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Category: German life

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.

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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Calling the polizei because you've been insulted

In Germany, it’s illegal to insult someone. Like, call-the-cops-and-end-up-in-handcuffs illegal. Like, paragraph 185 illegal (for the legal Erbsenkacker (nitpickers)). Like, you can be jailed for up to a year illegal (but will probably just end up with a fine). 

Even if you just flip someone the bird.

And even after several decades it feels weird that garden-variety insults are gesetzlich verboten here.

Sure, I’m from America where the only thing more holy than the Holy Bible is the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and its guarantee of freedom of speech. But my incomprehension of insults-as-a-crime is more visceral than that. I can’t just make a side-comment about someone’s idiocy? Really? Because I run into several people a day who’ve earned it and, if I’m honest, every other or every third day I do something that probably deserves a comment as well.

It just seems too unverhältnismässig (disproportionate). Someone says a few words on the street and now the entire judicial apparatus has to get involved? Social media has of course ratcheted up the whole insult-as-a-crime game and when I see how some men behave online, it could be a a crime. Though when courts do get involved, it’s weird what they consider an insult and just some dude expressing himself.

Late last month a court ruled it was OK for a blogger to call left-leaning Berlin politician Sawsan Chebli a “talking Islamic puppet” and a “token migrant”.

(That’s her saying she’s going to appeal the ruling.)

The same court ruled a year earlier that calling Green politician Renate Künast a “dirty” female body part was also just freedom of speech. I disagree.

Sticks and stones

To be fair, the courts don’t always rule against my side – they’ve said it’s also OK for us to call far-right politician Bernd Höcke a “fascist”, because he is. I’d add creepy to that list. And probably a threat to democracy.

But my frustration at the whole insult thing took on a new dimension when German soccer fans recently unrolled banners at games that that called Dietmar Hopp, a billionaire founder of software company SAP and owner of the Hoffenheim soccer team, a Hurensohn, or son of a whore. I’m not sure I understand the kerfluffle but it seems like fans have insulted him before and he complained and so the German soccer league decided to reintroduce collective penalties that make all the fans pay when just one fan insults Mr. Hopp, which just seems dumb.

To begin with, Hopp is a billionaire. He has plenty of means to extract revenge, er justice, on his own dime and secondly, if I’m ever a billionaire, y’all have free license to call me whatever you want. Seriously Dietmar – I’d think you’d have other things to worry about (or not worry about).

As an aside, the banners were apparently the work of “ultra” fans, or über fans. I’m kind of an anti-ultra for reasons.

My own insult lawsuit

On top of all of this, I actually have a case pending where I’m accusing someone of insulting me. What happened was that a giant Volvo SUV last summer was perturbed when I, on a yellow Cannondale mountain bike, moved slightly out of a bike lane and into traffic to pass another cyclist. To express his distaste with my move, the SUV driver moved into the bike lane and nearly pushed me into a row of parked cars. I smacked his window because my bike bell didn’t seem to be alarming him to my precarious situation.

The SUV driver didn’t think this was very funny and, well, 15 minutes later the cops were there and as the officer was listing all the charges she wanted to lay on him (assault, reckless driving and coercion) she asked if I felt insulted by his offers to sleep with my mother as well as the accusation that me and a witness were both drug addicts and homosexual lovers.

I laughed. “My mother’s dead and even if she were alive it’s up to her who she sleeps with,” I said. She laughed. I also didn’t understand how me being either a drug addict or gay was supposed to be an insult. “But if I need to be insulted to file charges then sure,” I told her. She laughed again.

I haven’t heard much since (I don’t have much faith in the German justice system).

But I wasn’t insulted. If he had questioned my abilities as a father or reminded me of the time in 5th grade when I punched Becky McCaw in front of the whole class – then I might have been insulted.

I’m speaking from a position of privilege and know that sometimes words hurt – getting unexpectedly nailed by the Berliner Schnauze has left its mark on me many a time. And it’s probably nice for some people under continuous verbal assault to have some form of recourse. But it’s one aspect of German life I doubt I’ll ever get used to: Criminalized insults.

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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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Why you should never lose your German apartment keys

When people ask me for advice before moving to Berlin, I always say the same thing: No matter how homesick you get, no matter how depressed the long winters make you, regardless of whether or not the long-distance relationship works out, never, ever lose your German apartment keys.

