The sixth door: Noses

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Idiom: Ich habe die Nase voll.

Literal Translation: I have the nose full.

How to use it: Your friend Elvira and you are downtown, shopping Christmas gifts. The stores are crowded, the streets are packed and you barely fit in the metro car. (Because German cities are overpopulated.) Elvira has finally gotten the perfect present for Günther and you managed to buy something for your godchild, but both of you are very exhausted when you sit down in a café. You want to tell Elvira that you are fed up with all the Christmas stress, so you say, “I have the nose full of Christmas shopping!”

The fifth door: Having birds

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Idiom: Du hast einen Vogel.

Literal Translation: You have a bird.

How to use it: It is Günther and Elvira’s anniversary and he wants to take her out. Günther has already reserved a table at a really nice restaurant in the HafenCity in Hamburg and has a little jewel box in his pocket. At breakfast, he reminds Elvira of their date night. She tells him her experiments in the lab didn’t work yesterday so she plans to spend the night with her research. “You want to sleep over next to your bacteria?!” Günther says annoyed. „You have a bird!” A bird? Yes – this is the German way to tell Elvira that he thinks she is crazy.

The fourth door: Full bags

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Idiom: Das kommt nicht in die Tüte!

Literal Translation: That does not come into (tote/shopping) bag!

How to use it: Elvira and Günther are discussing New Year’s Eve. Of course there are many things to consider and compromises to be made. Elvira prefers to be with her family, Günther wants to be with friends. She can imagine staying in town to first see family and then meet with friends, but when Günther suggests they should travel into the forest to get drunk with his friends in a cabin, Elvira rejects the idea heavily by saying, “That does not come into the bag!” If you, like Elvira, need to make clear in German that you are really against a proposal, you inform your dialogue partner about the contents of your bag.

The third door: Railway stations

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Idiom: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.

Literal Translation: I only understand railway station.

How to use it: This is a rather popular idiom to teach non-Germans. (I hope you don’t know it yet.) Imagine you sitting at dinner with Günther who wants to tell you about his girlfriend Elvira’s latest research project. “Did you know that biosynthesis of glycosaminoglycans starts with the addition of a xylose residue onto a serine residue in the core protein?” While you are staring at him dumbfounded, this is the perfect opportunity to say: “I only understand railway station!” – meaning you understand absolutely nothing.

The second door: elephants and mosquitos

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Idiom: Er macht aus jeder Mücke einen Elefanten.

Literal Translation: He makes an elephant out of every mosquito.

How to use it: You were already introduced to your German friend Günther who tends to get carried away. The taxes, the weather, the politicians – Günther can get annoyed quickly with small things. When he throws a fit about, say, his girlfriend Elvira who looked at another guy, he wants to break up with her, he is once more making an elephant out of every mosquito.

Even the English and Swedish language have their own versions of the expression. A Swede makes a chicken out of one feather while the English make a mountain out of a molehill. Both these are rooted in England that has molehills and mountains respectively Sweden where there are chicken. Don’t ask me why the Germans go with mosquitos and elephants…

Advent calendar

Today is the first of December and for every German (and actually also Swedish) child, this means the first door of the advent calendar may be opened. What a thrill! Advent calendars come in all shapes and sizes. Some have little chocolates, others big presents, some are bought, some self-made, but all of them hold 24 surprises. This beautiful Christmas tradition should be taking place on this blog as well, I decided. So what kind of gifts can I bring to the manger? As your personal German, your Hustysk, I will bring you – German! Twenty-four odd but useful German idioms shall be explained in December here. I have done this before with different idioms in a non-virtual form for an exclusive audience, but this should be all new. And for all of you.

Let’s start with the first “door”!

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Idiom: Lass mal die Kirche im Dorf.

Literal Translation: Leave the church in the village.

How to use it: Let’s say you are having a discussion with your German friend, Günther. Günther is complaining about how taxes are so high in Germany he hardly has anything left to live on. You feel Günther is really getting carried away and has lost all realistic thinking. “After all these taxes, I live on two euros a day”, Günther says grumpily. “Come on”, you reply, “leave the church in the village!” With this idiom, you can ask Günther to stop exaggerating – now isn’t that useful!

Hustyk Helen svarar: Is there a German employment office?

One of my Swedish protégés is looking for a job. (Do you have a job in Hamburg that requires only little German?) So she asked me:

Is there an equivalent to  arbetsförmedlingen in Germany?

