Samstag, 19. März 2016

Getting your face on TV is hot stuff in Germany . So why does it leave me ice cold?

One skill I teach in my Business English classes is how to write a letter of complaint. To introduce the subject  I ask students if there's anything they particularly like to complain about in Germany. Participants generally look at each other, nod their heads and answer in chorus "Everything!". At first I thought they were just joking, until I realised that making a complaint in Germany is no laughing matter.

You see, when it comes to complaining no one manages to get quite so fired up as the Germans. If something’s worth complaining about you can bet your last cent there's a nice long word for it in German. Take Schienenersatzverkehr – replacement bus service – for example. Unlike in England, however, where defect trains suddenly terminate in the middle of nowhere, at least German railways always keep you informed about "technical disruptions", and supply a convoy of buses to speed you on to your final destination. That's service for you. Yet German media is full of angry customers complaining about this, that and everything else under the black red gold flag.

One of the most popular complaint forums is a Bavarian state TV show called "Jetzt red i" - Steinbach or "Now it's my turn to talk". The idea is to give citizens from predominantly farming communities a chance to air their grief about local issues. The show champions itself as "fighting for your rights".

To distance itself from typical afternoon talk shows, which invariably degenerate into mud-slinging matches between divorcees, "Jetzt red i" yo-yos back and forward between burgers and a panel of politicians, linked by satellite - usually standing outside some flood-lit landmark, like the Bundestag or the Brandenburg Gate. The officious-looking politicians are supposed to offer up a sympathetic ear to the burgers' complaints and promise to deal with them.

I once watched this programme on satellite at home in England, so presumably you can see it everywhere from Munich to Mogadishu too. In one edition, which I'll never forget, an irate farmer protested about local male pigs being injected with drugs to stop them reproducing. Surely all men eating this meat risked losing their "manhood" too, didn't they? I forget if the politicians took him seriously at all but at least it made for entertaining viewing.

The show recently came to my neighbouring village, so I go along. I'm intrigued whether my fellow countrysiders feel so grieved about anything that they're willing to shout it from the rooftops on state TV. The venue, a hops hall, is actually so well attended I almost can't get in. Even though I arrive in good time every second chair is already draped with a coat or handbag – reserved à la German style. It feels a bit like the Invasion of the Beach Towels. You know, when you go on holiday and find all the deck chairs round the pool have been reserved by a certain nationality since the night before.

Finally, I manage to get the last remaining seat. It's at a bistro table, next to a policeman. Perched on our high stools, he tells me he's a community liaison officer, who visits schools and youth clubs. "Oh, how interesting", I say. Reminded of my own schooldays, when policemen would typically bring their sniffer dog into class and show us how they train them to catch criminals, I ask "Do you take your dog along with you?" "Actually no", he replies dryly, as if my brain software needs a major update, "we teach them how to surf the internet safely".

The programme is only 45 minutes long and over before it really gets going. Before I can attract the waitress girl's attention for another Apfelschorle the closing credits roll and celebrity presenter Tilmann Schöber is merrily wishing us "Servus mitanoind, Ois Guate!". He must be glad it's all over.

So what exactly was the purpose of the whole exercise? To be honest, I'm still trying to work it out. All I can say is that the citizens of Steinbach got little chance to have their say about the ways of the world. And if they did the "sympathetic" politicians in Brussels seemed more interested in verbally ridiculing each other than listening to farmers' problems in deepest Lower Bavaria.

I slip over to a fellow villager, one of six "lucky" locals chosen to ask the politicians a question. Actually I just want to pull his leg a bit because his question was "Why do you always let Brits have extra sausage?". He's referring of course to David Cameron's "Brexit" ultimatum to the EU. Thomas confesses that the "open forum" isn't as spontaneous as it might look. "We had a village committee meeting last week and chose six questions. Then we drew straws to see who asks them. We had to send our questions to the programme producers, who forwarded them to Brussels."

