Guide to German Nutcrackers

I had a nutcracker or two growing up, gaily dressed as soldiers and watching over me as I slept. Once I moved out, my mom pulled them out for the holidays and added a few new friends. Then a few more..til there was a horde of nutcrackers to accompany our tree for the Christmas season.

I get the fascination. More than just a way to crack a nut (in fact most aren’t very useful for their original purpose anymore), nutcrackers (or Nussknacker in German) today embody the holiday spirit.

Nutcrackers (Nussknacker) PHOTO: Cheryl Mendenhall

History of German Nutcrackers

A hammer was the original way to open nuts, but as people got fancy, so did our tools.

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Goethe and Schiller in San Francisco


German culture at the “Goldenen Thor”

NOTE: This updated version posted on 28 August 2017 (the day when Goethe was born in 1749) was first published on 20 January 2010.

During a recent visit to San Francisco I got a surprising reminder of how truly widespread and important German culture once was in the United States – before two world wars drastically changed the role it played in America.

My wife and I were standing in a very long line of people, slowly making our way towards the entrance to the California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park. (And we all already had tickets!) As the line flowed at its glacial pace, I noticed a statue of two figures standing on a stone pedestal. I remarked to my wife that it looked like a German or European statue. As we got closer, the bronze figures seemed even more familiar.

Once we were standing right in front of the statue, I was amazed to read the inscription on the reddish stone base: “Goethe. Schiller.” As I gazed up at the large bronze figures of Germany’s two greatest poets and philosophers, I realized why they looked so familiar. This statue seemed to be the same one my wife and I had seen a few years earlier in Weimar, Germany. How the heck did it get here? What was the story behind this larger-than-life symbol of German culture standing in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco? Did any of these people in line, besides my wife and me, even know who Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller were?

I took out my iPhone and snapped a picture of the statue (see photo below), thinking I would try to solve this mystery later.

Goethe Schiller statue

The Goethe-Schiller memorial statue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (Dec. 2009). PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

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A Prussian in Hawaii: Heinrich Berger and the Royal Hawaiian Band


The story of Heinrich (later Henry or Henri) Berger has fascinated me ever since I first learned about the Prussian military musician. Berger traveled all the way from Berlin to Honolulu in 1872 – no simple journey in that day and age. Prussian Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm I had sent Berger to Hawaii at the request of King Kamehameha V on what was originally supposed to be a four-year assignment to lead and improve King Kamehameha’s Royal Hawaiian Band. Except for two visits to his homeland and several band tours on the mainland, Berger would remain in Hawaii until he died in 1929. He would head the king’s brass band from 1872 until 1915.

I first wrote about Berger here in our blog in 2010, following a visit to Honolulu that year. During a return trip in June 2012, I learned more about Berger and his band. He arrived in Honolulu Harbor on June 2, 1872, following an arduous journey involving ships and trains. And it is his journey – and his life – that I want to discuss here. Continue reading

The German/Austrian-Hawaii Connection


NOTE: This is an updated version of a blog I first posted in May 2010.

I’m currently in Hawaii. As usual, I’m on the outlook for Germanic connections, and even here, so far away from Europe, there are many. First, I wanted to see if there were any direct historic ties between the Sandwich Islands (now better known as Hawai’i) and the German-speaking countries. I didn’t have to look very far. Aboard the Resolution, the ship that took Capt. James Cook to his discovery of the Hawaiian archipelago in 1778, were a German-Swiss artist and three German sailors.

Since Cook’s discovery, Hawaii has been influenced – positively and negatively – by other haoles (outsiders), including Americans, British, French, Portuguese and Asians. It turns out that people from the German-speaking parts of Europe have played some key roles in Hawaiian history. If you study Hawaii’s past, you’ll run across many German names: Hackfeld, Hillebrand, Isenberg, von Chamisso, Lemke, Pflueger, Scheffer, Spreckels, and Zimmermann. At one time, the island of Kauai in particular had a sizeable German population. The island’s main town, Lihue, was nicknamed “German Town.” There were German Lutheran churches and schools in Lihue and Honolulu (Oahu).