Losing the keys to your apartment opens up a vat of suffering that requires years of counseling and, sometimes, a team of lawyers to overcome. First, you are subjected to looks of incredulity from your landlord or property management company when you tell them that you lost the keys — and you have to tell them because you need their permission to get a new key. The looks will make you think you are the first person to have ever lost a key in Europe’s most populous country.

Then will come a lecture that starts off by reassuring you that you are, in fact, the first person to have ever lost a key in Europe’s most populous country followed by a tirade about the dangers of losing the keys – not only can criminals, philanderers and ne’er-do-wells now make it into your apartment, they may also gain entry to the entire building, putting all of your neighbors at risk! Theft! Murder! Cholera! Plague! And it will all be your fault.

Never, under any circumstances, should you lose your keys in Germany.

The misery isn’t yet over. After being made to feel smaller than the fruit flies that infest every German apartment in the summer, you will then face the second shock of losing your keys in this country – it will cost about 10 times what you’re expecting to pay to get a simple copy made. Forget about $5 down at the corner hardware store. More like north of €30, if not more. And, if your landlord or property management company decides you losing the keys does in fact put the whole building at risk, then they’ll make you pay to replace or rekey all the locks in the building and now you’re out at least a grand, if not more (if you have renter’s insurance, they’ll likely cover it but also give you a stern talking-to).

To legal scholars, this one-two punch of condescension and price gouging is known as double-jeopardy. It’s forbidden by the US constitution but Germany has its own constitution and it apparently says double jeopardy is fine, especially when it comes to apartment keys and a foreigner being the first-ever person to lose them in Europe’s most populous country. Really, there’s an entire section in the German constitution devoted to apartment keys.

Ok not the constitution but many German apartment keys are actually protected by laws. And, as anyone who has spent any time in Germany knows, laws trump everything in Germany including maternal advice, the needs of a dying sibling or the word of whoever your god (or gods) is (or isn’t). The law is the law and German law is even more law-er than any other.

German apartment keys are tiny metal unicorns

Every time I complained about the cost of keys, Germans told me this law thing and I never believed them until I saw this report from NDR the other day – warning, it’s in German. Keys are protected by patents. Basically, most German apartment keys are unique and beautiful snowflakes that belong to their creator. To copy them, you need the creator’s permission (often in the form of a little card called a Sicherheitskarte (security card) that your landlord keeps and may give to you to get a key copied).

And getting the creator’s permission is going to cost you. For some reason, I’m picturing Gepetto here using a quill to grant you his OK and then pocketing a Daffy Duck-level stack of bills.

If a locksmith copies a key without the creator’s permission, they are then exposing themselves to a lawsuit for violating the patent. So they’re protected by civil law – the Polizei isn’t going to stop by and arrest some guy for illegally copying a key. They would have to be sued by the creator but, using the investigative skills sharpened by my two decades as a professional journalist, I couldn’t find any evidence that such a lawsuit has ever occurred (and by “investigative skills” I mean “googling”).

Alas, there are some workarounds. First, if you lose your keys and have a spare, you can sometimes find an unscrupulous locksmith who will make you a copy (though still charge you tons) without Gepetto’s permission. I’m not saying I know any but I would ask in an ex-pat forum were I ever to lose a key. Secondly, you can just wait until you fly back to wherever you’re from and get a stack made for 1/10 the price.

Or, finally, there is a company that claims there’s a way to circumvent the patent – you simply grind a unique and beautiful snowflake that is a lot like the other unique and beautiful snowflake but also different. Voila, new key!

The pitfalls of these workarounds: If you move out, you will have to return your keys including the counterfeit key and hope the landlord doesn’t notice (they’ll notice). There is also the danger that, like in the NDR video, the copied keys won’t work, though this could be easily remedied.

But the easiest way to avoid all of this is to do what Germans do: Never lose your apartment keys.

[Pic is thanks Marco Verch via Creative Commons. ]

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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You guys! Tatort is American (sort of)

There comes a point in the timeline of every ex-pat in Germany when they discover the TV crime series Tatort (crime scene) and think they’ve discovered a window into the Teutonic soul – some friends even do an English-language version.

