Memories of a family trip to Coburg leads to broader connections

In our latest travel series, German Embassy diplomats and staff share experiences and information about their German hometowns. Today, Eva Santorini shares her memory of her visit to Coburg, Germany.

As my thoughts turn to my interests – travel and history – during these twilight zone COVID-19 days, I recall family trips to Europe to visit relatives. Transatlantic travel at the time was more complicated and expensive than it is now, so I met my grandparents only a few times and instead became a prolific letter writer at a young age. After World War II, my mother’s parents had resettled in a small scenic German town called Coburg in Oberfranken in northern Bavaria, a town first mentioned in historical records in 1054.

I was thrilled to meet my Oma und Opa for the first time when I was six years old, and the memories of that trip will remain with me forever. The small town sported small tidy streets of cobblestone radiating from the Marktplatz where small shops and cafes beckoned to visitors. My favorite memories are of the Coburger Würstchen, a long thin sausage whose delicious smoked flavor I can almost conjure up now, even after being a years-long vegetarian, and the small store under my grandparents’ apartment where we bought sweets.

The “Veste Coburg,” first mentioned in a document from 1225, dominates the town and is accessible on a long winding path that leads to its imposing entrance. Another sight I recall was the statue of the town’s most famous citizen, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (formal name: Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel, 1819–1861) who married Queen Victoria in 1840.

The Veste Coburg is one of the most well-preserved medieval fortresses in Germany.

Now fast forward: that little girl grew up to become interested in world history. Join me in making the leap from seeing the statue of Prince Albert in Coburg and forging that personal but profound connection to the larger historical picture and the larger-than-life figures of World War I.

After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria found comfort in her large family which by then included 42 grandchildren. It is from these descendants that we learn of interesting and extremely convoluted relationships which had resulted from the intermarriage within Europe’s royal houses.

Three grandchildren of the royal couple became European rulers. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King George V of Great Britain, and the former German Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine – later known as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and wife of Tsar Nicholas II, were first cousins. It was so much more troubling, then, that as the sound of the war machine grew louder in 1914, these cousins found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict.

Queen Victoria surrounded by family on her 75th birthday in 1894. Seated, second row (l to r): Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria, Kaiserin Friedrich. Standing behind them: the future Tsar Nicholas II and his future wife, the Kaiser’s cousin, Princess Alix von Hessen.

Just before the “guns of August” sparked the beginning of the Great War, it is said that Tsar Nicholas implored his cousin, King George V for protection and requested exile in Great Britain. Sadly no protection was granted and the rest is, truly, history.

The visits to Coburg to see my grandparents left me with many vivid and happy memories. But they also fostered a curiosity that reaches far beyond those innocent childhood memories. Perhaps you have been fortunate to make a strong family connection during a visit to Germany. What are your memories? What struck you?

By Eva Santorini, German Embassy

The history of April Fool’s Day in Germany

Where did April Fool’s originate?

April Fool’s is a tradition celebrated widely in both the US and Germany. Although it is unclear exactly how and why this day of jokes originated, there is plenty of evidence that Germans (along with other Europeans) were already playing tricks on each other back in the Middle Ages!

Long before the Internet, Germans were celebrating April 1 the old-fashioned way. On April 1, 1530, a meeting was allegedly scheduled for lawmakers in Augsburg, who were told that they were gathering to unify the state’s coinage. When people heard of the meeting, they began trading their currency to make a profit from the change. However, the meeting never took place, the law was not enacted, and everyone who showed up – as well as those who traded their currency – were mocked as fools.

April Fool’s pranks continued over the years in Germany, and newspaper publishers soon jumped on the bandwagon. According to legend, one German newspaper published an April Fool’s article in 1774, claiming that it was possible to breed chickens in different colors by painting the coop that the hen lived in. A newspaper article from April 1, 1789 claimed that hail the size of pigeon eggs had fallen in Berlin. On April 1, 1923, a Berlin newspaper reported that Egyptian mummies had been found in the city’s underground railway station.

As technology developed, so did April Fool’s pranks. On April 1, 1926, German magazine Echo Continental announced the development of a new triple-decker bus for the city of Berlin, complete with an edited picture that served as “proof” of the development. Although this year is not a time for pranking, we still wanted to share the history with you so you can start thinking about how you will prank your coworkers in 2021.

5 secret German castles you probably never heard of

Germany is known for its many majestic castles and palaces. But even those who don’t go out of their way to visit one may stumble across the ruins of a medieval castle: Germany has over 20,000 castles, some of which are well-known attractions and others that lay isolated in ruins in the countryside.

