4 years in New York – Celebrating Yet Another Anniversary!

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Yesterday I celebrated my 4-year-anniversary in New York. The day my shaky Delta plane landed at the deserted Newark airport. On March 15th, 2010– when I was catapulted from my German student life into Read More »

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On Growing Up Bilingually, Biculturally, and Bi-Nationally

(Note: This is a post for all you who have wondered what I am and where I am from. This is also a post for all of those unaccepting people who still think I am German. But most and foremost, this is a post for everyone seeking an answer to their bilingual identiy.)

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It’s said that the strongest story you have to tell is your own story. Everyone has a unique history, an original skill set, and a story behind growing up.

I grew up bilingual with an American father and a German mother. Most people who meet me in the US assume I am American. Most people who meet me in Germany assume I am German. I don’t have an accent when I speak either language. My identity is formed of two cultures. I belong to two great nations and wouldn’t want to give this up for a million.

Most of my childhood and teenage years were spent in Germany. But the first language I ever learned was English. My German was horrible when we were down in New Mexico. At the tender age of 4 ½ half years, my family moved over to Bremerhaven/ Germany and I must have had some difficulties in pronouncing German words and speaking it. But when I was six, I joined the local German elementary school. About 13 years later I was to graduate from the German gymnasium with the highest school degree obtainable in Germany. While all my primary education is based on the German school system, all of my secondary is not. I attended American college by choice and was able to finish with a Bachelor’s degree after 3 ½ years of hard studying.

Needless to say, I love my life. It’s said that the strongest story you have to tell is your own story. Well, I think I started off great when being raised in the way I was. In a bicultural family, life is never boring. It’s not only about the language you speak, but the excitement you feel when dreaming about a life in the other country. And just the fact that you are able to take in both without giving up one another – priceless. At a young age, I felt that my family was different than the ones we were typically surrounded by. Sure, you had the normal military families, who moved around a lot and got to see Japan and Guam. But then you also had the German farmer’s families, who were rather sedentary and settled. You also had similar families like us – one parent German, the other American – whom it was easier to connect to. But by far, we were a minority.

Being raised bilingual certainly had its advantages. Getting ahead of others in school during our English lessons, for one. But it was also the recipe for failure as most teachers expected us, my sisters and me, to be perfect when speaking the language and always turned to us when a classmate didn’t know the answer. In hindsight, I don’t know how I would have handled the situation better. It’s impossible for a child or teenager to know every single word in either of their native languages. I realize that now.

Just like learning a new language takes time and effort, so does maintaining one’s native language. So I started working on it. Reading more books, learning the vocabulary. Because just speaking it wasn’t enough, it took more than that. I also had to work to get rid of my German accent when I spoke English. Going to German schools and exclusively living in Germany had brought that out. I sometimes still have one after a longer stay in the motherland. Not so much after a longer stay in the fatherland.

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Another advantage of biculturalism is being able to work on two different continents without the hassles of having to apply for a visa. There is no real language barrier to overcome and I don’t have to pick my companies according to their sponsor ship. I suppose this is real freedom: Two continents to go to and two countries to choose from. Life is easier and less complicated in that matter.

Growing up the way I did is a part of my identity, a part of how I define myself. Interestingly enough, psychological research has shown that you can develop two different personalities when you grow up bilingual. At one point, my German one was more dominating, more in my thoughts. Now I have lived here for so long, I tend to think in English most of the time and act in a more American way.

But in a sense, this two-folded personality has preserved my ability to speak two languages. It is easy for me to switch between either one. It is also easy for me not to forget vocabulary or certain pronunciations. When I observe Germans who have lived in the US for an extended time frame, I see signs of them forgetting their native language (but they still speak English with a strong accent). My guess is that this happens because they don’t have the mental practice or because certain brain circuits did not develop in their childhood. All of these are theories of course, not scientifically proven (yet).

Finding one’s identity is a crucial part of life. Mine happens to be German-American. Like other German-Americans, I am to a certain degree more German than American, with others it can be the other way around. But overall, we pretty much form a culture of our one, taking with the best of both nations and applying it to our own cultural mindset.

While I have never seen myself strictly as German or American, other people show problems when it comes to this. It seems that there cannot be a middle way in some folks’ heads. So this question of identity becomes an “issue” when people cannot comprehend the concept and try to shove me into one drawer: Either American OR German. But life is not only black and white. And we, the German-Americans, are a perfect example of yet another gray zone in reality. My identity is not only formed by language, but by culture and a sense of belonging. If someone were to ask me what I felt – more German or American – I’d say more European. After all, I did grow up over there. But I highly suppose so would most Americans, who’ve lived abroad for almost all of their childhood years.

I look at French-Canadians and how well they handle speaking both languages (although with an accent sometimes). If they do not have a problem with their bilingual identity, neither should we.

If I were to have children, I would want to raise them in a similar way. I wouldn’t want to neglect them the privilege of a bilingual and bicultural home. Life has so much more to offer than one simple country, why not bring them closer to both? There are so many advantages when learning languages from an early age. It comes to you more naturally and with less hurdle and thought process. You just know “this is wrong, this sounds right” from deep down in your soul. And of course it also broadens a child’s horizon. Not to mention the ways it opens to living in two different countries without much legal hassle.

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Published on Expat Arrivals: Another Interview on Life Abroad

A week ago Expat Arrivals asked me if I’d be interested in contributing with an interview to their homepage… Okay, okay, I stand corrected: I actually contacted them but they were nice enough to reply and then publish my extensive journal-like article with elaborate sentences in a timely manner on their web site. Kudos to this!

Click here get the full story and see my answers to some very interesting questions.

published on expat arrivals in january

The article describes my impressions after almost 3 years of New York time and gives newcomers a few tips on what to do when they get here or what to avoid.

Expat Arrivals, as the name indicates, is a web site for expatriates from all over the world. It features further interviews with other individuals to see how comfortable they feel in their new home and it asks them what advice they can offer to other expatriates. The page also has an array of additional topics, such as “expat living,” “overcoming culture shock,” and “working overseas.” What I like about it is that the stories are real – they were written by people who had to learn the hard way before they were able to pass on their experience to other expats through this medium.

It’s a great homepage to check out, in case you have not yet done so, and I will certainly keep them bookmarked for future references on other New York articles. I am also impressed by the guides they offer and which you can simply download in PDF format (who needs a guide book after all, when everything is online now, right?!).

Celebrating A German Christmas: Understanding the Crucial Elements

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1) Glühwein

Glühwein, also known as spiced mulled wine, is one of the most important parts when it comes to celebrating a real German Christmas. The most important ingredients of Glühwein are, tada, red wine, cinnammon sticks, orange peel, and possibly hazelnuts. Glühwein has been successfully copied by countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands with variations in names, such as Glögg. Just kidding, people!
However, I do believe that there must be some common origin, because Swedish Glögg does not differ too much from German Glühwein. Spiced mulled wine is already served weeks ahead of time. Whenever those fancy Christmas Markets open is when you can snag your first cup of the great drink. Which leads me to my next topic…

2) Christmas Markets aka as Weihnachtsmarkt

Weihnachtsmarkets are widely spread throughout Germany, Austria, and yes, even parts of France. They are an important part of the German tradition for they offer great opportunities to sell hand-made merchandise, promote traditional German food and drinks, and provide a landmark in each city, so to speak. Holiday Markets can be small in range or tremendous in size. The Trier Holiday Market is an annual event that draws people from far away because of how it’s built up around the market place and the church. The Cologne one is rather disappointing in size considering the 1 million citizens the city houses and is rather chaotic. The Heidelberg one is parted in three different pieces so that you walk up the Hauptstrasse and run into them as you shop. Then there is a holiday market in Speyer that is open until January.

