Dave Chapelle in Berlin – How I learned to open a bottle with anything

If you live in Germany long enough, you start to become German. And some day, that may allow you to open a bottle of beer for Dave Chapelle in Berlin with whatever you have in your pocket.

Allow me to explain: Germany seemed most magical to me back when I was an exchange student in 19… well let’s just say Helmut Kohl was chancellor. But I was also blown away by the occasional Teutonic sorcery when I returned a decade later as an adult. Things like German math. Or the German ability to open a beer bottle with specifically a lighter but generally anything.

Although the advent of craft beer (and previously microbrews) brought the traditional beer bottle back to the US, most of my American beer drinking was done with screw-top bottles. And by “beer drinking” I mean “college”. Hello various Budweiser products. I don’t know why so many American brewers use screw-top bottles nor am I aware, beyond simple convenience, of the pros and cons of the invention.

I just know that Germany does not use them.

And so you may find yourself in the middle of Mauerpark (or any German park) with a bottle of beer, and you may find yourself with no bottle opener, and you may ask yourself, “My God, what have I done?”

And a German will come over and say, “Hey, that’s no problem.” And grab the bottle with one hand and pop the top off with a lighter in the other and then just move on as if they didn’t just perform some Harry Potter wizardry. The first time you see it you will expect an owl to swing down and carry the enchanted lighter back to Hogwarts for safekeeping. I know I did.

After watching my German friends perform this feat for about six months, I decided to try it myself. I spent a good year just prying bottle tops off with anything, including lighters, that was nearby, ruining almost every tool I used. And breaking more than a few bottles.

“No,” a guy in a park finally told me. “All you’re trying to do is get some leverage and apply the force vertically to the underside of the cap. Don’t try to pry it off.”

Germans and their physics and logic.

It still took me another year to finally get it right. And now I can open beer bottles with almost anything solid. Almost every time. All you have to do it get some leverage and apply a little vertical force to the underside of the cap.

All of this was training for the night Dave Chapelle performed at Quatsch Comedy Club in Berlin. I got there early and sat in the front row next to my good friends and fellow comics Carmen Chraim and Alex Upatov . Near the end of his set, Dave ordered an unopened beer from the bar staff as if he lived in Game of Thrones, which if I retold here would get both me and Dave in hot water but was hilarious in the moment.

I can only assume that Dave thought he would get a beer with a screwtop. The waitress brought the unopened beer, sans screwtop, and handed it to him.

“I know I ordered an unopened beer,” Dave said, “but can I get a bottle opener?” The waitress didn’t hear him and it was as if Commissioner Gordon had shone the Bat Signal on Quatsch’s back curtain and I was Batman. I knew I had my work ID and holder in my pocket and that I could get a beer bottle open with that. Except at that moment I noticed Carmen had also seen the Bat signal and thought she was Batman. She was rifling through her bag to find a bottle opener.

dave chapelle in Berlin
Dave Chapelle beer opener (patent pending).

I did what any gentleman would do in that situation and half-stood while yelling, “Dave! Give me your bottle!” And as I did I reached my right arm out, ostensibly to grab Dave’s bottle but actually to block any view Dave might have of Carmen and her potential Batman-ness. I was born only for this moment and I would not have it usurped by Carmen. Did I say, “gentleman?” I meant, “mercenary.”

Dave handed me his bottle and I opened it and there was a little banter between me and Dave where he discussed his odd affinity for Portland (Oregon) and I just smiled. Like a male praying mantis, I knew I had served my purpose.

And I had cemented my position as apprentice German wizard.

dave chapelle in Berlin
IPA, if yer wondering.

Tagesspiegel says living in Berlin is making your brain shrink

A recent article in Tagesspiegel detailed how living in Berlin changes your brain. That sentence, like the article, is a bit of linguistic gymnastics because it’s big cities that change your brain, researchers have proven, not specifically Berlin, though Berlin is a big city. The article couples this data with some very informed anecdotes and theories from very capable experts to come to the conclusion that Berlin, in the past and now, makes you into a different person, which explains why 60,000 people move here every year. Well, that and the cheap rent. And it being legal to drink beer in the M10.

Allow me to summarize, because either you don’t speak German, or you don’t have time to read a (very well-written) 3,000-word article (honestly, where do Germans find the time to read the behemoth, often-droning articles in their dailies? Productivity would climb 10 percent here if German journalists once a week considered using the inverted pyramid). Apparently, researchers have discovered that people who grow up in big cities have a smaller prefrontal cortex than their rural counterparts. The more time you spend in a big city as a child, the smaller it is. I have a degree in Lit. I have no idea what that means. Also, your amygdala gets over-stimulated, just like in people with depression and panic disorders. Again, Lit degree.

living in berlin
Berlin is hard, yo.

