Wednesday, March 20, 2019


I am so damn sick of superficiality. Smartphones and Facebook & Co. have turned us into people who don’t have time for real communication with each other because we’re too busy playing games and scrolling through our feeds to see if we missed some meaningless thing that we can “like” or “LOL” about. And talking with each other about something deep and meaningful? Well, forget that. Small talk. That’s safe and noncommittal. We don’t have to think if we stick to small talk. “Hihowareyou?” Even German teens I spoke to recently knew before I “warned” them that this isn’t actually a question and that there’s only one correct answer to it in the U.S.: “Fine, thanks, how are you?” Don’t bother with anything else.

In November 2014 a former German student of mine in Wisconsin – a really nice and funny kid in my class and on my first trip with students to Germany in 2000, whom I remember well – brutally attacked, tortured, and repeatedly stabbed a couple in Virginia and is now serving two life sentences + 98 years. When the cops found him he was wearing only an adult diaper and muttering in German. German he learned from me, presumably.

Last November a friend of mine here in our area allegedly murdered a close friend of his – a wealthy German man who was very involved with helping local refugees. M.O. is/was as friendly as an American – had a huge smile whenever he saw me or anyone else, and had asked me to tutor him in English because he wanted to go to the US someday. We never got around to that and weren’t closer friends only due to lack of more effort on my part. I wrote a blog post about him after he’d submitted a letter to the local newspaper about how grateful the Syrians were for Germany’s welcome and help. I introduced my dad to him. We took photos.

I heard about the crime when it was reported and a few days later learned from a mutual friend who the alleged killer was. I did not believe it. I know him. I also did not believe it a few weeks later as more details emerged. It just didn’t compute. It still doesn’t. He has been sitting in U-Haft since November, accused of the crime. After months of investigation he and an accomplice were officially charged recently and there will be a trial. I still remember and think of him as he was when I last saw him – same with my former student.

What’s my point? I don’t know. Things happen. People snap and do horrible things. How do you know your good friend (or, as in the case of my former student, the spouse of an employee you fired) isn’t going to turn on you? How do you know anyone? You don't. I can count on one hand minus a few fingers the number of people who really know me and want to. That's ok. Maybe it's best that way.

But yeah… I am done with superficial conversations and small talk. I’m done with “Hihowareyou?”

What are you struggling with? What are you passionate about? What makes you tick? How can we make our relationship/friendship better? What do you need from me? What can I learn from you? Let’s talk about politics, gun laws, climate change, and religion. Let’s challenge each other! Let’s talk about why I annoy you. 

Ha, never mind that last one. It’s probably because I can't stand small talk and superficiality.

By the way, it's probably best if you don't ask me how I am for a while. I am not "fine".

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Question for US-Americans

I have a question connected to U.S. immigration, visas, etc. I’m asking this publicly because I’m really hoping for some answers. 

What is America so afraid of? 

I mean the government (and I don’t mean just the current administration) and many of the people (“I need a gun for protection” & “immigrants are going to steal our jobs”). Immigration officers are required to assume applicants are trying to sneak in and stay illegally to screw the U.S., and the legal immigration process can take years. Visitors to the US are treated as criminals at immigration, finger-printed, interrogated (even shouted at), and I can only imagine what it’s like for a person/family who isn’t white or wears a head scarf to go through that process.

Is it just the fear of terrorism, or is there something more? I was in WI on 9/11, and I was at the Shanksville Memorial a week ago. The horror of that day and the following weeks was hard to live through and it’s still hard to fathom now. 

Terrorism – foreign and domestic – happens all over the world, and it’s awful every time. But when I have flown as a foreigner to Scotland (Lockerbie), England (Westminster 2017), Germany (Berlin 2016), and Vienna (1985) I have not met with this suspicion and fear. There are armed military guards all around in all airports I’ve seen; they’re watching over us and we’re used to that. M and I had to go through a maze of regulations and piles of paperwork in order to get married in Scotland, having to prove that we would not stay and be a burden on their social system. But upon arrival we were welcomed, not greeted with paranoia, suspicion and fear.

