Final Thoughts on the Germany Trip

First: Dude, this town hall in Tübingen is both awesome and about 250 years older than my country. I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around that.

Second: Now that I am back home, a few more notes to wrap up my whole German tour experience.

1. Before anything else of note, I would like to take a couple of moments to give a sincere public appreciation to Carolin, my handler in Germany, who accompanied me while I traveled the country and made sure I was fed, sheltered and going where I was supposed to go on any particular day. I wasn’t entirely sure until a couple of weeks before the tour if I would have a handler at all, a fact which filled me with mild apprehension. To be blunt about it, I fairly certain my first act in Germany would be to get very very lost, take a train and end up in Romania or some such and then spend the rest of my life begging coins to get back the US. Thanks to Carolin, I avoided that fate entirely. And as a bonus, she was very good company, and tolerated ten days of near constant contact with me far better than most normal human beings would (seriously, most of you would have stabbed me in the back around day four. Trust me). So thank you, Carolin, my friend, for the company, for the help, and for not pushing me in front of a train at any point in time, when, considering how many trains we took while in Germany, would have been very easy to do indeed.

2. Likewise, thanks to every member of the US consulate service and every German-America Institute staff member who made such a fantastic effort on my behalf, and who made me feel welcome at every point during my stay. Miriam Jaster, who was the point person for bringing me over, I will single out for special thanks, but everyone was just tremendously nice and helpful, and my not naming every single person is more an artifact of the fact that right now my brain is like pudding than it is that they are not deserving of a name check. I hope you will all forgive me. Additionally, many thanks to the people at Random House Germany and Heyne for tagging in for the tour, particularly (aside from Carolin) my German editor Sascha Mamczek, who did a fine job moderating me in both Frankfurt and München, and with whom I had a number of good conversations about writing, about the business of publishing, and everything else. Lasers and spaceships to you all.

3. Also, you know. Germany. As I’ve noted before, I’ve been wanting to visit it for a long time (I even tried to be an exchange student in high school), so being able to go over, and do a book tour, at the behest of the United States government, even, was pretty much a dream come true. And Germany did not disappoint at any point — the people were fantastic, the country gorgeous (even when rainy) and no one pointed and laughed when I mangled the language; indeed, I was given credit for even trying. It’s definitely true that Germany is a fairly easy country for English speakers to travel through; English is as I understand it a required subject and almost everyone seems to have enough of it to understand you, and you them, if everyone makes an effort. But I did try to talk in German when I could, because, hey, it’s their country, might as well try. But when I failed, they allowed me to fail gracefully, which I appreciate.

I left Germany feeling even more positive about it than when I came in, and I was pretty excited when I came in. I will definitely be back at some point, book tour or not, because I would love to be able to show off the country to Athena and Krissy. Likewise, allow me to heartily recommend going to Germany for the rest of you. You won’t regret it.

4. And now, for no particular good reason, a picture of me eating an “Amerikaner,” a type of pastry:

Yes, yes. “Ich bin eine Amerikaner,” and all that. As I noted on Twitter whilst I was consuming the thing, it’s amusing that the Germans have a pastry called “the American” and we don’t, much like, I imagine, Danes are surprised that we have something called a “Danish.” The Amerikaner, incidentally, is basically an large, bland, overinflated sugar cookie, which I must reluctantly concede is all-too-accurate as a metaphor for us as people, even though I was assured that, honestly, it wasn’t a comment on us at all. Sure it’s not. But it went down fine.

The Amerikaner was actually the most “American” thing I ate over in Germany, since I felt that if I was going to go that far across the globe, I might as well eat the local food, and not mewl like a smack junkie everytime I passed a McDonalds or Burger King, both of which were plentiful (as were Starbucks and Subways). So I ate a ton of heavy German food, and then promptly walked it off, because people over there walk a lot. There was some stuff which was enjoyable to try once but I won’t need to go back to again — blutwurst, I am looking at you — by and large I ate well, and was happy that I was not a vegetarian.

And yes, they had Coke Zero there. Yes, I drank it. Yes, it was good. Some things are constant, people.

