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Expat Focus: An American Answers Questions About Living as an Expat in Germany

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Expat Experience Q&A with
Oh God, My Wife Is German.

Interview conducted by Expat Focus
December, 2013

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Who are you?
I am an American expat from Portland, Oregon, now living in Hannover, Germany. I am a freelance graphic designer and copywriter, and an avid blogger of all things humorous (though I most often take aim at subjects like Germany, expat life, culture shock and my beautiful — and unintentionally hilarious — German wife.)

Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I moved to Germany in September of 2012 in order to be with my wife. If she’d been from England, I would have moved to England. Had she come from Italy, I would have moved to Italy. Had she been from Siberia, I would have said, “Sorry honey, but I’m sure there’s a very nice guy for you in Siberia. Probably the quiet type, because he’s frozen to death.”

What challenges did you face during the move?
My wife and I lived together in Portland before we moved to Germany, and in that last year, we were both working full-time jobs, planning our destination wedding, arranging for my wife’s future career in Hannover, and worrying about how I was going to continue my own career in Germany without speaking the language. It was probably the most stressful year of our lives thus far, and we dealt with it by eating cake, pizza and drinking copious amounts of beer. (My wife looked amazing in our wedding pictures. I looked like a bloated veal calf.)

How did you find somewhere to live? (e.g. how did you locate a suitable property? what was the buying/renting process like?)
Our location was determined by my wife’s job; she’s a Gymnasium teacher (and a fantastic one at that), and she landed a job at a school in Hannover. Finding an apartment in any German city can be stressful, and we were prepared to hire a broker if necessary. Luckily, we knew a friend of a friend in Hannover, so we were able to figure out the kind of neighborhood we wanted and what we could afford. But finding an apartment is rarely a pleasant experience, and no matter the country, moving sucks.

Are there many other expats in your area?
Yes, there are actually quite a few expats in Hannover. There is even an expat group called Hannover4EnglishSpeakers, which meets up a few times each month for drinks, sporting activities and to watch movies in English. (I think they even have a group for expat parents, so their little English-speaking trolls can roll around in the mud together and give each other the flu.) There are expat groups like this in every major city in Germany, and they can be very useful for things like making friends, getting recommendations for doctors and dentists, buying and selling furniture, and complaining about how the German language uses gender-based articles. (Seriously. Every noun is either a ‘he,’ ‘she’ or an ‘it.’ (And all added together, between the 4 cases, Germans use a total of 16 definite articles. Sixteen.)

What is your relationship like with the locals?
I work at home in front of the computer all day, which makes me both a geek and a shut-in. And like the rest of my pale-skinned brethren, I only leave my coffin when the bloodlust takes me and I am forced to venture out into the night to feed. Just kidding. We have a lot of friends, and I’m also taking a German language class, so we mingle with the locals quite a bit. (Though never with drunken soccer fans. Those guys are scary.)

What do you like about life where you are?
Germany feels safe. I like the pace of life here. And Hannover is similar to Portland in that it feels like a big, little city. Or a little, big city. However you say that. Also, as an expat, you’re always challenged. The people, the culture, the godforsaken and unnecessarily difficult language — everything is new. You’re like a perpetual student, so there’s no time for boredom or plateau. You gotta get up every day and launch yourself into that alien landscape like an astronaut about to pee in his space suit.

What do you dislike about your expat life?
Having two families on either side of the globe. You’re always bouncing between them for the holidays, and one side always misses you while the other gets to bask in the radiant splendor of your company.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
Customer service. In America, strangers are sickeningly sweet to you, especially in places of business or over the phone. Sure, the person being nice to your face might actually loathe you right down to the very marrow in your bones, but at least they ensure a smooth, professional transaction. Not in Germany. Oh no, here, customer service falls into two main categories: standoffish and downright abusive. Naturally there are exceptions to this rule, but even my wife agrees, saying, “Americans are like peaches and Germans are like coconuts. Americans are sweet on the outside but hard on the inside, and Germans are hard on the outside but sweet on the inside.” (While I try not to take offense at the notion of having a foreign object at my center that is stone-like and unfeeling, I think she makes a fine point.)

