Friday, 28 September 2012

2: Is it a joke?


At some point in Germany you will come across the nefarious “Is it a joke?”
This is not a reproach or a commentary on your sense of humour, simply a common response to any joke in a land where humour is a fifth rate citizen.

Contrary to stereotyped opinion, Germans do have a sense of humour, although it isn’t the most recognizable Teutonic trait. If you want “that is so funny!” ringing loud in your ears, you’ll need to get an arsenal of jokes about mechanical failure, engine breakdown, or power shortages.

Germans like jokes to be clever, not funny, so make sure you have enough punch-line to stimulate a bucket of nerve endings at a neuroscience convention. Anything about a quantum physicist misquoting a statistic, a dog been taken do a doctor and not a vet, or a police officer dressed as a fireman should get you started. Engineering disasters and miscalculations are also popular. I found myself in a mess combining both.

In Germany it is illegal to run out of petrol on the motorway. When I told my German housemate, the Bod, that I found this hilarious, he burst out laughing. “Why is it funny?” he enquired still chortling. “Huh, why? Why is this funny?”

I tried to explain to the Bod that I find it hilarious because running out of petrol is bad enough, without a green and white light flashing in your face and a fine to remind you. My housemate stopped laughing. A weight returned to the room, as if we’d been subconsciously discussing gas chamber dancing. The Bod looked at me, out of courtesy, then straight through me.

“Think about it,” he began. “It’s logical that if you run out of petrol you will be fined. It will not possible to run out of ze petrol. There is, how you say…ze counting machine, no…ze fuel clock, ze readometer of ze oil. This is flashing whens you are getting low with ze petrol. It is very almost impossible to this flashing not notice before ze petrol is running out!”

Traffic irregularities also get most Germans chortling. The misreading of road signs or a dysfunctional conveyor belt at a Volkswagen plant will keep guffawed audiences hunting the malfunction for hours. Computer crashing is also startlingly funny for the Bundesland's inhabitants (unless if the device in question is theirs).

Unnecessary system reboots, hard drive failure and RAM deficiency are of course cackle catalysts.

“Who is making zese computers? What kind of engineer is making such a faulty device?”

If you yourself however should suffer file loss, do not share it. Telling a crowded bar how you lost your treasured dissertation will merely advertise your own rebel & callous methodology. Remember; methodology is king in Germany.

Germans also love jokes about Bavarians (unless they’re Bavarian, in which case they like their jokes to be about the Swiss or Sausage competitions). Of course, they demand logic, so you’ll be safe venturing into a conversation with puns, riddles and puzzles set in the Alps or a Bavarian butcher. Even jokes with punch lines that have a clear comedy-route-path, whereby all variables and possible trajectories are communicated with 97.8 percent clarity, will require a post-mortem. 

In brief, avoid anything with a subtle punch line unless you want your moment of light relief to transform into a judicial enquiry. If you are confronted with a cross examination, be prepared to explain every last detail about the joke’s characters; how did the chicken escape from the fenced-in CCTV-surveyed farm? Where were the Germans at this party of English, Irish and Welshmen? Why did the pope interrupt his Sunday sermon to talk to Michael Jackson? Did the bear have no toilet paper or was the rabbit on a volunteer scheme? Why would somebody a. look for  and b. rub an old oil lamp twenty years after discarding it? What chemical metamorphosis gave birth to a twelve-inch pianist?

Germans do not like double entendre. Or satire. Anything that involves imaginary boundaries and cognitive diversions is like hiking through Jerusalem with your supplies strapped to your body: you just don’t do it

This includes irony. Do not say things like  “Cold, hey?” when it is actually hot, just to make small talk at a bus stop, for example. Such outbursts could unveil an avalanche of confusion, or at best you’ll get drawn into a long, protracted discussion about whether there is a zephyr in the shade that might technically be defined as a variant of cold.  

In general, avoid trying to make people laugh. Keep things on linear trajectories and refrain from subtle twists in conversation. If all else fails, laugh only when prompted by the laughter of others.

 Always have a handful of German proverbs handy. You’re allowed to veer from the literal with these and they will buy you time when stuck for a reply. Phrases such as Die Hoffnung sterbt zu letzst (Hope dies last) or Kommt Zeit, kommt Rat (Time will tell) should help you stun, or at least confuse and thus divert the attention of your audience.

You may find the above information unfounded if you land a funny German. These of course exist. They vary from the diabolically hilarious Nazi trauma one-liner (‘Don’t leave the oven on. You know what we Germans are like’) to the quietly staunch satirist.

