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.
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.
The death of German TV show star Peter Lustig this month got me thinking about German kids’ programming. Lustig’s show,Löwenzahn (Dandelion), was based around Peter’s character, an old man, living alone in a wagon without a bathroom. He seemed pretty clean for a guy who could never brush his teeth or go number two.
The show might have once explained how it worked. It’s Germany. They happily talk about things like that.
But Löwenzahn is Germany’s second-best kids show (there’s a new, younger guy living and not pooping in the wagon these days). Well, to me second-best but I only ever watched these shows as an adult. The best one is a show that actually has no name, just a description, which always leads to a who’s-on-first discussion in my head.
“What are you kids watching?”
“The show with the mouse.”
“Oh, Disney or Tom and Jerry?”
“No, the show with the mouse.”
“Disney or Tom and Jerry?”
“NO! THE SHOW WITH THE MOUSE!”
It’s true: Germany’s best kids show is called Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Show with the Mouse). I guess the producers were too busy making great TV to come up with a title. The show is exactly as old as my wife and has never changed, like Ron Swanson.
Die Sendung mit der Maus
The show is essentially about how things get made, like jeans, tea bags or nuclear reactors. You know, everyday items. It’s explained in several segments that are divided up so said mouse – an orange cartoon rodent – can appear between segments to do something goofy related to the day’s topic. He’s often joined by a hapless blue elephant.
Which brings up the quandary of why it’s not called the show with the mouse and the elephant.
It’s because the elephant has a crappy agent, that’s why. I would fire that agent if he were my agent
That simple formula has spawned a TV show that’s been on for over four decades. It’s great because you learn something and then, after learning it, you get to take a little pause and think about it while a blue elephant accidentally blows himself up or a mouse tries on a pair of jeans. Really!
Check it out! The Show with the Mouse in English!
It’s on every Sunday morning and maybe explains why religion and God are on their way out in Germany: Everyone is too busy watching the show with a description for a title rather than trying to figure out how Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God are all one god. Maybe the show with the mouse should tackle that one. I’d be a little nervous about the related mouse animations though.
The most tension in the Sendung mit der Maus comes at the beginning when they give a synopsis of the coming episode in German and an unknown language. Children (and adults) throughout Germany start screaming languages at the screen like insults –“Finnish! Japanese! Schwarzenegger-ish!” – until the language is announced.
“I knew it was Greek. I just didn’t feel like saying anything,” dads across the country then say.
I don’t know if Peter Lustig’s Löwenzahn and Sendung mit der Maus ever met. But it would be great if one Maus episode would explain to me how an old guy lived alone in a trailer without a bathroom.
The English language actually has a word for German breakfast: Dinner.
Although that’s not entirely fair since most dinners have far less bread and meat than a German breakfast.
Unlike most other food cultures, Germans don’t crow so much about their breakfasts. Not like the Brits and their Full English or us Amis and our pancakes and bacon or even the French and their croissant. Italians? Italy doesn’t have breakfast: They just sip espresso and look good. It’s true, Italian’s wake up looking good. I know. I’ve been.
But Germans don’t go on and on about their breakfasts mainly because they’re so busy trying to eat said breakfasts. The cornerstone of every German breakfast is the country’s true pride: Bread. I know you think it’s cars or beers but that’s just for show. Germans are mostly passionate about their flour, yeast and water all baked up into a hell for the gluten-averse.
German breakfasts are centered on a mini version of bread, the Brötchen (tiny loaf of bread). Brötchen come in various forms from boring white rolls to complex conflagrations of seeds, nuts, high-tech flours and tears from Nietzsche. Each Brötchen is cut in half, buttered and then belegt (covered) with anything you want but preferably an animal product and probably meat. Schinken, for example, a German ham. Or Leberwurst, which is predictably liverwurst.
German breakfast is what’s for breakfast
On a good day German Frühstück (breakfast) judges will also allow jam, Nutella, scrambled eggs and the occasional vegetable on a Brötchen. Some Germans even have a strange syrupy stuff called Goldsaft (Gold Juice, really!) on their breakfast tables, which is sugar beet syrup and is odorless and tasteless and not even sticky. It’s only on people’s tables because it’s called Gold Juice and who doesn’t want a little Gold Juice on their table?
Ne’er do wells, idlers and Bayern Munich fans, that’s who.
As if all of that isn’t enough, many Germans also include a soft-boiled egg to break their fast. They see it more as a way to cleanse the pallet, I think. Like an ovo-sorbet.
