I made a video about voting here in Oregon. Auf deutsch, because why not? But I also made English subtitles! Almost there!
One day when I was an exchange student my guest mother asked me if I liked Milchreis. I didn’t translate that to show non-German speakers how I felt when faced with that question. Milchreis? I’m pretty sure I knew at the time that Milch was milk and Reis was rice but I had not a clue that the two fit together in any sentence that wasn’t a shopping list.
Then she handed me a tiny plastic container that looked like tapioca pudding. It was cinnamon and sugar Milchreis (from Müllermilch, of course) and my life changed. I had the second Nutella Moment of my life. A Nutella Moment is something I just made up but it’s when you taste something new and think: This exists in the world and you’re only telling me about it now? Because you know you’ll be enjoying it until your tastebuds die and the only thing you get any pleasure out of is super-hot sriracha, served with a bib and a straw.
For the uninitiated, milkrice is rice that’s been steeped in milk, rather than steamed or steeped with water. A German risotto, if you will. But instead of broth and white wine you steep it in milk and sugar and vanilla and cinnamon. Then you serve it with more sugar or fruit of some kind and spend the rest of the day smiling. Probably steaming hot but maybe cold because there was some left over from when you made it yesterday and who’s going to wait to warm that up?
It tastes like a dessert but you feel like you ate something healthy because: rice.
You can use the same Arborio rice you would use for risotto. But uncooked milkrice rice in Germany is way cheaper than Arborio rice so cooks-in-the-know in Germany just use milkrice rice for both milkrice and risotto.
I just saved you a bunch of money. You’re welcome.
I ate about one Müllermilch Milchreis a week during my early days in Germany until my kids were old enough to like it and my wife said: “It can’t be that hard to make. My grandmother used to make it” and decided to make some. That logic doesn’t actually work because If grandmothers made it, it usually means it’s super-hard to make unless you’re a grandmother but it turned out milkrice really isn’t difficult.*
And my wife then launched a series of superlative, home-made milkrices. It’s now our family’s comfort food.
I know what you’re thinking: That’s just rice pudding! No. No it’s not. Rice pudding involves eggs and maybe cream and raisins and gooey, pre-cooked rice and nobody likes it except Old Lady Wiggins, and nobody likes her.
But there is at least one hidden danger in milkrice. Some enterprising cooks at my kids’ school in Berlin thought the magic of milkrice could carry over to other dishes. They served Milchnudeln (milknoodles), as if it were a thing. The magic doesn’t carry over and it isn’t a thing and my kids came home starving that day. I’ve never tried them but my kids (trustworthy on all things food) said Milchnudeln are as disgusting as they sound.
Luckily the cooks never tried Milchfisch or maybe Milchsteak but we started making their lunches for them shortly after that experiment just in case.
I decided to write this post the other day after my son asked me to make him Milchreis for his school lunch. I figured the magic of milkrice had already made its way to Portland, Oregon.
“Who else gets milkrice for lunch?”
“Nobody at school’s ever heard of it,” he said.
But now you have.
*Basic milk rice
1 cup Arborio (or milkrice) rice, 1 liter milk, a cinammon twig, a packet of vanilla sugar, maybe some salt. Bring to a boil. Steep on low for 10 minutes, then cover and let sit for half an hour. Then e-mail Drew and thank him.
I didn’t even know there was a broadcaster (channel? station?) called EPiX and, had I known, I probably would have thought: If you call yourself EPiX with a little “i” and an “X”, you are probably anything but epic. Do people even say “epic” anymore? Hasn’t it been replaced with “legit” or an emoji of a poop unicorn? Or an emoji of poop and unicorns? I’m so old.
Anyway, turns out this new channel/station/broadcaster has made this new series called Berlin Station about – wait for it – American spies in Berlin. The creators were really going out on a limb on this one. Really taking a risk with the concept.
But anyway my little Roku pitched me this series one Portland night during a deep bout of homesickness and both my German wife and I thought: Let’s watch this teaser episode and see how much it sucks while seeing a bit of Berlin. Sentimental Schadenfreude, if you will.
And we were surprised when it didn’t suck. Well not so bad as naming your channel/station/broadcaster “EPiX”. It was surprisingly intriguing, even though it treads across a carpet more worn than the rejection line at Berghain.
What Berlin Station does really well is show Berlin. Like all the time. I watched Homeland in Berlin and it could have been filmed anywhere with a few establishing shots below the Fernsehturm or on Oberbaumbrücke. The point of Homeland in Berlin – beyond capitalizing on the Hauptstadt hype and covering the tired ground of a spook past – seemed to be seeing if Carrie could look even more anguished in a country known for its anguish.
