How to birthday like a German kid

Today is my daughter’s first birthday outside of Germany. She’s not happy. During the run-up it seemed like she might not even celebrate. We were worried she was going to hold a lonely wake instead.

But then my wife had an idea. Partly because, as I’ve discussed before, she’s a Jedi. But also because she’s a mother and making children happy is a special talent of moms. Like making sandwiches. Dads on the other hand – I’m not sure we really have any parental talents. Except maybe being the parent without parental talents.

“Why don’t you have a German-themed birthday?” my wife suggested to my daughter. It worked better than any Jedi Mind Trick ever. Though have Jedi Mind Tricks even been invented yet? (Note to self: E-mail George Lucas about first Jedi Mind Trick).

My daughter exploded with enthusiasm for her birthday. We’ve spent the last two weeks convincing her to not invite the entire seventh grade. At the moment, she’s a better German ambassador to the U.S. than Peter Wittig (Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., if you didn’t know. I didn’t.).

Beyond sausages, pretzels and Wagner, this is what her party will look like:

Topfschlagen (Pot Whacking)

topfschlagen - pot whacking - german kids birthday games

The point of this game is to find your prize. When it’s your turn, the prize already legally belongs to you but your friends want you to earn it. So they blindfold you and then hide your prize underneath an overturned pot. Seems mean – it’s your prize – but Germans define “mean” differently. They tuck the pot and prize off in a corner of either the yard or the living room, depending on the weather and the current mental state of the host parents. Next, you are given a wooden spoon. Your task is to get on all fours and divine the location of your prize by whacking the spoon against objects to find the pot.

Your friends help by bellowing „kalt!“ (cold!) or „warm!“ (warm, dummy) depending on your current trajectory and the location of the prize. Many wooden spoons, vases and parental shins have suffered during this game. But as of yet, everyone got their prize.

Schokolade Wettessen (Competition Chocolate Eating)

schokolade wettessen - competition chocolate eating - german kids birthday gamesI know, sounds like a Hunger Games the Oompa Loompas hold for kids who lose their way in the Chocolate Factory. But it’s not. First, a chocolate bar (preferably Milka) is wrapped up in newspaper and then kids crowd around a table. They take turns rolling a dice until someone gets a six. The sixer then has to put on adult winter gloves, a scarf and a winter hat and attempt to unwrap the chocolate with a knife and fork. Once unwrapped, the sixer can eat all the chocolate they can.

All the while the other kids continue to roll the dice. Should anyone hit a six, they then have to take the winter clothes and cutlery off the previous sixer and either continue unwrapping or eating the chocolate until the next six falls.

You’re right. Maybe the Oompa Loompas did invent it. Yes I know the band Veruca Salt got its name from the film.

Mumie Einwickeln (Wrap the Mummy)

mumie einwickeln - wrap the mummy - german kid birthday games

Up until I found out about this game I thought Germany was the most environmentally conscious country on the planet. I now realize they only do it to make up for playing this game.

Two teams of two face off in this game that requires one team member to wrap the other up in toilet paper. The winner is the team that entirely covers its mummy first. Not even a thought of the player can show through. The winning team gets a prize and the toilet paper gets discarded.

Though, to be honest, we may not allow this game this year because of the environmental concerns. And because toilet paper costs twice as much in America (really!). We may substitute it with Sackhupfen (Sack Race) or Der Plumpsack geht rum (Pass the Falling Bag), which sounds horrible in both languages but is just a modified version of Duck, Duck, Goose.

At the end of a German birthday each kid leaves with a gift bag full of treats and the parents get to begin another tradition of German kids’ birthday parties: Heavy drinking. It’s also a tradition we’ll be following here.

(Happy birthday kiddo)

Nutella and peanut butter: The battle

Settle an old argument for me. My wife and I have fought about this since our youngest was a baby. It’s become a dispute bigger than the East Coast/West Coast beef in American rap or whether Didi Hallervorden or Fips Asmussen wrote the first-ever German one-liner. Think Kramer vs. Kramer.

