Magical Germany: Playgrounds

Germany has the best playgrounds.

They’re so good at it, they even have categories of Spielplatz (playground): Bauspielplatz (building playground), Naturspielplatz (natural playground), Wasserspielplatz (water playground) and the most promising sounding, the Abenteuerspielplatz (adventure playground). Linguistically you’d think children wouldn’t even need a roof over their heads – they could just hang around on the various types of Spielplätze depending on whim and weather.

We had no idea of the greatness of German playgrounds until we started travelling with our kids. In Bergen, Norway, the hotel staff emphatically recommended a playground around the corner that was probably pretty novel during industrialization when mass-produced iron was new. In central Illinois we ended up on a playground where rusty bolts protruded from rough concrete at the base of a ‘60s-vintage slide. The afternoon sun turned a metal UFO climbing gym into a giant frying pan for unmarinated three-year-olds. It hadn’t changed since I played on it as a kid.

spielplatz

In Berlin, our go-to playground carried a circus theme and expanded as our kids grew. That’s partly what’s so great about German playgrounds: Most are custom-built wooden jobs that incorporate slides, climbing walls, elevated rope walkways and tunnels with some theme: A circus, a jungle, the deeper meaning of Jungian dream interpretation in pre-Weimar Stuttgart. That kind of thing.

Our backup was the Kleinkindspielplatz at Kollwitzplatz. A Kleinkindspielplatz is a little kid playground that ultimately gets over-run by slightly bossy, slightly too big kids who seem impervious to reprimands from strange parents. Kind of like what happens to any bar when the New York Times includes it in any dispatch about coolness.

But the variety of German playgrounds is amazing. At a Bauspielplatz, you let kids loose in a Robinson Crusoe landscape with hammers, nails and used wood. “Build a pirate ship!” the playground calls to the children. “Make sure you have your health insurance cards!” it calls to the parents.

A Naturspielplatz is just a nice way of saying: Overgrown, muddy playground with a few good climbing trees. It’s a cop out really. A playground maintained by an aging alcoholic who loves children but is busy just getting out of bed in the morning. The motto of Naturspielplätze is a German saying popular with lazy parents (not that that’s a bad thing): Dreck reinigt den Magen (dirt cleans the stomach).

And an Abenteuerspielplatz is like a mix of a Naturspielplatz and a Bauspielplatz with about twice the broken bones. In short: Fantastic!

German playgrounds even have something for the parents: You can bring beer to most (but not all). As my kids grew my hobby quickly became knowing the nearest beer-serving convenience store for each playground. I should have sold guides.

German playgrounds almost make me want to have another kid.

Almost.

The coldest winter of my life

Sometimes I wonder if Germans hate warmth.

My first winter in Germany was the coldest in my life. Even though I had grown up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I had no idea the world could even get that cold.

Or maybe I just had the wrong jacket.

closethiswindow
Pic thanks Marcus Pink via Creative Commons

Though come to think of it, of course I had the wrong jacket. In German cold you don’t need a jacket, you need an anorak. You don’t just need clothing for that kind of cold, you need a solution.

And it seemed especially cold when I walked the kilometer to Gymnasium every morning in my wrong jacket. By the time I got there I was freezing. I was so cold, I’m certain several of my relatives were cold as well.

I would get to school and walk up the steps into my first period philosophy class and be greeted by the warmest, snuggliest heat I had ever felt. The warmth of a room that has been heated all night while no one was in it, as if it were just waiting for me.

“Drew,” the room was saying, “I understand your suffering.”

And I would get more than just warm. I would get relief. The world was going to be OK.

That is, until Thilo walked into that room. Thilo is pretty much the German version of Chad and everyone suffers when Chad or Thilo is around. They are popular, the Thilos and Chads. But they are so often misguided.

Thilo never felt welcomed by that warm room. Thilo felt offended.

