Last week, as I was arriving for a lesson, I met the Managing Director of the company on the way in.
Me: Hey, how’s it going?
Bertilda: Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde will not be in the lesson today.
Me: OK. I have no idea who you’re talking about. So, how are you?
Me: (makes mental note to do a lesson on small talk)
That day, however, the lesson was to be on “Greetings and Introductions”. Only four women work in the office, two in their mid-forties and two in their mid-twenties. With the absence of Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, I only had two students – the MD and her assistant. After establishing once again that Germans are protective of their personal space in business (and pretty much all other) situations, we moved on to the discussion questions.
Me: How do you address the other person? Mister? Ms? First name?
Bertilda: Always Mister or Ms. Never first names.
Ediltrudis: Yes, never first names.
Me: Never? Not even after you’ve known the person for a while and have a good working relationship?
Me: OK. But surely in the office you call each other by your first names? I mean, there are only four of you…
Bertilda: We use Frau plus surname.
Ediltrudis: Yes, always.
Me: So, as soon as you leave this room, where you’re Bertilda and Ediltrudis, you switch back to Frau such-and-such and Frau such-and-such?
Bertilda: Yes, of course. Immediately.
Me: Wow. How long have you been working with Haduwig?
Bertilda: 16 years.
Me: And you still call her Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde?
Bertilda: Yes, of course.
Me: “Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, could you pass the stapler, please?” Wouldn’t it be easier and faster to just use her first name?
Bertilda: (shoots me a look that suggests that the words “easier” and “faster” are not in her vocabulary)
Me: Is it weird for you that I call you by your first names?
Bertilda: A bit but we are get used to it. I think it is different for English speakers.
Me: Getting. Yeah, I’ve worked in America, Australia, New Zealand, England and Ireland and I don’t think I ever called anyone by their surnames.
Bertilda: (disapproving sniff)
Ediltrudis: (obviously trying to throw me a bone) Our Azubis (trainees) – they mostly work in another office – they call each other by their first names and use “du”.
Clearly this was news to Bertilda.
Bertilda: (lowering her glasses and picking up her pen) They do?
Ediltrudis: Well, I mean… I think that… sometimes they might, yes…
Bertilda: (scratching angrily in her notepad) I think we need to have a meeting.
I knew I should probably wrap it up here but I was enjoying myself far too much.
Ediltrudis: Well, you know, they’re young and…
Bertilda: It is a sign of respect. Using surnames and “Sie” is our office culture.
Me: Oh, but in Berlin it’s so hard. Almost everyone immediately switches to “du” and uses first names. Even my Hausmeister told me to call him Burkhard the first time I met him and he’s in his fifties. (gleefully waits for response)
If, like me, you’re about as cuddly as a cactus, then a rather different way to spend four hours of your Saturday evening is to go to a cuddle party. “A cuddle party? What’s that, Linda?”, I hear you ask… Don’t worry, I’d never heard of the concept either – that is, until the lovely Jenna sent me an article about them. Sufficiently weirded out but curious at the same time, I toyed with the idea of going.
Me: I’m thinking of going to a cuddle party on Saturday.
Simone: I think I’d rather have my uterus extracted through my nostrils.
That decided it – I was going.
I located the building easily enough, got into the rickety lift and ascended to the fourth floor.
Despite the rather crumbly exterior, the room was really nice. As I paid my €20 (I know…) and got a sticker with a little heart and my name on it (eye roll), I looked around. Colourful mattresses were laid out in a circle on the floor and candles and warm lighting made the space look cosy. The thing that surprised me most, however, (apart from the fact that I was there) was how many people in Berlin were in need of a cuddle. There must have been around 50 people there and there was very little room left on the mattresses. A few people were younger than me but most were in their forties, fifties or sixties, with a roughly 3-1 ratio of women to men. A quick glance at the refreshments table confirmed the worst – no wine. I was diving headfirst into the weirdness stone cold sober.