For me, it was because television is culture in the U.S. and I made the false assumption that it is in Germany as well. But I’ve since realized that I hadn’t so much discovered a window into the German soul as a long lost cousin; The child of Aunt Doris who fell in love with a German philosophy student while doing her Fullbright at Cambridge and then moved to Bergisch Gladbach and got married.

You guys, Tatort has American roots.

Bear with me.

American Tatort
I have no idea where this pic came from.

Back when I first moved to Germany, there wasn’t even streaming video let alone Youtube and Netflix. Apps? What? So what you did in those dark days during moments of boredom was watch whatever was on TV.

Can you imagine? And not much was on TV because Germany thought it had cable TV but it didn’t really. We’re talking like 10 channels, maybe 12, one of which was NBC Europe, which was just Dateline re-runs.

One evening I stumbled into this goofy, black-and-white crime drama based in Hamburg. The caper itself seemed as oddly familiar as did the setup: Dry voiceovers alongside about 22 minutes of show. It was so familiar, I felt like that time I ran into my professor at a Bruce Springsteen concert — I couldn’t figure out where I knew that man from, or why I was at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

When the TV show ended I watched the credits and the title of the series and thought, “Stahlnetz (steel net)? I’ve never watched Stahlnetz.” A beat later I realized I’d just watched the German version of Dragnet, a childhood fave (back when the U.S. didn’t even have cable TV). They’d just translated the scripts.

The next time I caught it I discovered it even used the same theme music but lacked the subtle dry humor of lead character Joe Friday. Stahlnetz was huge in Germany, kind of like how Dragnet was in the U.S., and ran from 1958 to 1968 (and again briefly in the ‘90s) and it spawned additional crime shows.

When the series ended, regional public broadcaster WDR wanted a replacement and Tatort father Gunther Witte came up with the genius idea of basing each episode in a different German city – and allowing the regional broadcaster in that city to produce the episode. Tatort’s been on the air since 1970.

The constantly changing locations gives the series a varied texture and anthology feel but, more importantly, spreads out production costs.

The creative head behind Stahlnetz, Jürgen Roland, actually directed a number of Tatorts but died in 2007Tatort’s Witte is still around.

Tatort might not be the porthole to the German psyche I once believed it to be but I’ve since found a glimpse of the inner workings of my Teutonic friends (and family): Wetten, Dass …. (I bet …)

Perhaps in a sign of the complexity of the German soul, I’ve never been able to comprehend the show. And if it has American roots, I don’t want to know about them.

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The reason Merkel’s not at risk

At the moment, Chancellor Angela Merkel feels like that big sister that annoyed you your whole life but, sometime in your 20s, you realized had been OK all along. I’m still no fan but she’s a welcome lifeboat on this all-too-familiar sea of nationalist, fascist tendencies.

Now that Merkel’s seen as the final outpost of humane, sane governance, everyone keeps asking me if I think she’ll survive the populist virus afflicting most of the rest of the western hemisphere – she’s up for re-election this fall. My parents want to know. The neighbors want to know. Even the guy in line for the porta-potties at Saturday’s Women’s March wanted to known after he saw my wife’s German-language sign (the sign said, in Bauhaus simplicity, “Achtung”).

So will Merkel survive?

merkel re-election
For years, my daughter called the chancellor, “The juice press woman”.

The TL;DR version: Yes, because Merkel’s been part of the right-of-center festivities all along. The right may not be too enamored with their guest of honor at the moment, but they’re not going to ask her to leave just yet.

For longer attention spans: Merkel’s part of the Christian Democrats, Germany’s dominant conservative party which is better known as the CDU and is like the Republicans in the U.S. and the, uh, Conservative Party in the U.K. Lazy conservative German voters and German voters worried about upsetting the status quo have likely been voting for her party (and indirectly her) all along. They’re not going to change.

That gives her a base.

And being atop the conservatives and sporting the incumbent’s privilege – her party wanted her to run again – she can’t be bumped aside by a populist, reality-TV star like now-President Trump. By not spouting nationalist, protectionist propaganda like the Brexiters, she’s galvanizing some of her more level-headed support but also scaring away the right edges of her party – she just lost a long-time critic within the CDU this month, for example.