Meine Fresse (My goodness),” he would announce. “Hier ist eine Luft drin! (The air in here!).“

And with that he would throw every window in the room open. Other students would file in and no one seemed happy until the temperature of the room matched that of Little Siberia outside. Apparently only then was the air repaired. They would close the windows and I would once again freeze. As would my relatives.

Perfect learning temperature.

Germans seem to often get angry at warm air. They resolve the situation through something called Stossluften (freeze everyone in the room). It involves exchanging all of the warm air for freezing air. Apparently freezing air that heats slowly while you are in it is no longer offensive.

I don’t exactly understand the science.

I’ve encountered this in my kids’ schools, offices where I’ve worked and even from maids in hotel rooms but, oddly, never in a smoke-filled bar. No, that air is not offensive, just carcinogenic. A German once told me warm air lacks oxygen and cannot sustain life. You know, like Mars. Even in rooms that have been empty for 12 hours.

Again, I’m unclear of the science.

January is almost over. Stay warm.

The Nutella pizza

After about 15 years in-country, I discovered yet another magical corner of Germany: The Nutella pizza. It happened after spontaneously hitting one of our favorite pizza joints in a Berlin neighborhood that might be Kreuzberg, Schöneberg or Tiergarten but is all parts great (I’m going to respect its privacy by just not checking).

“Ok,” I said to my fellow diners, who were comprised of a 9-year-old, a 10-year-old and my wife (age withheld). “Are we done? Can we go?”

My daughter picked up an errant Pizza Klub menu, stained by previous diners, and pointed at the thing she’d been waiting to point at the whole meal: Nutella pizza.

Nutella pizza
The actual Nutella pizza.

Angels began singing. Cloudy skies parted and a non-denominational spiritual of indeterminate sex spoke, making it clear we were ordering the Nutella pizza.

People seem to always give credit for Nutella to the country in which they first encounter it. Like a moustachioed turn-of-the-century hipster sampling Frites in Paris and making an incorrect assumption. I could google “Nutella history” and reword Ferrerro (Nutella’s owner) PR copy or copy and paste a Wikipedia entry but this post isn’t about Nutella’s origin story, it’s about my Nutella origin story. (And it’s 2016, you can do the googling yourself).

My first Nutella

I first encountered Nutella on my first-ever morning in Germany, back when the Kaisers still roamed the earth and Weimar was a town, not a historical period. After my guest parents taught me how to slice open a Brötchen and smear on Nutella (with butter, a practice I no longer follow), I figured they were allowing me a rare German treat because they were new guest parents and it was my first morning in Germany.

I mean, who has chocolate for breakfast? Unless it’s in a donut, of course.

But it wasn’t a special treat. I quickly came to realize that Nutella is a staple of the German diet behind Kartoffeln, Wurst and Weltschmerz. It’s always on the breakfast table, usually on a tray next to sugar beet syrup (Zuckerrübensyrup) and a jar of jelly last used during the Kohl administration.

I’m grateful to the Gehrings of Oldenburg for this introduction.

However, Nutella was one of the first child-rearing fights between my wife and I: She wanted to allow the children to have it while they were still in the womb but I argued it might give them too much of a taste for chocolate.

“Peanut butter, on the other hand,” I said.

Thanks, Pizza Klub

“It’s no different!” she claimed.

We all know she was wrong.

But by introducing them to Nutella so early, my daughter (and Pizza Klub) introduced me to the Nutella pizza.

So somehow my wife was right.

 

Building Bowie in Berlin

Bowie, it always seemed to me, was more important to Berlin than Berlin to Bowie. But that’s what happens when you create greatness: It takes on a meaning independent of its creator. Like how a Hasselhoff song brought down the Wall. Or how someday, someone will finally open the Berlin airport.

But Bowie’s importance to Berlin should be honored in some way more than by just replaying his records (and replaying them and replaying them). Shortly after his death, everyone suggested renaming Hauptstrasse  where he lived in Schöneberg to David Bowie Strasse. RadioEins (Radio1) even had a street sign made.

