We struck up an unlikely friendship just before the musical collaboration that made him famous also threw his tumultuous partnership with brother Liam into the limelight. Tucked away somewhere, I still have the series of letters he wrote to me, including one in which he exuberantly announced that his new band was preparing for their first major gig in Great Britain.
It was more than a decade later before I recognized my old friend as one of the embattled brothers whose contentious relationship onstage and off had been making headlines in the years since we’d lost touch. Preferring a life out of the spotlight, I harbor no vanities of reconnecting with my old pen-pal now that his celebrity status is firmly established. I doubt he’d even recognize the 40-ish writer as someone he used to phone between rehearsals to chat — back when exchanging correspondence took weeks, and neither blogging nor tweeting was a word, much less a thing.
Personal and professional rivalries carrying on as they do, I hear the brothers enjoy notoriety for sharp-tongued tweeting as much as musical compositions these days. The closest I come to social media warfare is hearing kids talk about which of some diva’s ex-boyfriends instagrammed salacious photos of her yesterday, or whether that notorious family’s brand is likelier to shrink or grow in the wake of their latest product endorsements.
I keep up with a modest circle of friends and family via text and email now, a welcome convenience compared with snail-mail delivery and long-distance phone bills. Being no stranger to sibling rivalries, I prefer to hash those out offline; public confrontation isn’t really my thing.
As for my old pen-pal, while we’re no longer friends, I remember fondly those overseas phone calls back in the pre-blogosphere days, chatting animatedly from disparate time zones about our latest escapades and aspirations. I wish him all the success and adventures he can handle, and I’m happy to have known him back when he was just a guy who roadied for a band I liked, who dreamed of starting his own band.
Between growing up in a proudly German-American family and living-working-childrearing in Germany for more than a decade, I’ve gathered a few tips to help others make the most of traveling to – and encountering natives of – Germany. Remember that broad generalizations may be poor predictors of individual behavior, and personal experiences will vary.
Respect for authority and rules is strong in German culture. The German mindset favors one “right way” of doing things, although allowances are certainly made for those who may be unfamiliar with local custom. When in doubt, ask. Someone will surely tell you how to proceed. If you don’t, someone will likely correct you. 
When speaking German, use the formal Sie (you) unless and until you’re invited to use the informal du.
Communication tends to be direct and to-the-point; Germans may see “beating around the bush” as dishonest/deceptive.
Unsmiling expressions are not seen as rude in Germany (if you have no obvious reason to smile); uninhibited smiling may be seen as foolish.
German humor is often subtle and sardonic, and it can take a long time to build the level of intimacy required to share a joke. 
Personal space is larger in Germany than in places like Italy or France; keep a respectful distance, and shake hands in greeting. Hugging or slapping people on the back may be taken as presumptuous or intrusive.
There are strong distinctions between various regions and dialects; follow the local custom for greetings and farewells, and expect variations in things like food names from place to place. Examples:
Potatoes (Kartoffeln) are Grumbeere in Rheinland-Pfalz, and fries or chips are called Pommes.
Produce is often described by specific variety: Damson plums are Zwetschgen, not Pflaumen; mushrooms may be Champignons or Pfifferlinge (chanterelles), instead of Pilze (which could refer to any fungus).
Regional recipes, varieties, brews, and vintages are points of pride. Sampling the local (or house!) specialty is a courtesy and pleasure not to be missed.
Small businesses and family enterprises are common in Germany, and it’s as likely as not that the shopkeeper is also the business owner, or that the food and wine at your table were produced by close relations of your hosts and servers. Keep this in mind when doling out criticism or making inquiries.
German hospitality affords customers and guests with space to shop or enjoy a meal in peace. German clerks, servers, and salespeople aren’t being inattentive if they disappear after their initial contact with you; they’re politely maintaining a respectful distance until they’re needed. Excessive familiarity with customers or hovering near diners would seem rude to them.
Seasonal changes are marked with festivals and seasonal/regional specialties and events. Join in the fun whenever you can!
The arrival of spring is heralded by Spargelzeit (asparagus time), during which vendors everywhere will offer fresh, local asparagus, strawberries, and sometimes rhubarb for sale; restaurants will have whole menus (Spargelkarte) with specialties featuring these seasonal favorites. Warmer days bring pedestrians and cyclists out in droves, and drivers must be especially attentive in Verkehrsberuhigte Bereiche (restricted traffic zones) and at pedestrian crossings.
