I’ve started making videos to go along with my blog. Today: The iconic television tower that was inaugurated by the East German government in October 1969, probably to spy on people but also to send television signals all over the place. And to spy on people.
I once had a run-in with Nazis. Not, like, WWII Nazis in uniforms or anything. But it was on the Autobahn so it’s indirectly related to those Nazis. We were coming back from my in-laws and had stopped to get gas and food, a combination that sounds logical – fueling up both the car and ourselves – but, when you think about it, seems more like a giant cancer risk.
We were in Saxony Anhalt, which is now my least-favorite German state. Berlin is my favorite. Hamburg No. 2. Saarland is somewhere in the middle on my list, because it’s actually somewhere in the middle.
It occurs to me that we weren’t just there to fuel up, we were also there to wring out, as my grandmother used to say – to go to the bathroom. And at this particular combination gas station, convenience store and restaurant, the bathrooms were down a long hallway that led to a parking lot. I was standing in that hallway waiting outside the restrooms when I had my run-in with the Nazis. Waiting outside restrooms is something you spend a lot of time doing as a parent and it’s something they never warn you about, just like how no one mentions the very bad music recitals you’ll have to sit through or all the crowing over crappy crayon drawings of you that more closely resemble obese lobsters.
Dudes in black hoodies
Anyway, I’m waiting outside the restrooms and look down the hallway and out to the parking lot and notice a bus that seems to be bleeding young men in black hoodies like parasites abandoning a dead host. I thought to myself, “Fuck, that’s just what I need right now, Nazis coming back from a soccer match,” which implies that there is some point in my life that I need Nazis coming back from a soccer match. I assure you, there has never been and will never be a moment where I require Nazis, with or without a soccer match. But I also thought, “Jesus man, they’re just dudes in black hoodies. Stop being so god damn judgmental all the time.”
And I agreed with myself. I needed to stop being so god damn judgmental all the time.
They all entered the long hallway and started to file past me when the fourth Nazi stopped right in front of me and stretched his right arm out at a 45-degree angle and started to belt out a song I now know was written in 1932 for Nazis about how Germany now belongs to the Germans and tomorrow the world will too. I’m not going to link or name the song because fuck that song. Fuck the guy that wrote it. And also fuck Nazis. Also, we’re all adults here. We can google.
And, as it turned out, being god damn judgemental was fine.
But even though I didn’t recognize the tune at the time, I recognized the situation and was confident that I would be exiting in an ambulance, if not a hearse. I had no way out. There were at least 8 million of them and I hadn’t been in a fight since me and Mark Robohm duked it out on the last day of fourth grade (he won).
At that moment I thought two things. First, I was hoping my wife and children would remain in the bathroom until after the beating was finished or even until my limp body had been carted away and, secondly, that if I had a moment to speak with these fine gentlemen, I would act like a British football fan who was really into Worcestershire United or the Guinness Hotspurs, or something. I figured their English wouldn’t be good enough to see through my clever ruse.
Nazis like British football hooligans, right?
I wonder how many lives have ended just as someone was concocting a very bad plan that wouldn’t have saved their lives anyway. Probably lots. And most from my family.
As the song entered its second chorus, I saw a glimmer of hope. The guy immediately behind the Nazi crooner was looking at his buddy with a very confused look. He would then look at me with the same confused look and then back to his friend. He seemed much less confident than I that he and his buddies were about to open a can of Nazi whoop ass on me. He seemed to be wondering why his buddy had picked me for a mid-afternoon serenade of fascism.
Right then my son, who was probably four, maybe five, emerged from the men’s room and looked at me. I bent over slightly and invited him to jump into my arms. These Nazis, I thought, would never punch a father holding his child.
Looking back, leveraging my son’s innocence for my own well-being seems foolhardy, if not downright dangerous, but I’ve never claimed to be a perfect father. I often doubt whether or not I’m even a good father. Let’s just go with: “father”.
Then my wife emerged with my daughter and rushed over to stand next to me. I was wondering what was going to happen next, especially since a veritable Stau (traffic jam) of Nazis had piled up behind all of this activity.
What happened next was that Nazi No. 5 pushed Nazi No. 4, aka the singing Nazi, and Nazi No. 4 ended his serenade and they all headed down the hallway and into the combination gas station, convenience store and restaurant. I stood there shaking. I didn’t want to head out the back door to our car because I feared being jumped there with no one to hear my screams so we meekly followed the black hoodies into the combination gas station, convenience store and restaurant. At least there would be witnesses who could testify at the Nazi’s murder trial after killing me near the potato chips, M&Ms and Erdnussflips.
Then one of the hooligans tried to order a Brötchen at the bakery counter.
