Doing the Deutsch

Hi, can I get a Quorn Bratwurst in a quinoa tortilla please?” “Bugger off.”

This is Bratman. (Dunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunna…) He is the new Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. The only Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. I think probably the only one in the country. This is jarring to those of us who are used to seeing five or ten of these guys on every street corner even at 7am, filling the morning air with the warm, damp, porky mists of the morning Brat. I first encountered Bratman when I was meeting with my German tandem partner who immediately made a beeline for him as if he were selling kittens made of gold. His Bratwursts are made to a real German recipe and even the Brötchen (bread rolls) are the real Schrippen of my year abroad, made to a German recipe! (A Schrippe is a small and stiff snow-white roll that costs about fifteen cents at most and therefore seems to contain only ground newspapers and bleach, with the nutritional value of a plastic model of a ricecake.) One can only hope that Bratman represents the foetal stage of a nationwide revolution in open-air sausage consumption.

One of the few things that keeps me going here in Oxford and prevents my nonetheless inevitable plummet into mania is that the city contains a small, quiet, but persistent German underground who doggedly keep German values alive even within the dreamy British spires. There are quite a lot of them drifting around, if you know what to look and listen for; I can pick up the intonation of Germans chatting from a good few metres away and usually have to restrain the impulse to skip over to them and beamingly demand “Wie geht’s???” because for some reason when you know someone else’s language you suddenly feel like you have an unspoken kinship with them. It’s probably the same phenomenon as when you assume you know someone like a brother the minute you find out their birthday is two days after yours. There aren’t many of us here who have done the German thing and have come back to what should by rights be nothing but wall-to-wall tweed, but for those of us that have, it’s a pleasure to know that there are still a few places to get your fix of Germaction.

For a start there’s the Oxford Uni German society. Granted, the members of the German society are almost exclusively vaguely disconcerting business/law students from Germany who are here to find the quickest, directest and most ferocious route to riches and a glossy glass-clad executive office. I distinctly remember the one German I spent the entirety of the first meeting ‘chatting’ to: a very tall, gangly young man who looked like a young Jim Carrey and thought it was devastatingly hilarious conversation simply to force me to try to guess his name and age for about sixteen hours. Because of the target demographic, the events tend to err towards pleasing the masses and so they generally tend to be speeches from politicians, lawyers and generic business sharks, like Jack Donaghy without the knee-weakening voice. Sometimes, however, they really pull one out of the bag; a talk from the chief editor of Bild, Germany’s version of our shameful Sun newsrag, was deliciously brilliant. He oozed forth rhetoric like an ancient Greek, claiming that Bild was not only not reprehensible but also contributed to the educational and cultural foundation of Germany oh and by the way we would never do phone-hacking you philistines. Things like that – or the excuse to make a pair of Lederhosen out of Primark tat and wind my hair into plaited buns for a German-themed bop (“Alle meiner Entchen!!”) – make the membership fee worthwhile.

There is also the German Baker Man, a guy with a truck who comes to Oxford every Friday at an unjustly early hour to sell real German bread to people who appreciate that a real loaf is not a squashy cuboid of carbo-foam but should be dark mahogany, the size of a house brick and weigh two kilos. I haven’t been yet because Finals, but the first thing I’m going to do on that Friday after exams are over is run there and buy a real, soft, German pretzel. Oh god pretzels. Ihr fehlt mir so.

A brilliant ‘Typ’ called Golo (which is incidentally going to be the name of my firstborn child) has been organising a Stammtisch for the past year for all of us who want to speak in a more crispy language for an evening, and I have been one of its most devoted attendees. It’s great language practice, but more than that being at the Stammtisch is a bit like sitting cross-legged in the middle of your bedroom and getting out all your old cuddly toys just to squish them and look at them. It’s comforting and wonderful to be surrounded by a language I miss so much, to still be learning new and fantastic words and reminisce about things we share like missing Mehrkornbrot, lamenting how expensive booze is here and discussing weird things we’ve noticed about German television. I feel that in some way I can make a contribution in return, namely by informing them that Lidl does sell real black forest ham and reiterating how much I adore their country no matter how embarrassed or modest they might be about it.  