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Typically, they close on December 23, one day before the Christmas craziness begins. They are a great opportunity for after-work happy hour (I am not joking) and socializing with your friends. Without them a crucial element of German culture would be amiss.

3) Christmas Eve Mass and opening presents

Christmas Eve is the most important evening on Christmas. Typically, Germans don’t work on December 24, or if they do, they stop after noon. Stores will not be open for longer than that and they are closed throughout the holidays. So what do you do in these 2 and a half days of blessed time off? You cook! And lots of it! While Americans invite their family over on Thanksgiving, we have our loved ones around us on Christmas. People start eating their first meal on Christmas Eve. After this, you might sing a few Christmas Carols. And then it’s time for Bescherung – the German word (yes, they actually have a word!) for packing out your presents on Christmas Eve. Why then? Because typically you would go to a Midnight Mass together and then give your presents in the night from the 24th to 25th of December. However, since most children do not or cannot stay awake for so long anymore, the tradition has changed a couple of hours earlier.

4) 2 Days of Christmas

I’ve always wondered why Christmas is such a big deal in the States. After all, you only have one day! Germany, on the contrary, has two full days of Christmas and then Christmas Eve (which is very important as you can see above). Usually, one day or evening is reserved for the close family and one day is reserved for extended family (such as grandparents, cousins etc.). However, as children grow older and turn into teenagers, they make a point in meeting up on December 26 – the second day of Christmas. Too much bliss around family can be annoying, therefore this is a great day to exchange gifts and spend time with your clique. Stores are not open on the second day of Christmas. In the US, this is one of the most important days when it comes to post-holiday shopping.

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5) Keeping Your Tree Until Three Saints Day

This is something that is probably true in other countries, as well. When you have the courage to buy a real Christmas tree, then of course you have to keep it way longer than the actual holiday. You start getting rid of it around January 6, which is Three King’s Day, a significant Catholic holiday. In Germany, children actually paint parts of their faces with ashes and make a helluva lot of noise while walking through the streets of a small town or village. Their purpose is to write the date on everyone citizen’s door after spraying holy water on it. They also like to ring the doorbell and collect money while they’re at it. I believe the most accurate purpose of their visit is to bless each person’s house (and door) for the upcoming year (until January 6). It’s nice to observe and I hope it won’t become extinct any time soon because these small traditions is what keeps the culture alive.

6) Christmas Pickle IS NOT a German Tradition

The other day at work a co-worker mentioned the Christmas pickle and announced that it was a typical German tradition brought over by immigrants. I stared at her in disbelief and almost declared her crazy but then I did some research. Many versions of this story. circulate on the web: St. Nick brought with sweets and pickles and children hung these on the Christmas tree (false!). German immigrants carried over a glass pickle ornament on their voyage to America (false!). The lies go on!
To this date, I’ve never seen a pickle ornament hanging on any German Christmas tree nor have I ever heard a German speak about anything remotely resembling this concept. If I were to guess, I would say it comes from a country as exotic as Russia or Poland, but that is simply a guess. We hang Ginger Bread and sparkly red ornaments on our trees, I can give you that much. But pickles?! Please!

I hope this helped to clarify what to do and what not to do during a German Christmas. I wish you some happy holidays and don’t forget:

Be merry! Frohe Weihnachten!

Deutsches Einkaufen: New Aldi discounter in Queens!

Aldi is now in Queens! I couldn’t believe it when a fellow co-worker brought with one of my beloved German chocolates to work, claiming he had been shopping at a discounter in Queens. While I had driven past an Aldi in New Jersey two summer years one my way to the Jersey shores, I was rather amused at how far the popular German food store had advanced. However, I would have never thought they made the dream of cheaply imported German merchandise come true, so I had to check out for myself what exactly Aldi has to offer here in the US.

Therefore, today I made my way up to the Rego Park stop on the still significantly impaired R-train. Rego Park is supposedly one of the bigger shopping malls you can find in this borough, together with the Queens Mall shopping center. Aldi was somewhere next to Staples and Payless Shoes. I had troubles finding it at first until I noticed that there are no doors leading to the outside, you indeed have to actually enter the mall. Then I stood in front of it: The brandnew and all-too-familiar sign with the bright orange contour, blue background, and white letters. “Aldi Food Market,”it read, food market being the only term giving away that I was in a foreign country and nowhere close to home.

I then went on, fully entering the twilight zone: The common sight of shopping carts stacked to the side, but no Euro needed to snag one. German Choceur chocolates neatly rowed up in the beginning of the aisle, together with Schogetten, another brand that rings so close to home. True, the selection was tiny compared to what Aldi offers at German stores. Schogetten had three different flavors, whereas it usually offers 7 and more in its country of origin. And right next to the German chocolates? Captain Ahoy’s chocolate chip cookies and other American brands. Gourmet tartar sauce next to Hershey’s ice cream sauce. The list of controversies goes on!

Tartar sauce right next to…
…. Hersheys syrup!

German brands mixed with American goodies – who wouldn’t get confused at first. It took me a while to shut my mouth and actually make it through the entire store to get an overall impression. Of course the fresh produce, such as veggies, fruits, and dairy products, are not imported from across the ocean. However, especially now during the Christmas season you could find German cake and a goodie called “Stollen,” which is a pastry made of raisin bread and filled with either almond paste or other sweets.

Christmassy stuff

Meat and milk comes from the US. I did find gingerbread that was exactly the same I bought when still back home. Even the price was not too much higher for most of the products. Schogetten cost around 80 euro cents, whereas here you can get them for one US Dollar. Stollen is 5 bucks and I believe you get some for almost 4 Euro back home. I overheard a German woman excitedly explaining that this is the real deal back home and that you really have to try it to experience a true German Christmas feeling. I shot her a freaked out look and went on, more uncomfortable than ever.

It appears that the German discounter has been able to successfully apply the concept of keeping the shopping experience cheap in this country. But I was rather baffled when I saw the marketing strategy they use: Aldi Truths! Truth #25, for example, states that “the same is always better when it costs less.” Duh! I am unsure if these truths are also stated in its country of origin, I, however, have never seen them around and have decided not to be a big fan of them.

One of Aldi’s Truths

Regardless of the store not being overly pricy, I still had to pay $15 for a few sweets I bought, and I am certain I would have not spent that much in Germany itself disregarding worldwide inflation and economy crisis. An ecofriendly Aldi paper bag costs 6 cent, but you have to be careful as the paper is rather thin and if you can, get more than one. The best is simply to carry your own bag with you, as you would in Germany. You can also purchase a cloth bag for the price of $2, but I opted against it, since I am too embarrassed to don’t want to be running around with an Aldi bag when I do regular food shopping.

Even though I would have thought to be less homesick and more pro-American Aldi before I visited this store, the opposite effect showed: I am actually not sure I ever want to go back for fear of spoiling all the reasonably good memories of the real German Aldi I am used to. It was more of a bizarre experience to shop among English-speaking people in a store that offers a few German products, half of which are made in factories in Illinois or Mexico, despite the German name attached to it. The products have an English packaging and nutrition information is giving according to standards in America, not Europe.

Christmassy stuff

The entire shopping experience painfully reminded me of the analogy of Coca Cola: You might be able to buy it everywhere but it does not necessarily evoke a feeling of being at home. On the contrary, it can let you wonder how far American thinking can spoil your feeling in pride of German merchandise.

