North American adventures of an unsuspecting German traveler

March 21, 2013

After reading @kristifuoco’s new article I felt a sudden urge to share a few experiences with the vast audience of this Randgruppenblog.

I remember a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Denver. United had just started cooperating with Lufthansa and the people at the gate where not quite sure what to do with a Lufthansa Senator card holder, so they took no risk and upgraded me to first class. Very fine people indeed. Sitting snugly in my seat of enormous proportions I realised that I hadn’t finished my Hamburger Abendblatt (our local paper), so I took it out of my carry-on bag (then still a sizeable piece of luggage, oh those golden years) and started reading.

Shortly before take-off a loud “thud” caught my attention. The empty seat next me was now occupied by a man, who looked as if he had just run a marathon. He literally collapsed into his seat and it took him at least 10 minutes to regain his breath. He held out his hand to me. “David Simmons” (I made this name up, privacy means a lot to us Germans). I introduced myself, as always a little taken aback because that simply won’t happen on a flight in Germany. Your fellow traveler would -on a very fine day- mumble something like “Nabend” and then keep for himself for the rest of the flight. Maybe we all are a little autistic, who knows, smalltalk definitely is not a German invention.

That nice man next to me, “call me Dave”, tried frantically to clean his steamed up glasses. Seemingly out of the blue he asked me “You working in the food industry, too?”. I must have looked rather stupid, because he now pointed at my newspaper. It took me a few minutes to convince him that a “Hamburger” is not always what you expect it to be. After that we had a very nice chat and I learned things about processed food that I’d rather not known about. Just because something looks like cheese, smells like chees and feels like cheese does not necessarily mean that milk played any role in its making.


German quick and dirty – Lesson 1

August 8, 2012

For those of you waiting for the dirty part of this post: Patience, dear friends, patience, it will be rewarded, I promise.

For the three or four others:
Have you ever heard the following sentence (or variations of it)
“German is SO hard to learn and most Germans speak English anyway, so why bother”
Sounds familiar? I would call this a twofold misconception.
It certainly is pretty hard to speak and write German like a native, but that is true for almost every other language, too.
And, yes, Germans under the age of 50 that grew up in former Western Germany should have a basic knowledge of English, but your mileage may vary. A lot. So: Don’t count on the multilingual German, he or she might turn out as being fluent only in high and low German…

It’s all very simple. Learning a new language is always a question of return on investment. How much time will I have to invest to achieve a certain level of communication skills. Normally learning German means investing a lot of time in understanding the complicated (yet powerful) grammar without any real sense of achivement coming your way for a very long time. It’s a proven but nevertheless tiring method and quite a few people become so desperate they drop out of German class after realizing that every noun has one of three grammatical genders.

“Das Mädchen kauft vier Äpfel” – the girl buys four apples.
This simple sentence already raises a host of questions.
Let’s start with the subject “Das Mädchen”? Hey, this girl is not female? How come? And which Kasus (case) is this anyway? Nominativ, of course, but your language teacher might be mean enough to ask you about the Genetiv (“des Mädchens”), Dativ (“dem Mädchen”) or Akkusativ (“das Mädchen”). Now wait. Das Mädchen? Didn’t we just state that “das Mädchen” would be Nominativ? Man, this is getting complicated.

Now off to the verb (predicate). Sie kauft, Präsenz, Infitiv would be “kaufen”. Ich kaufe, du kaufst, er/sie/es kauft. Wir kaufen, ihr kauft, sie kaufen. Boy, lots of people spending money here. Sie kaufte. Sie hat gekauft. Sie hatte gekauft. Sie wird kaufen. Sie wird gekauft haben. Help, this is getting out of hand.

And why is the plural of Apfel “Äpfel” and not Apfels or Apfeln? Der Apfel. Den Apfel. Dem Apfel. Des Apfels. Die Äpfel, die Äpfel, den Äpfeln, der Äpfel. Ok, Äpfel should be Akkusativ, right? Right? Right. So, Nominativ Plural of “Auto” would be “Äuto” then, right? What? It’s “Autos”? This language drives me crrrrazy. Ok, Äpfel is a strange exception to the rule then, I guess, happens everywhere. So the Plural of “Baum” (tree) should be Baums, and for “Blume” (flower) it’s Blumes. So easy. What? Wrong again? Bäume? Blumen? The student starts hyperventilating and is carried away, never to be seen again.

Now here comes the Heinrich method. Not recommended by the ministry of education or anyone else who knows anything about teaching languages.

Rule one: Spend as much time as possible improving your vocabulary before digging too deep into grammer. Being able to understand what “Das Mädchen würde vier Äpfel gekauft haben können” will not help you to go shopping for a fruit salad. Knowing that Apfel means apple, Pfirsich means peach, Ananas means pineapple

Rule two: Learn verbs and nouns and adjectivs galore and forget about Genus, Kasus, Numerus, Tempus, Modus and all that stuff for a while. Use basic forms (Infitiv for verbs and Nominativ Singular for nouns).

