Dienstag, 15. April 2014

Heaven in Germany is a chemists with angels dressed in fitness garb

You're never more than a stone's throw from heaven in Germany 

just look out for the Apotheke sign.

Passing Marienplatz the other day I suddenly feel a throbbing pain in my right leg. The knee hasn’t felt right since a couple days, when I sprained it rushing for the train, which I could see pulling into the station from the other side of the carpark.  A typical situation in which you know what you’re doing won’t do you any good, yet the short-term alternative – missing your connection – overweighs all other potentially worse outcomes. Bursting out into an athletic sprint I'd managed to make the connection, slumping with relief – but not without a huff, puff and wheeze – onto a seat in the end carriage.
By Friday afternoon, however, I’m much the worse for wear from my Olympian performance. Doctors’ surgeries already deserted for the weekend, I decide to slip into the nearest chemists’ for some instant pain relief. German chemists are like nothing you’ll ever see in the rest of the world, where a chemists nowadays is usually a pop-up “prescriptions counter”, in the corner of a crowded supermarket. Not so in Germany though, where every single chemists is unique. My local store, for example, in the nation's largest hop-growing area, has entire shelves devoted to personal-hygiene products made from hops: deodorants, shampoos, face, toe and nail creams. Even the corn plasters smell of beer.

Walking in you immediately feel like you’ve arrived at heaven’s doorstep. Smiling assistants welcome you with a "Grüss Gott" (literally "Greet God"), all identically dressed in sporty t-shirts, often with flowing white gowns and matching clog-like footwear. Without sanitary gowns, however, they look more like training assistants in a fitness club, ready to help tighten your straps on the body building equipment. The best thing about going into a German chemists is that about five staff immediately appear from nowhere and offer you help and advice – all at once. A bit like that scene in Pretty Woman, where Vivian is being helped in and out of shoes and skirts by a dozen brown-nosing salespersons.

The customer-to-salesperson ratio is slightly lower in this particular chemists, perhaps because it’s right under the Altes Rathaus, home of Munich’s world-famous Glockenspiel, so it probably gets one or two tourists popping in too. Still, as I stand in queue, waiting to buy a bandage, I’m relieved to see plenty of sales tills open. Deutsche Bahn and Aldi should note this.
For a spring day it’s pretty warm – about 20 degrees –  and, wiping the sweat off my forehead, I spot an elderly lady über-laden with “Kaufhof” shopping bags looking as if she’s just about to faint. A saleswoman, quick off the mark, manages to break her fall, and with the other arm quickly grabs hold of a chair for her to recover in. Over in the corner sits another customer, a bald gentleman with a pretty sales assistant leaning over him. I may be mistaken, but from where I’m standing she appears to be massaging his thumb. Before I can do a double take though it's my turn to be served.

I ask for a bandage, explaining I need it on straight away. The salesgirl produces some scissors and waits patiently as I, still front of queue, clumsily cut off a piece and start winding it round my troubled knee. Seeing my difficulty doing this standing up she apologises for the lack of chairs, gesturing to the elderly lady sitting with shopping bags and the bald gentleman, who really does look like he's being thumb massaged. 

Chemists assistants look more like fitness instructors 

The elderly lady, I notice, is now fully conscious again and murmuring between pouted lips, addressing no one in particular – as people of a certain age tend to do – about not being able to find a single store in the Bavarian capital where you can sit down and rest. I’m about to suggest that central Munich, with its highest density of cafes and bars in the world, surely has enough seating to fill the Allianz Arena a million times over, when I suddenly find myself agreeing – nodding like a Chihuahua dog bobbling from a car mirror. What’s the point of cosy sofas in a Starbucks at every corner, when you’re in the middle of the weekly food run, stuck between freezer cupboards and toiletries aisle, and suddenly go weak at the knees? Whoever invented the expression “shop till you drop” certainly hadn't reckoned with the disastrous effects of collapsing in a German supermarket.   
Semi squatting on the floor, one leg tucked behind the other like a dying crab, I struggle to bandage my leg up as best I can in the circumstances, wishing there wasn't a crowd of onlookers queuing right behind me. My gaze drifts from the sales assistant, who’s grinning as if to say “We don’t get this sort of thing happening every day”, to the woman recovering on her chair, still holding forth about the lack of seating in Munich stores.

Thanking the kind chemist, I get back up on my legs again, hobble out onto Marienplatz – and search for somewhere to sit.

Mittwoch, 19. Februar 2014

The Divider Dilemma - how come there's not even a name for these things?

