Monthly Archives: June 2009

Hospitality

Never visit a German unannounced, guidebooks to Germany say. First, I wanted to protest.

The way I grew up, everybody walked into our house when they wanted to. Everybody was welcome and everybody got something to eat. “Fünf sind geladen, zehn sind gekommen. Schütt Wasser in die Suppe, heiß alle herzlich willkommen” runs a German saying: “When you invite five and ten people come, don´t worry. Add water to your soup and welcome everyone with your heart”. This is the German hospitality I wanted to defend.

Till my neighbour rang the bell the other day – unannounced. I found myself standing in the doorframe, not moving one inch. I like her, but I tried to shield her view from  the mess my rooms are in.

I tell everybody that I´m a lousy housewife – but nobody believes me. No wonder, as I don´t allow anybody to see the state my surroundings normally are in. Of course I would add water to the soup and say a hearty welcome to any unannounced visitor–if they managed to pass my doorstep.

Last year I tried to introduce a kind of drop-by-if you-have time-event: a jour fixe. Every Friday night I opened the door to anybody who wanted to come – unannounced. On Friday afternoons, I cleaned the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room. I forced my son to lay the table. I sent out my husband to buy a better wine. I cooked till the kitchen couldn´t hold the food.

Nobody came.

Germans don´t like ambiguous situations. When I invited our friends saying: you are welcome every Friday night to drop by unannounced,  everybody was pleased: “That´s a good idea! No more complicated arrangements anymore, we just drop in”. Then, on Fridays, they started to worry: “Maybe Truegerman won´t be in this Friday. Or maybe there are already too much people. Did she really mean what she said?”.

Of course I meant it – but nobody believed me.

Tomorrow this won´t happen again. I invited, officially, one month ago and sent out a reminder one week ago. I asked a neighbour to help me with the cleaning last weekend: the floors sparkle, the windows let in the sun.

It took her five hours to do two rooms.

Now my friends can come.

They will find everything perfectly prepared. Of course, they will think: “If this is the state the rooms of a lousy housewife are in, German standards must be extremely high.”

This is the way myths are born.

They will live as long as nobody visits unannounced.

Sometimes it is good to act according to guidebooks.

But this is another story.

@Truegerman

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Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän

Germans love long words. We have an easy way to create them by stitching several nouns together. A Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän works as a captain for the  Danube steamship company. Though this word isn´t used much any more (when did you see your last steamship?) the spirit of it prevails. Especially as it is a title. Nobody admits this any more as democratic Germany yearns to be as relaxed as the Americans, but titles still count.

There are the professional titles like Doktor or Professor. Once you gained them you never loose them.They stick to you like a chewing gum to your shoe. There even is a law saying that those title are part of the name. Anyone who got his or her PhD can insist to be adressed Doktor or Professor.

This would never happen in Germany today. Nevertheless, in their heart, a lot of Doktors and Professors like to be adressed as such. The use or omission of the title serves as a subtle definition of  the hierachical relationship assumed: if  the partner without the title needs the goodwill of the other, he says Herr Doktor or Frau Professor.

Titles can run wild. In the course of a successfull career, they grow in length and weight.   A very honourable man can become Professor Doktor Doktor Doktor XYZ.

His wife used to be Frau Professor Doktor Doktor Doktor. Or even better: Frau Direktor, which means that her husband is a sucessfull businessman rather than a genius in academia.

Recently, I enjoyed a DVD-session with my son. We watched the first German soap opera, the story of work and love at a little family run printshop somewhere in Hessen, called the Firma Hesselbach. A lot of jokes based on the vain attempts of the owners wife, Frau Hesselbach, to be respected as Frau Direktor. “Ei Karl”, she would say when something went not her way “schließlich bin ich eine Frau Direktor“.

Alas, those time are long gone. Therefore, I´m bare of titles. My own doesn´t count any more: Diplomingenieur. It mean that I studied engineering at university and I still need it to get the right jobs, but nobody would adress me this way. Nobody but the Austrians: If you enjoy to hear a Herr Kandidat, Herr Assessor or Frau Ingenieur, cross the border and you will be in heaven.

The lean managment policies of the last decades killed a lot of stratum titles in companies. While I still remember the  Hauptgeschäftsführer, i.e. the main CEO, as compared to the normal CEO, the chance to get a prestigious title at work are dwindling. Luckily, there are millions af associations in Germany, and all of them need a president. While Andy Warhol  promised 15 minutes of fame to everybody, in Germany we have the guarantee of a presidency at least once in a lifetime.