A Bowie statue like this.
Pic: Michael Jackson and Bubbles from Jeff Koons (Versailles) via free images (license)

I’m against it. Hauptstrasse (and its extension Potsdamer) play a big role in my Berlin and they should keep their original names. I lived in Germany so long I’m afraid of change too.

And, anyway, the killjoys over at the Rote Rathaus (town hall) broke up that party: Streets can only be named after people who’ve been dead for half a decade. David’s only got a week. And since the city’s trying to give women their due, even if we could get a street named after him, he wouldn’t be high on the list.

But I have a different idea. Let’s honor David Bowie the way the city has honored tons of other Berlin promis: Let’s build a David Bowie statue. It could be at Hauptstr. 155 but it could also be north on Hauptstrasse at Kleistpark or next to the Schöneberg swimming pool in the adjacent park with a name I’m too lazy to look up.

Several years ago I was jogging around the Siegesäule (victory column) with a Danish friend and she asked me who all the statues represented.

“Dead generals,” I said. She was flabbergasted that Germany still celebrated the generals, partly because of Germany’s – you know – history and partly because the country had plenty of other people to celebrate.

Like David Bowie.

I muttered something about history and truth and Berlin’s history and truth and then wished she’d jog a little slower.

But it’s something that could be done without waiting five years, could be done through crowdfunding (I don’t need to hear another Berlin politician talk about finanzen) and would give all Stardustians (Bowenators? David Devouts?) a place to gather.

Anybody can get a street named after them in Berlin: Marlene Dietrich. Ben Gurion. Some guy named 17. Juni. But only generals seem to get statues. And hopefully David Bowie.

 

 

 

Magical Germany: Tischmülleimer

The first time I saw one on a breakfast table at a hotel in Nuremberg, I thought it was hiding some breakfast delight. Extra butter. Milk. Tea, maybe. But it had an odd size and it was shaped like a tiny trash can.

Because it was a tiny trash can.

Tischmülleimer
Pic Jochen Wegner under Creative Commons

Yes, in Germany there are tiny trash cans on breakfast tables at bed & breakfasts (and your grandmother’s).

Guys! Tiny trash cans!

“They’re totally old fashioned,” my German wife told me as I sat down to write this. “Nobody uses them any more.”

Au contraire mon Frau.

She hasn’t googled Tischmülleimer (table trash can) recently. Or checked on amazon.de for Tischabfalleimer (table trash can). Or gone to the housewares section in any department store and looked for Tischabfallbehälter (table trash can).

Because Germany still has trash cans on many of its tables. Lots of its tables.

Tischmülleimer = Ordnung

How obsessed with Ordnung (table trash can … actually, order) do you have to be to have tiny trash cans on your breakfast table? So obsessed that you put tiny trash cans on your breakfast table. So obsessed that you have to take out the trash before you’ve even finished your Rühreier mit Speck (table trash … oh never mind, it’s scrambled eggs with bacon).

Teen-aged me thought the Germans were genius for their Tischmülleimer. You could spread all sorts of stuff on your bread and then throw all the detritus away sofort! It allowed you to focus on your German breakfast which, as we all know, requires full concentration.

Tischmülleimer make sense when you think of all the things the not-always-environmentally-conscious Germans serve in tiny plastic packages. Jelly. Honey. Butter. Cream cheese. Pumpernickel. Schmelzkäse (processed cheese). Angst. And Nutella. That can leave a table looking pretty unordentlich. The-day-after-New-Years disorderly. Plus: That tiny trash can is just the thing for your soft boiled egg shells (though you’ll still end up with some between your teeth).

Even better: The wait staff (or your grandmother) doesn’t have to come through and clean up your trash while you’re quoting Goethe and ladling quark (this weird cheese/yoghurt stuff) into your piehole. You can just throw it away!

When I was in high school in America, I imagined being an adult meant having all the CDs of my favorite bands. As an exchange student in Germany, I imagined being an adult as being able to have a Tischmülleimer at every table.

