Weltmeister

When I traveled to the United States for the first time ever, a year and a half ago, I thought that I have never seen a country more obsessed with its national flag. Everywhere you threw your glance, it was almost impossible to find a view that didn’t include the star-spangled in all it glory: printed on clothing items, displayed on various paraphernalia or just waving proudly from rooftops, cars or front lawns.

And then I got to see Germany during the World Cup.

"World Champion" buttons at a German retail store © Alexandra Belopolsky

“World Champion” buttons at a German retail store
© Alexandra Belopolsky

Germany is – for well known reasons – extremely sensitive towards anything that has to do with patriotism or national pride. Even the German Unity Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) celebrations are unusually understated in comparison to other independence days around the world. Displays of the black-red-golden banner are treated with high suspicion, and usually place the displayer(s) in the far-right corner.

With two exceptions: The Eurovision and soccer.

A bakery in Bonn © Alexandra Belopolsky

A bakery in Bonn
© Alexandra Belopolsky

International contests seem to provide Germans with the relief of finally being unapologetically proud of their country. And much like with teenagers who went to single-sex religious schools, once they get a taste of freedom – all barriers are gone (no, we are not going to discuss my education now).

A store display in Cologne © Alexandra Belopolsky

A store display in Cologne
© Alexandra Belopolsky

One expects the usual soccer merchandise

 © Alexandra Belopolsky

© Alexandra Belopolsky

It’s even understandable

Display window of a German retail store  © Alexandra Belopolsky

Display window of a German retail store
© Alexandra Belopolsky

And the cheap flag-colored toys make sense

Soccer fan paraphernalia at a German supermarket © Alexandra Belopolsky

Soccer fan paraphernalia at a German supermarket
© Alexandra Belopolsky

as do the special cosmetics editions

essence World Cup line © Alexandra Belopolsky

essence World Cup line
© Alexandra Belopolsky

Even the jewelry is understandable – for teenies

© Alexandra Belopolsky

© Alexandra Belopolsky

and for grown-ups alike

© Alexandra Belopolsky

© Alexandra Belopolsky

Sometimes it’s even cute

World Cup donuts at a bakery © Alexandra Belopolsky

World Cup donuts at a bakery
© Alexandra Belopolsky

But then it starts to get a bit too much

Flag-colored sour candy stripes at Hussel © Alexandra Belopolsky

Flag-colored sour candy stripes at Hussel…
© Alexandra Belopolsky

.... and at Haribo © cashya79 on Instagram

…. and at Haribo
© cashya79 on Instagram

and send unfortunate implications

Flag-colored lollipops (and unfortunate implications) at Hussel ©  Alexandra Belopolsky

Flag-colored lollipops at Hussel
© Alexandra Belopolsky

Eventually , it crosses over into the realms of the exaggerated

Special M&M's edition © Alexandra Belopolsky

Special M&M’s edition
© Alexandra Belopolsky

the inexplicable

© Alexandra Belopolsky

© Alexandra Belopolsky

the strange

Bath sponges © on Instagram

Soccer bath sponges
© margotbu on Instagram

and the bizzare

I... I don't even know... © mebila on Instagram

I… I don’t even know…
© mebila on Instagram

There’s even a hashtag for this now: #SinnlosesWM2014Gedöns (#senslessWorldCup2014stuff)

Screenshot_2014-06-06-20-28-52

Do look it up

Screenshot_2014-06-06-20-28-30

The fun never ends!!

Screenshot_2014-06-06-20-27-52

This is not to say that German society is not split over this. Leftist Germans tend to swing between incomprehension of the whole whoo-ha and outright contempt for anything and anyone displaying the national tricolor. The place I’m currently typing this in, a lefty/queer café in Neukölln, Berlin, hung out a sign at the entrance saying “No black-red-gold in here!”. Further down the street, someone hung out a flag that covers their whole balcony.

Happy World Cup, everybody!

DE toy - mebila

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The awful German language*

“I hate German!”
That was a Russian teenager next to me on the train, who was trying to gossip with her friends and kept getting the grammar wrong. My first thought in response to hearing that was “Why?!”. My second thought was “My, it’s been a while since I last thought that!”.
These days it will be five years since I started learning German (My God, has it really been that long?!). I have never actually planned on learning it, but in 2009 I landed a scholarship from the Herbert Quandt-Foundation, and suddenly all thoughts about picking up French took a backseat (I still plan on doing that some day. At least, I hope. I wish. I… Oh, forget it…).

Anything I may have to say on the German grammar has already been said by Mark Twain, and I am not so conceited as to think I can write it better or funnier. I ran into his “The Awful German Language” essay fairly early in my linguistic progress, and it did two things: 1. It gave me a hysterical laughter fit.
2. It terrified me down to my very soul.