Rule three: Do not be afraid to talk like I three year old. Three year olds will more often than not get what they want, so they might be worth imitating. “Wollen vier Apfel und zwei Birne kaufen” is definitely not good German, but I guarantee that everybody will understands what you want to say. Well, using this sentence inside a bakery might cause mild irritation but people will normally be friendly and show you the was to the next green grocer or supermarket. This Jungle German is not pretty, but it works, and that’s what really counts.

Ok, I’m tired, so here comes the juicy stuff as promised (X-rated, send your kids away):
“Seid gut zu Vögeln” looks like a harmless sentence, telling people to be kind to birds. Well, it can also mean something entirely different. “Vögeln” is Dativ Plural of Vogel (bird), but I recommend looking up the verb “vögeln” in a dictionary before using this phrase. Erm.

How long German words may help you protect your Euros…

December 17, 2011

Sounds a little silly, doesn’t it?

I recently stumbled across an article in the Irish Times that described in detail how to protect your money in the (not entirely improbable) case of a breakup of the Eurozone. Simply lend your Euros to the Federal Republic of Germany, so the thinking goes, a safer place should be hard to find. Of course your bank or broker can buy German bonds (or “bunds”) for you and you’re set, but there’s also the DIY-approach. And this is where the long, concatenated German words come into play.

We’ll start with this cute green guy named Günther Schild:

Günther is a tortoise or turtle, whichever you prefer. The German word for turtle is a good example for our antipathy towards creating new words when you can simply combine existing ones to achieve the same result (albeit by using more letters, conceded). With a little bit of imagination a turtle looks like a toad with a shield, so we simply combine the “Kröte” (toad) with “Schild” (shield) and voilà (pardon my French) the “Schildkröte” is born. Rhinoceros too complicated? Well, that’s a beast with a horn on the nose (“Nase”), “Nashorn” is much easier to spell for firstgraders (and the like;-). Hippo? A river-horse (“Flusspferd”). Warthog? A pig with warts (“Warzenschwein”). And so forth…

Now Günther’s surname makes some sense, doesn’t it? Günther is the mascot of an instituion thate manages the sale of German Government securities, the “Bundesfinanzagentur”. Let’s try to disassemble that word into its components:

Bundes – Federal
Finanz – Finance
Agentur – Agency

Hey, simple, it’s the Federal Finance Agency. Now that is the place people turn to if they want to lend the German Government some money without any kind of intermediary (like a broker) in between. The article mentioned above describes the process in detail, only the link the author provides seems to be broken, use this one to access the English language pages of the Finanzagentur.

A side note:
The TV ads with the likeable Dr. Günther Schild were so successful that the commercial banks protested, because they lost quite some business when people took money out of their bank accounts to buy the Governments then new Day-Bond (“Tagesanleihe”, made up of “Tag”/day and “Anleihe”/bond). So poor Günther is  less visible now that he was a few years ago, but I still like him and the message he delivers.

Heinrich’s collection of useless knowledge:
Could not resist to share with you that the Bundesfinanzagentur was formerly know as Bundeswertpapierverwaltung, another nice example of how words come into being. The “Bundes” part you already know, “Wertpapier” itself consists of “Wert” (value) and “Papier” (paper) literally a “paper of value” which normally refers to stocks or bonds. “Verwaltung” simply means administration. The federal bond administration – easy as pie if you know the rules.

More examples? Try Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajütentür or Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. Both valid German words… Enjoy!

BFBS, BFBS UK, and Tommy Vancy…

November 10, 2011

…You’ll hear the tunes that make you dance, BFBS and Tommy Vance

Although 30 years have gone by since a teenage Heinrich had his radio tuned to the Britisch Forces Broadcasting Service, I can still remember some of their jingles. Growing up in Lower Saxony, BFBS Germany was our gateway to the world of cool pop music, always a little ahead of NDR2, then the only radio station available that did not cater exclusively to the needs of grown-ups (which means lots of Schlager and Volksmusik).

Inevitably BFBS helped improve my English, ultimately even leading to me posting blog entries in this language. And I got rare insights into British ways of looking at things, often strange, but always enlightening. Thanks, BFBS, you did a good job, and while I was not your target audience, me listening to you did not cost the British taxpayer one shilling. My conscience is clear, at least on this topic 😉

With the advent of private radio station in the late eighties things for us listeners definitely changed for the better, Radio Schleswig-Holstein started in 1986 with 24 hours of rock and pop. BFBS now is one in at least 30 FM stations showing on my radio dial, and only occasionally will I tune into it. My guess is, when the last British soldier leaves Germany in a few years, BFBS will be gone for good, like my youth, come to think of it. Ok, must be the foggy November weather…

Germans and uniforms

August 1, 2011

French and German soldiers in their respective gala uniforms. Notice the difference?