But she’s doing fine. At the moment, the CDU would get 37% of the popular vote if the elections were held tomorrow (that’s according to Germany’s favorite poll, the Sonntagsfrage, or Sunday question, which isn’t whether or not to go to church. It’s: “Who would you vote for if the next election was on Sunday?”).

Merkel’s re-re-re-election

For perspective, the CDU got 41.5% in the 2013 federal election, which was higher than everyone expected and was even part of the Rechtsrück, or shift to the right, that continues today.

In 2009, they pulled in just 33.8% of the vote and she still got to keep her job.

Her support, like her demeanor, is rock solid. After that, keeping her post at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy is just a matter of math, because this is Germany and Germans love math.

Math says Germany won’t even change the coalition of political parties that govern in the fall (but possibly the composition of ministers within that coalition): The Social Democrats polled at 21% in the most recent Sonntagsfrage. That would give the current CDU/SPD government, known as the Grand Coalition, a 58% majority if the elections were held on Sunday. In fact, math says it’s the only possibility – the left can’t muster enough support to dream of its own coalition.

And the far-right, the despicable Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, which unfortunately will likely get seats in Germany’s parliament in the fall, wouldn’t be able to find any coalition dance partners.

Let’s hope it stays that way (I think it will).

 

 

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The time I got serenaded on Berlin’s Ringbahn.

The Ringbahn (ring subway) in Berlin used to be the hinterlands. Few people ever ventured past Mauerpark, Tempelhof airport (when it was still an airport) or the Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), let alone ride the Ringbahn.

I always saw it as an adventure. As soon as the doors closed at Schönhauser Allee or Prenzlauer Allee, a time warp opened and I was somewhere near Bucharest. At every stop I expected people to get on with live chickens or maybe a goat. There were always colorful people on the Ringbahn, left over from what Berlin was and unaware of what it was becoming.

I liked it. It was that feeling right at the peak of the biggest hill on a rollercoaster, when you know it’s all going to accelerate and it might just come off the rails and kill you.

Ringbahn Berlin

Driving to a job interview last week reminded me of the Ringbahn. I had had to ride the looping Berlin subway the last time I interviewed for a job – over a decade ago. The job interview back then was with a newswire in Frankfurt and I had to wear a suit. Black. German designer. I’ve had it forever.

That interview went well but I turned them down. I’m pretty sure they’re still mad at me. Yes, all of a newswire is mad at me 10 years later.

The boss on the Ringbahn

After interviewing with the newswire, I had an argument with the voice in my head as I walked to the gate at the Frankfurt airport before flying home. If you’ve ever flown through Frankfurt, you know there are two things you do at that airport: Walk a long way to your gate and walk a long way to your gate.

Me: “Take your suit off before you fly back to Berlin.”

Me: “What? Why?”

Me: “It’s Berlin. Nobody wears suits in Berlin. You’ll look like a noob. Also: Where is our gate?”

Me: “Plenty of people wear suits in Berlin and this is me. I’ve lived in Berlin forever. I am allowed to wear a suit in Berlin if I want to. Plus, if no one wears suits in Berlin, then wearing a suit in Berlin is punk.”

Me: “Noob.”

I still wasn’t at my gate.

Then I got off the plane and onto a bus and then onto the Ringbahn. To get home I’d have to take a tram as well, because Tegel is the airport Berliners love to call central – so central it requires a bus, a subway and a tram to get there. Or a €30 taxi fare.

“Hey,” the voice in my head said as soon as I took a seat, “You should have taken the suit off.”

I finally agreed with the voice – the Ringbahn seemed allergic to suits. It was (is?) a working man’s train. About then two semi-threatening punks came tumbling down the aisle, loudly talking about where to sit.

Lass uns hier sitzen (Let’s sit here),” the man said, “Neben Chef (Next to the boss).” I was trying to avoid his gaze as he sat in the chair across the aisle. His female companion, who had apparently just partaken in a substance that made her very absent, sat two rows back.

He smiled at me – the boss – and I told myself that I had told myself to take off the suit. Since I’m a paranoic when it comes to personal safety, I was I hoping for a gentle mugging. Something short of murder.

“Na, chef?” he said. I smiled and enjoyed the last few minutes of my life.

