Saturday, August 18, 2012

Word Up: Asi

One of my coworkers has suddenly taken to referring to all and sundry as "asi."  Eating cake off of paper towels? Asi.  Undercuts? Asi.  Not saying thank you in triplicate?  Very asi.  Where did she pick it up?  And why now?  Time to pull out the dictionary.

But is there a clear answer?  According to the internet, being "asi" is basically being trashy, with a big helping of just general impolite.  One of the clarifications that comes up on Google is a "Hartz IV-Empfänger" or "Hartz-4ler", a word that I was totally at a loss for, but which gives you a sense of how important deep familiarity with the law is to all Germans, not to mention a willingness to enforce it.  Hartz IV is the part of the law created by the Hartz Commission that ensures unemployed Germans have money to pay for their bus passes and soccer team jerseys and annoying children with mohawks.  I'm sure most Germans could give you a bio of Hartz, too, without looking at Wikipedia, but I'm not that much of a local yet.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Word Up: Best-Ager

Dear Germans,

Just because you string two English words together does not mean you have made an English word or that this word is used in the English language.  Case in point: Best-Ager.  This is not English.  The word you are looking for is "senior."  Or, if you are feeling really cute, "Golden Oldie."  But not Best-Ager.  You may have it sweet here in Germany with your solid pensions, your great health care, and your thirty-days-vacation, but for many English speakers, "best" is either optimistic or just delusional.


P.S. English doesn't usually have hyphenated compound words.  That's totally your thing.

image via

Monday, August 6, 2012


It's that time of once-every-four-years again!  Olympics time!  Compared to the way we celebrated the month leading up to the Euro Cup in May, the Olympics is a pretty big let down here in Germany. In May, there were people thronging the streets in the jerseys as the rival European nations battled it out on the soccer field.  In the last two weeks, I haven't seen so much as a red, gold and black sweatshirt.

Maybe that's because Germany hasn't lived up to its potential this Olympic Games.  There has been no bigger let down for the Germans, according to the smug ex-handball stars that pass for television commentators in this day and age, than the national swim team.  Apparently Germans consider themselves to be very good at swimming.  I'm afraid that the rest of us would have to admit we've been more struck by the Phelpses and Lochtes of this world than the Biedermanns and Steffens, but for Germany, the hopes of a nation rested on this year's swim team.  And on the fencing team.  And on the judo team.  And don't forget the noble sport of ping pong.

But only the swim team failed to deliver.  Now, for a country like Canada, a less than stellar showing would be cause for a few halfhearted smiles and a long talk about the power of the Olympic spirit.  German sports commentators take a very different approach.  No montages of Olympic disappointments or downed athletes being comforted by their teammates for this television station, only could hard truth.  Nobody bore the brunt of this more than the swim team.  As the days went by without medals, and without even qualifying to be in the finals, the comments turned uglier and uglier.  Why is she smiling? they asked as an Olympic hopeful put on a brave face after failing to beat the best.  He should not be content just to sit by and watch! That I cannot understand! they blustered after another young German star, dripping wet and out of breath from sprinting underwater alongside the world's best Olympian ever, dejectedly claimed he was looking forward to cheering on his teammates in the next round - a round in which he would not be swimming.

Each day the German team poolside looked sadder and sadder.  Finally there was no more cheering, no more waving, no more smiling at the camera.  The faces of losers, intoned the commentator, showing a snap of a demoralized swimming team  checking their Facebook from their phones poolside, what went wrong? When the German swim coach came on with his tail between his legs and claimed that the swimmers were not conditioning hard enough and that they had gained bad habits early in their careers that no amount of training could break, it was all I could do to keep the television on.  Thank goodness I persevered, because I would have hated to miss seeing Michael Phelps breeze to gold for the umpteenth time.

But it's time to lighten up and think about what it means to be an Olympian.  These are the best of the best.  Each Olympic sport should have an extra lane for a normal fit person competitor, maybe a gym bunny or that friend of yours who has way too many photos of himself in a tank top, to run or swim or jump through hurdles in the middle of puddles alongside the Olympic athletes.  As he or she thrashed and stumbled along a half hour behind the athletes, those watching would realize once and for all how amazingly honed the skills of Olympians are.  I would like to volunteer the German sports commentators as the first normal fit people to hit the locker rooms and kickstart this new program, handball heroes or otherwise.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Wirklich? Really?: Kevin Allein Zu Hause

Movies in Germany are always dubbed into German from the original language.  Bad decision, Germany.  I mean, what is Robert Pattinson without that wonderfully evocative voice?  Hollywood heartthrobs, French television comedians, and Italian commercials all fall prey to voiceovers, with varying degrees of weirdness.  For one thing, there doesn't seem to be much tonal subtlety to the dubbing.  The delivery usually hits somewhere between manic and bouncing off the walls, which is great for How I Met Your Mother, but not so great for Carlos the Jackal.

