Thursday, May 29, 2014

Day Trip 2: Esslingen (Part 2)

Honestly, I could probably devote the rest of my blog for the next few years to Esslingen. Even the locals appreciate Esslingen's charm and appeal, if the Facebook group "Du weißt, dass du Esslinger bist, wenn..." ("You know you're from Esslingen when...") is any measure. In talking to some people who have lived for years in Esslingen I have heard several versions of, "Ja, Esslingen hat scho 'was!" (Esslingen does certainly have something!") Good ol' Swabian compliment...

In Part 1 I wrote about two hidden secrets you can find in Esslingen if you are with an insider. Today I want to tell you about two or three more.

Headless and six-toed Madonna

Do not skip a stop inside the Stadtkirche (Parish Church), and make sure you stroll all the way to the front to see the Hochaltar (High altar), which was finished in 1604. During Lent and Advent the altar is closed, but the rest of the year it is wide open. In both positions you will find beautiful paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. The altar was commissioned during the Reformation, but the artist followed classic examples or models from Catholic paintings. This led to Maria holding a central and prominent position in two of the scenes. This would have been unacceptable to the Protestants, of course, who recognize her as the virgin mother of Jesus but do not revere her as a saint. The artist, therefore, had to make adjustments to his depictions of Mary in order not to be fired...or worse.

Hochaltar, Stadtkirche St. Dionys, Esslingen

die Pfingstszene (Pentecost scene)

The painting on the viewer's far right of the open altar shows the Pentecost scene (evidenced by the flames above the apostles' heads), and at the center of the group is the figure of Mary wearing a red dress and reaching upward. If you look closely you will notice that she has no head. Did the artist get distracted and forget to finish the painting? The trouble was that the painting was commissioned by the now Protestant leaders of the church, but the artist put Mary in the center as was common in Catholic paintings. When he realized his goof, he stopped painting her and hoped that her headless anonymity would not upset the Reformers.

On the same altar, but on a back panel that is visible during Advent and Lent when the altar wings are closed, is a painting of Mary's annunciation. She is seated at a reading desk and looking up toward the light coming through a window, which represents the angel Gabriel, and her bare right foot is visible under the hem of her cloak. Looking closely you will notice that she has six toes on this foot. The artist added the additional pinkie to portray Mary as handicapped, thus altering the Catholic idea of Mary as a perfect being. Although Mary is central (and, in fact, alone) in this painting, the Protestant church leaders who hired the artist did not object because she was deformed and therefore imperfect.

Marias Verkündigung (Mary's annunciation)
These paintings, by the way, are not famous and you will not find reprints of them or information about them on the internet. They were painted by one artist (Peter Riedlinger) and his apprentice only for this Hochaltar of the Stadtkirche in Esslingen.

"Haymliches Gemach," or secret chamber

In my first post about Esslingen I encouraged visitors to look down alleys and behind them as they walk the streets so as not to miss any beautiful views. Without a knowledgable guide, however, visitors will still miss juicy bits that may not even be known to some of the locals. Several of these curiosities are found near the Hafenmarkt. If you stand facing the yellow building which houses the Stadtmuseum, look left (roughly north toward the Burg) and you'll see a very narrow break between two buildings with a rounded gate blocking the alley. Walk toward the gate and notice that the street slants up as you walk. If you peek over the gate and between the buildings, you will see a corner of the building on the right - the Bebenhauser Pfleghof - which "dangles" above the alley. This is Esslingen's oldest outhouse. But wait - where does go? Luckily this privy isn't used anymore, but as you're starting to figure out, the waste fell onto the alley which emerged into the road about where you're standing, and anything not solid ran down through the market square.

In the Middle Ages people emptied chamber pots out their windows, usually remembering to shout a warning first, animals large and small relieved themselves in the streets, the homeless found themselves a corner to use, and the truly privileged had such luxury as this elevated outhouse on the Bebenhauser Pfleghof. Winkelfegen was an occupation back then, which translates to "corner sweeping," but which really meant cleaning the streets of human and animal waste. The Winkelfeger had to work in shifts at night as well as during the day so that the townspeople would not be too tormented by the stench.

