Vignettes from German Class

In September, I started a new German class, meeting once a week for conversation at the local Volkshochschule (community college). This class is interesting, as it is a much larger range of ages than my first class (where I was one of the oldest students and most people were preparing to enter the local university) and a much larger range of backgrounds. In practice, it leads to situations like this:

– It is the day before Halloween. We are discussing our Halloween plans (Halloween is new here – I will have a more detailed entry about this later) and the Turkish woman (wearing a full hijab and a large coat that could pass as an abaya) says in a very self-righteous tone that she does not celebrate Halloween, because she is Muslim. We move around the table some more, disclosing more plans for parties and trick-or-treating, until we reach the woman from Afghanistan. She says, “Eh, we take the kid out for candy, there’s no harm there.”

– We are discussing the Villa Hügel, a landmark here in Essen. It was built by the Krupp family, whose industrial empire became the ThyssenKrupp company – notable mostly in the US for elevators, but also a producer of steel and many other industrial products. One of the students keeps asking questions like “Were the Krupps Jews?” and “Were the Krupps friends of the Jews?” I want to answer these questions with “The Baron Krupp was a Nazi who was convicted and sent to jail after the war.” Unfortunately, I am not sure how to say this politely, and without using the word “Nazi”, which I suspect is verboten for what should be a light “Konversationskurs”. I settle for pointing out that the Krupp factories in Essen used Jewish slave labor during WWII, and leave it at that.

– We are playing a game of 20 Questions – it turns out that a lot of a “Konversationskurs” consists of playing the kind of games you played as a kid to stave off boredom during long car rides. The Korean woman in the class is up, and she says she is thinking of a man. Someone immediately yells “JACKIE CHAN!” with the expectation that it is the correct answer. There is a pause as the rest of us are horrified, and then hysterical laughter for several minutes. We have to explain that Jackie Chan is Chinese, not Korean, and there is a difference between the two.

On Greetings

One of the things I didn’t expect to have difficulty with is greetings. You say “Guten Morgen” or “Guten Tag” at the same time you do in English, right? Well, yes and no. You don’t greet people on the street unless you know them – street etiquette is more New York than Texas – no smiles, no greetings, just do your thing. However, when you enter confined spaces, greetings are a little different. In a waiting room, for example, when you enter, you say “Guten Tag” or “Guten Morgen” to the room, and the people in the room respond. Then you wait in silence. When you leave, you say “Tschuss” or “Schönen Tag” to the room, and they respond. It’s the same in an elevator. I find it a little weird, because these greetings are in no way expected to proceed to conversation, but they’re what you do. I made a non-greeting related comment in the elevator at the Volkshochschule (German community college) yesterday, and it was startling to the other “drivers” (you use the verb for “to drive” in an elevator in German). It did, however, lead to yet another conversation about how I have a weird accent because I come from the USA. Apparently our vowels and Rs are distinct enough that usually German speakers think we’re Dutch, or are just confused.

I’ve been pondering greetings because we have a garage in the courtyard behind our apartment. This courtyard has eight garages, shared with the inhabitants of other buildings. I pulled in my bike after a ride last Sunday, and one of the other garage tenants was putting his bike in the garage. I put my bike in the garage, and after I closed it and was walking out, he said to me “Sprechen Sie nicht?” (“Do you not speak?”) I can only assume he decided this because I did not greet him, but I’m not sure. I stammered out my usual “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch” (“I speak only a little German”), which apparently satisified his curiosity. I’m still thinking, though. What did he mean? Was he trying to ask if I was mute, or if I spoke German?

Mysteries of expat life, I guess.

Expat Cocktails


Cheap mint teabags purchased on a whim from Aldi (a German discounter notable for their remaindered Trader Joe’s products, cheap housewares, and sundry absurdly inexpensive items including cell phone plans)

Honey (fancy honey, purchased when we lived near the non-Aldi nicer grocery store)

Bourbon, again purchased on a whim from Aldi while reminiscing about my favorite Elijah Craig or Ranger Creek bourbons consumed in Texas. Note: 9 euro bourbon from Aldi does not taste like the aforementioned – it mainly tastes like brown sugar and burning. Hence this cocktail recipe.


