The Saxons Are Coming, Run for the Alps!

The Saxons are coming! Miners from the coal mines. Photo: Wikipedia

The Saxons are coming! Miners from the coal mines. Photo: Wikipedia

My German sucks. It’s not as bad as my Russian, but it’s pretty bad. You’d think that after spending the better part of a dozen years in Munich, I’d have picked up a few more phrases beyond ordering beer and food in a restaurant. Priorities. My biggest problem (excuse) in learning German is that I’ve always been paid for my English language skills. Nobody has given me any compensation for my German skills. (And if you’ve ever heard my German skills you’d say the money should have gone to them, not me.)

It’s so bad that often when I go to a bakery, the nice assistants tells me how much I owe her in English (and they always mix up numbers like 34 and 43). WTF? And then they normally ask if I’m from England. And then Scotland. They are normally shocked (and I’m pleased, believe me) when they find out I’m from the USA. Well, I’m from California but grew up in Florida, so neither is considered mainstream America. Because of this, I tell them ‘I’m almost from America,’ which confuses them and pleases me even more.

I want to improve my German: please speak to me in German. We live in Germany, for Pete’s sake. I sincerely believe that many Germans, who ALWAYS say they speak ‘a little’ English (and can understand BBC or CNN as well as I can), are simply looking for a free English lesson, which they will then use on one of their infinite number of holidays to some foreign land where English is understood more than German.

These costumes are from an indigenous Slavic minority near Dresden, the Sorbs. Never heard of them? Neither have most Germans and as for the Bavarians, they'd like to keep it that way. Photo: Wikipedia

These costumes are from an indigenous Slavic minority near Dresden, the Sorbs. Never heard of them? Neither have most Germans and as for the Bavarians, they’d like to keep it that way. Photo: Wikipedia

The statement about living in Germany isn’t exactly true. I live in Bavaria. Bavaria is a separate country-just ask any real Bavarian. And though my German sucks and my wife’s is very good, I can understand the Bavarian dialect much better than her. She’s got me by a mile when it comes to Hochdeutsch, but I’ve got her beat here in Bavaria, or even Baden-Wurttemberg. I will admit, however, that I have no fucking clue what the people are saying when we are in South Tyrol, but I hear that goes for everyone not Tyrolean.

Now, most of those shop assistants in the bakeries and butchers are real hard to understand. Like, impossible. You see, they speak a very special dialect of German, that sounds real funny to us who have lived in Bavaria so long. The biggest difference is how the Saxons say the ‘ch’ in words like ich (I) or dich (you). The Saxons butcher the ‘ch’ worse than the Berliners. They’ve managed to make the pronounced ‘ch’ less sensical than Berliner Weissbier, a beer with fruit syrup in it, yes, FRUIT SYRUP!

So, what should be one of the loveliest sentences in German, ich liebe dich (I love you), sounds like ‘ish liebe dish’ straight from a date night with Nag and Nagaina, the two cobras from Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

I have adopted Bavaria (not Germany) as my new home. Or to be even more specific, Munich, that world city with heart. And in doing so, I’ve also learned that for Bavarians, the Saxons are the butt of more jokes than any other German speakers, except the Austrians. And I think I know why.

Saxony, like Bavaria, is a Freistaat, a free state, which means absolutely nothing except it makes the natives of those two states prouder and more likely to say that they can secede from the Republic of Germany anytime they so desire. Pure rubbish, surely, but I simply nod and take another swig of beer whenever I hear it from a Bavarian. (It’s more often than one might think.)

This picture sums up succinctly how the Bavarians feel about the Saxons from Dresden. Photo: Wikipedia

This picture sums up succinctly how the Bavarians feel about the Saxons from Dresden. Photo: Wikipedia

So why do Bavarians have such a prickly feeling when it comes to the Saxons? Some of it probably has to do with the Saxons’ communist roots. A bit more, possibly, has to do with the Saxons desire to boil pig knuckles rather than roasting them in the oven. Also, as I’ve said, the Saxon dialect is strange. But the biggest reason (I think, no, I hope) has to be the fact that after the Fall of the Wall, so many Saxons moved to Bavaria and stole their women. And jobs.

One of the nicer areas of Dresden. Nothing can compare to it here in Munich. Photo: Wikipedia

One of the nicer areas of Dresden. Nothing can compare to it here in Munich. Photo: Wikipedia

The Saxons keep coming. The economy around Dresden, the capital of Saxony, continues to idle while the one around Munich hums. There are many jobs to be found in Munich, so the Saxons come to take them. They may not be the highest-paid jobs but they are secure jobs, with future potential to move up the food-chain. And while the Saxons are moving up? They get a chance for a free English lesson if I patronize a bakery, butcher’s or boutique they just happen to be working at the right moment.