Germany is missing to me so much that I find ever more tiny ways to inject a little German-juice back into my days. The Co-Op did a sale on pickled gherkins lately and I am ashamed to say I did not hold back; I listen to Berlin radio every morning (“InfoRadio mit Irina Barbovsky – WOO!! WOO!! MONTAGSALARM!! – und jetzt das Wetter…”); I wrap my teabag around the spoon like they do, hell I even have my Kaiser’s trolley token still hanging on my keychain. My long-suffering college friend gets texted a German Word of the Day every day depending on what I’m revising whether she likes it or not. And now, of course, we also have Bratman. The Germans underground is gradually spreading overground, Oxford, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us…

Coda

“Parker, I need some kinda sentimental-type picture for the front cover by noon, you know, kittens or kites or that kinda crap. Get on it kid!” *repositions giant cigar between teeth*

It’s been a week since I came back to my family home after ten months in Germany. I can honestly say that a week is all it has taken to wish I was back there. Of course I miss the people I have found there and the place tremendously; odds are, there are some of you reading this and if you are one of those I was lucky enough to properly kennenlernen during my time there I really, truly, wish you were here. Or I was there, I’m not picky. Besides the standard pining and reminiscing however I can’t escape the persistent certainty that I’ve just finished – left – the best thing I will ever do with myself, for quite some time at least. My year abroad was not all hunky dory; I considered jacking it in so many times I feel like I now merit a Disney song about ‘going the distance’, ‘never giving up’ and ‘remembering who you are’. But every miserable day was worth it, every single move to every new flat, every early morning wading through snow or late afternoon falling asleep on the train, every horrible class or unfortunate mishap (2 broken cafetières! 4 lost pairs of gloves! Countless lost items of jewellery! Two permanent physical scars!). I spent ten months roaming the streets of the most strange, overwhelming and ever-developing cities in the world and now I’m sitting in my old bedroom surrounded by craft supplies typing a blog entry while looking out of the window onto a golden field of wheat, while a buzzard flies menacingly overhead and my two cats lie fatly in the hot sunbeams. 


 So what’s it like to be back in the British countryside after all this time? How do I feel to suddenly have been ripped out of a place and shoved unceremoniously into its exact opposite?

It’s…odd. Like being born, backwards. Being sucked from a world of noises and grown-ups and words you don’t understand and new sensations and people smacking you on the buttocks back into a snuggly, quiet womb, where mother provides the food and the restful chatter of the day and even while awake one is somehow asleep. It’s traditional, and sweet, and cozy here; yesterday saw my first and oh-so-welcome Sunday roast since Christmas, which was an epic affair and for anyone who knows UK traditions is rather like eating a huge delicious steaming portion of pure, savoury Britishness. The world outside is so quiet and peaceful compared to the screaming, partying, fornicating Berliner neighbours who spiced up every nighttime with their sound effects. After days of rain and the kind of grey skies that make you wonder if the sun has set forever, suddenly summer has re-descended on the countryside and the only sound that drifts through my open window is the noise of rustling foliage. I sit outside after lunch and read my books with a cup of tea . I turn on my radio to be soothed by the sultry sound of John Humphrys rather than the brisk bark of InfoRadio. This is the kind of rural idyll that divides Berliners into two groups: the group that heave a wistful sigh at the idea of a country retreat and dream of long walks through fields and distant cows, and the group that instantly begin to panic and choke at the thought that they might ever have to spend more than a few hours trapped in a world of quiet and plants and farmyards, where the only bus comes every hour and only takes you to a nearby town where everything is made of wicker. 

Being knee-deep in the countryside does have endless downsides, obviously. The fact that the nearest supermarket – hell, the nearest anything – is a good car or bus journey away is deeply unsettling for someone who is used to reaching out of her front door directly into the dairy section of Lidl for some emergency milk while putting the kettle on with her other hand. This environment is also tremendously soporific; I am finding myself constantly slipping into micro-sleeps, whether outside reading or on the sofa or upstairs fiddling with my bead collection. It’s frustratingly unproductive but hardly my fault given that this world is just so unspeakably soft – the carpets are cushiony where Berlin floors are hard and dusty, the mattresses are marshmallowy where mine was solid with a large canyon where many arses before mine have engraved a deep hollow in the stuffing, and the relative coldness of here compared to Berlin’s scorching summer heat means that one is constantly swaddled in a fluffy array of slippers and jumpers and brand new socks. Mmmmm…life here is squishy.

God I miss the fun of Berlin. The live music, the weird and gimmicky bars, the funny little caffs. Everything was nearby and the streets dripped with colour and invention. But this is rehab, a chance to lower my blood pressure and catch up on must-see series (there’s this odd little one I’m having a look at called “Mad Men”, do you know of it perchance?) and take the time to properly exfoliate from time to time. The question is how many weeks of this it will take before I am chewing the duvet, frothing at the mouth to be back somewhere, anywhere, where stuff happens.

This is my 98th post, and my 100th post will be my last here before I let this blog just quietly stand here like an old ruin, so that I can refer to it if needs be. My 99th post is going to be an odds-and-ends post to clear up anything left unclear or anything I haven’t addressed over the last ten months. Thus, everybody gird your loins because it’s time for some audience participation! Please leave in the comments below or in a message any topics or questions you want me to write about in my ‘mop-up’ penultimate post and I will  – I promise – do each and every one. You don’t have to sign up or anything to leave a comment, so go to town and join in without fear of identity theft. 

If French is the language of love, English is the language of lols

Simple, beautiful genius. Thank you, anonymous stenciller.

Look at this wonderful piece of graffiti. I walked past this truck today as it momentarily stopped in a queue and seconds after this photo was taken the driver glared and me and drove off. But for a fleeting moment I stood gormlessly beaming at a van purely because someone had stencilled the English translation of their motto on the side. (I would just like to applaud their attention to detail in ensuring the fonts also matched.)

No matter how long I study and immerse myself in German my heart will always belong to English. This is not because it is my mother tongue; any actual link it gives me to the UK is meaningless to me and sometimes approaches the faintly embarrassing when people dub me ‘Mrs Bean’ or when my pupils address me with the name ‘Englisch’ since the majority of them cannot be bothered to remember my actual name. I don’t even think it is a beautiful or aesthetically predisposed language – like any language it can sound pleasant if you use the right sounds and rhythms, and if you can find a more glorious-sounding string of words than ‘the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black fishingboat-bobbing sea’ you win a Kinder egg. English generally, though, tends to have a thudding neutralness to its sound which make it a great allrounder although not particularly often a pleasure to hear; it is the oats in the muesli of the world’s various languages, performing a crucial and worthwhile role but only once in a while getting a chance to shine as flapjack.

But what English has in spadefuls which makes it remarkable is its capacity to express comedy and humour in general, and for this reason I am smitten. 
I miss it in German, as in English even the most everyday conversation is littered with the tiniest euphemisms, puns and simple silly noises which make it a joy to hear and endlessly entertaining to speak. You don’t spend a tenner when you can spend a quid, you love to be offered a cuppa and a biccy and possibly even a sarnie, and you’ll avoid spending time with your friend who is so ‘vanilla’ in favour of someone who is completely banterous.

You only have to watch the first forty-five seconds of dialogue in ‘Juno’ to see how far this can do and how brilliant it can sound. 
“Your eggo is prego.”
If there is a way to be this casually creative with French or German I would pay good money to be taught it, but from what I encounter my brief flirtations with this kind of speak in German are received with confusion, derision or worried concern. I caused a whole tableful of dinner party guests to burst out laughing because I tried to jauntily carry off the word ‘wunderlecker’. So much of casual everyday conversation which takes place in English is simply not at all present in German; take, for example, our ability to make any sound into an adjective describing how something feels, sounds, tastes etc: “He was just so…blah…” or “I’m feeling so urgh today”. My mother and I use the word ‘bloicky’ almost on a weekly basis to describe that feeling of having too much unpleasant goo sloshing around your stomach, and as much as I try I cannot think of a single other expression that would convey this feeling any more sublimely or sound more like the squelching of your belly as you sit in a silent room being stared at by a group of silent-stomached people.  

And how else would English be the language that spawned Carry On films if it weren’t so preposterously rich with euphemisms? I can reel off thousands of different words for lady parts and man parts and construct a wild, colourful spectrum of them ranging from the ultra-tame (‘boobs’ or ‘jugs’, for a start) to the bizarre and hilarious (‘boobular area’, ‘ba-donk-a-donk’ and the most excellent ‘va-jay-jay’) to the downright obscene (no, you are not getting any examples of that. This is a family blog, consarn it). Or what about our capacity to exaggerate? It’s absolutely über-awesome, like, completely insanely MASSIVE and ultimately the most ridiculously unbelieeeeeevable thing ever. Dude. 

I don’t know how I would even articulate a single sentence in English if I didn’t have outdated slang words which I could use ironically – they are so rad. Or if I couldn’t use inappropriately strong words for relatively tame concepts after I’ve done a day of hideously boring work. Or if I couldn’t shorten almost every word at my disposal into a cutesy term of familiarity, like I do when I’m wearing my jammy-jams (pajamas, for you Germans) with my hotsie (hot water bottle) and hot cow-juice (milk). I miss my language and its clowny goofiness; I fear that in German I am entirely boring once you take all that away.

Still, your mother tongue never leaves you and German could always do with an injection of whimsy, so I will keep on trying to make it a bit more oo-er missus. Look out, the Deutschinator, cuz Mrs Bean is here and she’s going to get all freakisch in this Sprachy-wachy, Homekraut.

This blog post was brought to you by…a decent cup of tea

The kind of marvellous tourist attraction I offer my guests

Two posts in two days! Good lord, what is going on here? Well, I suppose I’d better get on with it then.

This weekend I had my first visitor from the UK, my mother, come to see my new little kingdom in my new Heimat. Being a right little mummy’s girl (possibly to a forehead-slappingly embarrassing extent) I was boiling with anticipation of her arrival, and having spent the whole weekend with her doing little more than lingering over the kind of hearty brunch that makes your cheeks pink and yomping around the streets of Berlin in the freezing cold, I am now ready to tackle the last few weeks of fighting small infants with renewed vigour and lebkuchen-fuelled dynamism. Because Germany is different to the UK in that they trust childcare professionals to not be paedophiles or prone to sudden grotesque acts of violence, I was even able to let her observe one of my lessons with absolutely no fuss or red tape whatsoever; the class responded to her presence by being as adorable as the little sweeties could manage, save one little one who just decided to inventory all the crockery in the playroom, of which there was quite a huge stash. We discovered great and not-so-great restaurants, we chewed our way through Harry Potter 7a, we gazed at hand-made ladles at the Christmas markets and drank ludicrous quantities of tea. Tea. Teeeeeaaaaaaa.

She brought me tea. Proper tea. The kind of tea that smooths down all the prickles in your brain and makes you ready to be awake in the morning and ready to sleep at night. Whittards’ Spice Imperial. Twinings’ Lapsang Souchong. Yes yes oh yes. 

See, the thing about tea in Germany is this: they love it and drink it by the gallon, but in a way that is rather incompatible with my ultra-English ‘ooh I’m gasping for a cuppa’ kind of way. German teas are mostly fruit teas, green teas and herbal teas; they have odd and suggestive names like ‘Hot love’, ‘Little sin’ and simply ‘Man tea’ (none of these are made up, nor are any of them novelty or joke names. I promise.). The herbal teas are presumed to have magical powers which will cure your sore throat, help you through the menopause and, if they are organic, rid your body of all the poisons you’ve been building up. Other teas such as redbush come in every flavour except ‘normal’ – you can buy redbush tea in vanilla, orange, cream and cream-caramel flavour, and I am trying to avoid finding out how you make a dried bag of bits of leaves taste like a sweet creamy dairy treat. Then you finally come to the black teas, where all of a sudden variety and inventiveness completely surrender and you are left with three choices: Assam/Ceylon blend, Darjeeling and Earl Grey. The Earl Grey is always the least bad of the three, although German Earl Grey tends to taste like a cat’s scrotum compared to the stuff you can get hold of in good old Blighty, and leaves attractive thick scales of brown on the surface of the water. PG Tips is also available from English ex-pat shops and asian supermarkets. Naturally. German varieties of the black teas are always produced by companies with names that make them sound like the characters of British nobility from Pirates of the Caribbean, names like ‘Duke Twentington’ and ‘Captain Farnaby’. Finally, every tea you ever buy is sold in individually wrapped bags, so that you can gradually fill your apartment with tiny paper rectangles as you individually unwrap each arbitrarily enveloped teabag to RELEASE the ORGASM of FLAVOUR that would clearly have otherwise evaporated into the atmosphere. 


Now, if any of my outrageously lovely German friends happen to read this post, allow me to qualify it by saying that none of this is bad but merely…well, different. Not to mention that the English attitude to tea is even worse, as we in general tend to adhere to the philosophy that if it’s brown, hot and coats your teeth it must be a delicious and strengthening beverage. PG Tips and Tetleys should in fact only be used to stain wood or tan leather. Also, the coffee in this country is wonderfully good and the fact that it is usually served with a tiny biscuit feels like a little present in itself. And now that I have great tea to complement the great coffee here, my cup runneth over.


I do apologise for that last part.