The people living and working in the Bebenhauser Pfleghof had quite finicky noses, and they complained to the city that their neighbor emptied his chamber pot too close to their building - so close, in fact, that some of the waste seeped into and caused damage to their cellar. As a result of the complaint the city passed a law stating that waste had to be disposed of at least "two shoes" distance away from the Pfleghof and had to be cleaned away at least every 14 days. In 1480, however, the use of such a privy as the one still evident on the Bebenhauser Pfleghof was also forbidden and would result in a fine. Although in the 14th century many of the streets in Esslingen had been paved, it was still very difficult to keep the streets clean. By the 17th century the streets were being cleaned of waste and garbage every week, but it doesn't take much effort to imagine how unpleasant a walk through the town on a hot summer day could be.

Today, however, Esslingen's Stadtmitte (city center) is clean and great for shopping, though there are no touristy shops there - the kind you find in Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Rüdesheim on the Rhein. The shops in  Esslingen sell things that real Germans buy. If you want to take something home to prove you were there, such as a mug, shirt, or umbrella, check out the Stadtinfo (Information Office) at Marktplatz 16. You can book a guided tour, take a canoe ride on the Neckar canals, explore the city on your own, visit a museum, talk to the locals, and if you enjoy photography, Esslingen will be a feast for your lens.

A note to Americans: If you are visiting in July or August when it can get very warm in the city, do not expect to find the icy relief of air conditioning in stores and restaurants. Air conditioning is a huge energy waster for people who accept that when it's hot, we'll be warm and might sweat, and Germans consider the abrupt change in temperature from the warm outside air to dry and chilled inside air exceedingly unhealthy. Most homes are not equipped with central air, nor are small inns. If you need air conditioning for sleeping, you'll want to book a room at a more expensive hotel. Some buses have a/c and some do not. If you're feeling oppressed by the heat, the best place to get some relief is in a big stone medieval church.

Stadtkirche St. Dionys, Esslingen

Fachwerkhäuser, Esslingen
(Half-timbered houses - back of old city hall on right)

Bast, Eva-Maria and Heike Thissen. Geheimnisse der Heimat: 50 spannende Geschichten aus Esslingen. Überlingen, Germany: Bücher am Münsterturm, 2013.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Annie, got your...?

I work with an organization that promotes international understanding through a summer exchange program for middle school students in Esslingen and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Six seventh grade students from each city are chosen from a list of applicants and matched according to interests and personality and are accompanied by an adult chaperone from their city. The American students first come to Esslingen for three weeks, and then the whole group flies to Wisconsin together to spend three weeks there. The leaders plan fun and interesting activities for the group and they also have plenty of free time to spend with their host families seeing what life in the other country is all about. These young people have the chance to learn about and experience the similarities and differences of our two cultures.

On both sides of the big pond the leaders have preparation meetings to inform the students and their parents about the things they should know about traveling internationally, hosting a foreign student, making a good impression as a foreign student, and what to expect in various situations like ordering in a restaurant, riding public transportation, going shopping, and attending school for a day or two. I truly enjoy these informational sessions and have had the opportunity to address American students about what to expect in Germany, and more recently to talk to the German students about what to expect in the U.S..

One topic which has thankfully not come up is of gun laws/use/prevalence in Wisconsin. This is a significant difference between everyday life in Germany and in the States.

Here in Germany citizens are not allowed to own guns unless they are hunters (which is a very expensive hobby here) or sport shooters belonging to a shooting club or team. Gun owners are required to pass a safety test, prove that they have an approved reason for owning a gun (and "protecting my family" doesn't work; that's why God gave us baseball bats and big knives), acquire a license and register the gun as well as store the weapon in a locked gun cabinet when it is not in use. Random checks are conducted, and the gun owner will lose his license and weapon as well as pay a stiff fine if the weapon is found in, say, the corner of his living room or under his bed. There are also specific laws about how the gun must be transported while en route to a competition or hunting ground.

That's what Germans are used to and what they understand. I have yet to meet a German who feels oppressed because he does not have ready access to weapons, though I know several who would own one if they could.

