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Month: September 2018

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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Raising bilingual kids, an interim report

When we had our kids, we swore we were going to write down everything cute or smart that they said. Every parent says this. But then they started saying so many cute and smart things and we were so busy with the actual parenting part of parenting that we just forgot. Which is unfortunate because, since we raised bilingual kids, they were saying twice as many cute and smart things, and sometimes even on purpose. But we remembered a few.

First off, we always sent them to bi-lingual daycares and schools, and we did that each-parent-exclusively-speaks-their-native-tongue method of bilingual child-rearing. Some academic has probably given it a better name but that’s what I call it: The each-parent-exclusively-speaks-their-native-tongue method of bilingual child-rearing. I spoke English to our kids and my German wife spoke German. I was, ahem, a fascist about it and never broke character. I found it difficult in small groups, like on playgrounds, because I’d be explaining something to my kids in English while some random German kid would stare at me dumbfounded. I would then translate it to German, which always felt super-pretentious.

But, like I said, I was being a fascist about it. Any time they spoke to me in German I would even say, “I don’t understand you” or the now-ridiculous sounding, “How does dad say it?” And they would always then switch to English. Because they’re the most awesome kids on the planet. Still, every time I told them I didn’t understand their German, I expected them to look at me dumbfounded and say, “Dad, I know you understand my German because I just heard you explain to that kid in German that the plastic dumptruck is mine but the pink starfish sand form was already on the playground when we got there.” But they never did. They believed us so wholeheartedly that when they wanted to tell us both something they would first say it in one language and then the other – a habit they still have as teenagers.

Truly bilingual kids

One night, I came in to find my wife and daughter sitting at the kitchen table. My daughter was about four at the time. I said something to her and she started laughing so hard that tears started to run down her cheeks. My wife and I looked at each other confused. “Mama!” she said to my wife. “Papa spricht deutsch mit mir!” (Dad’s speaking German with me!). I’d been at the beergarden and had probably stayed a bit too long. I switched to English and we all three laughed. We’re still laughing.

Another time we were on vacation in Italy with friends who have two sons. Our friends are Croatian and American but they live in Amsterdam, which means their two sons speak Dutch, English and Croatian. Yes, fluently. Our kids understood that the two boys were multi-lingual but my daughter couldn’t understand that they didn’t speak German.

“Hey,” my wife said to her. “They’re like the kids in your daycare and speak several languages but you have to speak English to them or they won’t understand.”

“I know,” my daughter said. “Just like the kids in the daycare.” And she continued to speak German with them. The odd part was that she would always speak English to their parents. My friend’s sons are nice, caring kids but it frustrated them that they would speak English to her and she would answer in German. So they just started speaking Croatian to her.

She finally switched.

In addition to anecdotes, there were vocabulary oddities. Only recently have my kids started saying “sleepovers”. For years they just anglicized the German übernachten: Overnighting. And they still don’t own any stuffed animals — they’re all cuddle toys (Kuscheltiere). I thought more of it would disappear during two years in Portland but in addition to the cuddle toys and overnighting, they also still ask if something “tastes”. Not “tastes good” or “tastes bad”, just “tastes”. Because in German, if something “tastes” it means it tastes good – you don’t need the adjective. But if it tastes bad, you need a whole sentence – “Es schmeckt mir nicht!” (It doesn’t taste to me!). My son would also like an English equivalent of “und so weiter” (and so on) in English when he doesn’t know how to end a story. Lately he’s started saying, “and whatsoever”, which is close.

But the funniest thing he ever said was one day when I was being a goofy dad, rough housing with him. He was laughing and laughing and said, “Dad! You’re spinning!” Because in German, acting crazy is a single verb: Spinnen as in, Papa, du spinnst!

There, now I’ve written down some of the cute and smart things my kids said.

