Munich is known first and foremost for its annual Volksfest that attracts six million visitors from around the world, a number that makes you question its “folksiness” – but whatever. Tracing its roots takes you back to – where else? – the Alter Südfriedhof (the old cemetery in Munich). Many of the institutions associated with this sprawling, brawling two-week party took shape under the leadership of men buried right here.
The Alter Südfriedhof dates to the 14th century, but most of its graves tell the tale of Munich’s movers and shakers from the 1800s, a time when the city’s population doubled. More people meant more buildings, streets and institutions. But this was also an era that saw one of Munich’s most famous scandals involving its king, one which left traces here in this cemetery.
Small German towns have monuments to the dead of the two world wars, sometimes combined into one, with all the names of the locals who died. The Alter Südfriedhof has no such monuments or graves. But war left its impact nonetheless, beginning with one that came centuries before.
World Wars – the prequel
Long before the twentieth century, another conflict raged across Europe so deadly that it too is sometimes referred to as a “world war”: The Thirty Years’ War.
To take a stroll through the Alter Südfriedhof cemetery in Munich is to revisit its history. Pestilence and death, war, aristocratic scandals – even the Oktoberfest are all written into the epitaphs of people who shaped the city. It feels like the who’s who of Bavaria are all buried in this one spot (though by no means all of them are). In this four-part series – yes, four – I will reveal some of the most intriguing stories behind the stones. The history of the cemetery, as you will see, reflects the history of both the city and society at large.
Language is constantly in flux. Words come, words go, and sometimes their meaning changes altogether. Long gone are the days when I associated the word “gay“ with being happy, dancing around the room and singing one of my favorite songs from the musical Camelot. When you leave your home country as I did, you must also pay close attention to language changes that happen in your absence, causing you to call a club by its 1980s name: disco. Then the advent of the internet brought about the expression “brick and mortar” to denote a physical store rather than an online merchant.
One of my best friends in the U.S. has a son in Philadelphia. After it became clear that Philly voters were going to tip Pennsylvania for Biden, his son texted him these two words: “You’re welcome.”
His father knew precisely what his son was referring to, a reflection of how intensely Americans experienced this election, one like no other in living memory. Many Americans like me may live abroad, but we experienced it just as vividly from afar.
Being a freelancer also means being free to schedule my time. No longer must I squeeze in dentist appointments around meetings, whooshing swiftly past the boss’s office hoping he won’t see me. Now I get to take time off not just for tooth maintenance, but to do frivolous things – like take an Italian class.
This is easy to do in Germany, the land of organizational prowess. They have something here with the unpronounceable name of Volkshochschule, which despite
Corona’s surprising effect on an evening at the theater
21 October 2020
My favorite small theater has reopened after months of lockdown and we are attending a two-woman show called Primacomedy. I return here with mixed feelings. Would it be full? How will they deal with the social distancing inside the theater?
So sing the Whos in Dr. Seuss’ iconic The Grinch who stole Christmas, in which the evil-hearted Grinch steals all their presents, food and decorations. But the Whos refuse to let their holiday be ruined, forming a circle around the community Christmas tree to sing carols, regardless of the lack of trappings.
Munich is reacting similarly to the cancellation of its two-week long festival that, its name notwithstanding, always kicks off mid-September. In normal years, six million tourists descend upon the city to join the fun, but locals from Munich and
The Race for Space is Over (but not the way you think)
It took social distancing to finally put me at ease
29 May 2020
Embarking on my first trip to the grocery store after the corona outbreak, I am pumped up with anxiety. It’s the same grocery store where I have shopped for years, but entering it is suddenly daunting.
Will it look the same? What kinds of precautions are they taking to protect people from the pandemic? I picture cashiers in full hazmat suits, outfitted with face masks and helmets with clear plastic face shields and latex gloves. They’re probably taking customers’ temperatures, too, like they did in China.
Berlin is so packed with history, it’s more a matter of what to leave out than what to include when you’re visiting. The Prussian empire, with Frederick the Great as its leading man; the Nazis, whose leading man needs no mention; or the Cold War that split Berlin in two? Over four days, we discovered several interesting tidbits about each of these epochs.