“Wenn ihr euch so dämlich verhaltet kannst du das vergessen. Von mir kriegst du nichts!“ (“If you’re going to behave like that, forget it. You’re not getting anything from me!”) I still wonder at the woman’s clarity and strength. I was just trying to escape and she was making a statement. The Nazi ordering the bread then complained to Nazi No. 4 that he had once again screwed things up.
I had apparently been serenaded by a serial fuck-up, as if that wasn’t clear already. As we sped through the convenience store, gas station and restaurant, we watched several Nazis shovel cans of beer into their jackets and I wondered if anyone in the place would try to stop the shoplifting.
We then rushed out to our car and I had that sensation in so many of my nightmares where I fumble for my keys and can’t get the key in the lock fast enough before something awful happens. Luckily, my Volvo had electric door locks so a simple push of a button opened everything – and locked them again as soon we got in.
“Should we call the cops?” my wife asked. I wasn’t sure, I just wanted to leave. And, anyway, my interactions with German police officers have been … frustrating. Once, at Alexanderplatz, I called to get some help for a man and his girlfriend who were being assaulted by a much larger dude. The cop told me it wasn’t really their job and the charges would have to be filed by those being attacked anyway.
Which seemed odd.
Another time two dogs were having a particularly vicious, bloody fight next to a playground, in large part because one of the owners was illegally walking his mastiff in the park without a leash. “Animal fights aren’t our problem,” the cop on the phone said. Nice. Some other people had reached a different precinct when they called – and that precinct was willing to send a few officers by for some help (they ended up going after the mastiff owner).
So I figured if I did call the cops that day they would just show up and laugh that Frank the Nazi was causing problems again – and just add it to all the charges he was already facing, which wouldn’t result in much punishment anyway.
Now every time I see a bunch of black hoodies spilling out of a bus I don’t hesitate to be pretty god damn judgemental all the time (and also leave).
Although there are several things that differentiate Christmas in Germany from Christmas in the US, they both have one key character in common: That big red Coca-cola truck, decked to the gills in blinking lights and snaking across an icy highway to bring diabetes to snowy evening landscapes everywhere.
But this year, the Alternative for Germany party, better known as the AfD, is trying to put the brakes on that red and white semi full of sticky awesomeness. Forget about the War on Christmas, this is the War on Cola. And so far it’s Cola: 4 – AfD:0.
That’s because the War on Cola hinges on one thing: The AfD’s ability to be both reliably and relentlessly stupid.
The War on Cola began on Dec. 4 with a misunderstanding. Political artists in Berlin unveiled an anti-AfD advent calendar that offers suggestions on political activism behind every door. Behind door No. 4 (that’s for the 4th of December for those who don’t know about advent calendars), the AFDentskalendar suggests making mock ads for companies to encourage those companies to refute the populist party. And the artists led the way with this billboard, parked on Martin Luther Strasse, a major thoroughfare in western Berlin:
“For a joyous season, say no to the AfD,” it reads. The poster looks real enough and many took to Twitter to congratulate Coke on its bold move, even though Coke had nothing to do with the campaign. The modified poster with the coked up St. Nick apparently hasn’t even been used for several years, but it’s a subtlety lost on most people, especially the AfD. Its members called for a boycott and spilled the Coke they had already bought with their hard-earned reichsmarks.
*despite me disagreeing with their politics, this human does illustrate the Teutonic ability to open a bottle with anything, something I’ve written about before.
And the guerrilla campaign by the artists worked! Coke came out with a laudable response:
“Not every fake is wrong,” this tweet by Coke Germany spokesman Patrick Kammerer says, his words feeling like his product tastes: sweet.
The AfD then had an unoriginal idea. They created a digital Pepsi ad atop the Cola ad, rolling in a logo, a Santa in blue and the phrase: “For a joyous season, say yes to the AfD.”
Pepsi was not amused – on Twitter the company said it rejected the “political commandeering of the Pepsi brand” by the AfD and that it would review its legal options. According to Volksverpetzer, the company behind the blue Santa (Widman costumes) also threatened to put some lawyers under the Christmas tree.
For most observers, the War on Cola was getting flat, like that last bit of brown liquid at the bottom of a bottle that’s equal parts cola and backwash, but the AfD didn’t get to be the AfD by leaving brown backwash in the bottle.
Malte Kaufmann, an AfD politician in southern Germany, tried to fire a shot across Pepsi and Coke’s bows by sipping a Fritz Kola openly on Twitter – If there’s a cola startup, then it’s Hamburg’s Fritz, which entered the market in 2003.
The only problem: Fritz came out against the AfD shortly after the federal election in 2017 — long before Kaufmann ever put his lips to one of their bottles:
“The only good alternative,” the tweet reads. Note the use of the word “alternative” and the BTW17 hashtag denoting the September 2017 elections where the AfD turned in a disappointing result. Fritz has had plenty of other pro-everyone ads and graphics, and reposted them after Kaufmann’s attempted cola burn.
