The ice cream gentrification index on Falckensteinstraße

ice cream

Until a few years ago I lived in Treptow within shouting distance of the Landwehr Canal. Wrangelkiez – the part of Kreuzberg across the canal from me – felt like my neighborhood. I especially spent a lot of time on Falckensteinstraße, the street that runs from the Oberbaumbrücke to Görlitzer Park. My main interests on this street were the bookstore, the good-by-Berlin-standards Pakistani restaurant, the slices of pizza and the ice cream place across the street from the pizza place that is run by the same people. At the time I believed the ice cream place, Aldemir Eisdiele, to serve the best ice cream  in Berlin.

In the intervening years I have not only moved away to the opposite end of Kreuzberg but also chatted once with a food policy specialist who told me that most commercial ice cream is pumped full of air and guar gum as a filler to make it cheaper, and that the way you can tell whether you are eating real ice cream or filler cream is to notice whether it foams on your tongue or just plain melts. If it foams, it’s full of guar gum. I’m aware that guar gum is pretty innocuous as far as food additives go (though apparently involved in fracking?), but I’d still rather my ice cream were made out of ice and cream. “Some of the most popular ice cream places in Berlin use a lot of guar gum,” the food policy person said. “Including the one on Falckensteinstraße.”

On Friday afternoon, by way of  Görlitzer Park, my son and I were back in the old neighborhood and went to Falckensteinstraße for some ice cream. Speaking of Görlitzer Park, that 80-police-officer Großrazzia at the end of July seems to have been effective, because the number of drug dealers in the park was noticeably lower – for the first time in years I *could* have thrown a rock without hitting one. When we arrived on Falckensteinstraße, I began to wonder if the crackdown on the Görlitzer Park drug dealers had been inspired by pressure from the forces of gentrification: the street was aflame in anti-gentrification sentiment. Posters and signs about rising rents seemed to coat every surface. Pictured above is the ice-cream-eating area in front of Aldemir; the sign in the background announces an anti-gentrification protest to be held there the next day. Most poignantly, a Kinderladen (preschool/daycare) that has been in the neighborhood since 1978  announced it was being driven out by rising rents:

kila

As for the ice cream at Aldemir, it not only foamed unmistakably but also cost way more than it used to – €1.20 a scoop. I remember it as costing €0.80 a scoop (and people complaining about the price bump from €0.70 a scoop), and I only moved away three years ago. It was the same price per scoop as the excellent non-guar-gum ice cream at Vanille & Marille in my supposedly more bourgeois new neighborhood. Ice cream prices seem like a good analogy to Berlin rents – still much lower than in many cities, but rising far more rapidly.

I’m fascinated by the New York Pizza Connection – the phenomenon that the price of a subway ticket and the price of a slice of pizza have always risen in tandem in New York City since about 1960 – and I was curious if you could come up with a similar index for ice cream and rents in Berlin. Does the price of a scoop of ice cream in a given neighborhood correspond to the average cost of rent per square meter? In the case of the Falckensteinstraße  Kinderladen, yes and no: In recent years, according to a taz article about its closure and the gentrification issues surrounding it, the Kinderladen‘s rent had gone up from about 8 euros per square meter to about 12, which would perfectly fit my ice cream index. But the reason they had to close is that the landlord then suddenly jacked the rent up to an astronomical 35 euros per square meter. Be on the lookout for €3.50-a-scoop ice cream.

Lady Fitness and Mrs.Sporty: The Denglish world of exercise

frauenfitness

The proliferation of English words in German, which got some attention from The Economist this week, is nowhere more rampant than in the realm of fitness and wellness (known in German as die Fitness and die Wellness). It took me years to find a yoga studio where the instructors speak in ordinary German rather than a highly distracting stream of  sentences like “im downward Hund geht es darum, zu relaxen und gleichzeitig zu stretchen, immer in the moment zu sein.”

