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Kindergeld – Germany's child benefit payment

Once a month my banking app notifies me of a deposit from the Arbeitsamt (the unemployment office) and once a month I am confused for a few seconds. “A deposit?” I think. “But I haven’t been unemployed for over a year. WTF?” And then a few seconds later, just like every month, I remember why I’m getting the money: Kindergeld or kid money. The nice thing about kid money? It spends just like adult money.

Every month, almost every parent in Germany gets €204 cash money for each of their first two children, €210 for the third and €235 for every kid thereafter. I have two kids – because we didn’t want three – so every month I get €408 transferred into my account. And every month, after I realize why I got it, I pause and say quietly, “Thanks, Angie.”

Yes, I really do this. It presents me with an image of Chancellor Angela Merkel settling down with a glass of cognac after a day of running Europe’s biggest economy, opening the German government’s banking app on her smartphone and then überweising (transferring, in Denglisch) me the €408. “I don’t like all of his jokes but those kids are pretty amazing,” she thinks every month when she sends me the money. “I’ve been meaning to check out his Tiktok too – fatandysindustries, I think he’s called.”

Since I spent my early adulthood in America, I got used to adulting in the US and straight up receiving cash from the government just never happened (this was pre-Corona). You know that saying: There’s probably a German word for it? In America we have a similar thing: There’s probably a tax deduction for it. Tax deductions are a thing in the US, free money from the government isn’t.

Giving your children Kindergeld instead of allowance

Germans always laugh at my amazement over Kindergeld. For them, it’s as natural as Lüften, men sitting down to pee and handling a pandemic with enviable expertise. Children aren’t cheap, they like to say, which is true. The child benefit is paid until children turn 18 or until they’ve finished vocational training and/or college but then no longer than age 25.

Many parents just start handing the money to their children at a certain age – my children are happy to tell me which of their teen peers already get the money instead of allowance. I’ll personally wait until they move out to help support college or training or whatever.

(Sort of commercial break: If you’re wondering how to apply for Kindergeld, Settle in Berlin has you covered).

If you research the history of the payment, German sources like to say Kindergeld has its roots in Nazi Germany – but what they’re referring to was a payment for poor, white families that only applied starting with the fifth – das fünftes – child. That seems different and a similar benefit is available today and not just to Aryan families – low-income applicants can get an additional €140 a month per child.

@fatandysindustries

Geht’s eure/euch Eltern auch so? Thanks Frau Merkel! ##foryou ##germerica ##kindergeld ##expatlife

♬ Originalton – fatandysindustries

Kindergeld was originally to be one of the few social benefits that wasn’t tied to income and both rich and poor parents – and every in between – were to get it. But it’s no longer so egalitarian. When it was introduced in 1975, politicians eliminated the income tax deduction for dependents to level the playing field. But they reinstituted the deduction in 1983 and that’s when it became unfair – parents who earn enough can deduct their kids, which can mean a larger benefit. Poor families only get to put the money in their pockets.

While everyone gets the money each month, the German tax office, the Finanzamt, uses annual returns to calculate whether the deduction or the benefit would be more beneficial and then applies the best variation. Only a German can appreciate that level of complexity (I’ve been filing taxes with dependents for 17 years and only now discovered this. Adulting is hard! Also maybe my accountants weren’t so hot (they weren’t, I’m on my third.)).

As I learned in this Deutschlandfunk article (warning: German), the German government also likes to use Kindergeld as a pawn – they like to crow a lot about how they support families with billions every year but they include the €40 billion or so in Kindergeld subsidies as part of that example. But – and try to stick with me here – a court ruling in 1990 said that isn’t true – Kindergeld and the deduction aren’t government support at all – they’re just the German government returning taxes families shouldn’t have paid in the first place.

What?

Oh Germany, you and your complexities! It’s apparently illegal to tax someone into poverty in Germany and since children are also someone, taxing a family of two earning adults and two freeloader children the same as you would a family of two earning adults is unfair. So Germany has to give some of that cash back. Or something.  