The problem, according to psychiatrist Mazda Adli at Charité, is that our brains were formed tens of thousands of years ago and can’t really deal with the stresses and density of a big city. As soon as we step out the front door, the brains of New Yorkers, Tokoyers, Berliners and Wahlberliners think we’re about to be attacked by a saber-tooth tiger or have spotted the perfect woolly mammoth for a weekend feast. Our brains are ready to murder and flee while we’re just trying to get a Club Mate at the Späti. We’re überfordert (overwhelmed). Always.

Living in Berlin is different

The article also lays out some differences in big cities. In Munich, they’ve discovered, people don’t go sprinting down the stairs of a subway station to catch their U7 at the last second. They walk and wait, in perfect Bavarian decency, for the next one, which is weird because subways don’t come as often in Munich. Here Tagesspiegel quotes Martina Löw, a professor at the Technische Universität (Technical University, the one on Ernst Reuter Platz): “People change depending on which city they move to … Cities are small universes that develop their own minutiae.” Even if you don’t like and don’t adopt the minutiae, you still have to deal with it, creating different rules for every city – you may not try to force your way onto the subway/tram before everyone gets off, but you’ll still have to deal with Berliners trying to do so.

Then we get to the meat, to the thing that makes Berlin different from all the other big cities: The individual. Everybody in Berlin is into themselves, Tagesspiegel claims, which lets everyone be themselves. No one’s going to care how you dress or what you do, because they only care about what they’re wearing or what they’re doing. So much so that your neighbors won’t greet you as they pass on the stairs, not even after a decade. That’s not only annoying but, according to the paper, it also makes people distrust others outside their cliques. In pre-war Germany it was the bureaucrats against the workers. Then Ossis against Wessis. Berliners (natives) against Wahlberliner (transplants). The Kreuzbergers against the Charlottenburgers. The Sharks hating the Jets. Oh, and the generic hate of the Schwaben (literally, people from Swabia in southern Germany but, generally in Berlin, anyone who has more money than you).

“Division was always a strong narrative in Berlin,” Professor Löw told Tagesspiegel. “There is very little trust in the things that connect us in Berlin. There’s no sense of a community.“ The academic admits that there are no studies to back up this thesis, but she still thinks it’s right. People in Berlin all believe they are different from each other, she says, and they like it that way: “Completely refusing to even think or live or feel community – that is very typical for Berlin. And of course that has consequences for the way people act.”

living in Berlin
Each and every one different and unique.

The article points out that this can make Berlin a brutal place for people who feel like outsiders but don’t want to feel like outsiders – if everyone else has a THING and you don’t, you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. I’m paraphrasing here. Possibly even projecting. But it’s what I took from it.

Psychiatrist Adli has some tips. He says you should make the city yours. Get to know your neighborhood and the people in it, even if you hate them (though in the article it didn’t say “hate”, it said, “even if you wish pimples on them,” which is a very endearing German saying). He also recommended taking every available mode of transport. DriveNow, the subway, Taxis, your feet. Or that bike you stole last week outside that café. “The feeling of being able to cover almost every route without any trouble in a reasonable time gives a special feeling of ownership in relation to the city.”

So there you have it: Your prefrontal cortex is getting smaller. Your amygdala is over-stimulated. You’re doing you. And you don’t call your mother often enough. Welcome to Berlin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I came to Berlin

I came to Berlin for the first time three different times. Granted, it was a different city two of those times, but I still came to Berlin for the first time three different times.

The first time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1987. Back then, I wanted to be a professional bike racer when I grew up and the Tour de France was starting in Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary. In a bit of poor teenage planning, the friend of a friend where I was supposed to crash never showed up and so me and the American friend I was traveling with had to use all of our money to get a hotel for the first two nights we were there.

first time in Berlin
I’m going to be a pro! Actually, no yer not.

Luckily, the Tour de France had a massive marketing parade a half an hour before the race every day. They handed out crates of Sprite and boxes of pumpernickel bread like the Shriners tossing Toostie Pops at a July 4 parade. The Sprite and pumpernickel was our only sustenance for those first two days until I bumped into yet another friend who loaned us some cash.

We bought döner kebabs and hostel beds with the money and hung out with Allan Peiper, a professional from the Panasonic team, in between races. He was super-nice. Later, as I watched a recap of the race on TV, I even saw us watching from a grassy median somewhere in West Berlin. Over the past few days I’ve been watching scratchy YouTube vids of the Berlin stages trying to find my younger self. I’ll let you know if he shows up.

The thing I remember most from that trip is discovering that the cycling giants – the men who were my heroes – were very short. Like just as tall as I am. Bob Roll. Phil Anderson. And Stephen Roche. The great Greg Lemond was a giant of the time too but he wasn’t there because he’d just had a hunting accident, but I would later see him at other races and discover, yes, he’s short too. I also remember the East German border guards stamping my passport and using mirrors to look for stowaways under the train. We also took time to look at THE WALL.