I’ve never belonged to a gym in Berlin – in a place where sunlight is so scarce, I prefer to just go running outside so that I can combine exercise with Vitamin D absorption. But a few weeks ago a stretch of weather too hot to run outside had me contemplating das Fitnessstudio. Also, my neighborhood women’s gym was offering discounts during Ramadan, pictured above (the staff said non-Muslim ladies could also take advantage). An attempt to compare their (totally non-transparent) pricing scheme with competitors led me to the ultradenglish realm of Berlin-area women’s gym names. Here’s a sampling:

Lady Fitness

LadyCompany

Womenclub Frauenfitness

Frauenfitness Ladyline

Jonny M. Women

Mrs.Sporty

I guess the word “lady” is generally used more in global English than in native speaker English – I heard it a lot in Southeast Asia (where I was also frequently addressed as “sir”, but I digress) – but these gyms sure do lay the “lady” on thick. Is Lady Fitness the Dowager Countess of Fitnessshire? Did LadyCompany make an advantageous marriage to LordCompany? Jonny M. Women sounds like a pretty sketchy dude. Silliest of all is Mrs.Sporty, which besides its odd punctuation seems to arise from the common German-to-English translation error of assuming Mrs. = Frau. Is it just me or does Mrs. Sporty evoke the image more of Mr. Sporty’s frazzled wife than of a woman who is herself sporty? Also, a lot of the names are very Ladywomenfrauensportysport – among other things, Denglish tends to lead to very repetitive slogans and names.

Also: if your ladygym is going to run a Ramadan special, you should probably consider staying open late during Ramadan so that the ladies have have time to exercise after the iftar.

Ostseebad Rerik and books for boys

j beach rerik

I’m at Rerik on the Baltic Sea with my son, a friend, and her six-year-old. Rerik is so lovely and inexpensive and devoid of international tourists – the kind of place where speaking English to each other makes me and my son an exotic spectacle – that I hesitated to write about it, but decided this blog is such a minor publication there’s no danger of spoiling the Geheimtipp. Rerik lies on an isthmus between the Mecklenburg mainland and the Wustrow peninsula. On one side of the isthmus, a beach opens onto the Baltic proper; a brief jaunt away on the other side, children learn to windsurf in the shallows of a Salzhaff, a saltwater lagoon. Fishing boats dock in the morning at the pier on the lagoon side; Rerik is one of the last working fishing villages in the area. Much of the place is car-free. From our whitewashed blue-doored hut, we walk along the lagoon to the place with Sanddorn ice cream and the place with eight kinds of Fischbrötchen. My son tries to use his fishing net as a butterfly net, and asks me questions about how wolves were domesticated into dogs. He’s thrilled to be out of the city.

sanddorn

A few varieties of Sanddorn grow here.  One is ripe now, and the others have pale amber berries that will ripen by September. The Wustrow peninsula is a nature preserve closed to visitors. If you rent a paddleboat in the lagoon you have to sign an agreement that you won’t paddle within 200 meters of it. My friend grew up in the GDR. She says the peninsula was a military facility zu Ostzeiten, and she’s skeptical about whether rare birds are the only reason it’s off-limits today – more likely it still has landmines. In the GDR era Rerik was just for Stasileute and party honchos. An Ostseeurlaubsplatz – a slot at a Baltic beach resort – was a thing the state had to grant you, and was not routinely bestowed upon ordinary citizens. Perhaps, she said, you’d get it once in your life if you were the most productive worker in your factory that year. Hearing my friend talk about the travel restrictions in the GDR, how unattainable a trip to the East German Baltic was then, made me realize that I’d been viewing this trip through precisely the opposite lens: oh, we’re just going to the Baltic Sea this summer, nowhere big, just a few hours’ train journey, how modest and frugal and low-impact.

books for boys

I’m always interested in the books at holiday flats, because they offer the only potential breach in the anonymity of such an apartment – the only trace of specific individuals having stayed there before. The apartment in Rerik has a real gem: a beautifully illustrated 1956 edition of Der Kurier des Zaren, the German translation of Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff. This book does not want me to read it. It states explicitly that it is only für Jungen ab 12 Jahren, for boys 12 and up. The back cover lists the publisher’s other young adult literature, divided into the categories für Madel, für Jungen and für Jungen und Mädel. “Girls only” is the longest list, with a lot of obscure titles that I suspect were a sort of German 1950s Sweet Valley High and Babysitters’ Club. “Boys only” has a few Jules Verne books, a journey around the world, nature adventures with fierce animals. “Boys and girls” are granted little more than the Andersen and Grimm fairy tales. The admonition that only boys could read Der Kurier des Zaren inspired in me a contrarian desire to read it, which reminded me of a Boy Scout magazine called Boys’ Life that my brother had subscribed to as a child. I always read it furtively, feeling transgressive. When I sent away for fireworks and magic tricks from the ads at the back of the magazine, I signed the letter with the gender-neutral J. Yager, as if the purveyor of shoddy magic tricks would otherwise write back refusing to fill my order.

house with portrait

This self-referential house intrigues me. I wish every house had an oil portrait of itself posted in front of it.