Berlin was an afterthought to Claire Dane’s furrowed brow.
But Berlin Station seems to be filmed by people who know and love Germany’s biggest city, rather than creative types on a stopover from London or Hollywood. As someone who misses his Wahlheimat (adopted home), Berlin Station does an amazing job of showing diverse corners of the city.
It also lets its characters speak German. Like, whenever there would be an interaction in German in Berlin, that’s the language the characters speak. However, this also underlines the film as a work of fiction since the American dude played by Richard Armitage speaks almost fluent German. An American speaking German! Nice joke! But bilingual programming is a refreshing upgrade.
Of course they go out to the tattered radar domes of Teufelsberg but they also spend an amazing amount of time on Kotti – including a chase scene through those elaborate balconies and staircases above and around Kaisers, Monarch, Paloma and West Germany. You know, the ones you’ve always sworn you would explore more but never did out of fear for your personal safety?
We liked the teaser episode so much we watched the second one. The season debuts Oct. 16 — wherever you can get EPiX.
“It’s like sightseeing,” my wife said. “If you want Berlin, here’s your series. If you want story, not so much.”
But the creators’ knowledge of the bear city goes even further: In one scene especially poignant for Wahlberliner (voluntary Berliners), a spy operative played by Rhys Ifans notes that the avocados at the Turkish grocer aren’t even ripe.
It’s like the producers of Berlin Station know our pain. They are us. And they’ve given up on good guacamole too.
There’s plenty of overacting and goofy plot turns and a bit too much time spent in the sort of slick, high-priced nightclubs Berlin doesn’t have, but the thing has a great feel – and (did I mention?) a lot of Berlin. Though lacking depth, its texture is reminiscent of A Most Wanted Man – one of my most favorite Berlin films next to the 1985 Anthony Edwards spy epic, Gotcha!.
I’m going to have to subscribe to EPiX long enough to watch the other eight episodes.
And then epically cancel my subscription.
I always felt like Germany cultivates a culture of intellectualism while America … well we like hamburgers.
Nowhere did I see this more than when my wife was pregnant.
When we were awaiting our second child – our son – my German friends began to act strange.
“We’re having a boy,” I would say.
“Oh,” my German friends would say with alarm. “Poor you.” Some hugged me as if to say: It’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this too.
I never had any idea what they were talking about. But they said it so openly, so confidently, that I couldn’t profess ignorance. The way they said it, it sounded like all of Germany knew having a boy was a bad thing. Except me. I started to wonder if Germany was the anti-China. Girls only, bitte.
I was afraid that my ignorance of the pitfalls of boys would reflect poorly on me. So I didn’t admit I didn’t understand. I just said, “I know, right?” And changed the subject.
But I was prepared for this reaction because it’s the way a certain kind of American and Brit reacts to news that you’re having a daughter, which we did, right before we had a son.
“A daughter, huh?” Americans would say shortly after meeting me and hearing I was expecting a daughter. “Poor you.” Unlike my German friends, they didn’t hug me.
But poor me.
The assumption here is that I would suffer as my little girl grew up and became a woman and started having boyfriends and – gasp – sex. As if your daughter enjoying a cornerstone of the human experience is the worst thing. Ever.
The implication is that fathers have to protect their daughters and make their choices for them, while teaching their sons to be strong humans capable of making all the good and bad decisions on their own.
You know: sexism. Yuck.
I prefer instead to teach both of my children to be strong, confident people capable of making both good and bad decisions, just like other humans. Though, to be honest, I hope they make a few fewer bad decisions than I did. Like not having Steak Frites on Kurfürstendamm after a bucket of popcorn at the French cinema. You lose your gall bladder with decisions like that.
And they probably should decide against seeing Hangover 2 (come on, you know you liked Hangover).
So, in a way, I was ready when suddenly my German friends started acting the same way about my soon-to-be son. Poor me. Except I had no idea what they were talking about.
It happened so often that I decided I had to stop faking as if I knew. When my German documentary filmmaker friend – a leftist intellectual with little equal – made the same statement, I dropped my guard.
“What are you talking about?” I asked him between bands at White Trash Fast Food. And then I told him the story about Americans and daughters. He was repulsed.
“Nothing like that,” he said. “The Freud thing.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
No idea what he meant.
Luckily my generation invented this thing called Google and when I got home I put in “Freud son father” and was horrified at what the Germans were warning me about. You see, it’s Oedipus. It’s always Oedipus with these Germans.
In order to fulfill his mother fantasy, Oedipus had to kill his father. Germans (and Freud and even Jung, I discovered) extrapolate this on to the human condition to mean that a boy can’t become a man until he replaces his father in the world. Germans were trying to warn me that my son would become a murderer. And me, a murder victim.