Berlin, a second time

The second time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1995 as I was mourning my mother’s premature death by backpacking through Europe. I stayed in a hostel on what I now know is Chausseestrasse in eastern Berlin and walked 45 minutes with an Aussie backpacker through Mitte and Hackesche Markt to a club she knew called Delicious Donuts, which I would get to know better when I moved here. She danced and danced and danced as I alternately slept and thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea about ecstasy at the time and just marveled at her ability to keep grooving for hours. We hiked back to the hostel as the sun came up and I remember thinking some of the shops and galleries on Oranienburgerstrasse seemed interesting but mostly everything looked rundown and maybe scary. Plus the ever-present Fernsehturm looming over everything. It felt like the Stasi still had its eye on me.

The first time for the last time

The last time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1998 after I’d moved to Frankfurt to work for Bloomberg News. Nobody in our office wanted to go to Berlin (imagine!) to cover anything so they started sending me whenever something went down in Berlin, which was about 1/10th as often as these days (the government was still in Bonn). I asked my co-workers what to do in Berlin and they suggested Oranienburgerstrasse in the former east.

Tacheles, sans hookers and dealers. Photo thanks John Graham via Creative Commons.

I was dating an American woman and she went with me on that first trip. After I was done for the day we got in a cab. “Oranienburgerstrasse!” we announced. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea it was the same street I’d walked down three years prior. Even more embarrassing, my hotel was at the Friedrichstrasse station just a few short blocks away. We could have – and should have – walked. But hey: Expense account.

Oranienburger strasse was very Mad Max. Many of the buildings were gray, decrepit and vacant and empty lots were overgrown and surrounded by mangled, rusty fencing. People seemed to seep in and out of every door, window and dirt path. A massive, bombed out department store set the dystopian tone for the entire street. Behind its grand, crumbling façade was a multi-story artist squat known as Tacheles with bars, studios and a movie theater. A ground floor resident welded huge steel beasts while listening to techno every night. The street itself was lined with bars, prostitutes and dealers.

It was fantastic. Oddly, lots of places in Eastern Europe still look this way and I wouldn’t call them fantastic. I’d call them scary.

When I got out of the cab, I looked around and felt inspired. When my girlfriend got out, she grabbed my arm. “Are you sure this is OK?” she asked. “Maybe we should go back to the hotel.” The cab pulled away, leaving us little choice. We went across the street to a bar whose entire interior was painted red (or was it orange?). Even though I went several times over the next couple of years, I could never remember its name. My girlfriend never quite felt safe that night but I somehow knew this was the the last time I would be going to Berlin for the first time.

Why this bi-national couple (DE/US) moved to the U.S.

There’s a German saying about moving that might explain why Germans don’t move very often: Drei Mal umgezogen is einmal abgebrannt, or moving three times is like losing everything in a housefire.

The comment focuses on the costs of a move but not the benefits – a bigger house, a better view or a different country. But fair enough, moving is expensive.

I bring up the saying because we are hours away from our third move – one housefire – in about six years. Two of those trans-Atlantic. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why we’ve lived where we did – and where we will.

Our Portland zu Hause

When my (German) wife and I got married, living abroad was always going to be part of life for one of us. At the time, we were living in Berlin so it was me that was living abroad but I felt like there was an unspoken agreement that someday it would be her. Although, really it was spoken because any time I’d say something about moving to the U.S. she would say: “It’s only fair. You’ve lived in Germany all this time.” Except she’d say it in German.

I come from a small-but-close family so we flew to the U.S. once a year to visit everyone and keep the kids in the loop. Grandma. Various uncles and aunts. My parents. And we always included a side visit to check out other American cities for possible habitation, though we always found reasons not to move.

NYC and San Fran – too expensive. Minneapolis? Too cold in the winter and muggy (and buggy) in the summer. Chicago? See Minneapolis. The triangle in North Carolina? We’re not really southerners and it felt remote-ish.

One year, when the kids were daycare age, we planned a side trip to Seattle and I was confident we’d end up moving there. I even started looking at neighborhoods and schools. The Pacific Northwest had always had a draw – I grew up enthralled by the idea of Yetis and wondering at the mystery of D.B. Cooper.

Moving to the U.S.

But we weren’t wowed by Seattle. I’m still not. However, we had planned a side trip for our side trip – to Portland, Oregon, for the simple reason that most of the bands we had been listening to were from there – Dandy Warhols, Helio Sequence, the Shins. I thought it would be the only time in my life I’d see Portland but after a day or two it became the most likely candidate for a move.

In fact, we started planning a move but decided against it in the end. I would have had to get a job with just one or two weeks’ vacation per year and we’d have to pay for daycare – thousands a month. In Berlin, I already had a good, flexible gig and daycare would be like $50 a month for food or something. Basically free.

That put moving to the U.S. on ice for about a decade.

Then, two years ago, with my mid-life crisis picking up speed and my wife tiring of the shop she’d co-founded and been running for five years, we started thinking about America again. The kids were in middle school and we figured it was really our last chance before their roots grew too deep.

So she sold the shop and I convinced my then-employer to let me work from Portland.