Cafe in the Cemetery

cafe strauss

It sounds like a Smiths song, but it is an actual place, and it’s wonderful: the cafe in the cemetery. A Viennese Kaffeehaus called Cafe Strauss has recently opened in a former funeral parlor just inside the gates of the Friedrichswerderscher Kirchhof on Bergmannstrasse.  The outdoor seating on a sheltered patio overlooks well-tended 19th- and 20th-century graves; the indoor space is airy and spare with soaring arches. Just a few blocks from the noise of Mehringdamm and Gneisenaustrasse, Cafe Strauss is startlingly tranquil, the kind of quiet that makes you realize how loud the rest of the neighborhood is. It’s also cool on a hot day – like the day before yesterday, when I ordered the delightful iced coffee pictured above. A real iced coffee (no ice cream!), with a twist of lovely presentation. I also had a bowl of red currants and gooseberries with yogurt; tart berries featured prominently in the promising-looking selection of cakes as well.  However peaceful it is to sit outside there in summer, I’m sure it will fit its surroundings especially splendidly in cold weather: the sight of chessboards stacked on the piano at the back of the cafe promised so much autumnal coziness it almost made me look forward to the end of summer.

The name Cafe Strauss is a triple-entendre: the Viennese waltz composers, the German word for ostrich, and the name of the couple who own the place, Martin and Olga Strauss. In a fascinating interview with the Tagesspiegel a few months ago, the Strausses said that the space they converted into the cafe first began to be used as a funeral parlor in the 19th century. At that time, bodies had to be laid out for three days out of fear of accidentally burying someone alive. Bells were tied to them in case they woke up; what is now the toilet of the cafe was the room where a watchman sat listening for the bells. I’d say that even by Berlin standards, “cafe toilet in the place a man used to sit waiting for Scheintoten to ring bells” is a pretty unusual repurposed space.

And how perfect is it to put a *Viennese* cafe inside a cemetery? I mean, Vienna is the city of the schöne Leiche, home to the world’s only funeral museum, a place whose love of baroque melancholy carries on into the 21st century. As recently as 2008, when longtime mayor Helmut Zilk died, four horses pulled his coffin to the Zentralfriedhof in a hundred-year-old glass coach after a two-hour funeral at St. Stephen’s Cathedral featuring performances of Bruckner’s Mass in D minor and the Blue Danube Waltz by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. There’s nowhere like Vienna for funereal flair.

I like the way the cafe is integrated into the graveyard. One of the main paths of the cemetery runs in front of its terrace. As I drank my iced coffee and read the newspaper, people walked past with flowers, on their way to visit loved ones’ graves. Cemeteries are oases of quiet and green, and it makes sense for the living to spend time in them – sense both in terms of using urban green spaces and as a counterweight to our culturally unhealthy lack of contact with death, the dying, and anything that reminds us of our own mortality. Martin Strauss told the Tagesspiegel he thinks the time he and his wife spend in the cemetery makes them “live more consciously because here we’re always reminded that life is finite.” The cafe’s small selection of items for sale subtly encourages cafegoers to spend some time among the dead: along with their own infused syrups, they sell red grave candles and a coffee table book about Berlin gravestones called Unter jedem Grabstein eine Weltgeschichte.

The Strausses also said the cafe gets a lot of animal visitors, most notably a fox who reclines on the roofs of mausoleums to watch funerals, who keeps away rabbits that would otherwise eat the flowers from the graves.

Cafe Strauss, Bergmannstr. 42, Kreuzberg. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 9am (closing time seasonal depending on cemetery hours, open until 8pm in summer).