It’s important I get this settled today because it’s our 13th wedding anniversary.

Nutella, peanut butter.
I know it’s my name, not Nutella but we all know what it is. Plus, cool that my name is on a Nutella jar.

It started when our first kid was just a year old. My wife offered her a Nutella-laden spot of Brötchen (bread roll).

“What are you doing?” I demanded. “Do you want to get her hooked on chocolate at this early of an age?”

My statement seemed to puzzle my wife. She looked at me as though I had suddenly turned into a cloud of semi-transparent gas that was whispering commands to her in a language never before heard in this solar system.  She didn’t know whether to laugh at the discovery of a talking gaseous mass or cry because she was obviously hallucinating.

“It’s just Nutella,” she said. “I’ve eaten it my entire life and look at me.” I don’t actually know if she said that “look at me” bit but it’s what I always hear when we talk food because I’m clearly the American in the relationship, if you know what I mean. I’m overweight, is what I’m saying.

She’s obviously the European.

“It’s chocolate and that’s a baby!” I hollered. Despite insisting that my kids carry both a blue and a red passport, I’ve inwardly always hoped that they would adopt their mother’s eating habits but get everything else from me. On that day, the half a square centimeter of Brötchen with a drop of Nutella was about to ruin that.

“It’s Nutella and I’ve eaten it my whole life (and look at me),” she said again. Then she leaned into her wife-of-an-American toolbox and said: “Plus, you were giving her peanut butter yesterday and there’s no difference.”

Which is where you come in. Have you ever heard anything so absurd? Me neither.

Nutella and peanut butter are in different galaxies. Peanut butter in its purest form is crushed peanuts – straight from the earth – mixed with a dash of salt. Ok, you might mix in some butter and two dashes of salt and the peanuts are actually roasted but that’s it. It’s food so pure Adam and Eve probably dined on it before partaking in a pomegranate. Neanderthals maybe even ate peanut butter and they weren’t capable of sin because all of that hadn’t been invented yet.

Peanut butter is pure and natural.

Nutella, on the other hand, was invented by an industrialized society trying to trick people into believing hazelnuts were chocolate. It worked! Nutella tastes great! But it’s a chocolate made by heavy machinery and should only be consumed for dessert or as a treat. Heavy machinery is nothing for babies or the main course.

I tolerate it on the breakfast table because I know an entire country would revolt if I expressed distaste but I don’t really believe that anyone – not even Germans – would believe that it’s the same thing as peanut butter.

“Honey,” I now often tell my daughter, “maybe one Brötchen half with Nutella is enough.” She’ll be a teenager soon but the Nutella poisoning took hold. She loves the stuff.

My wife will scowl at me across the breakfast table.

“So you get to have two or three Brötchen halves covered in peanut butter but she only gets to have a half with Nutella?”

It’s a wonder we’re still married.

Four things the universe could learn from Germany

I get it. The Internet loves these lists. Listicles. But I didn’t do five things. I did four. Because I’m punk. And because I couldn’t think of any more. I avoided the clichés every blogger, publisher and even news agency has thought of. I included only things I really believe. Maybe surprising things. Some things others won’t agree with.

In fact, I’ll probably lose a few friends. Friends who want to change Germany to make it just like back home.

“If they try to change you,” my mother always said, “they’re not your friends.” Actually, my mother never said that. She wouldn’t have even said that, I don’t think. And she always seemed to like my friends more than I did anyway. But I’m sure somebody’s mother said it.

Here are the four things. I hope your mom likes them.

Dogs don’t need leashes

Four things Germany could teach the universe. Dogs do not need leashes.
Photo thanks Bernd Baltz via Creative Commons

I am not a dog person. I tell every dog I meet that we will never be friends. It’s not a problem. There are lots of dog people and lots of animals who like me. The world is big! And as someone who doesn’t enjoy the company of dogs, I’m always annoyed in the U.S. when two people walking dogs on leashes meet. The dogs are going to bark and snarl. And then bark and snarl some more. Shut up already! There is no barking and snarling in Germany. Because dogs are free to sniff each other’s butts. Leashes do to dogs what steering wheels do to men: Turn them into beasts. I realize there are loopholes here – dog owners have to be responsible and dogs have to be well-trained. But as a whole, I’ve been less bothered by German dogwalkers than their Uncle Sam counterparts.

