Monthly Archives: February 2008

Plumbing the depths in Germany

My German collegue Birgit and I have argued over many things over the years. Birgit – for those who haven’t read Planet Germany – is the one who thinks that all things English are inferior and the British are dysfunctional and poorly nourished. And she should know – she’s married to an Englishman.

Things we have argued about include:

  • the best way to seal an envelope
  • the correct way round to hang a toilet roll
  • the best corner on which to staple two pages together ( apparently I do it on the right just to annoy her)

But the greatest bone of contention between us has to revolve around the differences in English and German plumbing.

It all started this morning when I was complaining about a particularly unsatisfactory shower I’d just taken.

“The problem is with the stupid German boiler,” I explain. “In the winter it’s also trying to run the central heating, so whenever it has to send some warm water into the radiators, it diverts it from my shower and I get two minutes of freezing water.”

I can see Birgit bristle at the inference that a German boiler could be inferior to a British one.

“English showers are the worst in the world,” states Birgit with that tone of voice that turns lesser mortals into granite. “To start with you use immersion heaters which need to be on for hours before you get half a bucket of lukewarm water. And there is no such thing as water pressure in Britain. You have these ridiculous little tanks in the loft, full of rats’ droppings and pigeon shit. All that comes out in the bathroom is a trickle, which is alternately hot or cold. And usually it gives out altogether the minute you’ve put shampoo or hair dye on your head.”

I jolt upwards with a horrible thought. Could it be that Birgit in fact studied at the same college as I did and endured the indignity of the shower in my old student digs? Surely not! But how else can she know about that shower? And, worryingly, what else might she know about from my student days?

But she’s already warming to her subject before I can check her sources.
“The English are the only nation who actually refer to a normally functioning shower as a power shower. That says it all, doesn’t it? You don’t have proper plumbing. And you can’t be trusted to use other utilities either. English bathrooms don’t even have light switches. You have silly little bits of string hanging from the ceiling with a plastic bobble. Because if you had a light switch you’d electrocute yourselves.”

Now it’s my turn to bristle. National honour is at stake here.

“German bathrooms are the worst by a long chalk,” I counter. “The toilets are badly designed – with the hole in the wrong place. You have that stupid ledge about an inch below your arse that everything lands on and stinks out the bathroom. And you have to flush about fifteen times before the thing is actually clean. The morning after a decent lentil curry you could actually be pushed off the toilet seat by your own turds. It’s downright unhygienic.”

“The hole is not in the wrong place,”Birgit stamps her foot. “You Brits are probably sitting the wrong way round on the seat for all I know! I wouldn’t put it past you. The shelf is there so you can check the health of your bowels in the morning. You English will probably all die of tapeworms and bowel cancers because you are too prudish and stupid to take care of your own health!”

“We don’t need to inspect our turds every morning because we don’t live on a diet of minced raw pig and undercooked sausages full of parasites.”

“German pork meat is not full of parasites. Just because your boggy island can’t provide good enough quality meat to eat safely without incinerating it first, doesn’t mean our food is unsafe. At least we don’t live on a diet of pre-processed over-salted, packaged polystyrene with artificial flavourings and added cancer-causing agents.”

“I sometimes wish you did,” I yell. About half an hour after Birgit has left the building.

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The dangers of German mispronunciation

Most of my neighbours are enjoying the warmer weather and spring flowers that are starting to come out in the gardens. But not me.

Springtime heralds the start of the annual warmer weather which makes me sweat. Not because of the heat, you understand. Because of my sheer terror when it comes to discussing the temperature with Germans.

My problem is that I cannot for the life of me pronounce the difference between the German words schwul and schwül. I know one of them means warm muggy weather and the other one means gay. But mid conversation…I’m damned if I can ever remember which is which. And I always end up saying the wrong one.
In my panic as I search for the right word, I’m prone to make another obvious faux pas. Will I remember to say “Mir ist heiß” or will I blurt out “Ich bin heiß” by accident? The former means that I’m feeling the heat, the latter that I’m on heat and I’ll start humping your leg if you don’t sit up and take notice.

Not something I actually want to say to the bloke next door.

Of course I’m relieved to find out that the Germans have their own misunderstandings among themselves. Not the same ones as me. But the German regional accents lead to unusual pronunciations and inevitably the sort of gaffes which I assumed until recently only I was capable of.

Take this clip for example, showing how a simple Ossi word is so easily misunderstood by the Wessi craftsman.

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Becoming German

OK – I’ve been in Germany for over 15 years now and I’ve struggled to become German. I mean I can speak German, I can drive on the right, I’ve even been known to go out with unshaved legs and wear Birkenstocks. From fifty paces, I might even fool some people. Well, short sighted people, anyway.

So how easy is it actually to become German?

