It began last month when we arrived home from Ireland. In the wake of modern-day terrorism scares around Europe, a reminder of the past resurfaced. A 500-pound World War II bomb had been discovered in downtown Wiesbaden and was set to be diffused one Sunday evening. Fortunately residents (ironically including many Americans) were given notice to evacuate the area beforehand.
This wasn’t the first time this has happened either. Last year another WWII bomb was found and detonated near a stretch of Autobahn not far from the Frankfurt Airport. As my dad commented when I described these situations, “I guess wars never really end.”
The next morning, news came during Monday rush hour that the Schiersteiner Bridge between Wiesbaden and Mainz was closed for repairs due to having unexpectedly sunken several centimeters. This continues to be a major problem off and on, with what I assume will not have an easy end in sight. While the severely unstable bridge situation is being worked on, a ferry has become available for transporting people and their cars across the Rhein. This, in addition to people making use of the local trains, has generally helped the traffic problem. The real problem here is that there are only two other bridges for cars between these two state capital cities.
To cap off the month, this Wednesday saw what was supposed to be a heavily populated anti-capitalism protest in Frankfurt’s financial district turn violent and destructive. Cars and buildings were set on fire, and from pictures I saw from bystanders and in the news, it looked like a war zone. I was lucky enough to be coming from the direction that wasn’t affected by this mess, so I didn’t even experience any public transportation delays. I knew that the demonstrations would be going on but was absolutely shocked when I saw how the event had turned. What a way to waste getting a message across credibly.
I feel fortunate that my biggest complaint in the midst of all of these dangers has only been traffic disruptions. Regular traffic jams and road construction are par for the course in Germany, and having come from Washington, DC where the traffic situation is one of the worst in the U.S., that kind of disorder is only to be expected.
…is what I imagine on those rare occasions when the ticket-checkers come through the bus or train, with their official equipment tucked almost unnoticeably at their waists. I’ve been taking local public transportation almost every weekday (and many weekends) since I moved to Germany about nine months ago. It’s convenient, usually not too crowded, and generally clean and comfortable. In that time, I’ve had to prove that I’ve paid less than ten times. Twice happened to be this Wednesday, coincidentally just after I bought my first monthly pass.
In Germany, many rules rely on personal responsibility. You don’t show your ticket or pass to the bus driver (as I did the first time I rode), you’re just trusted to have paid when you get on. The penalty for schwarzfahren (riding without paying)? A €40 fine if you get caught by the plain-clothes ticket checkers or a train conductor. A friendly-looking ad on the buses has a checklist for such riders, reminding them to sweat, cry, make excuses …and finally pay their €40. I must say, I’ve never seen anyone have to do this yet.
You can buy your necessary-but-rarely-checked ticket from the bus driver, an automated machine located at train stations and some bus stations, a ticket counter at a major train station (many small stations don’t have these), or online at home or on your phone at rmv.de (for the Rhein-Main area).
It ends up being a pretty good deal. Single ride tickets for adults cost €2.60 and can be used for up to two hours from purchase time on any form of local transportation: buses, regional trains, subways, and/or streetcars. So if you have to transfer from a bus to a train to a subway within that time, it’s all included on the same ticket. And here you can even bring your dog, your bike, or your Kinderwagen (baby carriage/stroller) along for the ride as well.
Of course, there are many ways to save a little more money, depending on your travel plans. For example, you can buy a collection of five tickets at any time for only €10.40. Then when you’re ready to ride, you just time-stamp one at a small yellow machine on the bus or at the train station. If you’re going to be riding several times throughout the day, it might be worth it to get a day pass for €6.30. Even better, if you have three to five people traveling in a group all day, it’s worth getting a group day pass for only €9.50.
If you generally commute weekdays, as I’m doing this month for work, you can save with a weekly, monthly, or yearly pass. With these, you can even have another person ride with you on evenings and weekends at no extra charge!
Naturally the rates for each type of ticket and pass are higher when you’re traveling from one regional zone to another (i.e. Mainz to Frankfurt). And many discounts apply for children, seniors, interns, etc.
