Landeskunde for Expats

What is “Germany”? When most English-speaking people think of Germany, images of lederhosen, the Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle (the “Disney castle”), and Oktoberfest are probably the first things that pop into their heads. Of course all of those things are Bavarian, not German. If they happen to think of German cars (Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche), they’re still in southern Germany (except for Volkswagen in Wolfsburg). And then there’s historical stereotype number one: Adolf Hitler, who was Austrian and liked to hang out in Bavaria.

So for many people Germany = Bavaria. That’s like saying Texas is the United States of America. Oops.

Porta Nigra detail 2

Trier’s landmark Porta Nigra gate. Trier is Germany’s oldest city, but it’s not in Bavaria. Learn more about Trier. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Most people who have never been to Germany, Austria or Switzerland have no idea how regional those countries are. Germany has about 80 million people, most of whom have much more of a regional identity than a national (or a state) one. Germans live in regions with names such as Allgäu, Schwarzwald (Black Forest), Eifel, Franken (Franconia), Harz, Oberbayern, Ruhr (Ruhrgebiet, Ruhrpott), Rheinland, Schwaben (Swabia), and Taunus. There are over 50 different named regions in Germany, few of which correspond to the 16 Bundesländer (states).

Austrians sometimes claim there are two regions in their country: Vienna and everywhere else. Of course it’s more complicated than that. Austria may only be the size of South Carolina, but its 8 million citizens live in nine provinces and regions from the Danube in the east to the mountains of Vorarlberg in the west – all with different dialects, geography, and customs. Continue reading

How I Became Fluent in German Fast

I’ve been meeting many more expats now that I am living in the heavily populated Rhineland/Ruhr region of Germany. These expats range from old timers/lifers to newbie/temporary assignees. As any expat can relate to, the newbies are grappling with learning the German language: some try private tutelage, others secure places at the local VHS, while others make the deep plunge for the Goethe Institut in Düsseldorf. Most of them ask me about my level of German and how I learned. I admit that it was a quick ascent to fluency for me, and I know that I was fortunate to not have problems with the German language as an expat woe. (I was instead confounded by the local Swabian dialect while living in Swabia.)

A glimpse of my German language text books. Photo credit: Jane Park

A glimpse of my German language text books. Photo credit: Jane Park

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From Bundesland to Bundesland

I received a reminder in my inbox today from my co-blogger Hyde calling to my attention that I had missed my Monday deadline to post here on the German Way blog. This was another casualty of my most recent move. In case you haven’t been keeping up with my personal expat saga, my family and I just moved to Essen in North Rhine Westphalia having left the small Swabian city, Aalen, where we had lived a total of seven years as a family. Continue reading

The Famous Swabian Hausfrau

I was delighted to find an article in the February 1, 2014 edition of The Economist dedicated to the mindset of the Swabian Hausfrau. The article links the economic mindset of this stereotype from Germany’s Southwest to the economic mindset of Germans within Europe. It is a deftly created argument and the article is surprisingly detailed in its research of the origins of the Swabian mindset. Unfortunately they weren’t as thorough in their research into the origins of Maultaschen, and were duly called on their sloppiness two weeks later in the Letters to the Editor.
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Cow Parade

I’m on a bit of a tourist kick at the moment. For my last post, I wrote about where to take visitors in Swabia. This week’s topic: the cow parade. I had never heard of this tradition until last year, when colleagues of mine included it in their hiking weekend. I immediately thought “hey, I bet my boys would love that!” and my husband disagreed, saying they were too little and would be scared. Of cows? Please. Although, the bells are indeed very loud, and cows are kind of big. So we waited another year and just last weekend, I experienced the Viehscheid in the Allgäu (which follows the the Almabtrieb in Germany and Austria, known in Switzerland as the Alpabzug) This refers to the process of bringing the cows down from the alpine meadows, and returning them to their owners to spend the winter in barns. It involves a parade of cows decked out with flowers and wreaths, oom-pah-pah bands, traditional celebration food, beer, and cow bells. Lots of cow bells.

My first encounter with cow bells was while hiking in the Alps. The Alps are glorious for hiking, and on a leisurely stroll above the clouds one day, I found myself transported to a magical place. Continue reading

Out and About in the Schwäbische Alb

(This post is totally focused on the SW of Germany… apologies to readers in other regions!)

Have guests coming? There is no reason to trek all the way to Neuschwanstein to see a castle; there is plenty to be seen within a two-hour drive of Stuttgart. Having spent a weekend enjoying some of the sights near my adopted hometown, I thought I’d share a few ideas for where to take your parents when they finally come for a visit. My apologies to readers not living in the lovely southwestern corner of this country, but perhaps this short list will serve as impetus to make a trip to Schwabenland? I have focused here on the region of the Swabian Alps, an ancient range locally known as the Schwäbische Alb (not, in German, to be confused with the alps, die Alpen, as they are two very different regions)

Burg Hohenzollern is a lovely castle perched on the top of a symmetric hill. The view of the castle while approaching already makes you excited to see the inside. Continue reading

Swabian Delights

Because most of my experience in Germany has been in the Southern half of the country, I often believe that all German food is as delicious as it is here in the region of Swabia. Occasionally, we venture North on vacation and I realize with disappointment that this isn’t true. Perhaps it’s a general European rule: the farther South you travel, the better the food. One dish that consistently gets the longest lines in every corporate cafeteria is the classic Swabian Linsen mit Spätzle (Lentils with Noodles). I have tried making this at home a number of times in the last ten years, but never with the amount of success I had this week. Here for you to recreate in your own kitchen is an admittedly imprecise recipe for this German favorite. I suspect that imprecision was the trick to perfection. Continue reading