What do you think of the food in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
Traditional German food is heavy, fatty and served with beer. I love it! I am gleefully eating and drinking my way toward my first heart attack.

Photo by Reiner Kraft (http://www.flickr.com/photos/reiner/)

Photo by Reiner Kraft (http://www.flickr.com/photos/reiner/)

What are your plans for the future?
I plan to ace my B2 level German language exam, which will certify me to work as a graphic designer for a German agency. I will then leave my home office and rejoin the lemmings on their great but inevitable plunge into the quagmire of despair that is working life. I jest, but I will miss making a living in my underwear. (Wait, that made me sound like a stripper, didn’t it.)

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Learn the language of the county in which you plan to live. I feel so passionate about this, I must repeat myself:

For the love of all that is holy. For the love of God and Jesus H. Christ on rice, learn the language of the foreign country in which you plan to live. Every single word you learn, written or spoken, will make your life easier. Be glad you are starting now, rather than later. Feel angry you weren’t born a native speaker, but be grateful you can learn to become fluent. Learn as much of the language as you can before you get there. Keep on learning while you’re there. If you return to your home country, keep on learning it anyway. Throw yourself into that language like a fat kid at the deep end of the pool.

I took classes, bought books and software programs, practiced with my wife and taught myself as much German as I possibly could before I moved here. This added up to exactly 1.5 years of language training, and I still depended upon my wife to translate any interaction more complex than, “Would you like another beer, Sir?” Answer: “HELL yes.”

If I could download the entire German language into my brain like in The Matrix, but it would cost my entire life’s savings, I would do it. I would do it right now. If I had to pay my entire life savings and then kick a puppy too, I would hand over the cash and punt that little doggie like a football.

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Culture Shock 15: The Batshit Insane Ways in Which Germans Tell Time (And Why I Hate Them For It)

crazy confusing clocks

“What time is it? Time to give up.” — Image courtesy of Richie Diesterheft http://www.flickr.com/photos/puroticorico/

As you probably know, I am an American expatriate living with my German wife in Hannover, Germany. I am enrolled in an A1-level intensive German language and integration course, and you know what we just started learning the other day? How to read clocks and communicate time. How do Germans tell time, you ask? I have no idea. Apparently, they use unbreakable cryptography while dropping fistfulls of acid.

Here’s the deal — in America, we typically use the 12-hour clock to relate time. (Americans who use the 24-hour clock are either, A: In the United States Military, or B: Trying to act tough because they have little wieners.) When speaking to one another, Americans discuss time in terms of 12-hour cycles, specifying a.m. and p.m. for Ante Meridian and Post Meridian. This is why we say things like, “That filthy bum was drunk at 8:00am!” and “…but so was I, so I sat down next to him and we partied until the cops made us leave at like 6:00am the next day. Those dicks.”

Predictably, Germans use a more complicated and entirely counterintuitive system for relating time to one another. They use either the 12-hour clock or the 24-hour clock in conversation (it’s not always the 12-hour clock, no matter what your German teacher tells you), so you never know which one you’ll get. Also, they use a totally backwards, Caligula-insane way for expressing half hours. They say “halb,” meaning “half,” but it does not mean 30 minutes past the hour; it means literally half of the hour before. So, taken all together, when someone says the time is “halb drei,” they do not mean the time is 3:30pm — they mean it’s 2:30pm (or 14:30, if they want to make damn sure you walk away confused).

headache funny kid with sword through head

“Just tell me the time, man. Don’t church it up.” — Image courtesy of Wapster (http://www.flickr.com/photos/wapster/)

The German language uses words like “vor,” “nach” “kurz” and “viertel,” much like the English words for “before,” “after,” “shortly” and “quarter,” respectively. So, with the 24-hour clock and pre-half hour in mind, let’s take a few examples and translate them directly from German into English:

“zehn vor halb drei” = “ten before half three” (2:20pm)
“zehn nach halb fünf” = “ten after half five” (4:40pm)
“zehn nach halb vier” = “ten after half four” (3:40pm) …which is also…
“zwanzig vor vier” = “twenty before four” (3:40pm)
“kurz vor halb sechzehn” = “just before half sixteen” (between 3:26pm and 3:29pm, but not more than 5 minutes before the half hour)*