Oh, and after reading some reviews on Yelp, I guess American consumers think it is a huge deal that cashier’s can sit. I guess it can be…

But get your own impression of things! Aldi has now also opened doors in Manhattan as of October of this year. Find more infos on their Web site at Aldi.us. Happy shopping!

No German words included in this post for fear of losing my mind!

Restaurant Guide: Zum Schneider in the East Village

The following was written for an online publication focusing on events and bars in the Village. However, since it was never published, I am claiming it and introducing to you one of my favorite German restaurants in Manhattan!

Waitresses serving huge beakers of beer in a dirndl dress. Musicians presenting German songs during another foreign holiday… These are scenes of a typical Saturday night at a rustic Bavarian bar in the Village.

Most New Yorkers are unaware of the fact that the East Village used to be home to one specific group of European immigrants: It was one of the earliest German settlements of New York and offered a solid ground for the upkeep of their cultural values. Unfortunately, a good deal of its German population was wiped out by a tragic steamboat accident in 1904.

However, one little remnant of this little German area has remained until today. Just on the far end of the East Village in an area called Alphabet City. Located on the corner of East 7th St and Avenue C, it can be seen from far away thanks to the blue umbrellas und solid wooden tables outside. I am talking about nothing else than the restaurant and bar Zum Schneider: A traditional German place owned by the Bavarian native Sylvester Schneider, who brought some German flair into the furthermost Eastern part of the Village more than a decade ago.

12 German beers on tap, a menu featuring traditional dishes, and servers with the all-too-common harsh accent – it hardly gets more original than this. Not only does the owner speak German, but he wants his customers to feel transformed to Little Germany for a tiny bit longer than a beer and a dinner. So of course the menus are in German, the music is foreign, and the servers are bilingual.

Wiener Schnitzel and a wheat beer

Among one of the most desired dishes of the house you will find common entrées such as the Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded piece of veal served with potatoes and cucumbers. Another cultural must-have: Schweinebraten, which is roasted pork next to dark gravy, potato dumplings and a traditional Bavarian salad. But even the vegetarian will be delighted to come here, as there are meat-omitting food options, such as the cheese plate and a vegetable casserole. Both of these dishes are quite extensive in size and therefore great to share with a group of friends as an appetizer. Beware of the highlight on the menu no one really tells you about: The two dessert options! Two does not seem like a whole lot, until you have devoured the home-made Apfelstrudl and tasted the delicious Kaiserschmarrn. One of the best things of the Bavarian cuisine must be the sweet tooth they have!

Bartender Sven trying out a freshly drafted German beer

Zum Schneider is one of the biggest participants of the German Oktoberfest, typically celebrating it from mid-September until the beginning of Oktober. Of course, Zum Schneider will always be worth a visit even after this time of year. Especially with the cold season and the holidays showing up. It is a great spot to try one of the best Gluehweine in town: Red wine served hot and mixed with spices such as cinnamon sticks, orange peels, and the ultimate secret ingredient. It is a tradition to drink this kind of hot wine during the winter and Christmas season throughout Germany and Sylvester was smart to introduce it to his innovation-seeking customers. Starting four weeks before Christmas at the end of November, the bar offers “Christmas Carrols” on the weekends, during which German songs are introduced to the bar crowd.

Maifest, Oktoberfest, Advent, and Karneval – these are all occasions to give the German side of New York a try. Where else than in one of the best restaurants of the Village? Prost!

Celebrating a Little Piece of Deutschland in New York: Oktoberfest Season!

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Germany, specifically during this time of year? Dirndl, Lederhosen and beer? That’s exactly it! It’s Oktoberfest season worldwide – not only in the Bavarian metropolis! Even in New York people have come to like this time. Mostly because of the abundance of beer distributed during these days, needless to say, but it also seems that certain German traditions are never forgotten when being abroad.

Pennsylvania, for example, celebrates one of the biggest German festivals during this time of year. With parties throughout September and October, it is prone to have a high volume of happenings but these are geared towards smaller groups of people. Many German immigrants were on the East Coast so not surprisingly New York is a city that also has its festivities going on. After a steamship accident most of the German population drowned in the East River but parts of it survived.

The annual German-American Steubenparade in September is one of those crucial elements that cannot be amiss when celebrating one’s Middle-European heritage. After seeing it two years ago, I had missed out on it last year due to my traveling abroad. But this time I wanted to play an active part in the audience once again. My American friend was punctual as always, she was standing on 5th Avenue just when the clock stroke 12 o’clock noon. I arrived some tedious 40 minutes later – so much for Germans being on time. I wasn’t as unreliable as our other friend, though: He was 2 hours too late and only got to see the street sweepers clean the streets AFTER the parade was long gone.

He was clearly too late…

The New Yorker Steubenparade is one of those bizarre occurrences that don’t make sense to me as a German. It hosts floats and groups from different parts in Germany but then also Americans who just throw over a costume to look German. I am assuming these are the people living out their German-American heritage, for this can mean living in the US for a century without having been to Germany even once…

Either way, I was utterly confused when I saw the first group march past us, dressed in the typical Faschingsoutfit and throwing candy bars towards the waiting mass. Fasching happens from November to February but it is nowhere close to this time of year. “How good that Americans are gullible and don’t know that this has nothing to do with farmers and hunting, the actual reason Oktoberfest is celebrated” is what I thought when the next Funkemariechen group danced passed us. Many people seemed to have fun watching the comical but ill-timed costumes, so I guess the purpose of the parade was met. I even saw a “Bitburger-Beer”-float, which made me dwell in memories of the annual Bitburger Bierfest held in March. Bitburg is close to the town I grew up in, and it’s always good to see a little bit of Heimat when so far away.

Fasching outfits during the parade
The Bitburger Float

The parade itself lasted a good one and a half hours. After the last group of musicians marched by, most people broke away and walked towards the entrance of Central Park. Here is where the real party starts: The annual Oktoberfest and most likely biggest German celebration in the City, resembling its German counterpart but then not really, thanks to German Faschingoutfits. Usually it is even held on the same weekend the Munich fest is: 3 weeks before the first weekend in October. However, the Bavarian version starts this coming Saturday, so I don’t know the exact reason as to why the American Oktoberfest was pre-scheduled for September 15 of this year. Either way, a ton of people still showed up and it turned out to be a blast!

If you are familiar with Central Park, you might know the area around 70th Street, where Summer Stage is usually held during the hot season. On the exact same spot, numerous tents, food stands, a stage, beer sellers and other promoters positioned themselves to make out the biggest Oktoberfest in North America. This year we had bought our tickets in advance so we didn’t have to bribe security guards to let us through the gaps in the fence like we did in 2010. We started off with two different pitchers of beer: One was a typical wheat ale and another one was Warsteiner, one of the many sponsors of the fest. We walked past huge lines of people waiting for food, and an overcrowded tent reserved for the VIPs and parade participators. Everyone was exchanging different pitchers of beer and was in a jolly good mood. In all of the chaos, you saw little bands performing, such as the trumpet players who never failed to amuse the audience. I also remember two children handing out business cards for a German restaurant in Staten Island and then demanding one dollar for those…. Capitalism starts early!

Braided hair
… and the public version of it!
Us with cake and beer
The greedy kids who wanted a dollar per business card… tsss!

Watching the parade, walking around and drinking beer can be quite daunting, so I tried out a few of the food options: Mushy French fries and a plum cake with an awkward dough inside – I was not very thrilled. Then I came around to the fried dough stand. One thing I recommend you trying is their potato pancakes: Delicious creations dipped in apple sauce and seasoned so well, I was transformed back to a German street fest. Very authentic pieces of German cuisine, I must say!