Germans in summer: 6 things I have learned

1. They suffer greatly in weather I experience as pleasantly warm. Sometimes you get the most gorgeous summer weather here: 25° (77° F), low humidity, a light breeze and a blue sky. You can’t believe how perfect it is. Then you realize that everyone around you is complaining about it. The first time I worked in a German office was during a spell of such weather. One day, while handing me an assignment, my new boss said sympathetically, “if you can manage it in this heat!” I was confused, thinking that this sentence must contain some sort of implicit future tense I wasn’t familiar with. “Oh, is hot weather expected?” I asked. “The hot weather NOW,” she said, her face gaining a disconcerted cast of who-is-this-strange-foreigner-I’ve-hired.  Is the weather outside warmer than room temperature? Is it in no way gray or gloomy? If so, Germans are suffering.

2. Their dedication to the sundress is unwavering. Germans may suffer from the heat, but unlike *some countries*, they do not take it as an occasion to dress sloppily. I get the impression that the typical German woman owns one perfect sundress, and wears it on every single day that is warm enough. The men dress well, too: lots of crisp button-down shirts and jaunty sun hats, all very seersucker-suity in spirit if not letter. And then they all ride their bikes in this lovely attire: isn’t northern Europe the best? I mean, except for that part about the sun not shining for six months of the year. Anyway, in Germany a warm day is such a rare sartorial opportunity that you don’t waste it in shlumpy activewear. And rightfully so, because there is nothing better in this world than a sundress, except perhaps the combination of wearing a sundress and sipping a refreshing iced beverage, speaking of which:

3. Their range of non-alcoholic cold beverages is somewhat lacking, especially for those of us who do not enjoy carbonation. As Berlin’s culinary offerings have become more international in the past few years, some coffee shops have started serving iced coffee rather than just Eiskaffee (coffee with vanilla ice cream in it). At the occasional Vietnamese or Thai restaurant here you can get some of the wondrous Southeast Asian palette of cold coffee, tea, or lime-based drinks. But at most German establishments, you’re still basically just looking at carbonated things (Bionade, Club-Mate, Sprite that calls itself lemonade) and Eiskaffee. All of which quickly go lukewarm, because ice cubes are seen to belong exclusively to the realm of alcohol.

4. Air conditioning is scarce. You might assume this is a matter of environmental principle, but it seems to be more pragmatic: with so few days hot enough for air conditioning, it doesn’t seem worth the hassle to have it. This is my favorite thing about German summer, because I hate air conditioning. In my country every indoor space is afflicted with headache-inducing gale force air conditioning from May to September. When I was a student and temped at office jobs in Boston during summer vacation, the air conditioning always foiled the pleasure of wearing summer dresses, because the temperature was modulated to men in suits, not to women in sundresses. And then there was the gross feeling of stepping back out into the humidity in the evening after a day spent in arctic air conditioning. But I digress. One of the German buildings where I’ve worked actually had air conditioning in the canteen, but I didn’t even realize it until I’d worked there for several years, because it was subtle, low-key air conditioning, whereas overbearing air conditioning was the only kind I’d ever known.

5. They are suspicious of fans. This is where I really part ways with them. Germans are notoriously wary of drafts (es zieht!), and of any contact between their necks and moving air. When I used a fan in a Berlin office-share, several of my German officemates intervened to warn me that I was endangering my health by blowing all that unhealthy moving air onto my neck. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a ceiling fan in all my years in this country.

6. In professional environments, they soak their feet in wastebaskets filled with cold water. So without iced coffee, lemonade, fans or air conditioning, how do Germans beat the heat? In many cases, with foot water. On warm days at multiple German jobs, I have seen people empty out an office wastebasket, fill said wastebasket with cold water (but no ice), stick it under their desk, and soak their bare feet in it. I was initially startled at this sight, which seemed both awfully casual for the workplace and kind of dangerous given all the electrical wiring under people’s desks, but I got used to it.

Today was a hot day. I was translating difficult art theory, and my apartment’s one fan had bought the farm. So, well, I tried out the footwater. I felt kind of wrong, but also kind of proud of my Integrationsfähigkeit. I have to admit it was sort of refreshing. Especially in a sundress with an iced coffee.

Umweltverachtend: Why I am so bothered by an article about Germans line-drying laundry

hochbett

Certain phrases occur with irritating frequency in things Americans write about Berlin. Edgy East Berlin neighborhood. Innovative repurposed space. Ghosts of the city’s dark past. Nothing bugs me more, though, than purported observations about Berlin which actually apply to just about the whole world except the U.S. For this reason, I would like to crown the 2010 Thought Catalog article “Why Germans Hang Their Socks to Dry” the all-time most annoying American thought about Berlin ever catalogued.

