The land of Me

Euromnzen auf weiem Hintergrund

Have you ever been to a shop in Britain? It’s lovely. First off, Anglo-Saxons have a natural urge to queue. It’s like the click of a buckle – they snap into place, no elbows or headlocks involved. Just like driving in the UK, it is utterly relaxing (when you’re used to German roads). Also, checkout assistants are usually friendly and will exchange a few words or even banter with customers. You think that’s a given? Here’s your pep talk for shopping in Germany.

German people’s behaviour in public spaces is not exactly one of our flagship qualities. Here’s what it is all about (other than the Hokey Cokey, of course):

1. The non-queue
Don your fighting gear. Germans seem to have an inborn itch to come first. The towel-on-the-deckchair phenomenon is not a myth! My English husband always says, the way to a German checkout is like a Formula 1 race. (Especially when a new till opens – a German will not have you snatch the butter from her bread, as the saying goes.)

Once it’s your turn, know that you’re expected to proceed efficiently. Elderly citizens idly counting their small change will be huffed and puffed at, just as will anyone who doesn’t vacate the packing area soon enough, i.e. in a nanosecond. (Sales assistants may even push your shopping out of the way.)

Oh, and we also don’t do common sense, especially not when it comes to queuing. I’ve tried to use it at several instances, and it ended in arguments each and every time. Picture a counter with two checkouts. What will Germans never do? Form one queue. They will form two queues and join whichever one looks shorter.

If you want to force Germans to form one single file, you need to make them take numbers. This worked so well at post offices in the past that these are now the only places in Germany where the system works (meanwhile even without taking numbers).

2. The Wechselgeldschale
This is a very German phenomenon: people avoid body contact with strangers. So to that end (and possibly to make the process of handing back change more efficient as no waiting for human interaction is required), there are trays for change on almost every German shop counter. The money is placed on the tray instead of in the customer’s hand. And if there is no tray, the change will often be placed on the counter for the customer to pick up.

So now you know what we Germans mean when we complain about our own country as Servicewüste Deutschland, a place deserted of service.

Okay, US-American shop assistants may take it a bit too far to the other extreme. A very dear Irish friend of mine was rather startled when, on leaving a boutique in L.A., she heard the salesperson chirp ‘Missing you already!’ When she turned around in confusion, she saw that the young lady in question hadn’t even lifted her head from whatever she was scribbling. L.A. – so blasé.

Next week, we’ll see what’s really good about Germany.

The Pommes Buddha says: Hooookey Cokey Cokey!

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Booty

Sinterklaas . Dutch chocolate figure

If you live in Germany, you may have noticed that, on the evening of the 5th December, children put their boots – or sometimes just one boot – outside their front door. The next morning, these boots can mysteriously be found filled with gifts, such as a fir branch, nuts, tangerines, chocolate and one or two small presents. What is that strange custom, so shortly before Christmas?

The sixth of December is the day when Christians remember Saint Nicholas. He was the Bishop of Myra, who died on that date in the year 343 and was said to have performed various miracles and good deeds. One of the latter, legend has it, was giving presents to three virgins, hence the custom of filling boots with goodies (and telling children that Saint Nicholas did it). This, however, is but one of several assumptions regarding the origin of the tradition.

Der Nikolaus, as he is called in German, may even appear in person – for example in school or at sports clubs. He will come with a bag of goodies and question each child as to whether he or she was good in the past year. And, to make matters worse, St Nicholas may chose to drag along his sidekick Knecht Ruprecht, whose sole raison d’être is scaring the children by threatening to punish the naughty ones with a twig thrashing.

Saint Nicholas is often portrayed not as a bishop but as a hefty man with a white beard in a fluffy red coat. This depiction of Santa Claus, as he became known in the US, or Father Christmas in the UK, gained global ground in the 19th century and was cunningly used and thus made even more popular in soda giant Coca Cola’s advertising campaigns. So, historically, St Nicholas and Santa Claus are identical. In Germany, however, most people will say that der Nikolaus is different from der Weihnachtsmann, the latter bringing presents on 24th December. More on this is to follow nearer to Christmas.

Next week, we’ll remember another important date.

The Pommes Buddha says: Are you all booted up?

