Archive for the ‘Deutschland’ Category

Train Station Tales – Munich
December 30, 2011

In the beginning there are only five of us – a guy sleeping in front of me, trying to make himself comfortable on the benches before he eventually opts for the floor, where he’ll stay for the next four hours. There are a few bums who have also found a place to rest their heads on the linoleum. One is snoring loudly and, despite my earplugs, the sound is slowly driving me insane. The second homeless man sleeps soundly for a few hours until he wakes in need of whatever it is, rolls up his sleeping mat, and leaves. Not long after a group of American tourists walks in looking for a place to sit: “They’re all homeless in here,” one yells, and they quickly walk back out.

Such is the night I spent in the waiting room of Münchens Hauptbahnhof, Munich’s central train station, waiting for the 3am train to Berlin to take me home.

As the night drew on more and more exhausted partygoers filed in, finding a comfortable spot on the orange plastic chairs to wait for their trains home. A couple of punks come in and find a spot to spoon on the floor. By 2am there were almost thirty of us, though only about five women. Most of the men had dozed off, either in their seats or on the floor. The women were all awake and alert though, whether staring straight ahead or scribbling madly away.

More snoring.

A dweeby looking guy with a white teddy bear sits near me. After too long in the same close quarters we offer each other sheepish smiles. When I notice that he isn’t looking away but actually grinning at me outright it occurs to me that he’s probably high on something. I begin a staring contest with the floor tiles.

They aren’t all scary though. Another traveller lets me use his laptop to charge my dead iPod, so I agree to watch his computer while he goes out for a smoke. A few seconds later a homeless man comes in and starts rifling through his things. “Jemand sitz schon da, sie können hier nicht sitzen,” I tell him, in an effort to drive him away. He replies my blowing his nose loudly into a discarded sandwich bag.

An hour before its scheduled departure my train comes into the station, track 19.

At this point it’s too early to board the train, but I can’t stand the snoring any longer. I consider throwing my pencil as the offending bum, but am dissuaded by the fact that it’s my only writing apparatus and that it contradicts my long held philosophy of avoiding altercations with homeless people.

I accidentally make eye contact with teddy bear guy again, and then place my bags on the seats beside me to avoid neighbourly visits.

I regret not having put some Janet Evanovich on my Kindle. I am instead stuck choosing between Bill Bryson and Michael Pollan, neither one of which is great company at 2:45am.

As I finally board my train at 3am I wonder how we can build high-speed rail networks that will rush me home at 400km an hour, but have yet to cure more obvious problems, like homelessness. But just a few minutes later I put away my Kindle, rest my head on my tray table, and fall quietly asleep.


One Wearing a Clown Costume
September 16, 2011

If you’re sitting in an American diner in Berlin, listening to an Iraqi and an Iranian argue metaphysics in German, you start wondering if it was just one wrong turn you took in your life, or a series of ill-conceived choices that led you here. And yet there I was, celebrating the end of another German course, Salman insisting he doesn’t waste his time in toilets, Kasra taking God’s überallness slightly more literally.

The great thing about studying German in Berlin is that my classes are full of other foreigners, most of whom enjoy butchering the language as much as I do. Take Ahmed for example, who looked at me entirely seriously one day and announced: “I am hunger!” I found Ahmed’s language cute until I finally asked him why he had moved to Berlin from Syria: “I’m just here for an internship,” he told me, “I’m a doctor and I’m practicing at a hospital here for a few months.” He said he communicated with patients using his (limited) German as well as hand signals. Besides, people get the idea pretty quickly when you get the needle out and poke it into their arm, he assured me.

The next day we compared cultural metaphors in class, since in German one is as dumb as donkey (Dumm wie ein Esel), and our teacher wanted to know what animals other languages used to express stupidity:

-A doorknob! said I.

-A Cypriot donkey! said Syrian Ahmed.

-Dumb as the police! yelled Somea, representing Albanian Macedonia well.

“Perhaps we should move on to another exercise?” suggested our teacher.