“We’re trying two years and then I’m moving back to Berlin to die,” I told everyone, and then expanded on the idea. “If we lose a kid in a school shooting, we’ll be back after six months. If it’s otherwise awful, a year. If it goes as planned, we’ll be back in two. If it’s great, this is good-bye.”

People always ask why we moved back to the U.S., which surprises me. For all its blemishes, the U.S. is still where I grew up and a place I love. I wanted to show my kids the country and let their English bloom (it exploded, I’d say). I also wanted to see what it felt like being an adult in the U.S. Really! I can’t explain it but I just wanted to be one of those lacrosse fathers I see in movies, and watch how my German wife reacted to her all-women’s book club. American parents, of a sort.

Like most things in life, the past two years in Portland didn’t always go as planned. The kids thrived in their American school. We met some fantastic, inspiring people. But the wife and I have been underwhelmed by our career opportunities.

So we’re moving back. To die (hopefully in 30 or 40 years).

It’s the dreaded third move but there’s another German saying I like: Alle gute Dinge sind drei. It’s a saying we have too: The third time’s a charm.

Even if it feels like a housefire.

30 thoughts on giving birth in Germany

  1. I didn’t actually give birth in Germany. My wife did. Twice.
  2. So this should be called 30 thoughts about watching someone give birth in Germany. Twice.
  3. The German word for ‘giving birth’ is entbinden, which literally means “to disconnect”. People do not welcome a new life in Germany. They disconnect from it.
  4. Birth is covered by health insurance in Germany and most people have health insurance.

    giving birth in Germany
    Photo thanks Ralf Appelt via Creative Commons.
  5. However, only the midwife is covered if it’s a home birth or in a birth house.
  6. Nabelschnur – umbilical cord – is fun to say. Try it! We’ll wait.
  7. If you’re married when the baby emerges, it belongs to both parents.
  8. Unmarried? Just mom. Dad has to fill out a form and get a stamp before it’s his. Not even biology is mightier than German bureaucracy.
  9. The German word for ‘placenta’ is Mutterkuchen (mother cake). Would you like some tea with your mother cake?
  10. Some German moms keep a little to use as a Kuchenboost in case the baby gets sick, so babies born in Germany can have their cake and eat it too.
  11. Whether it’s a hospital, a birth house or your bathtub, midwives do most of the birthing work as long as it’s an unproblematic birth (most of them are). That was my experience at least.
  12. Say Nabelschnur again.
  13. Changing diapers isn’t as bad as it sounds.
  14. A delivery room is called a Kreisssaal which, despite the name, isn’t round.
  15. Health insurance probably pays for several post-birth midwife visits at home too. We were grateful at first but contemplated not opening the door by the end.
  16. Midwives are great. I’m a fan. Protip: German word for ‘midwife’ is Hebamme. Probably Latin. Or Greek.
  17. The German word for ‘cervix’ is Muttermund. Mother mouth. Weird.
  18. Our Hebammes offered us food and drinks after both births. Even Champagne.
  19. Champagne, or Sekt, supposedly helps get the milk flowing in moms, our Hebammes said.
  20. I ate most of the food our Hebammes offered after both births. And drank most of the champagne. Never produced any milk.
  21. Men have very little work during a birth. I tried to massage my wife’s shoulders during my son’s birth and she would have killed me were it not for the contractions. So by “very little work” I mean “none”.
  22. No, you can’t bring a book. Or a Playstation.
  23. Men get to cut the umbilical cord: The first thing your baby sees is you destroying their relationship with their mother.
  24. Geburtsvorbereitung sounds dangerous but is actually birthing classes. At ours the midwife said we didn’t need a class: “That baby’s coming whether you want it to or not.”
  25. Geburtsvorbereitung is mostly hanging out with terrified couples in very awkward positions. Kind of like a swinger club.
  26. I’ve never been to a swinger club, actually.
  27. Check out the German word for amniotic sack: Fruchtblase. Fruit bubble.
  28. Don’t believe the wives’ tale that nursing acts as a contraceptive.
  29. Did I mention we have two kids?
  30. The German word for ‘contraceptive’ is anti-baby pille. Anti-baby pill. You know right away who the enemy is.
  31. NABELSCHNUR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I learned German

Last week they stopped offering French at my kids’ school in Portland. They sent out a school-wide e-mail. It’s the trickle-down result of school budget cuts – budget cuts with stock markets where they are. Just a few weeks earlier, they decided languages would no longer be a a requirement either – the sole remaining foreign language, Spanish, is now just an elective, also a victim of the budget cuts.

There’s already no music. No art. And I’m sure Fun is only offered as an elective in the third quarter.

I’m pretty sure this was my textbook. Mostly sure. Well not this exact one. But German Today One, in any case.

I’ve read about the gutting of humanities at U.S. schools for decades but it only tangentially bothered me – at first I didn’t have kids and then, when I did, they were in German schools. Even when my kids moved to U.S. schools it only nagged at me because I figured we were doing well counteracting the lack of anything creative – piano lessons on Tuesdays after school, for instance, and they go in an hour early twice a week for choir club.

