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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

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?)