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.

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.

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).

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

Some thoughts on terror in Germany

Last week, after the series of attacks in Germany, I felt like the country was coming apart at the seams. It was an irrational, emotional response. I thought, “This is what it must have felt like during the Deutschen Herbst (German Autumn)”. It was then that I realized that terrorist attacks (domestic, foreign and by mentally unstable people) have always been a part of my German experience.

I don’t want to downplay the recent incidents or even get into a political discussion. But that thought (and a couple hours of googling and reading) helped me gain a little perspective.

The first time I really paid attention to terror attacks in Germany was in 1986 when I was getting ready to be an exchange student. In April of that year a bomb killed two soldiers and a woman at the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin (just a mile from one of my later Berlin apartments). My mom and I talked about it and dismissed it because Berlin was far from Wegberg, where I’d be an exchange student, and it clearly targeted soldiers.

Terror in Germany
Postcard of JHQ Rheindahlen thanks BAOR Locations.

I couldn’t really be less soldier material.

So we figured I’d be safe.

And also, though it’s admittedly crass and possibly insensitive, the terror didn’t seem real. Terror seemed as much a part of Cold War Europe as loose morals and bodyhair. Remember the IRA? They used to be in the paper every day (remember newspapers?). And, anyway, Chernobyl happened just a few weeks later and we had something new to worry about. My mother considered not sending me for fear of radiation.

When I finally landed in Germany, I would often ride past and through nearby British air bases on training rides. Any time the IRA attacked somewhere, the bases would be buttoned down and soldiers in camouflage would prevent me from taking my favorite route along Queens Avenue on the Joint Headquarters Rheindahlen base. It was always a strange sensation to cycle in Lycra shorts and vintage wool jerseys past soldiers hunkered in sub-terranean pillboxes with loaded machine guns.

They never waved back.

Terror close to home

My memory has convinced me I even heard an IRA carbomb explode at Rheindahlen in 1987. My guest parents played down the nearby attack by saying no one was killed but the bomb actually injured 30, mostly Germans. It must have been a bigger deal than I remember.

And then I learned about the RAF, the Rote Armee Faktion (Red Army Faction), a left-wing terrorist organization in Germany. In 1977, the RAF orchestrated a number of attacks that included the murder of CEO of Dresdner Bank (Jürgen Ponto), the kidnapping and murder of the head of the German Employer’s Association (Hans-Martin Schleyer) and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane.

Although there was (and is) massive debate about the RAF, if you lived in Germany at the time it must have been at least unsettling. It never seemed to end. And every time I read something new about that time period, known as German Autumn, I get much the same feeling I got last Friday as attack after attack hit Germany.

Will it ever end? History says no, but it also shows me that life goes on and statistics proves the attacks, both then and now, are anomalies.

And that’s not anywhere near a complete list – they’re just the ones that colored my German experience.

terror in Germany
Thanks Datagraver.

The one I was surprised I’d never learned about was Gundolf Köhler’s 1980 attack on Oktoberfest. As famous as Oktoberfest is, I was amazed I’d never heard of it until I’d lived in Germany for nearly a decade – he killed 13 people (including himself) and wounded 211 with a home-made pipe bomb. He’s suspected of being a right-wing extremist.

I don’t want to downplay the recent attacks nor their impact, I just needed some perspective for me (especially since my family is in Germany at the moment). And I thought I could share it. Statistics show terror attacks have actually decreased.

Even if it feels like Germany – and Europe – is coming apart.

 

How to birthday like a German kid

Today is my daughter’s first birthday outside of Germany. She’s not happy. During the run-up it seemed like she might not even celebrate. We were worried she was going to hold a lonely wake instead.

But then my wife had an idea. Partly because, as I’ve discussed before, she’s a Jedi. But also because she’s a mother and making children happy is a special talent of moms. Like making sandwiches. Dads on the other hand – I’m not sure we really have any parental talents. Except maybe being the parent without parental talents.

“Why don’t you have a German-themed birthday?” my wife suggested to my daughter. It worked better than any Jedi Mind Trick ever. Though have Jedi Mind Tricks even been invented yet? (Note to self: E-mail George Lucas about first Jedi Mind Trick).

My daughter exploded with enthusiasm for her birthday. We’ve spent the last two weeks convincing her to not invite the entire seventh grade. At the moment, she’s a better German ambassador to the U.S. than Peter Wittig (Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., if you didn’t know. I didn’t.).