But it was strange watching the gutting of humanities unfold in real-time, like stumbling upon the mating ritual of some exotic bird or the time we watched a homeless man in Chicago throw three cases of Sprite in his pants and run out of Safeway.

These are things I knew happened but never expected to witness first-hand. Yet there I was opening an e-mail from the principal of my kids’ school … and watching a homeless man throw three cases of Sprite in his pants.

The e-mail bothered me and I did what any concerned citizen does these days – posted to Facebook. And then I went for a run.

“Stop being dramatic,” I told myself while thinking about it during my run. “It’s just a class. You didn’t even take French in middle school so what do you care?”

And that’s when it hit me: If Laredo Middle School in Aurora, Colorado, hadn’t offered three languages – Spanish, French and German – to fulfill the language requirement, my life would have been dramatically different. Portland Public Schools isn’t just taking French out of my kids’ school, it’s removing opportunities.

My family moved the summer between 6th and 7th grades, which meant I had to register for a different middle school than I had planned. My mother took me into the office of my new school in July to sign me up. At some point, the secretary pushed a green piece of paper at me and said I had a choice of three languages to fulfill my language requirement.

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German

I had to think fast. I didn’t know there was going to be a language requirement and now I had to choose something.

Spanish? No, I figured pretty much everyone took Spanish.

I wasn’t everyone.

French? Nah – all those Depeche Mode-listening, Duran Duran wannabes would take French, I reckoned. Though this describes the ‘80s me, I was aspiring to something better.

German? Absolutely, my adolescent brain said, and I placed a check mark that would increasingly guide my life from that point on.

If you asked my family, they would universally say I picked German because of my great-grandmother Sophia, who emigrated to the U.S. from Meldorf, Germany, when Taft was president and Germany still had Kaisers.

And my family would be wrong.

To me, Grandma Sophia was always old and transitioned to ancient as I aged. I figured she’d once shared the earth with woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. She seemed a combination of German accent, nylons and odd smells. I once used my rudimentary German with her only to discover she spoke Plattdeutsch. We only had blood in common.

The reason I picked German wasn’t because of her. The reason I picked German was because that day at Laredo Middle School, I figured the punk rockers, the real intellectuals, the thinkers – they would all take German. And I wanted to be a punk rocker, a real intellectual. I was convinced I was a thinker.

Of course, I was wrong on all fronts – Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo was mostly full of misfits and the most punk rock we ever listened to was The Clash. And a thinker? All I thought about in middle school was how much I wanted to be Alex Keaton from Family Ties (I even wore a tie!).

But German class brought with it German textbooks and the pictures intrigued me. Germans all drove around in cars covered in advertising, the textbook told me. They also sat around in cafes all day and played chess with giant, knee-high chess pieces. How cool is that? Also: Lots of old buildings.

I was sold. And so, after four years of mediocre grades, difficulties conjugating and countless hours daydreaming about cafes and giant chess pieces, I decided I should become an exchange student in Germany.

Also, it would allow me to sidestep the new unit we’d started on the genitive case.

I became an exchange student and learned fluent German. I returned 10 years later to become a correspondent for a major U.S. newswire and just a few short years later I had a German wife and two half-German kids.

All because my middle school offered three languages.

That’s an opportunity the students at my kids school may never have.

 

 

 

 

Those German words mean more than you think they do

Here’s a secret Germans won’t tell you: Sometimes even they get tired of those big long words. Sure, they’ll post jokes about the never-ending nouns on their Facebooks and like all those joke memes on Twitter – especially that one about why Germans don’t play scrabble. But while they’re in on the joke of infinite infinitives, they too get tired of using them all day.

So they often shorten them but don’t tell the outside world.

They excel in what I’ve discovered are called syllabic abbreviations. Germans are syllabic abbreviation pros. A syllabic abbreviation is when you take the first syllable from each word in a series of words to form an abbreviation, which can then seem like an acronym.

Oh the taxonomy!

Syllabic abbreviations are such an integral part of German culture that they’ve leaked into other cultures too. All the way over the Atlantic, even!

Germans love syllabic abbreviations and I can prove it to you.

You know Haribo? That maker of spongy gummi bears? Syllabic abbreviation. It’s based on the company’s founder – Johann Riegel, who went by Hans. They took the first syllables of his first and last names and, because they apparently needed a third syllable, the first syllable of Bonn, where the company was based.

This created Haribo, or Hans Riegel Bonn. Cool, eh?

Szllabic abbreviations haribo
Photo thanks TuiFLY.

Syllabic abbreviations. I had no idea there was a term for it! I thought Germans were just making this up.

It gets worse – or better, depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of human.

The Dassler brothers in pre-war Germany started a shoe factory in the sleepy village of Herzogenaurach, which is within running distance of Nuremberg. The brothers were named Rudi and Adi which, yes, is short for that German name no one wants to be called anymore. But Rudi and Adi didn’t get along and they divided the shoe company into two in 1948.

Rudi would end up calling his half of the company Puma – because how lame does Ruda sound? – but Adi called his – wait for it – Adidas (Germans pronounce it Ah-Dee-Dass, if you ever wondered). Adi Dassler! Adidas! Mind. Blown.

syllabic abbreviations adidas

These are pretty common schoolyard truths in Germany. Just ask a German, they’ll tell you everything I just told you, but there’s one many Germans don’t even know: Milka.

Milka is Germany’s Hershey’s or Cadbury, if the chocolate actually tasted like chocolate and the packaging was always purple.

Even Milka’s cows are purple.

Full disclosure: I love Hershey’s because it tastes like Halloween and childhood and, come on, Hershey’s kisses y’all! But the first time I tried European chocolate it scared me. I was in third grade and snuck pieces of Toblerone at the Koernig’s house and it freaked me out – partially because I thought Mrs. Koernig was going to catch me and partially because it tasted amazing.

So amazing it scared me.

So Milka: It’s short for Milch Kakao (milk chocolate). Milka! I only learned this a week ago myself.

syllabic abbreviations milka

Oh there are more. Lots more. Hanuta is this great hazelnutty chocolate snack that’s a kind of cookie/candy bar thing that’s known as a Tafel in German. Hazelnut is Haselnuss in German so even you might be able to do that math: HaselNussTafel. Hanuta! They taste a million times better than they sound.

syllabic abbreviations hanuta

How about Aldi? No I’m not kidding. It’s owned by the Albrechts and the stores are considered discount – or Diskont – stores. Go on. Get some scratch paper and work it out. They’re taking over the world now so you’ll be able to use that one in the checkout line soon.

But these are just commercial examples. The German culture is filthy with other syllabic abbreviations. And by filthy I just mean they’re all over the place. Parents drop their kids off at a Kindertagesstätte (nursery) every morning, for example, but they call it a Kita. Some of those parents might work for – or be investigated by – the Kripo, or the Kriminal Polizei.

Oh! One of my faves when I first moved to Berlin was Vokuhila. Sounds exotic, right? It’s not. It’s German for mullet, that haircut favored by ‘70s soccer stars and the guy the changes the oil on my Chevy Tahoe. It’s short for: vorne kurz, hinten lang (short in the front, long in the back).

I liked that syllabic abbreviation so much I used to get my hair did at a salon called Vokuhila on Kastanienallee.

syllabic abbreviations vokuhila

So there you go. German syllabic abbreviations are a secret no longer!

TschüLe (Tschüss Leute or good-bye y’all! Except that’s not a real syllabic abbreviation. I just made it up).

 

 

 

Secret to the people who read this far: Here’s one more that I cut from the blogpost but is kind of cool. So consider it a linguistic present from me to you. Because I really like you.

 

Edeka is a Berlin grocery chain that varies slightly from the basic scheme of syllabic abbreviation and that has a name with a bit of uncomfortable history (but not that history). Einkaufsgenossenschaft der Kolonialwarenhändler im Halleschen Torbezirk zu Berlin is what it stands for – the purchasing collective of the colonial goods dealers in the Halleschen suburbs of Berlin.

German, amirite?

Anyway, You get the “E” from Einkaufs…. The “de” from Der, the “k” from Kolonial and the “A” from thin air because apparently Edeko wasn’t what they wanted (but I think it sounds kinda cool).

 

 

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German Cafes Do Coffee and Cake Right

I was watching Tagesschau (German news) the other night and saw a report about an exhibition in Dusseldorf on (West?) German café culture and it reminded me of yet another corner of Germany I found magical – the café.

The first time I encountered one was when I was an exchange student and we had just completed one of my guest family’s weekly shopping excursions to Mönchengladbach. We had just gathered everything we needed from the shops in the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian street) when my guestmother announced that we’d be making one final stop.

“Can’t we just go home?” I thought. I wanted to go back to reading Asterix and Obelix in my room rather than sweat through more small talk in my emerging German.

Inside, the café was as busy and crowded as the shopping street outside. A glass counter full of cakes and pastries ran the length of its lower level and was backed by middle-aged women in what looked like maid’s outfits. They seemed harried. But what cakes!

“Pick out any piece and I’ll find a seat,” my guestmother said. I started to sweat. I’d been in-country about two months, my German wasn’t even at immigrant cab driver level and I had no idea how a German café worked.

I had no idea how to pick out a piece of cake.

My guestmother sensed my confusion and said as she walked away, “Tell the woman what piece you want and bring me the piece of paper.”

A piece of paper. Right. I thought I was supposed to get cake.

One of the maids behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I pointed at a piece. She then handed me a slip of paper about the size of a price tag. It was yellow with a printed number in black. And she had scribbled something in red on hers. Maybe a number. Maybe code. Maybe a plea for help.

