Christmas, englishman abroad

The Christmas (booze) Market

The Christmas market is in town. If you don’t know what a German Christmas market is like, imagine a winter-themed funfair with lots of food and booze. The one in Oldenburg has a Ferris wheel, a shy (throw-a-ball-and-win-a-prize game), carousel, and other assorted games including a stage where Santa reads Christmas stories. It has a stall where you can buy sides of flame-cooked salmon in bread rolls, it has the requisite German sausages and Reibekuchen (potato cakes /latkes).

But the booze is the most interesting. There are myriad places where you can buy Glühwein, Eierlikör and Feuerzangbowle.

Glühwein

                Glühwein is the German take on mulled wine. Usually it’s red wine, but sometimes white is used, and it’s always really hot. Anyway, it keeps the cold out and you always get some money back when you return the glasses (there’s a deposit on them).

Glühwein mit Schuss

                Glühwein with a dash of something else in it. Typically a shot of rum. My father in law bought me one and I liked it so much I‘ve decided to have everything mit Schuss from now on. Coffee mit Schuss. Cola mit Schuss. Cornflakes mit Schuss. The Schuss really takes it up a notch.

Feuerzangbowle

Its Glühwein again, but this time its definitely only the red variety. If you thought the Schuss was taking it up a notch, stand by. They take a gigantic sugarloaf (it’s what they had before granulated sugar, I suppose) and soak the thing in rum. I mean they drench it. Then they set it on fire, and as the burning, molten, boozy mess drips into the bowl of Glühwein beneath they serve it to you. A huge plus with the stall that specialises in this drink is that it gives you free Spekulatius.

Eierlikör

If this is made properly it tastes like boozy custard. I honestly don’t know exactly what is in it but I would hazard: egg, advocaat, some other spirit and custard powder. I know that can’t be right, but the truth would probably be even worse. Google it at your peril. All I know for certain is that it definitely has egg in it, as one year I had some and also got a whole raw yolk in my mouth. Haven’t been too keen on it since.

 

englishman abroad, the German way

Things I never expected from Germany

At first glance, globalization has made many European cities indistinguishable from each other: the same McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Aldis pop up on many European high streets. True, the signs in Germany are populated with unfeasibly long and complicated-looking words, but they still tend to point to the same sort of infrastructure: multi-storey car parks are full of the same brands found elsewhere, office buildings are filled with the same harried-looking people using the same computers, cinemas are showing the same blockbuster movies as the rest of the world.

But there are differences here in Germany, differences that go beyond the cars driving on the other side, the PC keyboards looking different and the movies being dubbed. There are some real, every day, walking-down-the-street differences, for example:

  1. Brothels seem to be everywhere. In the UK, they’re hidden away down a back street, pretending to be a ‘massage parlour’, clinging to a thin veneer of deniability. Here in Germany they’re right on the high street and labelled as such. They’re legitimate, legal, local businesses: they pay taxes. They advertise through employment agencies and in women’s magazines. They’re commonplace. Perhaps it makes sense for Germans to have such things out in the open because…
  2. Germans are very direct people. I come from a country in which bad news is sugar-coated and understated. Did you just ruin that important presentation in front of all the important bigwigs at work? “That wasn’t your best work,” is what you might hear. Have you fallen behind on the rent? Are you about to be evicted? “I have a slight housing problem,” is what you might say. Here in Germany? No. What you see is what you get! “Your presentation was shit” (it’s not such a bad word here), “I’m broke”. In Germany, just about everyone is Simon Cowell. Perhaps all this straightforwardness is really for the best, because…
  3. Local businesses thrive here. Britain has a problem: small businesses are disappearing from the high street. Why go to the local grocer, the local hardware store and the local butcher when you can get everything at once in the local supermarket for less? Here in Germany the supermarkets aren’t the huge, sprawling superstores they often are in the UK. Aldi, Netto, and the like focus on their core business: selling food. They seldom sell anything else and if they do, it’s a special promotion that lasts about a week. Gardening supplies are bought at the local garden centre, hardware at the local hardware store, computers at the computer shop. True, I don’t think it will last: the big chains are creeping in, but the lack of diversification in German shops is a welcome sight to me. The shop assistants know what they’re talking about. They’re competent. They’re specialised. They’re straightforward. I’ve never had that from TESCO.
  4. The rules are the rules. The stereotypical German loves rules. So does the typical German. I caught a lift with a colleague the other day when a policeman flashed him with a portable speed trap. His response? “Ah yes, that’s how it happens. You’re chatting away and you don’t pay attention, then you speed”. That was it! No effing and blinding! No winding the window down and telling the policeman to catch some REAL criminals!

I once saw a similar situation with a traffic warden: I was walking down a back street and saw the traffic warden slapping stickers on cars. Behind him, a middle-aged woman was sprinting up the road in his direction.