Quickly running out of colas to enjoy after a hard day trying to reintroduce fascism to Germany, one of the most problematic of the AfD’s problematic politicians got involved. The AfD is strongest in the former East Germany, so Bernd Höcke, the problematic politician, sought support from Vita Cola, a former East German brand.
“There are alternatives for everything, not just in politics,” his tweet said. He pointed out that Vita Cola was the market leader in his native state of Thuringia, but Vita wasn’t impressed.
I would post Vita Cola’s response, but it was the most vanilla of the bunch, saying they weren’t interested in politics — just being open and tolerant. Indeed, in their past they’ve used homosexual themes in their advertising.
The only German cola left for the AfD to claim would seem to rule itself out by its name — Afri Cola. Indeed, a hapless AfD politician did try pull Afri in, and they also pushed back, but it allows me to end this blog with Afri’s bizarre, near-pornographic ads from the ’60s. Nuns? Realy?
In any case, what German cola do you prefer?
I ate a €19 Döner Kebab.
The Döner, as it’s best known, is one of my favorites of German cuisine. It was supposedly invented by Nadir Kurim in Berlin in the ‘70s but is suspiciously like food eaten for decades – if not centuries – in the Middle East, Greece and Turkey (and elsewhere). When I first read about the €19 Adlon Döner, available at the Adlon Hotel near the Brandenburg Gate, I put it on the list of things I might do some day but probably wouldn’t – right next to salmon fishing in New Zealand and underneath running for president of the United States of America. Might, but probably won’t.
Then the €19 Döner became a bit of a thing in the office, its momentum unstoppable. Besides, the Brandenburg Gate is a scant two subway stops (or 20-minute walk) from the office. But even after we decided it had to happen it almost didn’t happen. When I and my co-worker (colleague for you Europeans) arrived at the Adlon for lunch that day, the Egyptian president was trying to leave. German police officers told us that no one could go in while Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was going out. “10 to 15 minutes,” he said but the officer was bad at math – it was half an hour.
Once inside we discovered two things. First: You can only eat the €19 Döner in the lobby bar (the hotel’s restaurants charge more than that for just a glass of tap water). And, second, the cooks in the lobby bar have put their own Berlin spin on several delicacies. My co-worker, for example, tried a Berlin Reuben sandwich. It of course had sauerkraut but instead of Pastrami Kassler – smoked, pickled pork – and heavy, gray German rye bread rather than a light American rye with caraway seeds. Kassler was supposedly invented by the Cassel butcher shop in Schöneberg in the 19th century, though there is some culinaro-historical doubt.
The Döner, like its Berlin sibling the currywurst, is basic working person’s food, which means it’s great when you’re drunk. The meat is usually buried in too many spices and served by fast food outlets with questionable hygienic standards. A good Döner starts with just meat and bread, and then varies by the quirks of the eatery and customer. Mustafa’s, Berlin’s most famous (and inexplicably so) Dönerbude, for example, throws in grilled vegetables, sea salt and soy sauce, as if the doctored meat doesn’t already have enough sodium. Three sauces are generally available – herb, spicy and garlic – and Döners are then topped with onions, lettuce/cabbage, tomatoes and maybe even more seasoning. Since everyone gets to pick what goes on their own Döner, it’s the country’s most democratic dish.
The Adlon Döner
Service at a Dönerbude is always curt and gruff, like Berlin. So it was odd to be ordering a Döner with my inside voice while surrounded by leftover Egyptian dignitaries. I was more than a little disappointed when the waiter didn’t bark in accented German: “Sosse, bitte? Salat komplett?” (Which sauce, all the veggies?)
Like all Döner Kebabs, the Adlon Döner comes in a paper wrapper but unfortunately not that paper wrapper sporting a red line drawing of a Döner cook with his giant knife and indeterminate meat-on-a-spit. The Adlon has enough of a sense of humor to charge €19 for a Döner but not enough to keep the joke going. It’s made with veal (sorry, I still feel guilty) cooked medium rare and sliced thin. They add red and white cabbage, tomatoes, some fresh herbs and onion seeds and finish it with a creamy truffle sauce. It all felt well-balanced and put together, like a Netflix series. I love truffles but I also like a little fire with my Doner so: ☹.
The Adlon Döner was good, but not €19 good. I’d say maybe €8 good, €9 tops. But that extra €10 didn’t go to waste — it just puts the Adlon Döner in the same category as Crossfit and veganism. These are things you don’t do to do, you do them so you can tell everyone you do them, like in a blog.
The Adlon Döner also feels a bit condescending, or like class appropriation. “Bah,” the Adlon seems to be saying. “We can do that better than you peons!” Though, they can’t – unlike the Adlon Döner, a real Döner is supposed to be sloppy and culinarily imbalanced. It’s eaten quickly while one decides whether to wait for the night bus or just splurge on a taxi. A Döner is one of the things you regret the least from a night out.
