7 books which will help you get to know Berlin

IMG_0767 (1)Alongside relishing delicious tapas, sunbathing, and swimming in the sea, I spent our two-week summer holiday in Andalusia last year reading “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving. Reading relevant books for the location is something I like to do – Henry James in Italy, Jan Morris in the Middle East, Alice Walker in the US – providing a more nuanced dimension to fact-filled travel guides.

I did this, too, when I first came to Berlin as a student – sniffing out obscure, vaguely relevant works in the glorious Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz. Though after 6 years here, my location-focused intellectual pursuits have been waylaid by work, family life and lots of other good, unrelated books I’ve been keen to read, I still believe books – both fiction and memoir – represent one of the best ways to understand the spirit of Berlin. Here are my top seven recommendations spanning genre and historical period – mostly available in translation – to help you get to know Berlin. 

1. “Die Poggenpuhls” / Theodor Fontane

Set in 1888 in what is referred to as the Kaiserreich, “Die Poggenpuhls” depicts an impoverished Prussian aristocratic family struggling by in Berlin. The father has died, the two brothers are away with the army, leaving the mother and three sisters in a pokey, rented apartment just on the edge of an acceptable part of town, desperately keeping up appearances despite the financial constraints. The novel shows the shifting of power and wider societal change at a crucial point in German history. Continue reading

“For Expats, by Expats” – The Making of Germany for Beginners: The German Way Expat Guidebook

“What if you could sit down with a team of expats, and get advice from people who together have decades of experience living and working in Germany?”

Whether you’re new to expat life in German-speaking Europe, or you’ve been an expat for years, there’s always more to learn about coping with culture shock and all the other challenges that English-speaking expats encounter after moving to Germany, Austria or German Switzerland. So, what if you could sit down with a team of expats, and get advice from people who together have decades of experience living and working in Germany? It may sound impossible, but now there’s a way to do something just like that – via a new book to be published this spring.

Now Available!
Germany for Beginners is now available from Amazon.com and Amazon.de in ebook and paperback editions. See more buying options here.

GFB cover

Germany for Beginners will be available in paperback and e-book editions.

Germany for Beginners: The German Way Expat Guidebook allows you to gain access to the personal knowledge and experience of eight current and former expats, who have written about their experiences for the German Way Expat Blog for years. Many of our expat writers living in Germany and Switzerland have been sharing their thoughts and tips every week since the blog began in October 2008 until now. That means there were more than 350 blog posts online at the time the book was being prepared. (More recent posts and other topics will be published in a planned second volume.)

But 350 blog posts would make a much too lengthy, unwieldy book. So the Germany for Beginners editors went through all those posts, gathering together the best, most relevant and helpful ones. Then they arranged them by topic and carefully edited the selected items into an anthology for your reading enjoyment. Out of 350+ posts, the editors ended up with 78 entries under 19 expat topics arranged alphabetically for the Germany for Beginners book – all carefully edited and updated, some with photos. Continue reading

Alexander von Humboldt: Why Do We Find His Name All Around the Globe and Even on the Moon?


The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

Let’s start at the beginning. There are several special reasons I wanted to read this new Humboldt biography.

Humboldt in South Amaerica

A portrait of Alexander von Humboldt in South America (detail, 1806) painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1758–1828). The original is displayed at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

When I was still teaching German, my high school in Reno, Nevada participated in a student exchange with a school in Berlin-Köpenick. The Berlin school’s name was Alexander-von-Humboldt-Oberschule. (Now it’s the Alexander-von-Humboldt-Gymnasium.) Our Reno-Berlin GAAP exchange took place in 1995/1996. (I also conducted earlier GAAP school exchanges in Freiburg.) I’m pleased to say that AvH still has an ongoing GAAP exchange with a high school in Texas. There are also secondary schools bearing the name Alexander-von-Humboldt-Gymnasium in Bremen, Hamburg, Schweinfurt, Neuss, and other German towns and cities.

Humboldt’s name is also found on many schools at all levels all across Germany and in many other parts of the world. I even have a rather tenuous tie to the Colegio Humboldt, a Germany-sponsored K-12 private school in Puebla, Mexico. I once visited the school and knew a teacher there. The Humboldt school in Puebla – with classes in German and Spanish – was founded in 1911.

I live in Nevada, a state that also features the name Humboldt on a river, a county, and a ghost town. Humboldt was also one of the names considered for the state when the Territory of Nevada was seeking statehood in the 1860s, a fact mentioned in Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature.

Today Alexander von Humboldt’s name designates towns, parks, counties, mountains, rivers, an ocean current, capes, bays, a glacier, a geyser, and even landmarks on the moon. Who was this guy? Why did Andrea Wulf write a new biography about him? Continue reading

Expat book review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Let me start by saying that Hausfrau was not a light, happy read. It is also not an easy one to review. I heard about it this week when I was perusing Facebook (I think it was mentioned in the New York Times feed) and I immediately went out and bought it. It isn’t often that you hear about a book that seems to so parallel your life and those of your friends. The first line, however, didn’t especially draw me in,”Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Since I hadn’t read any reviews thoroughly before I started the book, I had no real expectations. Even though it didn’t hook me in immediately, I did end up reading the whole  book in one day. One way or another, this book stays with you.