At the moment, I´m Schulelternbeiratsvorsitzende, president of the parents association at school. This job runs out in summer. Then I will have to look for a new presidency–or create my own. In Germany, you need only three people to found a Verein, an association. ‘If we can convince our husbands to join, Francesca and I will be the founding mothers of  the “Verein zur Förderung der interkulturellen Weblogs”, the association for the promotion of intercultural weblogs.

In our first constitutional meeting we would stipulate that there shall be two presidents. The husbands can call themselves Stellvertretende Präsidenten, vice-presidents.

Unfortunately, we can´t make these titles hereditary, as in Truegerman, Präsidentin von und zu Lettersfromgermay.

But this is another story.

© Truegerman

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Queue – yes, we do

Yesterday I wanted to  buy a railway ticket. I put on comfortable shoes, expecting to have to wait in line for a long time.  Then, the big surprise at the station. I had to wait, but I could sit on cushioned red sofas. The queueing was done by a number system: push the button, get your placement in line, then sit down, relax, and wait for your number to show on the monitor.

This number system isn´t new in Germany, though before it seemed to be reserved for the unpleasant situations in life, like unemployment agencies and tax offices. There I would sit on hard chairs and mentally brave myself for the confrontation with the civil servant.

What´s new at the Deutsche Bahn is the nice atmosphere they create. I love those red sofas. They remind me of Starbucks, that´s probably why I was expecting a waiter to come by with a Latte or a glass of water.  Normally queuing isn´t that pleasant in Germany.

A lot of foreignersthink that Germans don´t queue. Believe me, there are lines in Germany, though not always at places where you would expect it.

In Germany, we don´t queue at busses, trams or railways. To get in first demands a great amount of calculation and knowledge of the territory: Where exactly will the bus stop? Does the door open to the left or the right? How will people move once they get out of the vehicle?

The most valuable of these skills I  didn´t learn in Germany, but in Australia. Before, it often happened that I placed myself in the wrong position, because I ignored the automatic movement of the masses. Sheep taught me what I had to know, the thousands  of sheep I had to bring from one paddock to the other. How do you force a flock of sheep through the bottleneck of a gate? Shouting? Pushing from behind? Swearing and firing a colt? No, you place yourself in the center of the crow,  the sheep have to circle around you. Then you move in such a way that the first sheep in the outer circle runs through the gate. Where one sheep goes, the others will follow.

While Darwin rules in public transportation, there are strict rules for queueing at the butchers or any place with a long counter. Normally, there is no space for a orderly line. Therefore there is an invisible queue. My duty as a customer is to remember who was already waiting when I came in. The sales person will ask: “Der Nächste bitte – Who comes next”? Then I must be quick, lift my hand and start my order. Sometimes, there is a feeling in the room that somebody will try to cheat. Then I get nervous, mark my territory by pushing closer to the counter. I square my shoulders and let my eyes wander around, sending silent warnings to anybody I suspect of breaching the line. If this doesn´t help I have to stop the line jumper with a sharp ” Ich war vor Ihnen dran – I came first.

When there are several counters, queuing rules have become a bit unclear over the last decades.Traditionally, there would be a line to every counter. Choose your line well! Otherwise latecomers will pass by to your left and to your right. Nothing more frustrating than this. It always happens to me. I have never been in the fastest lane in my life. I used to spend a lot of brainwork to choose my line: I counted the people in front of me, measured the amount of products they wanted to buy or tried to figure out the complexity of the problem they were due to present to the man behind the counter. It never worked: the swift business man wanted to rearrange a trip to five cities, the teenager had to count each Euro and Cent three times, the man with only three products in his basket couldn´t find his credit card.

Today, I leave my position in line to destiny. Or the number system of the Deutsche Bahn.

Whatever comes first.

But this is another story.

© Truegerman

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If Castles were made of Sand and my Home is my Castle

Yep, I wish my castle/home were made of sand. Then I wouldn´t have to have nightmares about asbestos, that we found in the floors of our new house and which can only be removed once a “real” expert makes a report. Oh, we did have a so-called expert come in before we bought, but he was a recommendation by the Estate Agent. Did you think you can trust Estate Agents in Germany? At least the big names in the business?  Well I thought I could. This is Germany after all. Rules rule. Well, the first thing the lawyer said to us last Friday, “There is no such thing as a trustworthy Estate Agent.” Spang, bang and another illusion about Germany gone down the drain. The kind I cherished and this is not good.