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I know Germany astonishes you all with its amazing economic power but I need to break the news to you: there are unemployed people here, too. Compared to other countries, the numbers are certainly low, but there are arbetsförmedlingar, i.e. employment offices everywhere. There are better places to hang out. Employment offices are called Arbeitsamt or actually they changed their name to Agentur für Arbeit because that sounds fancier, I guess. The Agentur für Arbeit is the biggest German government authority with 108.536 employees.

I was going to give this brilliant example of how to find out these things and now in this particular case the trick does not work. We call that Vorführeffekt in German, it means that something shows the exact opposite characteristics when being shown to someone. Like a trick that always works except for the one time you want to show it to people.

Whatever, I will still tell you. When I worked at the Chamber of Commerce, I learned that if you only know that there is a Erntedank day in Germany, but you wonder what that would be in English and if they have this tradition and if that is Thanksgiving – ask Wikipedia. Type in Erntedank and then change the language to English. Ta-da: you learn that it is harvest festival. (Not to be confused with Thanksgiving!). This can be practiced with all kinds of things: “lodjur”, “Dinner for One” or “nautical chart”. Try it, it works! (Just not with Arbeitsagentur.)

Hustysk Helen svarar: Listening to the radio

One of the main things in the integration process in a new country is to understand the media landscape in order to consume the right information. You cannot imagine how impressed people are when you – through carefully reading the women’s magazine amelia – know who Tilde de Paula is (a Swedish c-list celebrity). One of my Swedish friends here in Hamburg told me he watches the German show “Bauer sucht Frau” (Farmer seeks Wife) and I am sure that’s a great way to start small talk with Germans.

So when I got this question, I immediately thought of Hustysk Helen svarar:

“What is the equivalent to P1 in Germany?”

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I should maybe first explain that P1 is a Swedish public radio channel that I was introduced to as “The Talk Channel”. On P1, they talk about serious things, it’s like the educational radio. P1 reaches, I would think, most listeners with its lovely summer programme, “Sommar i P1” where important people talk about their lives.  P1 covers news, community programmes, culture, radio drama, debate, science, philosophy, international issues – you get the idea. If you go, say, to the Nobel Prize Award Dinner, it would certainly come in handy if you listened to some P1 before.

So what do you do if you happen to be seated next to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German’s Foreign Affairs Minister? (He is invited because the Foreign Ministers get to come if there is a laureate from their country and you will hardly have missed that Stephan Hell won the Physics Nobel Prize (“Nobel Prize goes to Hell”)).

Which radio channel in Germany can prepare you for pleasant yet educated small talk with Frank-Walter? I don’t know if it surprises you or if I emphasized the “Germany is a land of thinkers”-topic enough, but there is more than one such radio channel. Let’s start with the nation-wide Deutschlandradio service that operates the channels Deutschlanfunk and Deutschlandradio Kultur.

Deutschlandfunk covers news and documentaries about covering politics, economics and science. It is an important player in the media field and very often quotes later in the day in the newspapers and television shows read, “She said earlier today on Deutschlandfunk that…”.

Deutschlandradio Kultur on the other hand is more directed at culture as the name suggests. The channel is noted for its radio plays and feature productions and covers  the arts, culture, and science. You think this sounds boring? Ah, no. Deutschlandradio is a lovely break from the commercial blabla-radio and it addresses topics like “40 years of IKEA in Germany”, “How train strikes fuel carpooling groups on Facebook” or “Are state-owned casinos allowed to sell Warhol pictures?” Well, I think it’s intriguing actually! And a brilliant bunch of topics for the Frank-Walter-dinner.

If these two do not cater to your taste, do not fear – there is more!

Germany is split into 16 federal states and pretty much everyone has their own radio station, I guess. (Not quite, of course.) I will only cover a few now. The west is covered by WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) that offers WDR 5, a channel that focuses on information and culture. The North, like Hamburg, also receives NDRkultur where they broadcast things like “Redezeit” where you can call in and discuss political matters. NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) also has a channel called NDRinfo that I listen to at night and I always happen to tune in “Am Abend vorgelesen” (Read to you at night) where they read whole books, usually the kind of books that make a good impression on Frank-Walter. Currently it’s “Die Verwirrungen des Zögling Törless” by Robert Musil. After that half-hour of good night reading, “Notturno” follows, a music programme to calm you down before going to bed. You cannot say German radio is not taking good care of you.

I mostly listen to NDRinfo because I have to pay a shitload a substantial amount of radio fees. Please start listening, too, so that I can feel the fee is doing good work!

Hustysk Helen svarar: Can’t Germans read and write?

 

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It is time for more “Explain Germany to me”. I got this, somewhat weirded-out, question:

“Recently I have seen commercials on television and advertising in the street that suggest: ‘Finally I learned to read and write properly, do it, too!’, exclaimed by a 50-year-old fellow that looks extremely pleased (wtf?) Can the German not read and write properly or what?”

Haha, was my initial response to this because of the funny wording. I am glad to report that the vast majority of Germans can read and write. There is, however, four to ten million so-called functional analphabets even in a country as well developed as Germany. (I tried to find numbers for Sweden, but it was so difficult I am starting to wonder if Sweden needs to conceal anything?!)

Functional analphabetism means that you do not have skills to manage anything beyond a very basic level. You can get by, but you have to use a lot of energy to hide your deficit. (It sounds like me and maths, probably I am a functional math-illterate?) Since four to ten million is still a significant number, the German state has decided to do campaigns that encourage people to seek help. They call the campaign, “Reading and Writing – My Key to the World” which I personally find very adequate and nice. And once you have gotten help and learned how to write, you become as pleased as the man above.

For the sake of completeness, I would also like to introduce you to an older campaign with the same purpose. The campaign, “Don’t write yourself off, learn to read and write!” went viral as we would say today when it was adapted by comedians. The original campaign showed a boss coming into a workplace and seeing that his employee has loaded stuff onto a trailer, something that is stated as forbidden on a board. The boss throws a fit, screaming, “How big do I have to write it?!” and the employee looks devastated until his colleague interrupts the superior. “Boss,  the guy can’t read”. The boss is shocked, saying that he never noticed all these years and that he wants to help the employee.

The parodies were set in different regions of Germany where strong dialects previal. The story was exactly the same, just that the employee didn’t know Berlin/East German/Bavarian/Low German. “Keene Fettbemmen” became winged words. Don’t write yourself off, learn East German!

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Hustysk Helen svarar: German Fashion Sense

helen hustyskI got this question recently:

“When I am outside walking the in city, I suddenly see Germans dressed in all beige, in beige vests and beige pants as if they were going on safari! This is the city! Why are they wearing camouflage clothes?!”

From this query I sense the deeper question essentially is: why do Germans dress so badly? To begin with, let me give you a list just off the top of my head:

Karl Lagerfeld, Wolfgang Joop, Jil Sander, Claudia Schiffer, Heidi Klum.

It is certainly not that Germany is devoid of fashion sense. At Hamburg-Baumwall, you regularly have people exiting the metro who are amazingly stylish. Nevertheless, it is true that in comparison to Spain or Sweden, Germans are far from excelling in appearance. There are some weird persistent trends (hairstyles for the 40+ lady with red highlights, glasses with curlicues and, of course, paw-chic in the form of Jack Wolfskin).

It is not always this bad. I swear.

It is not always this bad. I swear.

I believe the reason for the lack of fashion effort in Germany is that it is the land of poets and thinkers. And practical people. German children are not brought up to care about appearance to the same extent as other nations, in fact if you are too well groomed, this might easily be negatively attributed to your intelligence (women) or sexual orientation (men).

The German likes to be a down to earth practical person who does know that comfortable sandals look terrible but also knows that they are convenient and it is sensible to wear them. The German also likes to be a thinker, a person who cherishes the inside life, who roams in intellectual spheres where your make up does not matter. Poets, thinkers and pragmatics only give limited importance to looks. It is simply not considered a cultural value in the same way as it is in other countries.

You can extend this to the German outlook on sports (in Sweden people look at you as if you said you do not wash your hair when you say you don’t exercise; in Germany, they do not necessarily expect you to [work out. They do expect regular hair hygiene]). On the other hand, I have the feeling that German culture is a little less tolerant towards poor educational backgrounds and lacking general knowledge.

Do you think I am saying Germans are smart and that is why they don’t dress well? I am not sure. I heard “Dressing well is a form of good manners”. It is yet another field in which Germany and Scandinavia can learn from each other, both ways.

Oh and about the beige brigade – it is a topic that is actually widely discussed in media. There are even films about it (http://www.arte.tv/guide/de/050808-000/beige). Some argue that old people wear beige to reject attention and fit in (“Rentnerbeige-Theorie”). Not acting in professional life anymore, they retire from the spotlights and seek calmness in the discreet color. . I also read that beige makes senior citizens feel alive because it is the color of skin. (Hm, right…) The beige pensioners’ army gives a feeling of belonging and security. Other believe that – practical German alert – beige is simply a color that can be combined with a lot. I don’t know…I’ll have to ask my grandpa.

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