I’ve never been clear on what the suggested serving size is for a German breakfast but I’m usually full after two Brötchen halves (or one Brötchen for the math majors among us). But I generally eat two full Brötchen because, to quote Louis C.K., I don’t quit eating when I’m full. I quit eating when I hate myself.
Like a good German.
The first time any non-German encounters a Teutonic petit dejeuner, their reaction is always the same: How do Germans start the day like this and not end up looking … American? Heck, I still have that reaction every time I have a German breakfast. Because, if I eat German breakfasts too often, I end up looking American. Or, rather, more American. But I don’t know how they do it. I’ve shared living space with a German for 14 years and shired two half-Germans and still have no idea.
How they pull it off is a state secret more protected than the UFOs at Roswell or Heino’s eye color. The only way I can explain it is that Germans have an extra stomach. Like cows. They have a Frühstücksersatzverdauungsmagen (second German stomach) where the basic laws of nutrition, thermal dynamics and maybe even gravity are moot. The Frühstücksersatzverdauungsmagen digests breakfast foods in another dimension and encourages Germans to make cars, beer and horrible pop music while eliminating any and all calories.
There is no other answer. And Frühstücksersatzverdauungsmagen is a real word. Swear.
After writing all of that I’ve decided we’re having a German breakfast for dinner which Germans do too: It’s called Abendbrot (evening bread).
They’re so good at it, they even have categories of Spielplatz (playground): Bauspielplatz (building playground), Naturspielplatz (natural playground), Wasserspielplatz (water playground) and the most promising sounding, the Abenteuerspielplatz (adventure playground). Linguistically you’d think children wouldn’t even need a roof over their heads – they could just hang around on the various types of Spielplätze depending on whim and weather.
We had no idea of the greatness of German playgrounds until we started travelling with our kids. In Bergen, Norway, the hotel staff emphatically recommended a playground around the corner that was probably pretty novel during industrialization when mass-produced iron was new. In central Illinois we ended up on a playground where rusty bolts protruded from rough concrete at the base of a ‘60s-vintage slide. The afternoon sun turned a metal UFO climbing gym into a giant frying pan for unmarinated three-year-olds. It hadn’t changed since I played on it as a kid.
In Berlin, our go-to playground carried a circus theme and expanded as our kids grew. That’s partly what’s so great about German playgrounds: Most are custom-built wooden jobs that incorporate slides, climbing walls, elevated rope walkways and tunnels with some theme: A circus, a jungle, the deeper meaning of Jungian dream interpretation in pre-Weimar Stuttgart. That kind of thing.
Our backup was the Kleinkindspielplatz at Kollwitzplatz. A Kleinkindspielplatz is a little kid playground that ultimately gets over-run by slightly bossy, slightly too big kids who seem impervious to reprimands from strange parents. Kind of like what happens to any bar when the New York Times includes it in any dispatch about coolness.
But the variety of German playgrounds is amazing. At a Bauspielplatz, you let kids loose in a Robinson Crusoe landscape with hammers, nails and used wood. “Build a pirate ship!” the playground calls to the children. “Make sure you have your health insurance cards!” it calls to the parents.
A Naturspielplatz is just a nice way of saying: Overgrown, muddy playground with a few good climbing trees. It’s a cop out really. A playground maintained by an aging alcoholic who loves children but is busy just getting out of bed in the morning. The motto of Naturspielplätze is a German saying popular with lazy parents (not that that’s a bad thing): Dreck reinigt den Magen (dirt cleans the stomach).
And an Abenteuerspielplatz is like a mix of a Naturspielplatz and a Bauspielplatz with about twice the broken bones. In short: Fantastic!
German playgrounds even have something for the parents: You can bring beer to most (but not all). As my kids grew my hobby quickly became knowing the nearest beer-serving convenience store for each playground. I should have sold guides.
German playgrounds almost make me want to have another kid.
After about 15 years in-country, I discovered yet another magical corner of Germany: The Nutella pizza. It happened after spontaneously hitting one of our favorite pizza joints in a Berlin neighborhood that might be Kreuzberg, Schöneberg or Tiergarten but is all parts great (I’m going to respect its privacy by just not checking).
“Ok,” I said to my fellow diners, who were comprised of a 9-year-old, a 10-year-old and my wife (age withheld). “Are we done? Can we go?”
My daughter picked up an errant Pizza Klub menu, stained by previous diners, and pointed at the thing she’d been waiting to point at the whole meal: Nutella pizza.
Angels began singing. Cloudy skies parted and a non-denominational spiritual of indeterminate sex spoke, making it clear we were ordering the Nutella pizza.