Is there crime here and gun violence? Yes, some. Have there been any school shootings in Germany? Yes. In the last 100 years there have been nine that I know of*, resulting in a total of 49 deaths not counting the gunmen. Just as a matter of comparison (and yes, I know the U.S. is 27.5 times as large as Germany), the Washington Post reported in February, 2014 that there were 44 school shootings in the U.S. in the first 14 months after the massacre in a Newtown, CT elementary school which led to the deaths of twenty 5- and 6-year-old children. I tried to look up the number of school shootings in the U.S. in the last 100 years, but there were too many to count. You can google the list - it has its own Wikipedia page ("List of School Shootings in the U.S."), which scrolls and scrolls and scrolls.

I'm glad parents haven't asked me much about the possible exposure to guns during their three weeks in the U.S., because I'm a terrible liar and don't make empty promises. I have never been personally shot at, but my children were in a neighbor friend's home while the father was downstairs cleaning his hunting rifle, which went off and shot a bullet into the basement ceiling. The children were upstairs. No one was injured, though the father did reportedly need to change his pants after he ran upstairs to see if he had killed either of his children or mine.

The only honest answer I could give parents is that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. But guns are a part of life in the Wild West United States, including Wisconsin.

"Will there be guns in their host families' homes?"
Quite possibly.

"Will the guns always be locked up?"
Perhaps, but it's not required. The 5-year-old who shot and killed his 2-year-old sister  in Kentucky in 2013 was playing with the rifle he received for his birthday, which the parents, who were busy doing something else, "thought was in a safe spot." That spot was in a corner of their living room. But, as they said, "It was  God's will," and they were comforted to know that their daughter went to a better place.

"Are they safe in school?"
Possibly. The politicians (especially those slobbering at the heels of the NRA) and principals will tell you they are. In the last hundred years there have been too many school shootings to count, but most Americans will tell you it's not a common occurrence. Oh, in Wisconsin no one is allowed to have a gun within 300 meters of a school, and although some politicians are trying to change this, teachers in Wisconsin are not yet armed while at school. Therefore at this point teachers are not able to get into the gunfight if a crazed shooter enters a Wisconsin school. But they are working on it to make our kids safer.

"Are they safer in a small town or subdivision than in a big city?"
Not necessarily. A German exchange student was shot dead in a quiet community of Missoula, Montana in April, 2014 when he entered an open garage late at night and the homeowner was lying in wait for an intruder. Granted, the boy shouldn't have entered the garage, but in the U.S. you have to understand that if you go somewhere you shouldn't, you can be shot by just about anybody. This particular homeowner is claiming the Castle Doctrine as his defense (of course he's pleading not guilty), which seems to mean that a person can blindly shoot multiple rounds into the dark without warning if someone falls into the trap he set (open garage door, wife's purse as bait).**

"What are the gun laws in Wisconsin?"
Oh, they are quite strict. For instance, although a license is not required to own or use a rifle, shotgun, or handgun, one does need a $31 permit to hide the weapon in his pocket, backpack, or satchel when he goes shopping. If he carries it openly and visibly, then he does not need a permit. He also needs to sit around and wait for 48 hours after he passes the background check** (which takes somewhere between 30 seconds and 6 minutes to pass) before he can take possession of the weapon. An aspirant gun-wielder who was born on or after January 1, 1973 needs to show proof that he completed a gun safety course, but as long as he (or she) is older than that, no safety course is required.

**Update: in June, 2015 Governor Walker signed a bill removing the 48-hour waiting period for buying a gun. 

Guns are available - also in pretty pink or blue colors to appeal to children - in almost any sporting goods store, but the scary-looking ones are kept behind a glass case or counter.
A convicted felon is not allowed to purchase, own, or use a gun in Wisconsin, and so far machine guns are not allowed at all. Although a person whose sanity is questionable may own and use a firearm, that right will be revoked if he or she commits a felony such as murder or is committed to a mental institution and ordered by the court not to possess a firearm.
One more strict law to mention: unlike in the state of Iowa, visually impaired (blind) people may not own and handle guns in Wisconsin - except for hunting.  Sorry, scratch that. People who are legally or completely blind may purchase and carry guns in public in Wisconsin. No "proof of sight" is needed as it is in some other states (it would be unfair and discriminatory to require a person who cannot see to produce something that a sighted person doesn't have to produce). But don't worry. Chris Danielson, Director of Public Relations for the National Federation of the Blind, said "Presumably they're going to have enough sense not to use a weapon in a situation where they would endanger other people, just like we would expect other people to have that common sense." So as long as everyone can be trusted to use their common sense, we shouldn't have any trouble.

