German Cafes Do Coffee and Cake Right

I was watching Tagesschau (German news) the other night and saw a report about an exhibition in Dusseldorf on (West?) German café culture and it reminded me of yet another corner of Germany I found magical – the café.

The first time I encountered one was when I was an exchange student and we had just completed one of my guest family’s weekly shopping excursions to Mönchengladbach. We had just gathered everything we needed from the shops in the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian street) when my guestmother announced that we’d be making one final stop.

“Can’t we just go home?” I thought. I wanted to go back to reading Asterix and Obelix in my room rather than sweat through more small talk in my emerging German.

Inside, the café was as busy and crowded as the shopping street outside. A glass counter full of cakes and pastries ran the length of its lower level and was backed by middle-aged women in what looked like maid’s outfits. They seemed harried. But what cakes!

“Pick out any piece and I’ll find a seat,” my guestmother said. I started to sweat. I’d been in-country about two months, my German wasn’t even at immigrant cab driver level and I had no idea how a German café worked.

I had no idea how to pick out a piece of cake.

My guestmother sensed my confusion and said as she walked away, “Tell the woman what piece you want and bring me the piece of paper.”

A piece of paper. Right. I thought I was supposed to get cake.

One of the maids behind the counter asked me what I wanted and I pointed at a piece. She then handed me a slip of paper about the size of a price tag. It was yellow with a printed number in black. And she had scribbled something in red on hers. Maybe a number. Maybe code. Maybe a plea for help.

The piece I ordered probably had chocolate pieces on chocolate icing spread on top of chocolate cake with fluffy chocolate filling. I know my teen-age self. And knowing my guestmother, she probably had something with fruit.

Guestmothers always get something with fruit.

After ordering, I found my guestmother upstairs perched at a two-top against a window. We could watch the chaos outside while suffering from the chaos inside. There were people everywhere, inside and out.

German Cafes

I wondered how my cake would make it from downstairs to upstairs. How it would make it through all those people. I figured it probably wouldn’t but I masked my disappointment and smiled in agreement when my guestmother offered to order me a hot chocolate.

At least I’d get some chocolate.

Kännchen oder Tasse (pot or cup)?” my guestmother wanted to know. At the time, I had no idea what she was asking so I just stared back. She waved me off.

Our waitress arrived, also wearing a maid outfit, and my guestmother ordered our drinks and handed her our pieces of paper. I had no idea what was going on but I was confident I wouldn’t be eating cake.

Would our new maid try to describe us to the maid downstairs to get our cake order? How would that work? What if their descriptions didn’t match up and we ended up with cookies or, worse, no cake?

I had no time to make small talk with my guestmother, I was busy mourning the loss of my cake.

Then, a few minutes later, our waitress reappeared with our drinks. Our drinks! I didn’t just get a hot chocolate. I got a kännchen – my own little pot of hot chocolate! What? Magic!

Also, the waitress had our cakes. The right cakes.

I know, right? More magic!

Kaffee und Kuchen

The system made no sense to me so my guestmother explained it to me – the first woman-in-a-maid’s-outfit behind the counter put a piece of paper identical to my piece of paper on a plate with my cake order and our waitress just matched up the pieces of paper.

It still seemed miraculous to me, as if my cake had floated out of the display case, through all the people and up the stairs to me. In Mönchengladbach.

“It still seems magical to me,” my wife said last night when I recounted this story. We used to go to Café Richter in Charlottenburg in Berlin because they sometimes had the tiny pieces of paper. The Tagesspiegel last summer did a story on what it dubbed Schnipsel-cafés (scrap of paper cafés) in Berlin, after the pieces of paper used to record the cake orders.

The magic of that Schnipsel-café in Mönchengladbach stayed with me for over a decade until I returned to Germany as a reporter in Frankfurt. I made my co-workers go with me to Café Liebfrauenberg because I knew they’d do the German trick with the kuchen (cake) and paper there.

My co-workers weren’t impressed by the ordering system but they loved the cakes. And they thought the Kännchen were pretty impressive too.

 

How Germans Puke: Das Speibecken

It was supposed to be a harmless bit of day drinking. Me, my cousin-in-law and a vanilla small-town pub in central Germany. My wife had supported the decision because it got me out of her hair as she wrangled our kids and her parents – my in-laws – over coffee and cake at grandma’s. I was out of her mind, I figured, and could concentrate on the beer, and she figured I was safe with her cousin.

Nobody would have suspected something unsettling was about to unfold.

It happened when I had to pee after the second beer, or maybe the third, depending on how much juice I’d had with breakfast. As I came into the pub’s bathroom everything seemed normal. I noted a sink on my left and floor-to-ceiling tiles in that light-brown tint that’s so popular in public restrooms in western regions of Germany.

Speibecken
Thanks for the pic, Basti!

“What is Germany trying to tell me with that color in a bathroom?” I always think. I’ve never gotten an answer because I’ve never asked the question out loud – the Teutonic propensity for shelf toilets and public discussions of bathroom visits has me fearful of the answer.

As I stood there doing my business, I noticed a second sink off to my left. It was shaped differently and seemed to have supports on one side.

“Must be a utility sink for mops,” I thought. When I was done, I took a closer look. It was a weird sink with a wide drain, like on American sinks with garbage disposals, and a water switch. Something told me this wasn’t a utility sink but I had no idea what it was for, the same feeling I get every time I’m confronted with a salad bar.

I went back out to the bar and asked my cousin-in-law Basti what the weird sink was.

Das Speibecken?” he asked, as if that would settle it. As if hearing that word would clear up the confusion.

“Yes,” I said. “What’s it for?”

Because ‘Speibecken’ sounded like German for “Weird sink” but I still didn’t know what it was.

Speibecken

Basti started to laugh and announced to the bar what a funny foreigner I was – I’d never heard of a Speibecken! The bar (one other drinker and a bartender) laughed with him.

We all had a good laugh.

I still had no idea what a Speibecken was.

“It’s for when you drink too much and you have to puke,” he announced, as if every bar in the world had a Speibecken. The entire bar looked at me with great sympathy, wondering with their eyes if this was the first bar I’d ever been in.

This must happen to every ex-pat every now and then – you stumble into something the natives think is part of the human condition but isn’t. It’s that weird moment where Germany doesn’t know it’s doing something strange and you have to be the one to break the bad news.

“Puke?” I wondered.

With that, Basti leaped off his stool and he, I, and the other drinker headed into the bathroom for a round of simulated puking. I don’t want to say that Basti seemed to have experience, but he seemed to have experience.

Das Speibecken

I took a picture and showed it around the office on Monday.

“Oh yeah,” my German co-worker said. “They’re also called a Pabst (Pope) and when you use it you’re papsten (poping).” Which is taking the colloquial saying, ‚Praying to the porcelain god‘, to the next level.

My co-worker said Speibecken are especially popular in German fraternity houses, something Wikipedia backs up. As a journalist, I’m skeptical of Wikipedia but I’m not sure who to call to double-check the info on a puke sink.

As it turns out, my German wife is more of a puke sink expert than I would have thought. “You have to mention how there’s standards that call for a specific diameter of drain to accommodate the half-digested food,” she said as I wrote this blog. “That’s important.”

Important to who?

She didn’t know much about the terminology.

The word Speibecken actually means ‘spittoon’ and is also used for that little sink at the dentist’s you spit into – or in the saloon, presumably.

And the term Pabst apparently has less to do with that grown man in the Vatican who wears pajamas all day than the Latin for puking – because we all know the Romans invented leisure puking.

The Germans just seem to have perfected it.

These German teen Fotolovestories are so … German

For decades, German teenagers have been getting advice on all things love and — yes — sex from a colorful magazine known as Bravo. Think Tiger Beat but with more overt sex. Europe, you know. And some of that advice has come from a special comic known as the Fotolovestory, examples of which orbit around the German web, sparking equal parts sentimentality and ridicule. They are supposed to teach teens the pitfalls of adult life but feel more like fables written by my grandmother for my grandmother.

The stories broach the usual teen subjects of love, sex, drugs, over-aggressive boyfriends, racism and incest.

Yes, incest. Germans always have to go to 11.

The comics are in that saccharine German advertising style known best as Mentos, which might even be an Instagram filter now. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can check out a Mentos commercial here or the Foo Fighter’s brilliant take below the fold.

It’s time the English-speaking world enjoys these gems too. Maybe you can learn something about sex … or incest (more can be found auf Deutsch at this Facebook page):

The Foo Mentos

 

I was stunned at German math

When my kids finally started going to school in Berlin, I learned something I had always suspected: Germans can do witchcraft. They are experts in the black arts and can summon the spirits any time numbers are involved. When I sat down to help my kids with their math homework, my world changed. Inexorably. Forever.

It was so earth-shattering that I can’t even put it into words. So I made a video.

How to make Spaghettieis (Spaghetti Ice Cream)

This weekend I was trying to think of the things I love about Germany in the summertime. I mean, beyond getting all of May off because of a succession of legal holidays based on some guy known as Jesus. And then getting all of August off because that’s what Europe does.

The answer: Ice cream. In America, ice cream is all about quantity. One scoop is a meal and two will feed a family of four for a week. And it costs accordingly.

But in Germany, you have Eisdielen (ice cream stores) where you get a single Kugel for (scoop) for about $1 and it’s enough ice cream to enjoy but not make you think you have to go to confession (even if you’re not Catholic). Germans only get two scoops on special occasions, like getting married or winning a Nobel Prize.

But they also have Eiscafes (ice cream cafes), which are like every other German cafe with coffee and cakes but also one of the most important publications of a German’s childhood: The Eiskarte (ice cream menu). The Eiskarte is full of frozen creations that involve several scoops of ice and cream and about anything else you can add to ice cream.

The Eiskarte is so creative, it’s subdivided into categories such as „tropical“, „alcoholic“ and „brittle“ with half a dozen items in each. But I’ve never been interested in any of those. Any time I’m confronted with an unfamiliar Eiskarte I quickly scan it until I find one of Germany’s most fantastical inventions: Spaghettieis (spaghetti ice cream).

And then I order it.

So this weekend, we went to the grocery store and got all the ingredients and, for the first time ever, made Spaghettieis.

And filmed it. And you can watch it (above).

Enjoy (we did).

 

 

Die Sendung mit der Maus

The death of German TV show star Peter Lustig this month got me thinking about German kids’ programming. Lustig’s show, Löwenzahn (Dandelion), was based around Peter’s character, an old man, living alone in a wagon without a bathroom. He seemed pretty clean for a guy who could never brush his teeth or go number two.

The show might have once explained how it worked. It’s Germany. They happily talk about things like that.

Die Sendung mit der Maus
Photo thanks Christliches Medienmagazin pro via Creative Commons

But Löwenzahn is Germany’s second-best kids show (there’s a new, younger guy living and not pooping in the wagon these days). Well, to me second-best but I only ever watched these shows as an adult. The best one is a show that actually has no name, just a description, which always leads to a who’s-on-first discussion in my head.

“What are you kids watching?”

“The show with the mouse.”

“Oh, Disney or Tom and Jerry?”

“No, the show with the mouse.”

“Disney or Tom and Jerry?”

“NO! THE SHOW WITH THE MOUSE!”

It’s true: Germany’s best kids show is called Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Show with the Mouse). I guess the producers were too busy making great TV to come up with a title. The show is exactly as old as my wife and has never changed, like Ron Swanson.

Die Sendung mit der Maus

The show is essentially about how things get made, like jeans, tea bags or nuclear reactors. You know, everyday items. It’s explained in several segments that are divided up so said mouse – an orange cartoon rodent – can appear between segments to do something goofy related to the day’s topic. He’s often joined by a hapless blue elephant.

Which brings up the quandary of why it’s not called the show with the mouse and the elephant.

It’s because the elephant has a crappy agent, that’s why. I would fire that agent if he were my agent

That simple formula has spawned a TV show that’s been on for over four decades. It’s great because you learn something and then, after learning it, you get to take a little pause and think about it while a blue elephant accidentally blows himself up or a mouse tries on a pair of jeans. Really!

Check it out! The Show with the Mouse in English!

It’s on every Sunday morning and maybe explains why religion and God are on their way out in Germany: Everyone is too busy watching the show with a description for a title rather than trying to figure out how Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God are all one god. Maybe the show with the mouse should tackle that one. I’d be a little nervous about the related mouse animations though.

The most tension in the Sendung mit der Maus comes at the beginning when they give a synopsis of the coming episode in German and an unknown language. Children (and adults) throughout Germany start screaming languages at the screen like insults –“Finnish! Japanese! Schwarzenegger-ish!” – until the language is announced.

“I knew it was Greek. I just didn’t feel like saying anything,” dads across the country then say.

I don’t know if Peter Lustig’s Löwenzahn and Sendung mit der Maus ever met. But it would be great if one Maus episode would explain to me how an old guy lived alone in a trailer without a bathroom.

I’ve wondered that my entire adult life.

 

 

 

Magical Germany: German Breakfast

The English language actually has a word for German breakfast: Dinner.

Although that’s not entirely fair since most dinners have far less bread and meat than a German breakfast.

Unlike most other food cultures, Germans don’t crow so much about their breakfasts. Not like the Brits and their Full English or us Amis and our pancakes and bacon or even the French and their croissant. Italians? Italy doesn’t have breakfast: They just sip espresso and look good. It’s true, Italian’s wake up looking good. I know. I’ve been.

German breakfast
Photo thanks Kai Hendry via Creative Commons

But Germans don’t go on and on about their breakfasts mainly because they’re so busy trying to eat said breakfasts. The cornerstone of every German breakfast is the country’s true pride: Bread. I know you think it’s cars or beers but that’s just for show. Germans are mostly passionate about their flour, yeast and water all baked up into a hell for the gluten-averse.

German breakfasts are centered on a mini version of bread, the Brötchen (tiny loaf of bread). Brötchen come in various forms from boring white rolls to complex conflagrations of seeds, nuts, high-tech flours and tears from Nietzsche. Each Brötchen is cut in half, buttered and then belegt (covered) with anything you want but preferably an animal product and probably meat. Schinken, for example, a German ham. Or Leberwurst, which is predictably liverwurst.

German breakfast is what’s for breakfast

On a good day German Frühstück (breakfast) judges will also allow jam, Nutella, scrambled eggs and the occasional vegetable on a Brötchen. Some Germans even have a strange syrupy stuff called Goldsaft (Gold Juice, really!) on their breakfast tables, which is sugar beet syrup and is odorless and tasteless and not even sticky. It’s only on people’s tables because it’s called Gold Juice and who doesn’t want a little Gold Juice on their table?

Ne’er do wells, idlers and Bayern Munich fans, that’s who.

As if all of that isn’t enough, many Germans also include a soft-boiled egg to break their fast. They see it more as a way to cleanse the pallet, I think. Like an ovo-sorbet.

I’ve never been clear on what the suggested serving size is for a German breakfast but I’m usually full after two Brötchen halves (or one Brötchen for the math majors among us). But I generally eat two full Brötchen because, to quote Louis C.K., I don’t quit eating when I’m full. I quit eating when I hate myself.

Like a good German.

The first time any non-German encounters a Teutonic petit dejeuner, their reaction is always the same: How do Germans start the day like this and not end up looking … American? Heck, I still have that reaction every time I have a German breakfast. Because, if I eat German breakfasts too often, I end up looking American. Or, rather, more American. But I don’t know how they do it. I’ve shared living space with a German for 14 years and shired two half-Germans and still have no idea.

Frühstücksersatzverdauungsmagen

How they pull it off is a state secret more protected than the UFOs at Roswell or Heino’s eye color. The only way I can explain it is that Germans have an extra stomach. Like cows. They have a Frühstücksersatzverdauungsmagen (second German stomach) where the basic laws of nutrition, thermal dynamics and maybe even gravity are moot. The Frühstücksersatzverdauungsmagen digests breakfast foods in another dimension and encourages Germans to make cars, beer and horrible pop music while eliminating any and all calories.

There is no other answer. And Frühstücksersatzverdauungsmagen is a real word. Swear.

After writing all of that I’ve decided we’re having a German breakfast for dinner which Germans do too: It’s called Abendbrot (evening bread).

Because you can never have enough bread.

Magical Germany: Playgrounds

Germany has the best playgrounds.

They’re so good at it, they even have categories of Spielplatz (playground): Bauspielplatz (building playground), Naturspielplatz (natural playground), Wasserspielplatz (water playground) and the most promising sounding, the Abenteuerspielplatz (adventure playground). Linguistically you’d think children wouldn’t even need a roof over their heads – they could just hang around on the various types of Spielplätze depending on whim and weather.

We had no idea of the greatness of German playgrounds until we started travelling with our kids. In Bergen, Norway, the hotel staff emphatically recommended a playground around the corner that was probably pretty novel during industrialization when mass-produced iron was new. In central Illinois we ended up on a playground where rusty bolts protruded from rough concrete at the base of a ‘60s-vintage slide. The afternoon sun turned a metal UFO climbing gym into a giant frying pan for unmarinated three-year-olds. It hadn’t changed since I played on it as a kid.

spielplatz

In Berlin, our go-to playground carried a circus theme and expanded as our kids grew. That’s partly what’s so great about German playgrounds: Most are custom-built wooden jobs that incorporate slides, climbing walls, elevated rope walkways and tunnels with some theme: A circus, a jungle, the deeper meaning of Jungian dream interpretation in pre-Weimar Stuttgart. That kind of thing.

Our backup was the Kleinkindspielplatz at Kollwitzplatz. A Kleinkindspielplatz is a little kid playground that ultimately gets over-run by slightly bossy, slightly too big kids who seem impervious to reprimands from strange parents. Kind of like what happens to any bar when the New York Times includes it in any dispatch about coolness.

But the variety of German playgrounds is amazing. At a Bauspielplatz, you let kids loose in a Robinson Crusoe landscape with hammers, nails and used wood. “Build a pirate ship!” the playground calls to the children. “Make sure you have your health insurance cards!” it calls to the parents.

A Naturspielplatz is just a nice way of saying: Overgrown, muddy playground with a few good climbing trees. It’s a cop out really. A playground maintained by an aging alcoholic who loves children but is busy just getting out of bed in the morning. The motto of Naturspielplätze is a German saying popular with lazy parents (not that that’s a bad thing): Dreck reinigt den Magen (dirt cleans the stomach).

And an Abenteuerspielplatz is like a mix of a Naturspielplatz and a Bauspielplatz with about twice the broken bones. In short: Fantastic!

German playgrounds even have something for the parents: You can bring beer to most (but not all). As my kids grew my hobby quickly became knowing the nearest beer-serving convenience store for each playground. I should have sold guides.

German playgrounds almost make me want to have another kid.

Almost.

The Nutella pizza

After about 15 years in-country, I discovered yet another magical corner of Germany: The Nutella pizza. It happened after spontaneously hitting one of our favorite pizza joints in a Berlin neighborhood that might be Kreuzberg, Schöneberg or Tiergarten but is all parts great (I’m going to respect its privacy by just not checking).

“Ok,” I said to my fellow diners, who were comprised of a 9-year-old, a 10-year-old and my wife (age withheld). “Are we done? Can we go?”

My daughter picked up an errant Pizza Klub menu, stained by previous diners, and pointed at the thing she’d been waiting to point at the whole meal: Nutella pizza.

Nutella pizza
The actual Nutella pizza.

Angels began singing. Cloudy skies parted and a non-denominational spiritual of indeterminate sex spoke, making it clear we were ordering the Nutella pizza.