"Open" forum? Sounds rather locked up and censored to me. I suspect most locals in the audience just want to get their face on TV and wave to family and friends at home. And here's something I really feel fired up enough to complain about too: Even if I had wanted to respond to the outrageous complaint about Brits demanding extra sausages, there's absolutely no chance anyone was going to listen to me. Most likely I'd have been chucked out with "Hausverbot".

I don't bother checking the local newspaper's headlines the following day, but it's probably something like "Über Hundert Bürger finden den Weg zur Live TV Sendung" (Over 100 citizens turn up at live TV show). Yepp, that's how exciting it gets in this outpost of Lower Bavaria. Just imagine, however, the alternative headline: "Böse Briter kriegt Talk Show Hausverbot" (Bad Brit Banned from Talk Show). That really would have made a nice and spontaneous complaints forum.

Sonntag, 7. Februar 2016

Eight octaves too low and flunked flashmobber. Will I still make the A Capella band?

"This is Tim", says Nicole, presenting me to Vroni. "Oh good!", she smiles, "we are many many women!". We are indeed "many many women" ̶̶ around 50, of varied ages ̶̶ and just a handful of men. What strikes too is seeing so many people gathered for a mid-week social event. We're in a part of Bavaria where after-work social life seldom supersedes letting it all hang out once a year at Shrove Tuesday fancy dress parade.

Vroni directs The Wolperdinger Singers, ("Wolpis" for short), a local a-capella group. I saw their concert last weekend and enjoyed it so much that I'm attending practice night. Germans take their singing societies dead seriously. Munich alone boasts over 200 such choirs, including special line-ups for policemen, postmen, sailors and even a group by the name of "Bad Mothers".

Oh Happy Day!
 Born again - as a-capella wannabe..

"So are you soprano, alto, or tenor?" enquires Vroni. I have to think about this for a moment. My neighbours sometimes grumble about "Ruhestörung" (breach of peace) when I sing rather schrill in the back garden. "Ahm, I think I'm somewhere in the middle", I say hesitantly. Vroni puts me between tenors Claudia and Markus (above). She then presents me to the rest of the group, who give me a warm welcome round of applause. They haven't heard me sing yet, of course.

We kick off with some voice-tuning exercises. Vroni leads with "ooooh!", "aaaaah!" and "jaaa!", which we have to repeat, holding our voices fever-pitch high, as long as possible. I soon start to enjoy it, in a funny sort of way. It's all a bit like a tough workout in the gym. Sport à la a-capella. But the only things moving here are vocal chords. Next up we're into a medley of Udo Jürgens hits ̶̶ "Mit 66 Jahren" and "Aber bitte mit Sahne". Suddenly though I feel Markus prodding me gently in the ribs. "You're eight octaves too low", he whispers. To be honest, I'm actually relieved. I feared I might sound like the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

All of a sudden Vroni halts us in full flow. "Stopp!", she cries, "One of the tenors is singing the wrong tone”. Our choir mistress is not looking at anyone directly, but it’s quite clear who she’s referring to. I don’t dare look up or around, fearing I'll see everyone staring at me. That's how it must feel at school when you don’t want to answer the teacher’s question. You keep both eyes glued to the floor and pray the moment will pass.

Still, I'm soon back in the swing of things. In fact I'm enjoying it so much I'm swinging, quite literally. Suddenly, as we're singing a Scandinavian song with the chorus "Seidamadei doo doo dooo", it's Claudia's turn to prod me. "One 'doo' is longer!" she giggles. That immediately sets me off giggling too. Moments later Vroni calls us all to order, announcing we're finished for the night. I heave a huge sigh of relief. It's been fun but don't think I could have kept that up very much longer.

Afterwards there's fingerfood and drinks ̶̶ some of the members are celebrating birthdays. I’m just standing at a high table, chatting to my new colleagues, when suddenly all of them break into song. It must be a surprise performance for the birthday children. Not everybody’s singing, however. Only the very best singers. The rest are all seated watching. I'm caught up in a flashmob no one's bothered warning me about. A bit like Mr Bean in the scene where he’s in church singing with no hymn book, and can only join in for two words ̶̶ “Hallelujah, - lel-ujah!”. I don’t even manage two words. Totally out of my league, I gently slide sideways and then edge backwards until I’m out of sight. Then I make a run for it.