I made my baby giggle, and now she’s doing stand-up and making everyone laugh – with stories about me
21 February 2020
I remember becoming aware of my sense of humor. I was about eight years old and had just come home from school. Using my whole body, I was telling my Mom a story and imitating a rooster in a cartoon who was thinking hard about something.
Too cold to sit outside, but no need to waste that space
German apartments are often small compared to the average American one. Besides, more people live in houses in America and have more room. Because space is at a premium, Germans know exactly how many square meters their place has and scratch their chins in wonder when they hear a description like three-bedroom apartment. Such vague classification would never satisfy. Just how big are those bedrooms, pray tell? And is it a live-in kitchen (sorry, that’s my best translation for Wohnküche)? How many square meters is the living room?
Just a song to me, but the sound of freedom to an East Berliner
Sometimes it slips off my radar exactly where I live. I don’t forget that I’m living in Germany, but the kind of people I see on a daily basis are a lot like me. They’re Germans, sure, but they are well traveled and read pretty much the same newspapers and books that I do. We all get thunderously upset about Trump and the current state of the U.S. and the other demagogues emerging across Europe – all over the world, even! Where will it all lead? I get so accustomed to these conversations that they become a ritual, devoid of real meaning.
Trying to fake it as a local at the Regensburg Christmas market
Who lives in these towns and what do they do for a living, I wonder as I watch the landscape roll by. I’m on a train headed to Regensburg to visit my friend Michaela and the Christmas market. Two hours of reading time, yay, I think, but can’t keep myself from looking out the window at the never-ending beautiful scenery. Gently rolling hills and pine forests alternate with
“Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick!” goes the tune, referring to the guy who brings presents and eats the milk and cookies that the kids leave out. Come to think of it, they should probably leave something more substantial, considering the journey he undergoes, like a pile of protein bars. The identity of this visitor was generally accepted when I was a kid growing up in Ohio. St. Nick was just one of many names for the jolly old man in the red suit who comes in a sleigh filled with presents. As it turns out, it’s not so simple.
Here in Bavaria St. Nick is not quite so jolly. Or to be more exact, he is a nice guy but is accompanied by a nasty sidekick, known as the Krampus or Knecht Ruprecht (Knecht is an old German word for squire). St. Nick and his cohort visit preschools, elementary schools and sometimes private homes. He wears the “traditional” red suit (there’s a reason for those quotes, which we’ll come to later) and has a sack of walnuts, tangerines and candy to give out to well-behaved children.Honestly, he might want to update his stash for the modern crowd. I know we’re all spoiled by modern society, but tell the truth: When’s the last time you saw a child get excited over a tangerine? If children admit that they have not been quite so good, Knecht Ruprecht, in his trendy brown burlap robe, hits them with his birch branch or with his bag of ashes. As one does.
OK, this is just the story. My kids never met Knecht Ruprecht, since in modern-day Munich, at least, he never seems to turn up. Maybe it’s too far away from his mountain home. Or he couldn’t be bothered dealing with the train system (German trains are not all they’re cracked up to be). At preschool they always hinted at his presence, at least, lending a tingle of excitement to the whole affair, but the only person to actually make an appearance was the congenial fellow in the red suit.
Saint Nicholas started his career as a bishop in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, and was known to be kind to children, which is where the whole idea of gifts for kids began. December 6th is his feast day in the Catholic tradition, so this is the day when he makes his rounds, with or without his sidekick.
What I didn’t realize in my foreign naiveté is that he is also supposed to visit children’s homes the night before, who leave their shoes outside the door so that he’ll fill them with candy.
Except for my kids. I was so busy with advent calendar logistics (see my previous post) that I didn’t even catch wind of this other German tradition. Years later, my kids told me how their classmates would brandish their goodies at school on Nikolaus, December 6th.
“What did you get? I got chocolate, walnuts and gummy bears!”
“I got chocolate Santa Clauses, candy bars and sugar-coated almonds!”