After setting the scene with the oft-invoked dirt-cheap rents of Berlin (“I found a gorgeous four-room apartment that cost less than one room in a Brooklyn ghetto”) and the obligatory mention of the party scene (“some clubs have half-mile entrance lines at 7 a.m.”), the author recounts an exchange on the North American expat Yahoo group Berlin Scholars about Germany’s lack of electric dryers. Apparently a woman named Courtney wrote to ask the group why Europeans had not yet reached an advanced enough stage of economic development to have laundry dryers. A woman named Susan responded: “Most Germans consider electric dryers umweltverachtend, since they accomplish a task that can also be achieved through the combination of time + air.” Susan embedded her observation in a feminist critique of German attitudes toward household labor: Germans’ insistence on time-consuming domestic practices like line-drying laundry, she wrote, is rooted in the assumption that every household has a full-time Hausfrau. On a larger level, I agree with Susan – I’ve been a working mother in Germany, and it’s true that everything from the expectation that babies wear hand-washed wool garments to the limited hours public schools are open to the fact that shops are closed on Sunday presumes a full-time housewife in every home. But I don’t really see line-drying laundry as a part of this phenomenon. Hanging it up takes at most five minutes more than throwing said laundry into a dryer.

The problem with the article is that the author, who concludes by translating umweltverachtend as “environmentally contemptible”, frames line-drying laundry as a specifically German cultural habit. Firstly, there is absolutely nothing German about hanging up laundry to dry. The whole world outside North America hangs up laundry to dry. The article reveals far more about the observer than the observed. One often hears such statements about France/Paris, Americans’ favorite stand-ins for the whole world outside the U.S. More than once, I have heard or read “French people have very small fridges.” No, actually they don’t. French people have pretty average-sized fridges in global comparison, and Americans have freakishly large ones.

Secondly, this framing suggests that taking the environment seriously is some sort of quaint European folk practice. How charmingly quirky these Old World folk, with their dainty wee fridges and their droll little concerns about climate change! This too says far more about the American observer than the non-American observed. Speaking of which, “environmentally contemptible” is not a good translation of umweltverachtend. Calling something umweltverachtend doesn’t mean the speaker feels contempt for another person engaging in an environmentally irresponsible practice – it means the speaker is criticizing a practice as showing contempt for the environment. When Germans call laundry dryers umweltverachtend, they’re not expressing their disdain for people who use dryers — they’re saying the use of dryers expresses disdain for the environment. The distinction is an important one, and the mistranslation is culturally revealing. Speaking as an American who cares deeply about the environment, I find that my Landesleute have a particular tendency to greet environmentally motivated decision-making as an expression of self-righteousness and contempt for others. In conversations with people I don’t know very well, I often avoid revealing to Americans that the environment is one of my motivations to travel by train rather than air, to have only one child, to limit my meat consumption – because a lot of Americans hear “I practice or eschew X for environmental reasons” as “I think I’m better than you.” With Germans and other Europeans I feel much freer to speak openly about environmental motivations.

But if I’m completely honest, there’s another reason the Thought Catalog article irks me so much: it hits close to home. In every cultural comparison I make, every blog post I write, I am inevitably on a certain level doing the same thing as the guy who wrote this article. Observations of a place are always limited by the observer’s personal experience. When I was working as a reporter for the Let’s Go travel guides years ago, I arrived in Poland from Boston to find Warsaw full of little old ladies selling bunches of lilies of the valley – a detail that charmed me so much I wrote about it in my Warsaw city intro. Only later did I learn that there was nothing specifically Varsovian about these flowers being sold everywhere — it was just that I’d happened to be in Warsaw in late May, when lilies of the valley are ubiquitous throughout central Europe. Later, doing the same job in Thailand, I wrote enthusiastically about the little lizards darting along the walls of the first guesthouse where I stayed in Bangkok – only to realize after sending off my copy that every wall in Thailand has lizards darting along it.

As for the photo above, I’d assert that while there’s nothing specifically German about line-drying laundry, it is pretty German to line-dry your laundry by hanging it from your homemade Hochbett.

Swarm of bees paralyzes tram stop, police now must guard embassies

bienenschwarm

I really enjoy both the German tabloids’ unflagging dedication to stories about animals and the particular hysteria of their animal coverage. The July 4 Bild cover is a real classic: “Swarm of bees paralyzes tram stop at Rosenthaler Platz”, with the juxtaposition of the unrelated headline below, “Police must now guard embassies”, visually suggesting that the police have been deployed to protect embassies threatened by swarms of bees.

Beneath the subheds “fire department powerless” and “beekeepers in action”, the article about the swarm of bees strains even harder than the headline to sensationalize the bees’ peaceful and ultimately uneventful behavior. Here’s a rather literal translation:

It was 10:49 when the fire department received the emergency call: A giant swarm of bees had inexplicably gathered at an M8 tram stop. As the bees buzzed around passengers, some people batted their arms in fear. Trams opened their doors only briefly to let passengers on and off. And ever more bees kept arriving … in the end they numbered some 15,000! Danger! Even a few stings can prove fatal to people with allergies!

BVG spokeswoman Petra Reetz expressed her surprise. “This has never happened before in the Berlin transit system,” she said. The BVG warned the passengers about the bees before they exited the tram. “That way nobody got stung,” Reetz said. But the bees remained on the tracks. The fire department was powerless. Tram passengers phoned Evelyn Jesse’s nearby beekeeping supply shop, where beekeeper Georg R. happened to be shopping at the moment. Jesse excitedly sent Georg R. to Rosenthaler Platz with a white bucket to gather the bees. At this moment a beekeeping hobbyist happened to walk into the shop, and spontaneously joined the effort.

The two experts gathered up some 80 percent of the bees, including the queen. The rest flew away. By 12:30 the danger had passed for the tram stop. Beekeeper Georg R. took home the bees he’d gathered, including the queen.

He later explained to BILD.de the apparent reason for the bees’ “attack”: “Bees are currently confused due to the extremely changeable weather, and are very eager to swarm (schwarmfreudig). When a population gets too big, half of them break off with a new queen – normally in a hollow tree trunk.” But it seems the only dark place these bees found was the tram tracks.

The good news is that Berlin bees are very peaceable. “I was only stung once while gathering the creatures,” the beekeeper said. 

Schwarmfreudig is now my new favorite German word.

Kilian

Hof

The building where I live has a pretty harmonious and classically Kreuzberg 61 mix of tenants – middle-aged lesbian couples with big shaggy dogs, Turkish-German extended families, a Wohngemeinschaft of flight attendants, a student with a nose ring and her adorable mohawked baby. And then there’s Kilian. Kilian is a ten-year-old German-German boy who comes here with his older sister during the summer school holidays to stay with their grandmother.

Many of my neighbors dread Kilian’s annual arrival. He has a lot of what would in my country be called behavioral issues. He picks up younger children against their will and carries them around the Hinterhof (back yard, pictured above) laughing as they shriek to be put down. He mutters to himself in an angry refrain of age-inappropriately sexual curses that suggest he has done a lot of unsupervised late-night TV watching. When he plays with his soccer ball in the yard he spends most of the time furiously bashing snails and plants with it. After an incident last summer when he dangled himself out the window ledge of his grandmother’s third-floor apartment, there was talk of calling the Jugendamt, the child welfare authorities.

When, after the window-dangling drama, I mentioned Kilian to some German friends, his name always elicited a knowing laugh. Of course the Jugendamt would be involved in the life of a boy named Kilian, people said. Of course the grandmother is very young. Of course his sister is named Michelle. Of course he lives with his single mother in a high-rise eastern suburb of Berlin. Surely the mother is on Hartz IV (welfare). The boy is straight from central casting.

Kilian, you see, is part of a group of first names to which Germans attach an intense class stigma. I’ve heard these names referred to as Hochhausnamen, HartzIV-Namen and – most bluntly – Unterschichtnamen. Many of the boys’ names in this group are anglophone – Justin, Kevin, Dustin – and many of the girls’ names are francophone – Chantal, Jacqueline. The stigma includes the perception that younger, less educated parents name their children after international pop stars and movie characters, and that they then Germanize the pronunciation of the names because they can’t really speak English or French.

