Tag Archives: Germany


One thing that’s very different about being abroad compared to being in the U.S. is that everyone speaks English. This fluency is not restricted to heads of state or academics but to average people on the street — cabbies, bartenders, even the crazy lady on the subway in Berlin was bilingual. She came up to me and said, “Entschuldigen sie mich, haben sie irgendwelche Änderungen… wait, you’re from states? Forgive me, could you possibly spare some change? I am not at all well.”

People are generally fine with speaking English to you, as it avoids having to hear you mangle their language like a college football player speaking to the press. I try to at least learn the words for “hello,” “thank you,” and “please,” along with any phrases I might frequently use such as “more wine?” and “sure, I’ll have another glass.” The effort is usually appreciated. I did have a cab driver in Prague who claimed to not understand how my friend Brendan, who has lived there for a year, pronounced the name of his own street, but after the meter had run for another minute, it suddenly registered.

Often, when you take an English-speaking tour in another country, the guides are British or U.S. ex-pats. In Lisbon, the guides were Portugese and the two I had spoke impeccable English. They had the idioms and jokes down and everything. I started to question my own English: “Was that the right word? I know it doesn’t sound as good without an accent.” One of the guides mentioned to me that English is taught in primary school and they get 12 years of it. They also watch subtitled U.S. programs to reinforce it. Unfortunately, seeing “Run, Lola, Run” aided neither my fitness nor my German proficiency.

If I didn’t feel stupid enough, at one point I complimented the guide on her knowledge of local history. She thanked me but politely brushed it off as just being a result of growing up in the area. Can you imagine the sorry-ass walking tour some kid from Jersey would give based just on living there? “Yeah, down the street, that’s where someone saw Snooki, and Springsteen played at that bar once… I guess. He’s from here, right? Or is that Dylan? Whichever old guy writes songs about poor people.”

You start to get a complex after a while if you only speak English. That means you’re just one language away from not speaking one at all. It seems reasonable that you should have a “safety language,” which I guess for everyone else is English. I’ve seen Spanish tourists communicate with a German tourist using English and, amazingly, a waitress in Budapest speak Hungarian to one table, German to another, and English to mine. This is a waitress who, based on her age, grew up under communism.

In the states, there’s a lot of English-only pushes from politicians who apparently want the U.S. to be among the least-skilled nations. That’s really the opposite of what we should be doing. I try to imagine what my life would have been like if I had learned another language in my youth. When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember this cool senior sitting in study hall singing Soul II Soul. If I had been able to say, “However do you want me? However do you need me” in Portugese (roughly, “no entanto você quer que eu, no entanto você precisa de mim”), everything might have been different.

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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in Social Commentary


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I enjoyed Munich slightly more than Berlin, as did Hitler, which aside from my eight years of vegetarianism in the ’90s and fondness for Argentina, is about all we have in common.

At the Nuremberg train station, on my way to Munich, I stopped at a bagel shop for breakfast. You would think that Germany had done irrevocable harm to its bagel industry, but it actually wasn’t that bad. I asked the middle-aged blonde woman for an egg and cheese bagel and she responded, “No! Egg or cheese. Not both!”

Now, in New York, this would be a fight, but when a blonde German yells at you in English, you don’t talk back. You just take your “Sophie’s Choice” bagel and like it. I’ve probably watched too many World War II movies, but Germans speaking German aren’t that scary; it’s the shouted German-accented English that gives me brown trousers.

Most Germans I encounter are bilingual and speak flawless English, which puts them at an advantage over most Americans who are barely lingual. Out of respect, I try to use as much German as I can, interspersed with halting English phrases to elicit pity. “Hallo, schnitzel… Please? Life is bowl of chocolates? Danke schoen.”

When I arrived in Munich, I went into a Starbucks and ordered from another middle-aged blonde woman a latte with skim milk. Her response: “No skim milk! Just cream!” Again, I paid for my Neville Chamberlain latte and liked it. Don’t mess with the German barista. She is not joking.

By the way, all these middle-aged blonde women look like Emma Thompson with a German accent. So, you have Emma Thompson pouring you coffee, Emma Thompson driving your cab, Emma Thompson giving you directions to the closest biergarten.