While I was taking German classes at the Volkshochschule (VHS = state-sponsored adult education center), my course receipt doubled as a public transit pass before and after class. This made getting there essentially free and easy. As the cute little bus on the receipt says, “Hin- and Rückfahrt ohne Stress, mit KombiTicket der vhs”: “To and fro without stress, with combo-ticket from VHS.”
Okay, so the rare “ticket raids” aren’t as dramatic as I imagine them to be. But as I sit back cozily reading on my ride through Rhein country and fields, secure in knowing that my ticket is safely stowed in my wallet, sometimes listening to annoying teenagers on summer break or some nutty lady chattering to herself, I wonder why this system works so well and what would happen during an actual “bust.”
How much do you know about luck and traditions in Germany? While I’m taking a German language test throughout the day this Friday, take this quiz (with 7 lucky questions) about German superstitions to wish me & the gang from class some luck!
1. Which of these animals is not a good luck symbol? a)Ladybug – Fly away home! b) Cat – Loveable, but so sassy c) Pig – Oink!
2. Which of these foods brings good luck? a) Mushrooms – Wait, can I eat this? b) Currants – Little red berries with a sour flavor c) Pretzels – Salty and twisted
3. Which of these people is a bearer of good luck? a) Mayor – He or she has an awesome title in German: the Bürgermeister b) Chimney sweep – If that guy doesn’t come, you might have big problems ahead c) Firefighter – These folks save lives
4. What is the English translation for an unlucky person (i.e. a “walking disaster”)? a) Bad luck devil – Sounds super bad b) Bad luck rabbit – Hopping all over the place c) Bad luck bird – Tweet, tweet!
5. What is considered bad luck when clinking glasses in a toast? a) Not maintaining eye contact with the person you’re clinking with – Look at me! b) Crossing your arm over someone else’s in a group – Hey, I’m clinking here! c) Both a and b – Wow, this is one focused toast
6. What do friends and family do to wish luck and happiness to a couple about to be married? a) Break a lot of porcelain – Um, thanks a lot. b) Give mirrors as gifts – Just what I wanted to see. c) Carve their names in wood – It’s all about us.
7. What is considered a typical German housewarming gift for bringing good wishes? a) Flowers and chocolate – How thoughtful! b) Beer and bratwurst – Now it’s a party! c) Bread and salt – Get me a glass of water!
1. b) Cat. The black cat is even considered bad luck, like in the U.S. and many other countries. Many good luck cards (and houseplants, desserts, etc.) are decorated with ladybugs and four-leafed clovers. Piggy banks are quite popular – and lucky – here.
2. a) Mushrooms?! In fact, a perpetually lucky person is called a Glückpilz, or lucky mushroom.
3. b) Chimney sweep. Chim chiminey chim chiminey chim chim cheree. It’s common practice to touch a chimney sweep, who visits every home and apartment regardless of whether it has a chimney or not. The modern Shornsteinfeger is more of a maintenance/heating repairman.
4. c) Bad luck bird. It’s bad news if you’re a Pechvogel, or bad luck bird. Unrelated but also interesting – a Putzteufel, or cleaning devil, is someone obsessed with cleanliness and an Angsthase, or anxious hare, is a “scaredy cat.”
5. c) Both a and b. Keep eye contact and don’t cross over someone else – These are both absolutely essential when toasting with drinks. Prost!/Cheers!
6. a) Break a lot of porcelain. Polterabend is a pre-wedding party where guests bring and break porcelain items to wish the happy couple good luck. The bride- and groom-to-be must then clean up the mess, accomplishing their first of many difficult tasks as a team. Note that breaking mirrors, of course, brings seven years of bad luck.
7. c) Bread and salt. With bread and salt you can never go hungry. These two basic foods are traditionally given to wish people happiness and good fortune in their new home.
Viel Glück und Viel Erfolg!/Good luck and much success!
It’s a dark and stormy night. The steady drizzle is beginning to pick up and a burst of lightning cuts the late evening sky. Boom! As you rush to close the windows, you sigh as you think of the task ahead of you, as dreary as the weather. All of your guests have left, but the mess from dinner remains. And that means it’s time to sort out the trash and recycling.
