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

10 Ways That Europe is Different from the USA

First, let me tell you about the inspiration for today’s blog post.

Recently a friend suggested that I read what turned out to be a rather disheartening rant published by an online expat website. (The names shall remain anonymous in order to protect the guilty.) The writer, an American lady, was complaining about her life in Germany, a lament brought on by a recent visit to her local Apotheke (pharmacy). She was whining about the fact that she had to take the extra time and trouble to consult with a German pharmacist (in German of all things) in order to obtain a medication that she could have bought over the counter in the US.

Bikes and pedestrians

Germans and other Europeans walk and ride bikes more often than Americans.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Several people left comments pointing out that the German system actually provided the benefit of helpful, professional advice that would have required a visit to the doctor in the US. True, you can’t just go to a supermarket and buy a bottle of aspirin in Germany, but you can go to your local Apotheke and get sound advice about which pain reliever would be best for your situation. While living or traveling in Germany and Austria, I have made several trips to the pharmacist to get help with a medical problem. In every case, the pharmacist either provided a good solution or, in one case, told me to see a physician. (What I thought was a sprained finger turned out to be a broken one.) Continue reading

Eggs on trees – 5 favourite German Easter traditions

Osterglocken - daffodils in English

Osterglocken – daffodils in English

I love Easter in Germany. It’s full of decorations, rituals and get togethers – almost like a mini Christmas but with better weather promising the arrival of spring.

It is a bigger celebration than anything I experienced in the UK. This could be because in my childhood we were not frequent churchgoers, but I don’t think it’s just down to that. At nursery and school we didn’t do much for Easter either – the odd Easter egg competition but that was that. Mostly, we were concerned with chocolate.

But as at Christmas, the Germans, whether actively religious or not, stay loyal to older, family-oriented traditions, which start before the official Easter-time from Good Friday onwards begins.

1. Blowing Eggs 

The first Easter-related activity is decorating eggs. This takes place a good couple of weeks before Easter and involves blowing out the contents of the egg through a tiny pin prick in the bottom and top. The egg shells are rinsed and left to dry. They are then carefully painted by children and grown-ups alike in a cacophony of colours. Continue reading

January 2015 in Germany: New Year, New Laws, New Rules

2015 ushered in new laws and regulations in Germany. Our overview of new things that expats and travelers need to know also reveals a lot about daily life and customs in Germany.

If you drive a car, use public transportation, rent a place, watch TV, take out the trash, get paid in euros, or use the post office in Germany, there are changes that can affect all expats and travelers. We’ll start with one of the more bizarre things that the new year introduced to German law and life (and it’s not the precipitous fall of the euro). Continue reading

German Weddings

Having spent my formative adult years in Germany, I have been to more German weddings than American weddings. There are some striking differences in how each culture approaches the celebration (and paperwork) that accompanies two people committing their lives to each other. As Gina mentioned in her blog post in 2010, weddings in Germany aren’t retail extravaganzas – this is one of the biggest differences. However, there are numerous subtle differences that change the entire experience, and even the symbolism of the ceremony.

Let us begin before the wedding day. There is no such thing as a bridal shower in Germany. Brides-to-be are not showered with gifts in advance of showering them with more gifts, and while wedding plans involve many details, the industry built around them is miniscule compared to the North American version. Bachelor parties, and bachelorette parties, are newer traditions but are increasing in popularity, as young people love an excuse to go out and misbehave. There is no bridal registry, although you can select a number of gift ideas at a local shop and have them displayed at a Hochzeitstisch (wedding table).

In our modern age, you can probably also set up a wishlist on and share it with your guests, if you really want to. The average age of Germans on their wedding day, however, is in the 30-33 year old range. This means that most Germans who are getting married already have everything they need in their home. In fact, most of them have probably lived together for a number of years already and don’t need a new crystal vase or a Crock-pot. Continue reading

Laternenfest – Lantern Festival

It was during our second winter in Berlin that I first became aware of Laternenfeste (lantern festivals). We had little twin babies and, despite early heavy snows, I spent much of my time traipsing icy streets pushing the pram whilst they slept. There was a period in early winter when afternoon after afternoon I saw lines of young children – pre-school age – muffled up against the cold, swinging pretty coloured lanterns and singing in shrill juvenile voices. I was intrigued, but not enough to find out what it all meant. My reaction was more one of ‘oh, that’s ever so sweet, it must be some sort of German tradition’ and then to forget all about it, as you do when you can’t imagine your own booty-wearing, rattle-shaking babes ever being old enough or robust enough to march the streets wearing boots and singing songs.

But since then, the unimaginable has happened and our children are now old enough and robust enough for their own winter boots and to attend a local nursery pre-school (KiTa). And last week, for the first time, they too joined the lines of young children piping out songs about lanterns and swinging their own homemade contributions. Off we trudged on an almost chilly November afternoon in the gathering gloom, through the streets, round the park and up to the top of a nearby hill, to find a big bonfire waiting and cups of warming Glühwein (mulled wine). Once there, we sang more songs about lanterns, watched sparks leap from the fire, and ran around in the dark until our hands were too cold and it was time to go home. Continue reading

Do You go to Church?

Happy Easter! This blog post is slightly late this week, because I have been busy doing what we all should be doing this holiday: spending time with friends and family. And because I live in the religious South of Germany, it is a nice long four-day weekend, with Good Friday and Easter Monday as public holidays. Given that we also had perfect weather this weekend, I am on a vacation-like high and there may also be a significant amount of Swiss chocolate coursing through my veins.

Back to the topic, and the real reason for the long weekend: Religion. Although the church was full yesterday, in general very few people here attend church on Sunday – most of the churches are empty except for a few retirees dotted here and there amongst the many pews. I have German friends who smile gently and nod politely when I tell them I have been to church, and I have German friends who laugh openly at me for participating in any kind of organized  religion. I also have German friends who regularly attend church. I guess this is pretty similar to life in the US, depending on which state you live in.

Compared to the Americans, Germans are incredibly non-religious. And yet, I can’t quite agree that their form of religion is somehow less than the US version. I find, as in so many things, it is just different. Continue reading

Feiertage: What are we celebrating today?

With Halloween only about a week away, I’ve been thinking about holidays for expats. Which holidays are observed and how they are celebrated varies a lot around the world.

In the English-speaking countries alone there are great variations. (Canada’s Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October, while the US version is in November.) But as soon as you look at non-English-speaking lands, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland, there are even more differences. Even within Germany itself there are many regional differences as well, partly depending on whether a region is Protestant or Catholic. (For a country where few people attend church, Germany has an amazing amount of religious holidays.)

It just so happens that Halloween also falls on what is another holiday (Feiertag) in the Protestant (Lutheran) parts of Germany: Reformationstag (Reformation Day, which in Switzerland is the first Sunday in November). According to a recent US survey, most Americans do not know that it was the German Martin Luther (1483-1546) who “reformed” the Catholic Church and created Protestantism. Thanks to Luther, the 31st day of October is an official holiday in the Bundesländer that used to be part of East Germany (but not in Berlin). It’s a bit ironic, considering that East Germany discouraged religion. But on the other hand, it was also home to the Lutherstadt (Luther city) of Wittenberg.

I suspect that few Germans could explain what Reformationstag is all about, but surely they would outnumber the Americans who could do the same. Continue reading