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

Is it Germany or is it France?

If you like your French with a side of German, the Alsace-Lorraine is the region for you. Traded back and forth between the two countries as borders changed throughout time, France came out the winner with this lovely little territory.

Alsace-Lorraine might sound like a mouthful….until you hear the full German name of Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen. This is a complicated name for an English speaker, but an uncomplicatedly beautiful place that features the best of both countries. I have visited just a few times, but this is one of the few places where I linger a bit longer and think maybe, just maybe, there are other places I could live in Europe besides Berlin.

A vineyard in Alsace-Lorraine PHOTO: Erin Porter

Brief History of the Alsace-Lorraine

It was French, then it was German, then it was French, then it was German and now it is French again.

Just kidding! Brief, but not that brief:

Once the home of the Gauls, this roughly 5,000 square mile area was officially recognized by the German Empire in 1871 after it annexed most of Alsace and the Moselle department of Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War. After World War I in 1919, it was reclaimed by France. But during the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1945, Elsaß-Lothringen was German again. At the end of World War II, it found its home again as a French region as it remains today.
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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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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.

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Red Bull and the Richest Man in Austria


According to the Forbes annual tally, there were seven billionaires in Austria in 2016. (Only one of them female.) Dietrich “Didi” Mateschitz (b. 1944) is at the top of that list – the wealthiest person in Austria.

So how did Herr Mateschitz amass his estimated $15.4 billion fortune (as of April 2017)? Perhaps you’ve heard of the energy drink known as Red Bull? Red Bull’s world headquarters are located in the tiny town of Fuschl am See (population 1,500) near Salzburg, Austria. All those drink cans are filled at plants in Austria and Switzerland. Mr. Mateschitz is the co-founder of Red Bull, which sold its first drink can in Austria in 1987. Today Red Bull sells its drinks in about 165 countries, pretty much all over the world.

If you don’t happen to live in Austria, you have probably never heard of the Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz. 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

German Toilets

Disclaimer: This post – as indicated in the title – is about toilets. Though there are no stories detailing dirty business, it is implied. If you prefer more heart-warming topics, why not consider my posts about my favorite Berliner and having a baby in Germany.

Behold! A German Toilet Photo: Erin Porter

The mysterious German Toilet
Photo: Erin Porter

Why are toilets feminine?  The toilet is “die Toilette auf Deutsch. One of the many pronouns that make no sense, I have time to contemplate this oddity of German as I use one every day and have sampled facilities across Germany. I would consider myself an expert.

And I think German toilets may be superior. Hear me out…

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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! Continue reading