Heinrich sometimes feels more than a little embarrassed when watching German soldiers parading in full dress, be it in moving ceremonies for fallen comrades or at parades like a Zapfenstreich, or as in the picture above, at a joint promotion ceremony.

These grey coats always remind me of a perverts attire, walking through a park in search of young girls he can terrify by flapping open his mantle and showing his naked wiener.  Heinrich, being classified as “mostly harmles”, never served in any armed forces, but if he had, would that be a uniform he would wear proudly? Rather not.

A short excursion into the dark times of German history seems necessary at this point. After the horrors of World War II the mere concept of a German army was highly unpopular, within Germany as well as with our neighboring countries. So when the cold war approached and new armed forces (named Bundeswehr) where founded, they had to be as low key as possible. The soldiers profession, that for centuries had been highly respected, was now considered as a necessary evil, at best. For nearly 50 years not much had changed, when after reunification our allies grew more and more impatient and demanded some kind of burden sharing in international conflicts. Heinrich still remembered the strange feeling he had when he watched German IFOR tanks crossing the border into former Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s. For a cold war kid this seemed nearly uncomprehensible. The Bundeswehr (and the German people) had to learn again what it meant to have a real, fighting army, and they had to learn it fast. More than 50 soldiers did not come home alive from Afghanistan, so, yes, the soldier’s profession has changed profoundly since 1990, when you basically only needed to avoid death of boredom when you joined the Bundeswehr.

Now some young officers no longer want to feel ashamed standing next to french, american or british soldiers in their gala uniforms, and, yes, even pacifistic Heinrich can relate to that. They even created a prototype which does look absolutely unsuspicious to me, it is inspired by uniforms worn by the Lützow Free Corps at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, ca. 1813.

Of course the official Bundeswehr is not happy with this proposal and I am pretty sure it will get buried with one of the usual excuses (“more urgent things on our mind now”, “no money for gimmicks” and so on). But times have changed and since the end of the draft new means of attracting young people are necessary, and it’s not always only about the money, honey.

If in 10 years time (after having bailed out half of Europe) we still can afford to have a standing army, it will probably have proper gala uniforms. Mark my words.


July 28, 2011

Germany is not as static as one might think. Here are a few examples of migration that Heinrich observed over the last say 20 years or so.

From North to South:
When Heinrich was still a little Heini (yes, that’s really the diminutive of Heinrich) it was considered highly impolite to say “Tschüss” when leaving a shop in Bavaria or seeing off a visitor when south of the Weißwurstäquator

Slowly following Tschüss, we’re working on it 😉

From South to North:
Hard to get by 30 years ago, only very few shops in Hamburg would sell it, serving the Bavarian expats, lured into the north by love or work or both. Nowadays available in every supermarket large or small.

Also known as Fleischkäse, both names are kind of misleading, because there’s no cheese in it whatsoever. Crept into northern parts of Germany, although still not on sale everyday and everyware. Heinrichs trusted local Metzger for example normally makes fresh Leberkäs every Thursday, unless specially ordered. Unthinkable in Bavaria, Metzger would be expelled immediately.

More to come…

Big Fat Greek Wedding? This has more of A Big Fat German Mess methinks…

July 7, 2011

Now, Greeks bearing gifts, and be it wooden horses with questionable content, are not to be expected in the near future. Those guys definitely don’t feel like making gifts for the time being after being hit hard over the head by reality lately. Heinrich knows fee Greeks, but those fee that he happens to know are decent, hard working people.

The German Michel (Michel is for Germany what “John Bull” is for England) would be well advised not to lament too loudly about the lazy, self-righteous, profligate and ingrate Greeks. The implemantation of austerity measures like those the Greeks have to endure would lead to desperate Michels venting their anger by shooting their beloved garden gnomes. Or worse.

Greece is by no means the only country in the world where politicians spend borrowed money that has to be repaid by following generations. Let’s for example have a look at Germany’s public finances. By the end of 2011 the national debt will have surpassed 2000000000000 Euros. That’s about 1.8 trillion pounds or 2.9 trillion US Dollars. That is a lot of money, especially considering the fact that no one has the faintest idea how a shrinking and aging population should ever by able to pay it back. What a legacy we leave behind for our children.

Well, every country gets the government it deserves, so we as voters have no chance of shirking the responsibility for this mess. Our only hope: When the shit hits the fan, we’ll all be dead and gone after a long and rather comfortable life, not on borrowed time but on borrowed money.

So here’s my message: If we (the Germans/Britons/French/Americans/… of our time) were honourable and responsible people, we’d tackle the deficits and implement austerity measures at least as strict as those our friends in Ireland, Portugal or Greece have to endure.

Sustainability is not only about waste separation, it is about enabling future generations to live without the burden of our selfishness.

This is a translation of this article. Work is still in progress, bear with me.