Pass on the left, drive on the right

(or if you’re from one of those places that goes against God and drives on the left, do the opposite)

Four things Germany could teach the universe. Rechts überholen.
Photo thanks Micky Waue Auktionen und Konzerte

On Germany’s Autobahn it’s illegal to pass on the right. You only pass on the left. Are you passing on the right? You don’t pass on the right. It’s illegal. Conversely, are you going slow? Move over to the right so people can pass you on the left. It’s the law and it’s what (most) Germans do. It’s what everyone should do. This behavior on the Autobahn transfers to surface streets and makes driving orderly and pleasant in Germany. In America it’s different. Driving on American highways feels like being a bison in a stampede. There are buffalo everywhere, going every speed and in every direction. Changing lanes requires an act of whoever your God is because cars could be zooming past on both sides. We’re not bison, we’re humans. Humans pass only on the left.

Shake hands as a greeting

Photo thanks Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt
Photo thanks Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt

Just bumped into your friends at the Kaiser’s? Shake everyone’s hands. Showing up for a group beer? Go on, shake their hands. It’s the Teutonic way of saying: ‘Hey, I’m here,’ and acknowledging the presence of everyone else. It also ensures you’ll be introduced to anyone you didn’t already know. It’s a symbolic way of saying, ‘We are us.’ It’s a gesture and makes everyone feel welcome. Even your ex-girlfriend who you didn’t know was going to be there. And her new boyfriend. Shake his hand too. Also try to impart an Incan death spell during the brief meeting of your flesh with his. In Germany if the gathering involves really good friends, you don’t need to shake hands. You should hug. Don’t be so afraid of physical contact. Germans aren’t. Show some emotion for once. You’re among friends.

(Almost) Every store is closed on Sundays

Four things Germany can teach the universe. Landschluss.
Photo thanks Sebastian Baryli via Creative Commons

Ever wonder what it would feel like to be Will Smith in I am Legend (or Charlton Heston in The Omega Man)? On Sundays in Germany you can. (Almost) Every store is closed. Retail areas are deserted. Ex-pats hate this. Apparently it’s very difficult to make sure you’ve got enough dishwasher detergent and basil. Planning a few hours ahead is very hard for ex-pats. Although Sunday closings started because of God, it’s now about something different. It’s about saying commerce isn’t always king. The customer isn’t always right. And the almighty dollar (or euro) isn’t always mighty. It’s about doing a day differently. And it’s nice.

Plus you get to feel like a zombie hunter.

Swearing in English in German

Warning: This is a blog about off-color language. And, as such, it uses off-color language. I’ve used the linguistic equivalent of TV’s black bars – the asterisk – to censor what I could. But if you’re easily offended, sit this one out. Don’t blame me. The Germans led me to this.

 

Germans love English swear words. They throw them in between the cases and conjugations of their German. They’re total potty mouths. They’re f*cking sailors.

The first time I experienced it was way back in 2000 at my first job in Berlin. A German co-worker told me to f*ck off for no reason. He was disagreeing with me over something completely banal but he shouted it at me across the office. Inappropriate.

I felt insulted but I tried to help Karsten with his use of pejoratives – it’s always the Karstens.

Eigentlich benutzen wir  ‘f*ck off’ in so eine Zusammenhang nicht (We wouldn’t use f*ck off in that context),” I told him.

“F*ck off,” he bellowed.

Karsten 1, Drew 0.

Swearing German
Photo thanks Antenne Düsseldorf via Creative Commons.

But it’s a problem that comes up often. Out of the blue a German will throw in an English cuss word in the wrong setting or an awkward context and give me the feeling that my father is about to scream threats of washing my mouth out with soap.

Or at least warn me about the kind of company I keep.

