Why I hate Bläk Freideh/Black Friday in Germany

One of the first things I thought when I moved back to Germany in 1998 was: “Wow, German teenagers look a lot more like American teenagers now than when I was an exchange student here.” I was standing on the Zeil shopping street in Frankfurt staring at a pair of baggy-pantsed, baseball cap-wearing teens in front of Kaufhof. Judging by their style, they could have been standing in front of a Macy’s in the Mall of America or a Starbucks anywhere.

They weren’t wearing black socks with tennis shoes and apparently no longer had an inexplicable love of stone-washed (or is it acid-washed?) jeans, like when I was an exchange student at Maximilian Kolbe Gymnasium.

Black Friday in Germany
Schwarzen Freitag.

But it was the first time I realized that globalization is leading to an international monoculture, something I bemoan as I get older and start to get annoyed by young people congregating on my lawn. No place seems as unique anymore. Everywhere seems more and more similar – and more like an American mall.

And one of the most absurd effects of this monoculture is Black Friday sales anywhere outside the 48 contiguous U.S. states. And Alaska and Hawaii. And maybe a few military bases. Black Friday isn’t even something we’re especially proud of in America. It’s just something that evolved organically, then got usurped by the all-powerful marketing machine and is now unstoppable. Like Two and a Half Men.

Black Friday in Germany

In its essence, Black Friday is the Friday after a holiday where no one really works and doesn’t want to see their family anymore. Normally, you’d treat such a day like a Sunday and wear your best clothes, visit friends and maybe go for a walk. But since the Thanksgiving holiday a day before that was just that, the only other option is apparently to lose your shit in a shopping mall over dubious discounts.

Yeah, I can totally see why the world would adopt that quirk of American culture. Although, to be fair, Black Friday actually combines two things Germans are passionate about: Being cheap and a love/hate of America: “Schnell Heinz-Dietrich! Vee kahn run to ze store and akt like all zose people vee mock in dubbed American TV shows all ze vile saving moneys! Lauf, Heinz-Dietrich! Lauf!”

But it’s just a symptom for the broader monoculture disease. I can now get a variety of Ritter Sports at the cash register here in Portland and our local Kaisers in Berlin had Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. And that’s not even mentioning the proliferation of chains like Subway, H&M and Uniqlo.

Berlin often feels like a neighborhood of Brooklyn and Amsterdam has long just been an outpost of Blackpool. There’s always Dresden, I guess.

This is a rant and an oversimplification and exaggeration, and possibly ultimately pointless.

Kind of like Black Friday itself.

 

 

 

These German teen Fotolovestories are so … German

For decades, German teenagers have been getting advice on all things love and — yes — sex from a colorful magazine known as Bravo. Think Tiger Beat but with more overt sex. Europe, you know. And some of that advice has come from a special comic known as the Fotolovestory, examples of which orbit around the German web, sparking equal parts sentimentality and ridicule. They are supposed to teach teens the pitfalls of adult life but feel more like fables written by my grandmother for my grandmother.

The stories broach the usual teen subjects of love, sex, drugs, over-aggressive boyfriends, racism and incest.

Yes, incest. Germans always have to go to 11.

The comics are in that saccharine German advertising style known best as Mentos, which might even be an Instagram filter now. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can check out a Mentos commercial here or the Foo Fighter’s brilliant take below the fold.

It’s time the English-speaking world enjoys these gems too. Maybe you can learn something about sex … or incest (more can be found auf Deutsch at this Facebook page):

The Foo Mentos

 

How Obama got me on German TV

President Obama’s in Berlin.

It makes me a bit sentimental because my political commentary career on German TV began with Obama’s first campaign trip to Berlin eight years ago. The Hauptstadt (capital) loved Obama then, even though I wondered why he was campaigning in a European capital – he was probably just leveraging the Berlin hype (and we were all grateful for Berlin articles that didn’t mention Berghain).

But a month earlier I had mentioned to all-news broadcaster N24 that I was available to comment on things American or financial on-air and auf Deutsch and had never heard back from them. That is, until Air Force One was on final approach to Tegel. Then I got a hurried call that they needed someone to talk about why Obama was campaigning in a European capital and that I was the perfect person. Where perfect person equals anyone who could be there in 15 minutes.

At the time, the studio was in a corner of Berlin-Mitte that everyone’s seen on a map but has never been to. The taxi driver may have had to answer a troll’s riddle or take a detour through a wardrobe to get me there (east of Hausvogteiplatz, for those in the know). The actual studio was little more than a broom closet with cameras that were operated remotely. There was no backdrop, just a green screen. The producers and control room were across town on Potsdamer Platz.

*I don’t have that first video. But I have lots of these.

I didn’t have time to get nervous because they just powdered my nose and threw me on-air. The hosts asked me a few run-of-the-mill questions about Obama and Merkel and probably Bush. Then they started talking about the lunch the two power brokers would be having and I made a joke about how there would be some kind of bread and Merkel probably wouldn’t shut up about the bread.

Because the one thing Germans always mention to Americans is how superior German bread is.

The moderators laughed. I laughed. I’m pretty sure I heard the control room laugh. And from that day on, for several years, I was a regular on N24. It was great fun and even better pay. I would work on my laptop from the green room and spend a couple minutes every hour on-air joking about American politics.

Sometimes they’d buy me lunch.

Obama and German TV

There was a brief respite after a piece about Merkel holding a speech in Congress when they asked me if a lot of Americans would be watching the speech (I tried to be diplomatic since I know that at least half – if not two-thirds – of Americans believe Europe generally and Germany specifically is just something people made up to make America look bad).

“Let’s be honest,” I said. “You and I both know the only people who watch those kinds of things are journalists and retirees.”

“Let’s hope not,” the moderator – Thomas Klug – said quickly. “We’re carrying the whole thing live in a few minutes!”

A few years later they went bankrupt (or near-bankrupt) and stopped calling.

Good-bye, Obama.

(Private to N24: Call me?)

This is milkrice

One day when I was an exchange student my guest mother asked me if I liked Milchreis. I didn’t translate that to show non-German speakers how I felt when faced with that question. Milchreis? I’m pretty sure I knew at the time that Milch was milk and Reis was rice but I had not a clue that the two fit together in any sentence that wasn’t a shopping list.

Milkrice?

Then she handed me a tiny plastic container that looked like tapioca pudding. It was cinnamon and sugar Milchreis (from Müllermilch, of course) and my life changed. I had the second Nutella Moment of my life. A Nutella Moment is something I just made up but it’s when you taste something new and think: This exists in the world and you’re only telling me about it now? Because you know you’ll be enjoying it until your tastebuds die and the only thing you get any pleasure out of is super-hot sriracha, served with a bib and a straw.

German milk rice

For the uninitiated, milkrice is rice that’s been steeped in milk, rather than steamed or steeped with water. A German risotto, if you will. But instead of broth and white wine you steep it in milk and sugar and vanilla and cinnamon. Then you serve it with more sugar or fruit of some kind and spend the rest of the day smiling. Probably steaming hot but maybe cold because there was some left over from when you made it yesterday and who’s going to wait to warm that up?

It tastes like a dessert but you feel like you ate something healthy because: rice.

You can use the same Arborio rice you would use for risotto. But uncooked milkrice rice in Germany is way cheaper than Arborio rice so cooks-in-the-know in Germany just use milkrice rice for both milkrice and risotto.

I just saved you a bunch of money. You’re welcome.

Your grandmother’s milkrice

I ate about one Müllermilch Milchreis a week during my early days in Germany until my kids were old enough to like it and my wife said: “It can’t be that hard to make. My grandmother used to make it” and decided to make some. That logic doesn’t actually work because If grandmothers made it, it usually means it’s super-hard to make unless you’re a grandmother but it turned out milkrice really isn’t difficult.*

And my wife then launched a series of superlative, home-made milkrices. It’s now our family’s comfort food.

I know what you’re thinking: That’s just rice pudding! No. No it’s not. Rice pudding involves eggs and maybe cream and raisins and gooey, pre-cooked rice and nobody likes it except Old Lady Wiggins, and nobody likes her.

But there is at least one hidden danger in milkrice. Some enterprising cooks at my kids’ school in Berlin thought the magic of milkrice could carry over to other dishes. They served Milchnudeln (milknoodles), as if it were a thing. The magic doesn’t carry over and it isn’t a thing and my kids came home starving that day. I’ve never tried them but my kids (trustworthy on all things food) said Milchnudeln are as disgusting as they sound.

Luckily the cooks never tried Milchfisch or maybe Milchsteak but we started making their lunches for them shortly after that experiment just in case.

I decided to write this post the other day after my son asked me to make him Milchreis for his school lunch. I figured the magic of milkrice had already made its way to Portland, Oregon.

“Who else gets milkrice for lunch?”

“Nobody at school’s ever heard of it,” he said.

But now you have.

 

*Basic milk rice

1 cup Arborio (or milkrice) rice, 1 liter milk, a cinammon twig, a packet of vanilla sugar, maybe some salt. Bring to a boil. Steep on low for 10 minutes, then cover and let sit for half an hour. Then e-mail Drew and thank him.

There’s (Another) American Series Starring Berlin

I didn’t even know there was a broadcaster (channel? station?) called EPiX and, had I known, I probably would have thought: If you call yourself EPiX with a little „i“ and an “X”, you are probably anything but epic. Do people even say “epic” anymore? Hasn’t it been replaced with “legit” or an emoji of a poop unicorn? Or an emoji of poop and unicorns? I’m so old.

Anyway, turns out this new channel/station/broadcaster has made this new series called Berlin Station about – wait for it – American spies in Berlin. The creators were really going out on a limb on this one. Really taking a risk with the concept.

But anyway my little Roku pitched me this series one Portland night during a deep bout of homesickness and both my German wife and I thought: Let’s watch this teaser episode and see how much it sucks while seeing a bit of Berlin. Sentimental Schadenfreude, if you will.

Berlin series
This is an actual publicity photo from Berlin Station. It’s just Berlin. They get Berlin. And they’re taking the M2.

And we were surprised when it didn’t suck. Well not so bad as naming your channel/station/broadcaster “EPiX”. It was surprisingly intriguing, even though it treads across a carpet more worn than the rejection line at Berghain.

What Berlin Station does really well is show Berlin. Like all the time. I watched Homeland in Berlin and it could have been filmed anywhere with a few establishing shots below the Fernsehturm or on Oberbaumbrücke. The point of Homeland in Berlin – beyond capitalizing on the Hauptstadt hype and covering the tired ground of a spook past – seemed to be seeing if Carrie could look even more anguished in a country known for its anguish.

Berlin was an afterthought to Claire Dane’s furrowed brow.

Another real Berlin series

But Berlin Station seems to be filmed by people who know and love Germany’s biggest city, rather than creative types on a stopover from London or Hollywood. As someone who misses his Wahlheimat (adopted home), Berlin Station does an amazing job of showing diverse corners of the city.

It also lets its characters speak German. Like, whenever there would be an interaction in German in Berlin, that’s the language the characters speak. However, this also underlines the film as a work of fiction since the American dude played by Richard Armitage speaks almost fluent German. An American speaking German! Nice joke! But bilingual programming is a refreshing upgrade.

Of course they go out to the tattered radar domes of Teufelsberg but they also spend an amazing amount of time on Kotti – including a chase scene through those elaborate balconies and staircases above and around Kaisers, Monarch, Paloma and West Germany. You know, the ones you’ve always sworn you would explore more but never did out of fear for your personal safety?

We liked the teaser episode so much we watched the second one. The season debuts Oct. 16 — wherever you can get EPiX.

“It’s like sightseeing,” my wife said. „If you want Berlin, here’s your series. If you want story, not so much.“

But the creators’ knowledge of the bear city goes even further: In one scene especially poignant for Wahlberliner (voluntary Berliners), a spy operative played by Rhys Ifans notes that the avocados at the Turkish grocer aren’t even ripe.

It’s like the producers of Berlin Station know our pain. They are us. And they’ve given up on good guacamole too.

There’s plenty of overacting and goofy plot turns and a bit too much time spent in the sort of slick, high-priced nightclubs Berlin doesn’t have, but the thing has a great feel – and (did I mention?) a lot of Berlin. Though lacking depth, its texture is reminiscent of A Most Wanted Man – one of my most favorite Berlin films next to the 1985 Anthony Edwards spy epic, Gotcha!.

I’m going to have to subscribe to EPiX long enough to watch the other eight episodes.

And then epically cancel my subscription.

Why Germans hate male babies

I always felt like Germany cultivates a culture of intellectualism while America … well we like hamburgers.

Nowhere did I see this more than when my wife was pregnant.

When we were awaiting our second child – our son – my German friends began to act strange.

“We’re having a boy,” I would say.

“Oh,” my German friends would say with alarm. “Poor you.” Some hugged me as if to say: It’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this too.

Strange, right?

german babies
Both have opinions on your unborn child.

I never had any idea what they were talking about. But they said it so openly, so confidently, that I couldn’t profess ignorance. The way they said it, it sounded like all of Germany knew having a boy was a bad thing. Except me. I started to wonder if Germany was the anti-China. Girls only, bitte.

I was afraid that my ignorance of the pitfalls of boys would reflect poorly on me. So I didn’t admit I didn’t understand. I just said, “I know, right?” And changed the subject.

But I was prepared for this reaction because it’s the way a certain kind of American and Brit reacts to news that you’re having a daughter, which we did, right before we had a son.

“A daughter, huh?” Americans would say shortly after meeting me and hearing I was expecting a daughter. “Poor you.” Unlike my German friends, they didn’t hug me.

But poor me.

The assumption here is that I would suffer as my little girl grew up and became a woman and started having boyfriends and – gasp – sex. As if your daughter enjoying a cornerstone of the human experience is the worst thing. Ever.

The implication is that fathers have to protect their daughters and make their choices for them, while teaching their sons to be strong humans capable of making all the good and bad decisions on their own.

You know: sexism. Yuck.

German babies

I prefer instead to teach both of my children to be strong, confident people capable of making both good and bad decisions, just like other humans. Though, to be honest, I hope they make a few fewer bad decisions than I did. Like not having Steak Frites on Kurfürstendamm after a bucket of popcorn at the French cinema. You lose your gall bladder with decisions like that.

And they probably should decide against seeing Hangover 2 (come on, you know you liked Hangover).

So, in a way, I was ready when suddenly my German friends started acting the same way about my soon-to-be son. Poor me. Except I had no idea what they were talking about.

It happened so often that I decided I had to stop faking as if I knew. When my German documentary filmmaker friend – a leftist intellectual with little equal – made the same statement, I dropped my guard.

“What are you talking about?” I asked him between bands at White Trash Fast Food. And then I told him the story about Americans and daughters. He was repulsed.

“Nothing like that,” he said. “The Freud thing.”

“Oh, right,” I said.

No idea what he meant.

Luckily my generation invented this thing called Google and when I got home I put in “Freud son father” and was horrified at what the Germans were warning me about. You see, it’s Oedipus. It’s always Oedipus with these Germans.

In order to fulfill his mother fantasy, Oedipus had to kill his father. Germans (and Freud and even Jung, I discovered) extrapolate this on to the human condition to mean that a boy can’t become a man until he replaces his father in the world. Germans were trying to warn me that my son would become a murderer. And me, a murder victim.

What?

Either way, people shouldn’t be warning anybody about the sex of their baby, though a warning or two about babies as a species is certainly warranted. Anyone who’s ever had one – or shared an airplane with one – knows what I’m talking about.

Poor me indeed!

I was stunned at German math

When my kids finally started going to school in Berlin, I learned something I had always suspected: Germans can do witchcraft. They are experts in the black arts and can summon the spirits any time numbers are involved. When I sat down to help my kids with their math homework, my world changed. Inexorably. Forever.

It was so earth-shattering that I can’t even put it into words. So I made a video.

These militaristic German words aren’t

Militaristic German words: Arschbombe

 

Literally: Ass bomb. It’s none of those things you’re thinking. Not even close. It’s not even gross. And in America we use our own militaristic lingo to describe it: The cannonball. That thing you do off the edge of the pool to drench your sister. Straighten a leg out while you’re doing it and you’ve got a jackknife. But Germans don’t do jackknives, they just do Arschbomben. They’re purists.

 

Militaristic German words: Tintenkiller

 

Literally: Ink killer. Germans make children learn to write with fountain pens, like 16th century monks. The kids need some way to correct their mistakes and that way is Tintenkiller. It kills the ink so it is no longer alive on the page. Most German elementary school kids believe the magic ingredient in Tintenkiller is animal urine, specifically bull urine. And yet they use it happily every day.

In America we had the No. 2 pencil with an eraser. But Germans sometimes like to deny technological advances and so, during writing class, they make their children live as though there is not yet running water. Or penicillin. But Tintenkiller.

 

Militaristic German words: Mordshunger

 

Literally: Murderous hunger. I was well into my 30s before I ever heard the word “hangry”, that thing you get when you’re hungry and everyone is annoying as F–k. Like Gilbert Godfried. The kind of annoyed that makes you leave a restaurant because you think the service is too slow only to discover on the sidewalk that you’re still super hangry. And now annoyed at your own impatience. And also hungry.

If you’ve never heard the word „hangry“ before and you’re a little thick, it’s a combination of “hungry” and “angry”. But Germans don’t have a word like that because it would be sauunger (sauer hunger) or bönger (böse hunger), which make no sense. In Germany it’s murderous hunger. It means you’re really, really hungry. So hungry you could kill someone.

But not eat them.

 

Militaristic German words: Gulaschkanone
Foto thanks Mister G.C. via Creative Commons.

 

Literally: Goulash cannon. The other words on this page make sense at some level. We might have even figured out their meaning ourselves if we didn’t have German friends. But Gulaschkanone makes no sense. Not even close. A Gulaschkanone is a giant vat of goulash, which is a great stew of meat, tomatoes and paprika. Best served with bread dumplings and a cold beer, unless you’re underage, in which case don’t get caught with the beer.

The Gulaschkanone is most often loaded during parties and festivals and is more often than not a surplus field kitchen. Of course the German army – the Bundeswehr – is the biggest source of goulash cannons. You line up to get a bowl of goulash from the cannon. Usually the guy serving is in a good mood.

Be forewarned, a Gulaschkanone is not always loaded with goulash. Sometimes it’s full of pea soup. But they’ll still call it a Gulaschkanone. A Gulaschkanone with Erbsensuppe (pea soup).

 

Militaristic German words: Sturmfreie Bude

 

Literally: Storm-free abode (Bude is German slang for your place of living. Your crib. Your pad). I speak pretty good German. But I don’t always really, really know the meanings of German words and sayings. Often I just go with instincts. The same instincts that had me ordering erections at the cafe for months. Sturmfreie Bude is one of those times. Germans use it when they have the house to themselves — like when the parents are off to Mallorca or the kids are at camp, helping to write automotive emissions software.

„Great!“ your friends would say, „Sturmfreie Bude!“ Up until five minutes ago I assumed that meant the house is clear and you can storm in, like an army. Throw in some flashbangs, get out your battering ram and storm into the house because there’s no one in there.

But I looked it up over at Deutsche Welle and the killjoys over there say it means that the house is free of being stormed. No one’s going to storm in and interrupt you while you do whatever it is you do when you have Sturmfreie Bude.

That sounds slightly lascivious but since the family’s off traveling around Europe and I happen to have Sturmfreie Bude, I can tell you exactly what I do: Hang out on our bed with the cats and watch Netflix.

The middle-aged married bachelor’s version of Netflix and Chill.

Sturmfrei!

Militaristic German words: Kissenschlacht

Literally: Pillow slaughter (ok, ok, Schlacht also means battle). So the English version, pillow fight, isn’t much different. My kids were just looking for a reason to have a pillow fight.