You know the divider thing you put between shopping at the checkout?

I never realised these things could create such conundrums til I came to live in Germany. 
I mean, why does the person in front never put the divider up between their shopping and yours? And if you put the divider thing up first do they ever thank you? Me neither.

Whenever someone puts it behind my purchases I don't know whether to thank them for taking the initiative, feel embarassed I didn't place it first, or just pretend I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer and didn’t see it.

Not enough that there are no rules for who places "the divider thing" in a land where everything else is so clearly fenced out and rulegoverned. I don't think there's even a word for it.

Is there really no German word for "the divider thing"?

Freitag, 7. Februar 2014

It's a long day's work in Germany - counting down to "Feierabend"

Bridging the gap between lunchtime and Feierabend....

Did you know that the most used expression at work in Germany has absolutely nothing to do with work? It’s “Schönen Feierabend!”

Germans say the equivalent of “Have a nice evening!” even more than “Da warte ich noch auf Feedback” -  a euphemism for "I gave the job to some poor jerk lower down the ladder and he hasn’t done it yet."

Other top-rated phrases, according to a report just out in  The Local  -  Germany's News in English  include “"Na?” (alright?), "Auf geht's zur Telko!" (time for conference call!) and “Ich bin ein Teamplayer".

Interestingly, the opposite of "team player" is “Einzelkämpfer” – an uncool label for someone who prefers to fight battles alone. I always grind my teeth when I read German "Psychotests" with titles like "Bist Du Teamplayer oder Einzelkämpfer?" (= are you a hero  or zero?). That speaks volumes about cultural differences between Germany and Britain or the USA, where individualists are seen as leaders, and teamplayers as sheep, simply willing to follow the flow.

Germans have of course good reason to love their "Feierabend". When British office workers are only just coming back from their lunch breaks Germans are already clocking off and heading home for Kaffee und Kuchen. "Feierabend" on Fridays, however, takes it to a totally different level, with work virtually coming to a halt just before lunchtime, as the "Gang", or step, to the canteen also signals the last "workstep" of the week.

Still, when Brits wish each other a nice evening at least they’re a lot closer to it. 5 o’clock is normal leaving time in Britain. Fridays included.

Freitag, 6. Dezember 2013

More Hahaha than Hohoho - some things never change in Germany

Dinner for One  -  typical German humour
No matter how long you live in a foreign country there are always things about that land which you remain blissfully oblivious of. And some things that you'll find out only through kids. When I first came to Germany I thought the only difference between German and British Christmas is that while German Kinder start getting gifts as early as 6 November, St Nikolaus Day, poor British kids have to wait till Christmas morning. Until I discovered something even weirder: whole families crowding around the TV to watch Dinner for One every single New Year's Eve.

While Brits enjoy world TV premieres like "Skyfall" it seems strange that Germans get offered nothing better than an old black-and-white comedy – in English – which no one outside Germany has ever heard of. "Same procedure every year" is as well known in Germany as "Vorsprung durch Technik" in Britain.

Ironically we import lots of German Christmas culture – trees, carols, advent calendars, stollen cake and Glühwein. And of course Weihnachtsmärkte which are now so à la mode in Britain. What a surprise then to discover that although Father Christmas has plenty helpers he has a special sidekick in Germany who I had never heard of. Until today, Nikolaustag, when he suddenly banged on my front door, just as it was getting dark.

It’s Krampus
, of course. A beast-like creature guaranteed to scare the living daylights out of every child. Half Gruffalo, half Godzilla, the legendary Krampus isn’t a visitor you’d typically welcome with open arms. Dating back over 1000 years, his sole role is to make Santa bypass naughty kids, and drag them off to the underworld.

Just as surprising though is the German Father Christmas. Always at Krampus’ side, Nikolaus is the absolute antithesis of the pot-bellied, larger-than-life Anglo-American Santa. Tall and thin, with only a hint of a beard, and a crooked wooden stick, Nikolaus looks more like the village priest. And since we booked him through the local church I think that's who we might have got.

Matilda remained cool throughout –even when grumpy Krampus gave her a dark look, as if to say “Have you REALLY been good?” Maybe she guessed the game and was just playing along, knowing full well she was going to get the gift at the top of her wish list –binoculars

Dienstag, 4. Juni 2013

142 Minutes of DiCaprio Leave Me Longing for More

Nice visual effects, shame about the script
Yesterday we had an English lesson in the cinema, for a change. I went with some students to see the Great Gatsby. It was the first dry day after a week's non-stop rain and floods. Most of Munich was celebrating the return of the sun in the nearest biergarten. We had the movie theatre all to ourselves.