As part of the research for this blog post, I discovered Kindergeld is available in most European countries in some form or another – more in Scandinavian countries (as with everything) and less in our eastern neighbors. Some countries tie it to income, some don’t. Lord knows if there’s as complex a tax and theoretical structure around their child benefit payments – probably not.

In any case, maybe from now on I’ll realize why I’m getting the payment and in addition to thanking Chancellor Merkel every month, I’ll have to thank her when I get my return back and the tax authorities tell me that I saved more by deducting my kids.

No, I’m not having any more kids. €204 doesn’t go anywhere near compensating me for the damage done by the ones I already have.   

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My Nightwash set from December:

(You’ll need to speak German and, be forewarned, I use a naughty English word (as my grandma would say) straight out of the gate, just to let everyone know who they’re dealing with. Maybe I should suggest English subtitles.

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Calling the polizei because you've been insulted

In Germany, it’s illegal to insult someone. Like, call-the-cops-and-end-up-in-handcuffs illegal. Like, paragraph 185 illegal (for the legal Erbsenkacker (nitpickers)). Like, you can be jailed for up to a year illegal (but will probably just end up with a fine). 

Even if you just flip someone the bird.

And even after several decades it feels weird that garden-variety insults are gesetzlich verboten here.

Sure, I’m from America where the only thing more holy than the Holy Bible is the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and its guarantee of freedom of speech. But my incomprehension of insults-as-a-crime is more visceral than that. I can’t just make a side-comment about someone’s idiocy? Really? Because I run into several people a day who’ve earned it and, if I’m honest, every other or every third day I do something that probably deserves a comment as well.

It just seems too unverhältnismässig (disproportionate). Someone says a few words on the street and now the entire judicial apparatus has to get involved? Social media has of course ratcheted up the whole insult-as-a-crime game and when I see how some men behave online, it could be a a crime. Though when courts do get involved, it’s weird what they consider an insult and just some dude expressing himself.

Late last month a court ruled it was OK for a blogger to call left-leaning Berlin politician Sawsan Chebli a “talking Islamic puppet” and a “token migrant”.

(That’s her saying she’s going to appeal the ruling.)

The same court ruled a year earlier that calling Green politician Renate Künast a “dirty” female body part was also just freedom of speech. I disagree.

Sticks and stones

To be fair, the courts don’t always rule against my side – they’ve said it’s also OK for us to call far-right politician Bernd Höcke a “fascist”, because he is. I’d add creepy to that list. And probably a threat to democracy.

But my frustration at the whole insult thing took on a new dimension when German soccer fans recently unrolled banners at games that that called Dietmar Hopp, a billionaire founder of software company SAP and owner of the Hoffenheim soccer team, a Hurensohn, or son of a whore. I’m not sure I understand the kerfluffle but it seems like fans have insulted him before and he complained and so the German soccer league decided to reintroduce collective penalties that make all the fans pay when just one fan insults Mr. Hopp, which just seems dumb.

To begin with, Hopp is a billionaire. He has plenty of means to extract revenge, er justice, on his own dime and secondly, if I’m ever a billionaire, y’all have free license to call me whatever you want. Seriously Dietmar – I’d think you’d have other things to worry about (or not worry about).

As an aside, the banners were apparently the work of “ultra” fans, or über fans. I’m kind of an anti-ultra for reasons.

My own insult lawsuit

On top of all of this, I actually have a case pending where I’m accusing someone of insulting me. What happened was that a giant Volvo SUV last summer was perturbed when I, on a yellow Cannondale mountain bike, moved slightly out of a bike lane and into traffic to pass another cyclist. To express his distaste with my move, the SUV driver moved into the bike lane and nearly pushed me into a row of parked cars. I smacked his window because my bike bell didn’t seem to be alarming him to my precarious situation.