***At this point, I’m sending you to read the article before you continue to the rest of the post. For one – you’ll need it for context. For another – you’ll thank me. That is, when you can breathe again.***

Are you alive? Do you need a glass of water?
OK, let’s move on.
There I was, obligated to learn a language I never dreamed of even being able to wrap my tongue around. [Insert joke of choice about German porn here. Laugh on your own. Move on.] I’ve always been good at imitating accents (I didn’t go into acting  because I didn’t want to be unemployed and broke. So I went into journalism instead… Anyway.), and German was never one of them. And now I had to master it well enough to write in it, when I couldn’t even get the gender articles straight. As proud as Michael Spivak might have been, you really can’t go on calling everything “deah” indefinitely. Not only does printed text make swallowing syllables rather challenging, but the gendering of the adjectives renders the whole endeavor completely fruitless (German is not a very feminist language – a girl is “it”, for crying out loud!). For a while, I just called everything that didn’t apply to the few rules that actually exist  “das“, because when it came to adjective gendering I had in 2:4 times  a 2:3 chance of getting it right (I’ll spare you the grammar. Trust me, you want me to.) – but the other 2:4 times kept blowing my cover. So eventually I had to do what every single German always told me I have to: Just memorize them. Which is really quite a feat, considering the sheer quantity of words even Germans feel like taking aside and asking “How do you prefer to be referred to?”. Or if not them, then Leo.

One of the curious side effects of knowing a language (and being a Grammar Nazi) is correcting the grammar of the people around you in your head.  The first time I caught myself doing it in German I was pleasantly surprised. The first time I caught myself doing it to a German, I was shocked. Like most (all?) countries in the 21st century, Germany was not bypassed by the phenomena of degeneration of grammar in the younger generation, or, as most people around the world refer to it, “These kids need to pick up a damn book!”. While Israeli teens have done away with first person future tense (it differentiates in Hebrew. Or at least, used to…), German teens have done away with a whole tense altogether (Genitiv).** Nothing prepared me for correcting native speakers in my head***. It didn’t make me feel accomplished, though. Rather depressed. (OK, it did make me feel  a bit accomplished, but only after I was done feeling depressed.). Of course, I also managed to pick up some bad grammar myself, simply by talking to people, which took me a while to correct.

What I’m trying to get to is this: I did it. It took me about 9 months to get to a comprehensible level and another couple of years to be fluent (and yet another year for Kölsch to start sounding like a real language to me), but I did it. I learned a language that five years ago seemed like an Everest I could never climb. I can read in it, write, watch movies, have political debates, fight, flirt, and once in a while even make puns. I still don’t know all the gender articles, but most Germans assure me that it’s OK – they often don’t either. Plus, I’m now good enough to claim feminism in defense.
So there. Don’t let Mark Twain scare you. Eternity is better spent taking up Finnish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Don’t look at me, Mark Twain did it first.
** How have the teens in your country mutilated your native language? Is this as global as I perceive it to be? Tell me in the comments!
*** For the German-speaking readers: Ein Deutsche trifft einen Ausländer auf der Straße.
Der Deutsche: Wie kommt man nach Aldi?
Der Ausländer: Zu Aldi! Zu!
Der Deutsche: Wie?! Schon zu?!

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A day and a night at the opera

One of the greatest things about Germany is how the Germans cherish, preserve and celebrate high culture. One the most baffling things about it, is the Germans’ ability to enjoy it under any and all conditions.

Any German town that dares call itself a such has its own theater and/or opera house. Obviously, the quality of performance varies – small towns can rarely compete with big cities (unless its a town specifically known for its accomplishments in the field, like Weimar or Bayreuth). But even big city orchestras have their low points; one of my worst concert experiences was listening to Komische Oper orchestra as it limped its way through Tschaikovski’s Nutcracker. As a daughter to a professional pianist, a classical music aficionado since age six (see previous point) and a Ukrainian with Russian cultural background (see previous 2 points – there, you got your stereotypes at last), it was literally painful.

But even the worse possible conductor cannot rival the sheer shock of beer and a Bratwurst at the opera. We have already established that the Germans can’t go anywhere without their beer – and this goes for the opera as much as for anything else. I’m fairly sure that my first encounter with the buffet at a German theater was rather baffling for the people in line, who were probably wondering why that girl is standing in front of it with the facial expression of someone who has just been hit with a rather large mallet. Oh yes – they serve beer at the opera.

