Winterferien (already!)

The timing of most German school holidays match my British expectations. Two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, six weeks in the summer, plus the odd week somewhere in the middle of these blocks. This is not so different from home and behind each is a clear reason. To this, however, is one glaring exception: the Winterferien (winter break) – a week-long holiday a mere four weeks after Christmas (in Berlin at least – it differs from Bundesland to Bundesland).

Fun in the Berlin snow!

Still refreshed from the Christmas break and motivated by New Year’s resolutions, the timing of this particular holiday always seems a bit odd. Four weeks just isn’t long enough to develop that sense of having slogged through countless early mornings and late night homework sessions. The bonus, I suppose, is that it makes going back after Christmas at the coldest and darkest time of the year a touch easier. “Just think, it is only four weeks until the Winterferien.”

As with many such traditions, there is a story to it. Winterferien are a DDR (GDR) legacy. Back in those days, DDR school children were given a three-week (!) holiday at the end of the academic half year having received their ‘Halbjahreszeugnis’ (half year report). The three weeks were not just a marker of having completed half a year at school, they were also an opportunity to go skiing or partake in other winter sports – often at state-run winter holiday camps. Interestingly, Austria and Switzerland had and still have Winterferien too. The initial motivation there was to save money on heating school buildings during the coldest weeks of the year, serendipitously at peak winter sport season. Continue reading

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

Christmas Means Cookies

For almost a month already, we have been floating in the yearly jolly atmosphere that smells like cinnamon, shines with the twinkle lights and tempts us with delicious food.

Germany is famous for its wonderful bread and it’s a very well-deserved reputation, however, there’s a lot that can be said about German pastries, cakes and cookies. Normally, people’s thoughts fly all the way to France and its delicate macaroons or éclairs as the must-try when looking for something sweet in Europe they can later talk about. I find myself much more inclined for the astounding variety of Christmas cookies that Germany has to offer, hence, here a list of my favorite ones among the sorts I have  tried so far just in time for you to judge if I have walked the wrong path, chip in with a recommendation or bolt out in search of some newly discovered variety to munch on while waiting for the holy and silent night. If you are left feeling hungry for more cookie tales, check out Alie’s earlier A Small Festive Treat blog post. Continue reading

Let the Christmas countdown commence

Usually once the 5th November is out the way I can start thinking about the C word but since Guy Fawkes night (when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament in London) isn’t recognised in Germany, plans for Christmas have commenced well in advance this year.

For any Expats planning on returning home for the festivities, planning early is key. I learnt this last year! When we moved to Bremen, I didn’t consider the different things we’d need to take in to account when returning home for a long period over the holiday season. First up, arranging the hire of a car. If you need to get around whilst you’re home book this as soon as you can. The car rental companies definitely do not see Christmas as the season of goodwill and rather the season to make money.

Cathedral Markt, Köln PHOTO: Sarah E

Now that we don’t have a base in UK we rely on family and friends letting us to stay, luckily they’re happy to be paid in festive cheer, otherwise there will be additional costs to the already expensive holiday season. It can be quite tricky bringing up these conversations as although you want to be organised early, not everyone knows their Christmas plans until the last minute.

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Summer holidays: a postcard from England

By David Wright, CC BY-SA 2.0,

As every summer, we are holidaying in the north of England, where compared to Berlin the days are cooler and the evenings longer. I should be used to it because this is where I grew up and it has the unpredictable (or all too predictable) summer climate of my childhood. But after seven years in Berlin and before that seven years in the warmer south of England, I repeatedly pack the wrong clothes. So my light summer skirts stay folded in the suitcase and I wear the same inadequate jumper and cotton trousers day after day. This place feels so deeply like home but the years away mean that I look at it with different eyes.

The first point – which always strikes me on the plane – is obvious but true. Everyone is speaking in English with an accent close enough to my home town. For all the English spoken in Berlin’s cosmopolitan Prenzlauerberg, I rarely hear a Northern English voice. The children notice it too. “It’s strange to hear only English,” they say. In Berlin, English feels like a language just for us (though everyone must understand it), here it is a language for everyone. 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.
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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! – More about Bleigießen Continue reading

Baedeker, German Reiselust, and vacation days

Baedecker book cover

The traditional Baedeker guidebook, like this 1911 English-language edition, sports a red hardcover with a golden embossed title. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

In both German and English, the term “Baedeker” (BAY-day-ker) is synonymous with “travel guidebook” (Reiseführer). Although the German Karl Baedeker (1801-1859) did not invent the travel guidebook, he certainly perfected it. After publishing his first travel guide (Rheinreise/Journey along the Rhine) in 1838, Baedeker went on to refine his product by being meticulous about the facts and information he included (with carefully detailed maps), and inventing the “star” ranking system for outstanding attractions (1846). The German word Erbsenzähler (bean counter, nitpicker) is said to have originated with his method of counting the exact number of stair steps in a cathedral tower by leaving a dried pea on every 20th stair as he went up, and collecting/counting them on his way back down.

Kings and governments may err, but never Mr. Baedeker.
– A.P. Herbert, in his 1929 English libretto for J. Offenbach’s operetta La Vie Parisienne[1]

The red Baedeker guidebooks[2] are still published today, and still have a reputation for sober factualness and lack of embellishment, especially compared to most contemporary travel books. And it is the Baedeker and other tourist guides that bring us to my main topic: German Reiselust (love of travel).

Sometimes called “wanderlust” in English, the German propensity to travel is better named by other, more modern German words, Reiselust and Fernweh being the two most common. Perhaps Fernweh is the one we want here: the longing for travel to distant places. Some cynics say this Germanic desire to go off to faraway places has to do with the German saying “Da, wo ich nicht bin, da ist das Glück.” (“There where I am not, there’s where happiness is.”) — but I think not. It has more to do with Germanic curiosity and information-gathering, not to mention a desire to find the sun and escape the frequent gloom of northern Europe. Ever since Goethe went on his Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) in the 1780s, the Germans have been among the world’s greatest tourists — with Baedeker in hand (since the 19th century). You also may have seen the Baedeker in the hands of Lucey Honeychurch in the film A Room with a View (also in the original 1908 E.M. Forster novel). Continue reading