So then, one-night stand or something I can seriously sustain week after week? I’ve been browsing the Wolperdingers’ website; they perform concerts just about every month throughout Bavaria and beyond. Can I rise to that level of commitment? More to the point, will they want me back again after hitting all the wrong notes and flunking flashmob?

The girls' flashmob performance - minus me.

Driving home I ask Nicole when's the next meeting. "Shrove Tuesday in Abensberg", she says. "We're marching in the Faschingsparade and singing in every pub along the way". In full fancy dress of course. "Good. I'll come in my pirate's costume", I say, man-on-a-mission tone in my voice.
So, we're good to go. I'm joining over 40 million Germans on their annual let-it-all-hang-out-day.......

Flashforward to Fasching - Ready to rock with the "Wolpis"

Dienstag, 22. Dezember 2015

Forget Star Wars - we're all stars in Munich's film world

Think Munich and you probably think Oktoberfest, Hofbräuhaus and naked sunbathers in the famous Englischer Garten. Yet Munich isn't just beer, brezels and bare bits. It's also home to one of Europe's largest film production centres.

It's a cold dank December morning and I'm visiting Bavaria Filmstadt, a theme park where world-famous films such as Never Ending Story and Das Boot - Germany's biggest ever box-office smash hit - were shot. A good half-hour tram and underground ride out of town, the studios are set in leafy Grünwald, Munich's most upper-crust district. I've signed up for an English tour with my students of Tourism Management, whom I'd normally be teaching Oral Skills at this time of day. We're joined by Claudia, our guide, who seems slightly surprised to hear everyone speaking German. "You really want this tour in English?", she asks.

First stop is "1-2-3. tv". I've never heard of this shopping channel, but apparently it receives 15,000 calls a day. Through the enormous glass window we watch a cashmere shawl being auctioned live on air. "Nice winter scarf anyone?" asks Claudia. Most of us would actually be glad of it - the TV studio, just like the rest of Bavaria Filmstadt, is bitterly cold.

Next up we're in an interactive studio being invited to try out the "Green Screen". This is the technology that, using a skin-neutral colour, enables directors to superimpose subjects onto virtual backgrounds. I join volunteers on stage, where we find ourselves riding virtual rail tracks through mountain tunnels and alongside hair-raising cliff tops.    

Another green screen allows us to try our hand as weather forecasters on the set of  "Tagesschau", German TV's nightly newscast. Our volunteer, Manuel, slips into the role like a pro.
Round the next corner we're greeted by Limahl's Never Ending Story playing and suddenly we're all lead actors in the epic fantasy. We soon have volunteers riding Falkor The Luck Dragon, doing a "disappearing" act. That's the illusion filmmakers create using a blue screen backdrop. It's rather chilly in here too, but rocking to and fro on Falkor certainly warms us up a little bit.    
After the group shot on Farkor I'm afraid I rather lose the overview. Claudia takes us on a whirlwind tour of other blockbuster filmsets, like Vampire Sisters, and Ludwig II. We're also shown behind the scenes of several afternoon soap operas, like "Tempest of Love", none of which I've ever heard of, but the students all seem to know.  
It's not until we reach the filmset of Das Boot that I'm back on familiar ground - it's one of the first German films I ever saw. Claudia tells us that the actors of movie had to spend several weeks actually sleeping in this model submarine from Wolfgang Petersen's 1981 film. I'm feeling claustrophobic in there after just a few minutes. 
You don't have to be great movie buff to enjoy this tour. This might not be Universal Studios, but at least you won't hear a single reference to Star Wars. Besides, the visual effects are great fun, and at the end of the tour you can buy a DVD film of yourself playing on set. While I can imagine there's loads more going on in summer (outdoor stunts and kids' programmes), it's an  interesting place to spend a few hours in winter too. Just make sure you wrap up warm. And don't forget your scarf.
Many thanks to my Tourism students - you're all stars. 

Montag, 28. September 2015

Autumn, Apples and Art in the Hallertau



"Ask Elli a question!" challenges Tildy, jumping onto our bed as if it were a trampoline, and promptly putting an end to a nice little Saturday morning lie-in. It's not quite 7 AM.


"Uuu-gh", I respond, rubbing my eyes, only to find a toy elephant doing the splits on my belly. "Ask Elli a question!" Matilda repeats. For a moment I lie there wondering why kids insist on calling their furry toys such predictable, unoriginal names: Our daughter has a toy hamster called Hamsti, a bear called Bärli and a "Marienkäfer"- German for ladybird - called, you've guessed it, Käfi. 


"So, Elli", I say, giving in, "What did you do last night?"

So this is what my life in Germany has finally come to - chatting up soft toys in bed.

"I played with my trunk!", replies Elli, in a voice not dissimilar to Matilda's.

Ah well, ask a silly question.

Either way there's no time for lying around in bed this morning. At 9 AM sharp I have an appointment at the local juice-making centre. Our little orchard has produced a bumper crop of apples this year. But there's only so many apples you can eat - and give away. So with 80 kg of apples packed in laundry baskets I head off for the nearest “Mosterei”, 15 km down the road in Abensberg.

The following pictures show the transformation of fruit to juice. I was surprised just how quickly and efficiently it happened. But this is Germany, of course.

Last ones down the ramp and we're good to go.

The whole process takes less than an hour. And it doesn't cost an arm and a leg either. 50 € seems a very fair price for 16 x 5 kg cartons of juice, which will hopefully keep us going well into next year.

It's barely 10 AM, so instead of heading straight back home I park in the centre of Abensberg and set off and explore this medieval town, which is often overshadowed by bigger brothers Regensburg and Ingolstadt. Abensberg boasts a jewel of a town centre, with a car-free main square, criss-crossed by scores of sleepy little alleyways, crammed with turret-fronted houses, like these below. Ideal for strolling on a clear blue sky autumn weekend.
Abensberg's best-loved landmark is the Kuchlbauer Turm, designed by the world-famous Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Completed in 2010, it certainly clashes with the town's otherwise oldy-worldy architecture, and when you see it the very first time you'll probably do a double take in disbelief. It's almost unreal. The statement-making construction is part of Kuchlbauer's Bierwelt. Founded back in the 14th century, Kuchlbauer is the oldest wheat - also called white - beer in Germany. 
Hang on a moment..
       Just below the large golden onion dome.
To be allowed up the tower you have to take the 12 € tour. Still, I'm glad I go in today because it's worth every cent. You see not only the bottling side of the brewery but also Engel Aloisius, the patron saint of beer drinkers in Bavaria (below), the so-called "wheat beer dwarves" (our guide tells me they also speak in English on the international tour) and, tucked away in a corner of the cellar, a sensational half-scale interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper".

Of his work, Hundertwasser said "I want to show how basically simple it is to have paradise on earth. And everything that the religions and dogmas and the various political creeds promise, is all nonsense." No wonder the church tower of Kuchlbauer's "Kunsthaus", just next door, is three times more wobbly than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

To be honest, this is more art than  beer tour. I can imagine learning a lot more about beer making at, say Löwenbrau or Hacker Pschorr. Still, it's a colourful insight into one of the world's oldest breweries. I'll definitely do the tour again when we have visitors from the UK. Even if it's only to see a bunch of Bavarian beer dwarves chatting away in English.
Oh, and another reason to go again: the tour ends in the neighbouring Biergarten, with a delicious wheat beer and brezel - both free. 

Donnerstag, 30. Juli 2015

Blooping ist menschlich. So enjoy your bloopers, and learn from them!

Oops! Embarassing bloopers are all part of learning.

I've been blogging as a Brit in Bavaria for over five years, and covered many typical expat experiences, from embarrassing myself in a brass band to unashamedly cheating in a cyling competition. But I notice that I've hardly ever discussed what I do almost every day: Teaching.