“I’ll be the Adlon’d serve you one drunk at 2 am,” my lunch companion said. We agreed to get drunk some night and try it out, though then I could only afford the night bus.
Upon reflection, her Reuben seemed the more successful experiment.
After lunch I wanted to check out the Adlon bathrooms (they’re downstairs, if you need them). I washed my hands next to a Berlin cop left over from the president’s army of protectors. I watched as he used the towel he dried his hands with to turn off the faucets and open the bathroom doors.
“Smart,” I said to him. “Don’t want to leave any fingerprints.”
He didn’t say a word and looked back at me a couple times as we ascended the stairs. Someone on Twitter pointed out that maybe he wasn’t really a cop and there was a naked police officer tied up in a basement broom closet somewhere.
“I wonder if the Egyptian president tried the Döner,” I thought.
For awhile I’ve been putting off this post because it forces me to do something Americans hate and Germans love or, at the very least, Germans don’t mind: Talking about going to the bathroom. Who am I kidding? Germans love talking about it! They even write kids books about it involving cuddly woodland creatures! Meanwhile, Americans never poop.
I will admit that us prudish Americans are a bit too prude about something that affects everyone, every day, but Germans could also cool it a bit. And it starts with the very way they tell people their intention to visit a bathroom: In German, you say, “Excuse me, I am going to go on the toilet. (Entschuldige, ich muss aufs Klo)” Just writing that gives me the heebee jeebees. Every time I hear it I’m forced to picture whoever said it ON THE TOILET. Gross!
“TMI,” I think when I hear it.
Of course, since both men and women sit down to pee in Germany, it’s always accurate, and we all know how important accuracy is in German-speaking regions. Incidentally, my post about Sitzpinkeln, or men sitting to pee, goes viral again every few months, proving the world thinks it’s weird (though I now agree that men the world over should adopt the practice).
In any case, I’ve always preferred the euphimistic English version: “I’m going to the bathroom.” It leaves open what you might be doing in there – sure, you could be going on the toilet like a German, but you could also be using your phone to check you bank balance or filing your nails. Maybe you’ve even got a model train setup in there and you just want to switch engines. I don’t know! And I don’t want to know!
Seriously now, please use the Klobürste
Next up, the Klobürste (toilet brush), the single biggest source of inner-office notes and memos in every German office I’ve worked in – permanent or temporary. German toilets are weird. Even though the dreaded shelf is disappearing, the new, water-in-the-bowl version is sometimes not so efficient, and people who have gone “on the toilet” leave, uh, marks. Users are expected to remove said marks with an often-unappetizing Klobürste positioned adjacent to the porcelain god. However, the anonymity of German public and office toilets often makes people lazy, leading them to eschew the use of the Klobürste and leave their marks for the next visitor to witness. Office busybodies jump into action any time this occurs and hang up passive-aggressive, tsk, tsk-ing notes about using the Klobürste. The problem is so prevalent that companies even offer commercial versions for permanent affixation to toilet walls.
I encountered the Klobürste dilemma at my first-ever German office – Bloomberg News in Frankfurt. The office was regrettably divided by English-speakers (journalists) and German-speakers (marketing people). Also regrettable was that the journalists and the marketing department were assigned separate toilets – ours right off the joint kitchen and theirs off the sales floor. We often bumped into our marketing co-workers in the joint kitchen and the discussion was always about our toilets, which was a problem because of the aforementioned American distaste of discussing bathroom activities and the aforementioned German passion for it. Our bathrooms, my German colleagues liked to assure me, were disgusting. Didn’t we know how to use a simple Klobürste? The implication was always that we foreigners had bad hygiene habits and weekly a new, passive-aggressive Klobürste note appeared in our bathroom.
This made me not like my marketing colleagues.
Then one day, standing in the kitchen, Bloomberg coffee cup in hand, I had a revelation – if the marketing department had its own toilets, how did they know what ours were like?
“Oh we don’t use ours,” my marketing co-worker said. “If we go in there they time us on how long we stay, but if we come back here they think we’re just coming to get coffee, so we’re safe.”
So ours were disgusting because everyone was using them, not because us English speakers were unclean.
So I started to use theirs.
And I never used the Klobürste.
When people ask me for advice before moving to Berlin, I always say the same thing: No matter how homesick you get, no matter how depressed the long winters make you, regardless of whether or not the long-distance relationship works out, never, ever lose your German apartment keys.
Losing the keys to your apartment opens up a vat of suffering that requires years of counseling and, sometimes, a team of lawyers to overcome. First, you are subjected to looks of incredulity from your landlord or property management company when you tell them that you lost the keys — and you have to tell them because you need their permission to get a new key. The looks will make you think you are the first person to have ever lost a key in Europe’s most populous country.
