Getting personal with Vince Ebert, German science comedian in New York

Though well-known in Germany, where he hosts a prime-time TV show about science and pens a column “Überm Teich” for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Americans are usually perplexed when they hear that Vince Ebert is a “German science comedian.” Is there really such a thing?! Yes, there is, and as living proof Vince is currently spending a year in the Big Apple, testing his material in the land of “limitless possibilities” and some of his comedic heroes, such as Dave Chappelle. As he enjoys the American Way of Life, Vince is also gathering inspiration for a forthcoming book and new comedy show to launch in Germany in fall 2020. Until then, catch Vince in one of his U.S. shows and tell your friends it’s true: the German science comedian DOES exist—and, empirically speaking, he’s a hoot!

Why did you choose to spend your non-midlife-crisis in America?

In Germany I’ve been on stage for over 20 years now. After such a long time, even the most exciting profession becomes a kind of routine. So I said to my wife: “Let’s move to New York for one year. I need a new challenge!” And being funny in a foreign language is definitely a huge challenge. Fortunately, my wife was enthusiastic about my plan because she loves New York as much as I do.

What is it like being a German in New York City? Do you have some favorite “German haunts” there?

We actually try to avoid the typical German meeting places because we both want to dive more into the “real” New York life. Of course, we are not able to hide our heritage. As soon as New Yorkers realize the German accent, they are thrilled. And then they are all telling a story about their brother-in-law who knows a colleague who is married to a woman who has a roommate who is in a relationship with a guy from Düsseldorf.

Have you had the chance to travel around the country outside NYC? Any memorable experiences?

I can highly recommend the Catskills! Recently we spent a few days in Phoenicia to enjoy the foliage. At a hiking tour we even ran into a black bear. When we enthusiastically told our host lady about our encounter, she replied somewhat bored: “Yay…I´m so glad you got to see one. But to tell you the truth they are as exciting around here as squirrels in Washington Square Park.”

What is the comedy scene like in New York? How does it compare to Germany?

The number of comedians in NYC is incredible. And of course, this is reflected in the high level of quality. Since many comedians usually play short sets of about 10 or 15 minutes, their material is very dense. Every 20 seconds there’s a joke. At first this was very unusual for me because German comedians are performing longer sets of about 90 minutes plus. Longer stories, fewer jokes. Sometimes even no jokes at all.

Which U.S.-American comics do you admire? Why?

I’m a big fan of Dave Chappelle. He’s super funny without being shallow. Under the surface there’s an utterly humanitarian political message and at the same token he has the courage to be completely politically incorrect.

If you are adding humor to science, is there a science to humor? Does your process for developing material follow a disciplined regimen, or does the humor “find you” at unexpected moments?

For a German science guy American engineering is quite a challenge. To flush my toilet, you need the sensitivity of a watchmaker and my shower has two default settings: heat stroke and frost bite. Recently I asked my landlord: Don’t you have a regulator to adjust the room temperature? And he said: “Of course. We call it window.” And by the way: what is so great about inches, feet, miles, ounces and pounds? How did they get to the moon with such a mess?

What inspiration have you found in the U.S. that you will take back to Germany?

American comedians are not afraid to tell personal stories. For me this is a great inspiration. So far, my German shows were more like funny TED Talks. But the next show will be definitely more personal.

Interview by Jacob Comenetz, German Embassy

“We celebrated an event that we had thought would not occur in our lifetimes”

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are gathering stories from both Germans and Americans who lived through that time. This week’s feature is a story by John Parisi, who was deeply moved by the events that transpired in 1989.

When the news of the opening of the Berlin Wall was first reported on the evening of November 9, 1989, I was attending a German language class in downtown Washington, DC.  Upon arriving home, my wife told me the news. We celebrated an event that we had thought would not occur in our lifetimes, and we thought about people we had encountered in the East and recalled how the wall had influenced our lives, going back to its beginning.

