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8 entries from October 2007

A poor grasp of the penis, if you ask me.

I've already observed that when an English-speaker listens to German, it sounds all warm and squishy and arousing. That feeling disappears when you actually try to converse on the warm, squishy topic auf Deutsch . Then you just get confused. Lucky I found the Alternative German Dictionary.

Testicles are reasonably straightforward. We call them balls, the Germans call them eggs. Unless some language refers to them as sugared almonds (Italian, maybe?), I guess German is the most accurate.

The penis poses a challenge to the German tongue. We often call it a cock—probably because, as Andrew Dice Clay observed, it wakes up half an hour before you do. But the common German word for the penis is a schwantz, semantically related to the word for tail.

Now, liebschen, that’s just plain ass-about. Obviously, the Germans must have a very poor grasp of anatomy, or at least certain bits of it.

The Yiddish form of German, of course, keeps things in much better perspective. The American expression "schmuck" is, in fact, the Yiddish word for the penis. The language derived it from the hochdeutsch word for jewellery or ornament.

If we put these together into a full suite of male genitalia, an Anglophone man may refer to it as his equipment. But your average Herr an den Strasse will call them the Geschlechtsteile, or, literally, dynasty parts.

(Many men give their penis a name. From now on, mine will be Alexis.)

OK, we might call our bits the family jewels, but we don’t get anywhere close to making them instruments of destiny.

In the act itself, the two languages resemble each other at the root. Bonk, fuck, bumsen, ficken—the words all relate to bumping, banging, colliding. The most common way to refer to masturbation, interestingly, is to go five against one.

The Austrians refer to the sex act a more delicately. A young couple may play the violin. Or they may enjoy a schnacksel, which means a little chat.

Beyond all this, the Germans talk of sex by referring to animals. Rabbits, oxen, the horniness of apes, und so wieder. Children say that boys have snails between their legs. (Hmmm...I don't recall antennae on mine.)

By contrast, English often enlists a gentleman's name to refer to vulgar acts and objects. Think of Dick, Roger, Willy, Percy and John Thomas. Perhaps we can invent a smutty way to use the name George W.

Sorry, must dash. I need to get on my bicycle (ride-wheel) for a trip to the late-night drugstore(druggery) to pick up a lighter (fire-trinket) and some peanut butter (earth-nut cream)

I have sourced the photographs in this post from public sources, and believe that I have used them fairly for quotation or illustration. Should any of the copyright owners of these photos wish me to remove them from the sit, I am happy to do so.

Teaching irony to the German police

Like all modern Germans, my car can't quite bring itself to utter the H-word.

This really happened. Sometimes, you get caught at exactly the wrong moment.

“Bitte, lassen Sie mich das Gerät leiser machen, so dass wir zusammenscprechen kann," I explain to the young police officer who pulled me over. That means please let me turn down the stereo so we can talk, and I was rather proud of myself for managing the sentence.

I needn't have felt so smug. The guy picked my accent, and replied in English, “Routine license check, sir. Your licence, please."

I handed him my New York license, he noted the number and expiry date, and reminded me that I only had six months grace to change to a German Führerschein.

I thought I would be on my way. But he had one more question.

"That music you were playing…what is it?"

"It’s the soundtrack to a Broadway Show…The Producers. " One of the few gay stereotypes I uphold is a fondness for musical theatre.

"And that song…How does it sound again?" I turned up the volume. Sure enough, we had just reached the chorus of the famous Springtime for Hitler.

"Springtime?" he asked?

"Fruhjahr," I replied.

"So this is a happy song about Hitler?" he noted, testily.

"Um, kinda. Yeah. It’s supposed to sound like it. But it’s not serious."

"I don’t understand."

“It’s ironic.” I searched my brain for the German word for irony. I’m sure there is one. (No, I just checked Leo, there isn't one. They borrow from the French.)

I recall that one of my cultural acclimatization books scorned the notion that Germans have no sense of humour. Germans have a great sense of humour, they claimed. It’s just that they don’t believe a sense of humour is necessary for communication.

“You see the show is about a broadway producer who needs to put on the worst show in the world as part of a scam that…” as the words came out of my mouth, I thought better of it.

I remember trying to explain the plot of The Producers to Master Right as we sat in the theatre waiting for the curtain. It’s hard enough to understand for a native speaker, let alone for the English-challenged. I never managed, so he just had to laugh at the gay bits and the pretzels.

(By the way, if you don’t know the plot of The Producers, please surrender your Gay Card to the authorities at once.)

“…um, it’s the same guy who made Blazing Saddles.” Change of tack. The Germans are suckers for the wild west. “Only this time the bad guys are Nazis instead of, um, bad guys.”