I squeezed into a free spot just as proceedings started. After a brief introduction, Gottfried, the “Cuddle Trainer” passed the “Cuddle Elephant” to the person beside him. (I swear I’m not making any of this up.) We had to say our names and why we were there.
“I just really like giving cuddles.”
“Cuddling makes me feel good.”
“I was feeling really sad today and thought that cuddles might give me some comfort.”
When it came to my turn, I said that I’d seen an article online and was curious. This got a scathing look from Gottfried which became outright hostile when I said I’d seen the article on thrillist.com. Clearly he doesn’t put thrills and cuddles in the same category. I passed the “Cuddle Elephant” along. When all of the introductions and freaky reasons were done, Gottfried ran through the rules. There was a lot of blah blah about knowing your boundaries and not being afraid to say NEIN! He pointed out the “safe mattress” at the back of the room where you could sit for a while if you felt overwhelmed. Kissing was VERBOTEN and touching boobs, crotchal regions and arses was also out.
Once the mattresses had been stowed at the back of the room, Gottfried put on some airy-fairy, shite music and we all had to dance around a bit. I shook off the pressures of the outside world by shuffling awkwardly with my hands by my sides, while other people looked as if they were undergoing some kind of demonic possession. The next song started and this time we had to move around the room, making eye contact with the other lunatics. The third song got the touching bit started. We could hold hands, feel hands and stroke hands as we moved around but, unfortunately, nobody HOCH FÜNFed anyone. People were already starting to sweat and the smell of B.O. was overpowering. I half-heartedly touched a few moist hands.
Next we had to dance with each other, choosing a different partner every so often. I ambled around, getting increasingly freaked out by the glazed, blissed-out eyes and serene smiling. If these people weren’t high on life, they were definitely high on something. One guy, who looked like he’d be at home with Jack in the Cuckoo’s Nest, started trippily waving his arms around in my face. Another caught me around the waist and started to sway with me.
“How close is too close?”
As I didn’t know how to say “If I feel an erection, then you’re too close and you’re going down”, I just mumbled that where he was was fine. Presently, we had to find a partner to hand grope. A middle-aged woman caressed my hands and gazed at me lovingly. I watched the seconds ticking by on the wall clock. Each pair found another pair and then there were four people mauling each other. I found my head sandwiched between braless boobs. Then the four had to find another four and engage in a group hug.
I looked a bit like this guy:
After unsticking my face from a man’s back, I had a time out behind the refreshments table. Ah, a solo exercise. OK, back in. We stood with our eyes closed (mine were open) as Gottfried talked us through a load of nonsense about feeling the energy come up through the earth into our stockinged feet. As the cuddle party took place in Hasenheide, one of the dodgiest areas in Berlin, I didn’t even want to think about what my feet were absorbing. We raised our arms and started walking forward until we were one massive, 50-person cuddle. I checked to make sure everyone’s eyes were closed and ran. I had lasted an hour and twenty minutes. Pretty impressive, I thought. I couldn’t even imagine how they were going to fill another two hours and forty minutes but I had a feeling it would probably end like this:
I washed my hands repeatedly and left the building. Safely back in my local bar with a large glass of wine in front of me, I achieved a level of relaxation that cuddling fifty strangers could never give me.
I’m sure the lingering stench of B.O. will wear off any minute now…
I spend quite a bit of time in my local bar, perhaps too much some might say. It’s owned and mainly staffed by Croatians and features a motley crew of locals, all of whom have been very friendly and welcoming to the weird Irish chick who showed up in their midst one day. In fact, it’s where I learned a lot of my German as the men there seem very keen to talk to me – probably because I lower the average age by about 20 years and wear a dress sometimes.
Over the course of several months, I noticed that the “Club Room” adjacent to the main bar was empty most evenings and, over a few glasses of wine, I came up with the idea to start an “English Club”. As there are so many interesting ways for foreigners to learn German in Berlin, I thought it might be nice to give the Germans a chance to learn English in a slightly different way.