Beyond sausages, pretzels and Wagner, this is what her party will look like:

Topfschlagen (Pot Whacking)

topfschlagen - pot whacking - german kids birthday games

The point of this game is to find your prize. When it’s your turn, the prize already legally belongs to you but your friends want you to earn it. So they blindfold you and then hide your prize underneath an overturned pot. Seems mean – it’s your prize – but Germans define “mean” differently. They tuck the pot and prize off in a corner of either the yard or the living room, depending on the weather and the current mental state of the host parents. Next, you are given a wooden spoon. Your task is to get on all fours and divine the location of your prize by whacking the spoon against objects to find the pot.

Your friends help by bellowing „kalt!“ (cold!) or „warm!“ (warm, dummy) depending on your current trajectory and the location of the prize. Many wooden spoons, vases and parental shins have suffered during this game. But as of yet, everyone got their prize.

Schokolade Wettessen (Competition Chocolate Eating)

schokolade wettessen - competition chocolate eating - german kids birthday gamesI know, sounds like a Hunger Games the Oompa Loompas hold for kids who lose their way in the Chocolate Factory. But it’s not. First, a chocolate bar (preferably Milka) is wrapped up in newspaper and then kids crowd around a table. They take turns rolling a dice until someone gets a six. The sixer then has to put on adult winter gloves, a scarf and a winter hat and attempt to unwrap the chocolate with a knife and fork. Once unwrapped, the sixer can eat all the chocolate they can.

All the while the other kids continue to roll the dice. Should anyone hit a six, they then have to take the winter clothes and cutlery off the previous sixer and either continue unwrapping or eating the chocolate until the next six falls.

You’re right. Maybe the Oompa Loompas did invent it. Yes I know the band Veruca Salt got its name from the film.

Mumie Einwickeln (Wrap the Mummy)

mumie einwickeln - wrap the mummy - german kid birthday games

Up until I found out about this game I thought Germany was the most environmentally conscious country on the planet. I now realize they only do it to make up for playing this game.

Two teams of two face off in this game that requires one team member to wrap the other up in toilet paper. The winner is the team that entirely covers its mummy first. Not even a thought of the player can show through. The winning team gets a prize and the toilet paper gets discarded.

Though, to be honest, we may not allow this game this year because of the environmental concerns. And because toilet paper costs twice as much in America (really!). We may substitute it with Sackhupfen (Sack Race) or Der Plumpsack geht rum (Pass the Falling Bag), which sounds horrible in both languages but is just a modified version of Duck, Duck, Goose.

At the end of a German birthday each kid leaves with a gift bag full of treats and the parents get to begin another tradition of German kids’ birthday parties: Heavy drinking. It’s also a tradition we’ll be following here.

(Happy birthday kiddo)

Nutella and peanut butter: The battle

Settle an old argument for me. My wife and I have fought about this since our youngest was a baby. It’s become a dispute bigger than the East Coast/West Coast beef in American rap or whether Didi Hallervorden or Fips Asmussen wrote the first-ever German one-liner. Think Kramer vs. Kramer.

It’s important I get this settled today because it’s our 13th wedding anniversary.

Nutella, peanut butter.
I know it’s my name, not Nutella but we all know what it is. Plus, cool that my name is on a Nutella jar.

It started when our first kid was just a year old. My wife offered her a Nutella-laden spot of Brötchen (bread roll).

“What are you doing?” I demanded. “Do you want to get her hooked on chocolate at this early of an age?”

My statement seemed to puzzle my wife. She looked at me as though I had suddenly turned into a cloud of semi-transparent gas that was whispering commands to her in a language never before heard in this solar system.  She didn’t know whether to laugh at the discovery of a talking gaseous mass or cry because she was obviously hallucinating.

“It’s just Nutella,” she said. “I’ve eaten it my entire life and look at me.” I don’t actually know if she said that “look at me” bit but it’s what I always hear when we talk food because I’m clearly the American in the relationship, if you know what I mean. I’m overweight, is what I’m saying.

She’s obviously the European.

“It’s chocolate and that’s a baby!” I hollered. Despite insisting that my kids carry both a blue and a red passport, I’ve inwardly always hoped that they would adopt their mother’s eating habits but get everything else from me. On that day, the half a square centimeter of Brötchen with a drop of Nutella was about to ruin that.

“It’s Nutella and I’ve eaten it my whole life (and look at me),” she said again. Then she leaned into her wife-of-an-American toolbox and said: “Plus, you were giving her peanut butter yesterday and there’s no difference.”

Which is where you come in. Have you ever heard anything so absurd? Me neither.

