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Category: German life

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.

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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.

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Free college tuition (in Germany)!

Hello American students. University students, that is. You are worried about two things: One, your student loans and, two, that candidate with the orange face and yellow hair whose name I’d rather not speak. We all know who he – or rather it – is.

Should your debts mount and the orange creature make it atop our country, I have a solution. Well, I have a suggestion for a solution: Germany.

In case you’ve been distracted by all those articles about the boisterous orange man in blue suits, there has been a string of other articles recently touting my solution. I mean, my suggestion for a solution. The suggestion is to study in Germany because tuition is free and more and more classes are held in the only language you speak – English.

College tuition germany
Photo thanks Benediktv via Creative Commons

There have been plenty of articles. One here. And here. Then over here but in German (to see if you really, really want to go. Google translate is your friend and will become a close friend if you study in Germany).

The math behind this free university education is simple and, no Michael Moore, it’s not because of socialism. Not entirely. It’s because Germans aren’t reproducing. Germans are dying faster than they can make new ones – nobody’s really sure if it’s a manufacturing, parts supply or emission software (ahem) issue. But they used to make lots of Germans with – you guessed it – German efficiency and those already-made Germans are getting older and retiring. And their annual two-week, all-inclusive vacations to Spain (Mallorca!) and month-long medical spa visits to southern Germany (Kurschatten* anyone?) aren’t going to pay for themselves.

Momma Merkel (that’s Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, which is kind of like a president but without a cool plane) wants you, American students, to pay for those two-week, all-inclusive vacations to Spain and month-long medical spa visits to southern Germany. How? By staying on and paying taxes after you study.

Never mind that current German work laws may not let you stay. But they could!

I’m re-learning algebra to help my kids with homework so I think the formula looks like this:

Public pensions + public healthcare = free college for over-privileged Americans

You have to solve for Americans, I think.

My plan will have you free of debt and free of orange presidential candidates in a matter of years. Sort of. Germany actually has its own orange would-be leaders (ok, she’s white) but because you don’t speak the language, you won’t be able to understand local media and see what’s going on. You’ll just exist in a student diaspora bubble of learning, beer drinking and beer drinking.

Just like in the U.S. but further away from your parents.

No free college tuition?

You don’t believe me? You say there’s no such thing as a free lunch? You’re so smart and you haven’t even finished college yet! No there’s not. You’ll have to pay your own living expenses and live in Germany. It’s tough to say which is more difficult.

You’re likely to freeze and will be subject to gargantuan breakfasts and will have to stomach capricious public officials. To name a few problems while shamelessly self-promoting this blog.

And remember, this is the same country where this was the most popular show FOR YEARS:

But: Free education and in case you didn’t catch it the first time – you’ll be further away from your parents.

You don’t need to thank me later. Funding my annual two-week, all-inclusive vacation to Spain and month-long medical spa visit to southern Germany will be thanks enough.

 

*Kurschatten = medical spa shadow. German doctors prescribe month-long visits to spas in southern Germany to cure ague, consumption and possession by evil spirits. During treatments, Germans often become friendly-friendly with other spa visitors, aka medical spa shadows. What happens in Bad Füssing stays in Bad Füssing.

 

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My Jedi Wife

Germans don’t like to talk. But they love to discuss. Just turn on German TV on a Friday night. Everyone is discussing. Actually, they’re diskutieren.

And no one likes to discuss more than bureaucrats (German: Beamte).

If you run into a Beamte in their natural environment – an office – a refusal is often not actually a refusal. It’s an invitation to discuss.

My Jedi wife
Photo thanks Amira_a via Creative Commons

Das können wir leider nicht für Sie heute erledigen,” a Beamte might say: I’m sorry, we can’t do that for you today. That might be the literal translation but my wife has taught me some Beamtish and what they’re really saying is: “Give me a good reason to do that for you, if possible supported by several official-looking documents and a legal precedent or two.”

Even crazier than that statement: People actually do this and it works.

My wife is a professional diskutierer. She should be, she’s German. But even Germans should pay her to square off with Beamten. She doesn’t go into a government office to get something done. She goes in to create art. In a municipal building, my wife is a Jedi Knight among a sea of Imperial soldiers: “These are the documents you’re looking for.” (yes, I avoided the words “Storm Troopers” because, history).

Jedi at the Bürgeramt Rathaus Mitte

Shortly after the birth of our second child we moved and had to register our new address, as everyone in Germany does. This was in the days when everyone used the Internet except the German government: You couldn’t get an appointment and you couldn’t do it online or even through the mail. We had to go to Bürgeramt Rathaus Mitte and we were immediately confronted with a waiting room full of annoyed Bürger (anyone not a Beamte).

“We need to register our new address,” my wife said, rocking a baby in a Maxi-Cosi on her chest. “How do we do that?”

The woman behind the counter seemed to delight at the question. I thought because she was going to turn us down but now I know it was because it was a chance to discuss.

Photo thanks the Grafs via Creative Commons
Photo thanks the Grafs via Creative Commons

“Normally I’d give you a number and you would go upstairs and wait your turn but there’s no point. They won’t get to you today. There are too many people here.” My words sound much nicer than hers. She made it sound like we had just asked a pilot if we could fly the plane ourselves.

“I realize that, but my husband took the afternoon off and we’ve got the baby asleep so maybe we can just get a number and see what happens,” my wife said, as cool as, well, a Beamte.

“There’s no point, they won’t get to you. I’m not giving you a number,” the Beamtin replied. I’m pretty sure she hissed this. It may have even been in a reptilian language everyone knows somewhere deep in the primitive portions of their brains.

Beamten may be a different species entirely.

It incensed me. I was preparing a lambasting about taxpayers and public servants that could possibly have won me an Oscar, or maybe a Nobel Prize. But my wife raised her hand as if to say: ‘I’ve got this.’

“OK, but my husband took the afternoon off and we’ve got the baby asleep so maybe we can just get a number and see what happens. It’s our problem.” My wife, I laughed to myself, how optimistic! And dumb. I started fuming inside. It was clear this Beamtin wasn’t going to help us.

“Well,” the Beamtin said, “Do you have all the paperwork? Let me see it.”

“Oh!” I thought. “Clever trick!” I assumed she would tell us we didn’t have all our ducks in a row and send us away with a condescending smirk.

“Nice try, Frau Beamtin,” I thought to myself. “We know what we’re doing! We’ve got everything! Check mate!”

I was really proud of us.

The Beamtin took the paperwork, turned around, typed something in a computer, placed a stamp on another piece of paper and handed everything back to us.

“There,” she said, “I did it for you. Have a nice day.”

Let’s just pause for a moment. Because the moment was that good. It was one of the best in my life. Maybe even ahead of the birth of my children or the first time I saw Star Wars. I felt like we won life that day. We defeated all of Berlin.

“I can’t believe you did that!” I said as we left victoriously, new registration in hand.

“Did what?” my wife said. “Sometimes you just have to have a discussion with people.”

 

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