Monthly Archives: January 2009


“How about the house?”, I asked Francesca every time we met for the last six week when she was bidding for the house of her dreams. “We bought it yesterday”, she said and laughed happily. “Let´s write about housebuying”, I proposed, glad to have found the topic of the week.

Later, I regretted this swift decision. Am I really qualified to write about housebuying? I never bought or built a house. Furthermore, I´m afraid I´m not typical German when it comes to houseowning. Till late in my teens I even didn´t know that private property of houses existed.

I grew up in a community where every house and all the land were state-owned. Don´t get me wrong.  I didn´t grow up in the German Democratic Republic or any other socialist country of Europe. I grew up in free market “Wirtschaftswunderland” West Germany, in a community where the conservative party gained absolute majority in any election.  Nothing was more remote to the minds of this hardworking people than ideas of collectivism and state run economy. Nevertheless,that´s how it was.

The story started in the 1920ies, when the village was still the property of the families living there. They owned the 12 farmhouses, the few acres of farmland,  and the far more acres of woods. The wood payed off so well that they started to spend big money: they bought cars, smoked cigars and lived far above their means. When the financial crash came in 1929, they found themselves deep in debt and had to sell everything. From these days on, they lived in stateowned houses and worked in the woods as lumberjacks, the state being landlord and employer at the same time.

As late as the 1980ies, the government started to sell back the houses and to allow the building of new houses. That´s when private property of houses came back into the village and a war broke out about who gets the best piece of land to build a house. Till today, I can feel anger and resentment in my mothers voice when she talks about her neighbor who got what she considers to be the best building site.

When I write building site, I feel a shiver of excitement. From the Second World War till our days, the term Baugrundstück meant windfall money. Most of the people I know could only afford to buy a house because they inherited a Baugrundstück, and inherited it as the sole heir. Thus, they could sell it profitably and live happily hereafter. The unfortunate ones had to share the inheritance in an Erbengemeinschaft.  As an Erbengemeinschaft consists of people who never can agree on anything, these poor souls still own a scrap of land but can´t get anything out of it. Francesca was lucky. Had she dealt with an Erbengemeinschaft, she would wait for her buying contract till Sankt Nimmerleinstag, the day that never comes. 

But then, for a German, house building is much better than house buying. When we spent such a huge amount of money, we want the house to be custom made, planned according to our wishes from cellar to attic.  Though this doesn´t mean that you will find a huge variation of styles in a housing development or Neubaugebiet. To build houses is highly regulated in Germany: local laws tell what sizes and shapes are allowed, and what materials should be used. Neighbours have to agree to your plans, as well as the Ordnungsamt or local council. 

Given that Germans are born with a Bausparvertrag, the savings plan parents sign the day mother comes out of hospital, I was surprised to find that–according to polls–half of the population still lives in rented rooms. Even in the agegroup from 60 to 64 only 61 percent of the people own their house or flat. Am I more typical than I imagined?

In Germany to build a house means to settle down. Once, people own a house, their mobility equals nil. They stay, come what may come. When Germany´s capital moved from Bonn to Berlin, for more a than a decade people working for the government commuted every weekend 400 miles back to Bonn because they didn´t want to sell their house. So, people who like to move, like me, rather rent than buy.

Francesca never ceases to tell me that of course I can move when I have bought a house, as I can always rent it out to somebody else. My mind accepts her reasoning, but my stubborn German soul knows that I will never move again if I own a house.

As I haven´t moved for 15 years now, maybe it is time to buy a house? 


Maybe next year.

For this year I will see what happens to Francesca. Last time friends bought a house that “of course, needed a bit a redoing”, they didn´t have one weekend off for six years.

The life of a houseowned can be hard. 

Will this be another story?


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Vacations – Who gets the best weeks?

“What shall we write about, as there are no traditional events for the next weeks?” Francesca asked. 

“Vacations”, I said. 

When the row of traditional events is over, Germans make their own events. In January, they plan their vacations. In every office, there are heated discussions who will be on holiday leave at what time of the year. Heated only by German standards, of course. Nobody watching would realise that livelong feuds start over who can take vacations over Fronleichnam or Christi Himmelfahrt this year.

Germans like to make the most out of what they get.