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The holy trininty of hazelnut spreads – Nutella, Nudossi & Nusspli

Thanks to the necessity of store-brand knock-offs, there are infinite numbers of chocolatey hazelnut spreads in Germany (and beyond) these days. Some are more hazelnutty, others are more chocolatey and some are just a cloying goo that begs the question of why they were ever produced (usually served at downmarket hotels and corporate breakfast buffets). But for me, only three hazelnut spreads have made it into the canon of hazelnut spreads – Nutella, Nudossi and Nusspli. The complexities of familial politics mean that only Nutella ever lands on our table but, thanks to this blogpost, we will now, for a time, also have the other two. And by “complexities” I mean “my children’s preference”. Though it rarely shows up on list of things that are über-German, Nutella is as much a part of the German experience as airing out a room, Oktoberfest and white asparagus. If there’s no hazelnut spread on the breakfast table, then you can be sure it’s not an authentic German breakfast.

Hazelnut spreads – Nutella

Nutella is the undisputed king, nay, emperor of hazelnut spreads, if only because Nutella invented Nutella, which later became known as hazelnut spreads. In post-war Europe, chocolate was hard to come by so Pietro Ferrerro threw in a little hazelnut and first created a hazelnutty loaf that his son would refine into Nutella in the ‘60s. Or at least that’s the way Nutella tells it. I first encountered Nutella on my first-ever morning in Germany and, after my first taste, wondered why anyone would ever live anywhere else. For years I thought the Germans had invented Nutella, and I acted as a Nutella evangelical. It was in my role as Nutella evangelic that I discovered a funny phenomenon – every North America Nutella lover I met thought it was invented in whatever country they first encountered it. People claimed it was invented by the French, the Danish and even the Czechs. At the time, I argued that it was invented by the Germans. Everyone was wrong!

We all now know it’s from Italy, like so many good things. Sometimes I think that country has so much goodness that they have to occasionally elect odd governments just to even out their reputation. Good on indulgence, bad in politics, or something.

Hazelnut spreads – Nudossi

For a brief period I once dated a woman who grew up in East Germany and she introduced me to Nudossi. “It’s the East German Nutella!” she said. She loved it as a kid and no other hazelnut spreads were allowed on her breakfast table. I didn’t argue, though I found it a bit oily. I’ve bought it occasionally since and didn’t think much about it. But it turns out Nudossi has an interesting post-Berlin Wall history that serves as a warning to be careful what you joke about – a lesson I wish I’d learned earlier. I once worked for a fast-growing publisher in Denver and joked during a staff meeting that we’d soon have enough people to field a softball team. Two weeks later I was on the pitching mound. My brother also once joked at a Christmas party that if his Boulder, Colorado software company wanted to expand to Europe, he was their man. He now lives in Amsterdam.

Anyway, a guy named Karl-Heinz Hartmann bought a factory in Radebeul, near Dresden, to produce Stollen (a marzipany Christmas cake) and during a press conference about his plans, a reporter asked him if the factory wasn’t the place where Nudossi had been produced. “Of course,” he said. “And it’ll be back.” He was just joking, according to Die Zeit. But he made good on the joke (like me on the softball diamond and my brother and his wooden clogs). The company has had some hiccups but is now successful – Nudossi supposedly has twice as much hazelnut as Nutella and the company even makes a non-palm-oil version.

Nudossi was first produced in 1970, if Wikipedia can be believed, again because of the lack of cacao in East Germany. Production ended temporarily in 1994 when Vadossi, its manufacturer, went bankrupt. The rights to the name were originally picked up by regional broadcaster MDR, but Hartmann was able to get them back after he made that prophetic joke.

Hazelnut spreads – Nusspli

When I was an exchange student, my host family swore by Nusspli. You would think they’d never heard of Nutella (and lord knows if back then, when the Wall was still up, if you could even get Nudossi in the West). To me, it tastes more hazelnutty. At the time, I thought this was why Nusspli was the hazelnut-spread-of-choice in their home but in researching this article I think it might be regional – Zentis, which makes the stuff, is based in Aachen and we were just a short car trip from the place. Like Nudossi, Nusspli didn’t appear until the 70s, along with Kraftwerk and the VW Golf (which was called the Rabbit in the US).

Great, now I’m hungry.

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