So, in my tiny little walnut brain, I have to translate these German words and numbers into English, convert everything from the 24-hour clock into the 12-hour clock, then decipher the monkeyshit-tossing logic behind the German half hour.

funny depressed monkey

Pictured: American tourist in Germany immediately after asking for the time. — Image courtesy of Beatnik Photos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dharmabum1964/)

Now, I agree the 24-hour clock makes more sense than the 12-hour clock in terms of logistics and scheduling. What does not make sense, however — in English or German — is speaking about time in relative terms, what with all the “half before” and “quarter after” tomfuckery going on. So, when it comes to speaking informally about time — between two thinking, breathing human beings — I have developed a beautifully simple solution which will solve the problem worldwide: just say the exact time, to the minute, every time.

Just say the numbers, man! No tricks. Everyone gets along fine. There won’t be any fights before snack-time because everyone knows it starts at exactly 10:35. DING DING! Milk and cookies for everyone.

*To be fair, a German probably wouldn’t say this to someone on the street unless they were being a total dick.

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“Deutsch Points” – Take Our Infamous German Personality Test

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The Wife and I have been wondering lately; just how German are our blog followers? Oh sure, tons of them are from Germany — they live there or speak the language — but do their cold, pessimistic hearts truly pump black, red and gold? And some of our followers are from different countries entirely — America, Canada, England, Turkey, Japan, etc. — and yet their souls are just as Teutonic as Frau Weinerjiggles down the street. You don’t have to be a German citizen to take this survey, so let’s find out just how German you really are.

Take the survey below, share your results on Facebook and Twitter, and let’s see just how many “Deutsch Points” you can score!

Culture Shock 14: Even More Things That Suck About Living in Germany

angela merkel get back to work sign

The vacation is over. — Photo by Duncan Hull (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk/)

As usual, I must begin by saying life in Germany is awesome and living here absolutely rules. I have, however, learned a thing or two about the harsh realities of life in this fine country. What follows is yet another list of discoveries, oddities and annoyances revealed as an expat American living in Hannover, Germany:

  1. No one cares that I’m American. When I first arrived in Germany, I thought I would stand out as a foreigner, like, obviously. I assumed my aura was a blinding fireworks display of stars and stripes.
    'MERICA patriotism funny american flag outfit

    “I’M HERE, GERMANY — LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED.” — Photo by Joseph Novak (http://www.flickr.com/photos/josephleenovak/)

    I thought I would be special here, and not just when I opened my yap and made with the Yankee talk, but also by my look, my clothes — hell, just the sweet nectar of freedom seeping from my pores — would be enough to out me as an American. I thought it would be so obvious I prepared myself for the inevitable barrage of love, hate and general fascination by refreshing my knowledge of American history and politics prior to my departure. I was counting on being challenged to conversational duels about politics, you see. “…actually, Herr Schniedersachsen, there are three branches of the American government. Guffaw, guffaw, *snort*” But it was around the third day after my arrival when reality took hold; I am American, goddammit, and these Germans just don’t give shit. For a few weeks after this revelation, I went out of my way to wear baseball caps and sneakers — flashing my perfectly straight, brilliantly white American teeth at everyone — just to score some kind of recognition. Nope. Nobody noticed, and nobody cared. Even when my nationality specifically came up in conversation, it had all the social clout of table salt.

  2. The squirrels are red and they have horns. Seriously, the squirrels here in Niedersachsen are red — like, bricks, rust and crayons all mashed together and trying to be adorable — red. Oh, and they have tufts of hair growing from the tips of their ears like little devil horns. Have you seen these little freaks? My wife thinks they’re cute. I think they look like flaming weasels.
    red squirrel in german

    “She said, ‘Hey, wanna talk?’ and I’m like, ‘Yo, what up, I’m all ears like Spock.” — Photo by Tony Hisgett (http://www.flickr.com/photos/hisgett/)

    One even invaded our home during the summer of 2012; the kitchen door was open to let a refreshing breeze through (because German homes don’t have air conditioning, even though air conditioning is clearly a requirement for godly living — it says so in the Bible) and this clawed ginger comes hopping right on in like he owns the joint. I screamed and shagged-ass out of the room as my wife shooed him away. But before he left, his soulless, beady little eyes darted across every drawer and cupboard, and I just knew he would have stolen my precious walnuts. That’s right — I said it — I’ll punish a German squirrel for a crime he hasn’t committed… because criminal behavior is in his DNA.