They get five to six weeks of paid holiday leave by their employers, and another 8 to 10 days of national holidays. By taking vacations in weeks with national holidays, one to two extra vacation weeks can be carved out of working time. Thus, the ritual January-office-battles are fought about who gets which week around what national holidays.

If all participants of such a planning session obey to the unwritten rules of holiday taking, chances are that damages to the office climate will only be minor. Those unwritten rules say that

– Parents are allowed up to three weeks vacations during school holidays in summer and can take the Christmas holidays.

– Non-parents have to take their holiday leave outside school holidays in summer, but are allowed Christmas holiday leave if they alternate with another non-parent.

– Parents should leave weeks with national holidays outside school holidays to non-parents, like Pentecoast (Pfingsten), Workers day (1st May) or Reunification day ( 3rd October).

– Never, never take leave both on Christi Himmelfahrt and Fronleichnam. As these National holidays always take place on a Thursday, one can get four days off work in a row for just one day of holiday leave.  If you don´t alternate leave taking on these days, you are in deep trouble. Nobody will complain openly, but you are marked as “unkollegial” forever.

– The acceptable span of time you can take for holidays is 3 weeks maximum, though two weeks are better. You are allowed four weeks when you go on an adventure trip to faraway places, like riding the Transsibirian train.

Add to this set of unwritten rules a set of outward restrictions like day-care  center holidays, changing rates at the holiday ressorts, fixed dates at work and – worst of all – a significant other whose vacations rhythm at work isn´t synchronized with your rythm yet, and you will understand why I  feel a wave of panic rise in writing about vacations. And I haven´t talked about “Resturlaub” yet. 

Resturlaub is what you get when you leave part of your vacation planning to chance. This always happens to me and never to my sister. I work in media, she as a civil servant. She plans the whole year, I only the first half. Then, in the second half, I never seem to have time for a holiday leave. Thanks to Resturlaub, I can take part of my Urlaub the next year. 

When I counted last week, I still had 2 weeks Resturlaub, adding to my 5 weeks this year. What shall I do? I have no time to take holidays.

Deine Sorgen möchte ich haben-I would like to have your problems”-we say in Germany when we think that somebodies problems are mere trifles compared to all the serious problems of the world. 

I like my sorrows and want to keep them. A few more weeks into the year and I´ll allow myself to look forward to the pleasures of vacations. Then I will tell you about sandcastles at the Baltic see, liver paté in France and organic sausages in London.

I intended to do it already this time. Everything was set in my head, but when I put pen to paper, or rather fingers to keys, this eulogy on vacation planning came out.

At least,  I live up to my name. As a true German, I put work first, and pleasure later. 

So, the tale of vacation´s pleasures will be another story.


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Ferienzeit – The Times They Are A-Changing

We boarded the night-time train and headed for our booked compartment. We were on our way for our once a year vacation from Germany to Italy, the home of my mother. We would stay with my grandparents; enjoy the weather, the sea, an alternative life-style, food and language. As soon as we would settle into our 1st class compartment we would spread out, having use of all the seats, pull them out, turning the place into one giant bed, wrap ourselves into blankets and coats and sleep our way to Italy.

My father´s only childhood vacations, in the States during the thirties and forties, were one-day outings to islands on the lakes nearby or spending time in a rented cottage near the lakes. My mother went to the mountains above Rome during the summer, to escape the heat in the city. In our seventies moment in Germany we considered it a great luxury to stay in Rome for the summer vacation, although it did not compare to the frequency and variety of holidays our German friends considered normal. Winter and Spring was for skiing in Austria or Switzerland. Summer found them moving down the motorway in endless columns towards sunnier regions – in those days preferably Spain, Italy and France. It seemed the further away the better. If at the end of this travel they all ended up on overcrowded beaches full of their own kind, cursing the sand thrown up by running children and burning their pale skins to crisp, it was perfect.

Instead I looked forward to this 12-hour trip in relative comfort and relax on plush, red seats and surrounded by the dusty, slightly burned smell of travel. The gentle noise and movement of the train sang to us in our dreams. Sometimes the cold air of mountain ranges seeped under our blankets, and we would huddle closer for warmth and more sleep. At arrival all six of us would squeeze into a TAXI, enjoy a roller coaster ride through Rome and finally be greeted by our grandmother, who offered chicken soup to the tired travelers. We were lucky our grandparents lived where others went on Holiday.