I spoke to the owner and ran the idea past him. He was all for it and, most importantly, using the room would be free of charge as I’d (hopefully) be bringing in new customers. I spent a little while mulling over the Club and how it would work and put together a poster to publicise it in the bar. I was pretty pleased with it but sent it to Manfredas anyway to get a German’s opinion.
Manfredas: NEIN! Das geht gar nicht! Germans want details. They want to know WHY they’re going somewhere and what to expect when they get there.
Back to the drawing board. I added every possible detail I could think of and, this time, it got the Manfredas seal of approval. I stuck the posters up in the bar, and posted a couple of notices on local websites. Manfredas had stolen some flipchart paper for me (Germans can be quite wild…) and I set off to the bar on that first Tuesday evening at around 5.30.
The idea behind English Club is that people can come and practise and improve their English in a relaxed environment, over a couple of beers, once a week at 6pm. I’d pick a different topic every week and we would discuss it together. I stuck the flipchart paper to the back of the door, took out and lined up the 20 pens that I’d bought, prepared my materials and waited.
Two people came. Success! The topic that I’d prepared – ordering in a restaurant – proved to be woefully inadequate. Like a lot of Germans, these guys were waaaaaaaaaaaaay beyond that level. I had no idea that the people who showed up would already be so good at English. Still, we chatted away merrily for the hour and all was well with the English Club.
The next week, I had a rethink and picked some more advanced materials. A few more people showed up and we had a grand old time.
I’ve since bought a whiteboard which I use to write up new vocabulary and do corrections at the end of the hour. The next day, I email any new words and the corrections to participants, or post them on the Club Facebook page.
I’ve been doing it for a few months now and a little while ago, a journalist from Kiez Report (a video blog on the local area) said that he’d like to do an interview about the English Club with me. My desire to boost English Club’s popularity won out over the horror of seeing myself on camera and I decided to do it. After all, the journalist’s name was Patrick – what could possibly go wrong?
I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting but whatever it was, it didn’t involve tripods or professional lighting. Patrick said that he’d like to ask me the first question in German and then we could continue in English. ARGH!
Squinting into the light, I mumbled something that sounded vaguely like German, albeit with a strong Irish accent, and then we switched to English. It was actually…fun! Patrick stayed for the whole hour and interviewed one of the participants at the end who, thankfully, was very complimentary about me and my little English Club.
If you want a chuckle, you can watch the video here.
Relax. This isn’t going to be another post about my long-standing obsession with the German Sitzpinkel. “German Men Sit Down to Pee” is the title of a book I recently had the pleasure of reading. Co-author, James Cave, was kind enough to send me a copy to review and, although it took me a while to get around to it (sorry again, James!), once I did, I read it in a single sitting.
Even though I consider myself practically German these days, this book had me raising my eyebrows and chuckling away at all sorts of little quirks and oddities that I had previously been totally unaware of. Without giving away too much of the contents of “German Men Sit Down to Pee”, I thought I’d share some of these with you here.
A pillow is considered a “passive weapon” in Germany.
Yep, that’s right boys, you can put all of those fantasies of hot German women pillow-fighting in their underwear out of your head. Not going to happen – no woman in her right mind is going to risk an assault charge just so you can get your rocks off.
But don’t worry too much – Germany will take care of you in other ways thanks to its lax laws when it comes to porn production. Germany has carved out a “nice” little niche for itself when it comes to gangbangs, urinal and fecal porn, otherwise known as Scheiße Porn. And if that doesn’t float your boat/penis, you’ll be pleased to hear that prostitution is also legal in Germany.
In fact, in Bonn, the ladies of the night buy tickets just like you would a parking ticket. This allows them to “park” themselves for the night and carry out the ins and outs of their business. Several cities have also introduced drive-thru sex areas.