“Let’s tell dead baby jokes again” I proposed, having already told my colleagues about Canada’s refined sense of humour. It turns out the Spanish also have a taste for the macabre, as Mallorcan Andres asked the class what’s funnier than one dead baby (see title for answer).

Andres also provided amusement after class today, as I complimented him on a lovely story he had written for class. The words for story and face being similar in German (Geschichte, Gesicht), Andres beamed and thanked me for noticing the extra care he had put into shaving.

As to the argument as to God’s place in the toilet, it was ended when the Iranian’s wife, who had been listening quietly throughout the entire argument, finally looked up at her husband and the Iraqi and asked: “Why do you keep referring to God as He?”, bringing everything to a beautiful, and if not entirely satisfying, end.

And I didn’t even kill anybody, accidentally
August 28, 2011

I built a kitchen. I know that’s hardly an excuse for not writing in over a month. Many might assume a person should be able to build a kitchen and still write 500 words weekly to amuse their friends. They would be wrong. A kitchen, as it turns out, sucks up all of one’s time (three visits to Ikea in two weeks), energy (living on the fifth floor is a good idea until one has to carry a stove up four flights of stairs) and emotions (blood sweat and tears without the blood and sweat). Oh the tears, and not even being able to wash them away with a proper meal because the stove is still on the landing, the landlord didn’t provide a sink and I’ve been living off microwave popcorn for a week.

„We“ is of course a misnomer. Max (obliging boyfriend) did pretty much everything, in the very respectable time frame of forever and ever.* I was in charge of motivation. And crying. And the popcorn, of course.

Living in a country teaches you things that you would otherwise never learn spending a few days living in a hostel and visiting its museums (or in Berlin’s case, nightclubs). For example, I’ve learned that it’s legal to rent out an apartment in without providing anything in the kitchen. The landlord provided a ceiling and walls of course, but I’m going to withhold my gratitude. It seems it’s also rather common to rent apartments in Berlin that are heated with coal stoves, but I’ve yet to stoop quite so low.

On the good news front, this woman, choreographer and performer extraordinaire, lives in the flat across from mine.

I’ve built myself a little herb garden on the kitchen’s windowsill, which seemed like a terribly domestically wonderful thing to do until the wind blew my stoneware basil pot off the sill and down all four (European) / five (American) storeys. None of the Turkish drug dealers who hang out below were hurt in the accident, luckily. Strangely enough the plant survived and is now thriving better than it’s unfallen cousin.

Anyhow, the kitchen is built. The new neighbours have been greeted. The basil is growing. The blog is back on and the rest of the microwave popcorn is now where it belongs, in hell.

*This claims may or may not be disputed by someone who has been advised that they can get their own blog should they wish to counter anything written about them on the Internet.

Out of the fish bowl, into the sea
July 26, 2011

Leaving the big Berlin city behind, I spent the last week in a small village in Southern Germany, thinking about all the fun things I could be doing (sailing, hiking) if it weren’t for the weather (raining, sucking). All was not lost, however, since the time away from Berlin meant I had to really rely on my German skills to get my daily Brötchen, as opposed to just pointing and flailing like I normally do in my neighborhood Turkish bakery. Turkish immigrants and hipsters predominantly inhabit Kreuzberg, my little corner of Berlin, meaning my German skills needn’t be very good, as long as my wardrobe is sufficiently flea market chic.

While down in Überlingen I somehow ended up at a Klassentreffen, or class reunion, in the middle of a water logged field. Since everyone else was German, I decided to blend in a little, so I pulled my boots out of the mud enough to offer a few firm handshakes and “wie gehts?” to those around me. All was going swell until a rather short German fellow decided to make up for his stature by squeezing my hand unbelievably hard, causing me to cry out in pain. This may have been what gave me away as an outsider, though it might also have been because of the thirty people present I was the only one not to have attended high school with them. Possibly also my inability to speak German. Or maybe the fact that I threw a piece of cheese on the BBQ next to thirty bratwurst sausages (anyone else for a vegetarian delicacy, ja?) The evening turned out to be a resounding success for practicing German, and a total failure for blending in. Na, ja.

