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Category: Allgemein

Kindergeld – Germany's child benefit payment

Once a month my banking app notifies me of a deposit from the Arbeitsamt (the unemployment office) and once a month I am confused for a few seconds. “A deposit?” I think. “But I haven’t been unemployed for over a year. WTF?” And then a few seconds later, just like every month, I remember why I’m getting the money: Kindergeld or kid money. The nice thing about kid money? It spends just like adult money.

Every month, almost every parent in Germany gets €204 cash money for each of their first two children, €210 for the third and €235 for every kid thereafter. I have two kids – because we didn’t want three – so every month I get €408 transferred into my account. And every month, after I realize why I got it, I pause and say quietly, “Thanks, Angie.”

Yes, I really do this. It presents me with an image of Chancellor Angela Merkel settling down with a glass of cognac after a day of running Europe’s biggest economy, opening the German government’s banking app on her smartphone and then überweising (transferring, in Denglisch) me the €408. “I don’t like all of his jokes but those kids are pretty amazing,” she thinks every month when she sends me the money. “I’ve been meaning to check out his Tiktok too – fatandysindustries, I think he’s called.”

Since I spent my early adulthood in America, I got used to adulting in the US and straight up receiving cash from the government just never happened (this was pre-Corona). You know that saying: There’s probably a German word for it? In America we have a similar thing: There’s probably a tax deduction for it. Tax deductions are a thing in the US, free money from the government isn’t.

Giving your children Kindergeld instead of allowance

Germans always laugh at my amazement over Kindergeld. For them, it’s as natural as Lüften, men sitting down to pee and handling a pandemic with enviable expertise. Children aren’t cheap, they like to say, which is true. The child benefit is paid until children turn 18 or until they’ve finished vocational training and/or college but then no longer than age 25.

Many parents just start handing the money to their children at a certain age – my children are happy to tell me which of their teen peers already get the money instead of allowance. I’ll personally wait until they move out to help support college or training or whatever.

(Sort of commercial break: If you’re wondering how to apply for Kindergeld, Settle in Berlin has you covered).

If you research the history of the payment, German sources like to say Kindergeld has its roots in Nazi Germany – but what they’re referring to was a payment for poor, white families that only applied starting with the fifth – das fünftes – child. That seems different and a similar benefit is available today and not just to Aryan families – low-income applicants can get an additional €140 a month per child.

@fatandysindustries

Geht’s eure/euch Eltern auch so? Thanks Frau Merkel! ##foryou ##germerica ##kindergeld ##expatlife

♬ Originalton – fatandysindustries

Kindergeld was originally to be one of the few social benefits that wasn’t tied to income and both rich and poor parents – and every in between – were to get it. But it’s no longer so egalitarian. When it was introduced in 1975, politicians eliminated the income tax deduction for dependents to level the playing field. But they reinstituted the deduction in 1983 and that’s when it became unfair – parents who earn enough can deduct their kids, which can mean a larger benefit. Poor families only get to put the money in their pockets.

While everyone gets the money each month, the German tax office, the Finanzamt, uses annual returns to calculate whether the deduction or the benefit would be more beneficial and then applies the best variation. Only a German can appreciate that level of complexity (I’ve been filing taxes with dependents for 17 years and only now discovered this. Adulting is hard! Also maybe my accountants weren’t so hot (they weren’t, I’m on my third.)).

As I learned in this Deutschlandfunk article (warning: German), the German government also likes to use Kindergeld as a pawn – they like to crow a lot about how they support families with billions every year but they include the €40 billion or so in Kindergeld subsidies as part of that example. But – and try to stick with me here – a court ruling in 1990 said that isn’t true – Kindergeld and the deduction aren’t government support at all – they’re just the German government returning taxes families shouldn’t have paid in the first place.

What?

Oh Germany, you and your complexities! It’s apparently illegal to tax someone into poverty in Germany and since children are also someone, taxing a family of two earning adults and two freeloader children the same as you would a family of two earning adults is unfair. So Germany has to give some of that cash back. Or something.  

As part of the research for this blog post, I discovered Kindergeld is available in most European countries in some form or another – more in Scandinavian countries (as with everything) and less in our eastern neighbors. Some countries tie it to income, some don’t. Lord knows if there’s as complex a tax and theoretical structure around their child benefit payments – probably not.