Either way, people shouldn’t be warning anybody about the sex of their baby, though a warning or two about babies as a species is certainly warranted. Anyone who’s ever had one – or shared an airplane with one – knows what I’m talking about.
Poor me indeed!
When my kids finally started going to school in Berlin, I learned something I had always suspected: Germans can do witchcraft. They are experts in the black arts and can summon the spirits any time numbers are involved. When I sat down to help my kids with their math homework, my world changed. Inexorably. Forever.
It was so earth-shattering that I can’t even put it into words. So I made a video.
Literally: Ass bomb. It’s none of those things you’re thinking. Not even close. It’s not even gross. And in America we use our own militaristic lingo to describe it: The cannonball. That thing you do off the edge of the pool to drench your sister. Straighten a leg out while you’re doing it and you’ve got a jackknife. But Germans don’t do jackknives, they just do Arschbomben. They’re purists.
Literally: Ink killer. Germans make children learn to write with fountain pens, like 16th century monks. The kids need some way to correct their mistakes and that way is Tintenkiller. It kills the ink so it is no longer alive on the page. Most German elementary school kids believe the magic ingredient in Tintenkiller is animal urine, specifically bull urine. And yet they use it happily every day.
In America we had the No. 2 pencil with an eraser. But Germans sometimes like to deny technological advances and so, during writing class, they make their children live as though there is not yet running water. Or penicillin. But Tintenkiller.
Literally: Murderous hunger. I was well into my 30s before I ever heard the word “hangry”, that thing you get when you’re hungry and everyone is annoying as F–k. Like Gilbert Godfried. The kind of annoyed that makes you leave a restaurant because you think the service is too slow only to discover on the sidewalk that you’re still super hangry. And now annoyed at your own impatience. And also hungry.
If you’ve never heard the word “hangry” before and you’re a little thick, it’s a combination of “hungry” and “angry”. But Germans don’t have a word like that because it would be sauunger (sauer hunger) or bönger (böse hunger), which make no sense. In Germany it’s murderous hunger. It means you’re really, really hungry. So hungry you could kill someone.
But not eat them.
Literally: Goulash cannon. The other words on this page make sense at some level. We might have even figured out their meaning ourselves if we didn’t have German friends. But Gulaschkanone makes no sense. Not even close. A Gulaschkanone is a giant vat of goulash, which is a great stew of meat, tomatoes and paprika. Best served with bread dumplings and a cold beer, unless you’re underage, in which case don’t get caught with the beer.
The Gulaschkanone is most often loaded during parties and festivals and is more often than not a surplus field kitchen. Of course the German army – the Bundeswehr – is the biggest source of goulash cannons. You line up to get a bowl of goulash from the cannon. Usually the guy serving is in a good mood.
Be forewarned, a Gulaschkanone is not always loaded with goulash. Sometimes it’s full of pea soup. But they’ll still call it a Gulaschkanone. A Gulaschkanone with Erbsensuppe (pea soup).
Literally: Storm-free abode (Bude is German slang for your place of living. Your crib. Your pad). I speak pretty good German. But I don’t always really, really know the meanings of German words and sayings. Often I just go with instincts. The same instincts that had me ordering erections at the cafe for months. Sturmfreie Bude is one of those times. Germans use it when they have the house to themselves — like when the parents are off to Mallorca or the kids are at camp, helping to write automotive emissions software.
“Great!” your friends would say, “Sturmfreie Bude!” Up until five minutes ago I assumed that meant the house is clear and you can storm in, like an army. Throw in some flashbangs, get out your battering ram and storm into the house because there’s no one in there.
But I looked it up over at Deutsche Welle and the killjoys over there say it means that the house is free of being stormed. No one’s going to storm in and interrupt you while you do whatever it is you do when you have Sturmfreie Bude.
That sounds slightly lascivious but since the family’s off traveling around Europe and I happen to have Sturmfreie Bude, I can tell you exactly what I do: Hang out on our bed with the cats and watch Netflix.
The middle-aged married bachelor’s version of Netflix and Chill.
Literally: Pillow slaughter (ok, ok, Schlacht also means battle). So the English version, pillow fight, isn’t much different. My kids were just looking for a reason to have a pillow fight.
Last week, after the series of attacks in Germany, I felt like the country was coming apart at the seams. It was an irrational, emotional response. I thought, “This is what it must have felt like during the Deutschen Herbst (German Autumn)”. It was then that I realized that terrorist attacks (domestic, foreign and by mentally unstable people) have always been a part of my German experience.
