Thursday, February 27, 2014

Schmotziger Donnerstag / Dirty Thursday

Today is Schmotziger Donnerstag ("Dirty Thursday") in Swabia. This day is similar to "Fat Tuesday", which some Catholics in Wisconsin celebrate the day before Ash Wednesday. Even at my former (Catholic!) school in Wisconsin we teachers organized a "Fat Tuesday" luncheon, a potluck of sorts, so we could pig out before settling in to the guilt and penitence of Lent. We had that in the staff room during the lunch period, and then we went back to our classrooms to finish the day.

Here in the Catholic communities of Swabia, the lead-in to Lent is quite different. It started in earnest today. The Narrenzünfte (fools' guilds) put on their costumes, take over the towns, ceremoniously take the key from the Bürgermeister (who cheerfully gives it up because he has no other reasonable choice), set the school children loose at noon, and wreak havoc in good fun. The town keys are humbly and sheepishly returned on Ash Wednesday by those who can still walk, as the local beverage store owners gleefully count their tills. It's like Black Friday for the venders of beer, wine, and liquor.

handing over the town key to the leader of the local Narrenzunft

crazy witch-creature on the town hall

The Fasnet costume of our town must be black skirts with black and yellow striped stockings. Most of the Narren are dressed this way. To take these pictures I was standing across the street and using my telephoto lens. If you are wondering why, close in on the guy near the center with the gray jacket. That's the look I get when someone who doesn't know me sees me taking pictures.

I was invited to the after-school reception for teachers at the school where I teach the Englisch-AG, so after giving the students time to disperse, I headed over there. The headmaster, a friend of mine, greeted me wearing Lederhosen and a felt hat and playing the accordion, his brother (also a teacher and a friend of mine) was dressed in overalls and funny glasses, and most of the other teachers were in costumes as well. So it's a bit like Halloween in Wisconsin. The work was over for the day, so they had donuts (Berliner, called Fasnetsküchle this week), cookies, and Sekt (like champagne) spread out on the conference table. Back in Wisconsin, at least during my years at the school, we had to relocate from the school grounds to a nearby bar to toast the start of a break.  Not here!

The group sang Swabian Fasnet songs as the headmaster accompanied with his accordion, danced or clapped along, and generally just had fun. They then brought out a contraption that scared me at first - but all it was was a catapult kind of thing that they loaded up with a Schokoküssle (large chocolate-covered marshmallow). You had to throw a ball at one part of the machine, and if you hit the right spot, the Schokoküssle would be flung at you to catch. Each of us had a go, and most of us successfully caught the Schokoküssle (and then had to eat it).

My teacher-friend explained to me that Fasnet (called Fastnacht, Fasching, or Karnival in other parts of Germany and Mardi Gras in N'Orleans) is and has traditionally been mainly a Catholic thing. In traditionally Catholic towns like Bildechingen, Eutingen, Horb, Rottenburg, etc., Fasnet is very popular, and you're kind of the odd-one-out if you're not in costume. In Protestant communities like Mühlen (3 km from Bildechingen), Tübingen, and Freudenstadt, business goes on as usual. In Horb if you're not into all the shenanigans of Fasnet, you might want to pack up and get the heck out of Dodge until Ash Wednesday. If you live in Freudenstadt and want to party, you pack up and settle someplace more Catholic and fun for a few days.

As if on cue to illustrate his point, a man came in with a delivery of something and briefly said hello as we were singing, dancing, and toasting with Sekt. As he was leaving my friend called enthusiastically with a twinkle in his eye, "Schöne Fasnetszeit!" ("Have a nice Fasching-holiday!") The man replied, "Nein, nein. Ich bin aus Freudenstadt. Zum Lachen gehen wir in den Keller." ("No, no. I'm from Freudenstadt. We go into the cellar to laugh.")  The point being, if that wasn't clear, that when Protestants have fun around here, they do it in the basement so no one can see or hear them behaving so shamefully.

Believe it or not, another person showed up during a song when we were all swaying side to side in unison, and stood for a moment in the doorway. She was wearing bright green shiny pants, so I thought she was a teacher and that was her costume. We stopped the song and the swaying and the headmaster gave her a "'S'up?" look. She said "I'm here from the school in Dornstetten (my friend whispered to me that that's another Protestant town), and I'm supposed to pick up [something I didn't understand]."  My friend offered her a Fasnetsküchle while the headmaster went to look for the thing she was supposed to pick up. He came back with it, and the woman pointed to her pants and said, "Well, I'm somewhat dressed up..." The headmaster replied, "Yeah, that's close enough for Dornstetten." He serenaded her with the accordian as she left to return to her boring little Protestant village, where the schools are still in session...