And that’s just the normal, indoors opera. One of the best – and most curious – parts about Germany’s love of opera are the public viewings. Germans will watch anything in public (note for future post), and classical music festivals hardly ever go without a free-of-charge live translation from the concert hall to an open air space – pretty much regardless of weather conditions, unless it’s snowing (Germans don’t like it when it snows. A classic nuts and toothless case.).

My first public opera viewing was in Bayreuth, during the Wagnerfestspiele (the annual Wagner festival). Having realized that my only way to have had seating tickets at the time of my stay was to have orderd them when I was 15 (average waiting time for Wagnerfestspiele tickets is 7 to 10 years; if you think I’m joking, go ahead and place an order), I opted for my only other option to see “Tristan und Isolde” played at the composer’s home town. So around noon I showed up at Bayreuth’s biggest park, wearing jeans (because it’s a park) and a pearl necklace (because it’s the opera), assuming there will be some sort of viewing arrangements.

What there was, was a sea of folding chairs and food stalls of the country fair variety.  i.e. – beer (of course), and Bratwurst. Now, it is not unreasonable to have some sort of easily prepared food sold at an event which lasts over 6 hours (It’s Wagner. This is actually a short opera), but you don’t usually expect an opera viewing to so closely resemble Oktoberfest.

And then I saw the picnickers.

In spite of the organizers’ best efforts, there were  – and this is my favourite part – simply not enough chairs. The park seatings were not enough to accommodate all the Bavarians eager to enjoy a day full of classical music. So they brought blankets and picnic baskets. And sat on the ground.

Now, this may seem normal and logical to you, but I was raised watching opera in a chair, wearing my best dress (the jeans were actually a feat), so watching people sitting on the ground in shorts and munching a Bratwurst to the sounds of “Das sage sie” was a culture shock of the most literal kind.

It only serves me right that by late afternoon I looked like this:

100_1008
Photo: Kristina Milicevic

What they don’t tell you when you go to Europe in the summer, thinking it’s all summer rain, and light showers, and lovely weather, is that it gets HOT. Blazing hot. Especially in Bavaria. Especially in August. I came from the Middle East and I was suffering (as is evident from the lack of any shred of self dignity). The only reason I’m wearing that cardigan in the photo is because it was either that or going home as a fried tomato (and I don’t do fried foods, they make you fat). Make no mistake – the Germans around me were just as miserable. They were the ones who thought up the paper hats. But they matched me on staying power – while still complaining about whose bright idea it was, to have a day-long open air screening in Bavarian mid-August.

Not that late summer evenings are any better. Bonn is currently celebrating Beethovenfest (Germans do love their “we had a composer live here, let’s throw a festival for him!” festivals), and the open air de jour was a live translation of “Fidelio” from the opera house. Around 8 o’clock in the evening the square in front of the historic city hall filled up with music lovers. Since the screening coincided with a pop festival at the neighbouring square, all the beer stalls – along with most of the younger crowd – were on the other side. This one had an open ice-cream café and a souvenir stand, which was offering, among other things, folding chairs and blankets. At first I was a bit confused about the blankets – cobblestones are not a ground you want to sit on, and the weather has been fairly pleasant the past few evenings. Not warm as such, but warm enough to get away with a jacket and a scarf.

I understood it pretty quickly, though. About 30 minutes into the opera, the temperatures dropped from chilly to “Oh my God, where are my ear muffs?!”, and even while wearing a woolen coat I was beginning to lose sensation in my toes. But trust the Germans to not let something as silly as weather spoil their classical fun.

IMG_20130929_210648

This elderly lady was almost as good a show as the opera itself. She covered up her elegant clothes in the branded 5-Euro blanket, ordered a glass of wine from the café, lit up a cigarette and leaned back in a motion that made it perfectly clear why Marlene Dietrich could only ever have been German.

By the time we reached the intermission all sensation in my toes was gone, and I opted for physical survival – the shivering made it too hard to enjoy the music. I can handle heat, but the dropping temperatures take readjustment. I did just come from the Middle East. Most of the crowd was still there as I was leaving.

IMG_20130929_201019

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Germany votes

The German federal elections will take place tomorrow, September 22nd, and had I been a German citizen I would have been as much at a loss as many of my friends who do partake in the process. If there is one thing which remains consistent regardless of the country I’m in and of my voting rights (or lack thereof) in it, it is the fact that I cannot think of a political party I could 100% calmly vote for. Germany is no different.

I do, however, immensely enjoy the campaigning. There are no limits to the amount of ridiculousness which politicians so graciously bestow on the prospected voters in the hopes of catching their attention. You may hate them, you may laugh at them, but at least you will have heard of them. And since you may not have heard of them, here’s a quick recapture of the main candidates before you’re laughing too hard to pay attention.

CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union) – The Christian Democratic Union. As you may have guessed from the name – conservative. Angela Merkel’s party. Currently in power, and looking at another term as the strongest party.
SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) – The German Social-Democratic Party. Second largest party in power, and will probably stay as such. Running with Peer Steinbrück as a chancellor candidate, but not likely to win.
FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei) – The Free Democratic Party. Goes also by the name The Liberals. By “liberals” they mean the classic, John Locke kind of liberals – personal freedoms and free markets. Basically, what the American Republican party could have been without the bible-bashers and the NRA. You may know them from their most prominent member – Germany’s openly gay Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle. A regular coalition partner for CDU.
Bündnis 90/Die Grünen  – The Green Party. Currently under assault after a recent discovery that when the party started out certain streams within it were campaigning to legalize pedophilia. Regular opposition partner for SPD.
Die Linke – The Left. Socialist workers’ party. As communist as you can get while still remaining a democrat. Opposition partner for SPD and the Greens.
Piratenpartei – The Pirate Party. Surprised everyone in the previous elections by actually getting seats in the some of the Landtags (state senates). A relatively young party, whose biggest selling point was and is (as the name may suggest) internet freedom and the abolishment of patenting and copyrights. Considering Germany has what is probably one of the world’s most effective enforcement mechanisms for copyrights (a separate post on that issue to come), they’ll probably stay for another term.
AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) – An Alternative for Germany. A newcomer on the election scene, which is likely to get at least a couple of seats. Campaigns for Germany’s renouncement of the Euro and exit from the European Union. An after-effect of the Greece crisis, during which Germany paid millions of Euros to rescue Greece, failed to do so – and then remembered that it STILL owes them WWII money and that all those millions they just paid don’t count for that (and don’t ask why they didn’t start with just paying off their official debts).

For my first few days in Bonn I was couchsurfing with a really nice girl, who is interested in politics and has a television, so we ended up watching the debate between Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück. It was truly amazing how, considering we both had to work all day prior to the debate, the candidates managed to look just as tired as we were. How anyone can expect regular citizens to be interested in the campaign when even the people running for office seem bored with it, is truly a riddle.

Thank Heavens we have the election posters to keep us amused. So, for their last day of glory, let’s pay our respect to the ones that made us laugh the hardest (all photos by me, unless mentioned otherwise).

1. The Pirates knowing their audience

"An update for this system is available"

“An update for this system is available”

2. The Greens’ local campaign, giving you several reasons to believe they had a color-blind person in charge of the posters

“We['re] for Bonn.
And you?”

3. The Green Youth performing a civil service for Alzheimer’s patients

"Warning: Merkel is in the CDU"

“Warning: Merkel is in the CDU”

4. The Greens going wild in Stuttgart

"We're reaching a climax" Foto: Klaus Kocks

“We’re reaching a climax.
And you?”
Foto: Klaus Kocks

5. The Pirates trying the hipster/reversed psychologie approach

"Why do I even hang here? You're not going to vote anyway"

“Why do I even hang here? You’re not going to vote anyway”

6. CDU making the Pirates look old-fashioned by actually creating a campaign meme

"Keep calm and vote Merkel"

“Keep calm and vote Merkel”

7. And this.

"Tackle it!"

“Tackle it!”

And then, of course, there was the moment when FDP (01:19) and the Neo-Nazi party (01:08) used the same generic family in their campaign video, and it turned out to be Finnish curd cheese.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Biermeister

In 2009 I was taking a train somewhere in Bavaria. It was early afternoon, and I was sitting by the window, watching the sunny scenery of outstretching fields and forests outside. An elegantly-dressed, slightly overweight man of about 60 came in and sat at the table seats on the other side of the aisle. He placed a leather briefcase on the table and took out a newspaper, spreading it out carefully, making sure it doesn’t wrinkle. With the same elegant movement, he pulled a can of beer from the briefcase, opened it with a soft hissing sound and proceeded to reading the paper while sipping the beer. I switched my focus to the scenery inside the train. In approximately 15 minutes he finished half the newspaper and all of the beer. He put the can in the trash bin next to the seat, and just as I thought the show was over he pulled out a second one. 15 more minutes later, he was putting away the second empty can and I was collecting my jaw.

A year later I was meeting a German friend in Tel-Aviv. We met at around four o’clock in the afternoon, next to a coffee shop. He had a bottle of Israeli beer in his hand, so we sat outside on a step as he drank it. “You know”, he said pensively between sips, obviously surprised, “as I was walking here, people were giving me funny looks”. It really does seem to come as a shock to Germans that in some countries it is not customary to go by your day inseparable from your beer.

