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.

 

 

 

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.