Make tea using mint teabags. Mix in one teaspoon honey and one shot bourbon. Consume and say “hey, that’s not too bad!” Secretly wish for the aforementioned Elijah Craig or Ranger Creek.


Today, I had to pick up a package from the post office. It was pouring rain, and I biked up looking like a drowned rat. I queued like a good German, and handed over my package slip to the guy behind the counter. He brought out an enormous box, which lead to the following exchange in German:

Me (with a sad face): Oh, I only have my bicycle.

Him: Well, you can come back tomorrow…

Me: I don’t have a car. It’s ok, I’ll figure it out, maybe I’ll take a taxi.

Him: In the future… (slides Postbank flyer about auto loan rates over the counter).

In German, there’s a word “Klugscheißer”, which translates as “smart alec” (those of you who know German can point out that this is not the literal translation). This was my first Klugscheißer experience in a long time.

Joke’s on him, though, I left the box outside the post office and just took the contents with me.

Adventures with the German Customs Authority

The German customs authority (“Das Zollamt”) is quite strict. We had heard tell of this from veteran expats, and Justin once had to pay 70 Euro duty on a pair of pants sent to him as a birthday gift in Austria, but we managed to avoid the Zollamt until three months into our stay here.

Our first encounter with the Zollamt was due to inexperience on my part. Many American retailers will ship to Europe, but not all of them pay the proper duties when they do. If you go to J. Crew’s online shop from a German IP address, for example, they boast that they pay the German taxes. In reality, what this means is that they have increased the price of items by 22.7% (to account for import and Value Added [VAT] taxes). When online shopping, I found invitations for our upcoming wedding celebration that looked great, fit our theme, and were reasonably priced. Even better, they shipped to Germany! I had them shipped here so I could address them and mail them off on our next trip back to the states. FedEx delivered them here amazingly fast, and I started the slog of hand-addressing each one. A week later, an envelope arrived from FedEx. What could it be? Oh, it was an invoice for the taxes on the invitations, tacking an extra 30 Euro on to the price. FedEx knew the exact value of the package thanks to the shipping manifests, and merely billed us for the taxes, payable, like all things in Germany, by direct bank transfer.

We wrote that off as one of the costs of moving to Europe, and I learned to be more careful in buying stuff online. This experience also made us aware that any gift registries for the wedding celebration would also have to be done in the EU, or else we would be paying VAT on every single gift sent to us. However, our second encounter with the Zollamt was unexpected. When we were back in the states for a wedding in February, I accidentally left my Kindle at the happy couple’s house. This was a tragedy because I consume books at an appalling rate and the Kindle was my main source of reading material. Our friend graciously agreed to mail it back to us, and sent me a tracking number. After a few days, however, the tracking mysteriously stopped in Germany. About a week after that, we received a letter from the Zollamt notifying us they had a package, and we had to show up and prove that we didn’t need to pay VAT on it. Keep in mind, this was a year-old Kindle with a small crack in the screen and scratches on the body. It was clearly not new!

Unfortunately, this letter appeared right at a busy time in the spring. The Zollamt’s hours are from 7:45 am to Noon, conveniently dovetailing with when Justin has to work and when I have German class. Finally, Justin moved his schedule so he could go up to the Zollamt one morning. He got there, took a number, and presented the receipt for the Kindle (which I had to get from my sister-in-law since it was a gift!) and asked for the Kindle back. That was when we found out that we didn’t read the fine print well enough – they only held the Kindle for 14 days, and then sent it back to the sender!

Germany won this round, and I purchased a new Kindle from so I could maintain my sanity.