“Wait! WAIT!” she practically screamed, red with consternation.

The warden turned and waited, nervously fingering his radio.

She closed the distance quickly and, bent double, panted:

“You idiot! You missed one!”

To my mounting surprise she led him back down the road and to the offending car, it had overstayed its ticket by three minutes. The warden thanked the woman. I’d never seen anyone help a traffic warden before.

Only in Germany!

englishman abroad, stories, Teaching English

Who bothers to learn English? Interesting people, that’s who.

I’m an English trainer in Germany, NOT an English teacher. Teachers work in schools where learning is mandatory, whereas I teach English to those who learn voluntarily. Not everyone who chooses to learn English is ‘normal’ so here’s a sample of my more memorable students.

1.       The Eccentric

The Eccentric had worked as a civil servant for many years, had an industrial accident and left with a nice, big payoff. He also had some not-so-nice constant pain. With his payoff, he’d impulsively decided to get some extra education at a university. For his course he needed English, and so began a last-minute, month-long intensive course to transform a very eccentric guy with attention deficit issues into an English-speaking savant who would pass his English exam with flying colours. Every hour, on the hour, The Eccentric would take a ten-minute break. He’d zoom out the door, chain-smoke four cigarettes in record time, down an energy drink and make himself a latte macchiato which he would nurse, scowling, for the next 50 minutes. Every two days he needed a heavy metal break, and we’d load up whatever he fancied and blast it at high volume, before discussing the relative merits of e.g. Deftones in comparison to Korn. Every day I would teach him the same lesson because he’d forgotten 90% of what we did the day before. Every five days, like clockwork, he would be blessed with total recall of everything and we’d move on to the next lesson. Eventually, we completed the course and he went off to study something unusual.

He was just one of those special people, I suppose.

2.       The Rule Breaker

The Rule Breaker was an interesting man, he was a senior partner in a business and was about to leave and start his own. He was a wealthy and successful workaholic who ostensibly needed English for an upcoming business deal. But halfway through every lesson he would discuss other things: his ongoing marital problems, how he was going to stitch-up his old business partner, how he had turned an office building into a home to circumvent zoning laws and how he periodically had to pretend that his apartment was an office block to keep up the illusion. It seemed that although he was paying for English lessons, what he really wanted was a confessor. Several others have come to me seeking confession, or therapy, under the guise of a ‘conversation course’.

My philosophy at such moments is: “If it’s in English, it’s an English lesson”.

3.       The Social Media Guru

The Social Media Guru is a very likeable woman who does the social media for a medium-sized German company with many English-speaking customers. We spent Friday mornings brainstorming what posts might work on the company Facebook page, how we could broaden her customer base, what seasonal or topical themes could be worked into Facebook or Twitter… April Fool’s posts, Christmas Carols, you name it, we did it. She’s taking a hiatus right now but I still get the occasional email asking for ideas or translations.

I’m always happy to help.

4.       Mr Robot

Mr Robot works in programming and looks a lot like Rami Malek, hence the nickname I’ve given him. Mr Robot was going through a period of great change in his life: divorced, going nowhere in his IT job, living next door to the neighbour from hell… let’s just say that Mr Robot needed some encouragement. Mr Robot came to me with practically no English skills at all but left at level B1, an impressive new freelancing job, a new house and even a new name.

I still see Mr Robot around sometimes, he’s a new man.

5.       The Academics

The Academics are professors and doctors from a university, they have papers to write, conferences to attend, research to perform, studies to conduct. They are important people in a behind-the-scenes kind of way, and their work will probably go on to shape German social policy in years to come, indirectly, of course. I’ve been privileged to see a little of their research and translate parts of it before it’s gone to press.

Far from being stuck up and awkward, they have a healthy sense of humour and self-deprecation to keep them sane.

6.       The Biker

The Biker is a wonderfully accepting, friendly, down-to-earth man with kind eyes and a charming manner. He is a respected boss, a competent manager, a great motivator a doting father and loyal husband. He is also in a world-famous biker gang and likes to tell stories about the wild parties he’s been to, the people he’s associated with, the scrapes he’s got into with the police, his membership of certain other dangerous clubs and political movements, the hardware that his bike gang entrusts him with and what happens to people who cross the gang.

The truly scary thing about The Biker is not that he’s a dangerous man who has done bad things, but that you’d never realise it when he’s a mere pedestrian.

Who ever said that teaching English was boring?

englishman abroad

If Germany was like Britain…

My daughter is finally a British citizen. After quite a bit of faffing around, her shiny new passport has arrived and I’m somewhat relieved from a measure of Brexit-induced stress. Whatever happens, she’ll always have the option of living in a different country. I started to wonder, what if Britain and Germany weren’t so different?