We stood in front of our compartment and double checked the number on our tickets and on the door with our reservation stuck to it. It was definitely ours and we wondered why two Germans were sitting in it. We knew that Germans are very good at rules, so it had to be an honest mistake. The reservation stated clearly this train would be taken from our station onward. My mother patiently explained to them that we had booked the compartment and they would have to move. They grinned. Then we tried the authorities and called upon the train attendant; a tired, tiny man. He confirmed in heavily accented German that we were entitled to the whole compartment, but this left the men unimpressed and unmoved. The train attendant shrugged and turned to us with a sad smile playing on his lips. “What can one do?” he asked my mother in Italian.

The men were as large as they were tall and there was something about the way they ignored my mother, the Italian train attendant and a bundle of children that were longing for their compartment that made me uneasy. Even my ten year old mind detected that something was amiss, but I could not understand why these people behaved so differently from my German friends.

My mother knew. The train attendant knew. Maybe my older sisters got it too. And I know now my father knew and that explains what happened next.

My father, although tall, is a skinny fellow with glasses. He looks much younger than his age and all his secret weight lifting has no effect on making his visuals more impressive. Additionally he wears an eye-patch, where he is missing an eye.

When my father saw with his one eye and his whole heart that these men were behaving wrong for all the wrong reasons he transformed. I swear that he grew even taller, certainly wider. His face turned red and his one eye fixed on the men in a way that made them squirm. This took about two seconds. Not enough time for them to react to what happened in the next three seconds. My father pounced on the larger one, pulled at his shirt, lifting him out of the seat (this is where the weight lifting finally paid off) and broadcast in a voice tuned to all languages of the world, “If you don´t shift your ugly bottoms out of this place NOW you are going to be VERY SORRY!”

My mother nearly fainted, while we children readied ourselves to pull our father off his victims. The train attendant raised his eyebrows, scratched his head and smiled. Another second and we saw the backside of some very burly men scuttling off down the aisle in search of a safe haven. They just had made the acquaintance of the original hulk – our Daddy.

I hope the next time they met a large family of inoffensive and innocuous foreigners, they thought twice about acting superior. You never know where the Hulk might show up.



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To vote or not to vote

” I can´t come on Saturday morning”, I said to Francesca. “I have to wait till the election material arrives.” “Which election?” she asked.

She can´t vote. I can. Or must. Having to vote sometimes isn´t easy, as the options often aren´t really attractive. This time, they are especially unattractive, because we voted for the Minsterpräsident of Hessen 12 month ago and then the elected party couldn´t form the government because of  internal conflicts. Therefore, on Sunday, once again, we are called to the ballot box.

This call is strong. Not exactly a siren´s song, though. More and more Germans resist the urge to vote. Voters participation is decreasing, from an average 80 to 90 percent till reunification  to 60 to 80 percent today. The non-voters are on the rise.

Sometimes I would like to be a non-voter, too.

I can´t.

Every time I start to think: “Why should I vote on Sunday?  I can´t make up my mind Wer das kleinere Übel ist – who is the best out of a bunch of no-goods”, my conscience strikes back. Or is it a Pawlow´s reflex, started by the white postcard Wahlbenachrichtigung I find in my postbox six weeks before an election? It tells me that the next election is coming soon and that I should prepare myself to go on Sunday the Xth to our neighborhood school to vote. The card looks very “amtlich” and doesn´t say what to do if you can´t make up your mind. It only tells you what to do when you aren´t in town: to get the forms for a vote-per-mail system.

What  I usually do with my Wahlbenachrichtigung is to lose it. If I want to, I can be impressively unorganized. But it doesn´t help. I get this Wahlbenachrichtigung  because everybody in Germany is registered in the community he lives in. First thing you do when you move in Germany is to go to the Rathaus (city hall) and tell them you are now living in their town. The new adress is registered on the identity card you always have to carry with you. Before each election, a list is made of who lives in town and who is older than 18. Everybody on this list is entitled to vote and gets a Wahlbenachrichtigung. Unfortunately for me, a copy of this list is kept at the polling station as well. Therefore, I just have to go there, show my identity card, and an election helper checks if I´m on the list. If I am, I can vote.