Kevin, the most stigmatized of all these names, first swept Germany after the release here of the movie Home Alone, the German title of which is “Kevin allein zu Haus”. The prejudice against children with these names is such a widespread and well-studied phenomenon that there’s even a specific word for it: Kevinismus. In a country where children are sorted into university-bound and vocational tracks at a very young age, and in significant part on the basis of their teachers’ perception of their parents’ level of education, Kevinismus can have a serious negative impact on a child’s educational prospects.

The force of the Unterschichtnamen phenomenon is unlike anything I’ve ever seen – and, of course, the particular names Germans stigmatize don’t have the same connotations to me. In America, the names Kevin and Justin say nothing about a child’s odds of going to college vs. to prison. Yes, names can have socioeconomic connotations there, but class in America is always intertwined in complicated ways with region, race, and the culture wars. (As this NPR article mentions, the biggest baby-naming rift in the U.S. is the blue state-red state divide, with liberals preferring traditional names and conservatives going for creative names: Abigail is more likely to come from New England, and Braelynn from Nebraska, but the names don’t really say much about their parents’ socioeconomic status.)

My son has picked up on the talk about Kilian and told his preschool friends, who also speak English, “There’s a dangerous Kilian in my yard.” When his friends come to visit they peer nervously at the foliage in the yard. “Could the Kilian be hiding in the bushes?” they ask, and I try to explain that a Kilian isn’t like a lion or tiger, it’s just the name of an older boy with some harmful habits. But to no avail: in English the name has “kill” in it, it sounds sinister to them, and they are already, albeit in a very different way from the German adults Kilian encounters, imagining all sorts of terrible things about him.

Schlachtensee

schlachtensee
schlachtensee (Photo credit: g-squared)

I like to swim in oceans and swimming pools, but freshwater lakes creep me out. They feel slimy underfoot. The reeds around them have snakes. Flesh-eating bacteria can live in them. In high school I lived in a part of Pennsylvania with a lot of quarry lakes, and hated the unsettling feeling of the sudden temperature plunge as you swim out past the point where the lake bottom drops off sharply. That people would believe leftover prehistoric monsters to lurk in the cold depths of glacial lakes does not surprise me in the least.

The area around Berlin has an abundance of both natural and quarry lakes. Many of their names suggest that whoever named them felt much the same way I do about lakes. Here is a small sampling, with literally translated English names:

Teufelssee: Lake Devil

Schlachtensee: Lake Slaughter

Pechsee: Lake Misfortune-or-Tar

Schlachtensee, a glacial trough that is probably the most attractive lake within easy S-Bahn reach of central Berlin and is thus usually packed to the gills on warm days, epitomizes all of my lake fears. Not only is it named Lake Slaughter (or maybe Lake Battle, which is not much better), its lakebed murk is especially slimy, and friends who go jogging around it report a lot of snakes in the reeds.

I used to work with a delightfully eccentric fiftysomething British woman who enjoyed both swimming laps in Schlachtensee and talking about how dangerous it was. “It’s always slender teenage boys who drown,” she would say. “They have too little body fat to absorb the shock of the change in temperature when the bottom drops off.”

“Another boy has drowned in Schlachtensee,” she said at lunch one day. “He was swimming across with his friends and they never heard a thing, just turned round at the far shore and he was gone. They sink like stones, those slender boys, they go down silently.” I gaped at her in terror. My son has such a lanky build that he has to wear drawstring pants every day because all other pants fall down. I began to imagine putting him on a regimen of bacon-wrapped cream puffs and sedentary activities to pad on enough fat to save him from the otherwise quite likely fate of someday drowning in Schlachtensee.  If fattening him up didn’t work, could I perhaps permanently affix a lifejacket to him? I have since learned that drownings in Schlachtensee are less frequent than my colleague made them out to be, but I still intend not to live anywhere near a lake when my son is a skinny teenager.

To end with a linguistic tangent: the German word for quarry lake is Baggersee. Bagger means bulldozer, and is pronounced almost exactly like the English word bugger. We visited my son’s British relatives during his toddler point-out-all-the-bulldozers phase, and I would like to say that it is highly awkward to travel around England with a small boy who keeps pointing in all directions and calling out bugger! bugger! bugger!