There are over a hundred cinemas in and around Munich but only half a dozen show original English versions. One is a musty, but in a nice sort of way, oldy-worldly place with a retro feel. An audience of just seven, we sat in the backrow quietly munching popcorn. Very very quietly actually. There must be some rule about popcorn-munching in German cinemas.

The closing credits roll and we're all still hooked to the edge of our seats. I ask the students if the film makes them want to pick up the book. A row of heads shake in unison. No, they say, not when you know what's going to happen. Fair comment. I guess it’s a bit like having the barber chop off all your hair and then finding a better style on offer.

Still, bookshop displays are bulging with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece and there are good reasons why you might want to pick up a copy if you know only the film.

The film’s visual effects (must look great in 3D - we foolishly forgot glasses) are a finger food feast for the eyes but the screenplay is gangster-style lousy. The book, by contrast, offers some of the loveliest language you'll ever find in English: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." No wonder they airlifted that sentence word for word into the film's final diary-style flashback.

The film script has the occasional funny moment. Daisy made me laugh (“I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts!”), but most humour comes more from the sheer über-extravagence of Roaring 20s lifestyle. Its hedonistic parties make today's drug-driven raves look more like afternoon tea at the vicarage.

142 minutes of Leonardo DiCaprio leave me longing for something more. If you feel that way too maybe it's time to read the book.
Or re-read it.

Donnerstag, 21. Februar 2013

Germans are bound by the fattest rule book in the world. No wonder they freak out at Fasching.

Even if it's not verboten, don't push your luck too far...
Fasching passed uneventfully this year, though not without the usual pain and discomfort. Most Germans must have heaved a sigh of relief, climbing out of their sweat-filled cow or donkey costumes. Happy to see the back of this time of year known as the "fifth season", and return to the regulated Ordnung which characterises their lives for the rest of the year.

Alles in Ordnung – literally “all in order” – is one of the most common phrases in German – even more popular than “OK”. Another favourite is ordnungsgemäß“according to rules”. Not that Germans really need any rules at all. They intuitively know what is and isn’t “in order”. They simply say “Das muss sein” or “Das darf nicht sein”. Saying that something “must be” or “isn’t allowed to be” justifies everything – no further explanation is required.

Germans not only keep a tight reign on themselves – they’re also quick to reprimand others. They pass comment on everything, from opening the window and causing a draught (a very serious offence, it seems), to sitting in a sauna without a towel (I tried this once and was immediately sent out). But it’s from disciplining each other on waste disposal that Germans seem to derive greatest pleasure.  What is it about waste disposal that gets them so excited? When I first moved to Germany neighbours were always leaving me notes on rubbish bins. We had about six various bins, all colour coded. Mix up codes and put waste in recycling, for example, and you got enough notes to fill a whole container. I used to come home from work to find a trail of post-its all up the garden path, stuck on every available surface.

Funniest note I ever received was after parking my car in a terrible hurry. Skew-whiff and half over the kerb, it was nonetheless no great obstacle to either traffic or pedestrians. I came back to find some smarty puss had stuck a memo on the windscreen, saying something like “If you have sex as badly as you park you’ll end up with a stiff neck too.” Chucking the note in the nearest recycler I remember thinking what a charming way Germans have of connecting two totally unrelated activities.

Orderliness and civil obedience go hand in hand in Germany. You’d be amazed at things Germans obediently refrain from doing: hanging up washing outside on Sundays, tuning pianos at midnight (luckily, I’ve so far resisted all temptation to do THAT) and take a deep breath denying a chimney sweep access to their home.

..and don't dare think about hanging up washing on Sundays

German legislation is at its most creative, however, when it comes to curtailing its citizens’ fondness for frolicking around in fancy dress. Turning up at a meeting or demonstration in a mask or false nose, for instance, will earn you a hefty fine or 12 months imprisonment. This so-called Vermummungsgesetz is suspended during Karneval, for obvious reasons.

Germans can’t possibly know every single rule though. When I moved into my first flat I put up a satellite dish to watch the BBC. I was just tuning into Teatime News when my landlady burst in, saying it was verboten and demanding I take the dish down. I politely recited the German Civil Code, which charters the right of every foreigner in Germany to watch television in their own language. Ah so. Alles in Ordnung, came the calm and orderly response. For a while everything remained calm and “in order”. Until we tried planting a small shrub in the garden – without permission – which really is verboten.