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The Crime Scene

Fadenkreuz

Have you ever asked a German what she does on Sunday night? Try it! A great deal of my fellow countrypeople will say, ‘Sunday night is Tatort night!’ You (and many Germans) may think of it what you will, but you can’t begin to grasp the German psyche without investigating (pun intended) the Tatort (= crime scene) phenomenon. Let’s embark on a somewhat bumpy journey through German television history.

It’s a mystery: along with Dinner for one, Tatort is one of the shows with the highest TV ratings ever, yet many Germans will admit that they don’t actually enjoy watching it all that much. We just grew up with it.

The first Tatort was broadcasted in 1970. The thing that strikes the unsuspecting viewer is that the opening sequence and music have never been changed. You’ll think you’re stuck in a time warp. It’s like Point Pleasant Police Department, only for real. At least the episodes are recent. The concept is based on twenty-odd changing locations around Germany, and sometimes Austria and Switzerland, with the investigation team in each town or city remaining the same. Each 90-minute episode is thus a separate, self-sufficient unit.

Tatort is often criticised for being overly serious and socio-critical and accused of delivering Betroffenheitsfernsehen. Some viewers miss the light-heartedness and tranquility of Cornwall-set British crime series or the tech-savviness and action of the average US series. However, everyone has one or two favourite Tatorte. The witty Tatort Münster, for example, has evolved into something like a cult, with a rating of just short of 13 million and an expansive following, including a number of fan-fiction writers. One of my personal favourites (although I truly rarely ever watch it at all) is the new Tatort Saarbrücken with the divine Devid Striesow. And, historically, one must mention the roughneck Kommissar Schimanski, played by Götz George, who has gone down in TV history.

As it is so controversial, Tatort is ridiculed, worshipped and modified in many ways (just search on YouTube). Some Germans claim they only watch Tatort to follow the simultaneous live tweets online because it is so much fun making fun of it. And German comedian Michael Kessler calls it Tatort-Terror.

The bottom line is: you have to watch at least three different Tatorte before you’re entitled to dismiss the show. And if you don’t get it, you’ve at least learned that German TV is … different.

Let’s hear about how guys (and some girls) make a difference next week.

The Pommes Buddha says: Murder is the best medicine.

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The Meadow

Bayerische Oktoberfestbreze mit Bier

It’s the world’s most famous beerfest. And it used to be strictly Munich. In recent years, though, in the first weeks of autumn, shop windows all over Germany have been displaying an increasingly higher number of traditional Bavarian costumes. What is this Oktoberfestisation?

I must admit I’m writing as something of an outsider, as I’ve personally never attended the jolly celebration which calls itself die Wies’n (‘the meadow’). It sounds very similar to Cologne Carnival: throngs of people dress up and get drunk, and there’s music and dancing and fun and everybody is BFF with everybody else. And the media only ever show you the Schnapsleichen, those who overdid it and passed out in the street.

In fact, the two festivals are rather compatible. I became BFF for a day with many a Bavarian during carnival. Bavarians think our Kölsch glasses are cute. (Yes, they really do drink out of one-litre [or Maß] glasses!) And we Cologners take quite a fancy to wearing Dirndls and Lederhosen. Be warned, though, fellow citizens of Köln! It may offend Bavarians if their traditional outfits are misappropriated for use as silly carnival costumes. (Yes, I’ve been told off in the past. Shame on me!)

When I asked him if he was planning to visit this year’s Oktoberfest, a colleague based in Munich told me that he would probably end up going perhaps just one night because he was so busy. And what is more, he explained, one had to avoid the Italian weekend (one specific Oktoberfest weekend notorious for having half of Italy visit). Sounds just like carnival. When you live in Cologne (also the name of an excellent micro blog making spot-on contributions to the subject, by the way), you tend to take the big crazy celebrations for granted and not go out every single night like you used to as a student.

What we don’t get about Oktoberfest is that it starts in September. I’m sure there’s a good reason to do with tradition and that the people of Munich are tired of responding to this remark – so let’s leave it at that.

However, as you may or may not know, the perfect symbiosis of Cologne and Munich partying tradition has for a while now been distilled into the 1. Kölner Oktoberfest by one of the city’s large breweries Gaffel (with the tag line ‘… but with real beer!’, meaning Kölsch as opposed to Bavarian beer). What more can you wish for?

And speaking of Köln, if you native speakers of non-German and non-Scandinavian languages think the Umlaut is difficult, hear more about another type of dots next week.

Finally, allow me a personal remark: unbelievably, this blog/podcast will be one year old on 1st October! Thank you to all you lovely and devoted readers and listeners for your support, comments, suggestions and encouragement. It’s been an exciting year, and I look forward to many more!

The Pommes Buddha says: Party on, Wayne! Party on, Garth!

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Rough and ready

Klassische Raufasertapete wei Hintergrund

Thinking back to my blog post of the other day about quintessential Britishness, I wondered what my English husband would consider the most German thing of all German things. And then I remembered his horror when we first set foot into our first joint flat in Germany.

‘What’s that on the walls?’ he exclaimed. ‘Wallpaper,’ I said. ‘Yeah, but it looks so retro. We had that stuff in the ‘70s,’ he continued in disgust. Thus went his first encounter with an inexplicable German phenomenon aka The Obsession with Raufasertapete.

How do I begin? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the product: it’s wallpaper with small wood chips in it, which make it very knobbly. It’s hideous. And it’s everywhere. Even on the ceilings. (At least in rented flats.) It’s the cheapest wallpaper you can get in Germany. But don’t ask me who decided it was the bee’s knees. (It does indeed seem like a mandatory piece of interior design in any German home.)

For those of you who are not British, rented flats and houses in Britain do usually not have wallpaper nowadays. They just have rendered walls with a coat of paint on them. And tenants are often not allowed to change the colour of the walls or put a nail in them or anything.

Germany, on the other hand, is the nirvana of tenants. Tenants can do whatever they please. Well, at least they can paint walls monkey-puke yellow and riddle them with Rawlplugs so long as they put everything back into its original state when they move out, i.e. refill the holes and repaint the walls in a light colour.

So here we were in our first German home, applying roll after roll of masking tape to these wood-chip walls. If you’ve ever done that, you know that, the next day, you can’t feel your fingertips. It’s Braille overkill. Honestly, how is a landlord or lady free to paper walls with something that can do irreversible damage to your digital nerves?

Raufaser stands for many German things. It’s unpretentious, sensible (read: cheap) and practical. German bliss!

Next week, learn about language made to measure.

The Pommes Buddha says: I hate Bauhaus.

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German and English

Man holding an adjustable wrench

In warm countries, there’s quite a bit of creeping and crawling an average Central European is unfamiliar with. When I lived in Sydney, Australia, for a year, we had a certain type of small cockroach in the kitchen. When I asked my Australian flatmate what they are and how we can get rid of them, she just said, ‘They’re German cockroaches. You can’t get rid of them.’ (I’ll just leave that uncommented for you to feast on.) What else is ‘German’ in English and vice versa?

Let’s stay in the animal realm and start with a similarity: the German Shepherd is called ‘German’ in German as well. And that’s about it with commonalities.

Diseases are interesting. Our two languages made a trade-off here. In English, the rubella disease is also referred to as German measles. In return, rickets used to be called die englische Krankheit (‘the English disease’) in German. So we’re even in this area.

And then, German gets a bit out of hand. We love the English so much that we make ample use of them in our language. For example, when ordering beef in Germany, if you are asked how you would like it cooked, you have to say ‘Englisch, bitte!’ if your preference is rare. And also other areas show frequent use of englisch.

Sports – In German football (American English: soccer), the englische Woche (‘English week’) means that some matches take place during the week as opposed to being limited to the weekend, as is common in Germany. (However, at Lidl and Aldi, it means offering limited-edition British products such as shortbread and fish & chips.)

Nature – The people of Munich are very proud of their Englischer Garten.

Horseracing – Unsurprisingly, there is a considerable influence from Great Britain in this area. The riding technique of ‘rising’ is called englischer Trab, or Leichttraben, in German.

Bookbinding – apparently, a certain type of cardboard cover with a sleeve is called englische Broschur in German.

And even our toolboxes are full of our favourite islanders: the colloquial word for an adjustable wrench in German is Engländer.

If you think that’s OTT, I’d like to share something very brief with you next week.

The Pommes Buddha says: Hey mate, chuck us the German, will ya?

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Big business

2015-KW34 Loo

Last week, we visited the bathroom. It’s only a small step further to a facility that lends itself to extensive cultural studies. In many Asian countries, the sounds produced by a person using a WC are considered very private and shouldn’t be witnessed by other people under any circumstances. Therefore, lavatories are often equipped with sound machines imitating the flush to mask any possibly embarrassing noise (replacing the use of the actual flush, which had led to an exorbitant waste of water). So what about Germany? Here’s a bit of German loo etiquette.

As many of you globetrotters will know (for one will reliably bump into a German in even the remotest corner of this earth), Germans are embarrassed by hardly anything. While individuals from other cultural backgrounds go to great length to conceal or play down whatever they create – in every sense of the word – Germans are proud and boastful with regard to both national and personal output. The Swiss don’t call us Kannich (‘I can do it!’) for nothing! As you’ve learned, we show every last wrinkle of our bodies to total strangers at sauna spas. And that’s only the beginning. (Attention! German explicitness alert!)

When poor, unsuspecting Mr K, paper in hand and anticipating some pleasant reading time, first used a proper German toilet (they are a dying species now but can still be found) for Number Two (or ‘big business’ [‘das große Geschäft’] in German), he found himself propelled into a chemical warfare scenario. The paper was misappropriated for hectic fanning. ‘Proper’ German toilets, you see, have a sort of open-air ledge where all your hard day’s work will sit patiently for inspection and approval by the rightful owner (or whatever other suitable purpose one can think up). The fact that, at this point, there is no water to absorb any untoward odours, catches many a guileless foreigner by ugly surprise. Or, to be more graphic, let’s just say, you had no idea what yours really smells like … (Though my husband says the worst is the burning sensation in your eyes.)

Of course, one needs mind-blowing water power to persuade the purposefully-perched bundle of processed food to so much as consider moving in the rough direction of the sewer. Be warned: the flush is deafening!

Ironically, we dub the toilet ‘the silent place’ (‘das stille Örtchen’). If you think that’s weird, read next week how screwed up some English names for things can be!

The Pommes Buddha says: My own smells alright …

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The land of tailor-made terms

Car Air Freshener

One of the many reasons I love the English language is that it allows for almost unlimited interchangeable usage of word classes. You can turn a noun into a verb (‘to pool’) and vice versa (‘mix-up’) – and even combine the two! (While this is grammatically true for my native language, German is far less tolerant of neologisms.) Here are some examples of inspiring English ‘noun-adjectives’ …

noseblind – It may be a marketing stunt by a famous ‘home care’ giant, but it aptly describes what happens when your sense of smell gets used to a particular odour. How else can people stand working at Lush??? Some people are obviously noseblind with regard to their own BO or the perfume they use (in chemical-warfare-related quantities). And according to the group’s website, their products are ‘consumer-preferred.’

gun-shy – The one and only time I heard this expression was to describe a dog’s unsuitability for hunting. Apparently, it can also be used figuratively in the sense of ‘suspicious’.

streetwise – My husband is a moderate man. He doesn’t despise many things apart from Margaret Thatcher and The Pet Shop Boys. But when it comes to potentially dangerous situations, he can be outright anal (to use one of my favourite colloquialisms). For example, he says one should never go and see a flat offered on the property market on one’s own. It may be a set-up and one may end up being mugged or worse! And he always tells me to hide my purse when builders come. He calls it streetwise, I call it nuts. He calls it growing up in South-East London, I call it drinking from the paranoia cup. (My husband insists that the only reason I’m so unreasonable is that I’ve clearly never lived in South-East London.)

And finally, a known ice-cream brand used the borderline-wank-word expression ‘gelateria-inspired’ in a TV commercial – whatever that may mean. (Is it ice-cream that’s prepared in the same way as ice-cream?) It seems that advertising is a field with a particular propensity for such compounds. At least, the word inspires the creation of more such terms (‘a Portaloo®-evoking interior design’, ‘an OAP-riddled pub’, ‘a tosser-informed decision’ … the sky’s the limit!).

Next week, let’s take a closer look at Britain-inspired houses, and one room in particular …

The Pommes Buddha says: Beware of nerd-induced ear bleeding!

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The foodie trap

risotto with wild mushrooms

As you may have guessed, the realm of culinary delight is an area I am fond to delve into. But like in any other field, there are countless ‘unknowns.’ As an interpreter, one often has to translate restaurant menus ‒ a bloody minefield! I can’t tell sole from plaice even in my native language to start with. Here are some other examples of food-related pitfalls.

A good 20 years ago, my family and I visited the Channel island of Jersey. At a restaurant there, my dad was asked how he’d like his meat. He hesitated. He likes his meat rare, which, in German, is called ‘englisch’. He was quick-witted enough to know it can’t be ‘English’ in English. So he laughed apologetically and simply said, ‘Bloody!’ The waiter understood, laughed, and explained politely for future use that the correct term would be ‘rare’. (Funnily enough, when my English husband was recently asked, in England, how he’d like his steak, he said ‘English, please!’ without hesitation – yet another token of successful Germanisation.)

A couple of years ago, a kind of mushroom caused quite a stir. We were at a chamber music festival with some family and friends. During the interval, we wanted to pre-order food at a local restaurant. I translated the menu for my husband, just to realise that I had no clue what Steinpilze are in English. So we all offered expansive explanations … It’s a type of mushroom … In German, we say ‘stone mushrooms’ … (blank face) ‘rock mushrooms?’ … (blank face) They are big long mushrooms with a white stem and a brown top … (blank face) … They are used a lot in Italian cuisine … (blank face) … In Italian they are called ‘porcini’. ‘Ah,’ exclaimed Mr K, ‘porcini mushrooms!’ Sometimes the answer is staring you right in the face …

Another bottomless pit are the often adventurous translations of menus at holiday destinations. Entire books have been written about this. I remember Axel Hacke’s favourite example of ‘Zwiebel ruft an’ for ‘onion rings’ (a literal translation in the sense of an onion using the telephone). But even renowned hotels like The Kempinski in Berlin do not seem to attach too much importance to a proper version of their food offerings for English-speaking guests (see photo below, from a lunch during an interpreting job).

Speisekarte-Kempinski-Hotel-Berlin

Next week, let’s move from pitfalls to potholes.

The Pommes-Buddha says: Would you like an Asiatic dough sack with that?

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The Pout

gelangweilter Mann

Every culture has gestures or facial expressions that have a meaning even without words. Every person brought up in a particular culture (or having spent a sufficient amount of time in it) will understand them. For example, Italians are particularly renowned for underlining their utterances by countless gestures (please find examples here). However, in a foreign culture, one will at times encounter non-verbal communication one can’t quite locate …

If he were asked to make the most German gesture he can think of, my husband would doubtless do The Pout. Germans use The Pout a lot. They use it when they listen carefully (along with The Squint and The Frown – we might call it ‘The PSF’; it looks fierce but is just a Germanic way of saying ‘I’m taking what you are saying seriously’). They use it when they are weighing up the pros and cons of something. They use (or maintain) it when they intend to qualify their ‘Yes’. In fact, The Pout can put a little tag on anything. A tag saying, ‘Why not?’ A tag saying, ‘It could be worse’ (for example, when asked how things are going). A tag saying, ‘It could be better’ (for example, when asked how things are going).

So The Pout is big. Any self-respecting German has it in her box of tricks. In fact, I’m sure I heard that it has recently been included in a newly-introduced practical part of the Einbürgerungstest (‘Demonstrieren Sie drei typisch deutsche Gesten’).

The other day, Mr K and I were sitting at our dinner table. I asked him if he’d like a yogurt. And there it was! I couldn’t believe it. He pouted, and then said ‘Yes’. At that moment I knew that, even without an Einbürgerungstest, he was properly naturalised. Above his head a blinking yellow sign said, ‘Germanisation completed’. It was an ‘Oi!’ moment. (You know, when Charlotte in Sex and the City, in the process of converting to Judaism, said her first ‘Oi!’) I was so proud.

Next week, we’ll revisit gestures and learn what fingers can tell you.

The Pommes Buddha says: When in doubt, use The Pout.

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