The SUV driver didn’t think this was very funny and, well, 15 minutes later the cops were there and as the officer was listing all the charges she wanted to lay on him (assault, reckless driving and coercion) she asked if I felt insulted by his offers to sleep with my mother as well as the accusation that me and a witness were both drug addicts and homosexual lovers.

I laughed. “My mother’s dead and even if she were alive it’s up to her who she sleeps with,” I said. She laughed. I also didn’t understand how me being either a drug addict or gay was supposed to be an insult. “But if I need to be insulted to file charges then sure,” I told her. She laughed again.

I haven’t heard much since (I don’t have much faith in the German justice system).

But I wasn’t insulted. If he had questioned my abilities as a father or reminded me of the time in 5th grade when I punched Becky McCaw in front of the whole class – then I might have been insulted.

I’m speaking from a position of privilege and know that sometimes words hurt – getting unexpectedly nailed by the Berliner Schnauze has left its mark on me many a time. And it’s probably nice for some people under continuous verbal assault to have some form of recourse. But it’s one aspect of German life I doubt I’ll ever get used to: Criminalized insults.

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Wurstgate: Leveraging right-wing angst to sell more sausage

Christmas is a tough time in Germany. In America, of course, it’s a two-day celebration — the 25th and Black Friday. But here in Germany it’s an entire month of Advent Sundays, Nikolaus and mulled wine-inspired hangovers. So it’s little wonder Teutonic right-wingers are on edge. Even those of us on the left are as well. Last year a group of artists successfully trolled the country’s right wingers into believing Coca-cola (which marketing has fully attached to Weihnachten here) was against the far-right AfD party. What a hoot!

This year, Curry36 is having a go. The chain has already proved its marketing prowess because they give the impression they’re a a currywurst stand that’s been in Berlin since the Kaisers roamed free but in reality it’s only been around since 1980, kind of like David Hasselhoff. But yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, it announced that out of “diverse reasons” it would be renaming its traditional “Christmas Sausage” to “Winter Sausage”.

The reaction was swift and predictable: Right-wingers on social media saw it as just another insidious attack on Christmas, Christians and tradition. Just as with the guerilla Coca-Cola action last year, they and those who would protect the traditional German identity were swift to call for a boycott:

“Well then … luckily there are other snack bars. Happy declining sales. I’m outta here.”

“Too bad, but all the best anyway. We’ll be eating elsewhere in the future.”

(Thanks Volksverpetzer: I screengrabbed yer screengrab)

As the announcement picked up steam, the satire came out as well — there was a great story about a family who, every Christmas, drove through snow and ice to eat the Curry36 Christmas sausage and then took a dozen home in order to have enough to eat under the Christmas tree. Or another suggestion that to please the right, Curry36 could just rename it the “Wehrmachtwurst”. LÖLE, as my German friends say.

The whole trick? Here’s what Curry36 had to say: “Our regulars smelled the roast – pardon, the sausage – immediately: There never was a Christmas sausage and there (probably) will never be a Winter sausage at our place because the classic, organic and vegan versions means there’s already something for every taste.

Radioeins, a radio station, interviewed the man behind the provocation, manager Mirko Grosssman, and every major German media outlet picked up the story, an example of perfect PR and a counterpoint to the Gretagate disaster over at Deutsche Bahn last week. There’s a German saying that everything has just one end except a sausage: It has two. Right-wing snowflakes, unfortunately, seem to have none.

Can’t wait for next Christmas.

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The Berlin television tower: a video

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.

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My confrontation with Saxony-Anhalt Nazis

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).

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The AfD’s Christmas War Against Cola

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:

AfD's Christmas War on Cola
Photo from Matthew Borowski’s Twitter.

“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:

Screenshot from Patrick’s Twitter

“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.”

Photo thanks the leftist Volksverpetzer blog, because the original was erased. 

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?

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The €19 Adlon Döner Kebab

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.

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Please use the Klobürste

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.

Photo thanks Peter Hammer Verlag

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.

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Why you should never lose your German apartment keys

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.

[Pic is thanks Marco Verch via Creative Commons. ]

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