“Yes, good evening, can I get a Big Rack to go, please?”
2. Do not “du” a police officer
As some of you probably already know, there are two forms of address in German – the formal “Sie” and the informal “du”. While in Berlin, you can get away with “du-ing” most people, it is actually illegal to “du” a police officer and you could end up with a fine of up to €600… Here’s how I imagine that working out:
Me: Officer! Officer! Kannst du mir helfen? That man has just run off with my bag!
SIEgfried: Did you just “du” me?
Me: What? Oh, I guess but…but… the man! He’s getting away!
SIEgfried: That’s not the pressing issue here, young lady. You just “du’d” a police officer and, in Germany, that has consequences.
SIEgfried: Can I see some identification, please?
Me: I would love to show you but IT’S IN MY DAMN BAG!
The thief then thumbs his nose at me and strolls off into the sunset.
3. A fine for your finger
Although the German Autobahn is pretty relaxed when it comes to things like, you know, having a speed limit, there are other things that are strictly VERBOTEN. Road rage is one of them. Giving someone the finger in a fit of pique could result in a rather steep fine.
Running out of petrol on the Autobahn is also illegal. It’s not regarded as “one of those things” as it’s something that you could have planned for and, therefore, avoided. And we all know how much the Germans like planning…
4. Love your hole
Germans are world-renowned for their lovable beach habits. Getting up at the crack of dawn to put their towels on the sun loungers – check. Letting it all hang out – check. Socks and sandals – check.
One German beach quirk that I wasn’t aware of, however, is the German love of digging holes in the sand. In 2010, a German tourist in Tenerife had to be rescued by firemen after the tunnel system he’d built to connect his holes collapsed around him, leaving him trapped up to his neck in sand. And while you might think this was just a one-off, there is evidence to suggest that it really is a “thing”.
At the German seaside resort of St. Peter-Ording, digger trucks appear early each morning to fill in the holes that have been dug on the beach the day before. Germans, eh? Who knew?
5. Have yourself a scary Little Christmas
The 6th of December is known in Ireland as Little Christmas; in Germany, it’s called Nikolaus. And what better way to celebrate the start of the season than scaring the bejesus out of your children?
On the 6th, unsuspecting German kids leave their shoes outside the door for Nikolaus to fill up with sweets and goodies – but only if they’ve been good. If they’ve been bad (NEIN!), his sidekick, Farmhand Rupert, will beat them with a stick and a bag of ashes – at least in the olden days. These days, they’ll just wake up to find their shoes filled with lumps of coal. It’s a real shame when these old traditions die out…
In parts of Austria and Bavaria, it gets even better worse. You can actually pay someone to come and scare your kids straight. Krampus will show up, terrify them a bit and hope they see the error of their ways. If they try to talk back, they’re picked up, held upside down and dunked in the snow.
Anyway, that’s just a small selection of the treats that “German Men Sit Down to Pee” has in store for you. If you’re planning on visiting or moving to Germany, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will have you chortling into your passive weapon way past your bed time.
Order your copy here or check out the website. You’ll be happy you did.
Thank you again to James for giving me the chance to write a review!
Me: Ugh, I think I’ll sleep for another hour. It shouldn’t take more than five and a half hours to put on a dress.
Manfredas: One would think not.
Me: Grunt. (I hate it that a German sounds more natural using “one” than I do.)
We were being picked up by Manfredas’ boss, Heribert, at 5.30 to go to their company Christmas party. As there would be at least a hundred new people and a hell of a lot of German, I suggested one for “Dutch courage” in the local bar beforehand. Amazingly, Manfredas had never heard of this expression before so I smugly took my leave with four hours and forty-five minutes remaining to put on a dress.
Heribert and his wife, Fraubert (yeah, I know I’m pushing it with that one), were waiting for us so we hopped into the car and I entertained everyone with my charming Germish. Manfredas and I had devised a game called “Spot the Ossi” which we shared with the Berts, neither of whom are East German (Ossi).