Why Germans Wear Eyeglasses

A German Shepherd wearing doggles. Even the dogs get into the act! Photo: Wikipedia

A German Shepherd wearing doggles. Even the dogs get into the act! Photo: Wikipedia

Here’s a short two-question quiz, the answers are at the end. First, name the last President of the United States who regularly wore eyeglasses while in office. Second, why do you think there have been so few?

Since I arrived in Munich as a permanent inhabitant of this wonderful country, there have been many things that I noticed which reminded me of the chasm between American and German culture. Some of these things have stayed with me while others have become nothing more than mile markers on the road, becoming either irrelevant or normal. One of the things no longer important or even conspicuous for me is that it seems as if about 85% of the Germans old enough to drink (legally) wear eyeglasses.

Can the eyesight of the people be so poor? Are they lacking adequate levels of Vitamins A, C or E? Is the lack of direct sunlight a cause?

The title is a double entendre. Twain never walked a step in the book. Photo: Wikipedia

The title is a double entendre. Twain never walked a step in the book. Photo: Wikipedia

Before I read Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, I’d lived in Munich for about three years. What is so fascinating about the book for me is its timelessness, things he observed about the Germans in the 1870’s still hold true nearly a century and a half later. One of the funniest stories in a book filled with them is “Legend of ‘The Spectacular Ruin’”. Twain explains as only he can ‘Why Germans Wear Spectacles’.

After I began making acquaintances with locals regularly and had accrued a few score, I set out over the next decade to try and ask as many Germans as I could about this strange (to me, the American) phenomena.

Why do so many Germans wear glasses?

I can see purr-fectly now. Photo: http://blog.m-17.de/brillen-shooting/

I can see purr-fectly now. Photo: http://blog.m-17.de/brillen-shooting/

The answers are by no means unanimous or scientific, but there is a clear majority. The most popular explanation? Germans hate not being able to see everything PERFECTLY. As soon as their eyesight drops from an eagle-eyed 20/10 (6/3 in Europe) to 20/20 (6/6), it’s off to the optometrist and then the opthamologist (for a second, more expert, opinion). It is, afterall, covered by most health insurance policies.

After hearing the good news (I need glasses, finally!), it’s off to get frames for the lenses which cost about a gazillion euros. The shopping for frames for the eyeglasses has been known to take a half year, and usually involves girlfriends, boyfriends, siblings and any other confidants of the celebrant. A temporary pair of glasses are used (of course!) in the interim.

As far as I can remember the last president who wore glasses regularly was Truman. Before him it was the two Roosevelts (check it, I might have missed one). The reason? Again, this is by no means scientific, but I believe many Americans see eyeglasses as either a sign of weakness or age. Youth is king in America, in Germany the people prefer older looking politicians to run the country.

American politicians often refuse to wear spectacles on the stump or in front of a crowd, Rick Perry excepted. And he had to put them on so as to not look like an idiot, so you be the judge.

Rick_Perry_by_Gage_Skidmore_9

Rick Perry looking more cerebral after donning a pair of eyeglasses. Photo: Wikipedia

My First Three Sentences in German Unrelated to Beer

German words can confuse and confound, yet be so logical

German words can confuse and confound, yet be so logical

Much has been written about the German language and how difficult it is to learn. It’s all true. One needs to go no further than Mark Twain’s classic ‘The Awful German Language’, at the back of his hilarious A Tramp Abroad, to get an idea from a very smart man of how ‘slipshod’ (his word) it is. I would completely concur with him and everything else that’s been written about German except I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, for a year. The Ukrainian and Russian languages somehow make German seem so much easier. Hell, they make every fucking language in Europe that much easier. Except Hungarian.

The first three sentences I learned weren’t necessarily because they had simple grammar structures (they do), or a lack of letters, as some German behemoth words do. Only in German can you find five different ideas tied into one word, which when broken down into its parts does little to help explain it to the learner. Think differential equations.

x^2 \frac{d^2 y}{dx^2} + x \frac{dy}{dx} + (x^2 - \alpha^2)y = 0

The reason I learned these three vocal jewels is because every German says them often, no, make that always, and whenever I said them I always got a chuckle. I still do. I’m not sure if the chuckles are aimed at me or in the same direction I am targeting, but anytime you can get a German to laugh you have to take it as a moral victory.

The first sentence I learned in German was ‘Es kostet Geld’. Yessiree, ‘it costs money’. Everything in Munich costs a pretty penny, except for food in a supermarket and a university education, which are two  examples of those strange contradictions that cloud German society and keep expats on their toes. Fortunes are spent on health insurance, mass transportation, parking, owning dogs, and are but a few. The list is endless. Every time I go back to the States all my German friends implore and grovel for me to bring a smartphone back for them. I would, too, if my suitcase wasn’t full of aspirin, cold remedies and other comforts to get me through the winters, and autumns, and springs, and ‘kostet viel Geld’ in Munich. Maybe that’s why they drink think tea is a cureall.

The second sentence I learned, and it’s as true as the first if not truer, was, ‘Alles ist verboten’. And it is. You’d like to have a bit of a different name shield for your office on the building? Forget it. Listen to music on your mp3 while riding a bike. Uh-uh. Vacuum on Sunday? Nope. Most things you think would be OK, normally aren’t. There have even been court cases pitting neighbors against neighbors who’ve had the audacity to snore too loud. It’s true. Germans have rules for everything.

German House Rules Photo: Germandeli.com

German House Rules Photo: Germandeli.com

The third sentence I learned was ‘Das ist mir Wurst’. It means ‘I don’t care’ in the ‘it doesn’t matter to me’ sense, but any electronic translation will give you something else entirely. The sentence has become increasingly popular since Lothar Matthäus, a god of German football (soccer) but a horrendous butcher of the English language, translated the phrase literally. Then it means ‘that’s my sausage.He probably had looked it up prior to an interview in the UK or something, and thought the silly Brits would have a similar saying. Anyway, it has nothing to do with sausage.

The good thing is, even if I never learn another sentence in German, those three arrows in my communicative quiver are sure to get me just about any and everything I could possibly need here in Munich. And a chuckle or two. That is, if the chortles don’t me cost too much and there’s not some unwritten rule forbidding it.

Munich Loves You or The World City with Heart

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I first came to Munich in 1999, during a nine-week backpack tour, and I partied appropriately. I came to visit a Swabian (Swabians contain all the stereotypical German qualities – in copious amounts) girl I’d met in Cinque Terra, Italy. I came for her more than anything else, though the idea of beer and sausages was a close second. I’d taken an overnight train from Milan – or was it Rome?- and arrived on a Friday in early June, around 8 am.

Everything was so German. A light mist hung low and the skies were gray. It was so Romantic, in a Lord Byron sort of way. The train rolled into Munich’s Central Station at 7:38 (on the dot) and I’d had little warning, so my first task upon disembarking was to find a lonesome tree. Americans need lonesome trees to relieve themselves – unlike Europeans, who need only trees (or plants or flowers). There were none to be found. Too many people were already scurrying about to and fro. My paruresis was too acute. So, I had to find some porcelain.

muenchen-winterI ended up at the Bayerischer Hof (the most sought-after temporary address for movers and shakers when they visit Munich) hotel, in the old city center. I slipped past the front desk (not really – I got a cold, hard glance from the receptionist which I played off as her being ‘typically German’.) I finished my business and began to look around.

To my untrained eye, at first glance, Munich appeared to be nothing ‘special’. Nothing separated it from the pack. Perhaps this was due to the weather, or my restless night on the train, though I believe it was because I’d just seen London, Paris and Rome (in that order). Now those are cities. If not for the girl, I’d have found the first train to Amsterdam or Prague.

As my relationship and reasons for coming to Munich grew, I began a routine of travelling between Munich on the weekends, and other cities in Europe during the week, for the next four weeks. I came to see the person, not the city. The mists and drizzles lifted, eventually.

On June 1st of the next year, I moved to Munich permanently. At the time I was quite sure it was for the person. I’m not so sure now. She’s long gone and I have moved back to Munich after a hiatus, with another girl who’s been my wife for more than 8 years. She loved it at first sight. Munich has a remarkable way of growing on you at first, then growing in you.

viktualienmarkt_munich_01_xlargeThis is true for a lot of people, who’ve come here for a year or two, and ended up spending a long period of their lives here. Munich takes some time to get to know, much like her people (I’m using the feminine here, because Munich is a city, in German-Die Stadt-feminine). She reveals herself only through careful investigation, and more likely, retrospection and reflection.

Munich’s old motto was ‘cosmopolitan (or world) city with heart’, and the latest is ‘Munich loves you’. They both kind of say the same thing, and I feel her love daily.

Once you get to know her, and this is an ongoing, ever-changing proposition, then it becomes very easy to ascertain as to why Munich is consistently voted in the top ten places to live in on this planet.