People seem to always give credit for Nutella to the country in which they first encounter it. Like a moustachioed turn-of-the-century hipster sampling Frites in Paris and making an incorrect assumption. I could google “Nutella history” and reword Ferrerro (Nutella’s owner) PR copy or copy and paste a Wikipedia entry but this post isn’t about Nutella’s origin story, it’s about my Nutella origin story. (And it’s 2016, you can do the googling yourself).
My first Nutella
I first encountered Nutella on my first-ever morning in Germany, back when the Kaisers still roamed the earth and Weimar was a town, not a historical period. After my guest parents taught me how to slice open a Brötchen and smear on Nutella (with butter, a practice I no longer follow), I figured they were allowing me a rare German treat because they were new guest parents and it was my first morning in Germany.
I mean, who has chocolate for breakfast? Unless it’s in a donut, of course.
But it wasn’t a special treat. I quickly came to realize that Nutella is a staple of the German diet behind Kartoffeln, Wurst and Weltschmerz. It’s always on the breakfast table, usually on a tray next to sugar beet syrup (Zuckerrübensyrup) and a jar of jelly last used during the Kohl administration.
I’m grateful to the Gehrings of Oldenburg for this introduction.
However, Nutella was one of the first child-rearing fights between my wife and I: She wanted to allow the children to have it while they were still in the womb but I argued it might give them too much of a taste for chocolate.
“Peanut butter, on the other hand,” I said.
Thanks, Pizza Klub
“It’s no different!” she claimed.
We all know she was wrong.
But by introducing them to Nutella so early, my daughter (and Pizza Klub) introduced me to the Nutella pizza.
The first time I saw one on a breakfast table at a hotel in Nuremberg, I thought it was hiding some breakfast delight. Extra butter. Milk. Tea, maybe. But it had an odd size and it was shaped like a tiny trash can.
Because it was a tiny trash can.
Yes, in Germany there are tiny trash cans on breakfast tables at bed & breakfasts (and your grandmother’s).
Guys! Tiny trash cans!
“They’re totally old fashioned,” my German wife told me as I sat down to write this. “Nobody uses them any more.”
Because Germany still has trash cans on many of its tables. Lots of its tables.
Tischmülleimer = Ordnung
How obsessed with Ordnung (table trash can … actually, order) do you have to be to have tiny trash cans on your breakfast table? So obsessed that you put tiny trash cans on your breakfast table. So obsessed that you have to take out the trash before you’ve even finished your Rühreier mit Speck (table trash … oh never mind, it’s scrambled eggs with bacon).
Teen-aged me thought the Germans were genius for their Tischmülleimer. You could spread all sorts of stuff on your bread and then throw all the detritus away sofort! It allowed you to focus on your German breakfast which, as we all know, requires full concentration.
Tischmülleimer make sense when you think of all the things the not-always-environmentally-conscious Germans serve in tiny plastic packages. Jelly. Honey. Butter. Cream cheese. Pumpernickel. Schmelzkäse (processed cheese). Angst. And Nutella. That can leave a table looking pretty unordentlich. The-day-after-New-Years disorderly. Plus: That tiny trash can is just the thing for your soft boiled egg shells (though you’ll still end up with some between your teeth).
Even better: The wait staff (or your grandmother) doesn’t have to come through and clean up your trash while you’re quoting Goethe and ladling quark (this weird cheese/yoghurt stuff) into your piehole. You can just throw it away!
When I was in high school in America, I imagined being an adult meant having all the CDs of my favorite bands. As an exchange student in Germany, I imagined being an adult as being able to have a Tischmülleimer at every table.
Something amazing happened my first day of school in Germany at Gymnasium (German high school). During a break, kids from the adjoining elementary school spilled out into the playground and mobbed a monotone cement ping pong table. They began hopping and yelling excitedly. As I moved closer and saw what they were doing, I felt like my entire life had been a lie.
On that day I realized America had been making a grave mistake. Ping pong tables were not something to be given at Christmas and repurposed as craft tables by Easter. They were actually useful recreational gear that could entertain more than four for far longer than just a few weeks of vacation. In Germany I discovered ping pong tables – excuse me, table tennis tables – had a place in society.
I was enthralled.
The kids weren’t playing monotonous rounds of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can, they were playing round-the-table (I guess?) table tennis. A player hits the ball across the net and then steps to their side. The player at the other end volleys and then steps to the right or left only to cycle around to another turn on the opposing side. The game continues until a player flubs a hit – and then they’re out. Players are eliminated until only the final two remain. And once a champion is crowned, they are quickly forgotten as the next round starts without a word.