In an attempt to learn more German I spent some time babysitting die kleine Marta, a blond Polish/German hybrid, who, at 3, is learning to speak just like I am. Impressed by the amount she’d learned since I’d seen her only a few months before, I decided to imitate her learning style, which seemed to include repeating everything others said, giggling tremendously, and eating boogers. Our swing set study sessions were going great until she started using vocabulary beyond my years, telling me I had a “sehr große Popo.”

Having to use a dictionary to learn that a 3-year-old just told me I had a big bum, I returned not long after, discouraged, to Berlin. I’m back in Kreuzberg, pointing madly at croissants in Turkish bakeries, hoping their buttery goodness won’t all go to my derrière, and sporting sufficiently bohemian looking Ray-bans. In a big city neighborhood where everyone is as foreign and confused as I am, I fit right in, in spite of my alleged sehr große Popo.

My accusser

How to be polite in Germany
July 15, 2011

German’s have a reputation for being rude. While it’s impossible to know exactly why, it’s certainly due to a number of factors, including their over-politeness, formal mannerisms, inclination toward invading neighbouring countries, so on and so forth.

In contrast, Canadians have a reputation for being polite. Having spent some time living abroad I’ve come to totally disagree with this stereotype. Canadian’s aren’t polite. Canadians are friendly. Very friendly. So are Americans. But smiling and chatting with the check-out lady at the supermarket is not a sign of politeness. For Germans, our over-fondness for the word “sorry” is symptomatic of a lack of determination when pushing through crowds, rather than any real sense of courtesy.

Indeed, for Germans, our habit of showering everyone with faint praise (Keep it up! You’re doing great! You’ll hit it next time lil’’ slugger!) doesn’t show politeness, and certainly doesn’t help little Tommy get any better at baseball. According to comedic ambassador Henning Wehn, it “indicates shiftiness, insincerity, and lack of spine or purpose.”

German’s have no time for this ridiculous friendliness and praise. They’re too busy observing rigid social and linguistic customs that ensure everyone knows their place in society. Like French, which has both a informal you (tu) and formal you (vous), German maintains a distinction between how one speaks to little Tommy (du) and how one speaks to Herr Boss (Sie). Indeed, in the unlikely event that your German university professor has more than one PhD, you may end up in the very awkward position of having to refer to her as “Frau Professor Doctor Doctor Meyer.”

Let us not forget that English once held this distinction between the informal thou and formal you, but gave up on it somewhere in the 17th century due to confusion as to how to address one’s barmaiden after a few too many swigs of ale.

Ask "How are you" here and expect a real response.

Unlike French, which uses “vous” as a sign of respect, “Sie” is used to create distance between speakers. When I asked one boss why he Sie-d an employee he’ been working with for years, and with whom he had shared many a meal and business trip, he insisted he wouldn’t be able to ever to criticize her if they called each other by their first names and used “du” (for calling someone by Sie must be accompanied by a Frau / Herr relationship).

While after the annual office Christmas party in Canada you might be worried about facing your colleagues after getting a little too hammered, this situation is additionally awkward in Germany, where you may have inadvertently started “du”ing a colleague in your drunken state.

The German’s aren’t rude; they’re just overly polite, stuck in an antiquated language system that forces them to observe rigid social hierarchies. So next time you’re over here, be prepared to share a firm handshake, and a steady gaze. And don’t try any of that ridiculous French cheek kissing stuff.

The Harpers ride the Merry-Go-Round
June 30, 2011

Last week’s Canadian Studies conference in Marburg was an interesting affair. Since I was the only Canadian Canadianist present, I was often asked to offer “the” Canadian perspective. I of course obliged, since I love speaking for 34 million people. By the end of the conference I had begun thinking of myself, rather affectionately, as “Canada.” “Canada is hungry!” I would exclaim. “Canada thinks your presentation was wonderful! Bravo.” Or, by the last day: “Canada felt that that your flippant reference to Aboriginal people problematically negated their epistemologies while also normalizing white superiority.”

Luckily all of this was only going on in my head, an academic conference being a place to eat catered food, schmooze, use multisyllabic words, and tell people how interesting their esoteric research topics are.