When the subway started, he started beatboxing, which seemed an odd thing for a punk to do.

As the train picked up speed, he started rapping:

Wo sitzt der Boss?

Da sitzt der Boss!

Wer ist der Boss?

Der ist der Boss!

Wer kennt den Boss?

Wir kennen den Boss!“

(Where’s the boss? There‘s the boss! Who’s the boss? He’s the boss! Who knows the boss? …)

It went on for several minutes, each stanza changing but with the all-important “boss” as the hook. I was equal parts impressed with the freestyling and afraid for my well-being. He would look back at his companion for approval and around at the other passengers for admiration.

I’m certain they felt the same way I did: Nice freestyling but if you’re going to hurt anyone, hurt the guy wearing the suit. Who wears a suit on the ringbahn?

Unnerved, I got off a stop early and decided to walk home from the Schönhauser Allee stop. In my suit.

I didn’t wear a suit to my job interview last week. But I turned down that job too.

I don’t want to be the boss.

 

 

 

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This is milkrice

One day when I was an exchange student my guest mother asked me if I liked Milchreis. I didn’t translate that to show non-German speakers how I felt when faced with that question. Milchreis? I’m pretty sure I knew at the time that Milch was milk and Reis was rice but I had not a clue that the two fit together in any sentence that wasn’t a shopping list.

Milkrice?

Then she handed me a tiny plastic container that looked like tapioca pudding. It was cinnamon and sugar Milchreis (from Müllermilch, of course) and my life changed. I had the second Nutella Moment of my life. A Nutella Moment is something I just made up but it’s when you taste something new and think: This exists in the world and you’re only telling me about it now? Because you know you’ll be enjoying it until your tastebuds die and the only thing you get any pleasure out of is super-hot sriracha, served with a bib and a straw.

German milk rice

For the uninitiated, milkrice is rice that’s been steeped in milk, rather than steamed or steeped with water. A German risotto, if you will. But instead of broth and white wine you steep it in milk and sugar and vanilla and cinnamon. Then you serve it with more sugar or fruit of some kind and spend the rest of the day smiling. Probably steaming hot but maybe cold because there was some left over from when you made it yesterday and who’s going to wait to warm that up?

It tastes like a dessert but you feel like you ate something healthy because: rice.

You can use the same Arborio rice you would use for risotto. But uncooked milkrice rice in Germany is way cheaper than Arborio rice so cooks-in-the-know in Germany just use milkrice rice for both milkrice and risotto.

I just saved you a bunch of money. You’re welcome.

Your grandmother’s milkrice

I ate about one Müllermilch Milchreis a week during my early days in Germany until my kids were old enough to like it and my wife said: “It can’t be that hard to make. My grandmother used to make it” and decided to make some. That logic doesn’t actually work because If grandmothers made it, it usually means it’s super-hard to make unless you’re a grandmother but it turned out milkrice really isn’t difficult.*

And my wife then launched a series of superlative, home-made milkrices. It’s now our family’s comfort food.

I know what you’re thinking: That’s just rice pudding! No. No it’s not. Rice pudding involves eggs and maybe cream and raisins and gooey, pre-cooked rice and nobody likes it except Old Lady Wiggins, and nobody likes her.

But there is at least one hidden danger in milkrice. Some enterprising cooks at my kids’ school in Berlin thought the magic of milkrice could carry over to other dishes. They served Milchnudeln (milknoodles), as if it were a thing. The magic doesn’t carry over and it isn’t a thing and my kids came home starving that day. I’ve never tried them but my kids (trustworthy on all things food) said Milchnudeln are as disgusting as they sound.

Luckily the cooks never tried Milchfisch or maybe Milchsteak but we started making their lunches for them shortly after that experiment just in case.

I decided to write this post the other day after my son asked me to make him Milchreis for his school lunch. I figured the magic of milkrice had already made its way to Portland, Oregon.

“Who else gets milkrice for lunch?”

“Nobody at school’s ever heard of it,” he said.

But now you have.

 

*Basic milk rice

1 cup Arborio (or milkrice) rice, 1 liter milk, a cinammon twig, a packet of vanilla sugar, maybe some salt. Bring to a boil. Steep on low for 10 minutes, then cover and let sit for half an hour. Then e-mail Drew and thank him.

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