Egg shells, coffee grinds, avocado peels, cherry pits, leftover rice… you scrape them all into the Bioabfӓlle, or “Bio-rubbish,” container. Chicken bones, salmon skin, and the rest of the leftover meat and fish go into the regular Müll, or trash, can. Another crash of thunder shakes the window panes. You’ll have to work fast if you want to take the trash outside tonight.
You pat yourself on the back for being a good citizen and start collecting the rest of the junk to sort out. You’ve done this so many times that it goes quickly. You toss the milk carton, egg carton, yogurt cups, and so on into the Verpackungen, or packaging, container. Along the way, you come across a cardboard cereal box and remember that you have some old mail and newspapers on the table too. You throw these into the Altpapier, or old paper, container.
You put the empty plastic water and soda bottles and glass beer bottles into the crates from the Getrӓnke (drinks) shop. You’ll have to wait until the store is open again tomorrow so you can return them for change back. The dead batteries will have to wait too – you can drop them into the battery recycling box at the office supply store tomorrow.
All of a sudden, the wind picks up outside and you think you hear a knock at the door.
Do you answer the door and take the recycling out with you? (Go to page 5)
You find all of the miscellaneous glass jars and bottles – a mustard jar, a salad dressing bottle, a lone bottle of wine you bought on vacation – and pack them into your car. With the windshield wipers on full blast, you drive around the corner and down the street a ways until you come to three large dumpsters. Now you have to sort the glass by color: clear, brown, and green (which also includes any other colors). Your umbrella blows inside out and you can hardly hear the clink of the glass being sorted.
Or do you stay here and try to wait out the storm before driving back? (Go to page 10)
It’s your neighbor Stefan. He’s come by to see if you need anything and you immediately hand him all of your recycling and trash to dump in the larger containers outside. He is surprised, but helps anyway.
Or do you turn him back out into the storm and get back to work? (Go to page 4)
You stand still for a moment but don’t hear the knock again. Maybe it was just your imagination. You sweep up the kitchen floor and put the dust and crumbs in with the regular trash (Müll). Raggedy paper towels and any other scraps or things you aren’t sure of get put here too. You do wonder if anyone was at that door though…
Nervously, you turn the lights out and wrap yourself in a blanket. You hear more knocking, clearly this time, but it becomes fainter and fainter until it stops altogether. You look around and realize you still have more recycling to do. Hopefully things will seem better tomorrow when the sun comes out again. You go to bed safely but dream of being swallowed up by a mound of trash.
Stefan declines your invitation. Maybe he was a little put off by your rudeness. At any rate, you wave goodbye and get back to work. (Go to page 4)
You survived yet another night of recycling and you go to bed content. You dream about saving the earth and creating more complicated rules.
You get back into the car and doze off for a while in the parking lot. You dream about flying over a sea of colorful broken glass. Slowly you begin falling and the colors fade to total darkness…
You awake with a start and find that your car is sinking in a mudslide! (Unlikely in Germany? Maybe. But in a choose-your-own-adventure story, it’s only to be expected.) You try to get out, but it’s too late. Your last thoughts revolve around wondering whether you and the car can become compost or whether one of you should be somewhere else…
Happy 4th of July! As I spent the start of American Independence Day in school for the first time ever, I’ve been thinking today of all my family and friends watching parades and having cookouts back home. I might even see fireworks here tonight too after the Germany-France game.
July 4th may be a holiday in the U.S., but here there is an entirely different calendar of days off. I look forward to next year when I’ll know when the banks and grocery stores will be closed before I drive to them.
Most of the German days off are Christian or specifically Catholic religious holidays. Easter is a four-day affair, including Good Friday and Easter Monday. But it doesn’t stop there. Many traditionally Catholic states including those in our area celebrate the Ascension, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi in the summer. Somewhere in between Easter and its follow-up holidays is May Day (May 1), or German Labor Day. The reunification of Germany is celebrated on October 3 – Germany Unity Day.
Then we return to religious holidays on November 1, when All Saints’ Day is observed in this area as well. Christmas is a long season here in which most people have a week or two of vacation. The main gift-giving celebration is on December 24, Christmas Eve. Christmas Day and the day after, St. Stephen’s Day, are both official days off.
p.s. If it seems like there are a lot of days off in Germany, remember the U.S. also has Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, and so on. Not to mention a range of religious holidays celebrated by a diverse population. We just don’t celebrate each of them with a fair or festival in each town. (Schade! Too bad!)