Click here or here for links to comprehensive sites about gun laws in Wisconsin.

"Come on. Is it really that easy to get a gun?"
In June 2013 I went to a sporting goods store in Sheboygan to find out. I told the enthusiastic salesman that I have never touched a gun and know nothing about handling, cleaning, loading, or shooting a gun, but I was wondering if I could buy one anyway.

 "Sure! What kind of gun are you looking for?"
 "I don't know because I don't know anything about guns."
 "Why are you looking for one? Home protection?"
 "Sure, let's go with that. Do I need a permit?"
 "Nope! You just need to choose one, fill out this form, and after the background check comes back, you wait 48 hours
  and the gun is yours."**
 "Should I take a safety course or something like that?"
 "It's not a bad idea, but if you were born before 1973, you don't have to."

**Update: The waiting period in Wisconsin was repealed in 2015. Now there is no waiting period.

He started to show me a few options, starting with one that looked to me like a big, black monster of a thing that I would expect to see strapped to the back of a soldier in combat gear.

 "This one is pretty popular for home protection."
 "Nice. NO, thank you, I don't want to touch it."

I assure you, German readers, I am not making any of that up.

And yes, before I left the store, I found the display of pink and blue handguns intended for children. After all, if they start early with pretty weapons, they'll be more responsible when they're older. I've always wondered why Wisconsin kids have to wait until they are 16 to drive a car. Wisconsin kids can hunt at age 10 if they have an adult with them, so why not let them start learning to drive then, too, or at least steer if they're not tall enough to reach the pedals.

"Do you feel safe in Wisconsin?"
I suppose so, because I don't think about it much. I have never been threatened by a gun-wielder, and in my 44 years of living there I don't recall ever seeing a gun except in the holster of a police officer and the one a friend used to shoot at ducks that came into her yard (which I think was frowned upon if not illegal).  I do not, however, like so many of my Landsleute, subscribe to the notion that the more guns we have on the streets, in pockets and purses, in the hands of non-hunters, under our beds, in living room corners, garages, and classrooms, the safer we all are. I am happy to be living here in Germany.

Photo by Derek Skey
Now this chocolate egg with potential choking hazard surprise toy inside? This is not allowed to be sold in the United States because it could present a danger to children. Apparently the NCEA (National Chocolate Egg Association) doesn't have strong enough support, and sadly there is no constitutional amendment guaranteeing our God-given right to bear chocolate eggs. Damn.

*The result of one of the shootings not far from Esslingen in 2009 was that the father, who was a member of the local shooting club and legally owned 15 guns but kept the Beretta his son used in the school massacre under his bed, was indicted with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide because he had chosen not to store his 15th gun properly and according to law. He voluntarily gave up his gun license and the other 14 guns were confiscated. The father received a suspended sentence of 1 year and six months.

**After the lawyer got involved, the killer's story changed a bit. His garage door was not left open as a trap, but rather because he and his wife smoke and wanted the garage door open in the middle of the night for ventilation. And the purse wasn't put in the garage as bait, as the wife told police at first. It was placed in a part of the garage that was not visible from the street. Who consciously leaves her purse in an open garage at night??

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Day Trip 2: Esslingen (Part 1)

I'm pretty sure the most beautiful town in Germany is Esslingen. Yes, yes, that's just my opinion, but despite the many pretty towns, important cities, and charming places I've been to in Germany, there is no place that wows me quite like Esslingen. It has a rich history, breath-taking landmarks, ten sister cities around the world, a summer Zwiebelfest (onion festival) and an incomparable Christmas and Medieval market in December. While most Americans who travel through Germany go to the familiar tourist traps of Heidelberg and Rothenburg and then the big cities of München or Berlin (which are great places to visit as well), I will always recommend Esslingen when one of my Landsleute asks me where he or she should go. Esslingen has unbeatable charm, fabulous restaurants, fascinating buildings, and interesting and personable residents, but it is not a big city, nor is it chock-full of tourists. If you want to see an authentic and lovely German town, go to Esslingen.