People seem to always give credit for Nutella to the country in which they first encounter it. Like a moustachioed turn-of-the-century hipster sampling Frites in Paris and making an incorrect assumption. I could google “Nutella history” and reword Ferrerro (Nutella’s owner) PR copy or copy and paste a Wikipedia entry but this post isn’t about Nutella’s origin story, it’s about my Nutella origin story. (And it’s 2016, you can do the googling yourself).

My first Nutella

I first encountered Nutella on my first-ever morning in Germany, back when the Kaisers still roamed the earth and Weimar was a town, not a historical period. After my guest parents taught me how to slice open a Brötchen and smear on Nutella (with butter, a practice I no longer follow), I figured they were allowing me a rare German treat because they were new guest parents and it was my first morning in Germany.

I mean, who has chocolate for breakfast? Unless it’s in a donut, of course.

But it wasn’t a special treat. I quickly came to realize that Nutella is a staple of the German diet behind Kartoffeln, Wurst and Weltschmerz. It’s always on the breakfast table, usually on a tray next to sugar beet syrup (Zuckerrübensyrup) and a jar of jelly last used during the Kohl administration.

I’m grateful to the Gehrings of Oldenburg for this introduction.

However, Nutella was one of the first child-rearing fights between my wife and I: She wanted to allow the children to have it while they were still in the womb but I argued it might give them too much of a taste for chocolate.

“Peanut butter, on the other hand,” I said.

Thanks, Pizza Klub

“It’s no different!” she claimed.

We all know she was wrong.

But by introducing them to Nutella so early, my daughter (and Pizza Klub) introduced me to the Nutella pizza.

So somehow my wife was right.

 

Magical Germany: Tischmülleimer

The first time I saw one on a breakfast table at a hotel in Nuremberg, I thought it was hiding some breakfast delight. Extra butter. Milk. Tea, maybe. But it had an odd size and it was shaped like a tiny trash can.

Because it was a tiny trash can.

Tischmülleimer
Pic Jochen Wegner under Creative Commons

Yes, in Germany there are tiny trash cans on breakfast tables at bed & breakfasts (and your grandmother’s).

Guys! Tiny trash cans!

“They’re totally old fashioned,” my German wife told me as I sat down to write this. “Nobody uses them any more.”

Au contraire mon Frau.

She hasn’t googled Tischmülleimer (table trash can) recently. Or checked on amazon.de for Tischabfalleimer (table trash can). Or gone to the housewares section in any department store and looked for Tischabfallbehälter (table trash can).

Because Germany still has trash cans on many of its tables. Lots of its tables.

Tischmülleimer = Ordnung

How obsessed with Ordnung (table trash can … actually, order) do you have to be to have tiny trash cans on your breakfast table? So obsessed that you put tiny trash cans on your breakfast table. So obsessed that you have to take out the trash before you’ve even finished your Rühreier mit Speck (table trash … oh never mind, it’s scrambled eggs with bacon).

Teen-aged me thought the Germans were genius for their Tischmülleimer. You could spread all sorts of stuff on your bread and then throw all the detritus away sofort! It allowed you to focus on your German breakfast which, as we all know, requires full concentration.

Tischmülleimer make sense when you think of all the things the not-always-environmentally-conscious Germans serve in tiny plastic packages. Jelly. Honey. Butter. Cream cheese. Pumpernickel. Schmelzkäse (processed cheese). Angst. And Nutella. That can leave a table looking pretty unordentlich. The-day-after-New-Years disorderly. Plus: That tiny trash can is just the thing for your soft boiled egg shells (though you’ll still end up with some between your teeth).

Even better: The wait staff (or your grandmother) doesn’t have to come through and clean up your trash while you’re quoting Goethe and ladling quark (this weird cheese/yoghurt stuff) into your piehole. You can just throw it away!

When I was in high school in America, I imagined being an adult meant having all the CDs of my favorite bands. As an exchange student in Germany, I imagined being an adult as being able to have a Tischmülleimer at every table.

Now I’m an adult and I don’t have either.

And I never quote Goethe.