German Eating Culture

Our current unit in German class is about food and eating, and our workbook’s section on German ‘Eating culture’ (‘Essenkultur’) has helped explain some (but not all!) of the foibles of the German grocery store. In Germany, traditionally lunch is the main meal, with dinner and breakfast being bread and cheese or sausage. You eat lunch at work with your colleagues, in the canteen. Justin’s office offers a large, all-you-can-eat buffet (for only 4 Euro!) with vegetarian and meat options and at least three different types of potatoes. Even my small language school has a teeny 5-table canteen, with sandwiches, hot entrees and cake (more about the cake to follow). Dinner, which is often referred to as ‘Abendbrot’ (‘evening bread’), is traditionally bread and wurst, which explains why what seems like half our grocery store is bread and wurst. Every so often I will buy a small packet of salami or ham for myself, but the options are quite dizzying and I usually stick to what I recognize.

Vegetarian options are not as limited as one might think. Many Germans seem to have adopted vegetarian diets as a health choice, and so Justin’s canteen, for example, has an entire vegetarian buffet line – however, I’ve heard from him and his colleagues that it has the same options every day, so it’s a little less helpful than it could be. We are lucky to live by a large (by German standards) grocery store that stocks a wide range of vegetarian proteins. However, many of them are kind of gross faux-sausages that don’t look too appealing. Since Justin eats chicken, faux schnitzel is also a bit unnecessary, but it’s definitely available. Tofu is usually a diet staple for us (I cook a lot of stir fries) but the tofu available in the grocery store is vacuum-packed, probably to increase its shelf-stability, and somehow has kind of a funny smell and taste to it. However, they do have tofu ‘gehacktes’ (‘minced meat’), which makes a pretty good fake Bolognese sauce. In the Asian grocery stores, you can find plenty of normal, water-bath tofu that has the expected taste (or lack thereof), along with curry pastes and all the other spices that seem to so intimidate the Germans. Also common here are ‘bio’ (organic) stores, and those have plenty of vegetarian options (seitan, beans, tempeh). Unfortunately, these stores tend to be kind of expensive.

Baking in Germany is kind of funny. All of the leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, baking soda – if you can find it) and vanilla come in single-serve packets. I assume German baking recipes will call for a packet of baking powder like American recipes call for a stick of butter. Finding these things in bulk (and by ‘bulk’, I mean, ‘containers with more than a teaspoon in them’) was a quest I went on during our first weeks here. First, I went down an Internet rabbit hole where I discovered that German baking powder is ‘single-acting’, while American baking powder is ‘double-acting’. Apparently this difference is less problematic when making something like banana bread, where you mix and put in the oven right away, but can cause problems in cookies that you bake in batches, because the German powder has already exhausted its leavening potential. Anyway, I found some bulk packages of baking powder and baking soda at the Indian grocery store here. I suspect the powder is single-acting, but I am unlikely to make cookies in our balky, teeny oven anytime soon, and it works fine for the cakes and breads I’ve made.

I think baking might be a little uncommon here, since everyone seems to buy a slice of cake at all times. I’ve heard that Britons have the worst sweet tooth in Europe, but Germans must be a close second. Every afternoon coffee break includes a slice of cake, and cafes often display huge cakes on the bar to entice patrons. Even the canteen in my language school always has two large cakes on the ordering counter to tempt the students with. Friday, I was in line at the Backerei to buy some bread for the weekend (bread, pastries and desserts for sale in the supermarket are solely decorative or sold to unsuspecting foreigners) and the two patrons in front of me ordered sweets: a woman got three large slices of cheesecake with strawberry topping, and a man got two large slices of the same cheesecake and added some sort of large nut-coated, frosted coffee cake.

Much like how the baking supplies come in packets, for some reason you can get condiments in toothpaste-style tubes. Mustard, mayonnaise, and ‘remouladen’ (a sort of tartar sauce/remoulade-style mayonnaise-based sauce) are all available in weird little tubes, to squeeze on your sandwiches. They also come in normal containers (well, somewhat normal, the mustard is in fancy, unsealed jars), but sometimes I buy the tubes for the sheer entertainment value. The tube of mayonnaise I bought came with a star tip, perhaps for gussying up your appetizers with shaped dollops of mayo? Anyway, tubes of mustard are a pretty good thing to smuggle back as a souvenir for friends.