“She’s a nun,” I’d tell him. It wouldn’t matter. Nothing matters when a father has made up his mind.

I’ve been sworn at in casual German conversation by the family physician, by Beamte (bureaucrats) discussing the state of the office printer and even prospective employers reviewing the competition in a job interview.

Even worse, Germans go straight for the dirtiest of the dirty words. My church-going grandma could stomach the occasional “damn” and who doesn’t need to utter “asshole” once or twice a day?

But it’s all f*cks and sh*ts with these foul-mouthed Teutons. And by “foul-mouthed Teutons” I mean every German under aged 60 – and a good many over.

They casually use English Schimpfwörter (swear words) so bad I can’t bring myself to type them here with the asterisks.

Do they kiss their Mutter with those mouths?

Don’t believe me? Check out this recent video from German bad-boy comic Jan Böhmermann (I don’t agree with the overall theme of the video, but that’s a different f*cking blogpost):

And a few years ago they started making grammar mistakes while swearing. Ugh. „F*ck“, unbeknownst to me, is apparently an adjective, which makes for some odd linguistic – ahem – bedfellows.  The “f*ck Fussballspiel” in derogatory Deutsch is a crappy soccer game, for example. Though tempted, I won’t elaborate more.

(Secret to German readers: Its either “sh*t Fussballspiel” in U.K. lingo or “f*cking Fussballspiel”. Thanks.)

It’s not that I don’t understand. Invectives can be fun. 90 percent of the reason the 10-year-old me wanted to be an  adult was to have the ability to swear at will. It seemed as cool to me then as it apparently does to Germans now. And I get it – they’re used to watching mob films, American comedians and British tourists. They think everyone talks that way.

But man I wish they’d be a little more aware of the impact. These aren’t just Wörter to native English speakers, they’re actual words, emotions and a childhood of scolding.

I guess Germans see them as novel, two-dimensional bits of language. But I often try to point out that they wouldn’t use the German equivalent so easily. Ok, you say, but they do it while they’re speaking German. It’s a different cultural context.

Au contraire mon Frere. They even throw them in with their English.

Swearing in German

Several years ago my father visited and he asked some Berliners for directions while I dealt with my misbehaving kids. The Berliners didn’t agree with each other on the best way to get to Curry 36.

“Zose are bullsh*t directions,” a middle-aged Berliner said in order to correct the initial set of directions provided by his compatriot. He was visibly proud of his English abilities. “I give you better f*cking directions.”

I turned bright red and muttered something about the guy being drunk (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t).

My father and I never discussed the incident.

But he tells everyone I told him Germans spoke pretty good English.

“That wasn’t my experience,“ he says.

Look Who’s Back: Writing jokes for Hitler

I just finished reading Er is wieder da. For those not in the know, Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) is a fictional take on Hitler coming back to life in central Berlin in 2011.

It’s humorous fiction. Really.

And for those doubly not in the know, they made it into a movie in 2014. And that movie will debut on Netflix in non-German-speaking parts of the world on April 9.

Look Who's Back/Er ist wieder da
Photo thanks Constantin Film Verleih GmbH.

And for those triply not in the know – I’m in the movie. So, like, my Netflix debut is Friday.

Back in 2014 I got a call from an acquaintance in the movie business. He asked if I had any interest in playing comedy coach for a mysterious someone. My answer was: Not really. I’m only skilled at two things and neither of them is comedy coach.

He then asked if I, instead, had any interest in writing jokes for the mysterious someone.

„Maybe,“ I said.

„With pay.“

„When should I be there?“

A couple days later – a Wednesday, I believe – I found myself sitting with comedy friends on the set of an unrelated TV show in a studio in southeastern Berlin. Near that airport that never opens.

The acquaintance who invited me introduced to us to someone who claimed to be a director.

The director reminded me of Animal from The Muppet Show. At the very least, they had the same taste in fashion.

He asked us if we knew about the book. He said he was making the film.

“We’re not supposed to tell you,” he said, “but it seems to work better when you know.”

We were going to be writing jokes for Hitler, he said.