After seven months of shopping at the sparse but efficient German Lidl (motto: Lohnt sich = Worth it!) and Aldi, the Supermarkt seems less foreign. Today I reflect on the differences I have now come to accept (more or less).
1. I’m here but I can’t just walk in? What do I need to do first?
Just like at the post office and several other must-visits in Germany, many grocery stores have a sign to say we’re on the honor system for parking, usually limited to an hour. I have to put my plastic parking clock on the dashboard to show when I arrived to the nearest half hour. Then I fish for a Euro coin (or sometimes a two Euro or fifty cent coin) so I can unlock a grocery cart to bring in. This is not so much to ensure that I don’t steal it like in the U.S., but rather that I bother to return it to its ranks when I leave. Of course, I’ve already brought reusable bags so I don’t have to buy plastic ones when I check out.
2. Wait, wasn’t I just here?
Yes. I was probably here two days ago if not yesterday. My refrigerator is small, many products have short use-by lives, I have to pay in cash (or with a European pin-chip card), and there are only two check-out lines if I’m lucky. Often the two people at the registers are the only two people working at the store. There’s no need and no good reason to stock up on anything or waste time here. So several short trips in a week does the job. I just have to make sure each week that I have enough food for Sunday, when every grocery store is closed.
3. I don’t need a kayak or an espresso machine. Where’s the food?
The German grocery stores (in my area anyway) are tiny! And yet they somehow manage to be even more junked up with “stuff” than those back home. But it’s all limited to a wide middle aisle. The perimeter of the store has everything I need: cereal, bread, produce, meat, dairy, baking supplies, and hygiene and cleaning products. The next loop in has the rest: snacks, canned goods, frozen foods, and drinks.
4. How do I get my bread and rolls?
All of the bread in Germany is delicious and fun to buy! I’ve seen two ways in different stores: a cool way and a cooler way. The first way is to use a small rake to guide the rolls or loaf of bread to a rut on the side of the bread case. The second involves not seeing the bread at all but only pictures of the bakery choices. It’s similar to a vending machine: I press the button next to the picture of what I want as many times as I want that item. In both cases, I bag the bread and put it in the cart. UNLESS I want a loaf sliced. Then I take it to the bread slicing machine – the coolest thing since sliced bread itself. The bread goes in, I close the lid, pull the handle, listen to the machine go, and then bag the sliced bread.
5. I don’t like pork that much. Now what?
Well… There are other meats, but pork products are by far the most prevalent. Salmon is also very common and very good. As most of the country is land-locked, it’s also usually the only fish that can be found. Beef can get very expensive if not chosen carefully. I usually look for chicken or turkey but do find myself buying pork or salmon more often than I did before. So in short: Learn to like it.
6. Where was that thing I saw here last time? I want to buy it again.
There’s not really a good answer for this one. Produce is basically only available in season and product selection in general is limited. This can actually make shopping easier sometimes because I don’t have to consider and compare too many (if any) choices. Sometimes a particular item will be on the shelves for a few days or a few weeks and then will disappear. This mostly applies to soups and snacks, but definitely happens with fruits, meats, and every other kind of food as well. If I see something I really need or want, I have to pick it up now. And if I want something specific that’s not here, the other option is to go to the butcher’s shop, the bakery, a specialty store like the Italian supermarket, the farmer’s market (held almost every day somewhere in town), or a roadside stand. The Supermarkt is strictly for convenience shopping. What you see is what you get.
7. Erdbeergeist means strawberry ghost, right? Is it as awesome as it sounds?
It is not. It’s a clear liquor that smells like sweet ripe strawberries but tastes terrible, incredibly without a hint of strawberry flavor. I can, however, also buy beer, wine, sparkling wine, liqueurs, liquor, or any other kind of alcohol you can think of at the grocery store. Or I can find them at the Getränke (drinks) shop, a separate store in town that sells at least equal amounts of water, soda, and other non-alcoholic drinks.