Nutella and peanut butter are in different galaxies. Peanut butter in its purest form is crushed peanuts – straight from the earth – mixed with a dash of salt. Ok, you might mix in some butter and two dashes of salt and the peanuts are actually roasted but that’s it. It’s food so pure Adam and Eve probably dined on it before partaking in a pomegranate. Neanderthals maybe even ate peanut butter and they weren’t capable of sin because all of that hadn’t been invented yet.

Peanut butter is pure and natural.

Nutella, on the other hand, was invented by an industrialized society trying to trick people into believing hazelnuts were chocolate. It worked! Nutella tastes great! But it’s a chocolate made by heavy machinery and should only be consumed for dessert or as a treat. Heavy machinery is nothing for babies or the main course.

I tolerate it on the breakfast table because I know an entire country would revolt if I expressed distaste but I don’t really believe that anyone – not even Germans – would believe that it’s the same thing as peanut butter.

“Honey,” I now often tell my daughter, “maybe one Brötchen half with Nutella is enough.” She’ll be a teenager soon but the Nutella poisoning took hold. She loves the stuff.

My wife will scowl at me across the breakfast table.

“So you get to have two or three Brötchen halves covered in peanut butter but she only gets to have a half with Nutella?”

It’s a wonder we’re still married.

Four things the universe could learn from Germany

I get it. The Internet loves these lists. Listicles. But I didn’t do five things. I did four. Because I’m punk. And because I couldn’t think of any more. I avoided the clichés every blogger, publisher and even news agency has thought of. I included only things I really believe. Maybe surprising things. Some things others won’t agree with.

In fact, I’ll probably lose a few friends. Friends who want to change Germany to make it just like back home.

“If they try to change you,” my mother always said, “they’re not your friends.” Actually, my mother never said that. She wouldn’t have even said that, I don’t think. And she always seemed to like my friends more than I did anyway. But I’m sure somebody’s mother said it.

Here are the four things. I hope your mom likes them.

Dogs don’t need leashes

Four things Germany could teach the universe. Dogs do not need leashes.
Photo thanks Bernd Baltz via Creative Commons

I am not a dog person. I tell every dog I meet that we will never be friends. It’s not a problem. There are lots of dog people and lots of animals who like me. The world is big! And as someone who doesn’t enjoy the company of dogs, I’m always annoyed in the U.S. when two people walking dogs on leashes meet. The dogs are going to bark and snarl. And then bark and snarl some more. Shut up already! There is no barking and snarling in Germany. Because dogs are free to sniff each other’s butts. Leashes do to dogs what steering wheels do to men: Turn them into beasts. I realize there are loopholes here – dog owners have to be responsible and dogs have to be well-trained. But as a whole, I’ve been less bothered by German dogwalkers than their Uncle Sam counterparts.

Pass on the left, drive on the right

(or if you’re from one of those places that goes against God and drives on the left, do the opposite)

Four things Germany could teach the universe. Rechts überholen.
Photo thanks Micky Waue Auktionen und Konzerte

On Germany’s Autobahn it’s illegal to pass on the right. You only pass on the left. Are you passing on the right? You don’t pass on the right. It’s illegal. Conversely, are you going slow? Move over to the right so people can pass you on the left. It’s the law and it’s what (most) Germans do. It’s what everyone should do. This behavior on the Autobahn transfers to surface streets and makes driving orderly and pleasant in Germany. In America it’s different. Driving on American highways feels like being a bison in a stampede. There are buffalo everywhere, going every speed and in every direction. Changing lanes requires an act of whoever your God is because cars could be zooming past on both sides. We’re not bison, we’re humans. Humans pass only on the left.

Shake hands as a greeting

Photo thanks Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt
Photo thanks Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt

Just bumped into your friends at the Kaiser’s? Shake everyone’s hands. Showing up for a group beer? Go on, shake their hands. It’s the Teutonic way of saying: ‘Hey, I’m here,’ and acknowledging the presence of everyone else. It also ensures you’ll be introduced to anyone you didn’t already know. It’s a symbolic way of saying, ‘We are us.’ It’s a gesture and makes everyone feel welcome. Even your ex-girlfriend who you didn’t know was going to be there. And her new boyfriend. Shake his hand too. Also try to impart an Incan death spell during the brief meeting of your flesh with his. In Germany if the gathering involves really good friends, you don’t need to shake hands. You should hug. Don’t be so afraid of physical contact. Germans aren’t. Show some emotion for once. You’re among friends.