It took me about twenty years till I realized that I – in theory – have the option to non-vote, too. The way I grew up, voting was one of the things you just do, a morale imperative, like brushing the teeth in the morning, never to be questioned. Of course, I learnt at school the history of our voting system, its complex structures of proportional majorities, and its role as a foundation of democracy. Alas, action doesn´t necessarily follow knowledge. What gets me into the polling place every election Sunday is the habit of doing it.

It started with social control. In the little village I grew up, the election helpers knew the list of voters by heart. Not to show up on election day would have been embarassing. Later, I wanted to vote, because I wanted to take part in important decisions. Today, I doubt that my taking part is important, but: “You never know”.

I would succed in non-voting more easily if the way to voting wouldn´t be so smooth. The government makes it really easy for every German to follow his conscience and to fulfill his Bürgerpflicht, his duty as a citizen. The polling takes place in local schools nearby. Election day always is a Sunday, when most people don´t have to work. On this day, voting places stay open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. As there is one station to every 1000 prospective voters, there aren´t any lines you have to wait in.

The whole process runs exclusively on manpower. No computer or any other kind of maschine is employed in the election process. To help in an election is one of very few things in Germany you can´t say “No” to when asked.Though, in general, no citizen has to be forced, because the political parties are eager to help. They send their members to make sure that the other parties don´t play dirty. Thus, a very effective system of check and balances guarantees the correct counting of every vote.

This year, I actively took  part in the process, too–if  sitting on the sofa and waiting for the man from the Wahlamt to to deliver the election material classifies as actively taking part. My spouse is one of the volunteers responsible to manage a polling station (another reason I have to vote). Therefore, election day in our family started this Saturday morning with the doorbell ringing.

When I opened the door, I couldn´t believe my eyes. I knew I would be handed important documents, state documents, the basic tools of our democracy. I expected at least two bodyguards and a steel casette, plombed and sealed. Instead, I opened the door, faced a frail middleaged women, and was handed  a grey cardbord box. This box, I placed on the kitchen table and looked at it in disbelieve. The sides were stapled together. Pack-thread closed the lid. No red seal or lead plomb secured the content. This box must have been designed for the first general election in 1919 and been in use ever since.

“Anybody can open the box and manipulate the material”, I exclaimed when my spouse came home.  

“What do you want to manipulate the material for?” My spouse has been trained in polling-station-management before Christmas. “Fill in the crosses beforehand? Then you still have to smuggle the forms into the ballot box. This is nearly impossible as there must be at least three people in the polling place at any time. Even if you succeeded, the manipulation would be detected when the votes were counted and checked against the number of people who showed up for voting”. 

In fact, a recent court decision stated that the old fashioned way of counting by hand, publicly, the process controlled by the citizens, the members of rivalling parties and in a second counting by civil servants, offered much more security than any computerized process could.

What a pity. If I could send my vote from my iPhone, I would enjoy voting much more.

But this is another story.



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Election Blues or Why do I care

There they are again. Everywhere I look, when driving or riding through town, you are introduced to smiling politicians with aspirations or slogans that make you laugh or are reminded with an unpleasant jolt that there are some groups out there that dislike humanity in general and especially foreigners like myself.

They appear over night. The army of volunteers of each party have left their posters like dogs marking their territory, attached to any sign- or lamppost innocently minding its own business. But these signs do not sink into the ground and into oblivion very quickly, but glare at you in colors from green to red, black or yellow denoting their political direction.

Fortunately, for the parties, there are many lampposts and streetsigns,  to attach their posters too. The mainstream parties and even the further left wing use the lower dominions of the posts, so as you drive through town, signs are strategically and unavoidably placed in line of sight. Should your eyes wander further up the lamppost (and only lampposts are high enough) you will find that the further right the party, the higher up the sign must hang. If this was not the case the posters would not only suffer just the usual defacement or slightly ripped poster. They would (and should) disappear altogether and I would applaud such a move, even offering some space up in my ample paper waste-bin (although I would want to disinfect it afterwards) to dispose of the remnants, because they are always tasteless, thoughtless, primitive and provocative to an extreme. Although I might not belong to the group of foreigners at the brunt of their current ire, I mind the insult to my person, my intelligence and my humanity and it might be me next.