8. Why aren’t the eggs in the refrigerator section?
I don’t know enough about eggs or food safety to answer this one, but it seems to be okay. Anyone have an answer to this one?
9. And where are the other two?
… I thought a dozen was the definition of a standard unit of eggs, but the cartons here and in the fridge only have room for ten. Explain that! Maybe it’s an extension of the metric system. Anyway, it took me a while to realize the discrepancy.
10. That’s it? How did I save so much money?
I guess I used to buy a lot of snacks and shortcut kits. Think about it: Here I just buy bread, produce, meat, dairy products, and a few other things. It’s not particularly expensive to buy only the essentials and combine them into meals. There aren’t that many pre-prepared or frozen foods or snacks, and of those that are here there are only a few choices. So a handful of way more expensive items from a small selection that I may or may not like is not worth it.
Now to get that Euro back from the cart and be on my way! Bis bald, Supermarkt! (See you soon!)
(A little late due to technical difficulties in Italy this weekend – more on that trip later in the week!)
Buckle up, roll the windows down, and get ready to cruise the Autobahn in style. Crank the radio up, then quickly flip through the stations as you get bored of hearing every American hit ever made (is that selfie deal even a real song?!) when you came here to drive fast and pump German music. Take two. Try the jams below instead for a better, more authentic experience. These are a few of my favorites and/or most-heard tunes:
German rap? Omg indeed. Personal and social speculation about right living are pretty light in this song but the novelty of the style makes it hard to ignore. Rapper Marteria asks himself in the hook, “Oh my god, this heaven / Where the hell should it be?”
A song I hate to love, but can’t help dancing along to. Helene Fischer sings a typical pop love song (“Breathless through the night”) to a super catchy dance beat. My most vivid memory of hearing this so far was during Fasching/Karneval inside a tented club, where the crowd went crazy when the DJ put it on.
In this earnest-sounding tribute called “Songs”, Adel Tawil drops names and title lyrics all over the place to tell the story of musical influences from his childhood in the 80s and 90s. Even if you don’t know any German, listen for references to David Bowie, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, and Prince (lila Regen = purple rain). Click here for U.S. link.
“And we were like vampires” has the feel of a classic German folksong set to a house music beat. As odd as the title sounds at first, it’s actually not that strange. After all, vampires and young people (I can only assume the now 69-year-old Jürgen Drews is reflecting on his youth) stay up all night and live forever.
I appreciated this song early on solely because I could understand the lists of fruits, sweets, and ladies’ names followed by the title lyric “But please, with cream.” The message is something akin to wanting to have your cake and eat it too. From the 1970s by Austrian singer Udo Jürgens, this song is rarely on the radio but has also been remixed into a weirder metal version by the band Sodom.
I find this one particularly charming as it is sea shanty, unusual to hear on the radio but nevertheless relatively often played. The lyrics are similar to what you would expect a sea chantey in English to be: “one duffle bag per man,” “we pull through the storms,” and of course the title lyrics in the refrain: “with the salt on our skin / and the wind in our face.” All talk of sticking together through bad weather, living among the waves, and banding together with fellow sailors performed by the band Santiano.
Axel Fischer and “Dream of Amsterdam” embody my stereotype of disheveled, guitar-toting, hitch-hiking, hostel-hopping European young people. It is idealism and optimistic love set to a hoppy beat in the clandestine capital city of the Netherlands.
The most well-known single of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame is inexplicably popular here. True, it’s an English song but it’s British and from the 70s. I never understood Rocky Horror but I guess it’s just a cult classic thing I never picked up on. I certainly have no idea why it acquired international fame. The first time I heard it on the radio in Germany was also the first time I drove past Burg (castle) Frankenstein on my commute to work. It was completely eerie and fantastic timing.
I wish I could say I have the chance to rock out to this more. Frustratingly, I’ve usually been stuck in traffic or creeping through town at a mere less than 50 kilometers per hour (it’s slower than it sounds: about 30 miles per hour). Falco, the musician who developed this 90s hit about Wofgang Amadeus Mozart that somehow gained success in the U.S. as well, hails from Vienna, Austria where I recently traveled. Vienna was also, of course, once home to Mozart himself.