Needless to say such people are rebels in Germany. Possibly artists or activists. The likelihood is they are part of an alienated subculture and write for a German satire magazine such as Titanic. They are sharp, witty intellectuals as funny as any you will find anywhere. There is however a third category of comedy lover, undoubtedly the most dedicated. This is Funny Guy.

Funny Guy is not unique or indigenous only to Germany. Everywhere you go, you can find him. But Funny Guy Germany is louder and more convulsed. You’ll recognize he/she, preferably at a safe distance, from the uncharacteristic speed of their movements. Funny Guy is a Tommy Gun of raised hands, pseudo dances and punch lines. He’ll often just jump the punch line and leave you head-over-heels with his trademark “Yeah!” – followed by an air-fuck or a Guevara raised-fist and clenched teeth. Funny Guy will constantly interrupt you with the opposite of what he is expected to say, demonstrating his ability to use irony and satire, often contemporaneously. Funny Guy is never literal, but rarely subtle. 

“So you’re from ze UK, yeah?”

Just agree, unless of course if you’re from a good country like Brazil, in which case say it.  

“UK, yeah, yeah!” says Funny Guy.

 Do not look confused - just wait.  Funny Guy has a punch line for you. “Hey, don’t worry, it’s just a joke.”

 If you don’t laugh at this point, Funny Guy will be offended and will question your appreciation of comedy. “What, you don’t like ze jokes? I thought British people love ze sense of humour. Tin of baked beans, cup of tea, quickie with the Queen…Yeah!”

Don’t panic. Funny Guy always thinks that Anglo-speaking people will get him best. His fine-tuned quipster character has been carefully moulded through excerpts from sitcoms and US Indie films and he is convinced he can’t fail. Funny Guy has seen Richard Pryor and knows of Ron Burgundy. He knows his Eddie Savage from his Eddie Murphy. Funny Guy will often have a very convincing accent in English; a Bronx, cockney or South LA twang. Funny Guy will expect you to read graphic novels and will want to know if you drink your own blood. 

Is it a joke?

The best thing you can do to appease Funny Guy is tell him you lost your uncle and then say you found him again. Under a car. This should keep Funny Guy tied up with enough membrane queries for you to make your escape.

Give Funny Guy the odd raised glass and air-fuck from a distance to preserve your freedom for the remainder of the time you share in his presence.

Friday, 21 September 2012

1: A-Z of Kreuzberg


It took Mcdonald’s thirty years to enter Kreuzberg, but it shouldn’t take you longer than 10 minutes to be part of the scenery.  Kreuzberg (cross-mountain) is a district unconnected to the rest of Germany for it’s void of Germans. The locals are Turks, Ex-Yugoslavs, Eastern Europeans and southern euro refugees and the district is a bustling place full of roadside Turkish bazaars, kebab stores, punk at the underground station and political rallies.

The bars are great, food is cheap and delicious and you’ll never need for a Turkish button. The Turks are a friendly people (mostly, like the Germans), and while relations between the two remain soured, Kreuzberg is where it works best.

If you too decide to live in Kreuzberg, you’ll want to swiftly follow this list of must dos:

  1. Grow dreadlocks, wacky facial hair or get a Mohican. 
  2. If you have a job, get rid of it. Kreuzbergers are unemployed and proud of it.
  3. Same goes for money. Empty your bank account, burn your belongings in a bonfire and start ripping through your wardrobe. In Kreuzberg, being poor is sexy.
  4. If you plan on studying, make sure you are over 33 and started your degree over 14 years ago.
  5. Dumpster dive rotten food.
  6. Disagree with people who agree with you as much as you can.
  7. Buy some spray cans. These will look good in your home even if you don’t use them. Some books on social landscaping and urban design will complement your aesthetic Sallowism.
  8. Always look tired.
  9. Learn to publish leaflets; everybody publishes leaflets in Kreuzberg.
  10. Get political. If you’ve never cared for your government’s parades of vanity, pretend you do. The best way to do this is to steal some anti-capitalist slogans from the introduction to Noam Chomsky books or to get some stickers with sound-bites like -- NATO: North Atlantic Terrorist Organization. Once you’re firmly left, advertise your credentials at all times and carry your stickers in your pocket.  If you declare a preference for a political movement, make sure its veganism, anarchy or at least explicitly anti-capitalist.
  11. Live in a squatted loft with no heating, running water or insulation. Make sure dripping can be heard at all times.
  12. Bring your Wellingtons; guerrilla gardening is big in Kreuzberg and you’ll need to express sympathy for it, even if you don’t want to get your hands dirty.
  13. Make sure at least some of your clothes are marginally ripped or ill fitting, while at least one item is stylish (follow this combination at all times).
  14. Wash as little as you can and deplore deodorant.
  15. Develop a distaste for Swabians (in 'Swabylon'), Bavarians and anybody with a career.
  16. Bring every hat you own (Berliners love hats – the more ridiculous, the better).
  17. Get a dog who is happy to spend long hours in tight, dimly-lit bars.
  18. Attend rallies. Berlin has five demonstrations per day and you’ll need to show the battle-scars, badges and slogans you’ve collected so far. 
  19. Be Argentinean and dance tango whenever you can.
  20. Make sure you make some kind of recycled art that could, were it not for the ignorance of your audience, potentially change the world.
  21. Do all this while owning a Mac. Parade this Mac in selected cafes. Disown it in public places where crowds gather.
  22. Make sure you own a lighter that advertises where you live or at least advertises one of your new Sallowist slogans. See j. for further details.
  23. Always pretend you really need what you buy at junkyard sales.
  24. Let everyone think that you’re always about to get evicted.
  25. Avoid being German. You’ll fare better if you’re not.
  26. Do not look at Turkish women in bakeries (or in general)
Rule z is possibly the most important.  Turkish women are beautiful and being a man (maybe even a woman), you’ll want to look at them. Turkish men far outnumber Turkish women on the streets however, and bakeries are one of the few places you will ever engage with Turkish females. These can be nervous times, but if you follow the guidelines below, you should be okay.