Elections usually pass me by, because I cannot vote in most of them and although they are less drawn out and exciting here, than for example the last US Presidential election, I prefer not to have to suffer the tension and hope. Unfortunately this also has the effect that I follow much less what is going on politically, as I cannot influence the outcome. I can vote on some local and European issues (due to my complicated personal heritage) and then I try following the news. German newsreaders are known for their calm and quiet presentation of the facts. Britain is just a notch more excited but still pleasant, while Italy is on the border of bearable (and who would think they are just exchanging recipes), while newsreaders in the States have me running for cover. An American cousin remarked that he was switching to BBC-World to get American news in September 2008, so his blood pressure would suffer less.

When I can vote I do. I might not like the tension and crushed hope, but I believe that when I do have the opportunity to express my opinion I have the civic duty to do so and most Germans agree, even if they are as cynical as the next person about the choice between parties. Voter turnout wavered somewhere between 75% and 85% in the last years and people think that is embarrassingly low (compare to November 2008, USA when 56,8% went to vote and this was considered a record high).

I really wanted to stay on this subject of voting, but when I thought of the turnout, the civic duty that Germans can take seriously to levels looking exaggerated to most human beings, I realize I want to make another point today. We might disagree and grumble at our state, but if we want to make things better we have to try and we have to try together. So many things in Germany work, from “Vereine” to Emergency Services, because many people are giving their time for free to the community and because they believe and understand their own purpose. When I interviewed a Union man a few years back I asked him why he was doing it: sacrificing his career, most of his free time and a good portion of his sanity. His reply was a surprise, “Because I am an egoist. I want to get things done and I know I can’t do that alone. I need others and they need me too.” That’s what I call healthy egoism.

And because I am thinking about voting and choosing the right candidate and how when that is done your work does not really end, and because after all this is a blog and I should be able to digress when I want to, I choose to tell you about the people in need who are on my mind today, far away from Germany, and how I would like to help with my simple means of spreading the word, amplifying their call for help, so that their need is fulfilled by those who understand, like most Germans, what civic and humanitarian duty is about. And to make it clear that for every a message of intolerance there are thousands of good will, solidarity and tolerance to oppose them.

I have read about their plight here and here. In simple words rural Alaskan are being crushed by the oil and food prices in an unusual cold spell. A crisis which they were suffering in silent dignity until one of their own decided to publish their suffering by sending out a cry for help last Tuesday. In the meantime this appeal spread across the USA with the help of the blogosphere and hopefully very soon with the help of the media. As we speak, bloggers have donated enough money to send out an independent filmographer to document the crisis, have donated for food  and oil and the villages are being contacted to see how many more are in the dire straits reported in the original appeal. How preventable and how many warnings were received in the past months, which alerted the current yet uncaring local government, can remain secondary to the need to help for now, but will have to receive further scrutiny when the emergency has passed.

These Alaskans are no strangers to hard times and to reach a point where they ask for help must mean that it is bad. Many years ago a famous actor turned humanitarian challenged the German speaking viewers during “Wetten das”, a popular Saturday night entertainment show (from the site

“In 1981 Karlheinz Böhm undertook a bet in the ZDF TV show “Wetten, dass…?” that “not one in three viewers would donate a German mark, Swiss franc or seven Austrian schillings for the needy people in the Sahel zone (Ethiopia).” Karlheinz Böhm won the bet and nevertheless flew to Ethiopia with about 1.2 million Swiss francs in October 1981. On 13 November 1981 he founded the relief organisation Menschen für Menschen (People for People) in Germany.“

And they are still going strong.

If the German, Swiss and Austrian viewers could do this for faraway Ethiopia when governments failed to provide aid, why not do the same for your fellow Americans. Just People for People.

That is not a question and this is not an election.


btn_donatecc_lgThis should take you to the site where you can donate directly to the efforts of buying food and/or oil. If you want to send a check follow the links in the article above which provide further information.


To help, please call:

City of Emmonak, (907) 949-1227/1249 (They will take donations by credit card.  Please specify the donation is for heating oil!)

Emmonak Tribal Council, (907) 949-1720

or send a check to:

Emmonak Tribal Council
P.O. Box 126
Emmonak, AK 99581
Attn: Christine Alexie



These links have been sent to me today from Alaska. Thankyou to WritingFromAlaska. This will give you useful background information:

Hard times bring about Alaska migration influx
Changes Abound in Alaska
Resolved: state of emergency exists in rural Alaska
Addressing concerns of rural Alaska

UPDATE Please read the note from Ann Strongheart. Your help is arriving and greatly appreciated.