If Germany was like Britain…

  1. There would be Church of Germany with schools for children to attend.
  2. The Kaiser would give speeches every Christmas, people would watch.
  3. Plenty of young boys would flock to join the German Boy Scouts, no one would think it was ‘a bit too Nazi’.
  4. There would be a lot more German flags flying everywhere and German nationalism would be celebrated.
  5. Bavarian nationalism would thrive similarly to Scottish nationalism; Lederhosen-clad, Zither-playing, blue and white flag-wavers would campaign for an independent Bavaria.
  6. Germans would insist everyone spoke German and refuse to learn any other language.
  7. People would be a lot politer and a lot less productive.
  8. The wine and beer would be a lot worse and the cider much better.
  9. Many Bundesländer would print road signs in their own languages (just like Wales).
  10. Fish and Chips would be wildly popular but there would still be far less water to fish in.
  11. There might be a TV show called ‘Nur Narren und Pferde’ and it would have a cult following.
  12. A charismatic German spy would feature in many popular films and be renowned for his wit and seduction. His name might be Jacob Bund.
  13. Germany would regard Europe sceptically, and leave the EU.

It’s unthinkable, isn’t it?

 

englishman abroad, german language

Motörhead syndrome: 3 things I didn’t learn from the ‘Learn German in 3 Months’ book

Before I came to Germany I was living in Greater London and commuting into Vauxhall or Waterloo every day to do my small part for the endlessly depressing, harried, grey rat race that working in London so often is. Eventually, I decided to make better use of my time on these cramped, overpriced and poorly maintained trains in which commuters were packed like sardines.

I bought myself a ‘Learn German in 3 Months’ book and decided to study it whilst I was stuck in commuting purgatory. I must say, I was actually quite impressed with it. Not only because the Germans within it were presented as gleefully and stereotypically unhelpful, but also because this introductory course to the German language was quite simple to grasp.

However, a ‘learn in 3 months’ course is no substitute for immersion in the language, and I made some howling mistakes once I arrived in Germany. For your enjoyment, I present some of them:

  1. Accidental Cannibalism

On one of the very first times I came to visit Germany, we went out for dinner with some friends at a nice little bar and restaurant place. The waitress came to take our orders and I, in my very proudest I-learned-this-from-a-book German, said:

 “Ich hätte gerne ein Bürger,” which surely means “I’d like a burger”, right?

No. It meant “I’d like a citizen”. Everyone laughed at the stupid, rapidly reddening Englishman who had fallen prey to what I like to call ‘Motörhead syndrome’. Motörhead syndrome is when you think that a German word has to have an umlaut, simply by dint of being German. The German word for burger is “Burger” by the way, no umlauts.

  1. Accidental Homophobia

I grew up in Britain, so there’s a certain amount of rain and misery that I expect wherever I go. Imagine my surprise when I got to Germany and found out how hot and sticky it can get during summer. My inner thermostat is set for cool temperatures and when the mercury rises above twenty Celsius I start to suffer, especially in business attire. A source of great amusement to my colleagues, I am sure, was my long-running excuse that the weather outside was too humid and hot for me.

“Es ist zu heiß draußen” I would say, “ und viel zu schwul”.

Unfortunately, this means “it’s too hot and far too gay”.

I had fallen prey to that most insidious of traps, which I like to call ‘reverse-Motörhead syndrome’. Reverse-Motörhead syndrome is when you think that a German word doesn’t need an umlaut, because of Motörhead syndrome. It’s also called ‘overthinking’. So ‘schwul’ means gay and ‘schwül’ means humid. It’s all very confusing because the word ‘schwül’ sounds very camp (even though it isn’t).

  1. No, no, it’s fine. Where’s the crapper?

Sometimes you just have no idea where you went wrong until much later. This is one such event. Whilst queueing at the supermarket like a true Englishman, the lady waiting in front of me noticed that I had far fewer articles to buy than she did.

“Please,” she said “you can go in front”.

“No, no,” I replied “it’s fine. It’s raining outside. I will wait here anyway”.

“are you sure?” she said

“yes,” I smiled, “I must”

(“Ja, Ich muss”)

She stared at me. “… you mean wait, right?”

“Yes….?”

Almost everyone in the queue was looking at me like I was an utter simpleton or worse, and a few sported a sardonic smile. I had no idea why.

It wasn’t until about a week later that I overheard a little boy informing his parents that he needed the toilet urgently, that I realised my mistake. “Ich muss” literally means “I must” but without anything else on the end it defaults to “I must go to the toilet”.

Which means I had contradicted myself days previously in the queue:

“No, you go ahead. I’ll wait. I’ve got all the time in the world. I need the toilet” I said, smiling.

Bear in mind that I was waiting in line to buy a pre-packaged sandwich, that’s Grade-A lunatic material.

The moral of these stories is this: learning from a book is a great first step, but it’s no substitute for experience. How do you get experience? By making mistakes.