This past week, Thursday was Ascension Day, which apparently doubles as Father’s Day or Men’s Day in Germany for reasons no one can seem to fully explain. On sale for Father’s Day in the grocery store we had vodka, large cans of Kölsch beer, and chocolate. This article describes it as “Men’s Day” and explains some shenanigans that went on. We didn’t see anything described in the article, but a friend in Greifswald in far northern Germany said there was clearly some drunken cycling going on in his neck of the woods.

One last bit about eating culture – the bread here comes in a huge variety, so I’ve started tracking the different breads I buy on the sidebar menu (visible if you click on the three-bar equals sign at the top right of the page).

German Bicycle Nerds

Yesterday, we went on a lovely bike ride from our house down to the local lake (the Baldenysee, which, much like Town Lake in Austin, is actually a river that has been dammed). It was wonderful weather, and the only downside was the clouds of midges you would periodically find yourself biking through. More prepared people had mouth coverings, we made do with spitting out any wayward bugs. I decided an excellent art project would be photographing the expressions people made as they ran or biked through these clouds, since they were pretty funny.

My other entertainment for the ride was pointing out people who appeared to be on sufficiently “serious” mountain bikes and telling Justin he should ask them where the trails are – every time he goes mountain biking, he finds standard German walking trails (which are wide, paved with fine gravel, and not very challenging) as the recommended route. All of my suggested mountain bikers were deemed either “insufficiently serious” or had “weird bikes”. Right now he’s off again hunting for trails, and hopefully has had more success.

We took the train back (since I’m lazy, and the train is absurdly convenient). Usually the front and back cars on the S-Bahn are bike cars, which means they have a section with fold out seats next to a big area you can stick your bike in. An older gentleman was already there, and I leaned my bike up against his. After the train started moving, he asked me something in German, which I did not quite parse. I replied “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutche, aber mein Mann spricht gut Deutsch.” [Translation: “I speak a little German, but my husband speaks good German.”] He wanted to know why my bicycle did not have caps on the valve stems – so Justin told him it was because we topped it off with air regularly (also, it’s pretty common among US cyclists to get rid of these, but in Germany, apparently not). Then he wanted to know how much my bike cost, where it was purchased. Next, he said it was a nice bicycle, but that the kickstand was cheap-looking. For context, let me explain that the standard German kickstand is a two-sided jobber that looks like it could kickstand the Bismarck. I think the intent is so you can stop your bike and then sit on it, because apparently stopping your bike and stepping over it to sit elsewhere is uncool. We had encountered our first German bike nerd.

This was actually pretty encouraging compared to my German cycling experience earlier in the week. I was bicycling home from my German class, uphill, at a leisurely 4 mph. I was biking on the sidewalk, because that’s where the bike lane on this particular road dumped me about a mile prior, and because this particular sidewalk is about 10 feet wide and usually has no one on it. The road next to it has four lanes, typically heavily trafficked with buses and cars on their way to the autobahn. An old man with a handtruck full of beverages was headed the opposite direction (a genteel 5 feet across the sidewalk), saw me, pointed, shook his finger, and then pointed to the roadway. He did it twice, to ensure I saw. I resisted the urges of my New York upbringing, and did not make a rude gesture, but it was close. Keep in mind, I’ve often seen people cycling down busy shopping streets, and there doesn’t appear to be a consensus as to where bicycles go on streets without a designated bicycle lane.

Anyway, Germany is still full of entertaining complexities – the German customs authority is holding my Kindle for ransom after I left it at a friend’s in the US and he mailed it back to me. I will have to produce a receipt to demonstrate that I’m not trying to smuggle it in to avoid taxes. On the upside, the beer is cheap, the weather is good, and the days are long, and I feel a little less confused when I’m spoken to in German (most of the time).