On August 13, 1961, my family awoke to the news that barbed wire had been strung in Berlin, cordoning off the East from the West.  Shortly thereafter, my father was recalled to active duty as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Fifth Army. I vividly recall seeing on television U.S. and Soviet Union tanks facing each other at the sector border and fearing that a war would occur.  Thankfully, it didn’t.

On the last weekend of September, 1969, I arrived in Germany for my Auslandsstudium during my Junior Year at Kalamazoo College.  I lived with a family in Münster (with whom I am still in contact, now in the fourth generation). On that first Sunday, I accompanied them to the polling place in their neighborhood where they cast their votes in the Bundestagwahl.  The voting official gave me a copy of the Stimmzettel which I still have. That evening, we watched the election returns and I learned that they were SPD voters in the very “Schwarz” Münsterland, and they welcomed the replacement of Kurt Georg Kiesinger by Willy Brandt.

The next month, my classmates and I went to Berlin.  We were taken to a platform near the Wall on which we could see into the Eastern sector.  I remember seeing children playing in the street and thinking that, in their memory, the wall had always been there.  Along Bernauer Strasse, the facades of the houses served as the “wall” at that time. During our visit, we met with an official at the Berlin Senat who told us very frankly that West Berlin was a dying city; the wall not only kept the easterners out, it also squeezed the lifeblood of the West.  

Courtesy of John Parisi

Twelve years passed – I finished college, taught school, went to law school, married Anne Broker (who also went to Münster to study in 1972), and got a job in the U.S. Congress in Washington – before I was able to return to Germany.  During part of our three week visit in October 1982 (soon after Helmut Kohl became Chancellor), my wife and I travelled along the B 27, from the Rhön to Goslar. Along the way, we drove very close to the inner-German border and marveled at the expense that the Eastern regime undertook to construct and maintain the barrier.

In early 1988, the Robert Bosch Foundation offered me a Fellowship to work in Germany for nine months.  My wife and I accepted and came to live in Bonn where I worked first at the Federal Economics Ministry and then for the Federation of German Industry (then located in Köln-Bayenthal).  On January 9, 1989, my wife gave birth to our first child, Elizabeth, at Johanniter Krankenhaus in Bonn.  The next month, Erich Honecker declared that the Berlin Wall would stand for another 50 years.  When we visited Berlin on Easter weekend of 1989 and stood on the platform looking into East Berlin, we felt certain that the wall would not come down in our lifetimes; but, we hoped that it might fall in Elizabeth’s.  Eight months later it did.  But, that was not the end of our “wall” story.

Courtesy of John Parisi

In April 2001, my wife and I and our two daughters accompanied the Congressional Study Group on Germany to its annual meeting with its Bundestag counterparts.  The meetings were held on Usedom and in Berlin; I served as rapporteur. While in Berlin, we took our daughters to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum; they still have vivid memories of that visit.

Then in June 2001, our family traveled to Ireland.  In Belfast, we took a tour of the Shankhill and Falls Road neighborhoods, seeing firsthand the effects of the “Troubles.”  At the so-called “Peace Wall,” that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, our daughter Elizabeth asked, “Why do you take us to such depressing places?”  I replied that we should visit places like Berlin and Belfast and learn the lessons that those places have to teach us.

On June 17, 2018 – the 65th anniversary of the workers uprising in East Berlin – Anne and I visited Mödlareuth, a tiny village divided by a creek that has been the border between Thuringia and Bavaria since 1810.  At the end of World War II, that was the border between the American and Soviet Sectors. After the wall was erected in Berlin, Mödlareuth became known as ‘little Berlin.’ The village has a “Grenzmuseum” that is worth diversion from the A9 or A72 north of Hof.  It serves as another reminder of how many places, large and small, were immensely impacted by the wall.

In his June 1963 speech in Berlin, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, quoted then-Mayor Willy Brandt’s description of the Berlin Wall as “an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity.”  Sadly, the wall stood for another 26 years.  This year’s 30th anniversary of the opening of the wall is a time both to look back and to look forward:  back to reflect on the pain the wall caused as well as the courage of those who strove peacefully to bring it down, and forward to consider the lessons the wall has to teach us today and for the future.     