“Huh? You got candy in your shoes? I didn’t get anything!”
The truth was out: My poor kids had a clueless foreign mom, so they didn’t get any candy on December 6th. Some of their friends were so horrified that they even took pity on them and donated some from their own stash. On the upside, my kids got more candy on Halloween. Besides, witches have pointy hats like Santa, so that sort of counts, right?
Far more intriguing than Nikolaus is the mysterious Christkind in Bavaria, the bringer of presents on Christmas Eve. Literally translated it means Christ child, but upon closer scrutiny this is not who this really is.
“It’s an angel,” a friend told me.
“No, it’s the Christ child, but with wings, wearing a long, white, flowing robe,” said another.
Since when does the Christ child have wings? Or don Victorian nightwear for women? I’m not buying it.
You rarely see representations of the Christkind, because nobody really knows what he/she/it looks like. How can you market something so nebulous? And if it is baby Jesus, he certainly isn’t going to be doling out presents from the manger. After all, he’s supposed to be the one receiving them from those three guys who just arrived on camelback, two of whom are groaning: “If you’d just let us take the GPS we would’ve arrived before dark, Balthazar.”
That’s probably why Germans have also incorporated Santa Claus into their Christmas repertoire. He is the ultimate marketable entity: chubby, fatherly, benevolent and pipe-smoking. It’s basically Grandpa in a charming, fuzzy red suit. Better yet, he never hangs around to make old man noises or leave old man smells (emanating from that pipe – or worse), and never asks you to take out the trash or explain to him how skype works. It doesn’t get any better than that.
So even though it’s officially the Christkind who brings presents, it’s Santa Claus who is plastered over everything in store windows, candy boxes, wrapping paper and all other holiday merchandise. Santa Claus is St. Nick after being remodeled by Americans and if there’s anything they know how to do, it’s to market something. Just look at Coca-Cola, who turned sugary water into a multi-million-dollar business (the fact that everything else WWII soldiers could get their hands on tasted like chlorine or caused diarrhea admittedly did help). Speaking of which, it is no accident that the deep red of Santa’s suit is identical with that of the Coca-Cola company. They have succeeded in making the world believe that his coat has always been that color.
If that’s not a great marketing job, I’ll eat my birch branch.
But marketing such things is nothing new. The Christian church has been doing it since the very beginning. After all, Christmas is timed to coincide with pre-Christian year-end celebrations. These date back to Roman times, probably to the Saturnalia festivals held at year’s end. Let them keep their festivals, just rebrand them and everybody will be happy, was the thinking. Not much different from a modern corporate takeover, really.
As it turns out, Knecht Ruprecht is also related to the creepy, Grimms fairy-tale like creatures that come out at carnival time during the Alemmanische Fastnacht in Swabia and Switzerland, which is why they are practically identical. Both originate from the alpine countries. The basic job description of the carnival creepies is to drive out the evil spirits of winter, which is not so different from Knecht Ruprecht’s job.
Maybe the thin air at high altitudes caused people to hallucinate or perhaps it was something people came up with to while away the harsh mountain winters. It’s also conceivable that someone once saw an ugly person in a fur coat at night and it became a thing. Who knows how this stuff comes about.
For the rulers of former East Germany, Christmas posed a serious challenge. The population was Christian, but the state was supposed to take the place of God. How do you deal with that? You couldn’t just let people celebrate Christmas if there was no God. This posed quite a conundrum.
Somewhere buried in the higher echelons of the East German Politbüro, the country’s top ruling committee, was a group of very creative minds. They set about solving this delicate task: If only they could recast Christmas in the shape of the communist party, they could allow East Germans to continue celebrating (sound familiar?). If they could find a way to allow people to enjoy the holidays as they had before, it would help keep unrest under wraps, or wrapped, in colorful paper, in this case. Heh-heh.