5. On a similar note, a lot of the German folks I met who worked for the Consulate or for the German-American Institute had been exchange students to the US, and apparently they thing they all love the most about the country is Taco Bell. Seriously, their eyes would just light up when they talked about it. I was concerned about this at first — “Now, you know it’s not actually real Mexican food, right?” is what I asked them all — but they all understood that Taco Bell is to authentic Mexican food what a handful of Skittles is to a basket of fresh fruit. They just liked it anyway. And, well. As an ardent fan of the seven layer burrito, I can’t say I find this indefensible. So, note to self: The next time I’m in Germany, bring a stack of Taco Bell delights. I will be greeted with flowers.

6. You’ll all be amused to note that in addition to my role as science fiction author and American Writer on Display, nearly every day I was called up on to be Speaker to the Germans, answering questions about the United States, and particularly the state of our political system. Because, as you may imagine, Germans along with everyone else on the planet is mildly concerned about what looks like the general state of insanity over here. I was honest with them and told them that The Crazy was only going to get worse through the 2012 election, so they might as well get used to it. They weren’t especially happy about that, but then think of how I feel about it. They don’t have to live in the middle of it; I do. They were not notably sympathetic, which I suppose is fair enough.

And now I’m home and glad to be here, seeing my family and pets, all of whom seem happy to see me. Germany was wonderful and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But it’s also good to be back. For lunch, I think I’ll have Taco Bell.

55 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on the Germany Trip

  1. “most of you would have stabbed me back around day four”

    Wait. Stabbed you BACK? I like to think I’m pretty tolerant, but I have to admit that I’d be stabbing back pretty much immediately, yeah.

    Glad you had a good trip and got back safe!

  2. Let me second your comment about the German people. We never ran into a bad apple in a month there. I thought I spoke German very well but was still identified as an American pretty quickly but they seemed to really love that I tried.

    I will disagree with you on the blood sausage though – I loved it!

  3. Thank you for sharing your German trip. I’ve longed to go back since I visited in 1995, part of Wapakoneta’s Sister City trip to Lengerich, Lienen and Ladbergen. We too were treated as royalty, and I agree how difficult it is to image just how much older their history is compared to ours here in the United States. It’s a beautiful country with lovely people, and I appreciate the reminder from your postings.

  4. Hey at least you Americans and Danish people got a nice snack named after you. We Swedes got a turnip…

  5. I will never forget being in Berlin, and meeting the military officer who was in charge when the wall fall, and he had to decide to a) shoot his countrymen or b) let the wall fall down. That he chose letter b is one of the great, unexpected accidents of history that no one would have expected given the way things were.

    There was a documentary filming while I was wandering around the city center, and I asked one of the crew members what was going on, and they explained it. In a break in filming, they introduced me. We shook hands, took pictures like tourists, etc.

    If you ever make it to Berlin, I recommend the bicycle tours. Berlin is completely flat, and easy to traverse on a bicycle. There is maybe one, tiny hill in all of Berlin. Very small. Riding a bicycle through all the sights is marvelous.

    I’ve been around the country quite a bit, and think very highly of Mainz, Munich, Trier, Berlin, and Freiburg. Speaking as someone who was not on a government-sponsored book tour, the country is just as friendly and agreeable when you’re just some American.

    One of the best times to travel to Europe is in February, for the Fasching festivals. As it is off-season, the prices drop a lot for hotels and things. It’s a bit rainy and cold, still, but with the right clothes, you’ll be comfortable, and you can experience German Mardi Gras.

  6. Welcome back. I’m looking forward to you now becoming a militant voice for high-speed rail in Ohio. I really want my commuter line between Columbus and Cleveland. You have my bow and my axe, etc.

    I’m also curious what, if any, resource you used to brush up your German (Pimsleur, Rosetta, or the like?). Or did you just remember from high school?

  7. It is a bit strange to think about how very very old everything is over there. My mom’s hometown of Offenbach am Main was celebrating its thousand year birth day around the same time we were having a bicentennial

    On point four, I think it’s a testament to how much Germans loved JFK that nobody ever gave him crap for basically proclaiming that he was a jelly donut (objects get a definitive article, nationalities don’t, so what he had meant to say was, “Ich bin Berliner”). Anywho, speaking of soda, did you have Spezi aka Mezzo Mix while you were there? It’s just Coke and Fanta Orange mixed together and sold in bottles (which took me two weeks to figure out last time I was there), but it’s brilliant. Love the stuff.

    Also, blutwurst. My mom loved the stuff as a kid until her uncle showed her how it was made, lol.

  8. That Amerikaner looks a lot like a typical black-and-white cookie, except with stripes instead of half/half. Dunno about blutwurst, but I’m of recent Irish extraction, and Irish blood pudding is, imo, delicious.