There is hardly a corner in the Esslingen Altstadt (old part of town) that isn't worth photographing, and you won't have wasted your time if all you do is stroll around looking at the buildings, fountains, monuments, alleys, cobblestone pedestrian zones, canals, bridges, half-timbered houses, and even the cemeteries. As you do so, don't forget to look behind you and down side streets; often a beautiful building or alley looks even more stunning from the other direction. I lived in Esslingen for 5 1/2 months as an exchange student when I was 17 and have spent countless days and nights there in the 28 years since then, but still I cannot get enough of the allure of this town.

Esslingen's Altstadt seen from the Burg
Ort der Ruhe und des Friedens; Ebershaldenfriedhof
Photo by T. Diehl

In a previous post I mentioned the brilliant book series Geheimnisse der Heimat, by Eva-Maria Bast and Heike Thissen. One of their volumes is about Esslingen, in which they explore and describe 50 secrets found in and around Esslingen. Between this book and my mother-in-law, who is one of the city tour guides, I have learned a lot about my favorite city and discovered that there is much I still haven't seen! In this post I want to share a few of the tantalizing secrets of Esslingen.

Esslingen was first referred to in the last will & testament of Abbot Fulrad in the year 777 A.D., so it's basically 1000 years older than the U.S.. An impressive section of the medieval town wall (the Burg) is visible on a hill overlooking the city, and three of the original city gates still exist. The imposing Stadtkirche, with its asymmetrical twin steeples, is one of the oldest structures in Esslingen, the building of it having begun around 1210 - though the church we see today is the third church that was built on that site. The unforgettable Rathaus, depicted in the children's book written by the singer Madonna because her Russian illustrator had visited and adored Esslingen, is of course one of the most photographed buildings in the city.

Yakov and the Seven Thieves,
with the Esslingen Rathaus in the upper right corner

Hidden Painting

In the Protestant Frauenkirche, hidden behind a closed and latched flap which is part of the Chorgestühl (choir stalls), is a beautiful old painting which takes one back to the days before the Reformation. It depicts the deathbed scene of St. Alexius, which is shown by the paper the dying man holds in his hand with his name on it. Legend has it that Alexius, son of a wealthy Roman senator, fled on the eve of his wedding and lived for 17 years in Syrian Edessa as a beggar. He was eventually recognized and returned to his father's home. His father did not recognize him because of the condition of his clothing and his strange behavior, but he allowed him to live under the stairs where he survived on discarded kitchen scraps. He lived like this another 17 years, and only as he lay dying did he reveal a letter proving his identity. Kaiser Honorius (in some versions of the story it was the Pope) was the only person able to remove the letter from Alexius' hand. Alexius is the patron saint of pilgrims, beggars, and the ill.

The painting of St. Alexius on his deathbed is visible when the secret flap is open.

Why is the painting hidden? No one is certain, but the fact that it is hidden explains why it exists at all. In the Middle Ages, most common people could not read, and the Bible was not available in German anyway. The artwork in and around churches allowed people to understand the stories, messages, and warnings from the Bible as well as stories about the lives of the saints. During the Reformation, which swept into Esslingen in January 1532, most of these magnificent and informative ornaments - paintings, statues, frescoes, sculptures, carvings - were removed from churches, painted over, wiped away, or destroyed. The Reformers were of the mind that such finery and ornamentation distracted worshippers from the true Word, which was spoken by the pastors during their sermons. The Protestants turned churches into plain, dull, whitewashed lecture halls. Ambrosius Blarer, after whom the square Blarerplatz is named, was personally responsible for making sure not a single painting or sculpture remained in Esslingen.

In the Frauenkirche, however, this one fresco survived. What saved the painting is not known. Possibly Blarer and his crew didn't see it because it was hidden behind the choir stall and the trap door was and is not obviously visible. Less likely is that he tolerated it because it was completely covered by the choir stalls and the secret door was latched. In any case, if you know where to look, you can find this once secret painting which dates back to 1345.


