Bezirk [1] in Berlin© – 32:  August 6, 2012


Having been born in Louisiana, and having spent most of my formative years in Southeast Texas, no farther than 10 miles from the Louisiana state line, I can appreciate a good crawfish meal.  And Berlin being the cosmopolitan place that it is, from time to time you can find a crawfish dish on the menu.  This is unlikely to happen outside of major cities in Germany, but we’re rarely anywhere other than Berlin, so all is good.  When we go out for dinner we typically prefer the German menu – it forces us to use some German and, in some cases, the English menu doesn’t list all the offerings.  For example, they’re unlikely to go to the trouble to translate the daily specials into English, or, if they’ve recently updated the menu, they may not have made the corresponding updates to the English menu yet.  We were with our son and his family, and our daughter-in-law asked the waitress to bring us English menus.  Boy, am I glad she did that!  The English menu had this item on it—Fresh noodles with crayfish cocks.  Yep!  Not making this up!  [Up until now, I imagine you thought that humming bird tongues were the most exotic item you’d ever heard of.] You might wonder about how crawfish tails got translated this way.  The German word for crawfish (and anybody who knows anything about this delicacy knows that it’s crawfish, NOT crayfish) is Flusskrebs. Most places just use that word; there’s no need to specify ‘crawfish tails’ because, really, what other part of this thing are you gonna eat?  This menu, however, specified ‘crawfish tails’, which would be Flusskrebsschwäntzen, and if it had been translated literally, it would have indeed been ‘crawfish tails’.  However, there’s another definition for ‘Schwantz’, which is slang for ‘penis’.  I think it’s a fair assumption that the person who translated this was not completely familiar with crawfish anatomy.  Even taking this into account, under what circumstances could anyone possibly infer that this would be an item on a restaurant menu?


Well, precisely 5 minutes after I’ve gotten back home after having done all my errands — and not a second sooner!  Every day this week!  But at least I’m not in Virginia, where many folks have recently suffered through 104° Fahrenheit without air conditioning because the power was out for a week or so.


Rathaus Café – Nope!  But it makes sense (at least in Germany).  It’s another case of the damnable – but often amusing – pseudocognate.  Yes, “Haus” is “house” but, no, “Rat” is not “rat.”  It means “council” and “Rathaus” is the town hall.   So, of course, a café right across the street from the town hall would be called “Rathaus Café.”


This Sunday was gorgeous!  Sunny, a gentle breeze, low 70s, little puffy clouds in the sky!  So we decided to go adventuring.  We came upon a flea market, with the typical flea market merchandise (but, of course, with a German flavor—old beer steins, various things of East German and Soviet times).  What touched me the most, though, was a box of photographs, with each photo priced at 1 Euro.  Some of them had the names of the people in the photos, and a few had the dates.  Some of them had obviously once been pasted into albums, and some of the black paper from old-fashioned albums was still stuck to the back.  When you look at these photos, you realize that, someone, sometime, cared enough about the person to take a photo and keep it.  Maybe they carried in their wallet; maybe they put it in a frame; or maybe they put it in an album.  But today no one knows who these people are, and nobody cares.  I wince when I think about the more than 30 three-ring binders of family photos we have at home.  The oldest photos include pictures of Harvey’s grandfather at the age of 3, his grandfather’s parents on their wedding day, my grandmother at the age of 5, and my grandparents on their wedding picture.  And, of course, there are more recent photos of the two of us, Steve, our friends and family, and Steve’s family.  I hate to think that these photos might end up in a flea market somewhere someday.  To make it all the more poignant [a word you’ll never hear me say because I can’t pronounce it correctly] was that the whole time I was looking at these photos, a street musician was playing some bluesy melodies on his saxophone.


On a happier note, we were entertained by a clown a bit later.  We were in an area that was a solid block of outdoor restaurants, on both sides of the street (which was open only to pedestrians).  I saw a guy in a red felt derby and a green coat.  Now, while you might expect this to be something a clown would wear, in Berlin it’s not necessarily the case that when you see something like this, the guy wearing it is a clown.  It might, indeed, be considered high fashion in some circles.  What made it obvious that this guy was indeed a clown was when he took the red ball out of his pocket and put it on his nose.  That definitely moves the attire from the “high fashion” column into the “clown” column.  Once he put on his nose, he would walk about 2 feet behind a person, mimicking their walk and gestures.  One woman was walking along, ‘talking with her hands’, which he imitated.  Of course, the folks sitting at the tables watching this would laugh.  At some point, the person being followed would turn around and see him, at which point he would turn around, too.  At one point, a young woman turned around to face him, and he walked in a circle around her and then pulled a bra out and waved it in the air (making her think—if only for the briefest of seconds—that perhaps he had somehow purloined her bra).  We got to watch this about 30 minutes, until he bowed and started making his way through the crowd collecting money.  I’ll gladly pay a Euro or two for this!


In case you’ve not had the occasion to get up close and personal with this word, it just means words that are the same in two different languages, but do not have the same meaning.  Of course, there are lots of words in German that are the same as English, such as “ball” – just capitalize it and, magically, it becomes German.  There are some other words that are the same but don’t share a meaning.  For example, both English and German have the word “gift” but the meanings are drastically different in the two languages.  [Our German teacher calls these “false friends” – for obvious reasons.]

In English, a “gift” is a good thing; in German, the word means “poison.”  I imagine a German looking at a US Customs form, where you can check “Gift” if you’re mailing something to a destination outside the US, might become alarmed that, apparently, Americans mail poison to foreign addresses so often that there’s even a place on the customs form to specify that.

And you’ll see this on some taxis:  Fahrt mid Erdgas.  Well, ‘fahren’ is German for ‘travel’ and ‘Erdgas’ is ‘natural gas’ (or, more literally, ‘earth gas’).  This is basically telling you that this taxi is fueled by natural gas.  And, just so you know, although ‘Gas’ is German for ‘gas’ – that’s only when the word means ‘gas’ as something that isn’t a solid or a liquid.  The liquid stuff you put in your car to make it run is ‘Petrol’.  Actually, German makes more sense than American English, where ‘gas’ can either mean something that’s not a solid or a liquid OR it can mean a liquid that you put in your car to make it run.  And now that some cars are actually using natural gas as fuel, it could certainly cause some confusion.  You can no longer answer the question “What does your car run on?” with “Gas” because that’s now an ambiguous answer.  But getting back to “Fahrt mit Erdgas” – an English speaker might wonder why anybody thought it was necessary to instruct folks to fart with gas.  Is there any other way?

All this is just to lay the groundwork for a semi‑pseudocognate that struck me as amusing, in a pun sort of a way.  Sometimes, German uses a “k” where English uses a “c” – for example, Kamel is camel.  [Actually a good idea, because the “c” is almost useless in English – it either sounds like a “k” or an “s” so why do we even need it?]  I saw an ad today for Deutschkurse – an ad for a German course.  However, given how devilishly difficult this language is for me, I’m thinking that “curse” pretty much nails it!


Some metaphors that are commonly used in the US can be problematic, even when – or maybe especially when – speaking with an English-speaking German.  For example, in a place that borders Poland, using the expression “the long pole in the tent” conjures up an entirely different image.


This afternoon, after returning from my shopping, I was locking my bike in the Hof when I heard a gentle voice.  I looked up to see one of my neighbors at her window.  The window was open and she was whispering sweet nothings to the crow perched on her windowsill.  This apparently wild bird was eating tiny morsels from a spoon she was holding up for him.


We don’t have air conditioning and, in fact, don’t need it here.  We have 14 ft. ceilings, 14” thick walls, and the kind of windows where we can open up just the top part and, in most cases, opening one window in the living room and the kitchen will keep the whole flat at a comfortable temperature.  Having the windows open lets you hear sounds that we ordinarily wouldn’t hear.  We live on a one-block long street, so it’s pretty quiet, and the sounds you get to hear are usually just folks chatting – or kids laughing – as they walk by.  But another sound I get to hear is our 10-year-old upstairs neighbor practicing his trumpet.  It really is sweet to recognize tunes, such as the theme from Star Wars, or, at Christmas, a Christmas song.  He’s just now starting to get pretty good at it and, alas, we only have about another month or so to enjoy this, as his family is moving.  Sigh!  I’ll just have to enjoy it while I can!  But there’s a similar little snippet of pleasantness that I can count on enjoying for a good little while.  Our neighbor has 2 cats that he allows to go outdoors.  To protect the birds, he’s put bells on the cats, so from time to time we hear the erratic tinkling of jingle bells.  It drove me crazy until I figured out what it was; now I rather enjoy it!


