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.

 

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.

 

My secret to learning German: Asterix and Obelix

When I was an exchange student sometime in the past century in Germany, I discovered a secret to learning German. I mean, besides the crushing loneliness and hours of boredom.

Before I arrived I had taken two years of middle school German (shout out to my fellow malcontents in Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo Middle School) and one year and some change of high school German. In modern lingo, this equates to about one Youtube beginning German course or an hour on Duolingo.

My German wasn’t great.

learning German secret

After landing in-country, I discovered that, when actual Germans spoke German, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. It was a lot different than just some voice in cheap headphones in Smoky Hill High School’s language lab. And when I could tell the words apart, I would write down the words I didn’t understand. Often they were names. Silke, Thilo, Sebastian and Thörsten were all new to me.

I actually looked them up in a dictionary. Really.

But then, in a cupboard in the room I was staying in, I found a stack of comics. “Asterix und Obelix” was scrawled across the front. When I began reading, I discovered the comics were slightly goofy but somehow funny and, anyway, I had to bridge the time between dinner and falling asleep somehow.

I know all the comic nerds out there are freaking out about how Asterix and Obelix comics aren’t German. I know, Besserwisser (know-it-alls). But at the time, I didn’t need to learn French and they were all in German. And, as a foreigner, you often mistakenly see the country you’re currently in as an item’s country-of-origin. I made the same mistake with Nutella and the world does it with that Adolf guy.

But every night for a month or so, I cranked up the Simple Minds on my Walkman and got to work. The formula made the learning easy: The Romans were bad, the Gauls good. And Asterix was fat, lovable and didn’t know his own strength. Obelix was the brains. Or was it Asterix that was fat and Obelix was the brain?

It didn’t really matter.

Learning German

The comics were perfect because they presented me simple German sentences in a childish context. Too much of the German being thrown at me at the time was too high-brow. Reading a newspaper didn’t help because I barely knew who Kohl was let alone Genscher, Honecker or Herbert Grönemeyer. And books weren’t any better. It just confused me.

Asterix and Obelix was just the ticket.

Plus they gave me a cultural hook for starting conversations with Germans.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix sind schon geil (Yes, Asterix and Obelix are great),” Mark Bonitz said to me on the smoker’s patio, helping me learn German slang. “Probier es mal damit (Try this),” he said, handing me a thick Donald Duck comic. Though I could never get into the Donald Ducks.

Thilo in Leistungskurs Chemie (Advanced Chemistry) was a little different.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix. Habe ich auch gelesen (I read Asterix and Obelix too),” he said. “… in der dritten Klasse (… in third grade).”

I learned a valuable lesson from Thilo that day too. That it was better to spend time on the smoker’s patio even though I didn’t smoke.

 

 

 

 

Magic Germany: Rundlauf Tischtennis

Something amazing happened my first day of school in Germany at Gymnasium (German high school). During a break, kids from the adjoining elementary school spilled out into the playground and mobbed a monotone cement ping pong table. They began hopping and yelling excitedly. As I moved closer and saw what they were doing, I felt like my entire life had been a lie.

Rundlauf Tischtennis
Pic thanks Oranjejon via Creative Commons

On that day I realized America had been making a grave mistake. Ping pong tables were not something to be given at Christmas and repurposed as craft tables by Easter. They were actually useful recreational gear that could entertain more than four for far longer than just a few weeks of vacation. In Germany I discovered ping pong tables – excuse me, table tennis tables – had a place in society.

I was enthralled.

The kids weren’t playing monotonous rounds of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can, they were playing round-the-table (I guess?) table tennis. A player hits the ball across the net and then steps to their side. The player at the other end volleys and then steps to the right or left only to cycle around to another turn on the opposing side. The game continues until a player flubs a hit – and then they’re out. Players are eliminated until only the final two remain. And once a champion is crowned, they are quickly forgotten as the next round starts without a word.

Rundlauf. Tischtennis.

Noise. Anticipation. Defeat. It felt very Thunderdomey. Or at least Dodgebally. And I couldn’t give it a shot because I was too old (or so I thought).

In my childhood, my friend Sean was the only one with a table that was actually used, and that was only because we cajoled him into games in the hopes of getting a glimpse or even a few words with his older sister Kate. Tables sat ignored and unused alongside PlayStations and Gameboys. And that day at Gymnasium I mourned the hours we wasted playing Combat on Atari 2600s when we could have been facing off in Rundlauf Tischtennis. And the occasional round of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can.

So much youth wasted!

In turn-of-the-century Berlin, I finally got my chance to play at Ping Pong Country events and eventually Dr. Pong (though by then I had kids). And now there are apparently similar ping pong bars in the U.S. But I can’t help but feel my childhood was incomplete.

Rundlauf Tischtennis, you complete me.

Things I Found Magical About Germany: Wagenstandsanzeiger

In these days of Skype-fueled long-distance relationships and low-cost airlines, the Wagenstandsanzeiger, or train car location sign (I know, German, right?) may not seem like such a magical beast but when I was a teenager it seemed as foreign as a bank that doesn’t need to be bailed out. It’s a sign on every German train platform that knows your train intimately and will tell you exactly where on your platform the train will stop – restrooms and all.

tumblr_inline_nzkq3sFpWx1sqqghr_500%255B1%255D[1]I came from a country where train delays weren’t measured in minutes or even hours but rather days. In my childhood, American passenger trains were never delayed by things like inclement weather or suicidal twenty-somethings. They seemed to suffer from depression, only getting up the nerve to traverse the country after a couple of stiff whiskeys and a stern talking to by the Minister of Transportation.

“Mother,” my mother would tell her mother through a plastic, yellow phone with a rotary dial, “The train was supposed to leave Tuesday but they say now it may be Thursday. We’re hoping to get there before we have to start back.” My grandmother never believed my mother. But after we arrived days late, my grandmother would complain about how late the train always was.

“I told you,” my mother would say. She never got along with her mother and, just to keep up the family tradition, I never got along with my mother either. My mother wasn’t blessed with any daughters so they drafted me for the role.

It was amidst this climate that I went to Germany as an exchange student and found the wondrous unicorn known as the Wagenstandsanzeiger. “You mean, they not only know which trains are going to show up at what time, but they even know which car will be where?” I thought my guest mother had become a wizard. How could they know?

My guest mother was just as surprised at my surprise: “Of course there’s a Wagenstandsanzeiger and of course it’s right!” She looked at me as though my skin had turned purple and I’d grown antlers.

And from that day forward I never rode another train without first checking the Wagenstandsanzeiger. It’s a tradition I want to pass to my children. Because I’m not their mother so they can’t not get along with me.

Things I Found Magical About Germany: VW Golf Combi

This only makes sense in the context of my childhood.

The VW Golf was introduced into the U.S. in 1975 as the Rabbit. It looked like the rejected offspring of a stalwart Volvo mother and a dull Honda father. Read: Small and boxy. It was a fuel-efficient, compact car for people who didn’t want to go Japanese. These people were the auto-buying version of punks. Or at least vegans. The Rabbit was supposedly a success but the only people who drove it in pre-cable TV Littleton, Colorado were college professors and … college professors. After cable TV, Depeche Mode and Robin Leach, yuppies who couldn’t afford BMWs also opted for the convertible version. At least it was German.

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But no one ever dreamed of a Rabbit station wagon. Why would you? College professors never drove station wagons and if you needed that much room you’d opt for a real one anyway – one that could hold everything needed for a week-long trip to grandma’s or house a small New Guinean tribe. Besides, about then Lee Iacocca invented the mini-van, saving Chrysler and making station wagons pointless.

Then I went to Germany as an exchange student and discovered someone had taken a compact car and made it into a station wagon. They’d taken a car with not very much room and added not very much room more. You could maybe fit a medium-sized wiener dog in the back or go to the bowling alley with your wife and actually take both balls (jokes on me, Germans don’t bowl). The VW Rabbit station wagon – or Golf Combi, as the Krauts say – seemed like a car that never needed to be invented and yet there it was. In fact, in Wegberg, Germany, there a lot of them were. Magic.

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The Golf Combi had such a hold on me that it was one of the first things I looked for on the VW Internet site, way back in like 1994. Maybe ’95. And I even almost bought one after the birth of my first child – I wanted us to be surrounded by magic. But I went for its mother instead – a 1996 Volvo 850.

The Volvo’s rotting in a field now. Probably home to several generations of rabbit.