The stage hosted an American band for a while, and then a female German singer ended up performing her by now very popular song of “I love German Boys.” I have never heard this song in Germany before so it must be something she only sings during Oktoberfest in New York. I have seen her perform it two years ago, I wonder how her record is picking up so far…

After about four hours of talking to people, taking in the atmosphere and drinking beer, we decided it was time for an after-party. It couldn’t be anywhere else than in the one and only “Zum Schneider:”
One of the most authentic German restaurants in the East Village and most likely the best German restaurant in the entire City. Here we ran into another group of friends and decided to settle for some dinner entrees consisting of a Bavarian cheese plate, a Wiener Schnitzel, and German sausage. The price-product ratio is very good here and you don’t feel you are being ripped off just because the restaurant has to import some food items from overseas. The servers are usually from Germany, so they speak the same language and understand what kind of beer you want when you happen to pronounce it the right way.

Oktoberfest people
At Zum Schneider in 2010

And that was it! An eventful day of fighting Heimweh and meeting friends who are interested in your foreign culture. Oktoberfest in New York equals Germans in New York – you’ll always run into a few of those.

If you are interested in taking part one of these years, make sure to get your tickets in advance, as they sell out as soon as in mid-July already. I paid 15 Dollars for mine this year, but I would assume prices fluctuate in the coming years.

Und weil es so schön war, gerne auf deutsch nochmal:

Woran muss man zuallererst denken wenn das Gespräch auf Deutschland schweift, besonders zu dieser Jahreszeit? Dirndl, Lederhosen und ein Bier? Ganz genau! Die Oktoberfestsaison hat begonnen – nicht nur in der bayrischen Metropole sondern auf der ganzen Welt! Sogar in New York kommt sie gut an. Natürlich kann es daran liegen, dass Bier wie am laufenden Bande ausgeschenkt wird in diesen Tagen, das ist doch klar. Dennoch scheint es, dass einige deutsche Traditionen im Ausland alle Jahre wieder gut ankommen und hoffentlich ankommen werden.

Wie zum Beispiel im Staate Pennsylvania, wo eines der bedeutendsten deutschen Feste im Ausland zu dieser Jahreszeit gefeiert wird. Mit Feten vom September bis Oktober passiert eine ganze Menge, aber diese Festchen sprechen mehr kleinere Gruppen an als die große Menge. Ursprünglich siedelten sich viele deutschen Immigranten an der Ostküste der USA an, deshalb ist es auch kein großer Zufall, dass die Stadt New York viel anzubieten weiß. Bei einem Schiffunglück auf dem East River ist zwar ein großer Prozentsatz der deutschstämmigen Bevölkerung umgekommen, aber ein Teil hat dennoch überlebt.

Die alljährliche deutsch-amerikanische Steubenparade im September gehört zu den bedeutenden Ereignissen, die einfach nicht fehlen dürfen wenn es darum geht, seinem Ursprungsland treu zu bleiben. Vor zwei Jahren noch fieberhaft mitverfolgt, musste ich letztes Jahr leider aussetzen – das Heimweh hatte mich gepackt und in ein Flugzeug nach Hause verfrachtet. Dieses Jahr wollte ich wieder als aktiver Zuschauer mitwirken. Meine amerikanische Freundin war natürlich wie gewohnt pünktlich um 12 Uhr auf der 5th Avenue. Ich ließ mir gute 40 Minuten Zeit um von Brooklyn hoch zur Upper East Side zu gondeln. Noch ein anderer Kumpel gab uns erst gar nicht Bescheid sondern tanzte gute 2 Stunden später an: Als die Barrikaden sorgfältig zusammengeklappt waren und die ersten Straßenfeger zum Einsatz kamen.

Die New Yorker Steubenparade ist eines dieser merkwürdigen Geschehnisse, die nicht allzuviel Sinn für einen deutschen Eingeborenen wie mich machen. Verschiedene Wagen und Fußgruppen kommen hier aus allen Teilen Deutschlands zusammen und treffen auf Amerikaner, die sich mal grade ein Kostümchen überwerfen um krampfhaft deutsch zu wirken. Ich nehme an, dass diese Teilnehmer ihre deutsch-amerikanischen Wurzeln ausleben, die seit Jahrzenten in Amerika verankert sind, aber selber noch nie in ihrem Leben im tatsächlichen Deutschland gewesen sind…

Jedenfalls war ich ganz schön verdutzt als ich die erste Fußgruppe an uns vorbeimarschieren sah. Anstatt der normalen Oktoberfest-Tracht hatte sie ein typisches Faschingskostüm an und warf Kamellen in die wartende Menge. Fasching findet eigentlich zwischen dem 11. November und Februar statt und ist damit noch weit weg vom September. „Wie gut dass die Amerikaner so naiv sind und nicht wissen, dass diese Kostüme nichts mit der Bauern – und Jägertradition zu tun haben, wofür das Oktoberfest ursprünglich steht“, dachte ich mir nur als schon das nächste Funkemariechen an mir vorbeitanzte. Dennoch, viele Menschen fanden Gefallen an diesen witzigen aber komplett sinnlosen Kostümen, und damit war die Parade ein totaler Hit. Ich stieß sogar auf einen „Bitburger-Wagen“, der mich weit in die Vergangenheit schweifen liess. Erinnerungen an das alljährliche Bitburger Bierfest kamen auf, das jedes Mal im März stattfindet. Bitburg befindet sich nah an dem Dorf, in dem ich aufgewachsen bin, und es ist immer gut ein kleines Stückchen Heimat im fremden Lande wiederzuerkennen.

Die Parade selbst dauerte gute anderthalb Stunden. Nachdem die letzte Gruppe von Musikanten ans uns vorbeilief, brach die Menge auf einmal los: Es ging auf in Richtung Central Park. Hier ging erst richtig die Post ab: Das alljährliche Oktoberfest tobte und damit das größte deutsch-angehauchte Fest in New York, das seinem deutschen Gegenstück ähnelte, abgesehen von den Faschingskostümen und anderen Jecken. Typischerweise wird es sogar an demselben Wochenenende abgehalten an dem die bayrische Version anfängt aber aus irgendeinem Grunde hatte man es dieses Jahr vorgezogen schon am 15. September aufs Allgemeinwohl anzustoßen. So oder so, eine große Menge schaute vorbei und es war eine wahre Freude teilnehmen zu können!

Wenn man sich im Central Park etwas auskennt ist man sicherlich schonmal über die Summer Stage gestolpert, die es normalerweise, wie der Name schon verrät, nur im Sommer gibt und sich um die 70. Strasse herum befindet. Genau auf diesem Fleck standen nun anstatt bekiffter Rastas eine endlose Reihe von Zelten, Essenständen, Biertränken, Bühnen, und andere interessante Dinge, alle mit dem Ziel vor Augen mal wieder das größte Oktoberfest in Nordamerika auszumachen. Weil wir dieses Jahr unsere Karten im Vorverkauf reserviert hatten, mussten wir nicht, wie vor zwei Jahren schon, die Türsteher bestechen, die uns dann für ein komplett überteuertes Bestechungsgeld durch eine Lücke im Zaun durchließen. Nein, dieses Mal waren wir um einiges schlauer. So wussten wir auch direkt, dass wir uns einen großen Bierkrug zu bestellen hatten anstatt uns mit 3 kleinen Bechern abzumühen nur ums uns letzten Endes wieder durch die endlos scheinende Schlange zu kämpfen. Selbst fürs Essen stand man locker einen halbe Stunde an. Irgendwann schafften wir es uns mit Bockwurst, Pommes und Pflaumenkuchen bewaffnet durch die Menge zu boxen und das Spektakel zu verfolgen. An den angeheiterten Jecken vorbei, die sich den Warsteiner aus dem Krug schütteten. Irgenwann wurden wir in dem Chaos auf zwei kleine Kinder aufmerksam, die fleißig Visitenkarten ausgaben. Für die Reklame eines deutschen Restaurants in Staten Island verlangten sie eifrig einen Dollar von den verdutzten Passanten… Kapitalismus fängt früh an!