In any case, maybe from now on I’ll realize why I’m getting the payment and in addition to thanking Chancellor Merkel every month, I’ll have to thank her when I get my return back and the tax authorities tell me that I saved more by deducting my kids.

No, I’m not having any more kids. €204 doesn’t go anywhere near compensating me for the damage done by the ones I already have.   

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My Nightwash set from December:

(You’ll need to speak German and, be forewarned, I use a naughty English word (as my grandma would say) straight out of the gate, just to let everyone know who they’re dealing with. Maybe I should suggest English subtitles.

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Wurstgate: Leveraging right-wing angst to sell more sausage

Christmas is a tough time in Germany. In America, of course, it’s a two-day celebration — the 25th and Black Friday. But here in Germany it’s an entire month of Advent Sundays, Nikolaus and mulled wine-inspired hangovers. So it’s little wonder Teutonic right-wingers are on edge. Even those of us on the left are as well. Last year a group of artists successfully trolled the country’s right wingers into believing Coca-cola (which marketing has fully attached to Weihnachten here) was against the far-right AfD party. What a hoot!

This year, Curry36 is having a go. The chain has already proved its marketing prowess because they give the impression they’re a a currywurst stand that’s been in Berlin since the Kaisers roamed free but in reality it’s only been around since 1980, kind of like David Hasselhoff. But yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, it announced that out of “diverse reasons” it would be renaming its traditional “Christmas Sausage” to “Winter Sausage”.

The reaction was swift and predictable: Right-wingers on social media saw it as just another insidious attack on Christmas, Christians and tradition. Just as with the guerilla Coca-Cola action last year, they and those who would protect the traditional German identity were swift to call for a boycott:

“Well then … luckily there are other snack bars. Happy declining sales. I’m outta here.”

“Too bad, but all the best anyway. We’ll be eating elsewhere in the future.”

(Thanks Volksverpetzer: I screengrabbed yer screengrab)

As the announcement picked up steam, the satire came out as well — there was a great story about a family who, every Christmas, drove through snow and ice to eat the Curry36 Christmas sausage and then took a dozen home in order to have enough to eat under the Christmas tree. Or another suggestion that to please the right, Curry36 could just rename it the “Wehrmachtwurst”. LÖLE, as my German friends say.

The whole trick? Here’s what Curry36 had to say: “Our regulars smelled the roast – pardon, the sausage – immediately: There never was a Christmas sausage and there (probably) will never be a Winter sausage at our place because the classic, organic and vegan versions means there’s already something for every taste.

Radioeins, a radio station, interviewed the man behind the provocation, manager Mirko Grosssman, and every major German media outlet picked up the story, an example of perfect PR and a counterpoint to the Gretagate disaster over at Deutsche Bahn last week. There’s a German saying that everything has just one end except a sausage: It has two. Right-wing snowflakes, unfortunately, seem to have none.

Can’t wait for next Christmas.

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The Berlin television tower: a video

I’ve started making videos to go along with my blog. Today: The iconic television tower that was inaugurated by the East German government in October 1969, probably to spy on people but also to send television signals all over the place. And to spy on people.

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My confrontation with Saxony-Anhalt Nazis

I once had a run-in with Nazis. Not, like, WWII Nazis in uniforms or anything. But it was on the Autobahn so it’s indirectly related to those Nazis. We were coming back from my in-laws and had stopped to get gas and food, a combination that sounds logical – fueling up both the car and ourselves – but, when you think about it, seems more like a giant cancer risk.

We were in Saxony Anhalt, which is now my least-favorite German state. Berlin is my favorite. Hamburg No. 2. Saarland is somewhere in the middle on my list, because it’s actually somewhere in the middle.

It occurs to me that we weren’t just there to fuel up, we were also there to wring out, as my grandmother used to say – to go to the bathroom. And at this particular combination gas station, convenience store and restaurant, the bathrooms were down a long hallway that led to a parking lot. I was standing in that hallway waiting outside the restrooms when I had my run-in with the Nazis. Waiting outside restrooms is something you spend a lot of time doing as a parent and it’s something they never warn you about, just like how no one mentions the very bad music recitals you’ll have to sit through or all the crowing over crappy crayon drawings of you that more closely resemble obese lobsters.