World War I pretty much put an end to the German presence in Hawaii, but I want to concentrate on two enduring legacies: one German and over a century ago, the other Austrian and much more recent. Continue reading

Losing Language

It was inevitable. Our German was bound to get worse upon departure. The first year, mine seemed to remain intact. I was still feeling pretty German, and I spoke German almost daily with our German preschool teachers, with other German-speaking parents, and with our German babysitter. Sometimes even with my German husband. We’re in the second year though, and after spending the Christmas holidays with my non-German speaking family, I finally felt that the Yanks had won. Throw on top of that, a struggle to integrate a third language (Korean), and the quality of Deutsch in this house has worsened. Continue reading

German Cuisine: a Comforting Constant

One of the small things that charmed me about our San Diego neighborhood when I first visited it, was the presence of a small, independent used cookbook store. Sadly, it’s closing this Christmas. The owner explained to me that she can make more money working less hours by selling rarer cookbooks from home on the internet in four hours than working full-time running her shop. That’s what’s happening in America right now.

Sad as it is to lose another bookstore, let alone an independent one specializing in one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve managed to make up for lost time by visiting frequently and taking advantage of the sell-out prices. I picked up four vegetarian cookbooks for the price of $13. My German husband was not as enthusiastic as I was about these particular meatless bargain purchases. The next time I stopped by to browse, I couldn’t resist a ’70s relic which was a fondue and chafing dish cookbook. And last week, while I was waiting for my children to finish their music class around the corner, I wandered back in and succumbed to making some more unessential yet irresistible purchases: two German cookbooks. There was a third one but even I had to admit at that point that a third would have been excessive. Especially as I realized, the main point of this post, that the culinary styles of all three books were all the same. The same despite the fact that one was published in the ’60s, another in the ’70s and the last in the ’80s. On two of the covers: meat, sauce, and veggies. Exotically, at least I think to an American crowd, one of the veggies is fennel.

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“Almanya” in San Diego

San Diego kicked off its first German Film Festival, German Currents in 2011. It seemed to be a long time coming considering that there are an estimated 100,000 Germans living in the San Diego metro area and Orange County.

The festival opened with the screening of Almanya – Willkommen in Deutschland, a movie written by two Turkish German sisters, Yasemin and Nesrin Şamdereli, about a Turkish immigrant family’s literal and figurative trip back to Turkey. The family’s patriarch, Hüseyin, leaves his hometown in a village near Anatolia during the initial Gastarbeiter wave of Turkish immigration in the ‘60s in order to earn what was considered big money working in a German factory, which he sends back to support his family. Although originally unplanned, the whole family, made up of his wife, Fatma, and their first three children, eventually join their father and move to their new home in Berlin. Hüseyin and Fatma soon thereafter welcome their fourth child who is their only child born in Germany. Continue reading

Credit card differences

I was planning to write today about the problems sometimes encountered by Americans when they try to use their US credit card in Europe. As fortune would have it, I experienced exactly the reverse yesterday: Trying to use a German card in the US.

I was helping a German friend who is visiting us in the US use his credit card at a gas station. He inserted the German Deutsche Bank MasterCard into the gas pump. First he had to choose credit or debit. It’s a credit card, so he chose credit. Then a message appeared that I’ve seen a lot at gas pumps during my US travels lately: “Please enter your ZIP code.” Well, a German Postleitzahl is the same length as a US ZIP code, so he tried that. “Please see the clerk” was the machine’s response. We tried debit also, but it wanted a PIN that didn’t work. So it was off to see the clerk.

We were able to get the German card accepted with the clerk handling the transaction (and showing a German ID), but we had to guess how much gas we needed. If it was less than that amount, we would have to return to have the clerk enter a refund of the difference. Luckily, we guessed about right and did not have to do that. But the entire experience was a hassle caused by the differences in the way US and German credit cards function.

Basically, American credit cards are out of date (überholt in German). Continue reading