A good starting point is "bloopers". Also known as "howlers". When you mean to say one thing but say something totally different. If this were a feature film it might be called "For They Know Not What They Say". Teachers are not exempt from blooping, of course. My own biggest blooper was on my first school trip to Germany, when I met my exchange partner’s mother, shook hands and announced “Ich bin sehr erregt”.  I meant to say I was nervously excited (“aufgeregt”), but had confused it with the word for naughtily excited. No wonder she raised a quizzical eyebrow. 

Laughing together with your students about embarrassing "faux pas" like this is a great way of bringing light relief into the classroom. Besides, when students slap their forehead and say “Ah so!” you can bet they won’t make the same mistake again.

The other day a student announced her friend was no longer coming to class because she was “becoming a baby”. When I gave her a surprised look she corrected herself: “Sorry, I mean she’s getting a baby”. “Oh”, I replied, playing along, “is she adopting, buying it online?” It’s one of the most common bloopers you’ll hear from German speakers in English. A tell-tell sign of how arbitrary language can be. Does saying “having a baby” really make any more sense than “getting a baby”? 

Roleplays produce hilarious bloopers too. A student was recently welcoming a guest to her company. Shaking hands with her male counterpart she wanted to say “Ich möchte, dass sie sich zu Hause fühlen“. It came out as “I‘d like to feel you at home”.  

In another roleplay I asked a student to react to the statement “May I smoke here?” Thinking it might make her cough, she obviously had the German word “sensibel” (= sensitive) in mind. The response came out as “Please don’t smoke, I’m sensible.”

But beware serial bloopers. Especially when they lead to misunderstandings. I was invigilating an oral exam in which students had to negotiate the sale of a consignment of jumpers. Yet instead of jumpers the seller kept talking about “journeys”. Her partner clearly had the correct word on their role card too, yet at no point did she say “Oh, don’t you mean jumpers?” She ended up buying 2,000 journeys. Destination unknown.

If only I could have a Euro each time students have inadvertently flirted on the phone by asking callers “Can I give her a massage?”. Better still – creepy creepy – when asking to speak to the “Chief Execution Officer”.

I encourage students to note “minimal pairs”, which look similar but are pronounced differently. There's a clear-cut difference between "end" and "and", for example. Like that 1980s group Cool and the Gang, who German radio presenters still announce as "Kool end ze Geng".

Practising word pairs like this can help students sound less like Lothar Matthais and more like Daniel Radcliffe.

It should also save them from embarrassment in front of their friends too. My all-time favourite blooper came in a class discussion on hobbies, when a student announced he liked to “play sex at the weekend”. The room went all quiet and I noticed some of the girls gag a giggle. My gut reaction was to gracefully ignore the comment. But seeing he was totally serious I had to giggle too. He was simply talking about that musical instrument, the sax.

Dienstag, 28. Juli 2015

Achtung! Leitungswasser feels like a dirty word in Germany

Tap water in Germany: Pure and plentiful.
Just don't dare ask for it in restaurants.

The other day I was in Regensburg, entertaining friends from London. The best preserved medieval city in Germany, Regensburg is my most favourite and well worth a visit if you’re anywhere in South Germany. After enjoying a stroll round this world-heritage gem we decided to call at a restaurant for a midday meal. I’d been there before and loved the pasta. It was very hot, so along with beers we also asked for Leitungswasser. We were served a jug of sparkling water - obviously decanted from an Evian bottle, or similar. When I politely pointed out the mistake to the waitress, she looked a bit confused, and disappeared without a word. Still, she came back after a while with a jug of "normal" tap water and everyone was happy. The meal was lovely too. But when the bill came I noticed they'd charged us 6.99€ (!) for "Mineralwasser".

The waitress seemed out of her depth with my questioning the error, so I asked to see the Manager, explaining we had asked just for "Leitungswasser". We're not allowed to serve tap water, he told me. I was about to enquire if that was for public health reasons contamination risk maybe but then remembered this is Germany. Better avoid humour. Instead I asked "So why didn't the waitress tell me that, instead of simply putting expensive mineral water on the bill?" After a lot of "hin und her" as they say in Germany, the Manager told the waitress to give me a 3€ refund, which was simply handed to me without commentary.