  3. Germans aren’t real big on Jaywalking. Germans are known for their love of order. Of structure. Of all things systematic. Now, I’m not a real big fan of sweeping generalizations, so please understand the gravity of this statement when I go ahead and say, yes, Germans love rules. They love their rules, and they hate to break them. Even the silly ones, like those regarding traffic signals for pedestrians.
    couple crossing street on red light in germany don't walk sign

    “We’re not from around here!” — Photo by Niels Heidenreich (http://www.flickr.com/photos/schoschie/)

    Would you like to know how often I find myself at a crosswalk, standing amongst a gaggle of Germans who refuse to cross the street for no reason other than the signal telling them not to? Every day. Oh sure, I’ve seen a German or two cross on a red — it was probably the most exciting moment of their lives — but jaywalking is far from standard procedure here. And you’d think a people so concerned with speed and efficiency would be all about it, but they aren’t, and it’s because the power of rules wins over all other behavior patterns — even haste. I, on the other hand, am American; I am accustomed to a fiercely shyster society in which everyone tries to get away with as much fuckery as possible. So when I encounter a ‘don’t walk’ signal in Germany, I pull a Cartman and say, “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” Now, I’m not crazy — I look left and right first (mostly to check for cops) — but when I see a bunch of Euro-nerds afraid to cross the street, I just gotta put on my cowboy hat and show ‘em how it’s done.

  4. Germans don’t think in terms of compass points. Germany is an old country. Like, old as balls. Back when German cities were built, they obviously didn’t take automobiles into consideration; they made the streets just wide enough to accommodate filthy peasants and jerks on horseback. As a result, most German cities are laid out like connect-the-dot games played by someone having a seizure.
    munich map germany metro

    “Take your next right and then just give the hell up.” — Photo by Mike (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mccaffry/)

    The streets are all crazy, starting out of nowhere and ending just as abruptly. And if you ask a German for directions, you’ll likely get a series of empty street names and bizarre turns for an answer. Nevermind magnetic north or the constellations — they have no power here — north, south, east and west have nothing to do with navigating streets in Germany. “The post office? Yes. You must go straight ahead and then turn right at the batshit crazy intersection. After that, go left, right, and then straight ahead until you hit Poland.”

  5. Sitting with strangers means saying ‘Hello,’ ‘Goodbye’ and absolutely nothing else.
    Anytime Germans are forced to converge in a small space, they will greet each other with surprising politeness, and then just sit there in silence. Like, for hours. Have you ever gone to the doctor in Germany? When I’m sitting in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, sick people will shuffle in, cough, sneeze and say, “Hallo” or “Guten Tag,” and not a word more. And then, when someone is mercifully called up, they will say “Tchüs” and disappear forever. I am accustomed to huge waiting rooms in the States, like oceans full of sick people, where saying, “Good morning!” to everyone would be considered charmingly naive… or a surefire sign of emotional instability (“Well, I guess we know why that guy is here…”).

    private train car funny creepy guy

    “Dude, we’ve been sitting together for 8 hours. Let’s just share the juice box.” — Photo by Bonita de Boer (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bonitalabanane/)

    Have you ever ridden a train in Germany? Even if you take a train from Hamburg to the Bavarian Alps — an 8 hour ride on the IC train — you will hear exactly 2 words from your cabin mates during the journey: “Hello” and “Goodbye.” And don’t even think about making eye contact with a German stranger; it’s like riding beside a homunculus, but if you actually try and relate to this silent golem, the spell will be broken and it will explode, showering you in magic, liverwurst and finely crafted automobile components.

If you’d like to read more of our Things That Suck About Living in Germany lists, check out our previous posts:
Five Things That Suck About Living in Germany
Five (More) Things That Suck About Living in Germany

Click here to learn more about the term “Culture Shock.”

