With(out) Compliments

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.”

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You can say you to me!

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!”

Famous Germans – Klaus Mann


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.

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The Quiet of Sundays

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.

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Gracious German Gift Giving

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.

 Could it be....fake?
Could it be….fake?

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?

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November 9 in Germany


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!

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October 3 – German Reunification

I remember how I spent October 3, 1990. It was the first time that this day was a holiday – the actual day of the reunification of East and West Germany. There was a Mass at church, to celebrate this reunification after forty-five years of separation. The church was crowded – usually it only was that well-attended on Christmas. The mood was cheerful. A young woman in front of the me carried a little child in her arms. Once in a while the child turned around to stare at me with large eyes. I smiled at it, I wanted to smile at the whole world on that day.

In the afternoon, the typical rattling of a Trabi could be heard even before the small East German car turned into our street. The Trabi – officially called Trabant – makes a unique sound that everybody who grew up in East Germany or was there a few times will recognize. Our relatives from Gera in East Germany had arrived for a visit – the West and East parts of our family united on this special day.

Just one year before, such a visit would have been impossible. While West Germans could travel to East Germany (after undergoing a lot of paperwork), East Germans could only come to West Germany if they were over 65 or if they got a permit to attend a special family event there.

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