Late summer brings Neuwein or Federweisser (incompletely fermented, very sweet, fizzy wine), Zwiebelkuchen (onion tarts), and festivals with live music, crafts, and artisan goods.
Autumn is celebrated on Erntedanksonntag (first Sunday in October) with Erntedankfest (harvest festival), where sheep-shearing, apple-pressing, and other harvest activities feature prominently, and Flammkuchen and Schwenkbraten are eaten with gusto.
Winter is time for St. Nikolaus to fill children’s boots with treats like walnuts and clementines on December 6th before the Christkind (Christ child) delivers gifts on Weihnachten (Christmas Eve). Shops may reopen briefly after a couple of days or remain shuttered until after Neujahr, which is somewhat inexplicably marked by watching the comedy short Dinner for One. Adults enjoy hot Glühwein (mulled wine) on cold winter nights while kids and those who eschew alcohol can drink the non-alcoholic Glühpunsch (spiced cider) instead.
Revelers welcome the lengthening of days and approach of spring on Fasching, known elsewhere as Carnival or Mardi Gras, between early February and mid-March, with costumes, parades, and other merrymaking. Berliner (jelly doughnuts) are a featured treat.
Image credit: Kentaro IEMOTO@Tokyo via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA
Pledge TODAY to show #Respect through your words & actions. Join us at http://www.r-word.org/ to create communities of inclusion for people with disabilities.
To use the word “retard” or any of its relatives in anything but a strictly clinical context, or to mean something negative like stupid, crazy, inept, inferior, etc. suggests that the real people to whom the clinical term refers are all of those bad things you mean to say. Stick with invectives that don’t assault human dignity or reduce a person’s worth to an IQ test score. Here are a few suggestions:
If foot-swallowing were a competitive sport, I’d need a trophy case. I have a lot of experience putting my foot in my mouth, and I don’t just do it halfway. We’re talking slather-some-hot-sauce-on-it-and-deep-throat-my-own-heel championship events.
There was the time in grade school, when I made a comment that the “George Washington” of our school play looked more like “George Washington Carver,” and the kid next to me promptly called me a cracker. Some important points to note:
This was the Deep South in the late 1970’s
I was the only white girl who rode the school bus through the “black neighborhood,” where so many kids piled on that I usually ended up riding on the lap of the third student crammed into a 2-person seat
I actually had no concept of race whatsoever; I could distinguish different skin colors (clearly) but was utterly clueless about racism or the extent to which my community was in its thrall
It hadn’t occurred to me that the difference between the young thespian’s skin color and that of his character also applied to my neighbor and me
I’d never heard the “N-word,” nor did I have the faintest idea what a “cracker” was; yes, I realize this made me probably the most oblivious kid in town
All in all, that foot was greased up nicely when I swallowed it whole. I wish I could go back and tell the kid next to me that I’m sorry I made such an obscenely racist remark in my ignorance. I wish my younger self had paid more attention to the performance than the actor’s appearance.
Then there was the time I repeated comments to my beloved dance teacher that I’d overheard some aspiring ballerinas make about her at dance camp. Mrs. O. was tall and willowy with a noble profile and long, straight, black hair that was graying in streaks. She had a cane that she used both to steady her arthritic gait and to tap out the tempo as we danced.
Thin, bony, aging woman . . .
strong features sharpening among the wrinkles,
walking a bit stooped over,
cane tapping sharply against the floor,
raven tresses streaked with gray
They called her a witch.
And I told her so, proudly describing how I’d stood up for her. How I said anything around that foot in my mouth is beyond me. She had the good sense to set me straight, and I’m still not sure which hurt more – the upbraiding I so richly deserved, or the realization that I had wounded her deeply.
I wish I could claim that maturity had cured me of my foot-in-mouth disease, but apparently not. As a graduate student, I mouthed off about the uselessness of History degrees in the company of an accomplished historian.
One of my in-laws.
Visiting from thousands of miles away.
I was a newlywed.
Both she and I unemployed at the time.
