Friday, 28 December 2012

15: Santa's mail and Lumumba at the Xmas market

The Germans, like everyone, love celebrating Christmas. Their neighbours, the Dutch, dress-up as minstrels and drive around on tractors throwing odd-shaped sweets and vegetables at black people under the guise of Zwarte Piet. The Germans also adapt their rituals and routines to celebrate Jesus. 

Christmas markets are where Germans do their Christmas or Weihnacht activity.  These fairy light-illuminated German bivouacs, a sort of Gaddafi commercial gathering in Central Europe, squat the city centres of most German urban developments throughout the month of December.

Every sausage and mulled wine seller in the land comes to bear his finest and while the markets tend to sell handicrafts and arts too, they are basically a colourful excuse for a piss-up with pork. 

The largest of these in Germany is in Nuremberg and comes with its own adjacent children's market. Once you wade your way through the prams and the merry-go-round, you'll find the main stands in the square under the Cathedral.  

Like most other Christmas markets, Nuremberg's is designed to get you drunk without you having to declare this was your intention. It's a place for uncles, mothers, sisters and lovers to escape the sheer pressure of high street gift shopping and down a few Glühweinen while pretending to shop for snow-flaked plastic ornaments.

The further into the market you walk, the more drunk people are and the more medieval the whole experience becomes. The fairy lights come into their own after a couple of Glühweinen and if you're feeling courageous, you might want to move on to the Lumumba. This isn't an invite to join the Belgian secret service and assassinate a Sub-Saharan African president but a hot chocolate laced with a shot of rum and cherry syrup. The namesake, one can only presume, derives from the poisonous potential that the drink carries in sugar and calories.

You should be tipsy soon enough though, either on alcohol or sugar, and you may soon be ready for zwetschgenmännle, or prune men: a tribe of well-groomed metrosexual dolls made of prune and nuts. The prune men come in all trades and are an excellent present for people you'll be spending Christmas with and have never met but whose trade you are aware of. "Hi, I got you this engineer made of prunes and nuts. Merry Xmas"  

The prunemen.
The prune man
To really get the best out of the Christmas markets, you'll want to circle the square several times to make sure you consume enough alcohol. You'll want to eat a sausage at every 90-degree corner and play the lottery at the Red Cross every time you complete a 360 round.

Retire through a side alley when you no longer have any idea why you are there.

Of course, there is more to Christmas in Germany than the markets. For example, children might want to write letters to Santa at one of his eight official Bundesland addresses. In eight different towns that begin with the prefix Himmel - heaven - official Christmas Post Offices receive thousands of letters each year from children across Germany. A team of volunteer Santa little helpers reads (allegedly) through the tons of ink on paper screaming out for Playstations and iPhones and writes suitable replies.

So if your child is confused about Santa and you're not sure whether to break the news, get them to write to Himmelsfort, Himmelsberg or any other such heavenly address.

The practice is not, I soon discover, uniquely German. Several places have used their name or GPS location to cash-in on the Santa myth. The US city of Santa Claus has branded itself well for the task; the French have gone digital with their myths and simply ask you to send Santa an email. Purists will insist their children write to Santa Claus' Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, in the Arctic Circle.

If you yourself been harbouring a secret fantasy to dress-up as Santa for years and would like to share it while running pissed with hundreds of people, then one of the many Santa marathons might be your ticket. These Santa dashes are held in Mid-December across the country, often organised by local running clubs, such as this one just outside Berlin. The principle works similarly to the Christmas market: it's an excuse to get marrow-munchingly drunk on Glühwein in a Santa suit. Prost!  

Friday, 21 December 2012

14: Learning German at the Adult Education Centre

Learning a new language is always strange, like dressing up in costume or trying on women’s make-up.  But who do you want to sound like in German?

Stephen Hawking?

Mullah Omar?

You can be anyone you want, so take a step back and consider your options. Finding your own (plagiarised) German voice is like picking an accent from a catalogue and you’ll want to have tried and tested a few before you settle for your perfect €9.99 foreign pitch and mannerism combo.

Simply listen to native speakers and steal the intonations, pauses and bits and pieces you like – then rearrange accordingly for personal use. If you decide you want to be Joschka Fischer meets David Hasselhoff, then why Hassel the Hoff, just do it. Remember, you don’t need to be able to read Kant in German: You have to avoid sounding like a cunt in German.

