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Category: Allgemein

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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Why I hate Bläk Freideh/Black Friday in Germany

One of the first things I thought when I moved back to Germany in 1998 was: “Wow, German teenagers look a lot more like American teenagers now than when I was an exchange student here.” I was standing on the Zeil shopping street in Frankfurt staring at a pair of baggy-pantsed, baseball cap-wearing teens in front of Kaufhof. Judging by their style, they could have been standing in front of a Macy’s in the Mall of America or a Starbucks anywhere.

They weren’t wearing black socks with tennis shoes and apparently no longer had an inexplicable love of stone-washed (or is it acid-washed?) jeans, like when I was an exchange student at Maximilian Kolbe Gymnasium.

Black Friday in Germany
Schwarzen Freitag.

But it was the first time I realized that globalization is leading to an international monoculture, something I bemoan as I get older and start to get annoyed by young people congregating on my lawn. No place seems as unique anymore. Everywhere seems more and more similar – and more like an American mall.

And one of the most absurd effects of this monoculture is Black Friday sales anywhere outside the 48 contiguous U.S. states. And Alaska and Hawaii. And maybe a few military bases. Black Friday isn’t even something we’re especially proud of in America. It’s just something that evolved organically, then got usurped by the all-powerful marketing machine and is now unstoppable. Like Two and a Half Men.

Black Friday in Germany

In its essence, Black Friday is the Friday after a holiday where no one really works and doesn’t want to see their family anymore. Normally, you’d treat such a day like a Sunday and wear your best clothes, visit friends and maybe go for a walk. But since the Thanksgiving holiday a day before that was just that, the only other option is apparently to lose your shit in a shopping mall over dubious discounts.

Yeah, I can totally see why the world would adopt that quirk of American culture. Although, to be fair, Black Friday actually combines two things Germans are passionate about: Being cheap and a love/hate of America: “Schnell Heinz-Dietrich! Vee kahn run to ze store and akt like all zose people vee mock in dubbed American TV shows all ze vile saving moneys! Lauf, Heinz-Dietrich! Lauf!”

But it’s just a symptom for the broader monoculture disease. I can now get a variety of Ritter Sports at the cash register here in Portland and our local Kaisers in Berlin had Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. And that’s not even mentioning the proliferation of chains like Subway, H&M and Uniqlo.

Berlin often feels like a neighborhood of Brooklyn and Amsterdam has long just been an outpost of Blackpool. There’s always Dresden, I guess.

This is a rant and an oversimplification and exaggeration, and possibly ultimately pointless.

Kind of like Black Friday itself.

 

 

 

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How Obama got me on German TV

President Obama’s in Berlin.

It makes me a bit sentimental because my political commentary career on German TV began with Obama’s first campaign trip to Berlin eight years ago. The Hauptstadt (capital) loved Obama then, even though I wondered why he was campaigning in a European capital – he was probably just leveraging the Berlin hype (and we were all grateful for Berlin articles that didn’t mention Berghain).

But a month earlier I had mentioned to all-news broadcaster N24 that I was available to comment on things American or financial on-air and auf Deutsch and had never heard back from them. That is, until Air Force One was on final approach to Tegel. Then I got a hurried call that they needed someone to talk about why Obama was campaigning in a European capital and that I was the perfect person. Where perfect person equals anyone who could be there in 15 minutes.

At the time, the studio was in a corner of Berlin-Mitte that everyone’s seen on a map but has never been to. The taxi driver may have had to answer a troll’s riddle or take a detour through a wardrobe to get me there (east of Hausvogteiplatz, for those in the know). The actual studio was little more than a broom closet with cameras that were operated remotely. There was no backdrop, just a green screen. The producers and control room were across town on Potsdamer Platz.

*I don’t have that first video. But I have lots of these.

I didn’t have time to get nervous because they just powdered my nose and threw me on-air. The hosts asked me a few run-of-the-mill questions about Obama and Merkel and probably Bush. Then they started talking about the lunch the two power brokers would be having and I made a joke about how there would be some kind of bread and Merkel probably wouldn’t shut up about the bread.

Because the one thing Germans always mention to Americans is how superior German bread is.

The moderators laughed. I laughed. I’m pretty sure I heard the control room laugh. And from that day on, for several years, I was a regular on N24. It was great fun and even better pay. I would work on my laptop from the green room and spend a couple minutes every hour on-air joking about American politics.

Sometimes they’d buy me lunch.

Obama and German TV

There was a brief respite after a piece about Merkel holding a speech in Congress when they asked me if a lot of Americans would be watching the speech (I tried to be diplomatic since I know that at least half – if not two-thirds – of Americans believe Europe generally and Germany specifically is just something people made up to make America look bad).

“Let’s be honest,” I said. “You and I both know the only people who watch those kinds of things are journalists and retirees.”

“Let’s hope not,” the moderator – Thomas Klug – said quickly. “We’re carrying the whole thing live in a few minutes!”

A few years later they went bankrupt (or near-bankrupt) and stopped calling.

Good-bye, Obama.

(Private to N24: Call me?)

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