The piece I ordered probably had chocolate pieces on chocolate icing spread on top of chocolate cake with fluffy chocolate filling. I know my teen-age self. And knowing my guestmother, she probably had something with fruit.

Guestmothers always get something with fruit.

After ordering, I found my guestmother upstairs perched at a two-top against a window. We could watch the chaos outside while suffering from the chaos inside. There were people everywhere, inside and out.

German Cafes

I wondered how my cake would make it from downstairs to upstairs. How it would make it through all those people. I figured it probably wouldn’t but I masked my disappointment and smiled in agreement when my guestmother offered to order me a hot chocolate.

At least I’d get some chocolate.

Kännchen oder Tasse (pot or cup)?” my guestmother wanted to know. At the time, I had no idea what she was asking so I just stared back. She waved me off.

Our waitress arrived, also wearing a maid outfit, and my guestmother ordered our drinks and handed her our pieces of paper. I had no idea what was going on but I was confident I wouldn’t be eating cake.

Would our new maid try to describe us to the maid downstairs to get our cake order? How would that work? What if their descriptions didn’t match up and we ended up with cookies or, worse, no cake?

I had no time to make small talk with my guestmother, I was busy mourning the loss of my cake.

Then, a few minutes later, our waitress reappeared with our drinks. Our drinks! I didn’t just get a hot chocolate. I got a kännchen – my own little pot of hot chocolate! What? Magic!

Also, the waitress had our cakes. The right cakes.

I know, right? More magic!

Kaffee und Kuchen

The system made no sense to me so my guestmother explained it to me – the first woman-in-a-maid’s-outfit behind the counter put a piece of paper identical to my piece of paper on a plate with my cake order and our waitress just matched up the pieces of paper.

It still seemed miraculous to me, as if my cake had floated out of the display case, through all the people and up the stairs to me. In Mönchengladbach.

“It still seems magical to me,” my wife said last night when I recounted this story. We used to go to Café Richter in Charlottenburg in Berlin because they sometimes had the tiny pieces of paper. The Tagesspiegel last summer did a story on what it dubbed Schnipsel-cafés (scrap of paper cafés) in Berlin, after the pieces of paper used to record the cake orders.

The magic of that Schnipsel-café in Mönchengladbach stayed with me for over a decade until I returned to Germany as a reporter in Frankfurt. I made my co-workers go with me to Café Liebfrauenberg because I knew they’d do the German trick with the kuchen (cake) and paper there.

My co-workers weren’t impressed by the ordering system but they loved the cakes. And they thought the Kännchen were pretty impressive too.

 

How Germans Puke: Das Speibecken

It was supposed to be a harmless bit of day drinking. Me, my cousin-in-law and a vanilla small-town pub in central Germany. My wife had supported the decision because it got me out of her hair as she wrangled our kids and her parents – my in-laws – over coffee and cake at grandma’s. I was out of her mind, I figured, and could concentrate on the beer, and she figured I was safe with her cousin.

Nobody would have suspected something unsettling was about to unfold.

It happened when I had to pee after the second beer, or maybe the third, depending on how much juice I’d had with breakfast. As I came into the pub’s bathroom everything seemed normal. I noted a sink on my left and floor-to-ceiling tiles in that light-brown tint that’s so popular in public restrooms in western regions of Germany.

Speibecken
Thanks for the pic, Basti!

“What is Germany trying to tell me with that color in a bathroom?” I always think. I’ve never gotten an answer because I’ve never asked the question out loud – the Teutonic propensity for shelf toilets and public discussions of bathroom visits has me fearful of the answer.

As I stood there doing my business, I noticed a second sink off to my left. It was shaped differently and seemed to have supports on one side.

“Must be a utility sink for mops,” I thought. When I was done, I took a closer look. It was a weird sink with a wide drain, like on American sinks with garbage disposals, and a water switch. Something told me this wasn’t a utility sink but I had no idea what it was for, the same feeling I get every time I’m confronted with a salad bar.

I went back out to the bar and asked my cousin-in-law Basti what the weird sink was.

Das Speibecken?” he asked, as if that would settle it. As if hearing that word would clear up the confusion.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s it for?”

Because ‘Speibecken’ sounded like German for “Weird sink” but I still didn’t know what it was.

Speibecken

Basti started to laugh and announced to the bar what a funny foreigner I was – I’d never heard of a Speibecken! The bar (one other drinker and a bartender) laughed with him.

We all had a good laugh.

I still had no idea what a Speibecken was.

“It’s for when you drink too much and you have to puke,” he announced, as if every bar in the world had a Speibecken. The entire bar looked at me with great sympathy, wondering with their eyes if this was the first bar I’d ever been in.

This must happen to every ex-pat every now and then – you stumble into something the natives think is part of the human condition but isn’t. It’s that weird moment where Germany doesn’t know it’s doing something strange and you have to be the one to break the bad news.

“Puke?” I wondered.

