September 25, 2008


Leni’s Kindergarten teacher reported that Leni ran up to her excitedly when chicken was served at lunch and yelled ‘Ficken! Ficken! Ficken!’, which is the equivalent of the F-word here.

The Tengelmann Challenge

Grocery shopping in Germany is not like shopping at, say, Whole Foods or even Safeway in the US. For one thing, German stores have limited opening hours and are never open on Sunday. However, this - claim shop people who don't have to work on Sunday - is intended to encourage more time for family and friends. The selection of goods is also more limited, which requires more work on your part, such as you have to de-stone your Kalamata olives, wash your lettuce and cut your feta cheese into small squares to make a Greek salad. This requires some open-mindedness (just because a country doesn't have pre-washed lettuce doesn't mean it's a bad place), but the basic ingredients are available so it isn’t an insurmountable challenge.

The most striking difference is the level of service. In the US someone puts your groceries into bags as they are being rung up, which means that two whole people (and sometimes three) are helping you navigate the check out process. Sometimes you even get an offer of help to the car.

Tengelmann is one of the better (read ‘more expensive’) German grocery stores that has a few luxury items like sardine-filled olives and real cheddar cheese, as well as an in-house bakery and butcher. The people who work at Tengelmann are unfriendly by American customer service standards, although it is possible to elicit a small amount of tepid approval from the cashier if you manage not to hold up the line. This isn’t easy because you have to both unload and bag your own groceries and inevitably you’ve just started bagging when the cashier starts ringing up the next person’s things. Oh, you have to have your own bags, too, and forgetting them creates lots of unpleasantness because the cashier keeps ringing things through and your stuff gets mixed up with the next person’s stuff while you’re trying to figure out how many items you can carry without a bag. As often as not the person behind you is an impatient elderly woman who pushes her cart at you while you’re struggling to pay and get out of there. Having small children with you does nothing to soften people toward you, either, like it would in Italy or most other places in the world, because Germans aren’t interested in extenuating circumstances.

However, I don’t want to paint an overly negative picture because small triumphs are possible, especially if the person in front of you is less competent than you are. Just the other day I dropped in at Tengelmann to pick up something I had forgotten and found myself behind a Japanese guy with his arms full of gummy bears and multi-vitamins. He didn’t speak German and actually tried to pay with a credit card! Fortunately he also had cash and was eventually sent on his way with his odd purchases. For my part, I couldn’t help feeling smug as I pulled out the shopping bag I had remembered to bring and the EC card which is accepted as legal tender at Tengelmann. The cashier awarded my preparedness with a small nod of approval and remarked, ‘Those idiotic foreigners! It seems like there are more of them every day.’

September 22, 2008

Greetings from Oktoberfest

On Saturday Ralf and I went to Oktoberfest. Ralf had been counting on a combination of floor heating and a perfect day at Oktoberfest to once more reconcile his Southern Californian wife (that’s me, for those of you who don’t know your Schroeder history) to living in chilly Germany and the day did not disappoint. Some friends of our were going to the opening ceremony, but since that involved being there by 8AM so that a friend of a friend could let us in (the friend being a plastic surgeon who is friends with one of our other friends, and his friend being someone who knows one of the bouncers at the Hacker Pschorr tent), then sitting around with no beer until noon when the mayor taps the keg, we elected to take our chances at lunch time. To be honest, we didn’t actually expect to get in a tent on opening day, having heard that it is nearly impossible unless you camp out the night before, but we figured we could at least find a beer and a roast chicken on the grounds and maybe ride the Ferris wheel.

We got there at around noon and made our way through the crowds to the Hacker Pschorr tent, whereupon Ralf called his best friend Tobi, who was already in the tent enjoying his first beer with the guy that knows the guy that knows the security guard. And as tenuous as this chain of relationships sounds, and as unlikely as it was that Tobi could actually hear what Ralf was saying on his cell phone, it somehow all worked out the way it does in the better sort of Eastern German movies. We made our way to the main entrance and hovered uncertainly at the edge of the sizable crowd hoping we looked cool enough to get in when suddenly the door opened and a stocky bald guy in a security uniform pointed his weapon at us. Figuring this could either be very good or very bad, we edged past him and there was Tobi grinning like he invented beer. Seeing that we weren’t under arrest or about to be shot, we followed him to a perfectly respectable table in good view of the band and began our assimilation with the rest of the tent. That is to say, we started drinking.

