That Merkel Photo

Some of you have asked me to see a photo from my brief encounter with Angela Merkel earlier today. Well, don’t get too excited, but here it is. By the time I got my camera out, she was already ducking into her car. You’ll kind of have to take my word for it that this is actually her:

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A Very Good Day

Today, so far at least, is a very good day. Here’s why:

  • It’s freakin’ gorgeous out. Near 70 and sunny. Just biked through town without a jacket, and it felt great.
  • I just had an excellent interview with an American woman who opened the first American-style coffee shop in Berlin back in 1993. She’s widely credited (or at least credits herself) for the boom in American cafes and restaurants that’s ensued. It’s for a story on the changing American expat scene I’m writing for the FAZ, which should be a fun one. Best of all, I was treated to a delicious home-roasted, home-brewed coffee (which I’d been missing) and an even more delicious “New York special” — lox and cream cheese and tomato and onion on a homemade bagel (which I’d been craving).
  • I’m expecting a story of mine to appear in Foreign Policy magazine today (or sometime soon).
  • And, to top it all off, as I was locking up my bike outside the office just now, I noticed a few guys in suits, and a photographer standing around the back entrance to Dussmann, a big bookstore nextdoor. I decided to see what was going on — and out came Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Continue reading
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More Musings on Formality

Over in Frankfurt, Krista runs with — and then challenges — my hypothesis that German conventions of formality can actually create more comfortable interactions between people. She writes:

I’m not certain that this proclivity toward a healthy social life necessarily results in stronger personal relationships. Yes, German formality allows more honesty in interpersonal relationships, but that doesn’t mean that more German relationships develop past superficiality than do American relationships. My solid conversations have been at a minimum here (after all, I’m still a stranger), but among those I’ve had, a high percentage have included an admission, in one form or another, by a German that he or she isn’t relationally satisfied. That’s not to say that Germans are any different from Americans in this regard: The conversations in both countries reveal similar longings. After all, people, whether formally German or informally American, fail one another. Over and over again. […]

So, what say you, blog nation? Does American lack of formality hinder honest relationships? Does German formality create a societal structure that allows real relationships, once formed, to thrive?

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Proof That the German Newspaper Industry Hasn’t Yet Reached Crisis Mode, in Pictures

One, really.

On top, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (Feuilleton). On bottom, The New York Times (Week in Review). Both of these are featury pages in the Sunday paper. But the FAZ is about 30% larger, and has twice as much white space, while the NYT has quite a bit of stuff crammed in there.

For now, although circulations are declining, Germans continue to read their news in print (the FAZ’s hard-to-access website is evidence of this, and perhaps also cause). But just you wait….

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The Awful German Language

Since I stole his title, I might as well plug his work: probably my favorite of Mark Twain’s writings that doesn’t involve little boys and rivers.

In the past 24 hours, multiple people have told me that I speak the best German of any American they’ve met. That’s insane, and means either that my German has improved by leaps and bounds in the past few days (unlikely) or that they need to get our more and meet some truly linguistically inclined Americans (much more likely). But what’s really struck me is how Germans frame their praise. It’s almost always the same: “Du machst fast keine Fehler.” You make almost no mistakes.

In America, when we judge someone’s English-speaking ability, we tend to say things like, “She speaks haltingly,” or “He’s got some awkward turns of phrase,” or “She doesn’t have a great command of idiom.” Mistakes don’t usually factor in that much. That’s because English is a pretty flexible language with forgiving grammar: extremely loose syntax, nonexistent case or gender, limited conjugation. (The trickiest thing about English is probably its spelling, which most Americans are no good at anyway.) In German, on the other hand, there are pretty much two ways to say a sentence: the right way and the wrong way. And the right way is prescribed by so many rules, and requires so much thinking ahead — you can’t really start a sentence if you don’t know how it’s going to end — that it takes quite a bit of thought to accomplish.

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And Now for Something Completely Irrelevant

This has nothing to do with Germany, nor is it even current (the WaPo story is from 2005), but it impressed the hell out of me:

Finnish authorities know how much everyone earns, and they pro-rate traffic fines depending on the wealth of the malefactor. Last year the 27-year-old heir to a local sausage fortune was fined 170,000 euros, about $204,000 at the time of the fine, for driving at 50 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone in downtown Helsinki.

The whole story, on why Finns are the happiest people in the world, is worth a read.

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Is Berlin Pretty?

Among the major European capitals, Berlin can reasonably lay claim to a few superlatives: hippest, youngest, cheapest. But prettiest certainly isn’t among them. The city is, for the most part, a mix of old architecture that survived the various wars (or was rebuilt in recent decades), Soviet-era monoliths, and sparkling new buildings in the former no man’s land near the Wall.

Still, there’s the odd aesthetic experience in Berlin that takes your breath away. Here are a few pleasing glimpses of the Museumsinsel and its environs — some of which show the appealing juxtaposition of old, reconstructed buildings (like the Berliner Dom) and Soviet creations (like the Fernsehturm, or TV tower):

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