Without the language, words are but noise drilling your mind with a continuous sense of chaos, unease and confusion. West is east, north is south and tomorrow is yesterday. Sentences begin and end for as long as you can concentrate and comprehension is a lottery spawned by that evil dictator, the dictionary.

When you learn a new language in your adopted residence you are suddenly more privy to the people amidst whom you live. You have not only made your first impressions and met your first acquaintances, you are now rifling through their dirty laundry looking for clues about their life you can anchor to for further conversations in the future.

You suddenly know a little more about why they act the way they do. You realize that 85 percent of the phrases you have so far relied on are wrong and that you have been telling everyone that you wish “to smoke German and learn drinking.” The Volkhshochschule will set some of this right.

One usually signs up for a course at the Volkshochschule after some sort of epiphany.
For as long as you know no German, it is far easier. Expectations are low of you. You can just get drunk and shout positive slogans and notes of encouragement at parties and be the token foreigner in Funny Guy’s crew. But as you start to build sentences, your expectations grow - you outgrow Funny Guy.

The first time I lived in Berlin I resolutely avoided any German course. The thought appalled me. I resolved to learn German on the go, like old school apprentices who couldn’t read but could paint chapels. I knew that Borges had spoken of words that never led to dictionaries, but I was confident that by just listening, I could learn. My Portuguese housemate meanwhile did the courses and within three months he was chatting away at my expense.

I say at my expense because there is inevitably an element of competitiveness between foreigners to shine in a foreign language. Anyone who can do it is has a power over other Auslanders, the outsiders, that can be used to buy favour with the indigenous. While Joao could boast of his ability to apply even the most irregular dative constructions, I was dating a German girl yet couldn’t introduce myself to her friends.  My only advantage was that English is cool in Berlin and Portuguese isn’t. But Joao cottoned on to this quickly enough. I’d wake up in the morning to find him camped outside my door with word lists, a one-man language demonstration protesting grammatical errors in the corridor shortly after dawn.

“Guten Morgen, Exl, hast du gut geschlafen? Wirst du Heute rausgehen? Das Wetter wird sehr schön. Ich habe gehört es gibt später eine super Veranstaltung im Cassiopeia. ”

Joao would eat his breakfast squatting in the corner with new adjectives to describe the day. To make it more awkward, he’d apologise for his brilliance, sniggering off smugly to school before I had time to properly hate him face-2-face.

The smug little ??))/$§!  would take every opportunity he could to pinpoint me with his newly acquired skills. He’d sing German songs in the shower or walk around repeating verb tables to himself. He’d provide running commentary on his cooking, leaving awkward pauses where I was expected to contribute with the German name for some obscure vegetable. He’d bring alien newspapers and magazines with terrifyingly long words into the house and give me articles to read, which he swiftly found out when I hadn’t by insisting on discussing them over weekend poker games with our housemates. After a while my housemates began to say things like: “Hey, zyou know, Joao he is really further going with ze German…vot about you?”

I have learnt languages at one point or another, yet this was precisely the reason I felt I couldn’t commit to another. I felt it would be cheating on the others I’d spent many a night learning before.

Besides, I was cunny-lingus’d-out.  So inevitably I came to resent Joao and his German notebook. When he went out, I’d steal pages from his study pad and plant landmines in his grammar notes.

But as I got lost in supermarkets and found myself queuing time and again in the wrong office while Joao was spell-bounding audiences with his use of conjunctions, the competition began to motivate me. 

Four years later, when I returned to Berlin, I too signed up for the Volkshochschule.

I entered the monster word into Google and found a branch in my area. Interviews were held on Tuesdays and Thursdays and thinking I was applying for Harvard, I donned my tattered, blue-striped wool suit I’d bought in a London charity shop, nabbed a clipboard and set off optimistically. 

Don't be fooled by the friendly exterior.
I walked into a classroom full of Turkish women in headscarves alongside fat-handed Tajik men, with the odd Czech, Spaniard, and Greek thrown in. The whole class felt like a quiet, dark waiting room; an informal visa office for the Tower of Babel.

I took a seat and stared at the ground. Other people were doing this and it seemed a smart way to proceed given the galled look that the teacher bore down with on everyone. The ageing German woman dropped a sheet of paper on my desk and ushered me with a firm headshake to consult it. I nodded, took a pencil and smiled. Why the smile? I’m not sure, but it just seemed a good strategy.  