Make sure you know what kind of bread you want before you enter the bakery. There are hundreds of types of bread in Germany; from onion to olives, with or without seeds and in all shapes. When you enter the bakery, you may have the feeling of being alone with the women behind the counter. Usually a man will be loitering, so do not attempt a smile. A simple “Hallo” will suffice. Point to your bread and look down. If the man in the bakery is present, he will not want your eyes passing over the surface of his wife/sister/friend/daughter/acquaintance as you move your sight towards your chosen grain. When you are handed the bread, make sure your hand makes no contact with the server’s. This could be fatal.

Turkish men are very jealous. They do not like their women to talk to anyone, let alone other men. Many Turkish women work in supermarkets, Spätkaufen (‘7/11s) and bakeries in Kreuzberg, which makes buying basic nutrients like bread a challenge. You may think simply appeasing the bakery-pervading man with a smile, handshake or permanent eye contact would distract him from his jealousy. Not so.
Even if you are only thinking of looking at her, he knows. He knows you’ve got bread at home; you’re just here to take a look at his wife, because you can, because it’s a public place, a bakery, you fucking pervert. Don’t use bread as an excuse, he’s thinking.

If you take a look at Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg and decide it isn’t yuppie enough for you, you may find Mitte or Prenzlauerberg more to your pleasing. If the wide boulevards and converted breweries of the north take your fancy, you’ll want to decide what you are. Are you a Mauerparker, a Bauhauser or Brauereir? If you’re a Mauerparker, you probably should consult the A-Z of Kreuzberg and go and live there. You know you want to, you’re just being delusional.

If you’re a Bauhauser, you probably need a Starbucks, a couple of delis, a launderette, a shop that sells expensive table mats and some bars with Venetian lights nearby. If the answer to the last five is yes, then the affluent western district of Charlottenburg might be your ticket. If you need residential suburbia at a premium, try Zehlendorf in the southwest. If you want all this, but still want to be perceived as a struggling artist, then Prenzlauerberg might just be right for you after all: you’re a Brauereier.

As a Brauererier you own several didgeridoos and your carpets come from Pakistan. You like dangerous new acts and contemporary art installations, but you like them to be held in expensive converted breweries. You have a tape with a speech by Frank Zappa that you play when you get drunk at your garden-loft parties. You may be Danish, Swedish, Californian or Dutch. But fear not: Prenzlauerberg and Mitte will let you work in advertising, insurance or accounting without anybody actually imagining that you do.  You’ll be able to easily lose yourself in the crowd of the revolution while milking the beast that holds it back. You can pay over 1500€ per/month for your loft while still walk around barefoot in an Andy Warhol t-shirt. Cafes in Prenzlauerberg have recycled chairs and objects salvaged from the street; but worry not, coffee still costs a reassuring 3.50€.

Only live in the northeastern district of Marzahn if you are white and studying soviet-era facades or have right wing affiliations. The district of Neuköln has also become particularly fashionable in recent years although being the neighbouring, and thus competing district to Kreuzberg, I’ll let Neukölners tell their own story.

For further integration tips, discover Sallowism or Sallowism for Intermediates.