The most famous castle is, of course, Schloss Neuschwanstein, which was built in the Bavarian hillside in the late 1800s. Walt Disney’s castle was inspired by Neuschwanstein, and the site is known worldwide for its magical appearance. It is Germany’s most-visited castle, bringing in over 1.3 million tourists per year.

But Germany also has plenty of smaller, lesser-known castles and palaces that are hidden throughout all of its 16 states. Although this is not a time for travel, we wanted to give you a visual tour of some of these hidden places. Here are just a few:

1) Hohenbaden Old Castle, Baden-Württemberg

Hidden in the Black Forest encircling Baden-Baden is the Hohenbaden Old Castle, which has origins dating back to the 12th century. This castle fell into disuse and was destroyed by a fire in the 16th century, but its ruins make it an attractive destination in the Black Forest today.

2) Werdenfels Castle, Bavaria

The ruins of Werdenfels Castle are located in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria. Little is known about this castle’s origins, but it was most likely built in the 12th or 13th century. It served as an administrative and judicial center for some time, but by the 17th century it was deteriorating. The ruins were privately bought in 1822 and restoration of the castle began in 1986. Today, visitors can hike up a nature trail to see the castle ruins for themselves.

3) Castle Neuleiningen, Rhineland-Palatinate

The Castle Neuleiningen is a castle ruin that was built on the edge of the Palatinate Forest and destroyed by the French in 1690 during the War of the Palatine Succession. Today, the castle is sometimes used for open-air concerts and festivals. The observation tower has spectacular views of the Upper Rhine Valley.

4) Lichtenstein Castle, Baden-Württemberg

The Lichtenstein Castle was built relatively recently; it was constructed in the 1840s by German patriot Wilhelm Hauff who was inspired by the historical novel and fairy-tale Lichtenstein, which takes place in a majestic castle. Although the region had been home to many castles, most of these were in ruins by the 19th century, so Hauff commissioned the construction of a new one. The Lichtenstein Castle was damaged during World War II, but has since been restored and is open to the public for tours. This castle is not well-known among international tourists.

5) Schloss Drachenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia

Some castles are historic ruins; others are modern residences. Schloss Drachenburg is more of the latter; this majestic palace was built as a private residence in the 1880s. It stands on a hill on the Rhine near the city of Bonn. Baron Stephan von Sarter, a wealthy broker and banker, had originally planned to live in the castle but ultimately moved to Paris, where he lived out the rest of his days.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

9 Germans of African descent who changed the world

In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting 10 influential Germans of African descent who impacted the world or are making a difference in their communities. Who would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!

Steffi Jones

Steffi Jones is inducted into Germany’s Hall of Fame. © dpa / picture alliance

Stephanie Jones is a German football manager best known for managing the German women’s national team. She also played for the women’s national team between 1993 and 2007, helping Germany win the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as three European Championships. In 2019, Jones was among the first female soccer players to be inducted into Germany’s Hall of Fame in Dortmund.

Haddaway

© dpa / picture alliance

We all know the 1993 song “What is Love”by Haddaway. But not everyone knows that this hit single was created by Trinidadian-born German musician and vocalist Nestor Alexander Haddaway, who moved to Cologne in 1987. Today, he splits his time between Cologne and Kitzbühl, Austria.

Isaac Bonga

© dpa / picture alliance

Isaac Bonga is an NBA basketball player from Germany who currently plays for the Washington Wizards. Before becoming an NBA player, Bonga had a successful basketball career in Germany, where he played with Skyliners Frankfurt of the Basketball Bundesliga. Bonga also represents the senior German national team in international competitions.

Continue reading “9 Germans of African descent who changed the world”

7 facts most Americans don’t know about Berlin – How many do you know?

Juten Tach! (“Guten Tag!”)

Are you an expert on Berlin? Think you know everything there is to know about Germany’s capital city? A large portion of Berlin’s population are transplants from other regions of Germany and other nations, so there’s a lot of competition for knowing all there is to know about this dynamic, bustling city.

Because so many Americans already know so much about Berlin, we decided to compile a list of almost unknown facts, or things so obscure they might not be known by even Americans who’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Berlin. The goal here is to challenge even the most ardent fan. How many of these facts do you already know? Count them up, and we’ll rate your score at the end!

As they say in Berlin, “Ran an die Buletten!” (“Let’s go!”)

We’ll get you started with an easy one…

1. Did you know Berlin has an aquarium with an elevator?

The DomAquarée in Berlin is the “largest free standing cylindrical aquarium in the world”.