With that, Basti leaped off his stool and he, I, and the other drinker headed into the bathroom for a round of simulated puking. I don’t want to say that Basti seemed to have experience, but he seemed to have experience.

Das Speibecken

I took a picture and showed it around the office on Monday.

“Oh yeah,” my German co-worker said. “They’re also called a Pabst (Pope) and when you use it you’re papsten (poping).” Which is taking the colloquial saying, ‚Praying to the porcelain god‘, to the next level.

My co-worker said Speibecken are especially popular in German fraternity houses, something Wikipedia backs up. As a journalist, I’m skeptical of Wikipedia but I’m not sure who to call to double-check the info on a puke sink.

As it turns out, my German wife is more of a puke sink expert than I would have thought. “You have to mention how there’s standards that call for a specific diameter of drain to accommodate the half-digested food,” she said as I wrote this blog. “That’s important.”

Important to who?

She didn’t know much about the terminology.

The word Speibecken actually means ‘spittoon’ and is also used for that little sink at the dentist’s you spit into – or in the saloon, presumably.

And the term Pabst apparently has less to do with that grown man in the Vatican who wears pajamas all day than the Latin for puking – because we all know the Romans invented leisure puking.

The Germans just seem to have perfected it.

How Berlin communicates: Berlinerisch

Nothing defines native Berliners more than their accent, known as Berlinerisch. The accent is more than just a staccato ending to words and pronouncing Gs as if they were Js. Berlinerisch is also an attitude that combines indifference, hostility and humor in differing degrees. As an outsider, I often sense more hostility where there’s more indifference and, as a humorist, I’m often jealous of the quick wit sometimes injected into mundane situations.

Berlinerisch is best summed up by a popular Berlin saying: “Nich anjeschissen ist jenuch jelobt,” or: Not insulting you was compliment enough. It’s like the city saying to you: If I didn’t call you an asshole, I must like you. Now shut up and eat your Currywurst. It’s like hanging out with an old man.

Berlinerisch

Once, a gay friend and his then-boyfriend were visiting from London. We’ll call them Scott and James, because that’s their names. We took them for beers in Schöneberg since Cologne was too far. The idea was to knock back a few and then head home, leaving Scott and James to explore Schöneberg. After the first beer, Scott said he wanted to start exploring early while we were around in case he had any questions.

Turns out, he would have questions.

He headed to a bar called New Action around the corner alone.

A few minutes later he stormed back, flustered.

“You would not believe how that bartender treated me!” he said, and recounted his story. He had been alarmed by a sign announcing a dresscode outside the bar – patrons must wear pants and a shirt, it said. Scott met the code but James did not. Scott thought he’d ask the staff how serious the dresscode was.

“I’m dressed OK but my boyfriend just has on shorts and a t-shirt – can he still come in?” he asked the barkeep.

“I don’t know,” the bartender snapped back in English, backed by Berlinerisch. “IS HE HUMAN?”

To which Scott took immediate offense. He understood the tone and the generalizing as an invitation for him to leave and a hint that his boyfriend would not be welcome.

My wife laughed: “He was trying to tell you that everyone is welcome. It’s fine.”

“Are you sure? It’s like he barked it at me. I think he hates me.”

“Welcome to Berlin,” my wife said. “Go back with James and if you don’t get in we’ll go somewhere else, otherwise we’ll see you when you get home.”

We didn’t see them until the next morning.

Berlinerisch: Se können hier schwimmen …

Another time I stopped at a combination café and Spätkauf (convenience store­) in Mitte for a quick machine-generated coffee while I waited for an appointment. It was the kind of spartanly decorated place that opened shortly after the Wall fell and was staffed by robust, well-built women who can operate heavy machinery, slaughter all kinds of livestock with a pocketknife and make perfect Schwarzwälder Kirschtorten.

After a few minutes an aging gentleman entered. He was clearly from somewhere in Lower Saxony (probably Hannover but maybe Detmold) and was probably visiting an adult offspring who had recently located to the Hauptstadt. He was neatly but not fashionably dressed and probably drove a C-Class Mercedes. Germans would recognize him as a special breed known as a Spiesser, which is best translated as “squares” but is most often referred to by their colloquial title: Dad.

“Excuse me,” the man said to the ladies behind the counter.

Ja!” they bellowed back. In normal customer service the “ja” would be couched as a polite question. In Berlinerisch, it’s intimidation.

“Can one drink a coffee here?” he asked.

I almost pitied him.

“You could go swimming here if you brought enough water!” the woman behind the counter bellowed in perfect Berlinerisch.

The man turned bright red and stammered a bit. He may have been close to tears.

The woman saved him from herself: “Black or with milk?” she wanted to know.

He ended up ordering some bread with cheese as well.

“Is everyone here like that?” he asked me. He was realizing all the documentaries, news reports and first-hand reports of Berlinerisch he’d seen were true.

“Yes,” I said.

“Interesting,” he answered.

It always is, I said. It always is.