I think Günther has the answer.

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Cats, curry and interior decor

One of the questions I get asked a lot since I wrote Planet Germany is whether the incidents described in the book actually happened. I mean, surely not. Nobody’s household is that chaotic.

Like the time I tried to have a party and made hot curry for an entire legion of Germans. You know, the people whose food is so bland that even a blob of mustard is considered to be scarily “scharf“.

Of course they didn’t eat it. It wasn’t an out-and-out rude refusal. They nibbled at the rice and the plain Naan bread. But the curry… no. The whole lot was left untouched by teutonic fork.
My cats, on the other hand, are made of sterner stuff. No sooner had the Germans left and everyone else had gone to bed, then the felines made a beeline for the chicken madras and the prawn vindaloo.

Things I learned that night and next morning:

  • a wallpaper table can hold seven full pans of curry, no problem
  • a wallpaper table cannot hold seven pans of curry and two cats without its legs buckling
  • a pan of curry trebles in volume when hurled to the ground by a yowling moggie
  • prawn vindaloo does very bad things to the feline digestive system
  • and subsequently to the living room floor and the wallpaper
  • did I mention the kitchen….

Aftermath of the curry

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Antisocial is the new black

It seems that the wealthier inhabitants of the German Villenviertel were sleeping like babies last night. By which I mean, they were waking up every couple of hours screaming.

Dawn saw the first of a series of raids by the tax fraud investigators following their acquisition (for a paltry € 5 million) of stolen bank data from Liechtenstein – which is likely to allow them to finger the collars of Germany’s rich and famous for hundreds of millions in evaded taxes.

From the German press, it seems that a new social über-underclass has emerged overnight. The antisocials. Those with fat salaries and even fatter bank balances who by hook or by crook manage to salt away their wealth from the prying eyes of the taxman, while the rest of us diligently pay our dues. The knock at dawn couldn’t have come to a more deserving set of households.

Of course this got me thinking about finances in Germany. You see, although I try to save a bit (and would of course love to pay less tax), the banking system in Germany has clearly been divided with one type of banking for the super-rich and one for the rest of us.

The super rich can be seen on German bank holidays, queueing in their Mercedes and Porsches at the borders with Luxembourg, Switzerland and Liechtenstein as they go and pay a social visit to their illicit millions.

The rest of us, on the other hand, have our measly savings (or what’s left after the tax has taken its share) stashed away in German banks such as the State Savings Bank of Lower Saxony or the West Deutsche Landesbank which have systematically gambled our nest egg on sub-prime loans in the USA.
Should the well-heeled of München, Köln and Düsseldorf ever be short of a bob or two, they are offered generous loans and favourable terms. The rest of us, on the other hand, get a terse letter from the bank informing us of hefty extra charges due to us having “insufficient funds”. (Let me tell you something, Herr Bankdirektor. If we the normal citizens, as you rightly surmise, have insufficient funds, there is no bloody point in charging us a penalty fee. Because we’re not going to be able to pay it. Doh!)

I wonder if those German bank managers ever stopped to consider that the people whose mortgage risks they were taking on might also have insufficient funds.

No wonder, then, that the entire German population is cock-a-hoop that finally it’s the rich and famous that are being hauled up in front of the beak. Or are they?
Germany must be the only country that offers these wealthy tax evaders a let out! If they are quick, they can file a “Selbstanzeige” – literally a self-accusation of tax evasion. And by doing so avoid a lengthy stretch at the Kaiser’s pleasure. Of course they’ll have to pay the tax which was owed, with a spot of interest on top. But they will avoid naming, shaming, court cases, handcuffs, stripy pyjamas, porridge and all the rest of it.

Apparently the phone-lines to the tax offices have been buzzing all day as Germany’s millionnaires desparately try to call up and confess their sins. I hope they had a special call centre installed to deal with the rush! (If you have money hidden in Liechtenstein press 1, if your cash is in the Caymen Island press 2….). I hope they had canned Für Elise on endless loop as the waiting music too.

So for their € 5 million investment in illicit banking records, the German tax office will likely recover hundreds of millions in “self-confessed” taxes and will prosecute virtually no-one.

I think I’ll start investing my paltry savings on a three-legged nag at Kempton Park. I wonder if I can do that tax free?

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Rubbish thieves!

Would you believe it! Our bin has been stolen!

Instead of a garden, we have a sort of bin-park at the front of the house. With lots of different coloured bins for throwing away different sorts of rubbish.

Two of them are grey – and those are the containers where you chuck anything that can’t be put in the other bins (so anything that isn’t packaging, garden waste, glass, paper, batteries or whatever….)

Well one of ours has been stolen. It’s gone, vanished, disparu! Pooof!