This particular conference was also a great place to hook up, since the conference organizers, who paid for the accommodation, tried to make all presenters share hotel beds (not just rooms, actual beds). As “Canada” I claimed national sovereignty and refused.

One particularly memorable moment was when I got to speak with someone who promotes Canadian culture in Germany. She told me about meeting Laureen Harper a few years before in Berlin. She introduced herself and mentioned her work promoting culture, to which Laureen answered, “so like circuses and stuff?”

A few things I learned at the conference, notable either for their beauty or hilarity:

“Vancouver is Canada’s westernmost city.”

“The proposed downtown highway caused Vancouverites to be very outrageous.” (outraged?)

“Only God knows where the desert ends.”

“Bubble tea is code for Bomb Toronto.” (that sentence should get my blog lots of extra traffic)

“There is no nation in being good.”

All in all I was pretty blown away that these German grad students knew so much about Canadian culture – a testament, surely, to the time they’ve all spent at the circus.

Did your drug dealer give you a discount?
June 15, 2011

It’s 8:30 Sunday morning and I’ve been up all night working at the entrance of some pet-food factory turned nightclub.  I’ve spent the last 10 hours asking for the twelve Euro entry fee (Zwölf Euro bitte) and have done so well I’ve almost convinced myself I can speak German. Feeling proud but exhausted I look for my boss on the dance floor so I can get my 8€ an hour and finally go home to bed.

The party is raging. Hundreds of Germans, under the influence of whatever it is that keep a person dancing til 8am, are shifting trance like from side to side, a few of the livelier ones are even jumping up and down. The headlining DJ, only two hours late for his shift, has just started playing. Happy that things are going well my boss offers me a shot of vodka instead of my pay. I take it.

Later, when I tell a local friend about all this, she said, not at all ironically, “Normal Saturday night in Berlin then?”

Anyone who has visited Berlin knows it’s famous for its party all morning all night club scene. So I wasn’t even that surprised when people were still rolling into the club at 7am. What surprised was how cheap they all were.

A twelve Euro entrance fee is a lot of money in a city where your average beer costs less than 3 and a sandwich on the street costs 2 (after 3 months I have yet to establish the going price for anything but beer or sandwiches).

Of the 900 or so people who came in at least a few hundred asked for a discount, assuming they could score a bargain more easily from the friendly Canadian at the entrance than from their drug dealer. Guess again.

“I’m a student” (so is everyone else here) “I only have 3 Euro” (how are you going to buy drinks?) “I’m unemployed” (go find a job). There were many other objections; luckily my German is so schlecht I couldn’t understand them. Typical conversations went something like this:

“blah blah blah”

“zwölf Euro bitte”

“blah blah blah”

“zwölf Euro bitte”

“I’m on the guest list”

“zwölf Euro bitte”

“It’s my Birthday!”

“Happy Birthday. Now that’ll be zwölf Euro”

All in all my first job in Deutschland went swell. So swell in fact that I considered making haggling with cracked out German speaking clubbers my new career.  Unfortunately I went and got myself a respectable job teaching English.

…Ich too much immer ist
May 26, 2011

I blogged about this yesterday, but I’m going to go ahead and repeat myself since the post was in German and therefore probably missed/ignored/hated by most of you.

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned, but I’ve been blogging in German in order to practice writing in a language whose syntax I don’t understand (as opposed to French, whose syntax I merely ignore).

Here’s my German blog: It’s called Deutsche Sprache, Schwierige Sprache (German language, difficult language).

So I’ve finally discovered how I’m going to master the German language, and it’s all thanks to Heidi Klum, who first popularised the Auf Wiedersehen! on Project Runway.  It’s with old Germany’s Next Top Model episodes on YouTube that I plan to finally start understanding what people are saying. I’ve already learned ten ways to say: That’s awesome! For example,

Das war voll Génial!
Das war richtig Geil!
Total Cool!
Das ist ech gut!


It’s the perfect pedagogical tool because:

1-    Let’s face it, the vocabulary is not so complex. The contestants generally stick to simple sentences like: “Das ist total Cool” or “Sie so fake ist”.