By John Parisi

Word of the Week: Eigenbrötler

We all know someone who hates teamwork, avoids other people and willingly spends a lot of time alone. You might call someone like this antisocial or introverted. But in German, you would call this person an Eigenbrötler.

Eigenbrötler is a noun that comes from the words eigen (ones “own”) and Brot (“bread”). Basically, this describes someone who eats his or her own bread. But there’s more to it.

The German word Eigenbrötler is a very old word that first arose in the 16th and 17th centuries. Back then, the term was used to identify a person who kept to him or herself in a care- or retirement home. Instead of participating in community meals, an Eigenbrötler would pay to eat his or her “own bread” (meals) all alone. An Eigenbrötler often also paid extra to have his or her own furniture, room and other necessities. Overall, an Eigenbrötler did his own thing, separate from all the other residents in the home.

Today, Germans use this word to describe any type of person who keeps to him or herself. An Eigenbrötler is absolutely not a team player and tries to avoid participating in group activities. Usually, he or she has some peculiar habits or traits and spends more time alone than with others. We all know someone like this – right?

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Did you know these everyday objects were invented in Germany?

Inventors from around the world are converging on Nürnberg from Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 to present their inventions at Germany‘s annual trade fair for ideas and inventions (the Ideen-Erfindungen-Neuheiten-Austellung, also known as iENA). The fair is the largest of its kind; since it was first held in 1948, more than 300,000 inventions were presented to the public – including inline skates, wheeled suitcases and folding bicycles. Inventors from all over the world are expected to display over 800 inventions.

In light of this fair, let’s take a look at some inventions that you may not have known are German!

©dpa / picture alliance

Aspirin

Many of us depend on aspirin to cure us of our pains. But few may know that aspirin was invented by a German chemist, Felix Hoffman. The Swabian-born chemist initially developed the drug for his aligning father, but got a patent for it in 1899.

©dpa / picture alliance

Contact Lenses

German ophthalmologist Dr. Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick invented the first contact lens in 1887, which he created from heavy brown glass. And no – the first contact lenses were not comfortable to wear, and they could only be worn for a few short hours at a time!

©dpa / picture alliance

Coffee filter

The coffee filter was invented by a housewife from Dresden named Melitta Bentz. Using blotting paper from her children’s school books, she removed coffee grounds from her brew, making it less bitter and smoother. She was granted a patent in 1908 and sold 1,200 coffee filters at the 1909 Leipzig Fair.

©dpa / picture alliance

Jeans

German-American businessman Levi Strauss and his partner Jacob Davis patented the first pair of blue jeans in 1873. Back then, they were considered workwear and worn primarily cowboys and miners. Today, they are quite the fashion statement!

Other popular German inventions are mayonnaise, x-ray machines, the printing press, the accordion, hole punchers, ring binders and the petri dish. Let’s see what new inventions Germans have at this weekend’s iENA fair in Nürnberg!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Kobold

© Wikimedia Commons

With Halloween just around the corner, Americans are excitedly gathering for haunted hayrides, telling scary stories around campfires, and searching for frightening costumes. At this time of year, it’s common to hear stories about the chupacabra, Bigfoot, and the headless horseman.

Mythological creatures exist throughout the world, but let’s take a look at one that has existed in German folklore for centuries. A popular supernatural creature is the Kobold, a mischievous household spirit that is usually invisible, but will occasionally materialize, taking the form of a human, an animal, or an object. An ill-tempered Kobold might, for example, take the form of a feather, descend onto the nose of a sleeping homeowner, and trigger a sneeze.

Most images of a Kobold depict small, human-like figures often dressed like peasants. But there are many types of Kobolds. Some are friendly spirits that live in one’s home, taking care of chores and playing malicious tricks if they feel upset, neglected or insulted. Others live underground, haunting old mines. Some reside on ships, accompanying sailors as they navigate the open seas (this type of Kobold is called a Klaubautermann).