Tower of Voices monument
Shanksville, PA USA

A friend of mine was recently denied a visa to spend 3 months on a study abroad program in the U.S. – because he is from Syria. Had he been from Saudi Arabia, like the 9/11 terrorist pilots, he might have been granted a visa for his study program. Saudi Arabia isn’t on the travel ban (EO 13769).

The sweet Schwiegertochter (daughter-in-law) of a friend of mine is facing trouble with immigration because of this general fear and suspicion. She just wants to stay, work, and live in the U.S., and contribute to her household, pay taxes, and be able to visit her family overseas. But she’s stuck in limbo while immigration officials try to figure out how evil she really is, what she’s lying about, and how she is trying to screw the U.S.. I know they can’t just look at a person and say, “Well, she looks nice & friendly, I’m sure this one is ok.” There is paperwork, there are interviews, there are documents to produce. Of course each country needs a vetting process.

I had to do all of that, too, when I immigrated to Germany. But not once was I met with a sense of suspicion or fear. I went to the necessary offices, found out what I needed to produce, brought in the mounds of paperwork, had my photo and fingerprints taken, and received my residency permit a few weeks later. Three years after that I went to the local foreigner’s office again, applied for and received my permanent residency permit. Again, no suspicion, no paranoia, no fear. Just a speck of time and some more paperwork.

Tourists entering Europe do not get finger-printed and photographed. When I enter the U.S., even I as a citizen get my mug shot taken in connection to my customs form, though I’m spared the finger-printing. When I entered the U.S. (as a U.S. citizen!!) two weeks ago, I was questioned about why I was gone ("I live in Germany"), why I live in Germany ("because I love it there"), how long I will be staying ("1 week"), where I will be staying ("Pennsylvania") and why I was visiting ("to see my kids"). When I return to Germany, they ask me nothing. When I was living in the U.S. and visiting Germany, they also rarely asked me any questions. 

America, I'm just not feelin' the love.

So that's my question: What is America so terribly afraid of, that visitors and immigrants are treated with such suspicion when they approach the U.S. whether for tourist travel, business trips, visiting family, or with the intent to immigrate, when other countries (though surely not all) manage to welcome people?

Gone are these days, I guess. (Shameless plug for a song and group I really like.)

P.S. Apparently Blogger often has issues with comments. Feel free to email me instead (click on the postcard image in the upper left on a laptop screen; don't know how it works if you're using a tablet or smartphone) and let me know whether I can publish your response! 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Manners and Etiquette: Knigge Part 1

In German, Knigge represents proper social behavior one should practice in pleasant company. The term comes from the man who first published in Germany a manual for etiquette in 1788: Adolf Freiherr von Knigge. His work was called Über den Umgang mit Menschen (On Interaction with People). I found this topic interesting enough to buy this book a few months ago, being mainly curious how German Knigge would compare to the way I was brought up.

In this weekend's newspaper were two articles about Knigge, including an interview with Clemens Graf von Hoyos, chairperson of the 300-member Deutsche-Knigge-Gesellschaft (German-Etiquette-Society). Thanks to their society German Knigge also provides guidelines for things Freiherr Knigge could not have imagined in 1788 such as online and Smartphone Knigge, escalator use, and travel/airplane etiquette.

Ok, despite Elke Stadler, Knigge-Trainerin, ending her article by saying that we common folk should not go about instructing others (especially publicly) on which rules they are breaking and how they should behave, I thought I'd share with my fair readers what I've learned!

Keep in mind that etiquette rules are different from country to country, and at home we may all do as we damn well please. But to avoid the problems Julia Roberts faced in "Pretty Woman" when out in higher society than we're used to, Knigge tips and guidelines can be helpful.

Things to Avoid (??)

"Guten Appetit"

Wait, what?!? It is ingrained in every German's psyche not to dig into a plate of food without waiting for someone - parents, waitress, table companion - to say "Guten Appetit"! They and I will go on wishing a "Guten Appetit" no matter what Frau Stadler says. The reasoning behind why this is sketchy is what caught my attention. In earlier times it was a serious faux pas to say this to nobles because it called the quality of the food and kitchen staff into question! There was no need to wish wealthy people a "good appetite" because that came from the delicious and aromatic victuals all by itself. 

