The naked truth

Traditional wooden sauna for relaxation with set of clean towels

When I was fifteen, I went on a school exchange to Villa Park near Los Angeles in the USA. One day, I remember chatting, unceremoniously as one does, about going to the sauna in Germany – my parents had one at home that we used regularly. The expression of total shock and horror on the American students’ faces when I told them that we go there in the nude! Then uncontrollable giggling. They asked me a million questions about it. They could not believe it! And when they eventually did, they didn’t buy that it was nothing sexual.

I was truly surprised. I thought people went to saunas naked all over the world. For a German person, there’s nothing to it. Seriously. At hotels, in spas – Germans drop trou. Later in my life, my sister and I, sitting in a German hotel sauna in our birthday suits as per usual, were joined by an English lady in a swimming costume. Germans find that unhygienic, especially if that person puts no towel underneath herself. We were polite, though – and strongly impressed that she was obviously equally tolerant enough to stay. After she’d left, we couldn’t help joking that Brits and Americans are probably born with their swimsuits on.

So all you lovely people who did not grow up textilfrei will appreciate how my English husband felt when – and he only told me this recently – apparently one of the first-ever meetings with my parents involved all of us going to my parents’ sauna naturist style. I love him dearly for submitting to it without batting an eyelash. He played it really cool, while thinking my dad was subjecting his bits and pieces to some killer scrutiny for eligibility.

Meanwhile, all is well. My husband has taken a proper shine to ‘sauna Continental style’. It is actually quite liberating and much less of a fuss than you might think. Come on, when in Rome … You should give it a go! Canadian friends have come to love visiting Claudiustherme in Cologne. Our all time favourite is Neptunbad. Take your pick from more venues here: https://www.koelnbaeder.de/sauna.html.

Next week, it will be one of those days …

The Pommes Buddha says: FKK – every day!

> Audioversion

  

The plait scale

braid girl

There are several reasons for this week’s revelation. One, it’s an act of reprisal: my husband hijacked my Facebook page the other day, so I’m hijacking his idea. Two, I’m on a rescue mission. This fascinating observation on the German culture is otherwise likely to pass into oblivion as it’s safe to assume that the blog my magnificent other was going to launch won’t be launched for another 150 years or so. (In case it does I herewith officially recognise his intellectual property rights.) So let’s learn about the mysterious plait scale …

‘The Plait Scale’ indicates the number of people in a country using some form of braiding in their hairdos, or, to put it in statistical terms, the ‘braid penetration’ of the population. The very concept of a braid was alien to my husband, who claimed that no girl or woman in England ever braided their hair. This may be changing as we speak (or read, as the case may be), as the plait, together with its masculine equivalent, the beard, has been making a strong case for itself on the international fashion stage lately.

So Mr K was intrigued to find plaited hair in various shapes and forms in a part of Germany outside of the world-acclaimed Plait Zone of Bavaria. Even more intriguingly, he observed that the number of people (mostly women) plaiting their hair dwindles gradually as you travel northwards, starting from, say, Oberstdorf. Women as far north as Hamburg, he noticed, were extremely unlikely to braid their hair at all. So the plait scale ranges from Algriet (north, no plaits) to Zenzi (south, corded maize of plaits), with Cologne approximately in midfield (plaits can be seen but are not ubiquitous).

If only I knew how this gem of insight could be of any relevant use … Well, I thought I’d share it with you anyway. You never know when this bit of trivia may come in handy. (As an interpreter I know that there is no such thing as useless information!)

More tasty tidbits are to come (see, I can’t do without food references). But first, let’s look at some practical issues of British-German life next week.

The Pommes Buddha says: Happy braiding!

> Audioversion

  

Sizzling efficiency

steak with flames on grill with rosemary

Germans are renowned for their efficiency. We don’t ‘fart-arse around’, as my English husband would say. We get things done. The same is true for our language. Often, my husband asks something like, ‘What’s this word in English?’ (‘this word’ being anything from ‘Ausfahrt’ to ‘Zollstock’). Having got past the first obstacle (the initial reply any translator will offer, i.e. ‘It depends on the context’), he is frequently surprised to find that there is not a clear-cut, one-word English equivalent. Let’s look at another example …

Here’s what a German may ask you these days, ‘Hast du schon angegrillt?’ ‘Angrillen’. What a cool word! Nine letters. And what does it mean? It means ‘to have the first barbecue of the year’. ‘Grillen’ means ‘to barbecue’, and ‘an‑’ is a prefix stating (in this particular context) that something is just beginning. Accordingly, ‘abgrillen’ refers to the last barbecue of the year. So by changing one letter, you can change the meaning from ‘first’ to ‘last’. Now, that’s what we call efficient.

