This weekend I was trying to think of the things I love about Germany in the summertime. I mean, beyond getting all of May off because of a succession of legal holidays based on some guy known as Jesus. And then getting all of August off because that’s what Europe does.
The answer: Ice cream. In America, ice cream is all about quantity. One scoop is a meal and two will feed a family of four for a week. And it costs accordingly.
But in Germany, you have Eisdielen (ice cream stores) where you get a single Kugel for (scoop) for about $1 and it’s enough ice cream to enjoy but not make you think you have to go to confession (even if you’re not Catholic). Germans only get two scoops on special occasions, like getting married or winning a Nobel Prize.
But they also have Eiscafes (ice cream cafes), which are like every other German cafe with coffee and cakes but also one of the most important publications of a German’s childhood: The Eiskarte (ice cream menu). The Eiskarte is full of frozen creations that involve several scoops of ice and cream and about anything else you can add to ice cream.
The Eiskarte is so creative, it’s subdivided into categories such as “tropical”, “alcoholic” and “brittle” with half a dozen items in each. But I’ve never been interested in any of those. Any time I’m confronted with an unfamiliar Eiskarte I quickly scan it until I find one of Germany’s most fantastical inventions: Spaghettieis (spaghetti ice cream).
And then I order it.
So this weekend, we went to the grocery store and got all the ingredients and, for the first time ever, made Spaghettieis.
*This post was originally published in German over at Frau-Mutter, a great blog about mothering in German. And by that I mean both mothering in the language of German and mothering by being German. Also, she happens to be in Germany, so all bases covered.
We raised our kids bilingually. All the recommendations we read said each parent should speak their native language with the kids and the kids would learn the languages naturally. One language per parent. Our kids only have two parents so they were limited to just the two languages – German and English. I’m American. My wife is German.
Even though I speak pretty good German, it never occurred to me to want to communicate with my children in anything other than my native language. Mostly because my kids are half-German and I knew what would ultimately happen if I tried German with them.
Eventually we’d be having a simple discussion and my daughter would stop me mid-sentence and roll her teen-age eyes.
“Dad, Jesus,” she’d say. “Your German is so embarrassing. It’s dative. It’s ‘dem’ not ‘den’.” And then I’d lose the argument and I’d have to buy her an Xbox after all.
Just because I conjugated incorrectly.
We have two kids. I spoke only English with them. Every time they said something to me in German I’d say, “I don’t understand. How would you say it in English?” I always felt guilty because I did understand them and – you may not believe this – but we have the two smartest, cutest kids ever. Yes, smarter and cuter than your kids. So it was hard to act like I didn’t understand them.
But I did it anyway. And I kept waiting for them to call my bluff.
“Come on Dad,” I thought they’d say, “We just heard you and mom talking about the merits of laser vs. pulse propulsion in German. I’m sure you understood me asking to be pushed on the swings.”
But they never did. They always believed I never understood them and answered in English. Like I said, they’re the best kids. Ever.
When my daughter was five I read a piece about bilingualism in kids. It said parents should speak in their native tongue because using a second language robs parents of spontaneity. True. Plus it’s also easier to yell in your native language.
There’s other problems with not speaking your native language with your kids.
Making kids bilingual
My kids have always been in bilingual schools and nurseries in Berlin. Many of the kids have German helicopter parents who think it’s vital their kids grow up bilingual even though both parents are German. These parents also follow the mantra of one parent, one language. That means that I’ve been subjected every day to adult Germans trying to speak to their children in English with German accents.
Respect for the parents for knowing a second language but not with their kids. In English, the parents sound like a mix of Boris Karlov and Ariana Huffington speaking to a cardboard box full of kittens. That may work on stage but imagine it in the cloakroom. Or on the playground. Or telling a kid to come sit on their lap.
We’ve even run into a few German parents that gave their kids English names even though they can’t pronounce them. For two years I thought a girl at our kids’ school was named Selma. It turned out her name was Thelma. Her parents couldn’t pronounce it.
I often thought the bi-lingualism would come in handy if I needed to say something in secret to my kids. Once, in the Rocky Mountains, we were in the changing room for a hot springs. A real cowboy walked in – cowboy boots, cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. Probably enough guns in his truck to arm a small Caribbean nation.
“Wow,” I said to my son in German. “I bet you didn’t expect to see one of those here.”
My son looked at me weird. “Dad, why are you speaking to me in German?”
There’s a new saying for whenever someone finds themselves in a strange position: “There must be a German word for this.”
I’m not a big fan of the saying because of course there’s a German word for it. Not because the language is so expansive or all-encompassing. But because if there isn’t a word for it, you can make one. German, as the joke goes, is the Lego of languages. You can take entire words, weld them together into compound words and then open an amusement park full of your wonderful creations.