The shindig had been organised by Manfredas’ colleague, who is known internally as “The Sheriff”.
Yes, you read that correctly – the party was scheduled to end at 11.59. Not midnight, not 11.58, but 11.59. Germans…
We were greeted by The Sheriff and I craned my neck to get a good look at her over the vast expanse of her yellow outfit; I imagine it was how David must have felt when he met Goliath. (I was David, in case you were wondering.) Our names were checked off a list and we were given name tags, which everyone just loves. We made our way outside to the mulled wine reception.
Me: There’s one.
A woman with hair like blonde candy floss was an obvious first Ossi-spot.
Me: There’s another one.
A woman who had dyed the back of her wall of hair purple was an easy second spot. We mingled a little, with me attempting to be on my best behaviour. The Sheriff soon started herding us towards the main reception room, where the big boss was due to give a welcome speech. We took our seats at the Berts’ table and I restrained myself from commenting (too much) on the phallic festive chocolates.
The Sheriff was given the credit for organising the event and lumbered up to collect a bouquet of flowers. All credit to the woman, she had organised it with military precision and everything went off without a hint of a hitch. The food was amazing – honeyed ham, duck, cod, mushroom ravioli, an extensive salad bar, fresh baguettes, a veritable potato fest, and a choice of desserts with fancy descriptions that defied any logic. “An interpretation of Apfelstrudel”… Anyone?
The endless supply of free wine lubed up my linguistic skills and conversation at our table flowed as easily as the booze. The DJ played a rather bewildering array of tunes and, despite one failed attempt to get our dinner companions to do the YMCA, Manfredas and I had a rollicking good time.
Best of all, at 11.59, the Berts gave us a lift back too, saving us up to two hours on public transport. We finished our night as we had started it, looking fabulously overdressed in our local bar.
I remembered to remove my name tag just in time and avoided looking like a total prat.
In a bid to make a bit of extra cash before Christmas, last week I applied to a school that is approximately 30 seconds from my house; perfect for these cold, dark, winter days. I got a reply and dutifully trotted across the road at 14.50. I rang the bell. No answer. I rang the bell again. No answer. I called the number and was routed to some central messaging service where, surprise, nobody answered. Slipping in behind a woman who had a key, I made it to the front door of the school, rang several more times and then gave up.
At around 15.10, an unkempt woman with greasy hair and rumpled clothing appeared.
Frau Sau: How did you get in?
Me: A woman had the key.
Frau Sau: Huh.
She opened the door and instructed me to sit down in the hall. No apology then. She went into her office and reappeared with part of her coffee machine, went into the bathroom, filled it with water and went back into her office, all the while looking at me like I was some sort of curious exhibit in a museum.
Finally, I was called in. After the oddest interview ever –
Frau Sau: Do you have the right to work in the EU?
Me: I’m Irish. We’re EU citizens.
Frau Sau: For now…
Frau Sau: This school has been going for years. I don’t know how many.
Frau Sau: Oh. You know more than I do.
– she offered me a group of 5-year-olds as a cover lesson at the end of the week. Now, I have taught kids before but it’s been a long time and even they were 7 or 8.
Me: Hmm. OK…
Frau Sau: Great. So, 15.30 on Friday.
Me: Well, OK but what am I supposed to do with them? Did the regular teacher leave any notes?
Frau Sau: (Blank look)
Me: Or is there a book that they normally use?
Frau Sau: I guess you could try this. It’s in German but pictures are pictures.
Me: Um, OK. What if I want to make copies? Is there another photocopier here? Your office will be locked. (She works from 15.00 – 18.30 every day – poor woman must be exhausted.)
Frau Sau: You’ll just have to make your copies now.
Me: But I don’t know what I’m doing with them yet.
Frau Sau: (Blank look)
Me: Which classroom should I use?