“Oh,” he said blankly. “Just be careful when you play it loud with the windows down. There’s a law against broadcasting neo-Nazi propaganda."

"It's OK, I guess you don't look like a Nazi." he added.

Beer is Hell

There's a special kind of Hell. A Hell which preys on your mind and messes with your brain. A Hell in which everything is bright, sharp and clear. In Munich, I practically swim in such a Hell.

Of course, hell is exactly that: the German word for bright or clear. The estate agent said my apartment was hell. People who sit through my PowerPoint presentations proclaim them, loudly, to be hell. Over my first few months in Germany, I've had day upon day of pure, sheer, constant hell.

Mostly, though, we apply this all-too-fitting word to beer. Helles Bier is the most popular Bavarian brew, outselling dunkel (dark), and hefe-weiß (yeast-wheat) by a considerable margin. In the most profound way, Munich is a hell of a town.

Given the high Nebenkosten (water rates), beer is actually cheaper than water. If I were on Bavarian food stamps, I'd make Helles my staple source of nourishment.

"We drink always Helles," said Zero, the office fixer, "because you can't get drunk on it."

"The stuff is 5% alcohol. Of course you can get drunk on it..." I noted.

"Impossible!" he countered. "You would need to drink so much of it, you'd exschplode!"

Briefing for a Descent into Helles*

Over the coming weeks, many would come in clear danger of explosion, tortured by their own self-inflicted hell. The drunkest city on the planet would reach a tipsy zenith. Oktoberfest.

Bavarian Beer Purity Laws set the alcohol content of festival beer at 6%, so the forces that fuel hell grow strong.

As Oktoberfest drew close, a total of six adult guests from loomed from abroad, all expecting a berth in my modest apartment. Strangely, none drank beer, but that didn't blunt their resove.

Further, my clients from the Large German Car Maker that Shall Remain Nameless, fell over themselves to schedule meetings in Munich that fortnight, rather than making us travel to Stuttgart as usual.

Even without these freeloaders, hell was inescapable. My office faces Theresienhöhe, which forms the western border of the Wies'n (meadow) on which the festival is held.

Of course, when I say meadow, I refer to a ghastly asphalt lot the size of five football fields, vacant save for these three weeks in autumn. That's when 40% of the annual beer production of Bavaria is consumed, along with half a million BBQ chickens, 88 spit roasted oxen, four million pretzels, and a relatively modest 200,000 pairs of sausages. Seven million visitors would drink, eat, stagger, flirt, snog, puke and/or queue for the lav.

I would visit a total of three times. It was hell. Approximmately eight litres of it, in total.

To be continued...

* With apologies to freshly-minted Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.

Far Out

Where is he gay today? London.
I was in my thirties when I came out. No, scratch that. I was in my thirties when I stopped living in denial. Afterwards, coming out was simply a matter of course.

Rather, it was a matter of a course, since I did a course in it.

So National Coming Out Day poses a challenge. There's nobody left.

But as the HRC reminds us, the simple act of being public about one's homosexuality is one of the most important contributions a gay man or woman can make to the cause. The more homophobes see the sheer number of gay people living lives of dignity and purpose, the less tenable their hatred becomes.

Besides, it's good for the soul. To paraphrase an Al-anon slogan, healthy people have privacy, unhealthy people keep secrets.

Sharing something personal about yourself to a stranger shows that you're secure and confident. Generous of spirit, even.

But sharing too much, in the wrong place...well, that just turns kinda icky. The literature refers to it as inappropriate intimacy. If you want to come out, don't be tacky about it. You'll make people think that all homos are flakes.

The annual outing.

October 11 dawns--a Thursday--and I'm determined to out myself, gracefully, at least once on principle.

Morning in the office. Not much chance here. Everyone knows my story.

I toy with coming out to the lady in the bakery, but ditch the idea. First, I would need to do it in German. Second, I'm not sure how I would raise the subject. Remark that I was buying an extra steudel for my boyfriend? (A lie, of course. He's in Tokyo) Perhaps a risque observation about a suggestively shaped butter bretzel? Umm...no.

I flew to London that evening. The lady on my left slept through the whole flight, hence no opportunity for a quick chat about our loved ones, as ya do. The guy on my right Blackberried dangerously just before takeoff, so I snubbed him on principle. And since Lufthansa, like all modern airlines, has rationed in-flight service, the flight attendant had little spare time for chit-chat.

We landed at London City Airport (just as crowded as Heathrow, uncomfortable, and under-serviced, but the queues are shorter). I hopped in a cab, with a female cab driver--unusual for London. If I was going to come out to anyone today, it would have to be her.

Subtlety is the key.

A Jeep Cherokee cut us off in traffic (we're a little nervous about erratic Jeeps in the UK these days) and my driver remarked that some male motorists give female cabbies a hard time. We started to chat.