The origin of the Kobold and its etymology remains shrouded in mystery, but this mythical creature is believed to have emerged from Pagan customs many centuries ago.

There are numerous other legendary German creatures that are closely related to the original Kobold, such as the Heinzelmännchen (house gnomes). But while the Heinzelmännchen are good-natured creatures that tend to the house, Kobolds also have a darker side to them, often wreaking havoc. In some cases, the damage Kobolds inflict might resemble that imposed by a poltergeist.

© dpa / picture-alliance

Frankenstein Castle: One of Germany’s spookiest places

With Halloween just around the corner, let’s take a look at one of Germany’s creepiest places: Frankenstein Castle.

Frankenstein Castle sits on a hilltop overlooking the city of Darmstadt. It was constructed sometime before the year 1250 by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg, who founded the free imperial Barony of Frankenstein. Over the coming centuries, the castle was home to various different families and witnessed several territorial conflicts. In 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel – who later became an alchemist – was born in the castle. The structure fell into ruins in the 18th century and was restored in the mid-19th century.

The most famous story is, of course, that of the alchemist who worked in the castle in the 17th century. He was known to experiment with strange potions. He supposedly created an animal oil (which he named “Dippel’s Oil”) that was a so-called “elixir of life”. There are also rumors that the man studied anatomy and conducted experiements on cadavers, some of which he dug up himself from graves. There is no evidence that proves that any of this happened, but local people believe the legends are true.

Continue reading “Frankenstein Castle: One of Germany’s spookiest places”

Word of the Week: Witzbold

From Friedrich Nietzsche to Immanuel Kant and Heinrich Heine, Germany has long been home to philosophers, poets, scientists and other great thinkers. Germans are often stereotyped as being “too serious” and often accused of lacking a sense of humor. A German Witzbold, however, contradicts all of these stereotypes.

The German word Witz means “joke”, and a Witzbold is a type of joker or prankster who loves to be entertained. We’re sure you’ve met one, whether it was your high school’s class clown or that friend who loves to mess with you. When a Witzbold isn’t busy cracking jokes, you might find him playing pranks on others to get a good laugh – all in good nature, of course. Synonyms for Witzbold are Spaßvogel (“humor bird”) and Scherzkeks (“prank cookie”).

But being called a Witzbold is not always a good thing; sometimes jokes can go too far, becoming a nuisance to others. In many cases, there is a negative connotation to being called a Witzbold. So make sure you know when your humor is unwanted – it’s always best to strike a healthy balance!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Schlafmütze

Are you nodding off at your desk, even after three cups of coffee? Can’t get out of bed in the mornings? Are you always late and missing opportunities? Sounds like you might be a Schlafmütze!

Directly translated, this German word means “nightcap”, but the closest English equivalent of its meaning would be a “sleepy head” or a “zombie”.

In modern German language, a Schlafmütze usually refers to a person who is always tired, lazy and slow, spaced out and late all the time or unable to roll out of bed. But in the olden days, this word simply defined the nightcap that people wore to bed to keep warm. Before central heating was available, homes in northern Europe were often very cold – especially in the winter. To keep warm, Europeans would wear nightcaps when they went to sleep. Women usually wrapped a long piece of cloth around their heads, while men had more pointed caps with a long tip that could sometimes be used as a scarf.

Due to the availability of central heating, nightcaps are no longer used, but paintings, books and movies about the pre-industrial days often depict people wearing them in the comfort of their homes.

In addition to sleepwear, nightcaps were used throughout the 19th century to secure bandages that were applied to head injuries.

But ever since the 18th century, the word Schlafmütze has also been used to define a sleepy or lazy person. Someone who sleeps in until noon every day would be considered a Schlafmütze. And even if you sleep late just once, you might inherit the title by a friend or relative who rolls their eyes at your habits. So get out of bed and make sure you’re not a Schlafmütze! After all, there’s probably plenty of things you could do instead.