03rd of February –
Amazing feedback on the help that is arriving in Nunam Iqua, Alaska. Thankyou to everybody involved getting help to our fellow human beings.

02/09/2009  The news has finally reached the Mainstream Media. There are also a series of interesting videos which are linked in the text:

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Snow – friend or fiend?

“Excuse me. The U-Bahn was late because of the snow,” Francesca said when she arrived 15 minutes late to our meeting. “The Germans can´t handle snow any more,” I grumbled.”Two snowflakes, and everything runs late. Just shows how far German reliability has gone down.” “But in London public transport really broke down”, our South Korean friend reminded me. “In comparison, 15 minutes late in  Germany aren´t that bad”.

When it comes to snow, I become a raging “Kulturpessimist”, one of those  who always  sigh “When I was young, everything was much better”.

Snow  was much better when I was young.

First of all, there was snow. Snow season started in December and lasted till March. Sometimes we even looked for Easter eggs in a snow covered garden. In the moderate clima zone of Germany, snow meant fun: skiing, riding a sleigh, bulding a snowman, snowball fights. At least for the kids. For my father, it was hard work. Every morning, after a night of falling snow, I woke up to the sound of the snow shovel scraping on our gravel road. 200 m he had to clear before he could get out to work. I didn´t hear his words, probably for the better. But his angry shoulders and abrupt movements told me that he was not amused. 

When I got up and went to school, not only had my father already cleared our private road, but the public roads were free of snow, too. At 5 o´clock in the morning, the snow plough had started its work. It pushed the snow aside with its iron shield, coughed it up with the snowblower and melted it with salt distributed by a rotating disc. The garage of the snowplough was near my parents home. On my way to school I passed the huge barn, filled with saltbags for winter. Those saltbags, empty,  served as make-shift bobs for us children, as they where very thick and durable. 

Snow never was a problem for drivers in the Black forest. Everybody boasted confidence, nobody came one minute late because of the snow. The secret: be prepared. We had cars whith  engines in the back and not in front, which helped when you had to drive uphill in snow. Everbody knew which gear to choose for the right speed on snowy slopes and winding streets. Everybody knew about engine brakes, had non-skid chains in its trunk and winter tyres on the rims. Sometimes, when somebody got stuck on a hill, all neighbors came to weigh the rear end down with their bodies. 

While  enjoying these happy memories I always forget about the cold. Cold as in terribly cold. Wet woolen mittens didn´t warm my fingers, neither did unlined wellingtons warm my toes . All during winter,  feet and hands were icy red. And wouldn´d get warm at night.

Germans don´t heat bedrooms. Instead, they rely on thick feather duvets and a hot water-bottle for warmth (some of them with two ears…). Normally, the window is open, at least a bit. For this nightly nip of fresh air, German windows can be opened two ways: completely or by unhingeing the upper part which then inclines into the room.  This is the mode for the night, while the wide open window is reserved for the morning, when the duvets are placed on the window sill to air them. 

Germans sincerely believe in the prophylactic power of cold and fresh air: as if bacteria and viruses would immediately die in an oxygen enriched, cold environment. To catch a cold, in our understanding, is only remotely connected to the temperature outside. Of course, German mothers insist that their children wear coat, gloves and cap in winter. But deep in their heart they don´t worry too much: “Draußensein in der Kälte härtet ab. Das ist die beste Vorsorge gegen Erkältung – to beware of a cold  be out in the cold.”

Those “on duty” when snow falls find ample opportunities to enjoy the cold. By law, sidewalks must be cleared from snow before 7 o´clock in the morning and kept open till 8 o´clock in the evening. Otherwise, if somebody falls and breaks its ankle, he can claim liability. In principle, the clearing of the sidewalks lies in the responsibility of the local council. In practice, local councils hand this responsibility down to house owners, who hand it further down to the tennants. Whose duty is to  do what in which week is part of rental contracts and elaborate in-house arrangements. In German appartment houses, you often see calendars with alternating names either fixed to the notice board or dangling from the doorknob of the person on duty.

