Some weeks ago, at the beginning of the European Cup, I was in Leipzig visiting my friend Susanne. We had dinner in an Italian cafe and noticed how it suddenly filled up with many Italians. Ah yes, the game Italy vs Belgium would start in a few minutes and there was a giant screen on a wall of the cafe. The Italians were in a great mood and eagerly followed the events on the TV screen. The teams entered the stadion and the Italian hymn began. Not only did the players sing along, but the people in the cafe went along as well, very loud and very enthusiastically. I said to Susanne, “It’s a pity we Germans never do that,” and she replied, “Well….with our history….”
Leipzig is an exceptionally beautiful city, one that never fails to delight me. It has the cozy prettiness of Gohlis, the effortless elegance of the Waldstraßenviertel, the bustling but pleasantly non-hectic center city and a wealth of marvellous cafés and restaurants. In addition the people are of a hearty cordiality. If you haven’t been to Leipzig yet, go there.
Leipzig also is steeped in history. If you want to understand German culture on a deeper level, this is the place to go. (In case you stop reading here because you’re not interested in history: go to Leipzig anyway! It has much more to offer than history.) Continue reading “Mein Leipzig lob ich mir – My Leipzig’s dear to me”
This morning I sat in a doctor’s waiting room, happily engrossed in ‘Cosmopolitan’ (I’m always delighted when doctors have good magazines in their waiting rooms, though as a good uncertainty avoider I always take a book along, just in case). There was just one other person in the waiting room, so fourteen of the sixteen chairs were free. An elderly man entered the room and of the fourteen free chairs, he chose the one next to mine. Now, that annoyed me to no end and nearly took the fun out of ‘Cosmo’. In Germany, there is an unwritten rule for waiting rooms: you don’t sit on the chair next to someone if there are enough other free chairs. You at least leave one free chair between yourself and the other person. (Same with benches in the town or a park, by the way: you don’t sit next to someone you don’t know on a bench when there is a free bench nearby). Of course it’s not the law and nobody will say anything if you don’t stick to the rule, but it’s basically how it’s done and the majority of people stick to it. Why is that so? Because of personal space. People have their personal space and one doesn’t get too close because it’s rude. I’m old enough to have seen “Dirty Dancing” in the cinema and when thinking about personal space, I always have this vision of Patrick Swayze telling his Baby: “This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into yours, you don’t go into mine.”
Some days ago, I had to be in East Frankfurt at 9.30 am. As a good uncertainty avoider, I checked how long the drive would take (20 minutes) and added some time for the morning rush hour and looking for a parking space (30 minutes – hey, if I avoid uncertainty, I do it thoroughly). So I left 50 minutes before I had to be there. Of course, there was hardly any traffic and more than enough convenient parking spots (anybody living in Frankfurt knows that this is unusual), so when I arrived, I was 30 minutes early.
On another occasion, I had to go to downtown Frankfurt for a training. That time it was difficult to find parking and so I parked in a semi-legal spot. I had the choice between facing the danger of getting a parking ticket (or even getting towed) and being late. Good German that I was, I decided to risk the parking ticket.
Why am I telling you this? To show how important punctuality is in Germany. Continue reading “Being on time”
Last week it happened again. I was talking to someone from Britain. I made a compliment and her reply was “Oh, you’re just being nice.” As always when this happens, I was a bit… irritated is too strong, rather: taken aback. Of course as a good interculturalist I know why this happens, but still…
Now, what am I talking about? I’m talking about the British and to some extent American way of replying to compliments with comments like “Oh, you’re just saying that / you don’t mean that / you’re just being nice.” For the British, this is part of not showing off. Even if they consider your compliment completely warranted, they would never say so. Visit your chum, the Earl of Soandso, in his beautifully kept Elizabethan stately home and say “What a lovely house!” and the answer is likely to be “This old hut? Well, at least it keeps the rain off.”