Dudes in black hoodies

Anyway, I’m waiting outside the restrooms and look down the hallway and out to the parking lot and notice a bus that seems to be bleeding young men in black hoodies like parasites abandoning a dead host. I thought to myself, “Fuck, that’s just what I need right now, Nazis coming back from a soccer match,” which implies that there is some point in my life that I need Nazis coming back from a soccer match. I assure you, there has never been and will never be a moment where I require Nazis, with or without a soccer match. But I also thought, “Jesus man, they’re just dudes in black hoodies. Stop being so god damn judgmental all the time.”

And I agreed with myself. I needed to stop being so god damn judgmental all the time.

They all entered the long hallway and started to file past me when the fourth Nazi stopped right in front of me and stretched his right arm out at a 45-degree angle and started to belt out a song I now know was written in 1932 for Nazis about how Germany now belongs to the Germans and tomorrow the world will too. I’m not going to link or name the song because fuck that song. Fuck the guy that wrote it. And also fuck Nazis. Also, we’re all adults here. We can google.

And, as it turned out, being god damn judgemental was fine.

But even though I didn’t recognize the tune at the time, I recognized the situation and was confident that I would be exiting in an ambulance, if not a hearse. I had no way out. There were at least 8 million of them and I hadn’t been in a fight since me and Mark Robohm duked it out on the last day of fourth grade (he won).

At that moment I thought two things. First, I was hoping my wife and children would remain in the bathroom until after the beating was finished or even until my limp body had been carted away and, secondly, that if I had a moment to speak with these fine gentlemen, I would act like a British football fan who was really into Worcestershire United or the Guinness Hotspurs, or something. I figured their English wouldn’t be good enough to see through my clever ruse.

Nazis like British football hooligans, right?

I wonder how many lives have ended just as someone was concocting a very bad plan that wouldn’t have saved their lives anyway. Probably lots. And most from my family.

As the song entered its second chorus, I saw a glimmer of hope. The guy immediately behind the Nazi crooner was looking at his buddy with a very confused look. He would then look at me with the same confused look and then back to his friend. He seemed much less confident than I that he and his buddies were about to open a can of Nazi whoop ass on me. He seemed to be wondering why his buddy had picked me for a mid-afternoon serenade of fascism.

Right then my son, who was probably four, maybe five, emerged from the men’s room and looked at me. I bent over slightly and invited him to jump into my arms. These Nazis, I thought, would never punch a father holding his child.

Looking back, leveraging my son’s innocence for my own well-being seems foolhardy, if not downright dangerous, but I’ve never claimed to be a perfect father. I often doubt whether or not I’m even a good father. Let’s just go with: “father”.

Then my wife emerged with my daughter and rushed over to stand next to me. I was wondering what was going to happen next, especially since a veritable Stau (traffic jam) of Nazis had piled up behind all of this activity.

What happened next was that Nazi No. 5 pushed Nazi No. 4, aka the singing Nazi, and Nazi No. 4 ended his serenade and they all headed down the hallway and into the combination gas station, convenience store and restaurant. I stood there shaking. I didn’t want to head out the back door to our car because I feared being jumped there with no one to hear my screams so we meekly followed the black hoodies into the combination gas station, convenience store and restaurant. At least there would be witnesses who could testify at the Nazi’s murder trial after killing me near the potato chips, M&Ms and Erdnussflips.    

Then one of the hooligans tried to order a Brötchen at the bakery counter.

“Wenn ihr euch so dämlich verhaltet kannst du das vergessen. Von mir kriegst du nichts!“ (“If you’re going to behave like that, forget it. You’re not getting anything from me!”) I still wonder at the woman’s clarity and strength. I was just trying to escape and she was making a statement. The Nazi ordering the bread then complained to Nazi No. 4 that he had once again screwed things up.

I had apparently been serenaded by a serial fuck-up, as if that wasn’t clear already. As we sped through the convenience store, gas station and restaurant, we watched several Nazis shovel cans of beer into their jackets and I wondered if anyone in the place would try to stop the shoplifting.