That foot needed a little salt. Maybe I could’ve borrowed some from the wound I was rubbing it into as I railed on. Decades later, she’s either forgiven me or just decided to let me choke on my foot. Bless her. She’s preparing to enter a comfortable retirement with full pension. I’m getting used to the taste of toe-jam.
My point is that I speak from bitter experience when I say that it’s all too easy to open mouth, insert foot – even for sensitive, compassionate, well-meaning nerds like me. If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then I’m getting a lot of asphalt between my teeth on my way to the Underworld. I hope Beelzebub has thick skin.
I know I’m an extreme case, but I’ve yet to meet the adult who hasn’t grazed a tonsil or two with the occasional foot. Somewhere in all those platitudes, even the Dalai Lama’s toes must’ve gone fishing for his epiglottis once or twice. Look closely, and you might just catch one of the great orators of our time cringing at the cottonmouth they’re getting from the sock-lint on their tongue.
If acquiring a taste for the zesty crunch of fresh toenails or the chewy mouthfeel of shoe leather isn’t on your 5-year-plan, read on. Because a world with fewer people snacking on their phalanges is a better place.Because I’d like some good to come of my affliction. Because maybe you can learn from the mistakes of an inveterate connoisseur of all things plantar.
Questions like “When are you due?” should be strictly reserved for occasions when someone has expressly invited you to discuss her expectant motherhood. It doesn’t matter if her belly’s distended to the size of a VW Beetle, she’s waddling like a penguin in heat, and she’s spewing pea-soup the likes of which the Exorcist has never seen right in front of you! Presuming to ask a woman with a 9-month hangover how much longer she has to endure before she finds out if she still has ten toes under that mass is just asking for a sample of your own rubber-soled deliciousness.
To use the word “retard” or any of its relatives in anything but a strictly clinical context, or to mean something negative like stupid, crazy, inept, inferior, etc. suggests that the real people to whom the clinical term refers are all of those bad things you mean to say. Unless you aim to be the kind of asshole who deserves to have every intellectually-challenged person on the planet cheerfully assist him with the ingestion of his achilles heel, stick with invectives that don’t assault human dignity or reduce a person’s worth to an IQ test score. Here are a few less foot-relishing options:
Your role when greeting someone with children in tow is to acknowledge said children as respectfully as any adult – not to question their provenance; critique their behavior; legitimize gender biases; reflect on their height, weight, growth, or appearance; evaluate their intelligence; proffer unsolicited advice; or otherwise risk upsetting your digestion with whatever you’ve been tracking around on your shoes.
Avoid at all costs expressions like
“Are they all yours?”
“Somebody needs a nap!”
“Did you know [the sex, the father, the mother, about a disability] before (s)he was born?”
“Aren’t you a handsome boy/pretty girl?!”
“(S)He doesn’t look autistic.”
“You must be the runt of the litter!”
“(S)He seems very high-functioning.”
Err on the side of caution and practice the following phrase: “Hello, [child’s name]. It’s good to see you. How are you?”
Nothing brings out the toe-taster in all of us like being confronted with unexpected challenges to our prejudices. So if you’re a transphobic borrower, and you’re confounded by the loan officer’s androgyny, keep your trap shut unless you wanna find someone else to lend you money for enough mouthwash to eliminate that leathery wingtip aftertaste.
When your teeth are starting to wear holes in your footwear, learning to darn socks is only part of the solution. Instead of desensitizing your gag reflex and carrying a bottle of Tabasco to mask the taste, try putting the brakes on that foot whenever you open your mouth. Maybe these words of foot-eschewing wisdom will help:
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. ~ Abraham Lincoln
Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid. ~ Bernard Meltzer
Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten. ~Unknown
Engage your brain before you open your mouth. ~ My mother
Say what you feel but think before you speak. Rather bite your tongue than say something you can’t take back. ~ Unknown
Comments sections are minefields. No matter how carefully researched, thoughtfully composed, and/or beautifully crafted an article or post is, you can be sure that – given the chance – some self-appointed critic(s) will avail themselves of the opportunity to spew a barrage of self-righteous vitriol, condemnation, and outright abuse of an intensity and nature generally reserved for people one never expects to meet face-to-face. It’s incredible (and terrifying) to read through the comments under nearly anything posted online and see how freely hostility and hate are lavished upon those who dare exercise their right to free expression online. As a writer, it makes my stomach churn to even contemplate baring my soul in any meaningful way, for fear of the inevitable backlash to anything I might (be perceived to) say.