    Glad to hear you ate German food the whole time. I could never understand people who travel to a foreign country and spend their whole time in American chain restaurants. It’s sometimes interesting to go into one and see the difference–McDonald’s won’t serve beef in the very Hindu states of India, but they have lamb and goat on the menu–but I’ve always thought the whole point of travel was to see what other people do.

    The Taco Bell thing makes me think of Demolition Man. If the Germans have a mania for old American commercial jingles, then I think we’ve got something.

  9. My Potsdamer friend is *so* tired of the “jelly donut” thing, because it’s not true. I’m just a DaF (with CEFR level C1), so I’ll take her native judgment on it.

    I’m kind of sad you didn’t get to get out of the southwestern part of the country; Berlin’s my favorite place in the world.

  10. Though, Herr Scalzi, you’re EIN Amerikaner, I believe. (Eine Amerikanerin bin ich.) I do enjoy the pastry, but my favorite is the Nuß-Nougat Croissant. Imagine a croissant filled with something akin to crunchy Nutella. It’s DIVINE.

    (On the eating American food while abroad tip, I know the location of two Dunkin Donuts in Berlin, and have eaten in both (on separate trips, though). They have different donuts than we do! It’s awesome.)

  11. It is most highly amusing, to realise you’re still blissfully unaware of the addictive qualities of blood pudding.
    “Bwa ha haaah”, as they say in Scottish chip shops.

  12. was happy that I was not a vegetarian

    Indeed. The one time that I went to Germany I was amazed at the food. Germans do some amazing things with meat and potatoes.

  13. And thank you concerning your foreign relations work. I can’t think of anyone who would be better at explaining the state of affairs in the US to a perplexed European.

  14. As a native German speaker I can indeed confirm that the “jelly donut” thing is a myth. Yes, he could in theory have been understood to mean that he is a jelly donut, but what he said was definitely understood the way he meant it. “Ich bin ein Berliner” vs. “Ich bin Berliner” arguably has a very subtle semantic difference about whether you are from Berlin, or whether you live there. Kennedy (add least to my sense of the language) picked the right one.

    See here for some ruminations about the topic:
    http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/19/ich-bin-what/

    And a (German) reply by a professor of linguistics:
    http://www.iaas.uni-bremen.de/sprachblog/2008/06/25/ich-bin-kein-pfannkuchen/

  15. Welcome home.
    I’ve always heard that Germans will be happy if you at least try to communicate in German. Good to have that confirmed.
    I had the same experience in France, though with French, not German. I’m not sure what the French would have thought if I’d try to communicate in German. There was even a case where adopting a bad French accent did the trick. We were trying to find a Holiday Inn in Roissy, and the person I was asking for directions spoke English, but couldn’t understand “Holiday Inn” until I pronounced it, “‘Oliday Een.”

  16. Blutwurst sounds almost like the German version of haggis. I think I’ll pass.

    In a similar vein (pun intended), I think I’ll pass on the Taco Bell as well.

  17. Bienenstich is my pastry of choice: yellow cake sliced in half, filled with whipped cream and covered with toasted sugared almonds. Yum! I have to agree about the blutwurst, although I developed a real appreciation for most other wursts when I lived there. And beer, which I had never really liked before. Of course, you were mostly in the part of Germany that is wine country.

    Hugh57: blutwurst = blood sausage

  18. John,

    Welcome back. I’m glad you had a great trip, and I think it says very good things about you that you go to great lengths to thank the people who put it together. I doubt you even think of it as being considerate so much as required, which says even more.

    All the best,
    Paul

  19. The Amerikaner is rather doughier than a cookie, more like a doughnut in consistency, though it isn’t fried. The rum glaze is also a vital component. Usually the glaze is half white and half chocolate, not drizzled like the one in the picture. That’s why they’re called that, because they’re part white and part black. (Black soldiers were really popular right after the war.) I think the Danes call a Danish a Viennese pastry, so they aren’t entirely innocent themselves. The jelly donut has been covered, but a further factor is that in Berlin they are called Pfannküchen (pancakes) or sometimes Krapfen, not Berliner. Blutwurst is essentially the same thing as black pudding (the Scottish dish, not the D&D monster) and I wouldn’t touch it or Saumagen with a ten-foot pole.