Set in Zürich, the novel follows the perilous, destructive path of an American woman named Anna, who is married to a Swiss banker. The couple has three children and seem to be living the idyllic life in a small village outside of the city. She doesn’t speak Schweizerdeutsch and barely speaks German as the novel opens. Her husband seems to ignore her almost entirely, and she also really doesn’t have a huge attachment to her children either. She often leaves them with her mother-in-law, Ursula, who lives in the same village and regards Anna with not a lot of affection. I must say, I can understand Ursula’s position, although she did seem the typical German (Swiss) mother in law that we all know and love. She loved her grandkids and helped as much as she could, but she often got annoyed with Anna’s lack of interest and surely felt used (and lied to) as Anna throws herself down the path of self-destruction. Continue reading

Is Santa Chinese? On the Trail of Santa Claus and der Weihnachtsmann

Fu Lu Shou

Ceramic figurines of the Chinese gods Shou, Lu and Fu. What do they have to do with Santa and the Weihnachtsmann? PHOTO: Ridone Ko – Flickr

I’ve written about it before, but this Christmastide I’m delving a little deeper into the traditions of the season of giving and its central figure: Santa Claus, Weihnachtsmann, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), Père Noël, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Babbo Natale, Julemanden, and so on. If you aren’t already aware of the many Germanic aspects of Santa Claus and Christmas, you can read about it on our German Way Christmas pages. While the German-American St. Nick connection and the “German” pickle ornament myth are fascinating, I know there’s more to the Santa Claus story than most people think. Continue reading

Don’t Mention the War. Read About It.

One facet of German culture that continues to impress me is how they have dealt with their WWII history. German authors have written extensively about it from the “inside” of German perspective, although I have yet to delve into their works. As an outsider, it is easier for me to identify with stories written by English-speaking authors, and there are a number of novels I have read that give insight into life as a German during those difficult times. We are all familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, and many movies and TV series have made this horrific period of history painfully real. Literature remains one of the most powerful ways to represent the multitude of stories of that age, and as a self-confessed bookworm, I have collected many books set in the time period.

By no means exhaustive, nor in order of greatness, here are a number of my recommendations: Continue reading

A German Epic

Of the many cultural highlights I enjoyed while living in Germany, an Abo (subscription) to the local Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra was definitely one of my favorites. We regularly attended concerts featuring world-class musicians at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, an impressive concert hall with phenomenal acoustic quality. The Stuttgarter Philharmoniker were unafraid to present the audience with challenging works, ranging from traditional to modern, and regularly impressed me with unique combinations of styles during each performance.

One of the most memorable performances I attended there was of the music to the 1924 Fritz Lang silent film “Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Rache” (Kriemhild’s Revenge, the second of a two-part epic; part 1 was “Die Nibelungen: Siegfried“; music by Gottfried Huppertz) . The orchestra played the score, mostly in the dark, while the audience watched the black-and-white film on a large screen in front of the auditorium. I was blown away, both by the story and by the orchestra.

Having never heard of this epic tale, I began asking my German friends about it, and many of them had learned it in school. Das Nibelungenlied is an old epic poem, whose manuscripts date back to the 13th century, the authorship of which is unknown. Consider it along the lines of The Iliad and you get the idea. I found the movie so fascinating that I wanted to read the story for myself. While my German is fluent, and I often read German books and regularly read the newspaper and magazines, I knew I couldn’t handle mittelhochdeutsch (German from the middle ages) in poetry form. Happily, there is a contemporary author who has crafted the tale into a novel, and I found his book Hagen von Tronje, by Wolfgang Hohlbein, easy to follow and very enjoyable to read.

Another form of the tale which I have yet to experience is the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, a series of 4 epic operas that loosely follow the story of the Nibelungen. In fact, the German title is Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is another form of the tale that I am not sure I am quite ready to consume, although I might enjoy the attempt.

I can highly recommend either the 1924 silent film or the novel format of the epic as a good starting place for learning this mythical tale. Don’t worry – you won’t feel like you are back in grade 10 Literature class, and there is no quiz at the end. The benefit is in your deepened understanding of German cultural references (Yes! They regularly reference this tale when referring to things like the Nibelungentreue, and have done so throughout history).

Enjoy!

“Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known” reviewed

What happens when an all American woman with a French-Italian name moves to Switzerland? American writer Chantal Panozzo tells all about it in her recently published book, Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known. With her trademark humor, she shares  her evolution as an American transplant through all phases of withering and thriving as an expat in the extra clean cantons of Switzerland in 30 tightly written essays.

IMG_2228 Continue reading