Speed reading aside, most of these shows lose something in the translation to German.  Like catchphrases.  One of my coworkers was imitating ET yesterday with vacant eyes, a slowly rising pointer finger, and the line:  "ET zu Hause telefoniern."  Wrong, right? ET phones home, he doesn't spout German grammar exercises. Another coworker wanted to bond with me over memories of would-be burglars tripping over the booby-traps in children's classic Kevin Allein Zu Haus.  The problem here is not only the fact that I thought he was referring to some kind of old-world German morality tale before I remembered that Macaulay Culkin's character is called Kevin in Home Alone.  The rhythm is off.  The words are clunky.  I can't bear to look up Good Times' "Dyno-mite!" "Sprengstoff!" just doesn't have the same ring.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Word Up: noch ein Zauberspruch

Just when you think you are getting the hang of this German thing, you end up at a kids' party where a magician asks for the magic word, or Zauberspruch, and everybody takes a deep breath and intones in bored unison, "Hocus pocus [okay, all good - but wait - what? they're still going-] filibus, drei schwarzen Käter."  That's "fake Latin, fake Latin, fake Latin, three black tomcats" - in case you were wondering.  I was, but I managed to catch on pretty quickly before I embarrassed myself in a room full of 8-year-olds.  You should have seen the looks they gave me when I sang "Happy Birhday" - which for some reason is always sung here in English - without trying to sound like Werner Herzog.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Geschmack: Das Ecksofa

Keeping on the theme of German household basics, it's time you formally met the corner sofa, or Ecksofa.  One part sofa, one part pull-out couch, one part La-z-boy and all parts Ikea, the corner sofa is made for the most uncomfortable lounging experience possible.

It works like this.  Take a double bed.  Stretch it out so it's long enough for two very small people lying down head to toe or one Croatian basketball player.  Upholster it with vinyl.  Add shiny metal legs.  Now cut away one third of the bed to make a banana shape.  Instead of wastefully throwing out this one-third, ingeniously fold it up on top of the bed to make couch cushions so that, should the owners want, the monster bed can be reconstituted in the fullness of its original glory, to the chagrin of any and all normal-sized bed linens.  Make sure the cushions are uncomfortable.  Leave a weird peninsula hanging out at the side for full body "lounging".  Behold, the Ecksofa.

Sadly, despite its apparent multi-tasking capabilities, the Ecksofa fulfills none of its promises.  There is nothing more awkward than lying down on the corner piece, unless it's trying to sleep on the fold-out sofa.  It's like having a giant-sized rubber mattress at your disposal.  Good for swingers, bad for house guests.

image via

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Wirklich? Really?: Wandtattoos

No matter how many times I emphatically pick English as my language of choice on YouTube, somehow the Internet remains convinced that I am a German.  That means German captions, German videos, and German advertisements - geared for decidedly German tastes.  Most recently that has meant ads for wall decals preceding my every video selection.  Like I said, German tastes.

Wall decals are part of a distinct German interior design trend.  These stickers are made to decorate the (white) walls of German apartments with uplifting words like "Love," "Power," and "Home," in letters that are at least two feet high and usually purple.  You can even order whole texts, mostly in English, of little poems or inspirational sayings that hit the register somewhere between Chicken Soup for the Soul and Hello Kitty. I could be getting this all wrong and they're actually step one of an immersive English language learning course. You can also purchase hearts, flowers, and creeping vines, all in sticker form to brighten up your home.

I would say there are two problems here.  The first one is that German landlords are rigid landlords who take the descriptor "institutional" as a compliment.  That means all apartments look exactly the same.  Well, not all, but mine, my friends', and at least half of the apartments I see on TV, and for the record, I watch a lot of real-estate-inspired television.  White walls are sprayed with plaster to keep you wondering if smudges are dirt or texture; stainless steel doorknobs are of the kind routinely used on handicap washroom stalls; all doors can be locked with a long, old-fashioned key that belongs on the keyring of someone best addressed as "Matron".  There is not a lot of raw potential to work with.  Combined with the fact that Germans seem to feel it is a national duty to buy Bauhaus-ish white furniture, and you have a lot of identical, monotone apartments.  But if I was going to try and make my apartment more homey without painting or betraying my homeland, I can't say that large scale wall decals would be my decorating method of choice.  I guess in Germany, nothing says home sweet home like stickers in a foreign language.

image via