Now I’m an adult and I don’t have either.

And I never quote Goethe.

 

 

My Own Private Deutschland 83

Do you know what they call really good TV in America? TV.

Do you know what they call it in Germany? Qualitätsfernsehen. Quality TV. Already it sounds uninteresting. But don’t worry, there isn’t much of it, which is something worrying Germany’s television producers.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great German TV. Most of it Scandinavian: The Killing. The Bridge. And that tubby Wallander guy.

Foto thanks UFA Fiction.
Foto thanks UFA Fiction.

 

Part of it’s the country’s creatively stagnant public TV infrastructure, which skews toward retirees, but it’s also because of the country’s taste for character (Klaus Kinski anyone?) over story.

When The Wire got huge in the U.S., suddenly a mini-series called Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (The Face of the Crime) appeared and it was pretty great, if only because it showcased neighborhoods and a corner of Berlin rarely acknowledged.

But with the success of things like Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Girls, Germany’s TV production companies are trying to bring out more Qualitätsfernsehen – and snag some of that production $$$. And they’re succeeding, sort of. Im Angesicht des Verbrechens was a good start. Then there’s Weissensee, about a sometimes-ignored suburb of Berlin (and the former East Berlin). And now Deutschland 83.

What’s it about (for anyone who hasn’t seen it)? Germany in 1983, dummkopf. More specifically, an East German spy in Bonn for a couple of key days.

And it’s pretty great. We binge-watched it over Christmas and it’s got everything I love about Cold War Germany: the Stasi. American generals. Mean Russians and clownish East German officials. Deutschland 83 even picked up the American Qualitätsfernsehen habit of ending on a tune – usually some New Wave ditty.

But just like how much of the best German TV is Scandinavian, Deutschland 83 is conceived pretty much by an American: Berlin novelist Anna Winger and her German husband. Acquaintance and fellow American journalist Ralph Martin even wrote an episode (private to Ralph: nice job on the brothel!).

It’s like the executives at broadcaster RTL were so panicked by the American TV invasion they couldn’t even trust their local heroes. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The show is a hit abroad and a yawner at home.

I’m not surprised. RTL’s audience rarely has an attention span longer than the word Qualitätsfernsehen. And, anyway, everything us aging Americans and Brits love about Cold War Germany has been done more times than a Hasselhoff gag in Germany. They lived it. Some subtleties are bound to go missing.

But the question now is, will there be a Deutschland 1984? I hope so! And hats off to RTL for making it easy to watch the German-language version from rainy Portland, Oregon for a laughable $0.99 an episode (otherwise I would have just stolen it from some dodgy Russian site).

I’d love if Qualitätsfernsehen became Fernsehen.

 

 

 

 

Magic Germany: Rundlauf Tischtennis

Something amazing happened my first day of school in Germany at Gymnasium (German high school). During a break, kids from the adjoining elementary school spilled out into the playground and mobbed a monotone cement ping pong table. They began hopping and yelling excitedly. As I moved closer and saw what they were doing, I felt like my entire life had been a lie.

Rundlauf Tischtennis
Pic thanks Oranjejon via Creative Commons

On that day I realized America had been making a grave mistake. Ping pong tables were not something to be given at Christmas and repurposed as craft tables by Easter. They were actually useful recreational gear that could entertain more than four for far longer than just a few weeks of vacation. In Germany I discovered ping pong tables – excuse me, table tennis tables – had a place in society.

I was enthralled.

The kids weren’t playing monotonous rounds of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can, they were playing round-the-table (I guess?) table tennis. A player hits the ball across the net and then steps to their side. The player at the other end volleys and then steps to the right or left only to cycle around to another turn on the opposing side. The game continues until a player flubs a hit – and then they’re out. Players are eliminated until only the final two remain. And once a champion is crowned, they are quickly forgotten as the next round starts without a word.

Rundlauf. Tischtennis.