For the record, I wasn't really correct when I said that the lead-in to Lent started today. It actually started in Swabia on Jan. 6, with the 12th day of Christmas (Epiphany). Right after the local children go around and write the blessing on everyone's doors, the villagers get ready to party. There are mask-dusting-off gatherings, anniversary celebrations for various Narrenzünfte, a parade now and then, Fasching-themed parties, dance shows, and so on from January 6th to Faschingsdienstag ("Fat Tuesday"). But the heavy stuff (including, for some, the heavy drinking) begins today.

One of the things that fascinates me here is that nearly everything from the local customs, the architecture of buildings, the habits, the rules, and the fun-and-games have a rich history. One way to look at Fasnet is to see a bunch of drunk costumed fools running around causing traffic chaos, a mess, and a nuisance. But I'm learning there's much more to it than that. It's not really my thing (I grew up Protesant, after all), but I am starting to see why it is fun for others. I can't get excited about drinking and partying, but I can get into anything where there is something to learn about local traditions.

Happy Dirty Thursday!  Bleibt sauber!  ("Stay clean"!)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Gartenarbeit, or Garden Carnage

I have described our house in an early post, but I haven't written much about the garden. For the second time, we bought a house that was perfect for us with a rather intimidating garden and yard. I've also blogged about the German need for privacy, evidenced by fences, hedges, trees, and anything else that blocks one house from another, and the Mittagsruhe (mid-day quiet time). Keep these things in mind.

Martin hired a local landscaper last year to hack down our 7-foot hedge to about 2 feet so that it could get thick and healthy again and wouldn't be so hard for us (and by "us" I mean Martin) to trim. The landscaper gave lots good advice about caring for the rest of the shrubs, flowers, and plants the previous owner left us, which we tried to follow. Frankly, though, we still don't really know what we're doing, and so we decided to call in the big guns.

The landscaper (Herr Tö***, whom I'll just call Mr. T) returned about 30 minutes ago with an assistant and four fledglings to clean out more of the growth and trees that have not been faring very well. Martin told me they'd arrived, so I finished wiping the kitchen counter, put on my shoes, and stepped outside to say hello. They were already hard at work, sawing branches off the scraggliest trees in the yard outside my office window. No chit-chatting or pleasantries here! Grab your gloves and tools and get to work!  Granted, Mr. T had been here last week to check out the situation and get instructions from Martin, so there was no real need for pleasantries. Martin had already warned me I probably wouldn't understand him anyway, because he speaks Hessisch (the dialect in the state of Hessen).*

Our neighbor on the other side of this row of sad-looking trees, who spends a lot of time in his own garden and whom we have only met once briefly, has been prowling about in his yard snorting at the work that is disturbing the neighborhood Mittagsruhe. It isn't Saturday, after all, and yet the crew is using a chain saw, or something that sounds like one. Saturday is chain saw day around here. I would also guess that he's not happy about the rapidly growing lack of privacy between our houses. Pretty soon all we'll have is his wire fence and a few thin trees. Last summer we couldn't see through to their garden at all (or vise versa) even despite the dead patches. Now, just like the neighbors on the other side had to get used to us, we'll be greeting this one and his wife regularly as we come and go.

One of the lads was just standing in front of our large, lopsided evergreen bush holding an electric hedge trimmer and looking doubtful. I think he was figuring out why it's lopsided. The bush is twice as tall as he is, and even with a ladder it would be difficult at best to get the nice rounded shape that was intended.

*If I needed proof of the dialect thing, Martin and I just went outside, and Mr. T. greeted me, shook my hand, and proceeded to tell us a little about what they were in the midst of doing. Yeah, um....What?  Martin then asked him what we should be doing with the climbing roses. I did actually understand enough to hear him say that we shouldn't do anything with them, and that he would clean them up a little because they're nice and young, but "dumm verschnitten" (stupidly trimmed). Guess who trimmed them?? Good thing I never pretended to know what I was doing...  :-)

In the mean time, the lad with the trimmer did what looks through the curtains to be a great job on the lopsided evergreen, and now another youngster is snipping around, clipper in one hand, cigarette in the other, for the finishing touches.

