chef?” he said. I smiled and enjoyed the last few minutes of my life.

When the subway started, he started beatboxing, which seemed an odd thing for a punk to do.

As the train picked up speed, he started rapping:

Wo sitzt der Boss?

Da sitzt der Boss!

Wer ist der Boss?

Der ist der Boss!

Wer kennt den Boss?

Wir kennen den Boss!“

(Where’s the boss? There‘s the boss! Who’s the boss? He’s the boss! Who knows the boss? …)

It went on for several minutes, each stanza changing but with the all-important “boss” as the hook. I was equal parts impressed with the freestyling and afraid for my well-being. He would look back at his companion for approval and around at the other passengers for admiration.

I’m certain they felt the same way I did: Nice freestyling but if you’re going to hurt anyone, hurt the guy wearing the suit. Who wears a suit on the ringbahn?

Unnerved, I got off a stop early and decided to walk home from the Schönhauser Allee stop. In my suit.

I didn’t wear a suit to my job interview last week. But I turned down that job too.

I don’t want to be the boss.