Then will come a lecture that starts off by reassuring you that you are, in fact, the first person to have ever lost a key in Europe’s most populous country followed by a tirade about the dangers of losing the keys – not only can criminals, philanderers and ne’er-do-wells now make it into your apartment, they may also gain entry to the entire building, putting all of your neighbors at risk! Theft! Murder! Cholera! Plague! And it will all be your fault.
Never, under any circumstances, should you lose your keys in Germany.
The misery isn’t yet over. After being made to feel smaller than the fruit flies that infest every German apartment in the summer, you will then face the second shock of losing your keys in this country – it will cost about 10 times what you’re expecting to pay to get a simple copy made. Forget about $5 down at the corner hardware store. More like north of €30, if not more. And, if your landlord or property management company decides you losing the keys does in fact put the whole building at risk, then they’ll make you pay to replace or rekey all the locks in the building and now you’re out at least a grand, if not more (if you have renter’s insurance, they’ll likely cover it but also give you a stern talking-to).
To legal scholars, this one-two punch of condescension and price gouging is known as double-jeopardy. It’s forbidden by the US constitution but Germany has its own constitution and it apparently says double jeopardy is fine, especially when it comes to apartment keys and a foreigner being the first-ever person to lose them in Europe’s most populous country. Really, there’s an entire section in the German constitution devoted to apartment keys.
Ok not the constitution but many German apartment keys are actually protected by laws. And, as anyone who has spent any time in Germany knows, laws trump everything in Germany including maternal advice, the needs of a dying sibling or the word of whoever your god (or gods) is (or isn’t). The law is the law and German law is even more law-er than any other.
German apartment keys are tiny metal unicorns
Every time I complained about the cost of keys, Germans told me this law thing and I never believed them until I saw this report from NDR the other day – warning, it’s in German. Keys are protected by patents. Basically, most German apartment keys are unique and beautiful snowflakes that belong to their creator. To copy them, you need the creator’s permission (often in the form of a little card called a Sicherheitskarte (security card) that your landlord keeps and may give to you to get a key copied).
And getting the creator’s permission is going to cost you. For some reason, I’m picturing Gepetto here using a quill to grant you his OK and then pocketing a Daffy Duck-level stack of bills.
If a locksmith copies a key without the creator’s permission, they are then exposing themselves to a lawsuit for violating the patent. So they’re protected by civil law – the Polizei isn’t going to stop by and arrest some guy for illegally copying a key. They would have to be sued by the creator but, using the investigative skills sharpened by my two decades as a professional journalist, I couldn’t find any evidence that such a lawsuit has ever occurred (and by “investigative skills” I mean “googling”).
Alas, there are some workarounds. First, if you lose your keys and have a spare, you can sometimes find an unscrupulous locksmith who will make you a copy (though still charge you tons) without Gepetto’s permission. I’m not saying I know any but I would ask in an ex-pat forum were I ever to lose a key. Secondly, you can just wait until you fly back to wherever you’re from and get a stack made for 1/10 the price.
Or, finally, there is a company that claims there’s a way to circumvent the patent – you simply grind a unique and beautiful snowflake that is a lot like the other unique and beautiful snowflake but also different. Voila, new key!
The pitfalls of these workarounds: If you move out, you will have to return your keys including the counterfeit key and hope the landlord doesn’t notice (they’ll notice). There is also the danger that, like in the NDR video, the copied keys won’t work, though this could be easily remedied.
But the easiest way to avoid all of this is to do what Germans do: Never lose your apartment keys.
When we had our kids, we swore we were going to write down everything cute or smart that they said. Every parent says this. But then they started saying so many cute and smart things and we were so busy with the actual parenting part of parenting that we just forgot. Which is unfortunate because, since we raised bilingual kids, they were saying twice as many cute and smart things, and sometimes even on purpose. But we remembered a few.
First off, we always sent them to bi-lingual daycares and schools, and we did that each-parent-exclusively-speaks-their-native-tongue method of bilingual child-rearing. Some academic has probably given it a better name but that’s what I call it: The each-parent-exclusively-speaks-their-native-tongue method of bilingual child-rearing. I spoke English to our kids and my German wife spoke German. I was, ahem, a fascist about it and never broke character. I found it difficult in small groups, like on playgrounds, because I’d be explaining something to my kids in English while some random German kid would stare at me dumbfounded. I would then translate it to German, which always felt super-pretentious.
But, like I said, I was being a fascist about it. Any time they spoke to me in German I would even say, “I don’t understand you” or the now-ridiculous sounding, “How does dad say it?” And they would always then switch to English. Because they’re the most awesome kids on the planet. Still, every time I told them I didn’t understand their German, I expected them to look at me dumbfounded and say, “Dad, I know you understand my German because I just heard you explain to that kid in German that the plastic dumptruck is mine but the pink starfish sand form was already on the playground when we got there.” But they never did. They believed us so wholeheartedly that when they wanted to tell us both something they would first say it in one language and then the other – a habit they still have as teenagers.