Commoners, however, were forced to eat whatever they could find or buy with their meager funds, and their food was often near-to rotting scraps and leftovers. The phrase "Guten Appetit" amounted to: "I hope your appetite is strong enough to force that food down." Now, even in that context "Guten Appetit" fits well as a Swabian compliment, so in our house we will continue to use it.


This is a common phrase coworkers or bosses say as they leave the office or meeting for their lunch break. There is no equivalent in English, although it translates to "meal time." The closest in English would be "Time to eat!"

So what's wrong with this one? This time the explanation is very modern, although the origin of the phrase comes from monasteries and convents. Monks and nuns usually kept a very tight routine and were directed about by church bells and chimes because of course they didn't have watches or Smartphones to tell them what time it was. "Mahlzeit" was a reminder that it was now time to eat pray and then eat. Obviously nowadays as we are surrounded by clocks, computers, Smartwatches, mobile phones, etc., we do not need to go about telling other people what time it is or announcing our intentions to go check out what's in the Kantine.

Many people these days are trying to pay better attention to their health, fitness, and eating habits. Quite a few of your coworkers may choose to use their lunch noon break to go for a walk, meditate, work out, or take a power-nap, and therefore reminding them of a meal is rather out of place for the same reason you wouldn't tell someone "Enjoy the donuts I brought!" when you know he is on a diet or fasting for any reason.

We should probably stop posting food pictures, too.

Our Knigge-Trainerin recommends saying "Guten Mittag" or "Angenehme Mittagspause" instead, wishing your colleague a "good noon" or "pleasant noon break".

Anstoßen mit Gläsern

This is clinking glasses with each other before taking your first sip of wine, beer, etc. We're back to the Middle Ages for this one.

We're doing this wrong anyway -
we're supposed to look at each other, not the camera.
And M was trying not to spill and waste the beer.
When enemy knights found themselves face-to-face unexpectedly, there were often subtle exchanges that amounted to threats - an indication one wanted to fight or even kill the other. When they banged their mugs together, the intent was that some of the brew would slosh over into the adversary's mug. When both drank - holding eye contact, of course! - it was an assurance that neither beverage was poisoned.

These days our glasses are more delicate than back then, and there is a good chance a too-enthusiastic bump will cause damage. Since we generally no longer need to prove to others that we haven't poisoned their drinks, it is better nowadays for the group to lift their glasses, make direct eye contact with everyone round the table, and say a collective "Zum Wohl!"


Oh, come on! I was taught saying this to a poor sap who sneezed is politeness!! I actually first heard about a movement to get people to stop saying this while still in the US. There the idea was that we should not draw attention to someone else's bodily functions. We don't say anything when the bloke next to us coughs or farts, after all...

The Knigge-Trainerin says allergy-sufferers will sing this one from rooftops! The idea is to not publicly point out someone else's weakness. By saying "Gesundheit!" every time someone sneezes, we are bringing unnecessary attention to an uncontrollable reflex, which the poor chap is all too aware of. During allergy season or when someone is sick (in which case she should rather keep her germs at home), it is a nuisance to have someone respond every time the sufferer sneezes!

Just for fun, I'm going to list a few no-noes at the table from the Knigge book pictured above which I had not ever really thought about but now know go against German Knigge, at least when adults do them. I would venture to guess many/most of my Landsleute don't give a thought to any of the following either, except those in high society.

One should not...
  • take a drink before the host/ess has given a toast.
  • cut spaghetti noodles with a knife.
  • cut meat (such as meat loaf) with a fork.
  • salt or pepper the food before tasting it.
  • park your cutlery resting on your plate with the handle on the table.
  • hold your wine glass above the stem.
  • blow on the food to cool it.

I'm jetting off to visit my kids this week (with apologies to Greta and Co.), and when I return I'll surely have Part 2 of this post ready - concerning travel Knigge. Assuming I don't end up in the slammer for drubbing the twits sitting near me, of course.