At the intersection of the Innere Brücke, Ritterstraße, and Milchstraße stands a stone fountain whose carvings depict a legend that nearly every Esslinger knows. In 1491 a rich man from Esslingen was murdered near Stuttgart, but the murderer was never caught. Two years later a postman, Michel Banhard, discovered a ring at the location where the murder had taken place, though he was unaware of the crime. He put the ring on his finger with the intention of bringing it to the "lost and found" office in Esslingen. He made the unfortunate decision to stop in an inn first, the ring on his finger was recognized, and he was accused of murder and theft. Michel was thrown into jail and tortured, and as was and is so often the result of torture, he confessed to the crime to stop the pain although he was innocent. He was sentenced to death by beheading, but before the sword fell, Michel blew his horn one last time and declared to the onlookers that he would return every year until the real murderer was found. For the next 50 years, at the close of each Michaelistag (St. Michael's Day; 29. September) Michel did appear on horseback carrying his severed head under his arm, haunting and terrifying the people of Esslingen. Finally one dreary night the figure of Michel appeared to the nephew and heir of the murdered wealthy man, who buckled and finally confessed to murdering his uncle. The postman Michel finally had his peace and did not return.

Michel, carrying his head, approaches the murdered man's nephew and heir.
Apparently, however, there is not a grain of truth to this delicious legend. It was fabricated by a storyteller in the 1840s named Munder, in a time when people were rediscovering an appreciation for and interest in the Middle Ages. The Chief Prosecutor at the time, Robert von Hecker, was enthralled with the story and donated money posthumously to have a monument erected to the postman, not realizing the legend was a fake. The artist Emil Kiemlen chiseled the base of the stone fountain with scenes from the story and topped the fountain with the figure of the postman Michel on his horse blowing his horn (head still firmly attached). Had Hecker not commissioned this fountain, it is likely the story would have been forgotten. And even if the story was made up, every time it is told by an Esslinger, a tour guide, or a blogger, the message is heard that justice, even if delayed, will eventually be served.

Photo by T. Diehl

To be continued...

Update: August, 2014:
I have added this post to the Expats Blog Hop Travel Edition at Young Germany. You can view other entries here.

Bast, Eva-Maria and Heike Thissen. Geheimnisse der Heimat: 50 spannende Geschichten aus Esslingen. Überlingen, Germany: Bücher am Münsterturm, 2013.

Ottersbach, Chr. and C. Ziehr. Esslingen am Neckar: Kunsthistorischer Stadtführer. Esslingen, Germany: BechtleBuch +MagazinVerlag, 2001.

Photos by T. Diehl used with permission.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Baby Names: There's a LAW for that??

Even Germans grumble about the fact that there seems to be a law in Germany for everything. Their cars have to go to the TüV for a check-up every two years. They can't disturb the peace by mowing their lawns or tossing bottles in recycling containers on Sundays or holidays. From April through September, renters may only grill once a month on their balcony or terrace. They may not cut down their hedges or trees between March and October because of the disruption to birds' nesting habits. And there is an institution which checks and validates their selection of names for their babies.

The Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (GfdS), which translates to "German language Association," is responsible for ensuring that parents are using their heads when they name their children. A name that is chosen and submitted by parents for a birth certificate can actually be rejected, and thank goodness for the children's sake.

The American actress Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter Apple in 2004. I just read that several unfortunate children were named Hippo, Jedi, Burger, Mango, and Thunder in 2012. That would not fly here in Germany. Parents need to give their children names for humans, not fruits, trees, weather conditions, or wildlife.

The following conditions must be met before for the GfdS to approve a name selected for a baby:
  1. The well-being of the child is of utmost importance (Asswipe would not work, even if it's pronounced
  2. The gender of the child must be clear through the name (Chris doesn't work, because that could be Christine or Christopher).
  3. The name must come from a serious source (Superman doesn't work. Even though that's a recognized name, it's a name from a comic book, which is not a serious source.).
  4. The name must resemble a real name for a human (Apple doesn't work because it's a fruit).
Regarding the gender of the child, Apfel (Apple) actually should be allowed, since because of the crazy German gender-based nouns, Apfel is clearly masculine. But since Apfel/Apple would break all of the other regulations, it has no chance as a name here.

The most common names for 2013 did not change much from previous years. Variations of Sophie and Maria take up the first five slots for girls' names followed by Emma and Hannah/Hanna, and Maximilian is back at #1 for boys followed by Alexander, Paul, and Luca/Luka. Names from our grandparents' generation are making a comeback, and Islamic names are gaining as well.

The following names, however, were rejected:
  • Maybe
  • Danger
  • Superman
  • Störenfried (Troublemaker)
  • Motte (Moth)
I'm sorry, but...WTH???  What is wrong with those parents? Do they not think ahead?
"Come here, Maybe!"  "If you don't eat your peas, Maybe, you won't get dessert."  "I love you, Maybe."
Parent hollering for lost child at EuroDisney: "Danger?  Danger!? Where are you?!  DANGER!!!"
Policeman to witness: "Did you see who the driver was?"  "Yes, Officer. It was Superman." 
On the phone: "Hello, Herr Schmidt. This is Troublemaker. May I speak with your daughter?" 
"Hello, Mr. Future Employer. My name is Moth."

The institution is, however, not infallible. In 2013 one couple requested "Yoda" for their child, and it was accepted. Strangely, this is almost appropriate, since Yoda's word order is occasionally a bit like German:
Normal German: "Klug bist du nicht."                Yoda in English:  "Smart are you not."
But seriously, that poor kid better not turn out to be short or have big ears, or he's in for a childhood of horror.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Cars and their Germans

When I got into my husband's car the other day, it dawned on me that, although the car is three years old, it still has that "new car" smell. I got to thinking that I could probably write a blog post of titanic length about Germans and their cars. I am not the first; many articles and chapters of books about Germans and how they live have already been written about this devoted and dedicated relationship.

This is mainly a man thing. Most German women, like American women, view cars as a means to get to where we're going and back. But for many German men, their identities are intimately connected to - even wrapped up in - their cars. They take great pride in the car's appearance and cleanliness and will spend more time washing and polishing it than anything else they possess. Their office desks might resemble a disaster zone following a hurricane, but their cars will be spotless inside and out. You will rarely see a car on the road in Germany (especially in the Schwabenland) with a spot of rust on it, and you'll never see duct tape holding parts together. You won't even see many dents or scratches. A German will tell his son to "toughen up!" if he gets dented or scratched on the soccer field, but he'll call the car doctor for an appointment before leaving the scene of a fender-bender.

Here in the Schwabenland (Swabia), Saturday is car-washing day if the temperature is above freezing. The car doesn't need to be washed every Saturday, but when it needs doing, it's done on Saturday, preferably in the morning while his wife does the Kehrwoche. He washes the outside, vacuums the inside, cleans the windows inside and out, washes the wheels and tires, and then polishes the body. Although automatic car washes are becoming more common, the proper Swabian washes his car himself in his driveway. Lovingly. Martin says that the true frugal Swabian washes his car with a cotton swab, and when he's finished the second tip can still be used to clean out an ear.

It has been (jokingly?) said that German men love their cars more than they love their women. While that's not the case in our family, I can understand it objectively - the car doesn't give the man lip or complain about how long it's been since he last spent quality time with it, it doesn't nag or tell him what to do, it doesn't gossip or tell him about problems it doesn't want fixed, it's ready to go as soon as he is, it doesn't make him wait for hours while it browses through racks and racks of new, stylish tires, and it doesn't blame him for things that aren't his fault.

Photo by M.H.
Nothing for ungood, but the long-standing stereotypes associated with German drivers of certain cars may be informative and fun.*  Apparently...
  • Audi drivers are impatient, aggressive, tail-gating social-climbers.
  • Porsche drivers are incessant, reckless speeding egomaniacs.
  • Drivers of classic Mercedes cars always assume they have the right-of-way and are usually over 50. 
  • VW drivers are moms and dads (or grandpas, if the car is silver).
  • BMW drivers are manly, athletic, arrogant, and lack the sex appeal of Porsche drivers.
  • Opel drivers are working class wage-earners.
These are just stereotypes, of course, which are often enthusiastically discussed and debated at man-gatherings.

So why does our car still smell new? Not only does Martin wash, clean, and polish it when necessary, but we do not drink anything except water while in the car, so there's no chance of spilling any beverages. We do not eat in the car, so it will never take on that stale, greasy odor from a forgotten French fry that fell between the seats. No one smokes in the car, we don't get into the car with muddy boots, I don't apply perfume while in the car, and we don't have smelly, hairy pets or small children. Therefore we don't need to use an air freshener to cover the smell of old coffee, hamburgers, tobacco, mud, poo, or wet dog. Our car is a car, and not a bathroom, make-up parlor, restaurant, smoking lounge, or kennel - all the things my first car after college in America was.

What does this mean for American visitors? I often told my students before their homestays:
  1. Do not lean on any cars!
  2. Do not let anything bump the car when getting in or out.
  3. Do NOT eat or drink anything in someone's car - don't even ask permission to do so.
  4. Do not finger-draw on the windows if they fog up.
  5. Close the doors and trunk - do not slam them.
  6. If the driver offers to put your heavy suitcase in the trunk, let him. It's not that he's being gentlemanly - he does not trust you to do it without banging the suitcase against the car.
If drinking coffee or a Coke is not done in cars, you might wonder why cars here have cup holders. The Germans don't know either. They're usually used for storing the driver's wallet or sunglasses.

The photo above is Martin's previous car. I would have taken a current photo, but our car is at the TüV today getting its biennial safety and emissions check-up...

*Do remember - all generalizations are false, including this one.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Vatertag / Father's Day

Mother's Day in Germany is celebrated very much like it is in the U.S.. It's on the same Sunday as in the States as well. Children buy cards and flowers or a gift for their mother, but here they have to remember do do that at least one day in advance, because of course all the stores are closed on Sundays.  Perhaps the family goes out for a nice meal, and the mother is pampered appropriately.  Father's Day is quite another story...

In Germany Father's Day is always on Ascension Day, which falls on a Thursday forty days after Easter. Ascension Day is a federal holiday in Germany and many other European countries, so Dad automatically has the day off and a short work week. Many dads take Friday off as well, for reasons you'll understand shortly, giving them a three-day work week.  Mothers get their day on a day already set aside for family and rest. Hm.

Vatertag is also called Männertag or Herrentag (Men's or Gentlemen's Day), depending on the region, and therefore it's really a day for all men to celebrate - not just fathers. Hm.

Vatertag in Germany is about hiking, hanging out with your buddies, and drinking a significant quantity of beer. Women are not generally welcomed. Hm.

Disclaimer: Although the following customs and traditions involving Vatertag are common throughout Germany, I don't know anyone personally who has celebrated in this way.

Ingredients needed for a proper celebration of Vatertag/Männertag/Herrentag:

  1. a wagon (you may borrow your child's Bollerwagen)
  2. several crates (or a barrel) of beer
  3. some non-alcoholic beverages (not required, but a good idea)
  4. charcoal & matches
  5. some meat to grill (keep it simple)
  6. bread - baguettes work nicely
  7. a couple of Kumpel (buddies)
  8. an absence of women

You and your Kumpel agree where to meet, and it would be best for that to be at someone's house where everyone who doesn't live within walking distance can crash until the next day. Load up the Bollerwagen with your beer, non-alcoholic beverages, and grilling supplies, and hit the road (on foot). You and your Kumpel parade through town, singing, drinking, and fooling around, and head toward a picnic grill area, where you will likely meet other groups of buddies with the same plans.

Fire up your grill, cook your meat, and eat it with plenty of bread to help soak up what you've already drunk and will consume during the next while. Listen to some music (hopefully one of your Kumpel brought along whatever it is that people use to play music in a park these days), tell some raunchy jokes, fart and belch at will, pretend that it's you - and not the woman you live with - who is in charge of your life, and enjoy the comaraderie until the first of you gets a phone call from home saying time's up.

Unfortunately the incidents of drunk driving in Germany rise on this day to three times the usual, perhaps in part because the police are on high alert, so it's probably a good idea for everyone else to stay off the roads this day if possible. Boys will be boys, as they say in the U.S., and most men deserve one day a year to let loose. Those who let a little too loose are the ones who take Friday off as well - to recuperate amid the scorn of their womenfolk.

Personally, I prefer the way Americans have celebrated Father's Day since 1924: children give their fathers cards, a tie, socks, or coupons for "help" with yardwork, the family goes out for a nice big brunch or Dad grills big steaks on his Weber grill, and if he's lucky he gets to enjoy a few cans of beer while watching a baseball game (the only sport that gets any attention in June).

And in the United States, the land of equality and all that, both Mother's Day and Father's Day are on Sundays - a day already set aside for shopping, yardwork, washing the car, cleaning out the garage, sanding the deck rest.