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Denglish 82: My German Wife Ridicules My American Bathroom Habits

To be perfectly honest with you, this post isn’t really about Denglish. It doesn’t concern German or English, or the hilarious mistranslations and linguistic mash-ups which can occur between the two. No, this post is about my wife’s sense of humor, and how she wields it like a blind Viking at an axe-throwing competition.

Back when we were living in the States, The Wife and I went shopping every week. We kept a meticulous shopping list and updated it the moment we started to run out of something important. We were constantly adding items to the list — it was common practice in our household — so you can imagine my surprise when, out of nowhere, she hauled off and announced:

THE WIFE: “We are down to our last roll of toilet paper. We need to add it to the shopping list because YOU definitely won’t stop poopin’.”

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Video: When Spring Arrives, Germans Appear As If By Magic

After an extended winter, spring has apparently arrived in Hannover, Germany (even though it has been snowing balls since I wrote this post). I recorded this short video on April 7th, 2013, when tons of Germans came out to the Maschsee to drink some beer before wandering over to the AWD Arena to watch the Hannover 96 play against VfB Stuttgart. (And I have no idea who won because — try as I might — I just don’t care.)

Usually, when I jog around the Maschsee in the morning, its like a ghost town. No one around but me, a German or two and a couple of filthy geese. But when the sun comes out? Oh, it’s party time. Check it out.

(NOTE: If you’re wondering about that grunting noise at the end, it’s me lifting the camera up with my tiny little T-Rex arms.)

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Denglish 81: German Woman Totally Destroys Yet Another Innocent Nickname

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know I come up with a lot of nicknames for my friends. And by nicknames, I mean random word combinations of an insulting or overtly distasteful nature. It’s a habit, and I couldn’t stop doing it if I wanted to; my brain pulls together a few unrelated words out of nowhere, then commands my mouth to spout them off at the people I love most.

By far, my wife bears the brunt of these nicknames, though in her case they tend to masquerade as adorable pet names. Over the course of an average day, I will call her between 10 and 15 different pet names, each one worse than the last. Here are just a few examples:

7:00 am, as I walk her to the door:
“Have a good day at work, my little donkey slap!”

10:00 am, in a text message:
“Hey fruit-jockey, where do we keep the regular size envelopes?”

12:00 pm, another text message:
“Yo yo thunder-bone, when you comin’ home tonight?”

5:00 pm, as I greet her at the door:
“How was your day, my little rotten apple core?”

7:00 pm, as I change into my pajamas:
“Hey broccoli brain, do these undies make my junk look good?”

10:00 pm, after I finish brushing my teeth:
“See you on the flip side, my little banana basket!” *swat on the ass*

11:00 pm, as I am turning out my reading light:
“Mother of God, your feet are so cold, you little refrigerator magnet!”

2:00 am, as I suffer from insomnia:
“I can’t sleep. Are you still awake, my little cotton ball?”

Being exposed to such a verbal barrage on a daily basis takes its toll upon my wife. Her scrambled German brain cannot help but adopt this pet naming habit of mine, so these days she fires them right back at me. Of course, some of them come out a tad warped from her internal translation process, making for quotes like this little gem:

THE WIFE: “How are you doing, my little peach-cock feather?”

Click here to learn more about the term “Denglish.”

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Video: American Man Grudgingly Jogs Around the Hannover Maschsee in Germany

Jogging sucks. You know it, and I know it. Even professional athletes and marathon runners know it; they just won’t admit it.

Every stride is a test. Every thundering heartbeat, every burning lungful of air, every aching muscle and swollen joint is a lesson in willpower. Your mind whispers conspiratorially, “You know, we could make this end right now. We could stop this pain if we wanted to. We can run for real tomorrow; let’s just walk today. Walking is good enough, right?” And then some ancient German granny in spandex totally dusts you, and you think, “Not today, Raisin Wrinkles. I’m not losing this race to the old witch from Hansel and Gretel.”

And if you’re me, you pull out your iPhone and start filming things while you jog. Here is a video of me jogging around the Maschsee in Hannover, Germany. The circumference of the Maschsee is 6.3 km, or 3.9 miles. Pretty hard, for a terrible jogger like me. It’s even harder when I’m holding my iPhone out in front of me and talking at the same time. I got a lot of funny looks from the Germans I passed, but I ignored them all because I was too busy trying not to hurl.