Look happy. Smile. I hoped that by smiling incessantly the teacher would realise I wouldn’t be able to simultaneously talk and she’d therefore avoid me.
I wasn’t the only one. A Polish girl who could clearly understand nothing was also just smiling away and we smiled at each other, a sort of solidarity smile.

Good stuff: Lech Walesa would be proud of you, my sister, I beamed back. This is solidarity.

Then the bitch started speaking. One after the other everyone had something to say, something to ask in their own catalogue corrupted German. When my turn came, I tried but the words got stuck in my throat like a bird caught in a jet’s wing.

“Could you repeat, please?” I croaked, for some reason in broken English.
 “No English! Pleaz!  Wir reden nur Deutsche hier, alles klar?” 

Feeling afraid and vulnerable, I took note of the emergency exits. Clouds began to form outside and thunder roared in my head. After twenty years of full time education, this was the hardest it had gotten. Look at the fucking form, I thought. Fill it out and leave. I did and was placed in a B2 level class. The following week I started my first German course.

I soon realised that being placed into B2 level was a major problem. A1 was beginner level and I had somehow done well enough in my test to be in B2.

I protested vehemently in the first day’s interval to Frau Drehstein, the school’s austere head, deliberately screwing up sentence order before her. “Back to class, nau! Die Zeit wartet auf niemand! Du muss Deutsche lernen!” she roared back.

I returned to class after the interval and smuggled myself between two yawning Spaniards with dictionaries. The teacher, a Central Asian woman with nostalgic eyes, was dishing out handouts. 

I grabbed one and smiled. I kept repeating to myself to keep smiling A quick glance at the intruding document revealed it was a table of verbs; hundreds, maybe thousands of them. I read through, as one does, looking for any I knew but soon felt like a baboon at a gay chimpanzee conference. Not only did I not know anybody, I felt in severe danger.

“Herr Mehtk….kba, kannst du…”

Oh no. Please let there be another M. You must be a Meht, I thought, looking at a timid Russian girl with namesake potential.

“Herr Exla, wollen Sie…”

The first time you are asked to speak at your new German course, don’t panic, otherwise you might answer something like: 

“Ich bin &^%$$’’{{-+)”

Which is precisely what I did.

Rather, prepare something in advance. For example, where are you from? This may sound ridiculous, but it will sound even worse if you can’t tell a class of thirty people about your origin.

How old are you? Remember, Germans do numbers the other way round. You’re not 28, you’re achtundzwansig, 8 and 20. These will cover your bases.

Then you’ll need to get your pronouns right. Germans, like the French and Italians, are very formal. They don’t like to be you’d. You don’t you them.  Who the fuck are you to just call them ‘you’? Until you can be trusted, you’ll address Germans as Sie. Sie, not du.

You can du your mates. You Sie everybody else.

You may feel reassured by the fact that there are other English-speaking people on your course. Don’t. At the Volkshochschule there is a reverse form of tribalism whereby your own can be your worst enemy.

You are a menace to their integration; a blast-from-the past ready to uncover their new makeover.  They’ve all suffered to get where they are and now it’s your turn. If you can’t hold a conversation in German with them, then fuck off.

English will also not go down well with the Russian housewife, the Czech Sallowist or the Italians, who simply don’t speak it. You will have to communicate in German at the Volkshochschule, however muddled. If you sign up, man up.

You’ll need to find a dictionary to do this. It’s a dog eat dog world at the Volkshochschule, so whatever you do, do not try and bother somebody else in class to borrow a dictionary. You’ll be looked at like a thieving, murdering trespassing transnational.  Nor will you ask your classmates to repeat anything. Part of a German course is being colonised into the diligence and dark sobriety of German life. You’re expected to get things quickly and any help will only falsely prepare you.

If the going ever gets too tough, console yourself that you are not a Turkish or Iraqi woman. You chose to do the course.  Asylum seekers are often forced to and their residency status can depend on the results.

Too daunting?
Here is a basic Volkshochschule survival guide.

  1. As you probably won’t be able to say much when you pitch up, make sure you at least know how to make people feel good in your new lingua franca. Warming people’s egos is a key objective of language anywhere but for the purpose of this exercise, throw away any subtlety. Subtlety is not what Germany wants. Here are five sentences that will make you sound interested and in the worst case no worse than tight-lipped. As long as somebody doesn’t ask you a question, they will affirm any comment and your relationship to the speaker.

Ach so!– Oh, wow!
Genau. – Sure
Richtig. – Right
Auf jeden – For sure, definitely.
Das kann sein – Could be.