Oktoberfest is a logistical triumph. The same organizational genius that made horrific death camps possible in the forties has been channeled in the service of good instead of evil in order to serve more than ten thousand people beer in less than half an hour. And that’s just one tent, mind you. Wholesome looking girls with impossibly strong forearms run around with up to 12 full beer mugs at a time (and we’re talking about German Mass here, not those wimpy glasses American beer is served in), distribute them to their rightful owners and go back for more. They do this for hours, which puts the odd functional design or product demo into its proper perspective. And at the same time, these impressive Alpen gals make sure everyone pays and keep the Australians under control. This is not a job for the weak and the competition is fierce, providing an excellent example of the strategic role of compensation in attracting top talent - ten thousand drinkers, averaging about a mass every 30 minutes at 8 EUR with 1 + EUR tip… you do the math.

Hofbrauhaus, Loewenbrau and others all have their devoted fans, but I think that the Hacker Pschorr tent is one of the nicest. The ‘ceiling’ of the tent is decorated like the Bavarian sky on a perfect day, bright blue with fluffy clouds. The band sits on a rotating platform in the middle of the tent and plays all the old favorites, punctuated by the drinking song that forces you to get to know your neighbors. The clientele tends to be a nice mix of locals, foreigners and teenagers of the cute and non-gothic sort. The roast chicken is also very good. So we sat and drank and experienced the four phases of Oktoberfest.

The Four Phases of Oktoberfest

Phase I: Why is that guy staring at me?
You’ve had your first refreshing sip of ice-cold beer and you’re prepared to enjoy yourself but avoiding direct eye contact because several people are looking at you as if they’ve known you forever and really like you and it’s just a little embarrassing. So you watch the band and look at the ceiling and gulp beer whenever anyone catches your eye.

Phase II: I love you all
You’ve finished your first beer and started on a second when it hits you that we are all connected. You start waving excitedly and blowing kisses to people at other tables and most of them wave and blow kisses back, except that guy at the next table who just threw up into his beer. This is a good phase to be in when you have to go to the bathroom because the deep, genuine love you feel for everyone allows you to glide past people and obstacles without getting yelled at or arrested. Try it sometime – go to the front of the line, put your arms around the person you just displaced and tell them you love them right before you dart into the bathroom and lock the door. When you come out they probably won’t be there anymore and even if they are, chances are that they will back away from you nervously. Mind you, it helps if you’ve been drinking for a good hour and are armed with the knowledge that you are the most beautiful and powerful person on earth, not to mention surrounded by half a million of your closest friends.

Phase III: I understand everything now

Finally, the unified field theory has been solved and the fundamental nature of the universe is no longer a mystery. The nature of the universe is hilariously funny so you laugh out loud. You float over the entire tent and you can see everything in minute detail while taking in the entire picture. When you come back to earth, you share your new knowledge with the person sitting next to you and they totally get it. Now that you’ve solved the mysteries of the universe together you know that you’ll be friends forever. Unfortunately, neither of you will remember any of this tomorrow.

Phase IV: Blue

In this phase, you have moved beyond understanding everything to a quiet, content acceptance of everything exactly as it is. You are Buddha. All things are blue or maybe they are not. Either way, it’s all good. About now you realize that this is a perfect time for a Fischsemmel, which is pickled mackerel on a Kaiser roll with a slice of onion.

There are actually 5 phases but Phase V happens the next day and isn’t nearly so nice as the other phases. I won’t say much about Phase V, except that it is a lot less full of universal love, omniscience and Fischsemmel than the previous phases.

Our Feet Are the Same

This is a trick that a good friend of ours, Timm, used to remember how to say 'Auf Wiedersehen.'

Moving to Munich II

Once back in Munich we quickly got re-acquainted with our house (left) and found a cool new office for the German team (above). So as you can see, we have plenty of living and working space for visitors.

Moving to Munich

Hey everyone, as you’ve probably guessed, we’re back in the Fatherland. Klara and Leni started Kindergarten in September, where they are on a strict program of marching, eating wurst, designing cars and learning the words to all the Oktoberfest songs. I always wondered where on earth the Germans learn this stuff so there‘s another mystery solved.

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