Want to express a prevailing funk affecting everyone? Weltschmerz (pain of the world)! How about a dry, precise definition of your current love interest? Lebensabschnittpartner (life segment companion)! Wet-dry vacuum? Nasssauger (wet sucker)! Wanna talk about the captain of a steamboat on the Donau river? Donaudampfschiffs… ach, never mind. No one actually wants to talk about him, they just want to point out the length of his, ahem, title (one of the longest German words).
But my favorites are the casual ones. The ones that are used in everyday conversation at the water cooler or in the Biergarten (See? Compound German words are everywhere!). Verschlimmbessern – which means to make something worse despite trying to improve it. It’s a mutant of the two words verschlimmern (make worse) and verbessern (improve) but contains the DNA of as many as half a dozen words. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I wasn’t at the autopsy.
Verschlimmbessern is something anyone who’s ever worked in a committee can identify with. Also, anyone who ever had a boss.
Wichtigtuer is perhaps the only German word for which we have a single word: Poseur.
Ok, the French have a single word for.
And then there’s Jein, which is the child of the inevitable romance between ja (yes) and nein (no). There might actually be twins but it’s difficult to tell.
People who use jein are sometimes the subject of derision, much like anyone with a penchant for dad jokes (dads, for instance) and Millennials who literally have too much love for the word “literally”. There’s even a compound word for these kind of people: Warmduscher (someone who takes a warm shower because they’re not tough enough to take a cold shower, like a German).
However, most people accusing Jeinsager (people who use the word “jein”) of being Warmduscher often have to resort to using jein because, like most German compound words, jein can be so ideal for a particular situation.
I know. I’m one of those people.
“Were you happy with today’s blogpost Drew?”
There must be a linguistic reason why the German language is so good at cementing words together to create bigger meaning. But you’ll have to find someone with a real degree and a measurable IQ to find the answer. I’m just here to tell you the lay of the land, ergo the Gesamtsituation (the current situation, though the German seems more exact).
To be fair, we do something similar in English. It’s just that instead of devising single words, we form complete sentences. Like humans. An American comedian – Rich Hall – once tried to adopt the German practice to the English language. He called the Frankenstein words “Sniglets”. But in the end it was more Spassmacherei (forced fun) than Verbesserungsvorschläge (suggestions for improvement).
When I was an exchange student sometime in the past century in Germany, I discovered a secret to learning German. I mean, besides the crushing loneliness and hours of boredom.
Before I arrived I had taken two years of middle school German (shout out to my fellow malcontents in Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo Middle School) and one year and some change of high school German. In modern lingo, this equates to about one Youtube beginning German course or an hour on Duolingo.
My German wasn’t great.
After landing in-country, I discovered that, when actual Germans spoke German, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. It was a lot different than just some voice in cheap headphones in Smoky Hill High School’s language lab. And when I could tell the words apart, I would write down the words I didn’t understand. Often they were names. Silke, Thilo, Sebastian and Thörsten were all new to me.
I actually looked them up in a dictionary. Really.
But then, in a cupboard in the room I was staying in, I found a stack of comics. “Asterix und Obelix” was scrawled across the front. When I began reading, I discovered the comics were slightly goofy but somehow funny and, anyway, I had to bridge the time between dinner and falling asleep somehow.
I know all the comic nerds out there are freaking out about how Asterix and Obelix comics aren’t German. I know, Besserwisser (know-it-alls). But at the time, I didn’t need to learn French and they were all in German. And, as a foreigner, you often mistakenly see the country you’re currently in as an item’s country-of-origin. I made the same mistake with Nutella and the world does it with that Adolf guy.
But every night for a month or so, I cranked up the Simple Minds on my Walkman and got to work. The formula made the learning easy: The Romans were bad, the Gauls good. And Asterix was fat, lovable and didn’t know his own strength. Obelix was the brains. Or was it Asterix that was fat and Obelix was the brain?
It didn’t really matter.
The comics were perfect because they presented me simple German sentences in a childish context. Too much of the German being thrown at me at the time was too high-brow. Reading a newspaper didn’t help because I barely knew who Kohl was let alone Genscher, Honecker or Herbert Grönemeyer. And books weren’t any better. It just confused me.
Asterix and Obelix was just the ticket.
Plus they gave me a cultural hook for starting conversations with Germans.
“Ja, Asterix und Obelix sind schon geil (Yes, Asterix and Obelix are great),” Mark Bonitz said to me on the smoker’s patio, helping me learn German slang. “Probier es mal damit (Try this),” he said, handing me a thick Donald Duck comic. Though I could never get into the Donald Ducks.
Thilo in Leistungskurs Chemie (Advanced Chemistry) was a little different.
“Ja, Asterix und Obelix. Habe ich auch gelesen (I read Asterix and Obelix too),” he said. “… in der dritten Klasse (… in third grade).”
I learned a valuable lesson from Thilo that day too. That it was better to spend time on the smoker’s patio even though I didn’t smoke.