I don´t intend to rant about this experience and how it is spoiling my adventure into remodelling my dream home (and it will be one day, despite my current heartache. If you want names, so you can avoid the same mistakes, you can send me an e-mail via the comment page.)

The story reminds me of another illusion gone. I grew up in the shadow of a rather famous ruin und zwar im Schatten der Burg Frankenstein.

Oh, yeah!

No monster in sight and it seems Mary Shelley never got near the place, but she picked up the name during her travels in Germany and that is why it was so appropriate when the German-American Club Contact celebrated Halloween there for the first time.

The two towers, a little chapel and the surrounding walls are all that remain of its former glory, but a quick look across the Rhine valley reminds us why these castles were chosen as homes by the knights. Access was difficult, but they had the overview. Anybody crossing their borders was charged a toll and there were quite a few of those borders. Like pearls on a chain the castles line the Bergstraße, looking across the valley towards the Rhine.

The only thing in my early days, that I would have considered scary up there, was the restaurant – a cement monstrosity from the seventies. But then came Contact and they gave horror a good name. They designed their own posters, costumes and show and for a few days in October turned the Frankenstein into the residence of horror thrills.

We heard about it and flocked up the hill walking, by bus or in cars to be scared out of our skins, even if the sun was still high up in the skies. What a bit of paint and some acting can do. Just being touched on the shoulder made us run for cover. Of course there were the more sophisticated acts, such as Dracula who was found residing in a coffin in one of the towers. The entrance was tight and busy and yet we merrily stepped into this dark cave to see Him. The problem was he didn´t keep still. Suddenly he opened his eyes, stepped out of his tilted coffin, slowly, slowly and wandered towards us, with pale skin, slicked back hair and very elegant. He spied a pretty woman and put his arms around her. She was hysterical and wanted to run, but her husband pushed her back into Dracula`s arm and said, “Hold it while I take a picture!” ARGHHHHH…. Dracula never smiled.

Of course a lot of Americans came, but the Germans quickly caught on, the show became more elaborate and all week-ends in October were Halloween week-ends. Buses had to ship the Thrill-Hungry up the hill, because the parking near the castle was soon exhausted, and everybody was happy, being silly, having fun and making some money too for the Contact Club, for the Castle and for the Bus Drivers.

Until.

Part of the show were tapes with scary noises and of course the crowds of people were not exactly quiet. Apparently the surrounding wild-life was suffering and somebody took it upon themselves to forbid the fun for all. Of course Contact had no intention of harming the wildlife and compromises were offered, but all were refused. No way. The idea died and for a few years there was no Halloween party.

Until.

A private and commercial organization took over.

I wonder if the wildlife could tell the difference.

@Francesca

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My home is my sandcastle

“Castles? Castles  … I don´t know .. I´ll write about sandcastles!”

Children all over the world build their fantasy worlds in sand, but only the Germans make the beach a construction site for temporary homes.  A ring of sand, fortified with stones and decorated with shells, tells everybody who owns the place. Invariably the family will come back to this place. Nobody else will dare to enter this holiday home, even when the inhabitants – beware – should be late one morning. My sandcastle is my home, and my home is my castle – every German accepts this.

The sandwalls on the beach are the fragile equivalent to the Jägerzaun, a crisscross fence. This special fence  of crossed and spiked wooden bars became the epitome of the middle class suburb of the 50ies and 60ies. It clearly signals: Keep out. At the same time, its low dimensions allow anybody to see what is going on in the garden. No limit of control.

As the Jägerzaun, sandcastles are all about marking the territory. Co-Germans understand the need for it: How can I relax if I worry about who might take my favorite spot? Being flexible is not a typical German trait. The insecurity that lies in not knowing where to get sunburnt the next day can spoil any holiday. Therefore the sandcastle–or the towel on the deckchair at the pool.

Of course, there are more practical purposes, too. When I was a child, my family used to go to the Baltic sea for summer break. The beaches are long, the sea is blue, everything invites to spend the day on the beach. Everything, but the constant breeze of fresh air that makes you shiver even in sunshine. As long as going to the Baltic sea was still the privilege of the rich, Strandkörbe, little movable basket huts, protected from the cool eastwinds. Later, the sandcastles took over, till Aldi, the famous German discount retailer, spread a new device: the Strandmuschel. This little half-tent does what a sandcastle never did: protect from the sun. For cancer-conscious Germans, this is it: the ultimate solution to any beach problem. And it only costs 10 Euros.

This years Strandmuschel will be on sale at Aldi next Wednesday. What a pity that we don´t go to the beach this summer break.

But this is another story.

©Truegerman

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