(Almost) Every store is closed on Sundays

Four things Germany can teach the universe. Landschluss.
Photo thanks Sebastian Baryli via Creative Commons

Ever wonder what it would feel like to be Will Smith in I am Legend (or Charlton Heston in The Omega Man)? On Sundays in Germany you can. (Almost) Every store is closed. Retail areas are deserted. Ex-pats hate this. Apparently it’s very difficult to make sure you’ve got enough dishwasher detergent and basil. Planning a few hours ahead is very hard for ex-pats. Although Sunday closings started because of God, it’s now about something different. It’s about saying commerce isn’t always king. The customer isn’t always right. And the almighty dollar (or euro) isn’t always mighty. It’s about doing a day differently. And it’s nice.

Plus you get to feel like a zombie hunter.

Swearing in English in German

Warning: This is a blog about off-color language. And, as such, it uses off-color language. I’ve used the linguistic equivalent of TV’s black bars – the asterisk – to censor what I could. But if you’re easily offended, sit this one out. Don’t blame me. The Germans led me to this.

 

Germans love English swear words. They throw them in between the cases and conjugations of their German. They’re total potty mouths. They’re f*cking sailors.

The first time I experienced it was way back in 2000 at my first job in Berlin. A German co-worker told me to f*ck off for no reason. He was disagreeing with me over something completely banal but he shouted it at me across the office. Inappropriate.

I felt insulted but I tried to help Karsten with his use of pejoratives – it’s always the Karstens.

Eigentlich benutzen wir  ‘f*ck off’ in so eine Zusammenhang nicht (We wouldn’t use f*ck off in that context),” I told him.

“F*ck off,” he bellowed.

Karsten 1, Drew 0.

Swearing German
Photo thanks Antenne Düsseldorf via Creative Commons.

But it’s a problem that comes up often. Out of the blue a German will throw in an English cuss word in the wrong setting or an awkward context and give me the feeling that my father is about to scream threats of washing my mouth out with soap.

Or at least warn me about the kind of company I keep.

“She’s a nun,” I’d tell him. It wouldn’t matter. Nothing matters when a father has made up his mind.

I’ve been sworn at in casual German conversation by the family physician, by Beamte (bureaucrats) discussing the state of the office printer and even prospective employers reviewing the competition in a job interview.

Even worse, Germans go straight for the dirtiest of the dirty words. My church-going grandma could stomach the occasional “damn” and who doesn’t need to utter “asshole” once or twice a day?

But it’s all f*cks and sh*ts with these foul-mouthed Teutons. And by “foul-mouthed Teutons” I mean every German under aged 60 – and a good many over.

They casually use English Schimpfwörter (swear words) so bad I can’t bring myself to type them here with the asterisks.

Do they kiss their Mutter with those mouths?

Don’t believe me? Check out this recent video from German bad-boy comic Jan Böhmermann (I don’t agree with the overall theme of the video, but that’s a different f*cking blogpost):

And a few years ago they started making grammar mistakes while swearing. Ugh. „F*ck“, unbeknownst to me, is apparently an adjective, which makes for some odd linguistic – ahem – bedfellows.  The “f*ck Fussballspiel” in derogatory Deutsch is a crappy soccer game, for example. Though tempted, I won’t elaborate more.

(Secret to German readers: Its either “sh*t Fussballspiel” in U.K. lingo or “f*cking Fussballspiel”. Thanks.)

It’s not that I don’t understand. Invectives can be fun. 90 percent of the reason the 10-year-old me wanted to be an  adult was to have the ability to swear at will. It seemed as cool to me then as it apparently does to Germans now. And I get it – they’re used to watching mob films, American comedians and British tourists. They think everyone talks that way.

But man I wish they’d be a little more aware of the impact. These aren’t just Wörter to native English speakers, they’re actual words, emotions and a childhood of scolding.

I guess Germans see them as novel, two-dimensional bits of language. But I often try to point out that they wouldn’t use the German equivalent so easily. Ok, you say, but they do it while they’re speaking German. It’s a different cultural context.

Au contraire mon Frere. They even throw them in with their English.

Swearing in German

Several years ago my father visited and he asked some Berliners for directions while I dealt with my misbehaving kids. The Berliners didn’t agree with each other on the best way to get to Curry 36.

“Zose are bullsh*t directions,” a middle-aged Berliner said in order to correct the initial set of directions provided by his compatriot. He was visibly proud of his English abilities. “I give you better f*cking directions.”

I turned bright red and muttered something about the guy being drunk (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t).

My father and I never discussed the incident.

But he tells everyone I told him Germans spoke pretty good English.

“That wasn’t my experience,“ he says.