So now, when we have to start mowing again, we won't be stabbed in the eye by the ginkgo tree, gnawed in the leg by the unruly roses, or wrestled by the branches of the mostly-dead trees along the neighbor's wire fence. Mr. T said we need to water and fertilize more than we're doing, especially for special trees like our Weeping Nootka, shown here in a photo from last summer. It's a Weeping Nootka. We thought it was supposed to look like that.

As I finish writing, the crew is sweeping up the carnage and loading it onto the wheelbarrows, collecting their tools and ladders, having one last smoke while they survey their work, and probably considering their next job of the day.

I'm almost looking forward to the start of garden work, weeding, and keeping the yard and garden looking nice, though I'll be cursing about all that in a few months I'm sure. I'm surely looking forward to the blooming of the azaleas and the rhododendron!

Bring on Spring!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fantastic German phrases

I've written about interesting and amusing German words already, so today I thought I'd tell you about some fun German phrases I've come across during my time here so far.

Nichts für ungut...

Literally translated, this means "Nothing for ungood...", and it's usually followed by a thought beginning with "but" and ending with something ungood. In English we would say "No offense, but..." and finish with a statement that offends.
Nichts für ungut, aber ich muss mir viel Mühe geben, Sie ernst zu nehmen.
Nothing for ungood, but it takes real effort to take you seriously.

Scheiße bauen

American students get scolded for screwing around in class; German students get in trouble for building shit. I heard this one in my Englisch AG yesterday (AG = Arbeitsgemeinschaft, or an extra-curricular learning experience, like "English Club"). I was reminding some of the students that their headmaster is a good friend of mine, and I asked if their behavior would be ok with him. One of the girls said, "No, when we build shit, then we get sent out and have to have a talk with him." Now, I am aware that the German word "Scheiße" is not as vulgar as the English equivalent, and kids don't generally get scolded for using it. But I commented in the sense of telling them about a cultural difference between our two countries, that an American student would surely not say the word "shit" to a teacher. One of the boys informed me that one can also say "Mist bauen", which would be "to build manure", and he promised to phrase it that way in the future.

Ich hab' Schiss

Keeping on the theme of excrement for just another moment, this phrase means "I have shit." The intended meaning is that the speaker is scared or nervous, and Martin explained it as "I'm shitting myself." Nowadays American kids would say, "I'm literally shitting myself," not that the word "literally" carries any meaning at all anymore.

This is my son several years ago at an animal park in Tennessee. Someone put a parrot on his shoulder, and then something behind them freaked out the parrot, who dug his claws into Alex's shoulder to keep his balance. 

I'd say his face captures the sentiment of "Ich hab Schiss!"

Abwarten und Tee trinken

"Well, we made our request. What should we do now?"
"Abwarten und Tee trinken."  (Wait, and drink some tea.)
Although the favorite beverage in German is coffee (more liters of coffee are drunk by Germans per capita than beer, to dispell a popular myth), when one needs to wait for the results of something, the beverage of choice is tea. Perhaps it's the alliteration, or perhaps the balanced and orderly sentence (3 syllables in abwarten, 3 syllables in Tee trinken). In any case, When you need to wait and see, have yourself a cup of tea. See what I did there?

die Kirche im Dorf lassen

"Look, people. Let's just leave the church in the village."
Right. Sounds like a good idea (since how would we get the church out of the village?) This is a lovely little phrase meaning, "Let's not get carried away," or "Don't make a mountain out of a molehill."

"The bakery truck isn't going to come to our neighborhood anymore after the end of April, because the bakery is going out of business!* I'm not going to survive without my Wednesday morning fresh rolls and bread! Life as I know it is over!"
"Now, now, leave the church in the village. There's a bakery in the grocery store, and you go there four times a week." 

That's our Dorfkirche (village church) in Bildechingen. We're going to leave it there.

*This is true, by the way. No more rolling bakery for me, stopping on our street right in front of our neighbors every Wednesday morning. I've been planning my Wednesday morning routine around that bakery truck for more than a year! The baker and his wife are retiring, and their kids don't want to take over the business. Darn kids.

Alles im grünen Bereich

This is what Germans say when everything is going all right. "Everything is in the green area." This is a very common phrase, as I hear people say it, I read it in the newspaper, I hear it on the news and in TV shows... It's nice to know that things are going so well so often.

Look at that! Everything is in the green area in Bildechingen today!
(at least with the fruit- and garden club)

einen Kater haben

Sometimes everything is not in the green area, like when you wake up with a tomcat. That's right, no one wants a tomcat, especially since the only one to blame when you have one is yourself. You could have avoided getting a tomcat if you had balanced your alcohol intake last night with water. A tomcat (Kater), in this respect, is a hangover.