Homesick Ohioan gets lesson in Snowshovelling in 1967 @John C. Krueger

Homesick Ohioan gets lesson in Snowshovelling in 1967 @John C. Krueger

This schedules for “Kehrwoche” must be obeyed, at all cost. Otherwise, sanctions aren´t far away. A German saying goes: “Es kann der Beste nicht in Frieden leben, wenn es dem bösen Nachbarn nicht gefällt – even the best can´t live in peace if his neighbours decide do act nasty”.  On the other hand, if you obey to the Kehrwoche rules and fight your way out into a snowstorm at 6 o´clock to shovel snow, you will be rewarded with the warmest possible welcome from your neighbours, a 10 on the Richter-scale. 

My landlord outsourced the snow-cleaning job to a professional firm. Lucky me. I can stay in my – heated – bedroom till it´s time to go to work. It is only when I see my handsome new neighbour shoveling snow that I feel a pang of regret. 

But this is another story.


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Hibernation and “Was Dich nicht umbringt macht Dich nur stärker”

My hair froze.

It’s not the arctic, just Germany in an unusual cold snap. While walking home I caught the pitying look of a pedestrian coming my way and could not understand the reason until I caught sight of my hair, which stood out under my hat in its usual untidy waves but tinted a frozen white. I was afraid if I touched it, it would snap off with a satisfactory tchik noise.

-15 Celsius is unusual. Still we expect our children to weather it all. Many foreigners from warmer shores, who stay here only temporarily, huddle their children to school in their cars at every drop of rain, snow or other “ill” weather and express desperation when the kids are sent outside during the breaks while their German counterparts dress their kids in snowsuits for the cold season and raingear and specialized mud-pants for the rainy season. If we did not adapt to the weather around here we would be going out even less than already is the case. It is winter after all and if we want some snow the only way we seem to be able to keep it in these last years, is if the temperatures drop well below 0 and stay there.

Igloo in the Taunus @Smangane

Igloo in the Taunus @Smangane


This week saw the holiday of Epiphany, Los Reyes Magos , Heilige Drei Könige or La Befana. Exploring the history of our calendars I discover how hard our ancestry worked at creating consistency. Our current calendar evolved, till it attained this structure in which our birthdays and holidays happen in the same season and we always have the same number of months (Here you will find all sorts of interesting data.). Not so in China or Korea. A friend from Korea told me that although they use the Gregorian calendar they mark the Chinese Year on it as well and some of the older generation still move their birthdays and other events accordingly. One year her mother celebrated her birthday in summer and the next in winter.


That is amazing. Here I am admiring my skillful dance between different cultures and languages and suddenly I realize how easy I have it in comparison. We share fundamental things like calendars and know no alternatives. We can completely ignore the recent (1582!) history of their creation and enjoy the fruits of a well-regulated time and calendar system. We can ignore that without precise watches seamen would still risk getting hopelessly lost at sea and we can time our meetings and plan our birthdays for the same day and season every year with only subtle shifts like leap years or leap seconds, which we hardly notice and often forget (Google: Results 55,800 for leap year, software glitch). Consistency is so reassuring.


In January we have left behind the religious holidays and are contemplating the arrival of “Fasching” (Carneval), which officially started in the 11th month on the 11th of day at 11 minutes passt 11 o`clock and will last until the end of February, but we don’t have time to think of preparations until the 06th of January, when with the arrival of the Kings we clear our houses of all related to Christmas by packing up decorations and throwing our trees into the streets. I shiver at the thought of dancers big and small preparing for the Fasching parade in February in their traditionally very short skirts. I can see them in countless halls across the countries donning their colorful suits and three point hats with a fur trimming (Why is the fur on the hats? Why don’t they have long coats?) practicing their steps and baton moves. Maybe school breaks out in any weather have prepared the countless “Funkemariechen” for the feat they are about to perform, which is marching throughout town for the parade in their little skirts, while the audience huddles in winter coats, scarves and wool hats.


I feel I was luckier when I played the role of one of the three kings as a child. We were allowed to dip into the vast treasure of smocks, woolen skirts of mass servants and adorned ourselves with one of the fancy priest stoles, which we  thought was a huge privilege. Pretending to be men and kings (Yes, the servants were all girls in 1976. The boys were all out playing football. I mean soccer.) meant that we could dress warmly. I don´t remember much about the actual event. A few chalkmarks over doors marking our passing and a blessing for the house. What remains are photos that are gradually turning yellow showing myself and my fellow kings grinning into the camera, tucking our long hair under crowns and turbans.


