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

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Berlin – East and West!

I’m still stunned. How could I never have heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Berlin? He even outdid JFK and Reagan by not only going to West Berlin in 1964, but crossing the Berlin Wall into East Berlin – where he gave not one, but two sermons!

MLK Berlin 1964

Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) at the Berlin Wall in 1964. PHOTO: Landesarchiv Berlin

Do you remember Barack Obama’s Berlin visit? Why did the US president fail to mention this not so minor detail during his own 2008 Berlin speech at the Siegessäule? A fellow African-American he greatly admires paid a Cold War visit to both East and West Berlin, and Obama not only ignores it, but evokes two white guys by saying: “I know that I don’t look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken in this great city.” No wonder MLK in Berlin is one of the best kept secrets in modern history.

Even with Google, Bing and all that, it took me hours of searching to find any concrete information about King’s Berlin trip – and most of it was in German. That’s even more ironic when you realize that the East German media never uttered a word about King’s historic visit to the GDR. Sure, King fit many things the communist German government liked; hell, even the FBI labeled MLK a commie. But on the other hand, Rev. King kept saying things about democracy, freedom and breaking down barriers. Continue reading

Housewarming Traditions in Germany

Berlin housewarming

Toddlers warm a house Photo: Erin Porter

After all my complaining about finding an apartment in Berlin, it seems like everyone is moving into their home. We moved into our new place – complete with a room for our girl – almost exactly a year ago. While we were away in the States we missed two of our friend’s moves (sorry guys!). We also returned to new neighbors across the hall. And on our first weekend back we even went to a friend’s housewarming party – full of century old wood, food, friends and kids.

To commemorate these life events, you need the proper gift. In the USA, Emily Post dictates that a bottle of wine, a plant, or a loaf of bread or other food item are appropriate. But in Germany? I was a little lost.

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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

You Know You’re a Real Expat in Germany When…

Rossman store hours

Öffnungszeiten. Store hours. Never on Sunday! PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

A while back, someone in our Expat Forum posted a clever “You know you’re in Germany when…” I happened to run across that list again recently and thought I’d use it as inspiration for today’s blog entry. These brief “You know you’re not in Kansas any more when…” items often can tell us more about cultural differences than an entire chapter of a book — plus they usually bring forth a chuckle or two.

Here at The German Way we also have our own Cultural Comparison Charts which compare American and German daily culture and customs. Drawing from all of these sources and personal experience, here’s our German Way version of “You know you’re in Germany when…”

You know you’re a real expat in Germany when…

  • you’re used to separating the plastic, paper and bio trash before you toss it in one of the three under-the-sink bins;
  • you know how to type the @ sign on a German QWERTZ keyboard — and you no longer type “zou” for “you”;
  • you no longer take a sunny, blue-sky day for granted – in the depths of a long, gray German winter, or even in the summer;
  • “pay to pee” is just a normal part of daily life — at gas stations/rest stops, in department stores, and sometimes even at a restaurant or bar;
  • you are no longer startled by cars passing you doing 100+ mph on the autobahn;
  • you find it perfectly normal to see nudity and soft porn while flipping through the normal German TV channels (or the local newspaper);
  • you’ve taken so many train trips in Germany and Europe, you lost count long ago (“Senk ju vor träwelling”);
  • you are finally used to the checkout clerk at your corner Drogerie (drugstore), where you shop almost daily, acting like she has never seen you before in her life, but…
  • you exchange good-byes with perfect strangers when leaving an elevator or a train compartment; Continue reading

3 Ways I Embarrassed Myself at the German Sauna

Photo: Erin Porter

About to get N-A-K-E-D

Don’t worry guys, I brought a towel to sit (and sweat) on in the sauna and didn’t try to wear my swimsuit into the nude areas. I’m not a German sauna newbie. I’ve been once before.

That one time was at touristy Tropical Island. I highly recommend it if you are also a spa novice. It is a full-on water park with slides and waterfalls and artificial beach front. But deep in its center lies an area cloaked in palm trees and signs barring entry for those under 16. We waffled back and forth if we were actually going into this adult-only zone before putting on our big boy pants (or taking them off, in this case) and entering.

As Germans consider regular spa going a part of good health and not a luxury, the average Germ knows what to do in the sauna. Not so for a couple of expats from Seattle. We clumsily felt our way through the process of showering, storing our clothes in a cubby and dramatically dropping the towel to enter a steamy room full of naked Germans. And – no surprise for those who’ve done it before – it wasn’t so bad! We emerged thoroughly moist and with muscles that had deeply relaxed so that we were basically moving puddles. It was fabulous.

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VPNs and Netflix – or What German TV You Should Be Watching

Prelude: I was all prepared to write something light – yet close to my heart – about TV. That was the topic of my first German Way post and pertinent as recent changes with Netflix have made watching American TV in Germany much more difficult (details to follow).

Photo: Erin Porter

Brussels in better times. Photo: Erin Porter

But then the bombings in Brussels happened and this article idea felt just as silly and banal as it is. My family just spent Christmas in Brussels at a time of heightened security and I was quick to tut-tut my mom’s worries about terrorism. And we were fine. Better than fine – we were in beautiful Brussels around Christmas!

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My First Karneval: On the Verge

Before Hyde sends me a message to “gently” remind me that my blog post is due today, I figured that I should get something up here. It isn’t my preferred style to just throw something up here, half-baked or half-thought through, but I realised that I’m on the “verge” of everything that is a hot topic right now: refugees, Karneval and the American election. Regarding the election back home, I’m not touching that one just yet. Otherwise politically engaged, I find myself wanting to plug my ears while screaming, “Make it stop!!”

Miss ID

Representing Miss Identified at Karneval in Düsseldorf 2016 PHOTO: Jane Park

I did talk about the refugee situation last year and how I was trying to find my way towards helping beyond donating winter coats and towels. Here I am on the verge. I’ll be meeting with the mentor coordinator of our neighborhood charity for refugees next week who will introduce me to my mentee and the person I will be sharing the Patenschaft or mentorship with. I am excited to be able to write about this experience in a future post. But I can’t just yet.

And the last topic is Karneval. My wallet is sticky from sampling Berliners at the bakery today, and I’ve already procured a bat costume, dug out a Wonder Woman costume snagged on sale two years ago, and researched and ordered a mermaid costume for my three kids. My younger adult self always wanted to celebrate the fifth season just as I wanted to check off Oktoberfest, the spas in Baden-Baden, and visiting the Beethoven House from my “while living in Germany” bucket list. (You might be scratching your head about the Beethoven House but it is just that I was thwarted twice from getting inside in the course of ten years which has only made me more determined.) My husband, my assumed partner in crime, has never been a big Karneval fan despite having grown up in the Rheinland. His extent of participating is to just remember to wear an icky tie on Weiberfastnacht. So I have never participated in Karneval in any vague sense of the word. (In Germany that is.) Continue reading