Author Archives: truegerman

About truegerman

For the last 20 years I have written about business, markets and prices, in German. Now I want to write about people, traditions and everyday life, in English. In this blog I will tell stories about life in Germany, the traditions I grew up with and the way times are changing. I invite you to share my view of the world—a truly German view. Through my parents and grandparents, my memory spans a century of German history. My own experiences cover the last 40 years of the millenium and the beginning of the 21st century. I know rural life, as I grew up in a remote mountain village and worked in the agricultural sector for a decade. I know business life, as I worked as an economic editor for two decades. After years of moving, I finally settled down in Frankfurt.

Last post

Dear friends,

last week, Francesca died.

As this blog was a shared project of two friends, this is my last post.

There will be  no other story.

Truegerman

 

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On health insurance and bicycles

We wanted to write about cycling. Now I see the head of Francesca´s post — obviously she wants to write about health insurance.

Hmmm.

I know there was thunder and lightening in the US about Barack Obamas proposals for a new health insurance system. When we last met, Francesca got excited, too. I couldn´t. Health insurance isn´t an issue, it is a fact.

Everybody in Germany is insured, from the first to the last day of his or her life. Everybody in need is cared for. My health insurance covers medical treatment in all of Europe. I show my card, the doctor accepts it, my treatments are paid, that´s it. If I earn a lot of money, I pay more; if I earn less money, I pay less. Children and spouses without income are covered by my insurance as well.

If I earn enough money to be able to advance the medical bills before  my insurance company reimburses the bill, I´m allowed to go private. But I can decide to stay with the public system as well. In this system, my insurance rate depends only on the amount of money I earn, not on the money the insurance company spends on my medical bills. When I´m young I pay more than I cost the insurance. When I´m old I kind of get this money back, because then the medical costs are higher while the insurance rates still stay the same. There are several insurance companies in the public health system I can choose from. Each of them has a slightly different profile. But all of them have to stand by me when when I´m ill. They can´t end the contract the moment I need health insurance. They can pick me, but they can´t leave me. One of them even has to take anybody who pays the rates – no questions asked.

Pretty simple, isn´t it?

My duty done,  I can proceed to the joy of cycling.

Though this turns out to be an health issue, too. Cycling burns fat, kills stress and strenghtens the immune system.

Cycling is a natural part of German life. You will find at least one bicycle in 80 percent of the German households–there are more households with a bike than with a car!  On average, there are 1,8 bicycles in a household. Family with kids always have bicycles. Chances are fifty-fifty that their over-80 year old grandparents own a bicycle, too.

So, bicycles are omnipresent, though they are not always present. In my lifetime, from when I learnt cycling at the age of 7, I have owned and lost a lot of bicycles. Most of them were stolen. Each year, roughly 400 000 bikes are stolen in Germany, ten times as much as cars. Especially in cities like Frankfurt chances are high that you loose a good bike within a year. Therefore, city-dwellers often have two bikes: an old, dull, undesirable  working-bicycle for Monday to Friday,  that can be left outside like a horse in front of a saloon, and a sparkling sleek machine for the weekend, which is kept protected in cellars specially designed for bicycles.

To ride a bike to work is common practice in Germany, at least in the cities. It takes less time to go by bike than by car or by public transport. These bikes are practical: wide tires so you don´t get stuck in the tramway rails, a sturdy carrier for the laptop case or the shopping bag, a mudguard so you don´t end up with a strip of dirt on your shirt on a rainy day.

If these bicycles equal marriage, weekend bikes are love affairs. There is no end to how much a bicycle may cost. Though, as in extramarital affairs, men are the main actors here. Women can resist the temptation of superefficent brakes, superlight frames and superhigh gears. Men can´t.

This said, I must confess that I can´t, either. Though I don´t look the type. I learned this the hard way when, one Saturday morning, the whole family set out to get new bicycles: first my husband, then my son, then me. While the men discussed the merits of this Shimano gear system over that Shimano gear system, I strolled through the shop and found my bike.

“Which bike would you like?”, the salesman adressed me, having to leave a highly satisfying talk of experts for the mundane task of  earning some more money.

“I would like this one”,  I said.

“This one?” he cried in disbelief, as his expression of professional friendliness changed to incredulous surprise.

“Yes, this one. Is there anything wrong with the bike?” I inquired. “Can´t you recommend it?”

“It´s good. But … women  like you .. never ask for this bike.”

Maybe my black racing bike with dropped handlebars equals the red sports car middleaged men buy after their 45th birthday. It certainly offers open-top riding. But where is the blonde 20something to go with it?

@Truegerman

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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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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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Turnfest or Where to look for the Real Fun

 “Today, the Internationale Deutsches Turnfest starts” I said to Francesca. “Let´s write about Turnen (gymnastics)”. 

“Okay” Francesca said “I have done gymnastics in a Turnverein as a child. Where does the Turnfest take place?”

Sometimes it shows that Francesca´s children don´t attend a public school in Frankfurt. I first heard about the Turnfest six month ago when the headmistress of my son´s school informed the parents association that in June all schools in Frankfurt would be closed for a week because of the Turnfest.

Schools in Germany never close outside the holidays. In  school life, everything is regulated. I even know the exact date when summer break will start in 2017. School is sacred. Turnen is even more sacred.

Its importance for the German lifestyle goes way back into the 19th century. Then,  part of the identity of the developping  Bürgertum-middle class based on the leisure time they could afford  to enjoy. As dutiful Untertanen-subjects to the emperor, they combined pleasure with work: to keep fit became an act of patriotism.

As early as 1811 Turnvater Jahn, the founder of the movement. opened the first Turnplatz in Berlin. He gave the movement its rules, its slogan (Frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei) and its equipment (Reck, Pferd. Kasten, Barren).   The first Deutsches Turnfest took place nearly  nearly 200 years ago. Its aim: the battle against effeminacy of the German manhood. 

That is one of the reasons why schools in Frankfurt are closed for the Turnfest: The 100 000 participants will sleep on the floor in the classrooms and eat on wooden benches in the gymn halls. This is part of the spirit: no eiderdowns and  soft matresses, but hard floors and thin blankets. In a German sports club  hardship is part of the fun.

I learnt this – the hard way – when  I joined a rowing club. After a year of rather dull excercise I was allowed to take part in a Wanderfahrt, a rowing excursion down the river Mosel. ” That´s great” I rejoiced and started to dream of cosy Gasthäuser, little inns,  where I would snuggle under feathercuvets in a romantic attic room, drowsy from a sunny day, a glass of Mosel wine and a hot bath in the tub to relax my sports-strained muscles.

“Do you want me to organize the rooms in the Gasthäuser?” I offered, prepared to do my share of work.

“We sleep in the club houses.”

“Oh … Do other rowing clubs offer guestrooms?”

The old lady opposite me had been a member from this club for 50 years. She had carried heavy wooden rowing boats on her shoulders to the station 2 miles away for her first Wanderfahrt before World War II. She weighed a 100 pounds– a 100 pounds of steel.

“We sleep on the floor of the boat hangar. If you must, you can bring a camping mat. Though most of us do without.”

I will do without Wanderfahrten, I swore after the trip. My muscles where sore as a grapefruit, my back ached and I wasn´t able to bend my legs for a week. When the pain faded, I realised what hardships are good for: exciting stories. How boring would it be to read  about the trip in the Vereinsmagazin, the club magazine: “The weather was good, the food excellent and the beds warm and soft.” Oh no, we could write about boats hanging dangerously above our heads, of cold-water showers, of mysterious dark corners in rooms we couldn´t switch on lights in, of spiders running down the walls, and of the difficulty of getting some sleep in a room full of people groaning because of sore muscles.

I´m sure that the people camping in my son´s school  will report in the same way: “The water fountains at the opening ceremony were great. Do you know what happened afterwards? ” And they will tell the tale how they couldn´t find their room in the middle of the night because they didn´t realise that there were two staircases, how they had to get down again to find the toilets and it turned out that they were outside, on the other side of the school court, that  they had only two showers for two hundred people and no hot water after 6 a.m, that John und Jane were found sharing a sleeping bag …. 

Depending on the size of the sleeping bag, this shows remarkable  gymnastic talents. 

In Germany, most romances start either at the workplace or in the sportsclub. 

But this is another story.

©Truegerman

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