Thanks to a few enlightening experiences (read: stupid parenting and other mistakes I’ve made / had to live with), I’m keenly aware of my own tendency to be judgmental, and I make a conscious effort to question my reactions – positive or otherwise – to the choices and behavior of others. As I reacclimate myself to American life and culture, I’m realizing the extent to which the German culture to which I’d become so accustomed embraces the notion of a singular “right way” to do things, and I’m increasingly attuned to (and skeptical of) that same tendency when it crops up in any context.
I’ve always thought of myself as unconventional, eager to question everything, but it’s startling to realize how often I’ve fallen into line with social norms and rushed to judge / condemn anything (or anyone) that conflicts with them. My “question everything” mantra apparently comes with far more caveats than I recognized, and I’m finding that executing that mandate sincerely and consistently isn’t nearly as easy as my glib admonishments to that effect would suggest. The fact is that none of us came into this world with an instruction manual, and no matter how smart/educated/well-informed/enlightened/credentialed/[insert-lofty-qualification-here] we (think we) are, we’re all just stumbling ineptly through life with no clear notion of how or why we’re supposed to go about it, making an awful lot of mistakes along the way. The best we can hope for is to (try to) learn from our mistakes, do as little harm and as much good as we can manage (however we define those), and make every effort to leave this world somehow better than we entered it. Judging others’ success or failure in the endeavor shouldn’t really figure into the equation.
The “Mommy Wars” and all the one-upmanship and criticism that litter the comments sections of even the most innocuous posts are probably as much about insecurities related to our own choices as anything. By telling strangers online how wrong they are, we’re asserting our own rightness, as if there must be one right way to do anything. Finding fault with others may just be our way of coping with perceived threats to our own way of being and doing. I’d like to think that acknowledgement is the first step toward redemption, but then again, like humans everywhere, I like to think of myself as doing it right, which is right back where we started . . .
It’s been nearly a decade since I set foot on American soil. I was born here, raised here, never left it for the entirety of my childhood. But I was an outsider then – even before my first trip abroad. In all my years of traveling, I never found a place where I felt I belonged, and at the beginning of my decade as an ex-pat, I already believed any home I might find would be an adopted one on another continent. But returning here, Europe having also proven not to be my place to call home, the land of my birth feels even stranger and more alien than before.
At this point, I doubt I will find one place where I truly belong. In each place I go, I get the impression that I’m more apart from than a part of it. But returning to the US in my forties, having not so much as visited since my early thirties, is more surreal than anything.
The massiveness of everything overwhelms me: my gigantic American car, which could have swallowed any of my German ones whole; the wide lanes in which I drive it, with room to spare for the hulking SUVs that dominate the roads; the houses so enormous that I need directions to the bathroom; the shopping centers as plentiful as the tiny markets and shopfronts of Europe; and the oversized ambitions of individuals and communities. Not to mention the incredible scale of the landscape itself – from boundless oceans to towering mountain ranges, with miles upon miles of waterways, forests, and plains in between. Humbling, to say the least.
Then there’s the friendliness – that uniquely American compulsion to greet strangers with the warmth and ebullience of old friends, a habit that Europeans may find disingenuous but is, as often as not, meant sincerely to hasten the process of building intimacy in a society too fast-paced to waste time with reticence and boundaries. The genuine enthusiasm with which baristas wish me luck in my day’s endeavors, the guileless pleasure a neighbor takes in hearing my children ramble on about their latest obsessions, the heartfelt sympathy of service providers and shopkeepers for my struggles, and the offers of help with tasks great and small – the extraordinary compassion and kindness of strangers here unhinges me a bit.
So if I seem a bit lost, a bit uncertain and awkward in my interactions, it may be because I’m trying to wrap my brain around the culture into which I was born – but to which I have never felt I fully belonged. Belonging isn’t as much a priority for me as it once was, though, and lately, I’m more concerned with doing as certain great minds have suggested:
This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
― William Shakespeare (Hamlet)
and . . .
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
― Theodore Roosevelt
I may never find a place to belong, but I’m learning to be true to myself, and to do everything I can to leave each person, place, and thing I touch somehow better than I found them. I think it’s the best I can do.