Peep over the garden fence and you'll see how Germans over-exaggerate when it comes to avoiding anything that’s the slightest bit verboten. Like letting leaves pile up on your lawn any higher than 5 inches. Only this would explain why I’ve had several neighbours who go around shaking tree branches before raking up the leaves – presumably in order to halve the workload.

Germans might take civil obedience to ridiculous extremes, but when it comes to forking out for fines they eagerly conspire to outwit the law. Take, for example, Blitzer-Meldungen.  Nothing, as Brits might think, to do with The War. Blitzer are speed traps, and Germans love phoning their local radio stations to warn listeners about where they risk getting “blitzed”. You can almost hear them purr with pleasure, patting their backs in self congratulation, as they reveal the whereabouts of these loathed devices. Brits loathe them too of course, but take the attitude it’s “a fair cop” – you speed, you pay. The idea of deliberately stopping the car to warn fellow motorists on public radio makes most Brits curl up with laughter.  

The typical German seems constantly looking out for pitfalls in life, guarding against whatever atrocities might strike. Something which the press must take part blame for. Doomsday warnings like “Werden die Deutschen impotent?” (are Germans losing their fertility?) and “Sterben die Deutschen aus?” (are Germans dying out?) are widespread. The latest online “Spiegel” carries an interview with a “Population Expert” from the University of Bielefeld. Written in typical Endzeitstimmung style, the message is that Germans needs an extra 500 000 immigrants by 2025, or they’ll die out.

Of course things are rarely as bad as they seem. Not even in Germany. After living here 14 years I secretly enjoy a bit of disorder once a year. I can’t wait for Fasching 2014.


Samstag, 1. September 2012

Why do I have to mispronounce my name to make myself understood?

Sinking? Thinking? With Germans you can never be too sure......

There are so many things I love about living in Bavaria: The extremes in climate (ice-cold winters, sizzling-hot summers), lovely clean public swimming pools everywhere, and some of the best bread in the world. Not forgetting of course the local brew. Considering about half of Germany’s 1250 breweries are here in Bavaria it’s not surprising that most of the local festivities are beer driven. Last year I finally went “native”, dressing up in Lederhosen and dancing on beer tables with the Bürgermeister. It felt great. I even began liking niederbayrisch, even though I find this local dialect mostly incomprehensible.

Moving to Germany over 13 years ago I was scared stiff of those big black Audis which creep up on you on the Autobahn, headlights flashing furiously, forcing you to pull over into the slow lane. Worse still when I accidentally threw an old hairdryer into normal rubbish, a neighbour saw this and reported me to the police. I’ve since learnt to live with impatient motorists and intruding neighbours. But one thing I will NEVER get used to is how Germans misuse and mispronounce English words in their own language. And how I have to mispronounce them too in order to be understood.
Just look how German is flooded with English words in advertising: “Get the London Look!” (Rimmel), “Drive alive!” (Mitsubishi) or Douglas’ confusing invitation “Come in and find out!” Smooth, smart slogans - and all totally meaningless.
Advertisers please note there is a London Eye but no London Look, that being alive is an absolute minimum requirement for driving a car, and “come in and find out” sounds more like a challenge to find the shop exit.

Teachers are forever reminding pupils that “Handy” (mispronounced “hendy”!) is a mobile phone in British English. Maybe we should also explain that this word is used by native speakers only as an adjective, to mean "helpful" or "useful". 

Mispronunciation, if you're not careful, can be a matter of life and death, as highlighted  by language trainers Berlitz in a popular advert. “We’re sinking!” - a ship’s Mayday call to German coastguards - is tragically misunderstood as the officer enquires “Oh ja, and vot are you sinking about?”

Hearing so much English mispronounced is slowly “germanising” my own English too. I recently phoned the cinema to ask for times of Woody Allen’s “From Rome with Love” (pronounced by young Germans as “luff”, and the older generation as “low-ver”) Asking about this “Vooty Ellen luff-feelm” made me feel foolish but at least we understood each other.

But nothing makes me feel sillier than having to mispronounce my OWN surname, Howe, as “How-ver”.

This helps prevent people spelling it “Hau”, “Hovi” or “Howi”.

To be on the safe side I would spell it out too. All four letters: “Ha-O-Vee-Ay”. Until I found it simpler just to pronounce it correctly, referring to another oft-used English word in German – “Know-how”.

When it came to setting up my own language service I didn’t need to think too long about what to call it: Know Howe for English.