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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.


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?”


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.





Free college tuition (in Germany)!

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

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

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

College tuition germany
Photo thanks Benediktv via Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have to solve for Americans, I think.

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

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

No free college tuition?

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

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

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

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

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


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


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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.


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.


Michael Moore and Me

Michael Moore’s newest film is coming out this week in the U.S. (and two weeks later in Germany). It means I can’t go to any theatre showing it for at least a month. Maybe two. Because people always confuse me with Michael Moore.


Micheal Moore and Me
Photo thanks Michael’s Instagram and Gene Glover.

When I started doing comedy, I came off the stage one night and a German comedian told me the horrible news:

“You know who you look like?”

“Well, when I was a kid, people said Michael J. Fox but …”

“No. That American author, Michael Moore.”

In Germany, Michael Moore is an author first and a filmmaker second. In America, people don’t even know he writes books.

But from that moment on, for about three years, I had my opening line: No, I’m not Michael Moore. Several people were always visibly disappointed. One time a woman left. It may have been because of my opening line. It may have also been because she had to pee. You decide.

Michael Moore, really

I had almost forgotten about it until we went out to lunch here in Portland after we’d lived here for a few months. It was a small Japanese place teeming with just my wife and I. We were getting pretty good service. The aging waitress served us sometimes. The aging cook served us other times. They smiled a lot and I would say they were a couple but I don’t want to make any presumptions.

Maybe they weren’t a couple then but are now. Who knows?

In any case, halfway through our meal and apropos of nothing (do we say that in English?), the cook smiled nervously and said, “Of course! We know the gentleman!” Which seemed weird.

My wife looked at me and shrugged but I immediately knew what was up: He thought I was Michael Moore. It was in that part of Portland where, if Michael Moore were in Portland, he would be. There is actually a Hollywood in Portland (I live there) and stars sometimes show up there but it’s not the kind of place they’d go to lunch.

From here on out I’m just going to call Michael Moore “Michael” because, if you’re someone’s doppelgänger, you get to call them by their first name. It’s in the rule book. I looked. Anyway, like anytime someone makes the Michael mistake, I got really nervous. Because now I’m the buffoon who gets to point out that I am not, in fact, Michael. And everyone is embarrassed.

Also, it’s not so flattering to be confused for arguably one of the more frumpy directors. At least it’s not George Lucas, I guess. But even Werner Herzog would be an improvement.

When I tell people how I get mistaken for Michael they always say the same thing: “But you’re not that fat!” I know but apparently it doesn’t matter. I’m overweight enough.

Two weeks later we were at a friend’s birthday party. A woman I’d never met sat down next to me. “I’m Drew,” I said.

“I’m Alexandra,” she said and then asked me my last name.

She seemed disappointed when I told her.

“I thought it would be Moore,” she said.

Which, again, seemed weird.

It can be worse

If it’s this bad when Michael isn’t in the spotlight, imagine how it is when he is. Maybe I should sign autographs.

The Berlinale – Berlin’s film fest – starts this week too. I pretty much quit going because of the Michael thing. During the Berlinale, the town is full of movie wannabes and they all seem to want something from me. Or, actually, Michael.

Waiting to get into a Casey Affleck film a woman once got all nervous standing next to me.

“And you’re going to see this film because …” Her hands were shaking and she had a goofy smirk.

Which seemed weird.

“Because my friend here got me tickets,” I said because it was true. My friend looks like himself. She slinked off. I still don’t know if she realized her mistake. Or thinks Michael just goes to any film his friends get him tickets for.

Afterward we went to a fave bar around the corner and as soon as I walked in it felt like a Western where the music stops playing and everyone looks up at the hero as he enters, unwanted. Or like when Eddie Murphy’s Reggie Hammond walks into the honky tonk bar in 48 Hours.

We weren’t a new sheriff in town. We just wanted a beer. We slunk to the back and hid until everyone had forgotten.

You should probably go see Michael Moore’s new film.

I can’t.

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My Jedi Wife

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

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

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

My Jedi wife
Photo thanks Amira_a via Creative Commons

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

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

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

Jedi at the Bürgeramt Rathaus Mitte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beamten may be a different species entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

I was really proud of us.

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

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

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

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

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



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.


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.


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The coldest winter of my life

Sometimes I wonder if Germans hate warmth.

My first winter in Germany was the coldest in my life. Even though I had grown up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I had no idea the world could even get that cold.

Or maybe I just had the wrong jacket.

Pic thanks Marcus Pink via Creative Commons

Though come to think of it, of course I had the wrong jacket. In German cold you don’t need a jacket, you need an anorak. You don’t just need clothing for that kind of cold, you need a solution.

And it seemed especially cold when I walked the kilometer to Gymnasium every morning in my wrong jacket. By the time I got there I was freezing. I was so cold, I’m certain several of my relatives were cold as well.

I would get to school and walk up the steps into my first period philosophy class and be greeted by the warmest, snuggliest heat I had ever felt. The warmth of a room that has been heated all night while no one was in it, as if it were just waiting for me.

“Drew,” the room was saying, “I understand your suffering.”

And I would get more than just warm. I would get relief. The world was going to be OK.

That is, until Thilo walked into that room. Thilo is pretty much the German version of Chad and everyone suffers when Chad or Thilo is around. They are popular, the Thilos and Chads. But they are so often misguided.

Thilo never felt welcomed by that warm room. Thilo felt offended.

Meine Fresse (My goodness),” he would announce. “Hier ist eine Luft drin! (The air in here!).“

And with that he would throw every window in the room open. Other students would file in and no one seemed happy until the temperature of the room matched that of Little Siberia outside. Apparently only then was the air repaired. They would close the windows and I would once again freeze. As would my relatives.

Perfect learning temperature.

Germans seem to often get angry at warm air. They resolve the situation through something called Stossluften (freeze everyone in the room). It involves exchanging all of the warm air for freezing air. Apparently freezing air that heats slowly while you are in it is no longer offensive.

I don’t exactly understand the science.

I’ve encountered this in my kids’ schools, offices where I’ve worked and even from maids in hotel rooms but, oddly, never in a smoke-filled bar. No, that air is not offensive, just carcinogenic. A German once told me warm air lacks oxygen and cannot sustain life. You know, like Mars. Even in rooms that have been empty for 12 hours.

Again, I’m unclear of the science.

January is almost over. Stay warm.