In school, a teacher once told us about former Bundespräsident Heinrich Lübke, who was said to have been infamous for using the so-called Lübke-English, where German idioms and expressions are translated into English verbatim. Several of these expressions, such as “Equal goes it loose” (Gleich geht’s los = It will start any moment) have become well-known in Germany. It turns out though that all Lübke “quotes” were made up by the magazine Spiegel in a fake report and “letters to the editor” written by alleged readers, which were in fact Spiegel employees (why am I not surprised….).
Anyway, one of the most famous quotes (which has later also been attributed to chancellor Kohl) is “You can say you to me”. Does it make any sense in English? No. Because what else am I supposed to call someone in English? English only has “you”. Even if you were lucky enough to meet Her Majesty the Queen (as I was on June 25, 2015, yay!) – you’d address her with “you”. In German though, the sentence has a meaning, because we have two forms of address: the more formal “Sie” and the informal “Du” (just like the French have “vous” and “tu”). Continue reading “You can say you to me!”
In Frankfurt, about half-way between Konstablerwache and Eschenheimer Anlage you’ll find a small square, peaceful, a bit nondescript. Box hedges encircle four plain white stone benches which also form a circle. In the centre of that circle stands an angel statue – the Frankfurt Angel, a memorial to the crimes committed against homosexuals in the Nazi years. It is a place of quiescence, of remembrance, and it is the only street or square in Frankfurt named after an outed homosexual: Klaus Mann. The square was named Klaus-Mann-Platz in 1995 and because of this late name-giving, none of the adjoining houses has “Klaus-Mann-Platz” as a postal address. As in life, Klaus Mann wasn’t given quite the full deal.
I love lazy Sundays. Yesterday it was stormy and rainy outside, so I spent most of the afternoon with nice hot tea, reading and taking care of the things I never have time to do during the week. The cat slept in her cozy chair and everything was quiet.
Many of my American friends or the expats in my trainings comment on Sundays in Germany – though it’s the lack of Sunday shopping they mention. “Everything is closed on Sunday!” they say, wondering whether they’ll be able to adjust to how they’ll organize their shopping. Now, shop opening hours in Germany have always been a big topic.
Germany has more than 8,000 laws, so you probably won’t be surprised to hear that there is a special law regulating shop opening hours, the Ladenschlußgesetz. Until a few years ago, shops were open until 6.30 pm in the evenings from Monday – Friday and until 2 pm on Saturdays (with a ‘long Saturday’ once a month when shops were open until 4 pm). In 1989 the ‘long Thursday’ was introduced – against strongest opposition from the unions, salesclerks and shopkeepers, who feared longer hours without an adequate rise of business. On the long Thursdays shops were open until 8.30 pm. I remember the first long Thursday, there was something of a party atmosphere, with everyone rushing into the city center to enjoy the feeling of shopping after 6.30 pm on a weekday. Gradually, the shops were also allowed to open longer on Saturdays and at some point certain cities even kept their shops open on selective Sundays.
I love presents. I love them for regular occasions, such as birthdays or receiving guests, and I love them even more if I didn’t expect them. Yes, even an uncertainty avoider can embrace surprises (materialism helps a lot with that). I’m not ashamed to admit that for many years, I had a 3-page wish list for regular occasions, and updated it religiously. 2 ½ pages were dedicated to books, of course.
For some years, a Gucci handbag was very high on the list, though for some strange reason, nobody ever felt compelled to fulfill this modest wish. Eventually, my Mum broke down and gave me one, though I couldn’t quite shake off the uneasy feeling that it was a fake (have a look at the photo and judge for yourself).
So I just bought the coveted bag myself. I don’t have a written wish list anymore, but there are always so many things I like that it’s easy to find a gift for me.
Why am I telling you that?
November 9 is a difficult day. On the one hand it’s a day of joy because East Germany opened its borders on November 9 – the wall came down, as we say, and as far as I’m concerned that’s the best thing ever to happen in this country. On the other hand, it was also one of the darkest days in Germany, when the disgusting nationwide progrom against the Jews took place in 1938. And those are not the only historic events taking place in Germany on November 9. Let us travel back…
November 9, 1848 – Revolution!