Help! The Holy Season is Over but the Cold is Not.

After you dutifully participated at -and maybe even organized, the Christmas celebrations at the office, attended several advent parties, strolled through many Christmas Markets, ate shameful amounts of Plätzchen (X-mas cookies), drank enough hot chocolate to fill your bathtub and got all festive with the fireworks at Silvester; reality hits and it is time to go back to work, the year is over, the holidays are over, the clothes that used to fit are also quite possibly over as well. Ok, we are grown-ups, we can do this. Except that it is really cold outside, the days are absurdly short and dark, it rains most of the days and depending on where you are you will also get your share of snow. Showering is a challenge, going out feels like torture and the gloomy appearance of the streets that are now dark because the shimmering decorations are being removed from all public spaces is not helping you.

What are the social alternatives during the winter in Germany now that all that short-wearing and sausage-grilling is unthinkable and the merry and Glühwein-fueled gatherings are over? I have carefully observed my peers and made a top 5 list: Continue reading

If You’re Happy and You Know It, Make a Demo

One of my first brilliant conclusions almost upon arrival on my first time living in Germany, was that Germans are undeniably active when it comes to politics. Of course all of my appreciations came from what previous first-hand experiences I had had in the past, being a young adult in Mexico, my home country, where it’s perfectly acceptable to simply state that politics bore you and you don’t know anything about it, successfully avoid the topic and nobody bats an eyelash. In Germany, it’s quite normal for most of the population over a certain age to follow what happens in the political scene, and it’s rare that said scene is limited to Germany alone. The intensity of this interest and the understanding of what it entails is, of course quite varied, but six years later, my original conlusions still suffice to sustain my opinion: Politics is definitely a thing in Germany.

When you live in Germany and you don’t like something, you have the option of organizing or taking part in a “Demo” to make your opinion known and spread the discomfort you feel.

That sounds nice, but how to Demo the German Way? (See what I did there?) Well, I first had to forget what I knew about demonstrating because as far as I was concerned, Demos could be done at any time, day or night, and it was enough to get a couple of angry neighbors and some scribbled placards to suddenly close some highway without any hope of finding out what the deal was about and, most important of all, when it would finally be over. To me it’s also an everyday thing to turn on the news some random morning and find out that the central square in the city is now occupied by dozens of camping tents with people who are living there in protest against something, and they will stay for as long as they want. Great. Continue reading

The Good and Fearless Samaritan

I come from Mexico, a place where social initiatives are not that big a thing, mainly because a great deal of the population has barely enough resources to keep their own heads afloat, but also because its mindset is infected with corruption and a cheating culture where you must seek to maximize your personal benefit at whatever the cost. Because everyone does the same, you must also distrust everyone and the more you can cheat, the better. The brilliant principle by which we live and justify whatever fault we consciously commit is: “The one who does not cheat, does not win.” – I rest my case.

The Umsonst-Laden. This particular one is in Hamburg. FOTO: LauraV.

One of the very first things I learned the first time I lived in Germany was that no matter how much I had read and studied about its history, politics and culture, I was still ignorant about what it all really meant in the real world where both the German society and others (like the one I grew up in) coexist. It is true that Germans tend to abide themselves by the rules because they understand rules are the base for everything to work properly –and there’s nothing they like more than things working properly (but honestly, don’t we all?). This is not to say there’s no corruption in Germany, but things are simply different and the citizens still have power as individuals, even if they sometimes fail to appreciate it and what it means, they do. It is very impressive to witness that power for someone who comes from “no man’s land” and where my own brother must leave the house full of fear when he heads to school and nobody can drive him there so he must always be ready with a secret little pocket where he stashes emergency cash and also carries a fake wallet and a fake old mobile phone he can surrender in case of robbery in the bus or while walking down the street; or where people (yes, that famously warm and chirpy Mexican people) are now so rude they won’t even stop if you try to ask them for directions. They are not being rude per se, they are scared because they do not trust their fellow Mexicans, we all know it all is probably a ruse and you will end up kidnapped, attacked or, in the lesser of cases, robbed. Are you following the vicious circle? Continue reading

4 Ways in which Berliners are Actually Nice

I don’t want to say Berliners get a bad rap, because they can be incredibly rude. They live up to the standard German reputation of shutting doors in your face, non-existent customer service, and refusal to engage in simple pleasantries – then up the ante with Berliner Schnauze (literally “Berlin snout”). This phrase perfectly encapsulates Berliner’s unique vocabulary and dialect, coarse humor and general gruffness.

Kinder der Straße from Heinrich Zille

Berliner Schnauze

An example of Berliner Schnauze is that gut (good) becomes “yoot” and Ich (ish) changes to “icke”; das becomes “dat” and was iswat”. Grammar is largely simplified.