    Mexican food is the thing I miss the most and after 12 years, I’d settle for Taco Bell. You can usually find at least one “Mexican” restaurant in any decent sized city, but most are only sort of vaguely Mexican, occasionally drifting towards “healthy Mex” like Chevy’s or something. I’ve yet to find one that can do refried beans right.

  20. With regards to your observation #6; there’s a lot about American culture that mystifies the Germans. I spent a lot of time in Germany during the late 90’s when I was working on the NH-90 for Eurocopter. I remember having a conversation once with one of the program directors about the American Judicial system. It was around the time of the OJ Simpson trial and he said he didn’t understand how we could allow a panel of ordinary citizens to decide a person’s fate in legal matters. It was his opinion, and many of the Germans sitting at the table, that such things should be left to the professionals. In their system the Judge is basically Judge and Prosecutor. Judges decide your fate.

    I told him that a healthy suspicion of government is part of the DNA of Americans and having a government official decide a persons fate would be unacceptable to us.

    It was not really a concept they could grasp.

    But really it didn’t matter because they served beer in the cafeteria at work! How cool is that?

  21. My visit to Germany left me with an affinity for Mezzo Mix. Whenever I find myself in a restaurant with a do-it-yourself fountain that contains Orange Fanta, I mix my own.

  22. We are Carolin’s American parents. When she was an exchange student, we were fortunate to have her land at our house. To this day, she remains a beloved member of our family and has recently articipated in her American brother’s weddings. We adore her and are not surprised that she was such a help to Mr. Scalzi.

  23. After a career in the military with three years in Europe, two in Japan, and assorted weeks and months over most of the rest of the globe I found that the most satisfying way to travel was simply to open eyes, ears, and heart and embrace the culture without trying to carry around a bubble of USA with you. Try the language, try the food, dance the dances and sing the songs. Eschew comparisons with the US for the term of your trip. Listen intensely. You will be the best advertisement for America possible and gain memories that will bring a smile to your face forever. Good job, John. You can survive blutwurst.

  24. I was an exchange student to Germany in the early 90s when I was 16. Stayed there for a year. Best experience of my life. I always laugh to myself when some Americans ask me, “Do they have running water?” :)

    I remember my first encounter with an “Amerikaner” pastry. In fact, looked very similar to the one you’re holding there.

    The German people are a wonderful, warm group of folks. I love the family I lived with and the subsequent job and apartment I had, because I decided to stay longer. I do plan on hosting a German student some time in the future. The programs for exchange students are wonderful, but sometimes prohibitively expensive for some students and their families.

    Support the exchange programs in your local community!

  25. In the future, all restaurants are Taco Bell. (grin)

    Actually when we were in Helsinki, we made a point to going to a McDonald’s just to see how it translated — and then went to the Tennispalatsi to watch Ah-nold in T3. Since the captions were in two languages — Finnish and Swedish — it made Ah-nold look practically verbose.

    So glad that you ate an American just in time for Halloween and Zombiefest.

    Dr. Phil

  26. Glad you enjoyed Germany. I did too, when I was there. And I found that my high-school German held up surprisingly well after all those years.

    “They don’t have to live in the middle of it; I do.” At least we in the U.S. don’t have to live at the business end of American foreign policy.

  27. it would have been really cool to meet you in Romania, you have some fans around here, too. next time, don’t listen to your handler all the time ;)

  28. Welcome back! You’ve missed approximately 3.5 Republican Presidential debates, at least one change in the leading Republican candidate, and a LiLo court date. I wonder how your German audiences would have reacted to all that! ;)

    I’m not sure if you’re a beer drinker at all; if you are, did you get the chance to enjoy any hidden gems over there?

    Oh, and a question for John Kerr – do they generally call it black pudding or blood pudding over in Scotland? My parents are both Irish-born Americans, and I LOVE black pudding, but no-one over there seems to call it blood pudding. I’m wondering if that changes amongst haggis-lovers. :)

  29. “So I ate a ton of heavy German food, and then promptly walked it off, because people over there walk a lot. ”

    When I was in Seoul, whenever I asked for directions to a place more than 10 minutes away by foot, people would tell me to take a taxi. Those are cheap in Korea, but I love to walk, because it’s a gret way to explore a place.

    It’s great to hear that you enjoyed your stay so much, thank you for visiting us. :o))

  30. Dave Branson: The accent thing works in other languages, too. I think I was three days in Japan when I discovered that speaking English with a Japanese accent and Japanese-variety broken grammar made me much more intelligible to the locals.