Frau Sau: Any of them.
Frau Sau: Can you sing?
Me: Uh… (putting the book in my bag)
Frau Sau: You can’t take that with you. I’ll leave it out in the hall for you for Friday.
She then proceeded to fill out forms on her computer, making me say everything out loud, despite all of the information being in front of her in my freshly-printed CV and certificates. After that, she took me through the “student database” – a box filled with alphabetically-filed cards. Instead of there being one card for the group with all of the students’ names on it, each student had an individual card which would have to be filled in after the lesson. Sigh.
As I would want to get there earlier than 15.00 having had no tour of the school or any clue what I was doing, she gave me the key to the building – this seemed a bit strange as she really didn’t know me from Adam. Stranger still was that I didn’t need any sort of police background check before working with young children. Then again, maybe German law is different?
I went home and got on Facebook to tell Han how it had gone.
Me: Ugh, I don’t even know what a 5-year-old looks like…
Han: They look awful.
Me: They can smell fear, right?
On Friday at 14.45, I let myself in. I had a wander around the rooms and chose the biggest one. I had planned on doing a lesson on food but changed my mind and decided on parts of the body, mainly because I didn’t want to sing this:
“Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” I could get on board with. I located the one CD player and got set up. At around 15.05, Frau Sau showed up.
Frau Sau: What are you doing with that book?
Me: That’s the book you left out for me.
Frau Sau: But that’s a book for kids.
Me: I’m teaching kids.
Frau Sau: No, you’re teaching school children.
Me: But you said 5-year-olds.
Frau Sau: Must have been a misunderstanding.
Me: (panic) OK, so how old are these kids?
Frau Sau: Oh, from grade blah blah to blah blah.
German grades don’t make much sense to me but this sounded like a big range of ages and levels.
Me: Riiiiiiiiiight. So what am I supposed to do with them? Is there a book?
Frau Sau: No.
Me: Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. So what am I supposed to do with them?
Frau Sau: I don’t know. Their homework I guess.
I went back into my room and had a moment of ARRRRGGGGHHHHH. The floor looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” was written.
The “kids” started to show up. I guess they were between 9 and 16, with wildly varying abilities. Some of them had English homework, some didn’t. Some of them had English books, some didn’t. Three of them were actually there to study German.
I got the ones who had English homework started on that and set the others a simple writing task. After about 30 minutes, they were all done.
Wolff: Where are you from?
Gerlinde: Where’s that?
Wolff: (with much eye-rolling) It’s an island near Great Britain. (Sigh. Eye-roll.)
I decided that we may as well play games for the last hour so we whiled away the time with past simple Xs and Os, Hangman and Who Am I? I have no idea who the cool kids know these days but I figured it was a safe bet they’d heard of Donald Trump. I put Heribert standing with his back to the board and wrote Donald Trump on it.
Heribert: Am I a man?
Wolff: I HATE YOU!!!
Heribert: Donald Trump?
5 o’clock rolled around.
Gerlinde: That was so much fun! Are you going to be here on Monday?
Me: No, sorry, it’s just for today.
Me: Nope, sorry!
Me: Yeah, I know.
Hedde: I really like your hair…
They trundled out and I went to the office to find Frau Sau. Naturally, she’d chosen this exact time to disappear. I stood making idle chatter with a parent she’d also left sitting there waiting.
Mutter: (rather ominously) Yeah, I’ve had dealings with Frau Sau before…
Frau Sau reappeared, went into the bathroom without making eye contact with either of us, and then emerged to call me into her office. I started filling out my invoice.
Frau Sau: I need the key back.
Me: (through gritted teeth) Yes, in a minute.
Frau Sau: How did it go?
Me: Yeah, fine. We did their homework and some writing practice and then played some games.
Frau Sau: Oh, there are a load of games in that cupboard. You could have used those.
So I grabbed her by her greasy hair, swung her around a few times and hurled her through the window.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain