Tag Archives: German


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.




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Trash or treasure?

“I feel like the Queen of Trash”, Francesca sighed when she told me about her struggle to get rid of all the stuff that stuffs her house. “Why are women allways responsible for trash?”

In Germany, they aren´t, at least not completely.  To carry the trashcan to the bin is the one household duty every man has to fulfill. Even my father did it, who never did anything else. Though he never did it  without being asked first.

Schatz, trägst Du mal den Mülleimer runter – Honey, could you just carry the trash to the bin”  is one of those sentence any stand-up comedian gets an easy laugh with.  As in ingenious shortcut, it tells the audience:

– that couple has past the first ardour of love,

– that by now, the pair has lived together for some time,

– that by custom the womans role has become to do the housework

– and that there already are underground battlefields of resentment and resistance.  

After the first laugh, the women sigh,  while the men smile, proud of their genders strategy. No wonder Ghandi was a man.

While women don´t have to carry the trashcan, they have to make sure that the men don´t have to carry it often. To avoid trash still is considered a virtue in Germany. A good housewife will only buy what is abolutely neccessary, and find new uses for old objects. 

As I´m writing this, I´m looking at a box that till yesterday contained my new external hard drive. I should do something about it, but what shall I do? “Was it really abolutely necessary that you bought me?” the box asks me each time I look at it.

“Of course”, I defend myself. “I didn´t have any more storage space on my computer, and my old external hard drive is full, too”.

“Why don´t you get rid of some of your old volumes?”, the box asks me. “Do you really need  the data of projects you finished and invoiced three years ago?”

“You never know”, I mumble. “Vorsicht ist die Mutter der Porzellankiste”

You  should know. Don´t you ever learn form experiences? Nobody ever asked for this data “, the box insists. 

Irgendwann ist immer das erste mal” , I reply angrily and decide to throw the impertinent box out, this minute.

When I grab for the box, an invisible force holds me back. This is a good, strong box. Wouln´t I need a box like this next week, when I have to send my niece a birthday parcel?  And wouldn´t another niece who creates the most astonishing artefacts out of trash, love the molded cardboard inside?

In the most unlikely event that I actually throw the box away, I would throw it into the paper bin, one out of six bins in our tiny flat. We do have bins for  paper, glass, plastic bottles, batteries, Grüner Punkt-industry financed recycling and Restmüll-uncategorized. If we lived in a different part of town, we would have a “Bio-Tonne” for anything organic, too. Besides the bins, we collect old glass jars for the marmelade production of my mother-in-law, old books for Oxfam, old clothes for the charity market, old toys for the childrens hospital, old paint for the Sondermüll, and empty toilet rolls for any boust of creativity in our son. Before the “Grüne Punkt” was introduced in the 90ies, we would even have had a seperate bin for aluminium cans. Today, I use the aluminium cans to hold my pens or pot my plants.

No, I´m not an obsesessed trash neurotic. Some-including my spouse-would even say that I´m not serious enough when it comes to seperating trash. Even in the 80ies, when recycling became a religion in Germany, I didn´t seperate a teabag into paperclip (for the paper bin), tea leaves (organic trash) and cord (bin for what is left). Though I loved the compost heap and the discussions in our students group about the advantages of the Australian compost wriggler over the German compost wriggler. I loved the alchemy of worm shit turning into fertilizer, and fed the heap with all I could lay hands on. Till one late summer day, when my housemate came into the kitchen, screaming: ” There is  a decapitated head in our compost heap!”

Palefaced, we decided to have a second look before we called the police. Bravely we  went out  to inspect the heap. Amongst orange peels and egg shells I saw a nest of dark hair. After the first shock, I laughed: “Don´t be silly. These are the cuttings from my last hairdressing session”.

Since the 80ies, the way Germans treat their trash, has changed from trying to recycle everything to “let those who make the future trash pay for it”. Today, the bulk of household trash goes into the Gelber Sack-yellow trash bag, because it is marked with a Grüner Punkt-green dot, as a sign that the producer pays for the trash. Rather new is the system to recycle plastic PET-bottles and cans. Now, everybody goes shopping with bags full of empty bottles. After a slow start of the system when every bottle had to be brought back to the shop it was bought in, with the receipt as proof of purchase, bottles are now accepted everywhere. Recycling machines wait for the customers. They scan the products for the recycling code, then gulp and crash the accepted bottles. In the end, they hand out a voucher, which can be turned into new merchandise.

Maybe these machines could be the way out of recession. Let every household buy its own recycling machine, and German industry would be on the rise again.

But this is another story.


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To Buy Or Not To Buy — There Is No Question

My name is Francesca Button

I don’t age backwards, but I seem to do everything else backwards. First I had kids then I got married. First I went to work then I went to University. Now when everybody is keeping their cash together I decide to spend mine.

I bought a house yesterday.

Am I not worried about the recession? Yes I am and at the same time this recession has been a chance. Interest rates came down, my small nestegg did not dissolve or half in value as did the stocks of others, I could bargain on the house, because there were no queues of people offering more and the seller was eager to sell now.

I am buying the house, literally, while the ground it stands on remains the property of the town. Properties in Frankfurt remain expensive, so renting the ground rather than buying it and building or buying a house on it remains a valid alternative.

The one thing that was still holding me back was language. Not German, that I speak well even by German standards, no it was the “Fachsprache” – technical lingo used by Lawyers, courts and in contracts that was putting me off. I did not understand a word. But everybody pitched in: the lawyers, friends, the bank and my family. They pulled apart the language and paragraphs until I could see more clearly. Every possible protection is in place for buyer and seller. By the time I actually signed the contract, plus after a 4 hour long session with the Notary reading out the text and explaining it all, I was calm.

It will take a few weeks for the paperwork to process and the payment of the house is not due until it is all completed. I’ll get nervous again at various stages, but I can now see that the huge mountain of house buying is just a little bump in the road, that can be taken without falling, if you walk carefully. We listened to our advisors and learned from the mistakes of past generations and other countries.

I remember when many people in England, who bought a house like stocks and expected the prices to go up, but had agreed to flexible interest rates, lost their house and more, because they had speculated with the interest rates. This also happened in Italy. In Germany I have rarely heard this happen. Even people who are out of work can arrange with their banks to temporarily lower the payback, or have insurances that protect their ownership during times of duress. Our bank guarantees that our loan will not be sold off and even if this would happen you are protected by laws from unreasonable requests by new creditors. There are checks and balances everywhere. “Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser.” (Trust is good, control is better.)

Sometimes I get fed up with the check and balances. I ask myself if it were not great just to move around a country without having to reregister every time I move. I am amazed by stories of a person disappearing within the United States, who survived without valid papers and was not found out for twenty years. Why don’t we just trust each other? It sounds tempting. You are just you and all you can carry in a suitcase.

I look around. I have two children, a spouse, dreams of learning and hopes for change. I have parents who help me and who I can help. There are stories still to be told, to be carried on, lessons to be heard and developments to be made. If I left it all behind, who would I be?

There are many ways of turning over a new leaf and sometimes you can do that by staying in exactly the same place you are. I don’t blame checks and balances if I can’t.



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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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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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Zwischen Den Jahren

It is on my windowsill now, because I happened upon it while looking for something else. Placing it in full view is the desperate attempt not to forget it when the right moment comes. Again.

My  “Bleigiessen” set  contains one round spoon and six little figures representing good luck: a little pig, a cat, a cent, a mushroom, a horn of plenty and a sun. These lead figures are melted one by one by placing them in a spoon  over a candle. Once melted you quickly pour the lead into a bowl filled with cold water. As the lead solidifies you look for clues to your future in its new shape. Does it look like a heart, a baby, a crown or a star? Will love, offspring, recognition or good luck come your way the next year?

The right time to play this game, which appears to have been handed to us by the Romans, is “Silvester”, the last night of the year: the time of New Years Resolutions, watching the sketch “Dinner for One”, Fireworks and parties.

As  a child I enjoyed the thrill of staying up late at night to see the clock strike midnight and watch the fireworks go off. We had Panettone , an italian spongy light cake with Sekt (the german champagne and yes, I was allowed a sip for the special occasion). From sixteen  onwards I would go out , dancing the night away, getting cold out in parks and on fields, when it was midnight, time to watch the firework and wish a happy new year all around.

Every year there are calls to tone the fireworks down, to be more careful and possibly even ban them. But from teenager to family man to Grampa, they must have a go at coloring the night – undeterred by the danger of involuntarily setting a car, house or even themselves on fire.

Nowadays I prefer to watch from a distance and the safety and warmth of my house as the whistling rushes towards the skies and lights shower upon the world in red, blue and green sparkles. The question”Que sera”  haunts me. We try to influence our destiny in Italy by eating lentils that promise wealth or in Spain by eating twelve grapes at each stroke of midnight and try to predict the future by pouring lead in Germany.

But the carousel of time is relentless and turns just a little faster with every year. No magic at the turning of the year will prevent or allow things to happen and yet we practice our hopeful traditions.

“Zwischen den Jahren” is the time after Christmas up to the 1st of January. It means between years. The words make it sound as if that could be a long time, but it just refers to the last five days of  the year. Time does not stop, yet it slows down for a few frames, during which I imagine that I could really change the world for the better.

“Zwischen den Jahren” one said and the next said and the next and after many generations, lives and places these words come to me. With them my ancestors hope arrives at my door and I suddenly see their wishes that life by and by would become better, happier and easier were for me and are true.

“Zwischen den Jahren” I decide to think of those that come after me and what will be. What if our New Year traditions are about hope? I cannot abandon the hope of my ancestors, my own and that of my children.

I keep the “Bleigiessen” Set in full view and this time I will not forget to use it. Again.



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O Tannenbaum

“Why don´t you have a Christmas tree yet?” Francesca asked, looking around my living room. “In Germany we don´t put up a Christmas tree before Christmas eve”, I said. Only when Francesca looked at me as if for the first time she doubted my authority in everything German, I started to think about what I just had said.

Of course, from late November on, Christmas trees  sprout in cafeterias, shops, offices, all public places. Like in my son´s daycare center. Awkwardly, it stands in the middle of the entrance hall, surrounded by racks filled with dirty wellingtons.  For days, I haven´t even realized that it was there, till yesterday, when a branch caught the strap of my rucksack. Feeling the pull I turned around and saw a green spiky something, manhigh, falling toward me. I grabbed the stem before the needles could scratch my eyes out  and tried to push it back in place. But an invisible force worked against me. The tree fell to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, back to the right, in widening circles, till it crashed on the floor.   I found myself bent over the tree, hands still holding the stem, pieces of lametta on my arm. I blushed, coughed, and picked the lametta from my coat. I tried to understand what had happened. Finally I saw it, the “Christbaumständer”  that gave the tree the momentum I struggled against. “Of course” I thought when I looked at the iron weight to hold the tree: “The old troublemaker. How could I forget”.

The Christbaumständer of my youth had four screws to hold the tree. To mount the tree, my father had to crawl on the floor, crouch under the tree and adjust the screws one after the other while my mother gave directions.  If my father were a philosopher he would have mused about every thing being interdependent. Maybe chaos theory was inventend under a Christmas tree. “More to the right”, my mother said. He turned the left screw. “Stop, hold on, now more to the left”. My father turned the right screw. “Not that much”, my mother cried.”Didn´t I tell you to take it easy?” He loosened the right screw. The tree fell to the right, pricking his neck. “Can´t you make your mind up”, he shouted, “left or right, right or left”. “It would be much easier it you didn´t always choose such a crooked tree in the first place”, my mother retorted.

This invariably happened on December, 24th, at three a clock in the afternoon. We children would press our eyes and ears to the keyhole till my mother would cover the keyhole to keep the proceedings secret. When finally, around 5 o´clock, the silver bell rang to tell us that “Christkindl” has brought the presents, we rushed in the room and stood in awe in front of this elegant tree  in his best clothes. Our eyes went down to the presents that awaited us beneath. They had to wait for much longer, as now one of us had to read the bible :” Und es begab sich zu der Zeit, dass Josef von Nazareth …”, the whole Christmas story of Mary and Josef looking for shelter and finding it in a stable. After reading, we had to sing “O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie grün sind Deine Blätter ….” and “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht …”. Then, at last, the presents: Bescherung.

The traditional German Christmas dinner is surprisingly simple and basic. More often than not it is “Kartoffelsalat mit Wiener Würstchen”–potatoe salad with frankfurter. Maybe our ancestors knew that nobody could concentrate on eating after all the exitement. Or the women decided to enjoy this day, too.

Funnily, this part of the tradition has changed most.  Whereas not to put up the Christmas tree before Christmas eve ist still a must. At least in German families …. in most German families … ok, maybe not so much in Frankfurt.

But then, in Frankfurt, Germans cross the street when the traffic lights says “Don´t walk”, too.

But this is another story.



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