Dogs are very popular in Germany. Their standard of living is probably on par with the dogs in Belize, who wear Hawaiian shirts and walk up to bars begging for ceviche. Dogs are allowed off leash here, and strangers will stop to pet them. This would freak the hell out of Americans but Munich is sort of like a big petting zoo. Owners also let their dogs off leash to play with other random dogs. “Hey, there you, Klaas, go sniff some butts.” In New York, there’s a complex application and approval process before your pet can play with another dog.

Traditional German food involves sausage and sausage stuffed with sausage. This is washed down with a liter of beer and an inhalation of second-hand smoke from your waitress. The life expectancy should be about 27, but Germany actually ranks 20th out of all countries. Israel is 8th because living well really is the best revenge.

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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Social Commentary


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Berlin vs. South Carolina…

Spending time in Berlin is interesting after growing up in South Carolina. Aside from the fact that “Berlin” is a better band name than “Pelzer,” there’s also the manner in which the two places treat certain indiscretions in their past. Berlin must have something in its tap water that promotes remorse and regret — an element regularly filtered out of the United States’s supply. Berlin is very “OK, here’s what went down. There are historical and educational reasons for knowing. We don’t dwell on it but man did we screw up. Have some Schwarzwurst.”

When I was a kid, there was really none of that in South Carolina. It was more, “Your ass is free but we’re not that happy about it. Have some processed cheese.” If Berlin and Germany as a whole is “Never Again,” South Carolina was “Oh, yeah, we’d do it again.”

Arriving in Berlin, I expected to see “Hitler Boulevard” and “Joseph Goebbel Jr. High School.” After all, there was a Wade Hampton High School near where I grew up, and there are at least 8 streets named “Wade Hampton” in South Carolina. This guy was a Confederate calvary officer who spent his life managing plantations in South Carolina and Mississippi. When his father died in 1858, he inherited one of the “largest collections of slaves in the South” — about 3,000 — and a library that boasted 10,000 volumes, which would have made it possible for each slave to check out 3 books at the same time if they had library cards or been allowed to read.

I suppose Germany does not name things after Nazis because, most importantly, they believe you should not memorialize bad people but also because the Nazis lost. Where else in society, other than the American South, do we name things after losers? There’s no Walter Mondale Airport or Fort Michael Dukakis or (eventually) Barack Obama Square. But even the black hair salons are named after Confederates in South Carolina: My mother got her hair done at The Jefferson Davis Beauty Parlor and Weave Shop.

While I was on a bus tour of the city, the tour guide mentioned that the Berlin Zoo once had Africans as exhibits but “that would never take place today. Thanks God!” You would never hear that in South Carolina. I have taken plantation tours when the guide was at the point of tears discussing the lost cause. “Yeah, well, you know, after the War of Northern Agression, the owners could no longer afford the upkeep of the plantation so they had to sell their home. Sniff. Sniff.” My heart breaks for them. Besides, they probably just moved to a condo in Charleston, near the water. It was better than sharecropping while waiting for your 40 acres and a mule like a sucker. That was worse than waiting for those X-ray glasses you ordered from the back of a comic book. You should have been suspicious — why is no one else using this technology? — but you knew everything was going to change once you received them.

I was on one tour where the guide was in antebellum costume, flouncing around in a ball gown and thinking she was cute. She asked my friend, “Wouldn’t you have loved to have lived when you could dress like this all the time?” My friend replied, “No, because I would have been a slave.”

But the U.S. has this fascination with the trappings of a society built on slave labor and human misery. There is no German version of “Gone with the Wind” (“Vom Winde Verweht”). Berlin also has monuments to the victims of the holocausts. Monuments to slaves in South Carolina are alongside the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals. This is like your wife’s ex-boyfriend coming along on the honeymoon: “Don’t mind me. I’ll just sit here and silently resent you.”

Berlin is an overall progressive city 70 years after World War II. I would not wanted to have been anywhere near the South in 1935 — 70 years after the end of the Civil War. You had Jim Crow and lynchings; the only real improvement was the launch of zoot suits in the late ’30s. And you had at least 30 years to go until “I Spy.”

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Posted by on September 4, 2011 in Social Commentary


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