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Culture Shock 9: American Man Refuses to Operate Bathroom Turnstile in Germany

european bathroom pay turnstile

“Your only job is to hinder my relief.” — Photo by Tony Fischer Photography (http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonythemisfit/)

I would like to begin this post by saying bathroom turnstiles are bullshit. Installing a coin-operated barrier between a urinal and a dozen full bladders is just asking for trouble.

So back on December 8th of 2012, The Wife and I went to Oldenburg in northern Germany to visit her friend. We shall call this friend Killjoy McBittertits. Killjoy wasn’t in a particularly festive mood that night, but she did manage to show us around the Oldenburg Christmas market. We strolled around, checked out the booths and drank copious amounts of Glühwein and Feuerzangenbowle. (I also had a flask of whiskey in my jacket pocket, and I was in no way shy about using it to spike the sweet holy Jesus out of our drinks.)

For reasons I still do not understand, Killjoy McBittertits wanted to leave the Christmas market and go inside a shopping mall. (Apparently this mall is a pretty big deal in Oldenburg because it has three floors. I know, right? Three whole floors… that’s insane.) Anyway, after wandering around for what seemed like forever, we stopped at a bento place and ate expensive noodles. Now, I was pretty drunk by this point — I’d say I was operating at a steady Level 7 on a scale of 1-to-Ted Kennedy — and I had to piss.

I excused myself from the table and walk/ran to the nearest escalator. It took me much longer than it rightfully should have, but I finally saw a sign for the restroom. My bladder was about to rupture, so I was basically sprinting toward the men’s room when I was stopped by a coin-operated turnstile. And guess who had no Euro coins in his pocket whatsoever? This guy.*

I stopped and considered my options for a moment: There was a family of four immediately to my left. An elderly woman to my right. Two teenage girls behind me and a dude who looked exactly like one of those pasty fruitcakes from Chariots of Fire across from of me. There was one security camera pointed at me and one security guard pacing around inside the men’s room. Obviously the camera was powerless to stop me, and the guard kept walking in a circular loop, causing him to pass behind a wall and lose his line of sight on the turnstile. I thought to myself, This is all about timing. It’s just a video game. Wait for the rope swing, grab it and jump over the lava pit. You can do this. You have to do this, because if you don’t, you’re going to make puddles in your pants.

funny man running to bathroom

He’s running because he has to drop a deuce. — Photo by John Wright (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dryfish/)

I took two strides forward and planted my foot on the joint of the turnstile, right where the rotating bars met the metal wall, and tried to James Bond my way over the top. (I vividly recall one of the teenage girls gasping in surprise.) This operation should have gone smoothly. It should have been glorious. Instead, my giant snow boot crashed into the bar like a piston — like I was angry at it — and all of the bars started to rotate away from me. My leg straightened out and slid over the top bar — bunching up my jeans mid-calf and exposing the white sock underneath — and brought my genitals right up against the metal.

Abort! Abort! cried my entire body. Abort mission; we were given false intel. This is a suicide mission. I retracted my leg and, in a flash of brilliance, decided to duck under the bar instead. I slid beneath the turnstile, nodded to the oblivious security guard and stepped up to the nearest urinal. Half of my brain was thinking, God damn you James Bond, while the other half was thinking, That would have been hilarious if I’d hit my head on the way under.

*In retrospect, I suppose I could have asked one of the innocent German bystanders for change.

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Denglish 80: My German Wife Hilariously Reinvents the Rocking Chair

During that same drive home in early November of 2012, after my wife belched so loudly my ears rang, we started talking about ways to improve our house. These improvements will never happen unless one of us wins the German lottery, or I finally launch my career as an internationally renowned foot model. (Seriously, for a dude, my feet are beautiful.) But home improvements are still fun to talk about, so we discussed the idea of adding a second story, building a privacy fence around our yard, or perhaps even adding a front porch.

ME: “I like front porches. You’re still on your own property, but you can see everything and just sit there and relax…”

THE WIFE: “And have a rocket chair!”

Click here to learn more about the term “Denglish.”

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