Truly bilingual kids
One night, I came in to find my wife and daughter sitting at the kitchen table. My daughter was about four at the time. I said something to her and she started laughing so hard that tears started to run down her cheeks. My wife and I looked at each other confused. “Mama!” she said to my wife. “Papa spricht deutsch mit mir!” (Dad’s speaking German with me!). I’d been at the beergarden and had probably stayed a bit too long. I switched to English and we all three laughed. We’re still laughing.
Another time we were on vacation in Italy with friends who have two sons. Our friends are Croatian and American but they live in Amsterdam, which means their two sons speak Dutch, English and Croatian. Yes, fluently. Our kids understood that the two boys were multi-lingual but my daughter couldn’t understand that they didn’t speak German.
“Hey,” my wife said to her. “They’re like the kids in your daycare and speak several languages but you have to speak English to them or they won’t understand.”
“I know,” my daughter said. “Just like the kids in the daycare.” And she continued to speak German with them. The odd part was that she would always speak English to their parents. My friend’s sons are nice, caring kids but it frustrated them that they would speak English to her and she would answer in German. So they just started speaking Croatian to her.
She finally switched.
In addition to anecdotes, there were vocabulary oddities. Only recently have my kids started saying “sleepovers”. For years they just anglicized the German übernachten: Overnighting. And they still don’t own any stuffed animals — they’re all cuddle toys (Kuscheltiere). I thought more of it would disappear during two years in Portland but in addition to the cuddle toys and overnighting, they also still ask if something “tastes”. Not “tastes good” or “tastes bad”, just “tastes”. Because in German, if something “tastes” it means it tastes good – you don’t need the adjective. But if it tastes bad, you need a whole sentence – “Es schmeckt mir nicht!” (It doesn’t taste to me!). My son would also like an English equivalent of “und so weiter” (and so on) in English when he doesn’t know how to end a story. Lately he’s started saying, “and whatsoever”, which is close.
But the funniest thing he ever said was one day when I was being a goofy dad, rough housing with him. He was laughing and laughing and said, “Dad! You’re spinning!” Because in German, acting crazy is a single verb: Spinnen as in, Papa, du spinnst!
There, now I’ve written down some of the cute and smart things my kids said.
Thanks to the necessity of store-brand knock-offs, there are infinite numbers of chocolatey hazelnut spreads in Germany (and beyond) these days. Some are more hazelnutty, others are more chocolatey and some are just a cloying goo that begs the question of why they were ever produced (usually served at downmarket hotels and corporate breakfast buffets). But for me, only three hazelnut spreads have made it into the canon of hazelnut spreads – Nutella, Nudossi and Nusspli. The complexities of familial politics mean that only Nutella ever lands on our table but, thanks to this blogpost, we will now, for a time, also have the other two. And by “complexities” I mean “my children’s preference”. Though it rarely shows up on list of things that are über-German, Nutella is as much a part of the German experience as airing out a room, Oktoberfest and white asparagus. If there’s no hazelnut spread on the breakfast table, then you can be sure it’s not an authentic German breakfast.
Hazelnut spreads – Nutella
Nutella is the undisputed king, nay, emperor of hazelnut spreads, if only because Nutella invented Nutella, which later became known as hazelnut spreads. In post-war Europe, chocolate was hard to come by so Pietro Ferrerro threw in a little hazelnut and first created a hazelnutty loaf that his son would refine into Nutella in the ‘60s. Or at least that’s the way Nutella tells it. I first encountered Nutella on my first-ever morning in Germany and, after my first taste, wondered why anyone would ever live anywhere else. For years I thought the Germans had invented Nutella, and I acted as a Nutella evangelical. It was in my role as Nutella evangelic that I discovered a funny phenomenon – every North America Nutella lover I met thought it was invented in whatever country they first encountered it. People claimed it was invented by the French, the Danish and even the Czechs. At the time, I argued that it was invented by the Germans. Everyone was wrong!
We all now know it’s from Italy, like so many good things. Sometimes I think that country has so much goodness that they have to occasionally elect odd governments just to even out their reputation. Good on indulgence, bad in politics, or something.
Hazelnut spreads – Nudossi
For a brief period I once dated a woman who grew up in East Germany and she introduced me to Nudossi. “It’s the East German Nutella!” she said. She loved it as a kid and no other hazelnut spreads were allowed on her breakfast table. I didn’t argue, though I found it a bit oily. I’ve bought it occasionally since and didn’t think much about it. But it turns out Nudossi has an interesting post-Berlin Wall history that serves as a warning to be careful what you joke about – a lesson I wish I’d learned earlier. I once worked for a fast-growing publisher in Denver and joked during a staff meeting that we’d soon have enough people to field a softball team. Two weeks later I was on the pitching mound. My brother also once joked at a Christmas party that if his Boulder, Colorado software company wanted to expand to Europe, he was their man. He now lives in Amsterdam.
Anyway, a guy named Karl-Heinz Hartmann bought a factory in Radebeul, near Dresden, to produce Stollen (a marzipany Christmas cake) and during a press conference about his plans, a reporter asked him if the factory wasn’t the place where Nudossi had been produced. “Of course,” he said. “And it’ll be back.” He was just joking, according to Die Zeit. But he made good on the joke (like me on the softball diamond and my brother and his wooden clogs). The company has had some hiccups but is now successful – Nudossi supposedly has twice as much hazelnut as Nutella and the company even makes a non-palm-oil version.
Nudossi was first produced in 1970, if Wikipedia can be believed, again because of the lack of cacao in East Germany. Production ended temporarily in 1994 when Vadossi, its manufacturer, went bankrupt. The rights to the name were originally picked up by regional broadcaster MDR, but Hartmann was able to get them back after he made that prophetic joke.
Hazelnut spreads – Nusspli
When I was an exchange student, my host family swore by Nusspli. You would think they’d never heard of Nutella (and lord knows if back then, when the Wall was still up, if you could even get Nudossi in the West). To me, it tastes more hazelnutty. At the time, I thought this was why Nusspli was the hazelnut-spread-of-choice in their home but in researching this article I think it might be regional – Zentis, which makes the stuff, is based in Aachen and we were just a short car trip from the place. Like Nudossi, Nusspli didn’t appear until the 70s, along with Kraftwerk and the VW Golf (which was called the Rabbit in the US).
Great, now I’m hungry.
One of the most unpleasant regular activities in Berlin is food shopping. Which is unfortunate, because I like to eat. Berlin grocery stores are crowded, disorganized and offer little variety, and that’s the expensive ones. The lack of variety is what annoys me most – I no longer even consider complex recipes because I know it’ll require stopping at three different stores and at least two weekly markets.
And let’s not talk about the discount grocers. Or, rather, let’s do. Before they built one right next to my apartment, I avoided discount chains like Aldi, Lidl and Netto as much as possible. Whenever I did decide to go shopping in one, I wondered if my life insurance covered discount-grocer related disasters. Their spartan stores are minimally furnished with white tile floors, fluorescent lighting and metal shelves, not to mention weird, hip-level cages for things every grocery shopper needs like socks or, last week, chainsaws (I’m serious). Most products aren’t unpacked from their transport boxes and are just stacked on shelves or directly on the floor, much in the same way a farmer drops a bale of hay in the middle of a paddock of hungry cows.
Aldi, Lidl are German grocery stores too
Variety is even worse in Aldi, Lidl and friends — I always run in hopeful that I can make spinach lasagna that night only to leave with just orange juice and cornflakes. The discounters are so bad that I’m convinced even the products are ashamed to be there. To be fair, the stores have improved some over my two decades in-country, but they’ve improved about the same as root canals have improved in that same period. It’s not as unpleasant as it used to be, but it’s still a root canal. But, yes, they’re cheap.
There are both cultural and economic reasons for the dearth of good food stores in Germany. The first is that Germans don’t like to spend money on food. They don’t like to spend money on much of anything, really, but that’s another blog post. Germany’s statistics office tells us that, when it comes to consumer spending, of each €10 Germans spend, only €1 goes to groceries. The French spend €1.33/€10 on edibles while the Italians spend €1.43. Romanians supposedly spend a third of their consumer outlays on sustenance, which sounds odd.
To put that in an even international-er perspective, according to a 2016 study by some agency called IRI, Germans spent €21.01 on a basket of food that would have cost €31.54 in the US, or €30.08 in Italy – quite a difference. Still, in the UK, which, in my experience had pretty good grocery stores, that basket cost just €22.14.
But the other reason German grocery stores are uncomfortable is the German inability to provide – or even a distaste for – customer service. It smarts in areas where companies are forced to offer some kind of service, like when a cashier is scanning your groceries. They quickly rip your items across the scanner and chuck them into the tiny area set aside for bagging. Although you can attempt to bag them as they leave the checker’s hand, the better strategy is to just grab whatever you’re buying and chuck it back in your cart (or basket) and bag them somewhere else – usually the most convenient place is the bus stop out front. Trying to bag your groceries at the cash register can slow things up and lead to disapproving looks and clucks from the cashier and fellow customers alike. The whole affair is so hectic it’s equivalent to half an hour on the free weights in the gym.
The pain of German groceries stores was acute last summer after we returned from two years in the US. Admittedly, the bounty in American grocery stores is alarming – is all that food actually eaten and who is coming up with things like cranberry-apple flavored kale chips? But the interaction with grocery store employees in the US feels like a family reunion compared to the battle of grunts and half-greetings you get from German grocery store employees. Consider this sample exchange between me and a checker in the US (it sort of went down like this):
Checker: Welcome to New Seasons! How are you?
Me: Good. Well, mostly good. Turns out a great aunt has cancer. How are you?
Checker: Good, only an hour left on my shift. My mother died of pancreatic cancer. Are these organic or traditional avocadoes?
Me: Sorry to hear that. Those are traditional avacadoes..
Checker: I’m sure it’ll be OK. That will be $34. Have a good day!
Maybe we should just stop cooking and eat German breakfasts for every meal. That would make it all a lot easier.
Yet another thing I found magical about Germany (and still do) is the Brötchen, which many falsely translate as a bread roll. A bread roll is something that accompanies mediocre Midwestern meals and is made only marginally better through the introduction of butter. Meanwhile a Brötchen is a tiny, proud loaf of bread. Don’t believe me? It’s right there in the name: Brötchen, which is the diminuitive of Brot, which is bread.
When I was an exchange student, the baker delivered a tidy paper bag of Brötchen to my host parents’ stoop early every morning for breakfast, six days a week (we had to rely on frozen Brötchen on Sundays). As an adult in Germany, I enjoy hunting and gathering them on weekends and, as a father, it’s a tradition I’m happily handing down to my German-American kids. Who am I kidding? It’s in their Brot-loving genes!
Brötchen come in various flavors and sizes in every corner of Germany and even have differing names — Brötchen in mainland Germany, a Schrippe here in Berlin and a Semmel down in the southern parts where they speak cartoon German. While most humans are comprised primarily of water, the average German is 40 percent Brötchen with the remaining 60 percent a mixture of Bratwurst, lager beer, white asparagus and Goethe (or, sometimes, Hegel).
And today I present you: Things Germans put on them. Admittedly, some of these concoctions are not readily available at the neighborhood Imbiss (snack bar) and others may or may not be region- (or age-) specific, but they are definitely things more than one German has told me they bought somewhere, sometime, and loved. Many had tears in their eyes. We made most of these in our kitchen on Saturday and it was, as the Germans say, as fun as a bag of Brötchen (they don’t actually say that).
Formally this is a Hippie Brötchen, but what makes it so hippie dippie I have no idea. The idea is understandable though as I used to love crushed up potato chips on my sandwiches. But mostly I think the idea was to create a holder for the fries since these seem to be popular at public swimming pools. The Brötchen can much better withstand a wet, chloriney hand than, say, the traditional paper bag fries come in. The Hippie Brötchen looks good. It tasted even better. Ketchup and mayo, of course (rot weiss, for those in the know!).
Well, not just raw pork but seasoned raw pork with onions, salt and pepper. This has various names but usually a Mettbrötchen, because of the kind of meat. My German in-laws call it a “gehacktes Brötchen“, because the meat is all hacked up, basically. And they love them. German sushi, I guess. I’ve not had many of these and I bought this GEHACKTES BRÖTCHEN at a supermarket in Potsdamer Platz for this post and I only finished about half of it. I like steak tartare. I didn’t like this.
My wife and I have a battle that occasionally flares up about whether Nutella and peanut butter are for dessert or meals (Nutella is clearly a dessert food, I contend). She’s made some sound arguments but sometimes Germans just throw the boundary between dessert and meal out the window and flat-out put chocolate on their Brötchen. And, as I learned, don’t look for this chocolate in the chocolate aisle, it’s right there in the breakfast spreads aisle next to peanut butter and above Nutella. As you can see, my son couldn’t wait for me to take a picture before digging in. The small, chocolate sheets are known as Eszet, which is a play on the ß letter (aka: Esszet) but is actually an abbreviation of its two inventors … yes, it took two Germans to come up with this idea.
To get the oil on this Brötchen, you first need to get the Brötchen in the deep fryer. Really. These are generally called “Gammler” or, if you’re in Düsseldorf, a “Fortuna” and it’s just a deep-fried Brötchen. “Gammler” means “bum” so I guess it’s the cheap thing you get at the snack bar when the dust bowl has you down on your luck but I don’t see what’s so slummy about it — it was pretty tasty, and would be even tastier if it were fried in a gross-ish snack bar deep fryer that had already fried everything known to man and retained some of the flavor. Like a bar mat shot but with frying oil.
Chocolate-covered marshmallow fluff
Yes, I know what Schaumküsse (foam kisses — the chocolate thing getting smushed in the gif) used to be called, can we move on? That’s my wife hand-crafting this heirloom Ditschbrötchen and when I tasted and said it wasn’t that great she said: “Imagine being hungry on the schoolyard and with it coming fresh from the baker’s car.” I still don’t think it would taste good but I get her point.
Anything else I missed that Germans put on their Brötchen?