They took the most visible elements of Christmas and – you guessed it – rebranded them. Chocolate Santa Clauses were still allowed, but now they were called Schokoladenhohlkörper zum Jahresende. This ridiculously long German expression has an equally ridiculous meaning: hollow chocolate figures to celebrate the year’s end.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that “hollow chocolate body” can be squeezed into one word in German. This is an admirable accomplishment in itself. One could hardly think of a more laughable name, but it allowed the communists to safe face and the East Germans to keep their chocolate Santas.
But there’s more. You might think that the communists would have at least left Jesus alone. After all, how could you possibly transform the Son of God himself to make it compatible with the ruling dogma. Challenge accepted! There was no stopping those Politbürocrats. They simply renamed the Christkind (reputed by some to be an angel, you recall) to the geflügelte Jahresendfigur, the winged year-end figurine. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it.
“Hey, are you putting a winged year-end figurine on the top of your Christmas tree – I mean, on your year-end large pine tree with little lights and glittery things on it?”
OK, that was me, not the communists.
You can only imagine how those politicians-turned-marketing geniuses broke out into hysterics when they came up with these expressions, surpassed only by their glee when their suggestion was actually accepted – but only in public. In private people smirked, rolled their eyes and continued using the standard terms. These expressions are now a thing of the past, just like the Berlin Wall, and have been relegated to the dustbin like useless ripped-up wrapping paper on Christmas morning.
St. Nicholas and Santa are often confused with one another, since they are really the same thing, just in different countries. Shop windows in Munich will often show a Santa Claus figure, clearly representing Father Christmas (just to confuse you with yet another name for the end-of-the-year gift bearer, as the communists would have called him) wearing a miter and sporting a pot belly, surrounded by clouds of cotton snow and wearing the traditional blue coat.
Blue? Santa Claus doesn’t wear a blue coat, you say?
He used to. Some merchants seem to still have their pre-Coca-Cola Santa Claus mannequins which are still wearing a blue coat – sometimes even green.
It’s all a matter of what you’re used to. Until Queen Victoria got married in a white bridal gown, people used to simply wear a nice dress for their wedding. With her wedding she inadvertently created a multimillion-dollar business in white bridal gowns overnight. Modern brides now feel that this dress is a must, just as we don’t recognize a Santa unless he’s wearing that particular red.
At this point, some people might be asking themselves which one is the “real” Santa, since there seem to be so many versions, even within one country.
Well, here’s what I say: It doesn’t really matter. While tradition is a part of Christmas, I for one choose to celebrate not according to the rules, but by what’s in the true Christmas spirit: buying things, eating excessively for several days and come January, being glad that it’s finally over.
Mail-in ballots are sometimes the only way to vote
They should be foolproof
9 October 2020
A recent story on National Public Radio drove home to me the scope of the problem of mail-in ballots. A woman described how she accidentally mailed hers without putting it into the second envelope that went inside the first one. Too late, she realized her error.
Her ballot probably wasn’t counted.
That’s because the technology behind ballots lags behind the high-tech reality of the rest of the world. Some ballots are sent by e-mail, a laudable step, but the format of some like my ballot from Virginia is more of a cross between a kindergarten crafts project and a Franz Kafka novel.
I print out a seemingly endless stream of ballot and instruction documents, which I then carefully study. Various columns offer different candidates for several offices. First come the candidates for president – easy. This is followed by the candidates for local judges, school board and city council members. I google them to check on their track record to see what they have accomplished so far in their lives, in office or elsewhere.
Some columns have just one candidate. That’s makes it easy, although I’m not sure that can be called a vote.
To cast my vote, I carefully fill in the oval next to the candidate’s name, and suddenly I am back at the Iowa tests in grade school. I am sitting at a long table with the rest of the third grade, spaced apart (rather corona-like, come to think of it) everyone sitting rigidly behind two sharpened No. 2 pencils. A god-like proctor gives a signal, whereupon everyone simultaneously picks up a pencil and starts coloring in ovals. We had been thoroughly drilled on the dire consequences of a pencil straying outside of an oval. After the prescribed time limit the proctor barks “Pencils down!” All comply immediately, in unison, placing our pencils on the table, test-taking machines in perfect synchronicity.