    Mavwreck: My Irish-born grandparents called it both black pudding and blood pudding. There didn’t seem to be a distinction in why they would call it one or the other. Certainly I heard it called “blood sausage” when I was very young.

    I suspect that the name “black pudding” came into vogue when the Irish tourist industry picked up after WWII. (Bear in mind that my grandparents were all born before 1905.) Probably a lot more palatable to American tourists under that name.

  31. John, I promise you I would not have stabbed you in the back. If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.

    My favorite bit of German dialogue between a German and an American comes from a German talk show:

    HOST: Und wo hast du dein schönes Deutsch gelernt?
    GUEST: Von dich.

    (Yes, I know. That’s the joke.)

    CD Covington is right. ‘Amerikaner’ is a masculine noun, therefore ‘ein’ (not ‘eine’) is the correct article.

    DemetriosX: Usually the glaze is half white and half chocolate, not drizzled like the one in the picture. That’s why they’re called that, because they’re part white and part black.

    Fascinating! I never knew that. The closest cookie in the US is called a “Black&White.”

  32. BTW, I thought pasting the link would show the link, not put in the video.
    Anyway, two top comments at the link were:
    scheisse sind wir alt geworden … TEBOYLO 2 years ago
    and
    Unvergesslich …. TRIO … phpLD 2 years ago 10

  33. > DemetriosX: Usually the glaze is half white and half chocolate, not drizzled like the one in the
    > picture. That’s why they’re called that, because they’re part white and part black.

    Up here in northern Germany “Amerikaner” are glazed white and bright pink! What does that tell us? I don’t know.

  34. @Xopher: At least that’s what my wife tells me. It sounds plausible, since there’s nothing else specifically American about them.

    @barbex: Where? I’ve never seen them with pink. Maybe it’s a local thing.

  35. Great you had a good time! I am happy you enjoyed your stay here in our country.

    As for Blutwurst, well i guess it sounds grizzly but done well its really something. If you ever have the chance you could try Himmel and Äd, Blutwurst with cooked potatoes & apples. Very good to eat in cologne.

  36. Oh i forgot, did you try döner? Maybe that would cure the tacobell hunger a bit.
    Its a pita bread filled with strips of meat (all kinds but mainly lamb or chicken) and salad.
    Very tasty.

  37. At the ripe old age of 53, there has never been a time that I haven’t been told about how our politics are strange to Europeans. I still remember in my youth hearing how the Euros couldn’t understand why the big fuss over Watergate. And of course the Clinton/Lewinsky “scandal” was laughable. They also thought Reagan was going to get us all into all-out thermonuclear war. Somehow, we’ve survived all that.

  38. Welcome home. Love the Taco Bell observation. I live in Phoenix and enjoy going to a real taqueria once in a while, but I still have to get my fresco crunchy tacas at Taco Bell. I grew up on them, so they’re genuine enough for me.

  39. “It’s sometimes interesting to go into one and see the difference–McDonald’s won’t serve beef in the very Hindu states of India, but they have lamb and goat on the menu–but I’ve always thought the whole point of travel was to see what other people do.”

    When my husband and I were traveling around Europe, he actually went into every McDonald’s we saw. He never bought a single burger, but he would check the “Big Mac index” to figure out how expensive on average one city was compared to another. It worked quite well. Unsurprisingly, the one in Rome near the Spanish Steps was the most expensive.

  40. I have a few German uncles and whenever we would go vist them as kids, we brought a ton of Taco Bell hot-sauce packets, McCormick mexican seasoning, and tortillas with us LOL
    I wonder why no one has opened a franchise over there?

  41. John, I’m so thrilled that you had a good time in my other home country. The fact that your experience was so wonderful does much to temper my jealousy that you were there and I wasn’t. ; )

    I can relate very well to the Taco Bell thing. Growing up in Germany, I never got Taco Bell. When I came to college in Oklahoma, I fell in love with their taco salads. Then, the husband and I moved back to Germany and lived there for 6 years. Among other things, that’s 6 years’ worth of Tex-Mex cravings. (The Germans, bless their dear hearts, can’t do Tex-Mex to save their lives.) So when we moved back to Oklahoma City in 2007, gorging on Taco Bell was one of our top priorities.

    Of course, nowadays what I crave is good, juicy Zigeunerschnitzel. And Turkish. Go figure. ; )

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