Weil die Fritten eher matschig schmeckten und der Pflaumenkuchen auch zu wünschen übrig ließ (an das gute deutsche Standard kommt so schnell nichts), traute ich mich vorsichtig an den Stand heran, der frittierten Teig und andere Spezialiäten anzubieten hatte. So wie zum Beispiel erstklassigen Reibekuchen! Die Kartoffelpfannekuchen schmeckten sogar besser als bei Muttern, was echt was zu heißen hat, und wurden zusammen mit authentischem Apfelmus angeboten. Mhmmm, lecker und echt zu empfehlen, falls es sowas nächstes Jahr wieder gibt!

Auf der Bühne wärmte sich eine amerikanische Volksmusikband auf, bevor einer deutschen Sängerin Aufmerksamkeit geschenkt wurde. Wie schon zwei Jahre zuvor führte diese ihren Feiertagshit „ I love German Boys“ auf und begeisterte damit mal wiede das ganze Publikum, dass den Ohrwurm bereitwillig aufnahm und sogar vereinzelte Zuschauer veranlasste mitzuschunkeln.

Nach vier langen Stunden herumgehen, Leute kennenlernen, feiern und trinken wurde uns so langsam alles über. Wir wollten After-Party, und wo anders könnte man sie besser halten als im „Zum Schneider“: Eines der originellsten deutschen Restaurants im East Village und wahrscheinlich die beste deutsche Bar in ganz Manhattan. Hier trafen wir spontan auf eine weitere Gruppe von Freunden und entschieden uns für ein Abendbrot der Extraklasse, zusammengesetzt aus einer bayrischen Käseplatte, einem Wiener Schnitzel und Wurst. Im Vergleich zu anderen deutsch-imitierenden Restaurants liegt es preislich im Mittelbereich, vor allen Dingen weil die Portionen großzügig sind, obwohl die Ware importiert ist. Die Kellner und Kellnerinnen kommen fast alle aus Deutschland, sprechen damit ein und dieselbe Sprache und verstehen ausnahmsweise welches Bier genau man haben möchte wenn man auf deutsch bestellt.

Somit ging ein weiterer erfolgreicher Tag des Heimwehbekämpfens und Freunde in die fremde Kultur einweisen zu Ende. Denn Oktoberfest in New York garantiert eines ganz sicher: Ob man möchte oder nicht, man lernt hier gewiss Deutsche kennen– sie sind oftmals im Rudel unterwegs.

Falls ihr daran interessiert seit nächstes Jahr teilzunehmen, bedenkt bitte die Eintrittskarten im Vorverkauf zu bestellen. Dieser fängt schon Mitte Juli an und kann 2 Wochen später ausverkauft sein. Für meine Karte habe ich dieses Jahr 15 Dollar bezahlt, aber natürlich kann der Preis in der Zukunft dank Inflation und Nachfrage nur noch ansteigen… Prost!

I’ve Been Published!

A few weeks ago Erin from Blogexpats asked me to write out an interview in either German or English for their special online edition of how expats live overseas. Since I couldn’t decide which language to choose, I simply answered the questions in both German and English.

Sometimes you cannot express some ideas and opinions as well as you could in your native language. But describing life in New York has proven to be difficult in German because my life style has become so more American than European. Therefore, it just had to be two different views!

Please see the bilingual version below

or go to www.blogexpats.com .

Hi, I am Laura from Germany, and I now live in the Big Apple. I moved to Brooklyn but work in the Empire State Building in the middle of Manhattan. So much to leaving a small German village for the American Dream!

1. Why did you move abroad?
I wanted to take a time out from school, as I had finished my Bachelor’s but was almost certain I wanted to get it on with my Master’s. New York seemed like the right place to go to get my head straight after the stressful student years, to experience an adventure, and to distract my mind from the rigid system in Germany. I had planned on being away for six months to a year – max. That did not work out as planned…

2. How do you make a living?
I’ve had three jobs in New York so far. Right now I work for an Austrian company in Midtown: In the Empire State Building. Yeah – it IS actually pretty awesome to be greeted by guards every day but in the end, a job is just a job, no matter where you work. Before this, I was employed by a non-for-profit organization on the other side of Midtown. I was working there for an hourly pay and I had never been as poor as during that one year I was employed with them. My very first job was a two month stint as a waitress in the Lower East Side. After figuring that this was indeed not what I had come to New York for, I decided to look for more serious employment (which I eventually found).

3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
My communication with my parents and also friends went down after a year of being here. I talk to my parents maybe once a month over Skype, if even. My friends re-connect via social networking sites, e-mails, or when they read my blog. It may sound sad, but you actually get used to it once you immerse in your busy life in the City.

4. What’s your favorite thing about being an expat in New York City?
The City. The opportunities you have here, and which you would have nowhere else. Being able to walk down the street in PJ’s and not being looked at like a freak. Dressing up after work just to hit up happy hour in the City. Brunch on the weekends. The free things you can do every single day, no matter what the weather is.

5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in New York City?
Healthcare, quality of life in the sense of healthy food at a reasonable price, and not knowing if your milk and eggs truly don’t come from cows that had hormones injected. The competition between everything and everyone.

6. What do you miss most?
My friends and the experiences we shared. The food and the fresh air. A pretty normal life in suburban Germany with my own car and places to be at (relatives, friends and so on).

7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
I met my first good friend because she was my roommate. Other people I met at work or at random concerts in Central Park. New York is pretty straightforward about who she wants you to meet and who not, so I am not too worried about how my social life develops.

8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
I found it hard to adapt to the level of rudeness New Yorkers show towards you in the city. It draws apart at times. And I have a problem with the racism that still separates blacks and whites and will probably not be resolved in the near future. I am also repulsed at times at the social gap in between city parts and how uncaring people trample upon each other.

9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
That everything in New York is glamorous, exciting, the core of the world, and therefore will bring happiness.

10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
It depends. Apartments and housing are definitely higher in New York (they are cheaper in other parts in the US). Costs for healthy food are higher here. It makes me want to re-evaluate if it is even worth buying the good cheese/groceries/veggies or to just go with the second-best option (buying produce of unknown origin). Half of my paycheck goes to my apartment in a good area in Brooklyn. Then I spend about three times as much on groceries I could buy at an inexpensive price in Germany. I have changed my eating habits in the way that I only buy the things I really need and not because of luxury.

11. What advice would you give other expats?
To explore New York to the fullest and not get blinded by its so-called glamorous sides, events, and anything that attracted them because of a famous TV show.

Most Europeans who come here do so through their own protected agency or university. They are put in nice housing in safe areas and don’t have to worry about walking past people in the ghetto or getting to know folks from cultures they never expected to meet. Manhattan is not all New York has to offer. I highly advise newcomers to seek out all parts of this city (yes, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx …) and to see how the socially disadvantaged live to get a better picture of how the gap between rich and poor developed in this country. And to see how beautiful New York can be even aside from its treacherous glamour!

I also advise to not compare this city to Europe or their home country. You cannot compare a dime to a penny!

12. When and why did you start your blog?
My original intent was to keep in touch with family and friends from overseas (Germany). I was honestly sick and tired of writing one e-mail after another and always discussing the same events, topics, or occurrences. It didn’t really work out, as now everyone BUT my friends reads my blog, and most of these people I have never met in my life. I started the blog last May, so a good year after I had been in New York already. However, I also wanted to use it as a credential in case I was seeking writing gigs (which it did help me in getting my first journalism job).

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hallo, ich bin Laura aus dem Südwesten Deutschlands. Vor 2 Jahren habe ich mir einen lang-gehegten Traum erfüllt: Ich bin spontan nach New York gezogen und habe jeden Tag soweit genossen!

1. Warum bist du ins Ausland umgezogen?
Eigentlich wollte ich einen „kurze“ Studienauszeit von einem halben Jahr bis maximum einem Jahr machen. Aus dieser Auszeit wurde dann schnell etwas mehr und nun bin ich schon 2 Jahre hier im Big Apple. Es ist eine Frage der Zeit wann ich mein Masterstudium in Psychologie in Europa wiederaufnehme.

2. Woher beziehst du dein Einkommen?
Ich habe drei verschiedene Jobs in New York gehabt. Zuerst musste ich mich 2 Monate als Kellnerin in der Lower East Side durchschlagen – kein Studenlohn und nur Trinkgeld, das wurde mir einfach zu unsicher nach 2 Monaten. Dann arbeitete ich für einen Hungerlohn ein ganzes Jahr lang bei einer Wohltätigkeitsorganisation in Midtown. Die Erfarhrung dort war sehr lehrreich aber chronisch unterbezahlt. Zuletzt habe ich ein Jobangebot bei einer österreichischen Firma angenommen: gutes Gehalt und tolle Aussicht. Sie ist nämlich im, tada, Empire State Building! Und somit bin ich dem amerikanischen Traum schon ein gutes Stück nähergerrückt.

3. Wie oft kommunizierst du mit deiner Familie und mit deinen Freunden, die noch in Deutschland wohnen? Und wie (Skype, Facebook, usw… )?

Nach einem Jahr nahm die Kommunikation sehr ab – von beiden Seiten, wie ich zugeben muss. Momentan telefoniere ich vielleicht einmal im Monat mit den Eltern, wenn überhaupt. Die Freunde halte ich durch Facebook, E-mails, und meinen Blog auf dem Laufenden.

4. Was liebst du am meisten an New York?

Die Unaghängigkeit, mit der ich mir hier ein neues Leben erschaffen konnte ohne an alte Werte oder Vorstellungen gebunden zu sein. Das Abenteuer, mit dem ich die Straßen gemeistert habe. Die Neugier auf den Rest der Welt, den diese Stadt und sämtliche Bekanntschaften in mir geweckt haben.

5. Was ärgert dich am meisten an New York?
Die Arroganz mancher Leute, die sich für was Besseres halten aufgrund ihres Einkommens, ihrer Hautfarbe, oder ihrer Herkunft. Die Scheinheiligkeit, die dies mit sich bringt. Die traurige Erkenntnis, dass Rassentrennung und Diskrimierung immer noch ein großes, unterschwelliges Thema hier sind.

6. Was fehlt dir am meisten?

Die gute Lebensqualität, für die man hier ein halbes Vermögen ausgeben muss um nur ansatzweise an den europäischen Standard heranzukommen. Krankenkasse, gutes (biologisches) Essen – das alles ist in Deutschland wesentlich geschickter gehandhabt und kostet nur einen Bruchteil von dem was man hier hinblättern muss.

7. Was hast du getan, um neue Leute zu treffen und dich in dein neues Zuhause zu integrieren?
Ich habe mir eine WG gesucht, in der ich meine erste gute Freundin getroffen habe. Dann natürlich durch die Arbeit. Durch einen anderen deutschen Bekannten. Durch spontane Bekanntschaften bei Konzerten im Central Park. New York hat ihre ganz eigene Art dir verständlich zu machen, dass alle neuen Freundschaften entstehen, wie und wann SIE es möchte. Daher fühle ich mich gut aufgehoben.

8. Welche Gewohnheit findest du am seltsamsten in deiner Wahlheimat?
Die Unhöflichkeit, mit der man einfach so aus der U-Bahn geschubst wird und dann die unerwartete Freundlichkeit, die einem auf einmal auf der Straße von einem Fremden entgegengebracht wird. New York ist immer eine Überraschung wert!

9. Was ist ein Mythos über deine Wahlheimat?

Das alles an New York pompös ist mit einer tollen Portion Glamour. Nein, nein, und nochmals nein!

10. Welchen Rat würdest du anderen Expats geben
?
Mit offenen Augen durch diese Stadt zu wandern. Sich auch mal in die Ghettos zu wagen und sich anzuschauen, wie die Fußabtreter der Reichen leben um ein repräsentatives New York zu sehen. Nicht nur in Manhattan bleiben, sondern sich alle fünf Boroughs anzusehen und sich einen Gesamteindruck zu schaffen. Mal von den Touristenpfaden abschweifen, denn die Stadt hat soviel mehr zu bieten.

11. Wann und warum hast du dein Blog begonnen?
Etwas mehr als ein Jahr nachdem ich hergekommen bin, habe ich mir endlich einen Ruck gegeben und angefangen, meine Erlebnisse, Reisen, und Eindrücke von dieser Stadt mit anderen zu teilen. Ursprünglich war er für Familie und Freunde gedacht, damit ich mich nicht todschreibe an den ganzen E-mails, die eh alle gleich aussahen. Das hat dann aber nicht ganz so geklappt wie ich es geplant habe.

12. Wie ist dein Blog nutzbringend?

Ich mag es, zurückzublättern und zu sehen, wie ich das Ganze vor einem Jahr betrachtet habe, welche Träume ich gehegt habe, und wie es nun weitergehen soll. Viele Leute, die über den Blog gestolpert sind, finden die Restaurant-Tips ganz praktisch. Mittlerweile habe ich sogar regelmäßige Leser, die mit Spannung verfolgen, was mir als nächstes in New York geschieht. Ausserdem habe ich durch diesen Blog meinen ersten Jouranlistenjob bekommen bei einer Brooklyn-Zeitschrift, das war schon sehr praktisch und lehrreich.

Germany – The Diversity of this Country is Highly Underestimated

As you can tell from my last few posts, Germany is a pretty diverse country. It always astounds me how many different cultures live together and how they manage to do so. The highest percentage of immigrants most likely comes from, tada, Turkey. As far as statistics go, there are more than 1.5 million citizens of Turkish descent living in Germany right now. I once heard that Berlin and Cologne are the cities with the highest Turkish population outside of Turkey. And wohaaa, while researching into this matter, I also found that the Turks are actually DECREASING in this country, even though it does not feel that way. Apparently they are making their way back to their home country (where economy and tourism is getting better and better).

