Why this bi-national couple (DE/US) moved to the U.S.

There’s a German saying about moving that might explain why Germans don’t move very often: Drei Mal umgezogen is einmal abgebrannt, or moving three times is like losing everything in a housefire.

The comment focuses on the costs of a move but not the benefits – a bigger house, a better view or a different country. But fair enough, moving is expensive.

I bring up the saying because we are hours away from our third move – one housefire – in about six years. Two of those trans-Atlantic. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why we’ve lived where we did – and where we will.

Our Portland zu Hause

When my (German) wife and I got married, living abroad was always going to be part of life for one of us. At the time, we were living in Berlin so it was me that was living abroad but I felt like there was an unspoken agreement that someday it would be her. Although, really it was spoken because any time I’d say something about moving to the U.S. she would say: “It’s only fair. You’ve lived in Germany all this time.” Except she’d say it in German.

I come from a small-but-close family so we flew to the U.S. once a year to visit everyone and keep the kids in the loop. Grandma. Various uncles and aunts. My parents. And we always included a side visit to check out other American cities for possible habitation, though we always found reasons not to move.

NYC and San Fran – too expensive. Minneapolis? Too cold in the winter and muggy (and buggy) in the summer. Chicago? See Minneapolis. The triangle in North Carolina? We’re not really southerners and it felt remote-ish.

One year, when the kids were daycare age, we planned a side trip to Seattle and I was confident we’d end up moving there. I even started looking at neighborhoods and schools. The Pacific Northwest had always had a draw – I grew up enthralled by the idea of Yetis and wondering at the mystery of D.B. Cooper.

Moving to the U.S.

But we weren’t wowed by Seattle. I’m still not. However, we had planned a side trip for our side trip – to Portland, Oregon, for the simple reason that most of the bands we had been listening to were from there – Dandy Warhols, Helio Sequence, the Shins. I thought it would be the only time in my life I’d see Portland but after a day or two it became the most likely candidate for a move.

In fact, we started planning a move but decided against it in the end. I would have had to get a job with just one or two weeks’ vacation per year and we’d have to pay for daycare – thousands a month. In Berlin, I already had a good, flexible gig and daycare would be like $50 a month for food or something. Basically free.

That put moving to the U.S. on ice for about a decade.

Then, two years ago, with my mid-life crisis picking up speed and my wife tiring of the shop she’d co-founded and been running for five years, we started thinking about America again. The kids were in middle school and we figured it was really our last chance before their roots grew too deep.

So she sold the shop and I convinced my then-employer to let me work from Portland.

“We’re trying two years and then I’m moving back to Berlin to die,” I told everyone, and then expanded on the idea. “If we lose a kid in a school shooting, we’ll be back after six months. If it’s otherwise awful, a year. If it goes as planned, we’ll be back in two. If it’s great, this is good-bye.”

People always ask why we moved back to the U.S., which surprises me. For all its blemishes, the U.S. is still where I grew up and a place I love. I wanted to show my kids the country and let their English bloom (it exploded, I’d say). I also wanted to see what it felt like being an adult in the U.S. Really! I can’t explain it but I just wanted to be one of those lacrosse fathers I see in movies, and watch how my German wife reacted to her all-women’s book club. American parents, of a sort.

Like most things in life, the past two years in Portland didn’t always go as planned. The kids thrived in their American school. We met some fantastic, inspiring people. But the wife and I have been underwhelmed by our career opportunities.

So we’re moving back. To die (hopefully in 30 or 40 years).

It’s the dreaded third move but there’s another German saying I like: Alle gute Dinge sind drei. It’s a saying we have too: The third time’s a charm.

Even if it feels like a housefire.

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 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.

This is how you beat the Zollamt

Ah, Christmastime in Germany. Glühwein. Adventkalendars. And at least one trip to the Zollamt (customs office) to retrieve seized packages. I always enjoy the Zollamt because of a luxury unique to Germany: The ability to have heated arguments with armed government officials without ending up in jail.

Or the hospital.

The argument-with-a-cop thing is something I discovered after living in Berlin for a year when a German friend shouted his way out of a ticket from a tubby Polizist. It was like the cop was even thankful to have a discussion.

Every visit to the Zollamt starts with a letter saying they’ve seized a package and suspect the contents may exceed the €45 limit on gifts sent from abroad. A bit rude and presumptuous, really. They then invite you to stop by for a chat to retrieve your package.

Zollamt Berlin
This is an old picture of the place but it still looks like this.

The Zollamt in Berlin is a mid-sized warehouse sandwiched into a No Man’s Land between a sketchy corner of Schöneberg and the northern tip of Friedenau, a borough no one’s ever heard of. The Hauptadt’s Bielefeld, if you will. It’s filled with vanilla customs officials whose dream in life is to catch a 21-year-old student trying to sneak a cut-rate iPhone into the country via Deutsche Post without paying sales tax or duties.

You’d think a customs officer would want to break up an international poaching ring or discover 1,200 tons of cocaine hidden in a teal teddy bear but you’d be wrong. They want to pop Kai from Heidelberg with his hands in the customs cookie jar.

And they suspect everyone called to their place of work of being Kai from Heidelberg.

On my last visit there, I was paired with a dour customs officer convinced she was facing her daily Kai. I knew I was anything but. Every year, German customs seizes packages filled with gifts from my stepmother for my kids. And every year I leave smiling without paying a dime because I know something the Zollamt is incapable of learning: My stepmother knows international law in deep detail. Not because she wants to exploit it, but because she’s so fearful of breaking it.

Every one of those packages contains less than €45 worth of gifts, which is also a great reason to limit your spending on your grandkids.

The customs official met me as I entered the rear warehouse and pushed my stepmother’s package at me across the steel counter.

“What’s in here?” She asked.

“Gifts for my kids from my parents.” I always like to throw the kid thing in there. I like to hint that they’re harming the bond between child and grandparent. That they’re trying to take something from my children. Like they’d even take candy from a baby. Because they would, actually, if it wasn’t declared and exceeded €45.

“We’ll see about that,” she said, going on the offensive. “Please open it.”

At this point they hand you the box and an industrial box cutter, which seems odd. Customs officials are armed, presumably because dangerous people end up there. And the first thing they do is hand you a weapon.

And I always want to say: “You’re the one so eager to see what’s in it – you open it.” But there’s probably some goofy legal reason they’re not allowed to even though they’ve probably x-rayed it, which is little different.

Ok, someday I’ll say it. Actually, no I won’t.

I opened the box and pulled out the gifts. My stepmother no longer wraps them because every one of her packages gets seized. Every. Single. One. I get to wrap them.

The customs official quickly grabbed a paint-by-numbers set in a futuristic packaging. You know, the kind of thing your mother might buy at Safeway to shut you up while she tries to pick out a cantaloupe.

“A-ha!,“ the customs officer said, “What do we have here? Electronics?”

“It’s a gift for my daughter. Paints, not electronics,” I offered. The kid thing again. I’m ruthless.

“I’m going to look it up,” she said accusingly. She clearly thought my stepmother and I were locked in a conspiracy to smuggle paint-by-numbers sets. She grabbed the toy and headed to her desk. This woman would not only take candy from a baby, she’d make the baby unwrap it first.

This is what the Zollamt – the arm of the German government tasked with protecting Europe’s most populous country from nefarious and illegal shipments – does to determine the price of presents: Checks Amazon. Really. They do it so much Amazon should charge a commission.

I watched with joy as the woman discovered the non-value of the toy and returned to the counter.

Next, she grabbed a winter coat which, granted, could push the value of the shipment above the limit. That is, had the package been sent by anyone but my stepmother.

“What do we have here?” she said, accusingly again.

“A jacket for my son,” I said. Who would be so cruel as to deny a growing boy a jacket during a Berlin winter? This woman, that’s who.

She inspected the coat and smiled. Villains always smile.

“There’s no price tag on here! I think we all know why there’s no price tag!”

She thought she had her Kai. She grabbed the coat and moved back to her desk for a little Amazoning.

“You’re right,” I said. “We do know why there’s no price tag – or have you never received a present?”

This sounds rhetorical but at that point it seemed a possibility.

“Of course I have,” she mumbled. I knew I was nearing victory.

Her colleague must have sensed her impending defeat. He stepped in to help: “Why don’t you go wait in the waiting room and we’ll check the value of the shipment? We’ll call you when we’re ready,” he said.

I only had to wait a few minutes. When I was called back into the warehouse the first customs official had disappeared and the remaining officers were seated at their desks. The box had been repacked and was deserted on the counter.

“You guys done with your Internet research? Can I go?” I was probably smiling.

“Yes,” the officer said. He didn’t even look at me.

“Merry Christmas,” I said as I left.

Silence.

What’s the value of triumphing over German bureaucrats (with guns!)? It’s just an extra gift my stepmother throws in every Christmas.

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.

 

 

 

There’s (Another) American Series Starring Berlin

I didn’t even know there was a broadcaster (channel? station?) called EPiX and, had I known, I probably would have thought: If you call yourself EPiX with a little „i“ and an “X”, you are probably anything but epic. Do people even say “epic” anymore? Hasn’t it been replaced with “legit” or an emoji of a poop unicorn? Or an emoji of poop and unicorns? I’m so old.

Anyway, turns out this new channel/station/broadcaster has made this new series called Berlin Station about – wait for it – American spies in Berlin. The creators were really going out on a limb on this one. Really taking a risk with the concept.

But anyway my little Roku pitched me this series one Portland night during a deep bout of homesickness and both my German wife and I thought: Let’s watch this teaser episode and see how much it sucks while seeing a bit of Berlin. Sentimental Schadenfreude, if you will.

Berlin series
This is an actual publicity photo from Berlin Station. It’s just Berlin. They get Berlin. And they’re taking the M2.

And we were surprised when it didn’t suck. Well not so bad as naming your channel/station/broadcaster “EPiX”. It was surprisingly intriguing, even though it treads across a carpet more worn than the rejection line at Berghain.

What Berlin Station does really well is show Berlin. Like all the time. I watched Homeland in Berlin and it could have been filmed anywhere with a few establishing shots below the Fernsehturm or on Oberbaumbrücke. The point of Homeland in Berlin – beyond capitalizing on the Hauptstadt hype and covering the tired ground of a spook past – seemed to be seeing if Carrie could look even more anguished in a country known for its anguish.

Berlin was an afterthought to Claire Dane’s furrowed brow.

Another real Berlin series

But Berlin Station seems to be filmed by people who know and love Germany’s biggest city, rather than creative types on a stopover from London or Hollywood. As someone who misses his Wahlheimat (adopted home), Berlin Station does an amazing job of showing diverse corners of the city.

It also lets its characters speak German. Like, whenever there would be an interaction in German in Berlin, that’s the language the characters speak. However, this also underlines the film as a work of fiction since the American dude played by Richard Armitage speaks almost fluent German. An American speaking German! Nice joke! But bilingual programming is a refreshing upgrade.

Of course they go out to the tattered radar domes of Teufelsberg but they also spend an amazing amount of time on Kotti – including a chase scene through those elaborate balconies and staircases above and around Kaisers, Monarch, Paloma and West Germany. You know, the ones you’ve always sworn you would explore more but never did out of fear for your personal safety?

We liked the teaser episode so much we watched the second one. The season debuts Oct. 16 — wherever you can get EPiX.

“It’s like sightseeing,” my wife said. „If you want Berlin, here’s your series. If you want story, not so much.“

But the creators’ knowledge of the bear city goes even further: In one scene especially poignant for Wahlberliner (voluntary Berliners), a spy operative played by Rhys Ifans notes that the avocados at the Turkish grocer aren’t even ripe.

It’s like the producers of Berlin Station know our pain. They are us. And they’ve given up on good guacamole too.

There’s plenty of overacting and goofy plot turns and a bit too much time spent in the sort of slick, high-priced nightclubs Berlin doesn’t have, but the thing has a great feel – and (did I mention?) a lot of Berlin. Though lacking depth, its texture is reminiscent of A Most Wanted Man – one of my most favorite Berlin films next to the 1985 Anthony Edwards spy epic, Gotcha!.

I’m going to have to subscribe to EPiX long enough to watch the other eight episodes.

And then epically cancel my subscription.

Look Who’s Back: Writing jokes for Hitler

I just finished reading Er is wieder da. For those not in the know, Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) is a fictional take on Hitler coming back to life in central Berlin in 2011.

It’s humorous fiction. Really.

And for those doubly not in the know, they made it into a movie in 2014. And that movie will debut on Netflix in non-German-speaking parts of the world on April 9.

Look Who's Back/Er ist wieder da
Photo thanks Constantin Film Verleih GmbH.

And for those triply not in the know – I’m in the movie. So, like, my Netflix debut is Friday.

Back in 2014 I got a call from an acquaintance in the movie business. He asked if I had any interest in playing comedy coach for a mysterious someone. My answer was: Not really. I’m only skilled at two things and neither of them is comedy coach.

He then asked if I, instead, had any interest in writing jokes for the mysterious someone.

„Maybe,“ I said.

„With pay.“

„When should I be there?“

A couple days later – a Wednesday, I believe – I found myself sitting with comedy friends on the set of an unrelated TV show in a studio in southeastern Berlin. Near that airport that never opens.

The acquaintance who invited me introduced to us to someone who claimed to be a director.

The director reminded me of Animal from The Muppet Show. At the very least, they had the same taste in fashion.

He asked us if we knew about the book. He said he was making the film.

“We’re not supposed to tell you,” he said, “but it seems to work better when you know.”

We were going to be writing jokes for Hitler, he said.

I wondered if I was living in a Mel Brooks play. I debated singing Springtime for Hitler.

But soon Christoph Maria Herbst showed up. If you’re quadruply not in the know, Christoph Maria Herbst is a big-time German comedy actor who actually played the lead in the German version of The Office (called Stromberg, for those keeping score at home). Just think of some middle-aged comedic actor you’re familiar with.

Are you thinking of that actor?

Good. Christoph Maria Herbst isn’t that famous. Because Germany.

But you get what I mean: it was cool to see him.

He was in character. He said he had a guy with him who either was or was not Hitler but either way would be getting a TV show and we should write jokes for that TV show. Nothing was sacred he said and, during a group brainstorm, made clear the direction he wanted us to go with our humor.

It’s a direction everyone goes, just not in front of cameras. But if cameras, then probably for a lot more than they were paying us.

I was starting to get nervous.

I wasn’t sure the jokes that were forming in my head were OK.

When it comes to borderline culture questions in Germany, I turn to a select collection of Teutonic friends. They have similar political and humanistic leanings as I and I trust them to answer my questions in sticky German situations.

Like if it’s OK to participate when someone asks you to write jokes for Hitler.

One of those friends was sitting next to me on that set – a comedian and filmmaker named Georg – so I figured it was OK.

But it was more than just the day’s task that was making me nervous.

The entire time two beefy security guards had been circling the set, looking unhappy.

Were they part of the scenery? Or had the production company hired them just in case some lefty activists decided to drop in on Hitler?

They were either perfectly cast and were playing their part very well or were beefy security guards with questionable political beliefs.

I couldn’t stop sweating.

Christoph Maria Herbst (you couldn’t not write all three of his names every time either) had us each write five jokes and then he read them aloud. I don’t remember any of the ones I wrote. He then picked his favorites and left to get the man who was either Hitler or a man pretending to be Hitler.

In the book, he’s Hitler. That day on set, he was actor Oliver Masucci. But I still tried to imagine what it would be like if Masucci really were Hitler.

My imagination apparently isn’t good enough. Because I couldn’t.

Look who’s back: And he was

Hitler asked for our advice on his humor and was not amused when I suggested he go for self-deprecation. The Führer making fun of himself would be hilarious, I assured him.

He assured me that wouldn’t happen. Even though he wasn’t really Hitler he was still very menacing, like if Vladimir Putin was standing right there but without the ability to cause you to have a car accident on the way home.

About this time Georg started freaking out. He started telling everyone how he would have no part of this. That it was unfair to Germany’s past (or something like that).

I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. I decided that if Georg stormed out, I would storm out too, like two Clark Gables in Gone with the Wind. Or maybe Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

To hell with the money. I had principles (though I would be a bit disappointed because I’m pretty sure no one ever remotely as famous as Hitler would ever ask me to write jokes for them again).

But Georg stayed and so did I.

Animal the director showed up a few more times and I eventually got escorted off by the security guards for offending Der Führer with my self-deprecation suggestion.

This was a bit unnerving.

They say if you’re ever kidnapped you should make yourself more human to the kidnappers by telling them about your personal life. After finding myself behind the set alone with the hulking, clearly-miffed security guards, I figured humanizing myself might prevent any beatings they were contemplating.

“So, uh, are you guys actors or security guards?” I inquired.

Das hier ist alles scheisse,” the blonder of the two barked back (“This is all bullshit.”) I considered checking to see if my health insurance card was in my wallet.

I still have no idea what he meant.

Dude, Georg

Afterward, standing in the sun, I asked Georg if we were ethically OK or if the whole thing went too far.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

“In there. You were freaking out.”

“That? I knew what was going down all along.”

“Holy shit! I thought you were totally against it! I was ready to leave with you!”

“Yeah,” he said, pulling on his e-cigarette. “It’s called acting.”

Months later, after my wife saw the film, I told her what I just told you.

“They’re really good,” she said. “You can totally see that that’s what you’re thinking. But your joke is one of the best in that section.”

I can’t wait to see it on Friday.

I hope my wife is right.

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.”

 

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.

Building Bowie in Berlin

Bowie, it always seemed to me, was more important to Berlin than Berlin to Bowie. But that’s what happens when you create greatness: It takes on a meaning independent of its creator. Like how a Hasselhoff song brought down the Wall. Or how someday, someone will finally open the Berlin airport.

But Bowie’s importance to Berlin should be honored in some way more than by just replaying his records (and replaying them and replaying them). Shortly after his death, everyone suggested renaming Hauptstrasse  where he lived in Schöneberg to David Bowie Strasse. RadioEins (Radio1) even had a street sign made.

A Bowie statue like this.
Pic: Michael Jackson and Bubbles from Jeff Koons (Versailles) via free images (license)

I’m against it. Hauptstrasse (and its extension Potsdamer) play a big role in my Berlin and they should keep their original names. I lived in Germany so long I’m afraid of change too.

And, anyway, the killjoys over at the Rote Rathaus (town hall) broke up that party: Streets can only be named after people who’ve been dead for half a decade. David’s only got a week. And since the city’s trying to give women their due, even if we could get a street named after him, he wouldn’t be high on the list.

But I have a different idea. Let’s honor David Bowie the way the city has honored tons of other Berlin promis: Let’s build a David Bowie statue. It could be at Hauptstr. 155 but it could also be north on Hauptstrasse at Kleistpark or next to the Schöneberg swimming pool in the adjacent park with a name I’m too lazy to look up.

Several years ago I was jogging around the Siegesäule (victory column) with a Danish friend and she asked me who all the statues represented.

“Dead generals,” I said. She was flabbergasted that Germany still celebrated the generals, partly because of Germany’s – you know – history and partly because the country had plenty of other people to celebrate.

Like David Bowie.

I muttered something about history and truth and Berlin’s history and truth and then wished she’d jog a little slower.

But it’s something that could be done without waiting five years, could be done through crowdfunding (I don’t need to hear another Berlin politician talk about finanzen) and would give all Stardustians (Bowenators? David Devouts?) a place to gather.

Anybody can get a street named after them in Berlin: Marlene Dietrich. Ben Gurion. Some guy named 17. Juni. But only generals seem to get statues. And hopefully David Bowie.