How I learned German: A lengthy cautionary tale featuring a childbirth horror story


VERY LONG POST WARNING: My Berliniversary a few days ago seemed like a good occasion to answer the question a reader asked a few months ago about my experience learning German in Berlin. Unfortunately, this post ballooned into a full-blown essay.

I arrived here on September 6, 2005. My new roommate met me at Tegel with a sign with my name on it. I’d always wanted to be met at an airport with a sign with my name on it; this seemed auspicious. Everything felt auspicious that day: the cloudless blue sky (which I foolishly took for the normal way of the Berlin sky), the view of the Admiralbrücke from my new apartment, the wardrobe in my bedroom (an actual wardrobe! how storybook-European!), the wicker shopping baskets my roommate Jesse and I carried to the Turkish market to buy chili olives and Fladenbrot.

That evening Jesse and I went to Ankerklause. We drank beer next to the canal, smoking cigarettes at a rate that would totally disgust me today. I was in love with Berlin, hadn’t even adjusted to this time zone yet but was already scheming how I could make enough money to stay here and ditch out on my return ticket to Boston at the end of November.  “So how’s your German?” Jesse asked.

“Limited to the numbers one to ten,” I said. “But I’m going to learn.”

Unlike almost every other person to whom I announced this intention in the year to come, Jesse did not tell me I had no chance of ever learning German. Instead he said I needed to think of learning German in Berlin as a war in which the Germans were my enemies. “Every conversation you ever have with a German,” he said, “is a battle between your will to speak German and their will to speak English with you.” Jesse had studied German at college and arrived here already speaking it well. After about a year in Berlin, he was sick of the place and ready to go home, which seemed to have a lot to do with the frustration of the daily linguistic battle.  

Over time I would notice an inverse correlation between how much German people spoke when they arrived here and how happy they were in Berlin. A lot of people who, like Jesse, had studied German at university began complaining bitterly about Germans within a few months of their arrival; those who understood no German and had no aspirations of learning were more inclined to find Berlin paradisiacal. At first I was at the ignorant bliss end of the spectrum. It was campaign season, as it is again now, and I traipsed around Kreuzberg not understanding any of the posters: I thought Erststimme was a first name that a lot of political candidates happened to have. I lived above a funeral parlor and never knew it because I didn’t understand the word Bestattungen.

The apartment where I lived with Jesse had a landlord named Dagmar who lived directly upstairs. Dagmar only rented the place to fresh-off-the-boat foreigners, perhaps assuming such people wouldn’t realize that the terms she offered – no lease, no deposit, Dagmar walking into your apartment unannounced to borrow the wok from your kitchen whenever she felt like it – were not normal for Germany. Dagmar used to be very beautiful. I know this because the front hallway of the apartment was papered in photo collages of her naked at FKK beaches in the 70s. Now she had some profession in the realm of alternative medicine that left her lots of free time for invading my privacy. As I worked at my computer in the kitchen, she would appear and tell me I was not keeping the apartment clean enough. Can’t you see the dust? she would say, and point to some surface on which I did not in fact see any dust. This instilled in me the belief that German women had the power to see dust that was invisible to other people. One evening in late November a lightbulb burned out. I couldn’t buy a new one because it was Sunday. While I was out Dagmar came into the apartment, saw that a lightbulb had burned out, and – apparently feeling a stand had to be taken before the apartment slipped further into invisible-dust chaos – seized my laptop. She left a note saying she’d return it when the lightbulb was replaced. I had work due the next morning. I came home, saw the note, looked up all the words to say “my landlord stole my laptop,” and called the police. (I think I accidentally used a word that means tavern-owner rather than landlord.) After the police made her give my laptop back, she became tearfully contrite and gave me an advent calendar, the price of which she later tried to tack onto my rent. I believe that all around the world, people who are freshly arrived foreigners are inclined to encounter characters like Dagmar, because characters like Dagmar know they can only get away with their inappropriate behavior around people ignorant of local customs. Anyway, I moved out of Dagmar’s apartment after the laptop incident. Continue reading

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


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


Womenclub Frauenfitness

Frauenfitness Ladyline

Jonny M. Women


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.

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


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.



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 (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!

Where are you from?


In Rome we heard a lot of English and specifically a lot of loud American English in the form of complaints about having to walk up stairs and/or about being spoken Italian to in Italy, but on the train from Milan to Zurich there was not much English to be heard. Which is probably why, as the train was pulling into the Zurich station, a woman from New Zealand who overheard my son talking said to him with surprised delight, “do you speak English?” Yes, he said. “And where are you from?” she asked. The boy looked at me in total bafflement. “Where am I from?” he asked me. When you’re four, “I’ve lived my whole life in Berlin and am a native speaker of German but am not a German citizen, nor have I ever been encouraged to think of myself as German; I have U.K. and U.S. passports but little experience of either of those places, and the relatives of my American mother live in Canada while the relatives of my British father live in Austria, and the English I speak, though clearly that of a native speaker, as you, stranger from New Zealand, have astutely picked up on, has an odd American-British-German hybrid quality” is a bit much to grasp. His pleading, helpless look when faced with this question made me feel terribly guilty, as if the life I had chosen had consigned my child to a tragic placelessness like one of those stateless citizens who have to live their whole lives in international airports. “You’re from Berlin,” I said. Then he told the lady that his best friend’s father had grown up next to a volcano in New Zealand, and she told him about about the dormant and active volcanoes of New Zealand.

Werden Sie Deutscher


On Sunday I saw Werden Sie Deutscher, a documentary about immigrants learning German in a Berlin Integrationskurs, at the fsk Kino in Kreuzberg. An Integrationskurs is a special course for foreigners living in Germany; it combines language instruction with cultural information meant to help the participants better integrate into German society. The film follows its characters’ lives both inside and outside the classroom as they struggle with German grammar, visit sites related to German national identity, and try to wrest visas from the gray clutches of the Ausländerbehörde.

The characters come from around the world — Bulgaria, Thailand, the Palestinian Territories, Bangladesh, Argentina — and range in age from their twenties to their fifties. The film captures the humor of learning a foreign language (the students are lower intermediate, a level I remember as particularly foible-ridden: you’ve begun to talk but can’t really understand the other students) in a sympathetic way — the viewer is never really laughing at the students’ German. What you are laughing at is German culture as presented in the course. “I always work very long hours,” a glum-sounding man says in a listening comprehension exercise. “Time is money,” the teacher writes on the board. “First work, then fun.” A comic strip about incorrect behavior that is distributed to the students shows a hapless foreigner tossing a banana peel into the paper recycling bin. At one point a student looks genuinely confused at the mention of German humor. “This is the first time I have heard that such a thing exists,” she says. (Ironically, the film’s self-deprecating humor shows that such a thing does exist.) Continue reading