It is a vague but sweet memory to keep me warm as I follow my father’s advice and hibernate like other clever animals and stay in my cave, waiting for warmer and sunnier times, while my children as all young ones test and improve their resistance to life and all its trials in winter weather and school halls according to the old saying “Was Dich nicht umbringt, macht Dich nur stärker”.



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A country on stand-by

“I can´t get into the internet! I can´t do my post.” When Francesca phoned yesterday, she was desperate. Disaster started when she agreed to switch to a faster DSL-line with Deutsche Telekom. For six weeks, nothing happened, till  Wednesday 31st. At 11:30 a.m. the technical service from Telekom called. “We switch you to the new line now”, they said. “Please wait till the new year”, Francesca begged. But it was too late. They switched, and the DSL-line instantly went dead. Since then Francesca tries to lure a Telekom serviceman to come to her house. To no avail. “Zwischen den Jahren” (between the old and the new year), Germany is a country on stand-by. 

“The biggest surprise in this is that anybody worked on Wednesday 31st at all”, I said. “Aber Ausnahmen bestätigen die Regeln–exceptions prove that a rule is true”.  As a rule, “Zwischen den Jahren”, work is down to a minimum. In the offices, one man or woman “hält die Stellung” (keeps the department going). Just in case the phone rings. Which it never does. So, time in the office is spent pleasantly with winnowing files on desk and desktop. At home, shelves are reorganized, kitchens restructured, closets cleaned from old junk. Seen from the perspective of the new year,   what seemed of utter importance in 2008 becomes disposable in 2009, and is consequently disposed of. 

During the quiet days”Zwischen den Jahren”, the country recharges. Normally, this time ends on January 1st and is only interrupted by Silvester, New Years eve.

 On this day, December 31st, shops and offices close at 12 o´clock so everybody can get ready for the New Year celebrations. While Christmas is the time for family,  Silvester is the time to go out. Private parties, public parties, special events in cinema, opera, restaurants, hotels … nobody stays at home on Silvester.  Unless to watch “Dinner for one” on TV. This slapstick comedy about an English lady and her Butler  has been broadcasted on Silvester for 45 years by now and never lost its popularity. Its catch phrase ” Same procedure as last year?– Same procedure as every year” has become a typical German saying. Don´t be suprised if a German starts to laugh, seemingly out of the blue, when somebody says “Same procedure as …”. Those few words start a movie in every Germans head, of a butler serving the role of four men at his ladies 90th birthday, stumbling drunkenly over a stuffed tiger.

At midnight, church bells start to ring. Everybody goes outside to light the fireworks. Family, friends and neighbours hug and kiss. “Man prostet sich zu”–glasses full of Sekt, a German champagne,  are joined. With “Frohes neues Jahr” best wishes for the new year are exchanged. Soon after, because of the cold, everybody goes back into the house.

The next morning, January 1st, is a public holiday. In the south of Germany, we eat a Neujahrs-Brezel for breakfast. This pretzel can be made from sweet dough (my tradition) or bread dough (my spouse´s tradition), but it is always huge and finely decorated. Its special form symbolizes the the circle of life, when every ending becomes a beginning. 

Usually, “Zwischen den Jahren” ends on January 2nd.  This year, though, because January 2nd falls on a Friday and nobody bothers to start work on a Friday,  it lasts till January the 5th, in southern Germany even till 7th because of “Heilige Drei Könige”, a public holiday in those states of Germany that used to be catholic. On this day, children called ´Sternsinger` go from house to house, sing and collect money for poor children around the world. As a thank you and a benediction, they write in white chalk over your entrance door: “20  C+M+B 09”. The initals stand for Casper, Melchior and Balthasar, the name of the three wise men, and as well as for  “Christus mansionem benedicat”,  Latin for “That Christ shall benedict this house”. 

After Dreikönig, the row of public holidays end. Life goes back to normal. Which, unfortunately, doesn´t automatically mean that the serviceman from Telekom will stand in Francesca`s door. Nowadays, the old German saying “Wenn es dem Esel zu wohl wird, geht er aufs Eis–when the ass feels too comfortable, he tries the thickness of the ice” changes to “When you have nothing else to worry about, change you telecommunication system”.

But this is another story.


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