Some Germans take efficiency to a completely different level, though. I once saw a documentary on a bunch of guys who had a BBQ every single day of the year, eating outdoors even in the snow. ‘Wir grillen am 1. Januar an und am 31. Dezember ab’, they said. That’s one whopper of a Grillsaison!

In Cologne, like in many German cities, people like to meet friends in parks and have a barbie (Australian abbreviation). Unlike in Australia and the USA, there are not many designated BBQ areas (US-American abbreviation, always pronounced as the full word [ˈbɑrbɪˌkjuː]), let alone permanent BBQs for anyone’s use. So we bring along our own little barbecues and coal. This type of public food-preparation is not officially allowed, but most municipalities will tolerate it. In some very big parks or hiking areas, you may even stumble upon a Grillhütte, a wooden hut with a permanent barbecue inside. Those normally need to be officially rented from the local council, though. In the UK, most barbecuing is done in private gardens, as it’s not allowed in parks.

Next week, we’ll come back to the epitome of Englishness.

The Pommes Buddha says: Every Ken likes a barbie.

> Audioversion

  

What a load of buzz

Schwachsinn01

The other day I witnessed an incident or, shall we say, an ‘act of communication’ that made me think of a certain type of office game. I was sitting in a café in Cologne when a group of businesspeople walked in. As they had turned up late, the table they had booked had been given away. This prompted one of the ‘suits’ to ask whether it was still possible to find room for six. Only, he didn’t say ‘possible’.

He said – and I am deeply sorry for those who don’t speak German, as this is untranslatable: ‘Ist das darstellbar?’ ‘Darstellbar’ is one of those smoke-screen words that are used excessively by many businesspeople to make what they really mean sound fancier, such as ‘lean in’ or ‘own the room’. I believe the correct technical term for such expressions is ‘wank words’. So my gut association was with the fine game invented to make boring meetings (here, the astute reader will notice a clear case of pleonasm – not to be confused with ‘neoplasm’, as Wikipedia kindly points out) more exciting. Of course, I’m talking about Wank Word Bingo (in American English, as well as German: ‘Bullshit Bingo’).

In its embosomed tradition of verbing, American English boasts the uniquely graphic word ‘bullshitting’, which Germans would usually refer to as ‘Scheiße labern’, equally graphic. In British English, however, as far as I’m aware, ‘wanking’ really only denotes the self-manipulation of male genitalia, as opposed to the manipulation of language. ‘Bullshitting’ in England is ‘to be full of shit’ (careful, dear non-native speakers, ‘shit’ in Britain is much more vulgar than in Germany – so use shit sparingly), or ‘to talk rubbish’ if you wish to be less offensive.

Meetings, though, are the same the world over. This is why WWB is such a success. And now for some practical application: I found this lovely ‘Bullshit-o-mat’ to generate your own manager phrases in German. Enjoy!

Next week, let’s go back to Cornwall for a little while …

The Pommes Buddha says: Vom Learning her hab’ ich einiges mitgenommen.

> Audioversion

  

Berrying 101

Sprig with fresh ripe blueberries in summer.

Yes, Sir, I can berry. Well, at least if I’m a speaker of US American English. Intriguingly, the Americans can transform anything into a verb (this process is called ‘verbing’). So Yanks can breakfast, they can shower and they can berry (aka ‘pick berries’). Even though they can’t berry, the Brits, just like the Americans, love blueberry muffins. (By the way, can you ‘blueberry-muffin’? ‘What did you do during the coffee break?’ – ‘I blueberry-muffined. Yummie!’) Let’s find out what the deal is with Germans and blueberries …

In the German language, the issue of the blueberry is not a straightforward one. Yes, one can find the obvious Blaubeere (if one berries hard enough). However, this is but one of many names for the tiny fruit in question. Heidelbeere is, I’d think, the most widely used word. But even Waldbeere, in addition to its general meaning of ‘berry from the woods’, may refer to the same plant (Vaccinium myrtillus in Latin). And don’t get me started on the regional varieties …

Apparently, according to Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, the name ‘blueberry’ has no synonyms in the English language. How lucky you Americans are! Instead, you have berries that no German or Brit has ever heard of. It was in an American ice-cream shop nearly twenty years ago that I first read the name ‘boysenberry’. (At the time I thought it was simply a taste of assorted woodland berries, which those crazy Americans named after the French word for ‘forest’ [‘bois’], changing the spelling so the name would seem more ‘funky’ or something.) Also, we don’t have loganberries. And cranberries are an utterly complex subject in themselves.

Dict.cc, in contrast, says there are quite a few synonyms of ‘blueberry’ (‘huckleberry’, ‘whinberry’, ‘whortleberry’ and ‘bilberry’ are some of them). However, I have no idea how widely used these really are.

But now to the best part: I found a page with blueberry recipes on the BBC website (also featuring other berries). In the United States, blueberries seem to have acquired a status similar to knighthood (or damehood? Are berries male or female? In Italian, the tree is male and the fruit is female. So I suppose it must be ‘Dame Blueberry’.). In any case, they have their own ‘U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council’, whose website advertises the blue fruit’s multitudinous merits and applications.

After this mouth-watering experience, let’s continue on the path of culinary delights next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: I berry, you berry, he/she/it berries.

> Audioversion

  

Who is Hermann?

Gugelhupf

We all know who Horst is by now. But who or what is Hermann? This similarly typical – I’m tempted to say ‘clichéd’ – German name holds many secrets. The most grassroots one of them shall be revealed today exclusively to you, dear faithful readers of the Pommes Buddha blog.

Hermann is actually … a cake! And when I say cake, you Brits must not imagine your version of a cake with lots of sugary yummy icingy twirly baroquey stuff on it. (Of course the British cake tradition has its merits too, as corroborated by crowd favourites such as The Great British Bake Off.) German cake makes no promises. It looks rather … honest but tastes enjoyably – even jolly – good.

Our man Hermann was very popular in the 1970s and ‑80s, and I’ve been told he’s still on the road today. Hermann is no ordinary cake – he is a chain cake. ‘Chain cake’ as in ‘chain letter’: you make the dough in a complex procedure whose main ingredient is TLC, divide it by four and pass three parts on to friends and family. If you feel that a cake is just what your entourage has been missing, Dr. Oetker, well-liked among Britain’s baking-savvy too, has a basic recipe for you. I personally have never made Hermann’s acquaintance, but I was once given sourdough in a jar (also, it seems, a shareable type of dough). It was moving (the experience, not the dough).

Naturally, there is not only one type of cake in Germany. Hermann is a Trockenkuchen, just like Guglhupf. But that is only the beginning. Go to the Konditorei and take your pick: Käsekuchen, Gedeckter Apfelkuchen, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, Donauwelle … A mouth-watering chocolate cake from Vienna (Austria, of course) is called Sacher Torte. Just to name a few.

So go on and indulge. Or make a Hermann and spread the joy! Perhaps he’ll make it as far as London and meet his namesake Herman ze German, an eatery/caterer/shop with German specialties. The question is, will he be polite enough to meet British standards? We’ll find out about that next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: You can have your Hermann and eat it too.

> Audioversion

  

Fucking hell

Glass of beer and bottle against wheat field and sunset

I’m terribly sorry if this title offends you, but, in my defence, it is not what you think it is. This week’s story, which is related to a subject discussed here in all seriousness before, starts in a village in Austria situated 33 kilometres north of Salzburg. Just like a considerable number of other places in Bavaria and Austria, its name ends in –ing. Can you guess what the first part is?

‘Fuck’, yes! (Again, no expletive.) Indeed, the place is called Fucking. In case you were wondering, it is pronounced with a closed ‘u’ /ʊ/, as in ‘put’. Obviously, due to its similarity with a tremendously rude English word, the place has gained some fame in English-speaking countries. The poor inhabitants of Fucking, of course, can’t help it.

But if they had a really wicked sense of self-deprecating humour, they would have done what a German company did in 2010: they went to court and won the right to name a beer ‘Fucking hell’. ‘Hell’ is the equivalent of ‘pale’ – ‘ein Helles’ is the common expression for a light lager as opposed to a dark beer. So in German it makes perfect sense to call a beer from Fucking ‘Fucking hell’. The court obviously agreed. Never mind that Fucking has no brewery (yet) … So there you go.

During my research for this blog entry, I came across an Austrian film called ‘Bad Fucking’. ‘Bad’ in German means ‘bath’ or ‘bathroom’ and in names of towns and villages is a relic referring to the fact that there are some types of, usually thermal, springs in the area (as in ‘Bad Saarow’ – highly recommended for a weekend away). So these places are historic spa places. There is no real place called ‘Bad Fucking’ – but there might as well be.

So next time you’ve had a bad day in the Salzburg area, why not think To hell with it … and have a Fucking hell for substantiation? Sounds effing splendid!

Next week, we’ll deal with a much more cultured form of pastime. (Did I hear someone say ‘Boooring!’?)

The Pommes Buddha says: Let’s call a Fucking a Fucking.

> Audioversion

  

The blandest thing on the menu

indische curries

Asked to name a very traditional British dish, many Brits will say something like ‘Lamb Jalfrezi’. So entrenched is the culture of the former British colony in the United Kingdom that it has become part of its identity. Many Indian people run restaurants in Great Britain, and as there is competition all over the place, the quality of the food is mostly excellent. But where can you go for palatable Indian cuisine in Cologne?

One of the things my English husband complains about most in Germany is the fact that it is so hard to find a good curry here. We cook them ourselves, most of the time. (A great book to make easy and tasty curries for beginners as well as advanced cooks is The Hairy Bikers Great Curries.) The rest of the time, when we want Indian food, we can be seen roaming about town trying to find a curry that’s at least half decent. Sadly, despite being a city of considerable size, Cologne has as yet not yielded any true revelations. Instead, we recently discovered a treasure in Hürth, Royal India. Recommended by an Indian lady and now by us too!

An absolutely hilarious taking-the-mickey approach to the whole British-Indian identity issue is taken by the BBC series Goodness Gracious Me, broadcast first on BBC Radio 4 (1996-98) and later on BBC Two (1998-2001). In one of the episodes, a group of Indians visits an English restaurant (‘go for an English,’ as they call it) and behaves in a way that many drunk British guys do at curry places all the time. As a special dare, one of them orders ‘the blandest thing on the menu.’ Get a taste here.

I intentionally didn’t go into detail with the political issue here, but I do recommend these extracts from Foreign Secretary Robin Cook’s 2001 speech calling Chicken Tikka Masala a true British national dish.

Next week, find out why size matters to Germans.

The Pommes Buddha says: When in Germany, select your tandoor wisely.

> Audioversion

  

German disease

Doctors Hospital Corridor Nurse Pushing Gurney Stretcher Bed

My husband and his colleagues often discuss how strange the German language is to them. They find it amusingly logical that gloves are called ‘hand shoes’, love the fact that the end of a working day is called ‘celebration night’ and wonder why women’s football teams are called Mannschaft (literally: ‘manship’ – the related matter of sexism in the German language will have to be discussed in a separate entry). Another one of those peculiar words is Krankenhaus.

‘Why would you want to go to a “sick house” to give birth?’ one colleague observed. True. For the same reason, the former Krankenschwester (‘nurse’; literally: ‘sick people’s sister’) is now officially called ‘Gesundheits- und Krankenpflegerin’ (‘health and sick people’s carer’), which is even more ludicrous as not only is it awkwardly long but it also unfittingly combines an abstract noun and a concrete noun. Our health insurance companies, however, are still called Krankenkassen (‘sick people’s funds’). Well, we Germans are known for our propensity to go see the doctor and for an obsession with our own ailments.

This talk about the health sector reminds me of a so-called ‘false friend’, a word that seems to be identical in two languages, but isn’t. The German Klinik (or Klinikum) has a distinctly different meaning from the English ‘clinic’. The German word usually refers to a specialised hospital or medical centre or is sometimes simply a synonym of Krankenhaus. The English word, on the other hand, denotes something usually of smaller scale and restricted to outpatient treatment. Depending on the context, it may be translated, among others, as Praxis, Ambulanz or even Sprechstunde, but rarely as Klinik.

Next time you go see your doctor, be a proper German and ask for your Krankenschein, will you? Meanwhile, the Pommes Buddha will be dealing with a different kind of incompatibility.

The Pommes Buddha says: When your Hexenschuss plagues you, sick people’s gymnastics is the way.

> Audioversion

  

‘Ein’ oder nicht ‘ein’

Homemade Raspberry Polish Paczki Donut

Some things are really, really small, but they can make a huge difference. From a linguistic perspective, articles are such things. The rules for their application in various languages are often tricky, which is why many non-native speakers can be found out by their incorrect use of them. Knowing that our grammar is particularly relentless, we Germans will happily overlook any such slip, in particular as it normally won’t impair understanding. However, there are some exceptions …

When John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rathaus Schöneberg in Berlin in 1963, his blunder (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’) went down in history as the Jelly Doughnut Misconception. (I’d like it noted that I strongly disagree with the statement made in the Wikipedia entry, according to which the ‘figurative’ meaning of the sentence requires the indefinite article.) The correct version would have been ‘Ich bin Berliner’. While this goof went widely unnoticed, it is a brilliant example of an error that has since become rife even among native Germans. I am convinced the Duden will one day rubber-stamp ‘Ich bin ein Lehrer’ as grammatically correct. However, dear non-native speakers and lackadaisical Germans, it is not! Unlike in English, when expressing affiliation to a profession, religion, community or other group, you cannot use an article. In most cases, using one has no consequence, except sounding somehow ‘strange’. However, some snacks named after cities can be an issue. Beware of turning yourself into a hot dog (‘Frankfurter’/‘Nürnberger’) or a hamburger (‘Hamburger’). Simply do without the article, and it’s clear that you are (or feel like) a citizen of the respective place.

By the way, in Berlin, Berliner go by Pfannkuchen and Pfannkuchen by Eierkuchen. So there you go. The people of Berlin wouldn’t call themselves doughnuts now, would they? That’s why JFK got away with it …

To learn what linguistic oddities you can get away with in England, come back next week.

The Pommes Buddha says: Pancake or eggcake – we’re all human.

> Audioversion