With thousands of fish and unique flora and fauna, a ride through its middle is a must!

The 82 ft tall AquaDom at the Radisson Blue Hotel in Berlin is home to nearly 2,600 fish of 56 different species. About  264,172 gallons of water fill the cylindrical tank in the hotel lobby.

The aquarium was constructed in 2004 at a cost of 13 million Euros. And upkeep is not cheap: back when the tank had only 1,500 fish, they required 18 lbs of fish food per day – and this number has surely risen.

In order to get a better 360 view of the fish in the AquaDom, visitors can take a transparent elevator up through the inside of the tank!

Ok, that one was pretty easy. Let’s turn up the heat!

Continue reading “7 facts most Americans don’t know about Berlin – How many do you know?”

The history of skiing in Germany

Are you passionate about skiing or snowboarding? Well, so are Germans! In fact, Germany has more skiers than any other country in Europe, with more than 14.6 million Germans partaking in the sport.

But where did this winter sport originate?

Archeological research suggests that ski-like objects date back to 6000 BC, used primarily as tools to cross frozen wetlands and marshes in the wintertime. But recreational skiing is a much more recent activity.

In the 1700s, the Norwegian army held competitions where soldiers would learn how to shoot while skiing. Those races were the precursors to skiing as an Olympic sport. And it didn’t take long for it to spread through Europe. Downhill skiing gained popularity in the 1800s and in 1924, the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France and featured cross-country skiing.

©dpa / picture alliance

In 1936, downhill skiing was included for the first time in the Winter Olympics, held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Soon thereafter, people began constructing chair lifts and ski resorts, which caused recreational skiing to grow in popularity – especially in the 1950s and 60s.

Today, Germany has about 700 ski resorts, 1,384 ski lifts and 864 miles of slopes, making it a perfect wintertime destination for ski lovers. Many of these lie in the mountainous state of Bavaria. One popular ski town is Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which lies near Germany’s tallest mountain, the Zugspitze (elevation: 9,718 ft). The Rhön Mountains feature gentler slopes ideal for beginners, while the picturesque Black Forest has about 200 ski lifts that allow winter sports enthusiasts to experience a change of scenery.

While Bavaria contains the biggest ski resort, the Black Forest contains the oldest: Germany’s first ski tow was built in the Black Forest, and Germany’s oldest ski club was formed there in 1985.

But other regions of Germany – including the Ore Mountains in Saxony – also have their share of winter sports destinations.

©dpa / picture alliance

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

10 magical places for winter sports in Germany

Looking for a place to do some winter sports in Germany? We’ve got you covered!

1. Bobsled and Skeleton in Kleinstadt

Okay, if this video doesn’t terrify you, I don’t know what will. If you happen to be in NRW, you can visit the Winterberg bobsled track, the “Bobbahn”. The truly brave can even take a ride down the 5,250 foot track at 60 miles an hour.

No thanks.

2. Skiing in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

There are plenty of runs to choose from in Garmisch. One day isn’t enough to explore everything wintery Bavaria has to offer!

© dpa / picture-alliance

Continue reading “10 magical places for winter sports in Germany”

Got a letter for Santa?

Christmas is just two weeks away, which means you should start writing your letters to Santa soon! Where should you send them? Well, some people send their letters to the North Pole. And others send them to Himmelpfort.

The tiny German village of Himmelpfort is located 60 miles north of Berlin. Although it has a population of only 500, it has one of the busiest post offices in Germany (relative to its population, at least). For the last 35 years, the town has been receiving letters to Father Christmas.

© dpa / picture-alliance

Hundreds of thousands of letters come in every holiday season – so this is just the beginning. Father Christmas and his 20 volunteers in Himmelpfort promise to personally answer every letter that arrives before December 15.

But why are these letters arriving in Himmelpfort in the first place?

It all began in 1984, when a few children mistakenly sent their Christmas wish lists to Himmelpfort. The translation of the village’s name is “Heaven’s Gate”, and they kids assumed that this is where Father Christmas lives. When the local postwoman saw the letters, she decided to send back a reply “from Santa”. Once the children received a response, more children excitedly started to send letters to Himmelpfort, starting a trend that continues to this day.

© dpa / picture-alliance

Today, the Deutsche Post (the German Post Office) sets up an official Christmas Post Office in Himmelpfort for two months each year, bringing in volunteers to answer letters from children in 16 different languages. If you or your children would like a response from Santa, don’t send a letter to the North Pole – send it to Himmelpfort instead!

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

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