We then rushed out to our car and I had that sensation in so many of my nightmares where I fumble for my keys and can’t get the key in the lock fast enough before something awful happens. Luckily, my Volvo had electric door locks so a simple push of a button opened everything – and locked them again as soon we got in.

“Should we call the cops?” my wife asked. I wasn’t sure, I just wanted to leave. And, anyway, my interactions with German police officers have been … frustrating. Once, at Alexanderplatz, I called to get some help for a man and his girlfriend who were being assaulted by a much larger dude. The cop told me it wasn’t really their job and the charges would have to be filed by those being attacked anyway.

Which seemed odd.

Another time two dogs were having a particularly vicious, bloody fight next to a playground, in large part because one of the owners was illegally walking his mastiff in the park without a leash. “Animal fights aren’t our problem,” the cop on the phone said. Nice. Some other people had reached a different precinct when they called – and that precinct was willing to send a few officers by for some help (they ended up going after the mastiff owner).

So I figured if I did call the cops that day they would just show up and laugh that Frank the Nazi was causing problems again – and just add it to all the charges he was already facing, which wouldn’t result in much punishment anyway.

Now every time I see a bunch of black hoodies spilling out of a bus I don’t hesitate to be pretty god damn judgemental all the time (and also leave).

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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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Berlin grocery stores are miserable

 

One of the most unpleasant regular activities in Berlin is food shopping. Which is unfortunate, because I like to eat. Berlin grocery stores are crowded, disorganized and offer little variety, and that’s the expensive ones. The lack of variety is what annoys me most – I no longer even consider complex recipes because I know it’ll require stopping at three different stores and at least two weekly markets.

And let’s not talk about the discount grocers. Or, rather, let’s do. Before they built one right next to my apartment, I avoided discount chains like Aldi, Lidl and Netto as much as possible. Whenever I did decide to go shopping in one, I wondered if my life insurance covered discount-grocer related disasters. Their spartan stores are minimally furnished with white tile floors, fluorescent lighting and metal shelves, not to mention weird, hip-level cages for things every grocery shopper needs like socks or, last week, chainsaws (I’m serious). Most products aren’t unpacked from their transport boxes and are just stacked on shelves or directly on the floor, much in the same way a farmer drops a bale of hay in the middle of a paddock of hungry cows.

Aldi, Lidl are German grocery stores too

Variety is even worse in Aldi, Lidl and friends — I always run in hopeful that I can make spinach lasagna that night only to leave with just orange juice and cornflakes. The discounters are so bad that I’m convinced even the products are ashamed to be there. To be fair, the stores have improved some over my two decades in-country, but they’ve improved about the same as root canals have improved in that same period. It’s not as unpleasant as it used to be, but it’s still a root canal. But, yes, they’re cheap.

There are both cultural and economic reasons for the dearth of good food stores in Germany. The first is that Germans don’t like to spend money on food. They don’t like to spend money on much of anything, really, but that’s another blog post. Germany’s statistics office tells us that, when it comes to consumer spending, of each €10 Germans spend, only €1 goes to groceries. The French spend €1.33/€10 on edibles while the Italians spend €1.43. Romanians supposedly spend a third of their consumer outlays on sustenance, which sounds odd.

To put that in an even international-er perspective, according to a 2016 study by some agency called IRI, Germans spent €21.01 on a basket of food that would have cost €31.54 in the US, or €30.08 in Italy – quite a difference. Still, in the UK, which, in my experience had pretty good grocery stores, that basket cost just €22.14.

 

But the other reason German grocery stores are uncomfortable is the German inability to provide – or even a distaste for – customer service. It smarts in areas where companies are forced to offer some kind of service, like when a cashier is scanning your groceries. They quickly rip your items across the scanner and chuck them into the tiny area set aside for bagging. Although you can attempt to bag them as they leave the checker’s hand, the better strategy is to just grab whatever you’re buying and chuck it back in your cart (or basket) and bag them somewhere else – usually the most convenient place is the bus stop out front. Trying to bag your groceries at the cash register can slow things up and lead to disapproving looks and clucks from the cashier and fellow customers alike. The whole  affair is so hectic it’s equivalent to half an hour on the free weights in the gym.

