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Month: March 2016

Meet the Germans in the spring sun

It’s that time of year again. That time when small huddles of coated humanity start sprouting in the tiny slivers of sunshine that appear in front of cafes all over Germany. Like meerkats in a field or bread mold on far flung regions of forgotten, two-week-old Brötchen (bread roll).

When I first moved to Germany, I didn’t understand. I would meet friends in a café for a coffee and, after finally getting a bit warm, they would exclaim: “Let’s sit outside! There’s a table open in the sun!”

And I would cringe.

German spring

We would wrap our scarves scarf back around our necks, button up our coats and head out into the dying March light to sip quickly cooling coffee. My strategy was always to take big sips to get the last of the lukewarm coffee hiding from the cold in the middle of the mug.

“The sun feels so good,” someone would always say, smiling and gripping their warm coffee cups.

The heater inside felt good, I would think.

The people who force you to sit in the sun on an otherwise wintery day are the same people who, in college, would suggest we have class outside on the first warm days of spring. I was always outvoted and would schlepp everything outside only to discover the weather was so good that no one could concentrate and the test preparation would be forgotten.

And I’d have to study more at home. Just because the weather was good.

I blame my poor college grades on that person. Because we always accomplished more in the classroom. And had less grass and dead bugs in our textbooks.

But it’s not like I don’t understand the huddling in Germany. After several years in-country I do.

It’s because German cold is a special kind of cold. German cold – Deutsche Kälte – needs to be factored in when considering winter weather, like wind chill or whatever that thing is that people call a wet cold. German winters aren’t just cold, they’re German cold.

And when the German cold begins to admit defeat to – ok – German warmth, it’s best to embrace and complement that warmth lest it be scared away and café-goers accidentally usher in a new Ice Age (though, admittedly, when the new Ice Age does come, we’ll all be looking for that quirky squirrel hunting the acorn). When the warmth and the sun return in Germany, you have to offer support and encouragement. German warmth is a shy warmth.

So in the coming days, when you walk by one of those huddled masses of coffee sippers on the sidewalk, you just might see me there.


Speaking German: Mistakes were made

I speak pretty good German. Fluent but not native. People always assume it’s because my parents were German or at least my grandparents. But that’s not it. They’re not. Speaking German is my one talent. I can’t play an instrument or create great art but I can order pommes (french fries) like a native (rot-weiss*, for those keeping score). And I do so. Often.

But speaking German well has its disadvantages. When I was single and would meet people in bars, I had the impression they couldn’t figure out why a grown German man wouldn’t always know the right articles and sometimes needed an extra beat or two to find a simple word. They relaxed once I told them I was American but until then it seemed like they were trying to decide if I was a psychopath with homicidal tendencies. They kept their distance.

“That’s true,” a girlfriend told me once. “It’s a good thing I was really attracted to you because I couldn’t figure out why you were so strange in the beginning.” We met in a techno club. That might have been part of it.

Speaking German is hard.
Photo thanks Rente42.

There were other problems. At my first job in Berlin I would often get coffees for the whole office at Kaffee Einstein on Friedrischstrasse. I started to get the feeling the baristas got a kick out of my visits, but not in a good way. They always giggled after I placed my order. I finally had enough and stomped back to the office and announced with a flourish that I would no longer be getting coffee there.

“They just laugh at me,” I announced.

“What did you order?” my co-worker wondered.

“Zwei Cappucino, ein Americano und ‘ne Latte.“

I realized my mistake even before my co-workers collapsed on the floor in laughter. Three times a week I’d been asking the baristas at Kaffee Einstein for an erection (Die Latte – slang, erection; der Latte (Machiatto) – coffee). It all lay in the conjugation of the article.

There’s also a great German saying about some things in life being tough: Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen. It means, it takes effort for the squirrel to feed itself. You’re right. It does sound better in German.

Speaking German well

For years I said: Langsam nähert sich das Eichhörnchen (the squirrel is slowly approaching). Since I understood the message of the German saying, I thought the saying was referring to an animal show where the squirrel was carefully approaching a nut, as though the nut were living pray. Now that I think about it, my saying is way cooler.

“You know,” my wife said after 10 years of marriage, “You say that saying wrong.” She then filled me in on my mistake.

“Why didn’t you tell me that 10 years ago?” It became clear to me that now half of Berlin thinks I’m some kind of idiot savant American who’s great with languages but has trouble with colloquialisms.

“I just thought it was cute,” she said.

The good-speaker pitfall has hit my friends too. My buddy Marc once marched into a pharmacy in hopes of finding a new kind of painkiller for his migraines. After about 20 minutes of discussion with the pharmacist she suggested something he’d never heard of before. But he couldn’t admit his ignorance because he was single and she was cute and had a good sense of humor.

After talking about this mysterious medication for 10 minutes he went home and opened a German-English dictionary. That was the day he learned the German word for suppository.

Unfortunately he’d already swallowed two.


Sitzpinkeln: Germany’s dark secret

People who haven’t been to Germany don’t believe me when I tell them. They argue with me and shake their heads and plead with me for it to not be true. Some people have fallen silent and never spoken again. It’s a dark secret most of the world doesn’t know about German men.

Believe me: I understand why. It’s the same reaction everyone has the first time they visit Germany and learn the secret: German men sit down to pee. The word for the act is as horrendous as the act itself: Sitzpinkeln (going against nature).

To reinforce this behavior, room-mates, café owners and over-zealous mothers around the country have hung up signs above toilets indicating that a standing, peeing man is not just discouraged, it’s forbidden.

Photo thanks

Standing up to pee is forbidden in many bathrooms of Germany.

And it really irks ex-pat men. More than surly bureaucrats at the Ausländerbehörde (alien registration office) and most shops being closed on Sunday. According to most ex-pats, the second-largest crime Germans commit is expecting men to sit down to pee. It’s second only to waiting for the little green man before crossing the road.

For the most part, I’m not different. A sign with a stick figure urinating and crossed out by a prohibited sign feels like an affront to my human-ness – indeed, my manliness. How dare someone try to legislate how I evacuate toxins from my body!

When I was younger and living in Germany, the signs often motivated me to small, unobserved acts of social disobedience. I would stand and pee while giving the sign the finger. Fight the oppression!

Then, after my small act of protest, I would look down and discover that my urine had splashed all over the lip of the toilet. And the lid. And even the floor. Because I’m a good human and want to be a good guest, I would then spend the next few minutes wasting toilet paper to clean up the errant urine.

Probably not all of it mine. Some left by previous brothers in protest.

And all the while I would think: “Why didn’t I just sit down to pee?”

Sitzpinkeln, why?

Which leads me to my analysis of why German men sit down to pee. Is it psychological? Emotional? Are German men physically different?


But German toilets are. I’m speaking of the abomination known as the platform toilet. The German platform toilet. Many German households still have this porcelain torture device, which you to excrete waste onto a dry shelf before flushing it into the refuse afterlife. The toilet itself is worthy of its own blogpost but we’ll get to that some other day.

The issue right now is that German men sit down to pee (crazy, right?). But I offer that it’s because of the platform toilet. If you pour water onto a flat surface it spills and shoots everywhere, even up and out.

Same thing if you pee onto a platform toilet. And then someone has to clean that toilet. And bathroom floor. And bathroom wall. And it’s usually not German men.

So German men have agreed to sit down and pee, rather than clean up.

And after nearly two decades in Germany, I’m beginning to see the point. It’s become my dark secret too.