Here are some of the things Kreuzbergers come up with for amusing themselves….

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the most thrilling entertainment imaginable was a large cardboard box. The possibilities were endless. It could be a fort to safeguard against alien invaders. It could be the makings of a kick-ass robot costume. It could be a pirate ship with which to navigate treacherous seas. It could be the foundation for a lemonade stand to make a quick buck. It could be a great spot for a tea party, a springboard from which to do somersaults, or the best place to hide from the world. When was the last time you had that much fun with something that simple?

This Saturday, relish the opportunity to once again lose yourself in cardboard at Berlin’s first-ever Boxwar, turning the backyard at Kreuzberg’s Mindpirates into the battleground for some serious play-fighting. Cardboard, box cutters, and tape will be on hand for warriors to build themselves suits of armor and weaponry of their own creative devising. After a full afternoon of construction, 7 o’clock will be the hour of reckoning, with a DJ providing a suitable fightin’ soundtrack for the cardboard-suited crowds to battle it out. Last fighter standing, with his or her armor still intact, wins.


Today we had to go to the US Consulate to get something notarized, for which privilege we get to pay $100 (although in the US—almost anywhere, such as at work or at your bank—it’s absolutely free).  In all fairness, we had a 10 am appt and were done by 10:30, so there wasn’t a lot of waiting to be done.  However, you’d expect a waiting room to have magazines.  This waiting room had exactly 3 magazines (and there were about 10 folks in the waiting room).  You’d also expect that, since you were at the US Consulate, in the section known as ‘Citizen Services’ (where folks who are already US citizens go, as opposed to other sections where non-US citizens go to apply for visas), any magazines there would be in English.  Nope!  They were all in German….  As one of my cousins says, “That just ain’t right.”


Nope, not talking about Santa’s reindeer, but rather the actual thunder and lightning that was visited upon us the other night.  It was what I imagine the London Blitzkrieg was like (especially having just finished a book that was set in the UK during that time).  Harvey, of course, slept right through it.  In truth, I might have too if the demands of my bladder hadn’t insisted on my wakefulness at the time.  Turns out that our part of town was the hardest hit.  We took 565 lightning strikes, while the second highest count in another neighborhood was a mere 195.   Some of the S-bahn (underground train) stations flooded; some folks lost electricity; a couple of houses were hit by lightning and caught fire; large trees came down.  Mercifully, we were spared that.  This was on Saturday night; on Sunday night, there was a repeat performance (which we managed to sleep through), where they recorded more than 8100 lightning strikes in the area.   It’s odd that Northern Virginia (our former home) was also hit by a huge storm in about the same time frame.


In English, the word “poach” can mean two things:

(1)    Something you can do with an egg; or

(2)    A form of theft.

 In German, however, there are two distinct words for what you can do with an egg (pochieren) and for stealing game from the king’s forest (wildern).  It makes infinite sense, given that these are two totally different things.  And “wildern” is particularly logical—“wild” is a true cognate and means the same thing in German as it does in English.

So, when you go into a store looking for something with which you can poach eggs, you want to make sure that you don’t ask for something with which you can steal eggs.

But, oddly enough, the German phrase for “poached eggs” – verlorene Eier – translates literally as “lost eggs” or “wasted eggs.”  Gotta wonder how that came to be, don’t you?


As I’ve said before, William’s spirited runs thought the house and vigorous explorations of our precious objets d’art is helping us to give up our attachments to inanimate objects.  But perhaps that isn’t his intent; maybe he’s just taking an avant garde approach to interior decorating.


[1] ‘Bezirk’ is German for ‘neighborhood.’