The pain of German groceries stores was acute last summer after we returned from two years in the US. Admittedly, the bounty in American grocery stores is alarming – is all that food actually eaten and who is coming up with things like cranberry-apple flavored kale chips? But the interaction with grocery store employees in the US feels like a family reunion compared to the battle of grunts and half-greetings you get from German grocery store employees. Consider this sample exchange between me and a checker in the US (it sort of went down like this):

Checker: Welcome to New Seasons! How are you?

Me: Good. Well, mostly good. Turns out a great aunt has cancer. How are you?

Checker: Good, only an hour left on my shift. My mother died of pancreatic cancer. Are these organic or traditional avocadoes? 

Me: Sorry to hear that. Those are traditional avacadoes..

Checker: I’m sure it’ll be OK. That will be $34. Have a good day!

Maybe we should just stop cooking and eat German breakfasts for every meal. That would make it all a lot easier.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Yes I drink non-alcoholic German beer

It’s a lot easier to keep my annual super-secret New Year’s resolution in Germany than in America. My super-secret resolution is always to quit drinking. I keep it secret because I know I have as much chance of success with it as with my yearly public resolution: To become the first female president of the United States. Up until November, I thought I lacked the actual qualifications to become the first female president but now I know the only thing holding me back is a sex change.

And maybe a reality TV show.

But keeping my super-secret, no-alcohol resolution in Germany is easier because the country is awash in tasty non-alcoholic beer. Or, alkoholfreies Bier. Or, when I was a kid, Near Beer. Quality non-alcoholic beer is such a thing in Germany that there are already derivatives, like alcohol-free Radler (that’s beer with Fanta or Sprite for you noobs). Or alcohol-free wheat beer with lemon. Or even organic alcohol-free.

non-alcoholic beer Germany
So much beer. So little alcohol.

Every January, the non-alcoholic trend makes it easy to stick with my super-secret resolution while mounting my presidential campaign: When I belly up to the bar, the little voice in my head reminds me of my resolution and I say: “Ein alkohol-freies Bier, bitte!”

Sometimes bars even offer me a choice.

Becks oder Jever Fun?”

I’ve drunk so much non-alcoholic German beer that I can even tell you that Jever Fun is anything but while Becks is a solid alcohol-free beer. Rudely, it’s called Becks Blue in the English-speaking world, because drinking it makes you feel blue? Incidentally, feeling blau in German means being drunk.

Who says Germans have no sense of humor?

Alcohol-free in Ger-ma-nee

I got into the whole non-alcoholic beer thing when my wife was pregnant. Pregnancy and alcohol are a no-no. But so are Germans without beer. We traded off the tiny amount of alcohol in alcohol-free beers (~0.5% ABV) for her sanity. Alcohol-free was just getting going as a trend back then so choice was limited but she quickly found a favorite: Krombacher Alkohol Frei, which foodie website Eater also says schmeckt (tastes good). Also: The non-non-alcohol version happens to be her father’s beer of choice.

I know the arguments that beer without alcohol isn’t beer. And coffee without caffeine isn’t coffee. And tofu hot dogs aren’t hot dogs. Heck, I even used to say them. But they’re no argument at all. Sometimes I want to have a beer without getting drunk, drink coffee at 10 p.m. or eat a rubbery tube with little taste.

non-alcoholic beer Germany
Probably don’t drink the Sternburg alkohol-frei. Or the Jever Fun.

Since I’m a grown up, I get to make decisions like that (quick aside: Germany also has Malzbier (malt beer), which is basically unbrewed beer and which they feed to kids and which I loved back in my exchange student days, but let’s just agree to blog about that some other time, OK?).

Why would I want alcohol-free beer rather than something else? When I’m trying to not drink, if I order a Coke in a bar it’s gone in seconds. Same with water. But a non-alcoholic beer I can nurse for awhile and trick my friends into believing I’m drinking a real beer without endless discussions of why I’m not drinking. And, since I’m a grownup and my tastebuds are dying off, I still yearn to nip at a bitter brew in the evening without the side effects.

With all the beer culture and craft breweries fermenting in the world (you know, all those IPAs that taste like liquid thistle), I think it’s time to get a few more non-alcoholic brews in the western hemisphere, like they do in Germany.

A country that knows its beers.

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