  1. Make sure you file the handouts the teacher gives you neatly. Remember, you are in Germany: Filing is sexy, bad filing is administrative herpes.
  2. Make sure you don’t over-borrow a given person’s dictionary. If you are too stingy to buy your own, only borrow from somebody who is either residency-threatened or too timid to tell you to stop using it.
  3. If discussions should occur in class, do not take part, rather hold your chin, nod occasionally, raise the odd eyebrow and laugh when prompted to. (NB: Alternate and combine the above behaviours appropriately – keep tears for stories about the Berlin Wall)
  4. If your teacher should ever discuss anything to do with German history, act as if you are interested. Avoid yawning at all costs and feed the subject additional nods and empathetic eyes when necessary.
  5. Start reading Bild. Bild is Germany’s most circulated and worst newspaper, a glitzy tabloid owned by media-mogul Axel Springer, the German Rupert Murdoch. While the content will hurt, the joy of just understanding it will heal any pain.
  6. Find a German to start plagiarising your exam.

Friday, 14 December 2012

13: Germany’s Tropical Island

After a few months settled in with my girlfriend, she suggested we “do something different.” I pointed out we’d already bathed naked in public with German socialists and done organised hitchhiking. “This is something really special,” she tells me, with the smile of a woman who has spent hours organising a surprise event.

That same evening we are sat on a regional train heading slowly out of Berlin and into the night. As the train drifts southeast out of the city, people stare more. Accents are different. Shaved heads take over from haircuts and the train conductor has a different look about him. “Where are we going?” I ask. “Somewhere special,” is the answer. 

An hour later, around 10 pm, we arrive in a deserted station with no lights beside a field.  It feels like a location of a PD James murder mystery and for several minutes I cannot banish the thought of the inevitable murder-by-axe.

“What’s this?” I inquire. My girlfriend is busy reading a map at this point and ignores me. I look around and see nothing but fields and hear only the sound of night breeze: further public transport has not yet reached this part of the land. An oldish man is sat on the other side of the station, smoking a pipe and staring at me. I wonder if he is the axe murderer. “Let’s go,” says my partner. 

We walk through fields and forests, occasionally finding a path, following a bright light in the distance like sailors guided by a lighthouse at sea. We reach what at first appears to be a large farm barn, but as we approach, it looks like a giant volleyball stadium. “I love volleyball,” I mutter casually. My girlfriend takes my hand and leads me inside.

“Welcome to Tropical Island,” says a sign above the information desk. My girlfriend points to it and smiles at me, as if she wants me to snap a Kodak moment.

We pay our entrance fee and change. 

Tropical Island is something only Germans could have really conceived of, a 66,000 square metre Robinson Crusoe set from the 70s that has somehow survived the commercialisation of real holidays offered by the likes of Ryanair and Easyjet. Fake palm trees are dotted around a number of pools and plastic water lilies float between wobbling middle-aged Germans. White tipis form a camp at one end of the complex, beside an artificial beach with deck chairs. The place looks like a Chinese holiday camp: steel girders hang above the pool and the swimwear looks tailor-issued.  A bar serving chips and fried sausages with Trinidadian flaglets runs down the middle. Both my girlfriend and I find ourselves relieved at the warmth and head straight for the sauna, followed by the jacuzzi. 

The German Caribbean.
Of course, Tropical Island is particularly un-tropical. For starters, everybody is white at Tropical Island. The music sounds like Calypso and Zouk, but sung by Germans. The disconcerting number of speedos merely demystifies the place further.

 But for Germans it’s perfect. It allows them to pretend they are in the Caribbean without having to actually go there. What’s more, they don’t have to share the beaches with locals fastidiously trying to remind them it's their country. The food is sauerkraut-friendly and the slides are infinitely more sinuous and well-designed than  anything in Bermuda. “It’s a must see for architects,” my gay engineer friend tells me on my return. It’s certainly something.

Being poor Berliners, we only paid the entrance fee and then squatted a tipi for free. This is highly advisable. The Germans are far too polite and discreet to check the tipis at night and as long as you wake up before 7am, you’ll be back in the ‘Tropical Sea’ lagoon sipping a pint of filter coffee before anybody knows.  Unfortunately they check after seven and found us fast asleep without a receipt for the night. We ended up leaving the reservoir lumbered with a big fat bill to carry on our walk back to the deserted train station. As I watched the stainless steel bowl disappear into the distance, I felt happy to be returning to the civilisation of Berlin.

Friday, 7 December 2012

12: Boardgames: war cabinets and meeting in Switzerlands

Germans take their board games incredibly seriously, like war cabinets or science conventions. Do not think board games are meant for fun. While entertainment is accepted as a valid reason behind such formal assemblies, the real objective is to observe due procedure with over scrupulous vigilance.

You’ll need a basic list of core defences to survive such a logicfest; a pad of paper, a pen, a dictionary, a funny hat (Germans love funny hats) and at least 12 beers.

If you do receive an invitation for a board game session, you’ll probably be notified at least a couple of weeks in advance with a casual, “Hey, do you like to play games, no?” 

Naturally wanting to integrate and take advantage of an opportunity to go native, you’ll reply yes. This is your first mistake.

Germans unsurprisingly love strategy games. Deep rooted in every Saxon, Swabian, Bavarian, Pomeranian or East Frissian is a belief that if the world were run according to their refined reason and designation, nothing would be left to the sloppish hand of spontaneity. Strategy games offer Germans the opportunity to demonstrate this fetish for advanced calculations and test their skills against co-strategists. So far, so good. Everyone enjoys a game of Risk.

But you probably won’t be playing Risk. “The rules are far too simple, too easy, no strategy.” More likely you’ll be playing such neurologically demanding global conquest variations as El Grande or Diplomacy. If you don’t have a Masters Degree in Political Philosophy, you’re destined to struggle. However if you’ve never heard of either of these games, fear not; you’ll be given a 90 minute introduction to the rules either way. No stones will be left unturned.

Let us suppose you fall trap to a game of Diplomacy. The object of the game is to conquer Europe with one of seven empires; Austria-Hungary, Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia, Turkey or Great Britain. You will have armies and navies to co-ordinate. You will sign treaties with neighbours, battle with enemies and support or betray allies. Everything must be written down in a sort of code, similar to that used in airline tickets, which you will present at the end of each round for inspection to the Spielleiter, the game’s secretary general. Any mistakes and you will be publicly castigated, penalised and worse, forced to return for rehabilitation in the future. 

Do not try and shorten the rules explanation. By Round 1 you’ll be expected to know your armies from your flotillas, your attacks from your supports, your Tunis from Thüringen and be able to differentiate between spring and autumn moves. You should have developed a naval, air and land strategy and be able, if need to be, to compare your own egregious whippersnapping policy with Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege.

The Spielleiter, the game leader, is the ombudsman or a regulator. He ensures everybody remains focused and will demand 100 percent commitment at all times. He is probably an accountant, a meat inspector or a council worker (no offence to any of those fine trades - it's simply a statistic, 75 per cent of which are made up). The Spielleiter will issue such rallying calls as “Guyz, come on! Concentrate now.” In order to sustain the level of pressure required for full mental engagement, he will make constant references to the time, reminding all present that “we must finish by work tomorrow, come on!” He will mediate should any rule conflicts arise and will cut short any non-board-game-related stories, conversations or anecdotes. Beware of Spielleiter’s catchphrase -  “So yeah, guys, the game?” - followed by an angry headmaster’s evil eye.

Once the game is underway, ensure you don’t let on that you have not understood the rules. The only solution would be another 90-minute explanation from Spielleiter. Germans do not learn by doing: “It is simply too uncertain a method.” It is the job of the Spielleiter to explain the rules and chances are, he loves it. Nothing will please him more than having to explain again. He will justify the delay to other players with “We must let the other people know how to move.” Remember: you are the other people. 

By Round three or four of Diplomacy you’ll be called upon to leave the room and enter a private cubicle where you will be able to negotiate alliances (that you may later break) with neighbouring forces: this room is like crash-landing in neutral Switzerland or Denmark for a secret dance with your enemy. Act imperial in these negotiations; quote previous historical alliances to reinforce your trustworthiness. Play your partner-empire’s national anthem on your iphone. Be prepared for these negotiations to take hours, possibly days. 

 More than a boardgame.
Do not think you can just lose and leave a board game early. You may be taken into custody or detained under house arrest for the remainder of the game. Same goes for cancelling at short notice.

Should you get stuck or undone at any point, make reference to your funny hat, pointing out how funny it is. Let slapstick back you up here. If all else fails, feign a medical condition, leave and lay low for a few weeks after.