Noise. Anticipation. Defeat. It felt very Thunderdomey. Or at least Dodgebally. And I couldn’t give it a shot because I was too old (or so I thought).

In my childhood, my friend Sean was the only one with a table that was actually used, and that was only because we cajoled him into games in the hopes of getting a glimpse or even a few words with his older sister Kate. Tables sat ignored and unused alongside PlayStations and Gameboys. And that day at Gymnasium I mourned the hours we wasted playing Combat on Atari 2600s when we could have been facing off in Rundlauf Tischtennis. And the occasional round of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can.

So much youth wasted!

In turn-of-the-century Berlin, I finally got my chance to play at Ping Pong Country events and eventually Dr. Pong (though by then I had kids). And now there are apparently similar ping pong bars in the U.S. But I can’t help but feel my childhood was incomplete.

Rundlauf Tischtennis, you complete me.

You Won’t Believe What This German Hedgehog Did Next!

That night’s good night story came from a stack of German books from my wife’s childhood.

Die Hase und der Igel.” I read the title aloud as I opened the book to read to my kids. The Hare and the Hedgehog.

“That’s cute,” I thought, “The Germans replaced the tortoise in ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ with a hedgehog.” I imagined an adorable, spiky hedgehog facing off in a running race against the boisterous hare. At that moment it made perfect sense.

6a00e54efdf112883301901e5534d3970b[1]

The story began as it always did: The hedgehog minding his own business when suddenly an annoying, intrusive hare appears out of nowhere and begins hassling the poor rodent. Usually you’d figure a guy like that’s a Mormon. Or a Republican. But he’s not, he’s just a big rabbit.

The teasing escalates until the hedgehog and the hare agree to a race the hare wanted all along. And then the German version gets weird: Rather than tooling around a forest path, the duo agree to face off in a simple sprint from one end of the hedgehog’s field to the other.

“Fair enough,” I thought. “The story’s over quicker that way.” Hoping for a fast end to my parenting duties, I began contemplating whether to end the day with wine, beer or camembert.

Then, the hedgehog did a very strange thing, something that isn’t in that Aesop fable we all know: The hedgehog calls for his wife and tells her to dress just like him.

“Wow,” I thought, thinking the Germans had not only introduced a new animal into the ancient tale, they’d also included a bit of cross-dressing. “Those liberal Germans!

61Y5GM0WKRL._SX258_BO1%252C204%252C203%252C200_%255B1%255D[1]

Then comes the hedgehog’s strategy: He and his wife will just stand at each end of the field and every time the hare arrives, he’ll think he’s already been beat by a hedgehog that hasn’t even broken a sweat.

What? What happened to slow and steady wins the race? What happened to perseverance? What happened to doing the right thing despite miserable odds? Where’s the morality play?

The hedgehog is going to CHEAT? I was so incensed I even thought in all caps. Liberal Germans indeed!

The hare and the hedgehog progresses just as the wily hedgehog predicts: After the first race, the rabbit thinks his spiky competitor is beating him and continues to propose a rematch in the hopes he will finally emerge victorious. The hare can’t, of course, and, depending on the version, either admits defeat, goes insane or – yes – dies of exhaustion. What a kids story!

For years I thought this poetic license with the original Aesop Fable stood for all that was wrong with Germany. Now I think it’s why German kids seem better prepared for life: They already know that assholes are best countered with fraud, deceit and gender bending.

I’ve also learned that the Tortoise and the Hare and the Hase und Igel are two different stories, one by Aesop and one stolen from Aesop by Germany’s own Shakespeares: The Brothers Grimm.

Once again the Germans are doing it right: Slow and steady wins the race is a garbage axiom. Anyone over 10 knows it’s untrue and as someone who’s run the Berlin Marathon twice I can tell you it doesn’t win the race at all: Slow and steady gets you 32,001th place, or 4,291th place in your age/sex group.

Next time I’ll dress like my wife.