Leaving the restaurant, head held down, I felt a bit like Oliver Twist who’d been similarly rebuffed after daring to ask for second helpings. The three euros in my hand felt more like a trophy than a refund – I’d certainly had to fight for it. Why do restaurants in Germany feel so challenged by a simple request for tap water? Even the poorest countries in the world offer it free without you having to ask.

In future I think I’ll just stick to ordering beer with my meals. And bring along my own tap water.

Montag, 18. Mai 2015

Blow the budget, I'm hypnotised by the wonderful world of BMW.

Outside it looks more like some giant, half collapsed toadstool.  A cross between Dubai airport and space-age shopping mall, BMW's eye-catcher is more about experience than aesthetics.

Billed as an “adventure and delivery centre”, BMW Welt is Munich's third biggest tourist attraction, just behind the English Garden and Marienplatz. Joining me for a guided tour is my class of Tourist Management and Hospitality students. We're treated to a V.I.P. behind-the-scenes look at where customers pay a pretty premium to pick up their new cars in style. A showroom for some of BMW's most flashy and costly vehicles. Like the Fantom Rolls-Royce, price tag 450 000 euros. Christina our guide explains how 450 man hours have gone into building this work of art. And they clearly haven't skimped on accessories. Opening the passenger door, she slides her hand into a side pocket and pulls out a telescope-shaped case, out of which pops an umbrella. It’s all very larger than life, and I'm almost expecting James Bond to come round the corner any moment, jump in and speed off in a cloud of dust.

Models and more

Instead, however, Christina leads us past a plug-in hybrid i8 (above), which she describes as “cutiful”. I’m debating whether to stop and have my photo taken, when our guide beckons us round the corner into a mini cinema. After a flashy publicity film on the BMW brand – more hui than pfui as they say here in Bavaria – a roller shutter behind the screen rises to reveal line upon line of vehicles stacked one over the other. Just this moment a rack robot glides past, hooks itself up onto the car directly in front of us, and carries it off. This is one of around 100 vehicles which are united every day with their owners, and we're about to see such an event “live”. In BMW-talk it's known as “premiere”.
Returning to the main concourse, we find ourselves on a 
BMW Welt - Half airport, half Star Trek
walkway suspended over vehicles ready for collection. “See over there”, says Christina, pointing to three persons standing at the stop of a Hollywood-like staircase. We watch how a car suddenly starts revolving, remote controlled by a pinstripe-suited BMW ambassador. Customers can book from a range of “premiere plus packages”. Little extras include rose petals strewn over the bonnet, a sea of balloons descending from the ceiling, and – for those with matrimony in mind – a wedding ring furtively stashed away in the glove compartment. We don’t actually see any one go down on one knee  – rose stem between teeth – but, given German males’ greatest passion is for cars, no doubt this happens regularly.
Since I’ve asked my students to review BMW Welt as part of their course work, I look later at comments other visitors have left at TripAdvisor. These range from “A car head must” and “Classy, efficient, unpretentious” to “Too much capitalism”. One visitor proudly describes himself as “BMW hypnotised”. 

More  “hui than pfui. Somewhere inside the arch there's also a car.

The nicest thing about BMW Welt, I'd say, is that it's admission free. You can wander around and sit in a brand-new luxury vehicle for nothing. After saying goodbye to my students, and making sure no one I know sees me, I quietly slide behind the steering wheel of the latest Mini Cooper Hardtop. A sublime “only-if” feeling tickles my tummy. I'm awoken from my daydream by a friendly Chinese American touting a zoom lens, asking if I'd like my photo taken. Of course I would.

BMW Welt is not really selling cars, it's selling lifestyle. For me cars are simply about getting from A to B. Function over frills. The thought of measuring my status by the Auto I drive doesn't appeal. And yet for once, just for once, I'm slightly overcome by the glitz and glamour of all these awesome dreams on wheels. Possibly, quite possibly, I too have become “BMW hypnotised”. 

Ah, blow the next holiday Down Under. Where do I put my signature?