I am always quite blown away as soon as I get off the plane in FRA and meet a big bunch of Turkish guys/ adolescents just standing around. Being in a different country for so long has almost made me forget how many of these actually live in Deutschland. It also makes me want to buy the food I have ever since desperately looked for but never found: Their Döner! Americans might call it Kebab, even though a Kebab is what Germans name the restaurant at which the Turkish specialty is served. Döners are very tasty and made differently than they actually are in Turkey – the land they originally come from. It turns out that Turkish immigrants have invented their own little recipe as to how compose this type of food and have added their own little variety of spices. One thing that can never be amiss: the sauce! A white sauce that contains a ton of garlic but which makes this dish so tasty. The meat itself comes from lambs and is mouthwatering, too, of course. I always go with the vegetarian option, so I am sticking to defining the sauce as the best ingredient. And this sauce is not Zaziki sauce, by the way. That’s for Greek food, not Turkish!

A Döner has been a part of my life ever since I used to get it during lunch breaks in high school and it is one of the first things I try to eat while spending time back home. It is just too hard to find this type of food abroad. And yes, I have tried several spots throughout Brooklyn but have always been severely disappointed (wrong sauce). So a Döner proved to be a good midnight snack during the bachelorette party in Cologne –a good city to try out this Turkish specialty. Another great choice you have is to order a Turkish pizza, also known as Lahmacun. Lahmacun is pita bread that contains onions, tomatoes, and beef on top of the bread, and is traditionally baked in the oven.

A Doener with meat

Now, another high immigration group are the Russians in Germany. And they are actually higher than the Turks, with a good 6 million people speaking this language in our country. However, it is hard to specifically call them just Russians, as a good amount of them are an in-between-group: They are neither Russian nor German but so-called Russian-Germans. These Russian-Germans are originally Germans who have emigrated to Russia a century back. After the wall came tumbling down, they decided to go back to Germany in order to pursue a better standard of living and education than in the old Soviet Union. And here is where it gets tricky: They are not accepted as German in Germany and they are not accepted as Russian in Russia. They compose their own cultural group, which is a mix between both countries and traditions. Most speak Russian. They learn German but they still pronounce it with a heavy Eastern-European accent. I went to one of those few integration high schools in Germany. Integration in the sense that Russian-Germans are being integrated into the German system. So my school was half German and half, well, Russian-German. My class consisted of 45 hardcore farmer kids from the German country side and 45 Russian folks who stayed at a boarding home and travelled to their families every other weekend (usually they were one to two hours away by car).
A friend once told me that our Russians are more integrated than the Russians in, say, Brighton Beach (read more here) but that they have been able to preserve their culture a lot better than Russians in the US. That’s a great compliment for our Easter-Europeans and I hope they know it!

And another group of cultures worth mentioning are the Italians. Following Argentina, the second highest number of Italians live in Germany (aside from Italy themselves). They compose the oldest group of immigrants living in this country. All I know of Italians living in Deutschland is the good amount of pizza restaurants they opened up. Their gourmet pizza and pasta specialties make out for some delicious teenage memories. I also started working for an Italian guy as an adolescent in a, you guessed it, pizza place. He was not very nice and I left the location after a weekend. So much to good memories.

Every time I hear a different language spoken in Germany, I am reminded at how diverse this country is. I am also reminded at how much less difficulty a German has when accepting a different culture and its traditions than the standard American does (as far as I have been able to tell). It is truly the country where black and white can walk the streets together without being stared at, cursed at, or where it is seen as something unusual to be of different nationalities. So yes, sometimes it does want to make me vomit when I see at how blindly racist people are in the country that is supposed to embrace the high diversity it has (America) and how they hate each other for what one another does not have. Be it education, skin color, or opportunity – its’ time to get it straight, USA!

One Russian-Italian Wedding (II)

After a group picture outside, it was time to celebrate the wedding. The couple’s family had organized a little after-party in the ballroom of a small village close-by. For this type of region, these rooms are common to celebrate a wedding, birthday, or other bigger parties in. Since neither the bride nor the groom could have provided enough space at their homes, they decided to go with this option. Other times you see the event take place in a ballroom of a hotel.

A catering group provided the necessary food which was served pretty soon after the guests showed up. First a few appetizers. Then a speech by the bride and groom thanking everyone for showing up and wishing an eventful rest of the day. Meanwhile, we are talking about 12:00 PM noontime, there is still plenty of time for games, dances, and fun. A toast to everyone. A few glasses of champagne are flowing. Then the big meal starts: Tasteful salmon and beef dishes combined with thick veggie layers. All flavored in just the right way and served in juicy sauces.

After a small interlude of eating, it’s time for the first game. Well, first the bride’s mother has to come up with a toast. She hands another Russian girl a script. Together they perform on stage. The girl first reads it down in Russian. Half of the guests laughs and oohs and aaahs. Then the mother recites it in German so that the other half of the guests can understand it. It is a traditional Russian poem with funny anecdotes about a husband who has to accept certain things about his wife (such as he shall not become angry with her in case she spends half of his income on nice tights).

Then my friends start searching for a bunch of party guests who want to pose a question on stage. The bride and groom are asked to be seated in a chair opposing each other. They are both equipped with a sign in her name and a sign in his name. Whenever a question applies to one of them, they are supposed to hold up the right sign. The guests ask questions such as “who made the first move when they first met in their favorite dance club” or “who utilizes their gym membership more often.” 12 different guests ask each of those 12 different questions. Surprisingly to us, the bride and groom get almost all of the questions right, meaning they apply the answer to only one person. Most of the time it is his name held up in the air. Whenever this tide is reached, the guest who asked the question has to throw some coins into the piggy bank.

People are starting to open up the vodka bottles which were nicely placed on the tables. All of a sudden the Russian table screams “Vojlra, vojlra!” which means “Kiss!” in English (native Russian speakers – please correct me!). The bride and groom fall into a ten second long kiss, as the Russians are counting down from ten on. Then they can finally let each other go. Ten minutes later the same bizarre scenario is repeated. And throughout the entire day and evening.

Time for our next game: A Russian tradition during which the bride’s shoe is being stolen by gypsies and therefore has to be won back. The gypsies are dressed up wedding guests who enter the room, swaying from side to side and holding a few bottles of vodka in their hands. Every guest is being forced to take a shot of the clear stuff and to pay a few coins for this shot. Only if the piggy bank carries enough money in it, can the shoe be released to the bride. The gypsies manage to get a total of €150 for the shoe, which equals about $200. Not bad for those 50 something remaining guests, eh?

These are just a few of a total of 10 games played throughout the day. In the afternoon the groom and bride become serious again and stand motionless next to each other. A waltz is sounded and they start their first dance as a couple. Soon thereafter the bride’s mother and father join in.

Then everyone is being invited for a photo session outside. We are still in April, which means Germany is cold. It can still have winter temperatures, but luckily the 7th was not too bad. Only a jacket was required, no mittens and scarfs. Everyone is thrilled to be a part of different groups that are shot with the couple. Some try to hide in the crowd. The children are excited as a playground is close by. This is also where we shot a few good portraits after the guests were back inside.

It’s time for a sweet break, so a few cakes and chocolates are served with coffee. Not yet a big wedding cake, and some are wondering what is up with that. All of a sudden a lot of wild dancing is happening on stage. The bride and groom are supposed to pick up coins that the relatives have dropped in fake hay. Everyone is trying to make their collection of the coins as hard as possible and steals some cents here and there only to throw them back on the ground. I guess another Russian tradition?

After this the flower bouquet is thrown. It lands right in my friend’s hands, who “just happened to be there,” as she likes to put it. Since she has neither a boyfriend nor any intentions on marrying soon, she thinks it a funny piece of coincidence that she caught it. The evening goes on. A game worth mentioning is something my friends and I have come up with. I believe it could have been very very good if only the guests had not been so drunk at 9 o’clock at night. Sigh. It is about painting pictures with people. Such as a girl who stands on a chair and has to extend her arms in front of her. This picture is called the long drought. In German, the word drought can mean either someone who is tall and thin or a fruitless period of time. Unfortunately, no one was willing to participate and the guests who eventually did were either too drunk to sit for long or they ruined the entire game. Fail, I guess! Next time it will be played earlier.