2-   They use a lot of English words, which keep me from getting lost too much. See the “She’s so fake” above. For example: “Wie machen eine Photoshooting und ein Catwalk” (We’re doing a photo shoot and a runway walk). Then there’s the stock bitch girl, who says things like “…Das Ich too much immer ist” (I’m just too much all the time)

3-   Visual and audio aids. When a girl lies (lugen) to the judges there are lots of cues that allow me to follow, like black and white flashbacks to when she admitted something different earlier on camera.

4-   Simple plot. An 18 year old yelling “Nein nein nein” as Heidi Klum approaches her with the scissors means she probably isn’t excited about her new makeover. Okay, sometimes the plot get’s a little more complex, like when Paulina accused Rebecca of lying about her natural curls: “Sie sagt ihr Haar ist natural lockig aber…” (Trans: that bitch claims she has natural curls but…”

In conclusion, I am totally ready for a German Vorstellungsgespräch (job interview).

Berlin Gets Its First Microwave
April 13, 2011

“Maybe we could get a microwave too?”

I ask my boyfriend this as we drive through a suburb of East Berlin, on our way to pick up a used refrigerator for our flat.  It seemed an ideal time to make demands for new appliances, or maybe I was just trying to distract myself from my surroundings. While the wall diving East and West came down over 20 years ago, East Berlin remains its own unique place. The neighborhoods that were closest to the West have all been gentrified over the years, while the farther corners of Eastern Berlin have emptied, becoming economically depressed, and sad.

East Berlin is grey: grey sky, grey streets, grey buildings. You usually know you’re in the East when you see bright yellow streetcars (there were never any streetcars in the West, but the ones in the East remain). But even those jolly bell-ringing trolleys don’t go out as far as we’re going. Many of the apartment buildings are empty, deserted ages ago, as soon as people we’re able to leave. Broken windows and fading graffiti add to setting. It’s the kind of area that, having never known happiness or joy or light, is determined to swallow up and destroy your soul. The whole place has an aura of permanent gloom. As though in the event of nuclear meltdown it would still survive; its women will continue running their errands, pulling their shopping baskets languorously behind them, their weary eyes glued to the same grey pavement…

It is here that I realize I desperately need a microwave.

“Ja, I’m not sure. I’m not really a microwave kind of person,” he answers, obviously scoffing at the idea that I, a Canadian, feel the need for this ridiculous appliance.

Having never considered that I could define my identity through my choice of electrical appliances, I again daydream myself out of East Berlin. What kind of appliance am I? A chrome platted toaster? Do I dare imagine myself a sleek and sophisticated curling iron? I start equating my friends with certain machines: “she’s a noble rice cooker,” I think to myself, another friend is certainly a vintage style mixer. Grama is a reliable chest freezer, full of hearty soups.

It soon becomes clear to me that I’m being ridiculous, though my German boyfriend, still chattering away in his own particular version of English, doesn’t see anything wrong with likening people to appliances. That’s because for him, and many other Europeans, the microwave is the quintessential American appliance, symbolic of McCulture’s obsession with effortless instant fulfillment.

During my travels in Europe I’ve come across a number of people (French, German, British), who take on an air of light scorn toward all things considered too American: weak coffee, peanut butter, microwaves, eating with the left hand, saying “on weekends” rather than “at the weekend.” This was especially true when I taught English in France, where I often met Brits who implored me to teach “proper” English words like pavement, aubergine and lorry rather than sidewalk, eggplant and truck. I had a friend in France who was convinced herpes came from the Americas. It no longer shocks me to hear this kind Eurocentric behaviour. What’s shocking is that, so long after the end of the “great” European empires, some people still can’t hear how self-important and condescending they sound.

Things can be slow to change in Europe. East Berlin is a testament to that. Despite being sucked into progress and freedom, East Berlin is the same miserable place, just with new Western-style social and economic problems.

We did eventually get a microwave. It’s a great way to make popcorn. It turns out it’s even a convenient way to reheat yesterday’s spätzle and schnitzel. Instant fulfillment has arrived in Germany.