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

Learning German for Kids

We expats are coming and going, not always when we want to. My friend Ann Belle of family-friendly North Rhein Westfalia blog Belle NRW had to relocate back to the United States late last year reluctantly. After the initial years of stumbling to find her way as an expat mother, she launched Belle NRW, and was also comfortable and relishing in the positives of having her American children ages five and three in a German kindergarten. One of the biggest pluses, of course, was that they were learning the German language. So, it was with some regret that she was removing them from this daily immersion to repatriate back to America.

Before she left, she asked me for some book and toy recommendations that might help them retain their German. This is the list I sent: Continue reading

How I Became Fluent in German Fast

I’ve been meeting many more expats now that I am living in the heavily populated Rhineland/Ruhr region of Germany. These expats range from old timers/lifers to newbie/temporary assignees. As any expat can relate to, the newbies are grappling with learning the German language: some try private tutelage, others secure places at the local VHS, while others make the deep plunge for the Goethe Institut in Düsseldorf. Most of them ask me about my level of German and how I learned. I admit that it was a quick ascent to fluency for me, and I know that I was fortunate to not have problems with the German language as an expat woe. (I was instead confounded by the local Swabian dialect while living in Swabia.)

A glimpse of my German language text books. Photo credit: Jane Park

A glimpse of my German language text books. Photo credit: Jane Park

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).


Expat Tip: Buy an E-Reader

I am a self-confessed bookworm. Books are a significant part of my life, and no day is complete unless I have spent part of it reading. Moving to Germany in 2000, I spent years on the hunt for books I could read. At first, devoted as I was to achieving fluency in the language, I read German books. I started with children’s books that I had read during elementary school, and read the German versions of them. The prose was straightforward and the sentence structure was simple enough for me to follow the story, and I kept a dictionary handy for new vocabulary words. I progressed to young adult fiction, and eventually adopted the newspaper. I will admit that I only read one or two entire books in German each year. Despite fluency, I still find reading more relaxing in my native language.

Prices for English books are shockingly high in Germany, and I could rarely justify paying them, except in the hope that I was either fulfilling an immediate literary need or helping to support a local bookstore. Once Amazon.de started selling English books, I ordered often (and shipping on books is free!). However, the selection of English books on Amazon.de isn’t the same as on Amazon.com, and I wanted the selection from across the pond. For years, my English-speaking friends and I swapped and borrowed from each other’s libraries, although our tastes never perfectly aligned. I was delighted to come across Sarah’s suggestion for bookswapper.de, and managed to trade a few used books on that platform. Now that the world has digitized everything and is ever more global, however, the e-reader has opened up new avenues. Continue reading

Germany’s Stolen (Degenerate) Art Problem

The German Nazi Past seems always to be lurking around in the background of German life. Over the past few weeks the German Past has once again emerged from the shadows, suddenly all too evident in the glare of headlines all around the world.

In a story that the German news magazine Focus first broke in the first week of November 2013, it was revealed that a cache of more than 1,400 artworks confiscated by the Nazis had been discovered in a cluttered apartment in Munich’s Schwabing district. The inhabitant of that apartment turned out to be 80-year-old Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, despite having a Jewish mother, was an art agent commissioned by the Nazis to cleanse German museums and galleries of so-called “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). Continue reading