The game no one was capable of understanding...!

And now to the cake: At 10 PM, when some guests have already left, a gorgeous cake is being wheeled in by the bride’s family. It has three different flavors and is decorated by a bird. Supposedly another Russian tradition is to serve the cake at the end of the day and not, as in other cultures, after the main course.

And the wedding ends with one final ceremony: A circle of candles is being arranged in the middle of the room. The bride is seated in between it. Her mother takes of her veil while sad music is being played. The female guests are slowly walking around the outside of the circle (and trying to not get burned). This is the mother who is letting her daughter go and giving her up for the wife she now is.

So as you can tell, the wedding was a success for everyone. It was fun, it was serious, it was sad, it was goofy and it was definitely anything but boring. And I don’t know which impressions I like to keep most: My friend helplessly being swirled around by an old Russian guy. My other friend struggling to catch the audience’s attention during the game. Whichever one, they both make for two great memories of a truly amazing day!

The End!

One Russian-Italian Wedding (I)

The main reason for my trip back home was not spending time with my family in the countryside. It also was not seeing my friends back in Heidelberg. Although I gladly did both.

The main reason for this trip was a wedding from my two close friends. After seven wicked years of being together they finally decided to tie the knot and became engaged last September. And no, they are not one of those couples who are engaged for five years straight. They are one of those couples who know fairly well what they want. So they planned on having their ceremony pretty timely and the date was set for April 7, 2012. Therefore, I decided to combine a few purposeful visits and other necessities in one and to book my flight back to Deutschland in spring of this year.

An interesting fact about this wedding is that SHE is originally from Russia, although whereabouts I do not know. She claims it is five hours from Moscow and not worth knowing the name of the town. HE is fully Italian, with both of his parents having immigrated to Germany in the late 70ies. He was born in Germany but grew up bilingual and still has a big Italian family in the center of Bella Italia. This mix of Russian and Italian being wed in Germany definitely made for a quite unusual ceremony – not all too common for us folks, either.

After our bachelorette party (see more here) and some other preparations the week before the Big Day, my friends and I excitedly packed our utensils together and made our way to the official wedding ceremony held in a small town in the middle of the Eifel.

In Germany, you have two different types of weddings: One is held at the civil registry’s office. The other is held at a church. Couples can choose to either do both or only one. The one at the registrar’s office is required in this country, so it is of utmost importance to have this one done first. Sometimes, lovers choose to first go with the official one and then go with the church wedding two months later. Other times, spouses-to-be follow up on these two dates fairly fast, such as only a few days or weeks apart.

In my friends’ case, they decided to go with the official ceremony first and have not yet planned when they want to be wed in a church. I assume that fiscal reasons have played a big role in their decision-making – she is a student and he is the only breadwinner of the family. For whatever reasons – they were planning on a rather small and intimate party on their big day. Their close friends and family were the only ones invited. All in all, the group still composed a merry 60 people – so not as small as they had originally intended.

Everyone met in front of the civil registry at 10:30AM on Easter Saturday (you know, the Saturday before Easter Sunday but after Good Friday). The couple was invited in first, as they still had to discuss certain details with the registrar. Questions such as who keeps whose name and who hands over the rings are probably usual for this type of occasion. Then we were invited to join the couple in the room it was all scheduled to take place. Since they only had a mere 40 seats, some people stayed outside and watched the ceremony unfold. I had a good view, as I was supposed to take some good shots, and was therefore located right behind the registrar. She had already jokingly told me that as long as I do not sit on her lap she does not care what I do and how I shoot. I promised that would not be of necessity and was able to keep my promise throughout the following half hour.

The groom’s best man is usually the person to hand over the rings. But in this case, the registrar invited a small 8-year-old girl to do the honors (for whatever reason I do not know, maybe she wanted to include everyone in the room). So the girl sat next to the groom and held the rings while the standard questions where being asked. After accepting each other as husband and wife, they both kissed. Then the little girl handed them the rings and they both put them on each other’s hands. Then, the newly-weds were invited up front where they had to sign a sheet together with their best man and maid of honor. This sheet symbolizes the day they both were married and it is handed to a couple together with a leather portfolio. Other witnesses and guests traditionally sign the sheet, which the couple gets to keep as a record.

Lots of hugging and kissing happened hereafter. The bride and groom were congratulated by each guest individually, starting with their family and ending with their friends.

[For more pictures on the Wedding, go to A Picture Every Day: A Wedding – The Official Pictures]

Time Spent Up North

Between all the get-togethers and the wedding, I had one full day at my grandparents’ house to catch up with stories unheard of in the last 24 months. I hadn’t seen them once ever since I left for New York. So two full years had indeed passed until I got to visit them in their home up north. They live a good 4 ½ hours from us – depending on car and autobahn traffic. I was fascinated by the places we drove by. Cologne, for one, and its well-known telecommunications tower Colonius. Then the industrial area of Germany called the Ruhrgebiet. More of my relatives actually live here, but we didn’t have time to stop by and say hello.

The further up north you drive, the flatter the land becomes and the greener it seems. We drove close to the Dutch border, as my grand-parents live less than an hour from it. It is also here that I passed signs to a water-castle and indications pointing out that the prairies used to be duff. Gloomy moorlands that turned into wonderful green grass over the course of centuries. I can imagine pictures from my old history book in which people were bent over sticks and picked duff to make a living.

The time spent at the house was a trip back into the past. My grandfather had stacks and stacks of old pictures from the 19th and 20iest century. We weeded through them and I found an interesting photograph from 1911 (estimated time), supposedly an aunt of my grandfather’s mother. Isn’t she beautiful?

I can basically see how an old movie would convey the way of living way back then, before both wars and before technology came around. I sometimes contemplate how life had been on both continents – how it had been similar and how it had differed.

In our quest to create an old family tree we ran across many more of these. I really hope that my mother one day completes her book on her father’s side of the family and I hope her good intentions will not be forgotten in the depths of procrastination…

During the talks about old times and life in Deutschland during a difficult era, it sorta hit me. Being apart from my country for so long has made me forget the obvious. Experiencing firsthand how Germans are still viewed among foreigners and also among Jews has sometimes made me feel rather ashamed of my heritage than proud of my country. But we cannot be misled by false thoughts and by misrepresented views of small-minded people or folks who have never left their own country to get to know other cultures. And life back then was not how life is right now. Most of my generation will never be able to comprehend the mentalities, the personalities, and the motives of the people that have lived 100 years ago. So judging these events from a perspective of today will always be shadowed by the obstacle of time and change.
I am just glad I never had to experience a war up front and that most of my family is healthy to a point I don’t have to worry about them. And that is the most important thing you can hope for in life.

Aside from an old-school-evening filled with memories, we also ate splendid food and drank good wine. My grandmother still cooks wonderfully well, even at a high age of 77. Her green bean salad is one of my favorites. Her cake is also indescribable. I told her that she could open up a cake shop in New York and make a lot of money off of her cheese cake and Black Forest Tart. She just laughed and probably thought I was joking. Maybe one day I will do it for her!

Despite a short time planned from the start, those 24 hours went by way too fast. I hope to see them sometime soon. Most likely back at home, in good old Germany!