I wondered if I was living in a Mel Brooks play. I debated singing Springtime for Hitler.

But soon Christoph Maria Herbst showed up. If you’re quadruply not in the know, Christoph Maria Herbst is a big-time German comedy actor who actually played the lead in the German version of The Office (called Stromberg, for those keeping score at home). Just think of some middle-aged comedic actor you’re familiar with.

Are you thinking of that actor?

Good. Christoph Maria Herbst isn’t that famous. Because Germany.

But you get what I mean: it was cool to see him.

He was in character. He said he had a guy with him who either was or was not Hitler but either way would be getting a TV show and we should write jokes for that TV show. Nothing was sacred he said and, during a group brainstorm, made clear the direction he wanted us to go with our humor.

It’s a direction everyone goes, just not in front of cameras. But if cameras, then probably for a lot more than they were paying us.

I was starting to get nervous.

I wasn’t sure the jokes that were forming in my head were OK.

When it comes to borderline culture questions in Germany, I turn to a select collection of Teutonic friends. They have similar political and humanistic leanings as I and I trust them to answer my questions in sticky German situations.

Like if it’s OK to participate when someone asks you to write jokes for Hitler.

One of those friends was sitting next to me on that set – a comedian and filmmaker named Georg – so I figured it was OK.

But it was more than just the day’s task that was making me nervous.

The entire time two beefy security guards had been circling the set, looking unhappy.

Were they part of the scenery? Or had the production company hired them just in case some lefty activists decided to drop in on Hitler?

They were either perfectly cast and were playing their part very well or were beefy security guards with questionable political beliefs.

I couldn’t stop sweating.

Christoph Maria Herbst (you couldn’t not write all three of his names every time either) had us each write five jokes and then he read them aloud. I don’t remember any of the ones I wrote. He then picked his favorites and left to get the man who was either Hitler or a man pretending to be Hitler.

In the book, he’s Hitler. That day on set, he was actor Oliver Masucci. But I still tried to imagine what it would be like if Masucci really were Hitler.

My imagination apparently isn’t good enough. Because I couldn’t.

Look who’s back: And he was

Hitler asked for our advice on his humor and was not amused when I suggested he go for self-deprecation. The Führer making fun of himself would be hilarious, I assured him.

He assured me that wouldn’t happen. Even though he wasn’t really Hitler he was still very menacing, like if Vladimir Putin was standing right there but without the ability to cause you to have a car accident on the way home.

About this time Georg started freaking out. He started telling everyone how he would have no part of this. That it was unfair to Germany’s past (or something like that).

I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. I decided that if Georg stormed out, I would storm out too, like two Clark Gables in Gone with the Wind. Or maybe Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

To hell with the money. I had principles (though I would be a bit disappointed because I’m pretty sure no one ever remotely as famous as Hitler would ever ask me to write jokes for them again).

But Georg stayed and so did I.

Animal the director showed up a few more times and I eventually got escorted off by the security guards for offending Der Führer with my self-deprecation suggestion.

This was a bit unnerving.

They say if you’re ever kidnapped you should make yourself more human to the kidnappers by telling them about your personal life. After finding myself behind the set alone with the hulking, clearly-miffed security guards, I figured humanizing myself might prevent any beatings they were contemplating.

“So, uh, are you guys actors or security guards?” I inquired.

Das hier ist alles scheisse,” the blonder of the two barked back (“This is all bullshit.”) I considered checking to see if my health insurance card was in my wallet.

I still have no idea what he meant.

Dude, Georg

Afterward, standing in the sun, I asked Georg if we were ethically OK or if the whole thing went too far.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“In there. You were freaking out.”

“That? I knew what was going down all along.”

“Holy shit! I thought you were totally against it! I was ready to leave with you!”

“Yeah,” he said, pulling on his e-cigarette. “It’s called acting.”

Months later, after my wife saw the film, I told her what I just told you.

“They’re really good,” she said. “You can totally see that that’s what you’re thinking. But your joke is one of the best in that section.”

I can’t wait to see it on Friday.

I hope my wife is right.