Guten Tag, Frau Schmidt

In the office the other day my colleague was in a quandary. “But I don’t know whether to write ‘Du’ or ‘Sie’”, she said, brow furrowed, “I’ll have to text my friend and find out what she says to her.” The “Du” / “Sie” under discussion was a cleaner, recommended by a friend. My colleague had the mobile phone number but no knowledge of the cleaner’s age or general attitude to linguistic formality. For non-native speakers and students of German, the “Du” or “Sie” dilemma is all too familiar, but here was a born-and-bred German stumbling through the same maze of uncertainty.

The assumption that Germans just know this sort of detail – imbibed through years of interacting with aged relatives over Kaffee und Kuchen – no longer holds true. Customs have changed: some Germans and some parts of Germany have become less formal, it seems. The challenge now lies in knowing which ones. My colleague did not want to offend an older lady with the informal “Du”, nor to come across as a fusty stickler for tradition with a bright young thing. “If only I could write to her in English,” she bemoaned, “A simple ‘you’ would be so much easier.”

In the olden days – a mere fifteen years ago would suffice – the answer would have been clear to all Germans. “Sie” for anyone older, a stranger, or a distant acquaintance; “Du” for close friends and family. Neighbours and colleagues would fall into two camps. Those you had an intimate friendship with who had offered you the “Du”, and a brief “Sie“, plus head-nod on the stairs for anyone else.  Continue reading

It’s not all about the fireworks – 4 other New Year’s traditions in Germany

I’ve written about the German obsession at New Year’s with pyrotechnics for this blog before. This year Berlin was the same as always – air thick with smoke, sky alight with brilliant explosions of colour, and our ears filled with the constant cracking of bangers. After nearly seven years of living in the Hauptstadt, I’m entirely used to it. For all the bewildering bluster of the country’s firework mania, the other rather quaint German traditions for Silvester and New Year become overlooked. It’s those I want to explore here.

1. Bleigießen

Popular with small children and adults alike, Bleigießen (‘lead pouring’ or ‘molybdomancy’ – to give it the proper English name) is an elaborate method of fortune telling for the coming year. It requires a bowl of cold water, a candle, a spoon, a few small metal objects (traditionally lead, but most likely tin today), and a list of interpretations – the latter two can be acquired in any local corner shop or supermarket. Each person at the party is invited to place a small metal piece on the spoon and hold it over the candle flame. As soon as the metal melts (which is very quickly with these little pieces), the molten metal is tipped into the water and whatever the shape emerges is then used to divine the future. Depending on your Bleigießen kit, the interpretations range from the charming (field = luck and happiness) to the bizarre (trumpet = you will gain public office). The whole process does make a mess of your spoon though, so be sure to use an old one! – More about Bleigießen Continue reading

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

Berlin Tip: Grand Opening of the Pfefferberg Theater Berlin

Aufbruch 2When I first came to Berlin in 2002, Pfefferberg was just about the coolest place I’d ever been to. Sitting out under the stars in the Berlin summer, drinking a good German beer, and listening to live music was for me the absolute height of sophistication. On the way up the hill along Schönhauser Allee going towards Mauerpark and what was then the pretty scruffy, vibrant east of Berlin (now much more touristy and rather gentrified), Pfefferberg was (and still is) a bar, club, restaurant, and cultural complex occupying the half-derelict site of an old brewery and beer garden, whose presence could be dated back to the mid-nineteenth century. In the in-between time, the site was used for other industry (pre-WWII ) and as a printers and publishers (GDR). But the beer garden was in active use throughout. Post-reunification the site stayed in public hands. Local groups got organized to make the area into a communal area for culture. Renovation started in 2000, a gallery opened in 2001, the beer garden was still there, and the rest has built up gradually, with the latest addition being the Pfefferberg Theater Berlin – celebrating its opening on 13 – 15th November. And that’s what I want to talk about here.  Continue reading