This was in the 1970s. Have we really not improved the technology since then? There is quite a bit more at stake here than determining whether budding 10-year-old cowboys in Montana are better at reading than their soon-to-be surfing counterparts in Florida.
The future of the free world is being threatened and here we are, worrying about keeping the pen inside the oval so our vote will be counted.
But I’m still not finished. Having completed the color-by-number exercise, I take out my scissors, tape and crayons. (All right, maybe not the crayons, but they were in the same box, OK?). Rereading the instructions carefully, I now get to construct my very own envelope that goes into another, outside mailer. The dashed lines for the folds are numbered one, two and three.
Oops, I folded number three first – are they going to throw out my ballot? I undo it and start over. I’m not going to forfeit my vote over a fold – and if so, would that be called a foldfeit? I’m sure as heck not risking anything as scary-sounding as foldfeiting.
Each state has its own format – ah, the joys of federalism! Some require this second envelope and others do not. I have two friends from Michigan who both consulted me for assistance in filling out their absentee ballots.
“Where’s the other envelope?!”
I was shouting at my friend Maria, who began rifling through the pile of ballot papers she had printed out. We were sitting at her kitchen table, piles of documents and laptop at hand, trying desperately to be good citizens of our homeland.
“It won’t count if you don’t put it in the other envelope! Find it – now!”
We shuffled the papers in a frenzied search for the elusive envelope.
But careful double-checking of page numbers and a magnifying glass for the fine print revealed that Michigan doesn’t require a second envelope. Whew! We nearly risked her ballot’s becoming a paving stone on the way to disaster.
There is a continental divide between the importance of the ballot and the difficulty it takes to fill it out. It’s like the scene in Zoomania where the hyperactive rabbit zooms (and I mean zooms, not Zooms) into the Department of Motor Vehicles to trace the owner of a license plate who is a suspect in a crime. The rabbit literally bounces with energy and is desperate to move fast, thrilled that his buddy the fox has a friend at the DMV who can help out. This friend turns out to be a sloth, who despite being named Flash, handles the problem, well, slothfully.
There must be a better way. If the government wants us to vote – and I am clinging to my belief that it does – they must make it more user friendly. Amazon could give a helping hand here. They continually tinker with their website to offer oh-so-easy purchases and have become the benchmark for the user experience.
Why not introduce one-click voting? I refuse to believe that isn’t possible. But even if security experts insist that printed ballots must be used, Jeff could probably help out there as well. Returning a product is the hard-copy version of one click: Print the shipping label and content list, pop them in the package and tape it shut. Voilà. I can’t imagine Amazon rejecting a returned package because I used leftover blue duct tape to close it, cut out the mailing label crooked or turned the package into an unidentifiable lump of tape and paper in the process. Not that I would ever send off a package looking like that.
Surely a team of UX experts could offer expert advice to voting officials. I don’t doubt that these people have good intentions, but the road to hell and low voter turnout is paved with messy ovals and crookedly folded ballots.
While we’re at it, why on earth do Americans still have to vote on a Tuesday, requiring them to take off work? In Europe they always vote on a Sunday – even here in Bavaria, where the powerful Catholic church has managed to squeeze countless religious holidays into the calendar. But even the staunchly conservative church here does not object to voting on a Sunday. Germans know the price of a shattered government, as every family bears deep scars from their last famously failed democratic episode.
Skipping church pales next to the danger of a failed democracy.
I was terrified that my daughter, away at college, would not follow the instructions on the second inside envelope, thereby rendering her ballot invalid. So I printed, folded and taped it, mailing it with a post-it note containing these motherly instructions, which I thought were fairly kind and subtle:
“Sign, date, place in large envelope and mail ASAP! 😊”
Upon receiving it, she texted me her translation of my message:
“I know that you’re a bit chaotic sometimes honey and I understand BUT IT‘S ONLY THE FUTURE OF MY GODDAMN COUNTRY AT STAKE SO if you could not fuck it up that would be great!“
She seems to understand the urgency of the situation. I hope voting officials do, too.