The humor (yes – German humor exists) is direct, loud and can be downright crude. Heinrich Zille was a 1920s illustrator closely identified with Berlin sensibilities (example above) and giving realistic depictions of every day life from street prostitution to idyllic days out at Wannsee.

Continue reading

Is Healthcare better in Germany?

Sometimes “home” feels a lot further than a 10 hour flight away. My old college roommate was just diagnosed with colon cancer and I don’t know how to express my worry, my concern – all the feelings I am having for her – better than in a facebook message. She is not one for social media so I’m not sure if she’ll see it. Over the decade that I have been out of college we lost touch as we each got married, moved (one of us across the country and an ocean), and generally went about our lives.

Maria Heimsuchung Hospital PHOTO: Erin Porter

But with this news I am brought back to those good ‘ole college days and can’t believe she is facing the C-word. It is among an expats’ greatest fears; not that you will just miss out on the fun things (like weddings), but you won’t be around when things inevitably fall apart.  Just because you’re gone doesn’t mean things stop changing.

In her post, my friend sums up her month as one of “major surgeries, 4ER visits, 2 blood infections, staples, stitches, and a jugular infusion line. Then the 7/3/17 game changer of a colon cancer diagnosis and starting chemo in 4-6 weeks.” She is facing a brutal battle, and one of the major concerns isn’t even the massive health issues she is tackling. It’s financial. As my country (the USA for the uninitiated) continues to claw itself apart over a workable health care system, everyday people need to keep figuring out how to pay for it. Continue reading

What’s in Your German Basement?

Berlin basement PHOTO: Erin Porter

Don’t worry – this is nothing to do with Josef Fritzl…although mentions of basements seem to bring up that imagery. (To be fair, Fritzl was from Austria like another infamous German speaker). This post is about the German basements (Keller or Souterrain or Untergeschoss), a mysterious place beneath most German apartments where stalls of old furniture, bikes, and seasonal accessories are kept.

In our last apartment, a tiny Dachgeschoss (attic apartment), we weren’t allotted one of these coveted basement spots. So we got creative. There was a shelf built into the loft of the foyer, we bought large closets and crammed things just about everywhere. It worked, but barely. Once we had a kid – it was over. Baby clothes and toys and just stuff spilled out of everywhere. It was time to move – ideally to somewhere with some storage.

Continue reading

Days for the Frauen and Männer

Holiday Alert! It is Muttertag (Mother’s Day) this Sunday which means elegant brunches and bundles of flowers – no matter which side of the pond you are on.

Mother’s Day in Germany

My 1st Mother’s Day Photo: Erin Porter

But the history of the holiday in Germany, Switzerland and Austria has a unique European slant. Switzerland was one the first European countries to introduce Mother’s Day in 1917. Germany wasn’t far behind with observance beginning in 1922 and Austria in 1926.

The holiday became official in Germany in 1933 under the Nazi regime, highlighting the importance of having more Aryan soldiers. Mother’s Day still takes place on the second Sunday in May, though das Mutterkreuz – a medal given out for multiple children – has fallen out of fashion.
Continue reading

Austria and Germany: Worlds Apart


Billy Wilder (1906-2002), the noted Austrian-American film director (Double Indemnity, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot), as famous as he was, used to complain about how he was frequently misidentified as German. Americans often get Austria and Germany mixed up. Sometimes they even confuse Austria with Australia! Thus the joke T-shirts and signs found in Austria with a “no kangaroos” logo. Silly Americans!

Salzburg

The Hohensalzburg castle seen from the padlock bridge in Salzburg, Austria.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Never really that good at geography, Americans, even if they can find Austria on a map, also tend to be ignorant of the many great and subtle differences between the small Alpine republic (population 8.4 million), known as Österreich, and its much larger neighboring republic to the north, known as Deutschland (population 80 million). Austria is only about the size of the US state of South Carolina. Germany is slightly smaller than Montana. In some ways, the two countries can be compared to the United States and Canada, or the US and Great Britain (with the sizes reversed): They both speak the same language, but with significant differences, and they share a common history that has made them friends, yet has also left them worlds apart.

More at The German Way
Austria (culture/history)
Austria for Tourists (travel info/sights)

Even English-speakers with a modicum of German can hear the difference between the lilting, almost musical tones of Austrian German versus the less lilting, more crisp sound of standard German (Hochdeutsch). Bavarian, on the other hand, is very similar to Austrian. (Bavaria being a state in Germany, yet not quite part of Germany. Rather like Texas in a way.) The difference between Austrian German and standard German is similar to the difference between the drawling language heard in the US South versus the more standard English of the US Midwest or West. Continue reading