I don’t want to downplay the recent incidents or even get into a political discussion. But that thought (and a couple hours of googling and reading) helped me gain a little perspective.
The first time I really paid attention to terror attacks in Germany was in 1986 when I was getting ready to be an exchange student. In April of that year a bomb killed two soldiers and a woman at the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin (just a mile from one of my later Berlin apartments). My mom and I talked about it and dismissed it because Berlin was far from Wegberg, where I’d be an exchange student, and it clearly targeted soldiers.
I couldn’t really be less soldier material.
So we figured I’d be safe.
And also, though it’s admittedly crass and possibly insensitive, the terror didn’t seem real. Terror seemed as much a part of Cold War Europe as loose morals and bodyhair. Remember the IRA? They used to be in the paper every day (remember newspapers?). And, anyway, Chernobyl happened just a few weeks later and we had something new to worry about. My mother considered not sending me for fear of radiation.
When I finally landed in Germany, I would often ride past and through nearby British air bases on training rides. Any time the IRA attacked somewhere, the bases would be buttoned down and soldiers in camouflage would prevent me from taking my favorite route along Queens Avenue on the Joint Headquarters Rheindahlen base. It was always a strange sensation to cycle in Lycra shorts and vintage wool jerseys past soldiers hunkered in sub-terranean pillboxes with loaded machine guns.
They never waved back.
My memory has convinced me I even heard an IRA carbomb explode at Rheindahlen in 1987. My guest parents played down the nearby attack by saying no one was killed but the bomb actually injured 30, mostly Germans. It must have been a bigger deal than I remember.
And then I learned about the RAF, the Rote Armee Faktion (Red Army Faction), a left-wing terrorist organization in Germany. In 1977, the RAF orchestrated a number of attacks that included the murder of CEO of Dresdner Bank (Jürgen Ponto), the kidnapping and murder of the head of the German Employer’s Association (Hans-Martin Schleyer) and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane.
Although there was (and is) massive debate about the RAF, if you lived in Germany at the time it must have been at least unsettling. It never seemed to end. And every time I read something new about that time period, known as German Autumn, I get much the same feeling I got last Friday as attack after attack hit Germany.
Will it ever end? History says no, but it also shows me that life goes on and statistics proves the attacks, both then and now, are anomalies.
And that’s not anywhere near a complete list – they’re just the ones that colored my German experience.
The one I was surprised I’d never learned about was Gundolf Köhler’s 1980 attack on Oktoberfest. As famous as Oktoberfest is, I was amazed I’d never heard of it until I’d lived in Germany for nearly a decade – he killed 13 people (including himself) and wounded 211 with a home-made pipe bomb. He’s suspected of being a right-wing extremist.
I don’t want to downplay the recent attacks nor their impact, I just needed some perspective for me (especially since my family is in Germany at the moment). And I thought I could share it. Statistics show terror attacks have actually decreased.
Even if it feels like Germany – and Europe – is coming apart.
One hour. Every day.
I may have misunderstood biology class but I think it has something to do with photosynthesis, like Germans have more chlorophyll than everyone else. Also I’m pretty sure it’s part of the Grundgesetz (German constitution). Germans don’t even question this. It’s a total normal part of raising kids in Germany, like feeding them, clothing them and regretting having them.
Back when my kids were little, if it started getting late in the day and they hadn’t been outside, my German wife would start getting panicky as if she were Cinderella and it was 11: 59 p.m. (that’s 23:59 to Germans).
“Hase, meinst du, du kannst mit den nur eine Stunde um den Block gehen?” she would ask (“Honey, do you think you can walk around the block with them for an hour?”). And I would, because I’m always worried she’ll see her mistake in marrying me so I try to keep her happy.
Also: I didn’t want to see my kids turn into pumpkins.
My kids and I would always end up on one of two playgrounds, swinging and sliding in blackness with a few other dads.
“Married a German?” we’d ask each other.
I sound like I’m deriding it here but I’m not: Kids do need to be outside for an hour every day, regardless of the weather. It seems to air out their tiny brains. It’s like rebooting them after you opened too many windows in their browser inside. It’s such an obvious truth that they’re trying to institute it in America now too, via our equivalent to the German constitution: Professional football.
The must-go-outside thing doesn’t stop when kids go to daycare either. German daycare teachers are expected to make sure the kids get their hour of sunlight per day too. And daycare teachers are happy to oblige because they know a secret: Kids are way easier to deal with when they’re outside. Especially when they’re outside and on the far side of the playground.
This often leads to two or three hours of outside time for daycare kids every day, which ingratiates the teachers even more to the parents and allows the teachers even more time to Snapchat.