A 19th century painting by Wilhelm Busch depicts a man wearing a Schlafmütze. © dpa / picture alliance

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Begrüßungsgeld

The German word Begrüßungsgeld means “welcome money”. Free money? Pretty much. And lots of people wanted it.

The idea of “welcome money” is a concept that was created by the West German government in 1970. Begrüßungsgeld was a monetary gift from the Federal Republic of Germany to visitors from the eastern side the German Democratic Republic.

In those rare instances where East Germans were approved to visit the West, the GDR only allowed them to exchange 70 East-German Marks into West-German DM (by 1989, it had been reduced to 15 M per year -enough to buy a couple of groceries but not much more).

The monetary restriction made it difficult for East Germans to travel to the West, which prompted the West German government to introduce the Begrüßungsgeld. GDR citizens who visited the West were given 30 DM of “welcome money” up to twice a year, paid out at a city or local government. By 1988, they were entitled to 100 DM per year. The West German government’s Begrüßungsgeld therefore made it possible for a greater number of East Germans to pay a visit to the other side – assuming, of course, that their visitation request was approved by the GDR first.

©dpa / picture alliance

Naturally, when the Berlin Wall fell, thousands of East Germans flocked to the West German city and local governments to claim their promised 100 DM. In only three weeks following the fall of the wall, millions of people claimed their “welcome money”, costing the West German government 1.8 billion DM. And between November and December 1989, an estimated 3-4 billion DM was paid out in “welcome money”. The demand for this Begrüßungsgeld was so high on November 9 and 10, 1989, that Berlin mayor Walter Momper ordered banks to make the Begrüßungsgeld payouts. Long lines formed outside of West German banks as millions of East Germans lined up for the cash.

The West German government never expected to be paying such large sums of money in such a short amount of time, and ended its Begrüßungsgeld payouts on December 29, 1989. Those who didn’t claim it earlier were out of luck.

But for millions of Germans, the Begrüßungsgeld helped them with the transition to a reunified Germany.

And in July 1990, the DM became Germany’s sole currency, which it kept until adopting the Euro at the turn of the century.

©dpa / picture alliance

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Republikflucht

When East Germans escaped over the inner German border during the Cold War, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) described their actions as Republikflucht, which means “desertion from the republic“ or “flight from the republic.” Additionally, the word Republikflüchtlinge describes “deserters from the republic.”

When used by GDR authorities to speak of deserters, the word had a negative connotation, associating them with a crime against the state. The word closely resembles the more generalized Fahnenflucht, which literally means “desertion from the flag” and in this case refers to military desertion. The word Republikflucht therefore invoked similar feelings of betrayal against the state, and specifically referred to escape from the GDR.

Millions of Germans fled the east during the post-war period before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 – and even after its erection, several thousand others managed to escape. Some even obtained permits to visit the west, never to return again. Many who attempted Republikflucht, however, were shot at the border. Tens of thousands of others were imprisoned for up to eight years for their attempts.

The GDR publicly condemned the actions of Republikflüchtlinge, and in 1955 outlined the seriousness of such a crime in a booklet published by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

A woman is pulled out of a tunnel through which she escaped from East Berlin to the West on October 5, 1964. In total, 57 people escaped through this tunnel German Missions in the United States Welcome to Germany.info before it was discovered by East German border guards.

“Leaving the GDR is an act of political and moral backwardness and depravity,” the booklet says. “…Workers throughout Germany will demand punishment for those who today leave the German Democratic Republic, the strong bastion of the fight for peace, to serve the deadly enemy of the German people, the imperialists and militarists.”

Today, the word Republikflucht is one of many unique words associated with the GDR, and is often used to describe the many escape attempts from the communist regime. If you are reading German history related to the fall of the wall, this is a term you will surely come across – a term that partially defines the way we remember the effects of the Cold War.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy