‘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.

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Out of humour

Clownskopf und Konfetti

As the end of the carnival season is drawing near, Cologne is preparing for six days of celebration. Visitors from all over the world will flock in and be merry. Many foreigners think that Germans love carnival for the sole reason that it gives them permission to shed their otherwise serious face and let their hair down just for a few days a year. But is that really so?

Germans are known throughout the world for many good things. A sense of humour isn’t one of them. I’ve come across this prejudice several times – in Great Britain and Australia. While it may be true that it is not a forte of the German soul to laugh about oneself as systematically as the British do, it would be wrong to say that all Germans ‘go to the basement to laugh’, as a German saying goes.

It is true that, even in laid-back Cologne, people generally seem to have a certain sense of self-righteous entitlement, which I call Anspruchshaltung. For example, complete strangers will pass judgment on anything and everything, from the way you raise your child to the way you ride your bike – not to your face but loud enough to make sure you hear. The concept of queuing in Germany is replaced by the concept of ‘If I cheat my way in front of you, I’m first and you’re stuffed. Hard cheese’! This is just as annoying to many Germans as it is to foreigners.

And yet, humour, in my opinion, is the one thing that unites the world. A (German) friend of mine who recently spent the better part of two years on an aid mission in Afghanistan told me how he ditched all the official advice about treading on eggshells with topics such as sex, religion and politics. Despite being a non-smoker, he decided he’d use cigarette breaks to befriend his Afghan colleagues and just have a good laugh with them. They came to deeply respect him for being the only person to show a true interest in their lives. In the end, they all took the micky out of each other. He was the only German sitting with Afghans during lunch. And the only one who ever got invited to an Afghan house.

So, if you dare, try out your humour with your German colleagues next time. And invite them to pancakes on Veilchendienstag. Read more next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: Humour is the key.

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Tales of the Rhine

Burg Maus über dem Rheintal

The other day on the bus I went past a stop called ‘Rheinsteinstraße’. That reminded me of the English word ‘rhinestone’, which is used primarily as a name for little fake gems that decorate clothing items (‘Strasssteine’), as in the (cheesy) song Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell. So what’s the connection with the big long river on which Cologne is situated?

According to the eponymous Wikipedia entry, rhinestones were originally indeed gathered from the river Rhine. This river, one of today’s most important waterways, has a great deal to offer. Not only does it run through (and lend part of its name to) Germany’s most populous Bundesland North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), passing its largest cities Bonn, Cologne and Duesseldorf, but it is also the setting of many a rambler’s wet dream, the Rheinsteig. This leisurely and beautiful hiking trail follows the course of the Rhine. It sets off in Bonn and soon passes the Siebengebirge mountains, whose Drachenfels (‘Dragon’s Rock’) is supposed to have been the stage of Siegfried’s famous battle with the beast, as purported in the Nibelungen saga. It continues its path along the Middle Rhine, an area of astounding beauty which has inspired scores of writers in the Romantic period, including Lord Byron. Eventually, it takes you through the lovely Rheingau region with its superb wines (don’t miss out on Kloster Eberbach, the very monastery where part of The Name of the Rose was shot) and finishes in picturesque Wiesbaden.

And then you have the whole saga thing involving the Rhine going on. If you’re an opera aficionado, you’ll know Wagner’s Ring, as the four-part Ring der Nibelungen is referred to. Really great stuff, if you can turn a blind eye to the composer’s dubitable qualities as a human being. Or, if you’re a bookworm like I am, you’ll devour Stephan Grundy’s Rhinegold, which compellingly retells the Scandinavian version of the famous legend.

Next week, let’s look at the British person’s paragon of romanticism.

The Pommes Buddha says: Roses are red, violets are blue, rhinestones are tacky and so are you.

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Mother’s passport

Schwangere Frau liegend hält  Babybauch und Mutterpass

As the birth of our second child is imminent or may have taken place by the time you read this, I’ve been thinking about this oddly-named booklet that accompanies you through your pregnancy in Germany, the Mutterpass (literally: ‘mother’s passport’). To me it sounds like a certificate you’re awarded when you’ve passed all the exams related to baby stuff such as changing nappies, mopping up barf and skillfully steering around nervous breakdowns two to three times a day.

One manufacturer of baby formula had this very suitable TV ad, which unfortunately I’m unable to locate online. It said something along the lines of ‘No prior experience required. No need for an interview. No assessment centre. And yet the job is yours’, meaning the job of being a parent. The Mutterpass, accordingly, is not a proof of aptitude. It’s a medical document filled out by your OB-GYN (note to German readers: pronounce each letter separately – by the way, a brilliant source for English abbreviations is http://www.acronymfinder.com) which you have to have on your person at all times throughout your pregnancy.

On my quest to find out whether the same thing existed in English-speaking countries, I came across the South Australian ‘pregnancy record’, but couldn’t find an NHS equivalent. My husband’s cousin, a mother of two, informed me that the English equivalent is an A4 record simply referred to as ‘the notes’. I’d love to hear of other ‘bump log’ versions from you ladies around the globe.

The online dictionary dict.cc suggests two translations for Mutterpass, one of them being the above-mentioned ‘pregnancy record (book/booklet)’. However, I found the other one, ‘maternity log’, much more appealing, imagining how I navigate through some kind of baby haze and keep a log to record my journey to and through parenthood. Reminds me a bit of the Ehefähigkeitszeugnis (literally: ‘proof of ability for marriage’, legally a so-called ‘certificate of no impediment’) I only barely escaped from providing when getting married in England.

Next week, we’ll check out a different type of pass …

The Pommes Buddha says: Never trust a mother without a passport.

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The same procedure as last year

Champagnergläser Violett mit Feuerwerk

A ninety-year-old lady, a butler, a handful of invisible guests and a tiger – the perfect ingredients for a very British New Year’s tradition. Or so we Germans think …

Picture a German chatting with a Brit towards the end of the year. At some point, the former is bound to mention the words ‘Dinner for One’, excited expectation oozing from her eyes. In view of the other person’s quizzical face (as his sole association with ‘dinner for one’ is, very literally, convenience food), cues such as ‘Mr Winterbottom’, ‘Mulligatawny soup’ or ‘skol’ (accompanied by a clicking of heels) will be exclaimed in increasing desperation. Alas, to the poor German’s utter disbelief, she will have to come to terms with the fact that the majority of natives from ‘the island’, as Great Britain is occasionally referred to around here, are entirely unfamiliar with the sanctum of (almost) every German person’s New Year’s Eve: the above-mentioned short English theatre play, adapted for television and broadcast, unlike most other foreign-language audiovisual material (see this entry), in the original language next to hourly on most public German TV channels on 31st December every year.

Dinner for One’ is an approximately 20-minute sketch written by English comedian Lauri Wylie, which premiered on London stages in 1948. The ‘German’ version of the play, including a German introduction to explain the goings-on, was performed by English actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden at a recording studio in Germany and produced by the German public broadcaster NDR. It first aired in 1963 and soon became a classic – by now apparently also in various other countries, including Australia.

So, dear non-Germans, if you haven’t seen it, check it out on German telly next Wednesday! Or, if your German is pretty unshakable, try the just-too-delightful Hessian version.

The same procedure next week … We’re wrapping up the year with a rather contemplative question.

Happy New Year, everyone!

The Pommes Buddha says: I’ll do my very best!

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Gute Fahrt, Mr Krabs!

Asphalt mit dem Text Gute Fahrt

Any expat living abroad will experience this at some point: you’ll come across a word in the language of your country of choice that may provoke an inappropriate reaction because, though being perfectly neutral in that language, it is rude or knee-slappingly hilarious in your native tongue. Let’s look at some German words that cannot be pronounced by an English-speaking person without at least a tiny smirk.

It all starts with ‘Gute Fahrt!’ (‘Have a safe journey!’), which my husband, in his British, slightly-embarrassed but giggly, can’t-let-that-one-go-uncommented manner usually responds to with ‘Don’t mind if I do …,’ as it sounds to him like best wishes for a healthy passing of wind.

Remaining in the realm of digestion, one day on our street I came across a van labelled with a strange company name that doesn’t even mean anything in German but struck me because it would have been impeccably spelled, were it an English name: Oxenfart (pertaining to a certain Frank, who, as it happens, does very snazzy bathrooms).

Names of companies or products are a fascinating thing in this respect, by the way. Have any of you heard of the Mitsubishi Pajero? Probably not, because it’s called ‘Shogun’ in the UK and ‘Montero’ in North America and Spanish-speaking countries because in colloquial Spanish ‘pajero’ means ‘wanker’. Also, would you go and have your hair cut at a salon called ‘Arson Hair’? (Could be a great dare for your next stag or hen do, though …) But my all-time-favourite in Cologne is … drum roll … Mr Krabs, which is actually a good name for someone dealing in aquarium paraphernalia! Can’t remember why I thought it was funny …

Sorry, guys and girls, this was a very childish foray to the not-so-profound linguistic depths – but I couldn’t resist. And next week, too, we’ll have a crackin’ time, I promise.

The Pommes Buddha says: When you’re looking for crayfish, Mr Krabs is your guy!

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Zwei Gläser Feuerzangenbowle

Glühwein, many Germans would imagine, is a very German thing. Hot red wine with citrus fruit and spices … we’ve known and enjoyed it for generations. Those affiliated with the Swedish culture – by relation or through the marketing stunts of a certain Swedish furniture company – will be familiar with the Scandinavian variant glögg. But did you know that the English have it, too?

I was surprised to hear that ‘mulled wine’ is not just a translation of glögg or Glühwein, but is actually its own long-standing tradition in Great Britain. Though probably drunk primarily at home and not at Christmas markets, which are just starting to gain ground over there, the concept – and presumably most recipes – are utterly identical.

The Wikipedia entry for ‘mulled wine’, however, reminded me of an interesting German variation of the Glühwein formula, namely Feuerzangenbowle (literally ‘fire tongs punch’), which has earned its own right, both as a cult film to be watched as a happening Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show style with bring-along gadgets such as an alarm clock, a torch and a sparkler and as the beverage which gave the film (or rather the book it is based on) its name and is now the flagship drink for New Year’s Eve. Picture a large bowl of mulled wine and a bridge-like metal contraption suspended across the opening of said bowl and holding a large sugar cone. This sugar cone is then soaked with rum and set on fire. More rum is added until the sugar cone has completely dissolved, dripping, together with the rum, into the wine. This light, low-calorie drink is guaranteed to make all of your guests happy.

And, how do you take yours – subtitled or dubbed? Read more next week …

For the purpose of promoting international understanding, here’s Jamie Oliver’s recipe for mulled wine(including one lime!): http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/recipe/jamie-s-mulled-wine/.

The Pommes Buddha says: Dust off your punch bowls and stoke the fire!

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A saint called Martin

Different handmade lanterns, Sankt Martin

Have some of you expats, newly-arriveds and visitors ever wondered about parades of children with lanterns accompanied by a horse and rider crowding the streets in the November twilight? Or about open fires that no-one seems to be concerned about? And what is a Martinsgans, anyway?

Apart from the regional beginning-of-carnival-season craze, 11 November in Germany is also St Martin’s Day. In late October and early November, schools and nurseries are busy making lanterns with the children, which the little ones then carry proudly on the day of the parade, suspended from poles with little light bulbs to illuminate the precious artworks. Songs are sung, ‘Sankt Martin’ being the most famous one, and ‘St Martin’ and the horse guide the crowd around the block to the bonfire. And then, there’s the best part: each child gets a Weckmann, also called a Stutenkerl in some regions, a man made of fluffy white yeast dough clutching a clay pipe (which used to be a real pipe until everyone knew that it was excellently suited for smoking weed, so now it is just a phoney thing).

This is all in honour of St Martin of Tours, an ascetic monk-turned-bishop who, the story goes, compassionately cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar who was freezing in the snow. The custom of the bonfire (‘Martinsfeuer’) is likely to stem from Germanic midwinter and thanksgiving traditions, with the lanterns (and sometimes torches) fulfilling the same role. The Weckmann probably represents St Martin himself.

During this time of year, many restaurants offer a traditional ‘St Martin’s Goose Meal’ of roasted goose leg served with red cabbage and potato dumplings. This goes back to a legend of St Martin hiding among geese to avoid a fuss over his becoming a bishop and being ‘told on’ by the animals. If your bouche has been ‘amused’ by this, you will look forward to the Variations of Lime on next week’s menu.

The Pommes Buddha says: We love a bit of goose-flesh in the winter.

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When Horst met Doris

Alps - Hiking Couple takes break in mountains

Nomen est omen, the Latin saying goes. Is it really true that your name tells people more about you than you’d suspect? And what the heck does all of this have to do with Horst and Doris?

The authors of Freakonomics have linked baby names from US-American registry files with the average amount of years the respective mothers have spent in further and higher education. They maintain that your first name reveals your social origin (read more here).

But then there are names that burden their bearers not only as – supposed – telltale tokens of their social background but also as derisive designations, thus having acquired their own separate little picturesque lives as nouns. For example, Horst may be a nice (likely middle-aged) guy in German, but if used in a certain context (Du Horst!), the name is a way of expressing one’s displeasure at the other person’s foolishness. (Even more emphasis can be added by referring to someone as a Vollhorst.) The British, and apparently also US-American, equivalent would be ‘Doris’, as evidenced in a quote from the TV series Life of Crime, ‘You’re not even a constable. You’re a Doris. A plonk.’ (Incidentally, ‘plonk’ in British English may also refer to ‘cheap wine’, Plörre in German.)

I’m sure there are more examples of proper names being used in a derogatory manner in other English-speaking countries, and I’d love to hear from you, dear natives of those lands – do make avid use of the ‘Comment’ section below.

I wonder, though, why it’s a male name in German and a female name in English. Are there more male twonks in Germany and more female wallies in England? Or is it just a matter of Horst & Doris’ respective life partners being less tolerant than their counterparts? This is a mystery we’ll never solve. One mystery that can be solved, however, is that of the guy living in the roof gutter. Read more next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: Don’t put the saddle on the wrong Horst.

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Of owls and other birds

UK Wild Llittle Owl

In a recent conversation with friends, the German saying Wat dem eenen sin Uhl [Eule], is dem annern sin Nachtigall (literally: ‘One man’s owl is another man’s nightingale’) came up. When my English husband enquired about the meaning of Nachtigall, our friends’ sixteen-year-old daughter suggested ‘mockingbird’ (Spottdrossel) as a translation. But isn’t that an entirely different kettle of fish?

After some discussion, it turned out that the daughter, who insisted she had verified the translation (‘Generation Y’-style, on her smartphone, of course), based her assumption on the German translation of the book title ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (Wer die Nachtigall stört). In this specific case, the mockingbird, commonly found in North America and the state bird of several US-American states while rarely sighted in Europe, was replaced in the German book title by the nightingale, a bird more prevalent there and thus more familiar to German-speaking readers. (Besides, Wer die Spottdrossel stört just hasn’t got this certain ring to it, does it?). Translation theorists refer to this seeming mismatch as ‘pragmatic translation’ or ‘cultural substitution’, meaning that a culture-specific word is replaced with a target-language word with a different meaning but a similar impact on the target reader (Mona Baker: In other words. A coursebook on translation. Routledge, 1992, p.31).

Getting back to the German saying, it is maintained that the owl represents doom or death, whereas the nightingale with its beautiful song is a bearer of good news, so an apt translation would indeed be ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’.

My favourite use of the German Nachtigall, however, is in the Berlin figure of speech Nachtijall, ick hör’ da trapsen!, which refers to the speaker’s hunch or premonition about something – perhaps a ‘ghost driver’. Read more next week …

The Pommes Buddha says: When the nightingale traipses, there is no escape.

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