A Kater is also an actual tomcat, like our neighbors' cat here, who was riled up because he lives on the second floor balcony, and a stray Kater was prowling through our yard. I think he's trying to look big. And scary. He didn't seem to appreciate that Martin and I were snapping pictures of him and mooning about how cute he was.

But of course one needs to be careful when talking about one's tomcat. The sentence "Ich habe einen Kater" ("I have a tomcat") means both that and "I have a hangover." This could lead to amusing misunderstandings.

Since I do not have a tomcat of either kind, I am enjoying the fact that everything is in the green area, I have no reason to have shit and don't have to deal with students building it, and although there's some trouble brewing back in Wisconsin, I'm going to leave the church in the village for now, wait it out, and have some tea.

Happy Valentine's Day, by the way!

Saturday, February 1, 2014


I have loved M's sense of humor for many years. He is sarcastic, witty, dark at times, never cheesy, and keeps me laughing. I don't mind being the target of his humor occasionally, because I'm a realist. I believe that at the root of most humor lies some truth.

Not long after I moved to Germany I started a compilation of "Martinisms" - things he has said that make me laugh. I suppose in some cases, "you had to be there". And if you are one of those who can't laugh at yourself, you'll wonder why I laughed at some of his replies. But I can laugh at myself and my quirks, and I never doubt that he loves me.

In the hopes that you can find a chuckle in here somewhere, here is my dear husband on....


M: "I love you."
B (simultaneously): "I'm cold."
M: "I guess we both have our issues."


M: "I'll be right back."
B:  "I can go with you."
M: "No, I'll be faster alone."
B:  "Well, don't walk too fast, or you'll have a heart attack."
M: "At least then I won't have to take care of the cat anymore."


After I slept most of the evening on the sofa...
B:  "I shouldn't be this tired!"
M: "Well, you DID pull an all-afternooner."


Discussing the fact that I seem to be falling apart - hip pain, low iron, high cholesterol...
M: "I should have asked for the extended warranty, or 'missing warranty insurance'."
B:  "I don't think you'd have been able to get that for a model as old as the one you have."
M: "Yeah, true. Especially since it's second-hand."

Wildlife I

Peeking over my shoulder as I'm writing to my mom and saying there's no German word for chipmunk because I learned years ago there are no chipmunks in Germany...
M: "I think they're called Streifenhörnchen."
Beth switches the Wikipedia article to German and finds "Streifenhörnchen".
B:  "I'll be damned. But they're not native to Germany! Why would there be a German word for them?"
M: "We also have a word for 'elephant' even though they are not native to Germany either..."


After I grumbled about being cold in bed and M discovered I was lying on my blanket instead of under it...
M: "I'm not laughing at you. I'm just not quite impressed with the less-than-adequate use of resources."

Sympathy I

I'm in the kitchen slicing onions, and M walks in.
B: "Do you know a way to prevent my eyes filling up with tears while cutting these darn things?"
M: "Yes. Cut faster."

Wildlife II

Several years ago, M came as a guest to my German class and my students interviewed him.
Student: "Mr. H., do you like animals?" 
M: "It depends on the sauce."

World History

Discussing history lessons in German and American schools...
M: "They (German 7th graders) are too young to have learned about WWII yet. That's heavy stuff, and they have to learn about WWI first."
B:  "Well, we cover World History in one year."
M: "Yeah, and you START with the Greeks!"


Martin comes in from outside on a hot day.
M: "You women..."
B:  "What??"
M: "I just watched an Amselmännchen* dashing about, bringing food to his wife."
B:  "Awww...Where?"
M: "By the Rhododendron."
B:  "So, she was fanning herself under the cool bushes while he ran about bringing her dinner?"
M: "Yes. In his BLACK suit!"
  *an Amsel is a blackbird.

Wildlife III

B:  "So there are penguins in Antarctica, but the polar bears are in the north, right?"
M: "Right."
B:  "Why is that?"
M: "I guess they don't like to travel."

Sympathy II

B:  "I'm cold."
M: "Oh, that must be...haaaarrrrrdd*. I could get the vacuum cleaner if you like."**
  *reference to "It's not about the nail". If you haven't seen that, search youtube. Worth it!
  **I've often commented that doing housework warms me up.


B:  "I ache, I need reading glasses, I'm having hot flashes...Does it EVER end?"
M: "Oh, it does..."

Care for more?
Martinisms II
Martinisms III