Without it, our household waste was too much for the remaining bin. So we had to go down to the local council office to buy one of their official big bin bags for € 2.50 and report our bin missing.

We were sent upstairs to the ominous sounding “Zimmer 19” where the Rubbish-Beamtinnen sit at their computers… presumably controlling the movement of refuse around Meerbusch.

One of them looked us up in her computer.

“So you have a 120 litre and an 80 litre grey bin,” she said.

“It’s the 80 litre one that’s gone missing.”

“I will put out an alert to the bin-collectors. They will search the whole of Meerbusch for it. If they don’t find it within three weeks, we will send you a new one.”

She typed something furiously into her computer – presumably an order for a highly trained squad of bin-theft detectives to go screeching onto the streets in their bin-lorries with blue flashing lights.

Anyway – just on the off-chance that the criminal gang who stole our bin hasn’t already melted it down into plastic ingots and smuggled it over the border to Poland or Russia… here’s a photo-fit impression of the missing bin. Distinguishing marks include a rather grubby lid and some festering cat litter inside….

Artist's impression of the missing bin

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Trust a dictionary to give you the wrong word

On my first full day in Germany I was unfortunate enough to go down with a cold. This meant my first task was to go and buy a packet of tissues.

After the breakfast experience, I thought it wise to arm myself with the correct vocabulary, so from the depths of my luggage I retrieved my German-English pocket dictionary and set about finding the right word.

Under “tissue” the dictionary offered me a range of options. Bespannpapier, Gewebe, Taschentuch and Tempo.

This made me feel rather like a contestant on “Who wants to be a millionnaire” who has to choose between four equally implausible options, without being able to phone a friend or ask the audience. To be honest, none of them looked remotely likely.

I quickly eliminated the last one, Tempo, as being something more to do with time or pace. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be linked to a paper hankie – unless of course Germans blow their noses at high speed.

Bespannpapier looked more plausible. Looking it up from the German to English though, I found out that bespannen means to string… as in to string a violin or other instrument. Surely they couldn’t be referring to strings of mucous emerging from the Teutonic nasal passages? Catching a cold in Germany might turn out to be a more serious and revolting matter than I’d hoped. No, I decided to eliminate Bespannpapier on the grounds of good taste.

Gewebe and Taschentuch remained. But which was it to be?

Again checking back in the dictionary, Gewebe appeared to have the meaning canvas or webbing. Taschentuch appeared to be made of two different words: Tasche, meaning bag or briefcase and Tuch meaning cloth. Looking at my own stitched canvas bag, I tried to imagine blowing my nose on the rough woven fabric, and decided that German noses must be far more sturdy than my sensitive English one.

Uncertain which one to take, I then noticed that right at the bottom of the page there was another option. This one was a compound word and it said “siehe unten.” Looking this up, I discovered that the literal meaning of this curious name was “look below.” This made sense. In olden times a handkerchief was a “kerchief” for the hand and would originally have been worn around the neck. The wearer would only have to “look below” and he would see it immediately. Of course it made sense that he would call it a “siehe unten.”

Armed with this knowledge I set off to the small corner shop a few doors down from my hotel.

The lady in the shop greeted me with a cheery “Bitte schön.”

Siehe unten, bitte.” I smiled back.

This didn’t have the effect I’d hoped for. The lady seemed hesitant, even a little perplexed. She looked at her shoes, and then back at me.

Bitte?” Was her response.

I reached for the dictionary again. Maybe I needed to clarify that it was a packet of tissues I needed, rather than trying to buy them singly.

Ein Paket oder Päckchen oder Schweinegeld siehe unten,” I said firmly. There wasn’t time to go through all the options for “packet” and work out the best. She’d just have to pick her favourite. “Und Bespannpapier, Gewebe, Taschentuch und Tempo auch.” I added for emphasis, as she was standing with her mouth slightly open and appeared to have stopped breathing.

There. She’d got the lot now – surely she could work out something from that lot, even if it meant I’d be blowing my nose on canvas hold-all material – stringy mucous and all – for the rest of the week.

My pronouncement certainly had an effect on the shop-lady. After about ten seconds of silence, she began to shake, and then after a few seconds she erupted into peals of laughter. Her knees seemed to buckle. She had to support herself on the counter, tears spurted from her eyes and finally she collapsed onto the small wooden chair in the corner.

To add insult to injury, she pulled out a packet of tissues from her own skirt pocket and began to mop her eyes while continuing to laugh uncontrollably.

“Das! Das ist ein siehe unten!” I shouted excitedly, pointing at her tissue. But this only made her laugh all the more.

In the end there was nothing for it but to leave the shop and walk on to a self service supermarket further down the street, where I quickly managed to located packets of tissues on the shelves.

On the way back, I tossed my dictionary into the nearest litter bin. It clearly contained only the wrong words anyway.

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