"As a female, how did you find studying The Knowledge?" I asked. "They say that men and women work out directions differently in their heads. And the part of the brain that deals with making mental maps, grows larger in London cab drivers."

"Come to think of it," she replied, "when I trained for my Knowledge, there was a notice in the tea room asking if anyone was willing to have their brains scanned before and after. But I was already too far along and I'd begun to think differently."

"Really? How?"

"Rather than just learning a sequence of left and right, like I did before with directions, it becomes a bit like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle."

"Funny you should mention the series of left and right. When I lived in Japan, that's the way most people learn directions. My boyfriend is Japanese, and he tells me that's because Westerners are hunters and gatherers, whereas Asians are fishermen and farmers. So they never developed the visual and spatial acuteness that we did. As many as 70% of Japanese adults are nearsighted. "

"Does he have trouble with left and right?" she asked. "I started studying The Knowledge, and though I know me left from me right, I began to get them mixed up. If you're navigating by the map in your head, it's always facing north, naturally. And though I'm always going in the right direction, I can never put the words right or left to a turn because it's not right or left on my map in me 'ead."

"I mix up left and right in traffic, too. But I think that it's because I learned to drive in Australia, and have lived in left-hook countries like Germany and the US of late. When the car navi says to turn right, I automatically think of a cross-traffic turn and get in the centre lane. Which in Germany, of course, is the left. Or maybe, it's just because I'm gay. We have different brains, you know."

She smiled. "Yes, that's pretty much an excuse for everything nowadays. Do you need a receipt?"

The Albert Memorial in Hyde Park.
We all know why he's sitting with his legs apart, don't we?

Financial Theocracy

"Christian Folk! Will you let the Spartacists (Communists) destroy your church? Give your answer on election day! The Bavarian People's Party" (1919) The BVP is a precursor to the modern Christian Democrats. Hat tip to Religionskritik.

When applying for my resident's permit (catchily called a Niederlssungserlaubnis), my friends coached me on the form.

"When they ask your religion, make sure you answer none," said Zero, our office fixer. "That way, you don't pay the Kirchsteuer."

"Kirchsteuer? You mean there's a church tax?"

I was shocked to learn that when you're baptised, your church sends a record to the government. They out you as a believer, and when you earn your first buck, the government extracts the church's tithe.

They also track who takes the sacraments. The church reports brides, grooms, commmunicants and the recently deceased to the taxman, to make sure no-one basks in god's grace without coughing up.

Many pious skinflints declare themselves atheists to dodge the collection plate, but still insist on last rites and a resting place in consecrated ground. A bizarre spin on Pascal's wager, no?

Now, here's my primitive understanding of economics. Governments tax things they want to discourage, like smoking or using your car too much. Doesn't seem to have worked in Bavaria.

With its dedication to la dolce vita, many joke that Munich is the northernmost city in Italy. On the Kirchsteuer, they may be right. Italy's two national pastimes are Catholicism and tax evasion, are they not?

This cosy arrangement between church and state doesn't offend my atheist principles as much as, say, the cosy arrangement between the fundies and the Republicans.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is the most overtly religious German political party, and is in the political ascendancy. Chancellor Angela Merkel is a member.

The CDU states clearly in its proposed charter of principles that it is a party of the political centre. This, they argue, means following the Christian principles of "man and his responsibility to god."

But they don't sound very churchy, what with their talk of freedom, gender equality, and acknowledgement that same sex partnerships "are based on values that are fundamental to our society". Even their hat-tip to opposing abortion speaks of reducing the number of procedures, not their re-criminalisation.

Sounds pretty much like my atheist principles, actually.

I suspect that those of us who have grown up in the New World underestimate the role of religion in culture. After all, the last two millennia of European history, are pretty much a history of the church. The authority of soverigns was traced back to god; monarchies and the clergy marched in synch.

The poster above, a relic of the time after WWI when many European monarchies were smashed, holds interest for two reasons.

First, the subliminal association of homoeroticism with destruction and chaos. A new spin on an old kink, maybe?

Second, the fact that most Europeans were happy enough to turf their monarchies--bunch of twats that they were--but less happy to polish the flip-side of the coin and ditch their faith. That would be abandoning history.

Frankly, I have more patience for close ties between church and state when this is based on culture, rather than dogma. And vastly prefer it to the phony separation of church and state maintained by the current American theocracy.

All of this makes the Nike ad below rather appropriate. It's painted on a scaffold which hides repairs to Munich's famous Theatinerkirche. The poster celebrates a local hero from one of Munich's soccer teams. Emblazoned across the front of Munich's grandest House of God are the words Bavaria has a king again.