Through this requirement I discovered that I do better with some outside time every day too. Maybe I got some chlorophyll with my German DNA.
This weekend I was trying to think of the things I love about Germany in the summertime. I mean, beyond getting all of May off because of a succession of legal holidays based on some guy known as Jesus. And then getting all of August off because that’s what Europe does.
The answer: Ice cream. In America, ice cream is all about quantity. One scoop is a meal and two will feed a family of four for a week. And it costs accordingly.
But in Germany, you have Eisdielen (ice cream stores) where you get a single Kugel for (scoop) for about $1 and it’s enough ice cream to enjoy but not make you think you have to go to confession (even if you’re not Catholic). Germans only get two scoops on special occasions, like getting married or winning a Nobel Prize.
But they also have Eiscafes (ice cream cafes), which are like every other German cafe with coffee and cakes but also one of the most important publications of a German’s childhood: The Eiskarte (ice cream menu). The Eiskarte is full of frozen creations that involve several scoops of ice and cream and about anything else you can add to ice cream.
The Eiskarte is so creative, it’s subdivided into categories such as “tropical”, “alcoholic” and “brittle” with half a dozen items in each. But I’ve never been interested in any of those. Any time I’m confronted with an unfamiliar Eiskarte I quickly scan it until I find one of Germany’s most fantastical inventions: Spaghettieis (spaghetti ice cream).
And then I order it.
So this weekend, we went to the grocery store and got all the ingredients and, for the first time ever, made Spaghettieis.
And filmed it. And you can watch it (above).
Enjoy (we did).
*This post was originally published in German over at Frau-Mutter, a great blog about mothering in German. And by that I mean both mothering in the language of German and mothering by being German. Also, she happens to be in Germany, so all bases covered.
We raised our kids bilingually. All the recommendations we read said each parent should speak their native language with the kids and the kids would learn the languages naturally. One language per parent. Our kids only have two parents so they were limited to just the two languages – German and English. I’m American. My wife is German.
Even though I speak pretty good German, it never occurred to me to want to communicate with my children in anything other than my native language. Mostly because my kids are half-German and I knew what would ultimately happen if I tried German with them.
Eventually we’d be having a simple discussion and my daughter would stop me mid-sentence and roll her teen-age eyes.
“Dad, Jesus,” she’d say. “Your German is so embarrassing. It’s dative. It’s ‘dem’ not ‘den’.” And then I’d lose the argument and I’d have to buy her an Xbox after all.
Just because I conjugated incorrectly.
We have two kids. I spoke only English with them. Every time they said something to me in German I’d say, “I don’t understand. How would you say it in English?” I always felt guilty because I did understand them and – you may not believe this – but we have the two smartest, cutest kids ever. Yes, smarter and cuter than your kids. So it was hard to act like I didn’t understand them.
But I did it anyway. And I kept waiting for them to call my bluff.
“Come on Dad,” I thought they’d say, “We just heard you and mom talking about the merits of laser vs. pulse propulsion in German. I’m sure you understood me asking to be pushed on the swings.”
But they never did. They always believed I never understood them and answered in English. Like I said, they’re the best kids. Ever.
When my daughter was five I read a piece about bilingualism in kids. It said parents should speak in their native tongue because using a second language robs parents of spontaneity. True. Plus it’s also easier to yell in your native language.
There’s other problems with not speaking your native language with your kids.
My kids have always been in bilingual schools and nurseries in Berlin. Many of the kids have German helicopter parents who think it’s vital their kids grow up bilingual even though both parents are German. These parents also follow the mantra of one parent, one language. That means that I’ve been subjected every day to adult Germans trying to speak to their children in English with German accents.
Respect for the parents for knowing a second language but not with their kids. In English, the parents sound like a mix of Boris Karlov and Ariana Huffington speaking to a cardboard box full of kittens. That may work on stage but imagine it in the cloakroom. Or on the playground. Or telling a kid to come sit on their lap.
We’ve even run into a few German parents that gave their kids English names even though they can’t pronounce them. For two years I thought a girl at our kids’ school was named Selma. It turned out her name was Thelma. Her parents couldn’t pronounce it.
I often thought the bi-lingualism would come in handy if I needed to say something in secret to my kids. Once, in the Rocky Mountains, we were in the changing room for a hot springs. A real cowboy walked in – cowboy boots, cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. Probably enough guns in his truck to arm a small Caribbean nation.
“Wow,” I said to my son in German. “I bet you didn’t expect to see one of those here.”
My son looked at me weird. “Dad, why are you speaking to me in German?”
The cowboy just laughed.
I never spoke German to him again.