Noise. Anticipation. Defeat. It felt very Thunderdomey. Or at least Dodgebally. And I couldn’t give it a shot because I was too old (or so I thought).
In my childhood, my friend Sean was the only one with a table that was actually used, and that was only because we cajoled him into games in the hopes of getting a glimpse or even a few words with his older sister Kate. Tables sat ignored and unused alongside PlayStations and Gameboys. And that day at Gymnasium I mourned the hours we wasted playing Combat on Atari 2600s when we could have been facing off in Rundlauf Tischtennis. And the occasional round of Smack the Plastic Orb as Hard as You Can.
So much youth wasted!
In turn-of-the-century Berlin, I finally got my chance to play at Ping Pong Country events and eventually Dr. Pong (though by then I had kids). And now there are apparently similar ping pong bars in the U.S. But I can’t help but feel my childhood was incomplete.
In these days of Skype-fueled long-distance relationships and low-cost airlines, the Wagenstandsanzeiger, or train car location sign (I know, German, right?) may not seem like such a magical beast but when I was a teenager it seemed as foreign as a bank that doesn’t need to be bailed out. It’s a sign on every German train platform that knows your train intimately and will tell you exactly where on your platform the train will stop – restrooms and all.
I came from a country where train delays weren’t measured in minutes or even hours but rather days. In my childhood, American passenger trains were never delayed by things like inclement weather or suicidal twenty-somethings. They seemed to suffer from depression, only getting up the nerve to traverse the country after a couple of stiff whiskeys and a stern talking to by the Minister of Transportation.
“Mother,” my mother would tell her mother through a plastic, yellow phone with a rotary dial, “The train was supposed to leave Tuesday but they say now it may be Thursday. We’re hoping to get there before we have to start back.” My grandmother never believed my mother. But after we arrived days late, my grandmother would complain about how late the train always was.
“I told you,” my mother would say. She never got along with her mother and, just to keep up the family tradition, I never got along with my mother either. My mother wasn’t blessed with any daughters so they drafted me for the role.
It was amidst this climate that I went to Germany as an exchange student and found the wondrous unicorn known as the Wagenstandsanzeiger. “You mean, they not only know which trains are going to show up at what time, but they even know which car will be where?” I thought my guest mother had become a wizard. How could they know?
My guest mother was just as surprised at my surprise: “Of course there’s a Wagenstandsanzeiger and of course it’s right!” She looked at me as though my skin had turned purple and I’d grown antlers.
And from that day forward I never rode another train without first checking the Wagenstandsanzeiger. It’s a tradition I want to pass to my children. Because I’m not their mother so they can’t not get along with me.
This only makes sense in the context of my childhood.
The VW Golf was introduced into the U.S. in 1975 as the Rabbit. It looked like the rejected offspring of a stalwart Volvo mother and a dull Honda father. Read: Small and boxy. It was a fuel-efficient, compact car for people who didn’t want to go Japanese. These people were the auto-buying version of punks. Or at least vegans. The Rabbit was supposedly a success but the only people who drove it in pre-cable TV Littleton, Colorado were college professors and … college professors. After cable TV, Depeche Mode and Robin Leach, yuppies who couldn’t afford BMWs also opted for the convertible version. At least it was German.
But no one ever dreamed of a Rabbit station wagon. Why would you? College professors never drove station wagons and if you needed that much room you’d opt for a real one anyway – one that could hold everything needed for a week-long trip to grandma’s or house a small New Guinean tribe. Besides, about then Lee Iacocca invented the mini-van, saving Chrysler and making station wagons pointless.
Then I went to Germany as an exchange student and discovered someone had taken a compact car and made it into a station wagon. They’d taken a car with not very much room and added not very much room more. You could maybe fit a medium-sized wiener dog in the back or go to the bowling alley with your wife and actually take both balls (jokes on me, Germans don’t bowl). The VW Rabbit station wagon – or Golf Combi, as the Krauts say – seemed like a car that never needed to be invented and yet there it was. In fact, in Wegberg, Germany, there a lot of them were. Magic.
The Golf Combi had such a hold on me that it was one of the first things I looked for on the VW Internet site, way back in like 1994. Maybe ’95. And I even almost bought one after the birth of my first child – I wanted us to be surrounded by magic. But I went for its mother instead – a 1996 Volvo 850.
The Volvo’s rotting in a field now. Probably home to several generations of rabbit.