Oddly enough, Germany does not seem to be as plagued with alcoholism as you might expect. Germans start drinking early – the legal age is was, until recently, 16 – and by the time people in other countries are hesitantly eyeing their first drinks ever, the Germans have already learned their limit, stretched it, rolled it up in a ball and threw it away. And since their drinking culture does not involve that much hard liquor, they seem to be handling it just fine.

This may be the time to mention that I don’t drink. At all (there go your East-European stereotypes). I may have some red wine for birthdays and some champagne for New Year’s Eve, but what I understand under “some” probably differs from your “some” (mine is about three sips. Five, if I’m in a particularly good mood). It’s really more of an alcohol tasting than alcohol drinking. I’ll never forget the shocked expression on the face of the saleswoman at the Christmas market in Berlin when I ordered a mug of Glühwein, took my usual three sips in order to determine that yes, it does taste good, and placed it right back in front of her with the words “It’s delicious, but I don’t drink; I just wanted to know what it tastes like”. She felt so guilty about the fact that I paid 2 Euros for it, that she gave me a mugful of apple cider free of charge.

The cool thing about Germans when it comes to alcohol is, while they may find it bizarre to the point of fictional when people decline a good drink, they seem to have come up with an endless variety of options for non-drinkers to fit in in spite of everything. I, personally, am fascinated with Apfelschorle – fizzy apple juice which, when poured into a glass, looks every bit the same as Weissbier. And they would often serve it in a beer glass as well. I recall one drinking game of “Never have I ever” in which one of the guys was doing his best to get me to drink from my giant 1-liter beer mug for at least four rounds in a row, until I gave him a sly look and declared “You do realize this is Apfelschorle, right?”. His look of surprise mixed with disappointment was a truly great moment.

We had a guided tour at the WDR (West German Broadcasting) station in Düsseldorf this week. It was a rare sunny day in septembery Nordrhein-Westfalen, so we did what any German student would do – bought drinks and sprawled on the grass on the bank of the Rhein, like cats warming up to the sun. Some ten minutes into the drinking, one of the girls looked up between sips at the guy who bought the beer bottles: “You bought alcohol-free beer?!” He stared at the bottle in his hand and looked just as shocked as she was. Perfectly understandable – alkoholfreies Bier seems to have been invented by and for recovered alcoholics. Its taste only barely differs from the average (not particularly great-tasting) alcoholic beer, and the only thing which sets the bottles it is sold in apart from the regular ones is the added “alkolohfreies” word on the label. On the bright side, this gave the observant Muslim girl in the group the chance to finally discover what beer tastes like without upsetting Allah.

And then there’s Oktoberfest. But that’s a story all to its own.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome

Also, добро пожаловать and ברוכים הבאים.*

You may have come across my name before – I’ve been a journalist for nearly 10 years now. Somewhen in that time I managed to graduate from a Bachelor in Political Science and Mass Media, as well as from journalism school, and after a 4 years’ break I decided to go back to academia for my Masters. Pretty banal so far. Here’s the fun part – the first part of my studies I did in Israel. The second part will be in Germany.

My story with Germany goes back to 2009, when my journalism school announced that they’ll be sending selected students on a scholarship with the Herbert Quandt-Foundation. Trialog of Cultures is an exchange program for young Israeli, Palestinian and German journalists (and if you are one, you should apply). I spent 2 months learning German at a summer univeristy in Bayreuth (the one in Bavaria. No, it’s not Beyruth.), and 3 months as an intern at the Jüdische Allgemeine weekly newspaper in Berlin. A year later I came back again, this time to Cologne, for a Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr (basically, civil service with travel). I worked for Bundesverband Information & Beratung for NS-Verfolgte e.V. (The German federal association for information and consultation of persons persecuted by the Nazi regime), which was an extremely enlightening and enriching experience. I also brought my German up to a level of fluency which allowed me to ace the DSH – the university German exam for foreign students, basically the hardest language test you can take in German. (And let me tell you, Mark Twain was not kidding.) And now I’m back in Germany again, once again to a whole new city, starting my Masters in International Media Studies at the Deutsche Welle Academy in Bonn.

What I realized in all my back-and-forth with Deutschland is that, while I like it (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be coming back), it certainly has it eccentricities. They probably don’t seem as such to natives, but to someone with a mix of East-European and Middle-Eastern mentality, they just scream out. I’ll try to document them, and my life in them, to the best of my ability. I will also try my best to make it less serious than this introduction post.

Viel Spaß und liebe Grüße,

Alex

*French is, sadly, the one language of the mix which I don’t speak. I hope to some day correct it. Then again, math was never my forté

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment