Why did the GDR build the Berlin Wall?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – an important date in German history. But while this year’s focus is on the events leading to Germany’s reunification, let’s not forget how everything began.

During this month in 1961, the GDR established the border that kept Germany divided for years to come. Between 1949 and 1961, 2.7 million people had fled the GDR and moved to the west, ignoring emigration restrictions. The dividing line between East and West Berlin was a border-crossing hotspot. In the year 1960 alone, 200,000 East Germans defected, leaving behind their old lives for new ones in the west.

GDR authorities panicked over the mass emigration and sought to put an end to it. On the eve of August 12, 1961, the East German communist government closed the German border, and on August 13, construction of the Berlin Wall began. Families and friends were separated as GDR authorities tore up roads and sealed the border with barbed wire fencing and concrete blocks. It wasn’t long before a 12-foot concrete wall stood as a barrier between the east and the west.

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German “Mauerspechte” responsible for Berlin Wall souvenirs

If you’ve ever traveled to Germany, there’s a good chance you’ve seen tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall for sale at a souvenir shop. But the wall is gone – so where did these colorful pieces come from?

After the East German border was opened up nearly 30 years ago, countless people made their way to the wall, equipped with pickaxes and sledgehammers. They tirelessly chipped away at the wall. Their motivations varied, but in general such a person was called a Mauerspecht.

In German, Mauer means wall and Specht means woodpecker. A Mauerspecht, therefore, refers to a person who chips away at a wall (specifically, the Berlin Wall, since the word arose in this context and had never been used before). The closest English equivalent would be the word “stonepecker.”

©dpa / picture alliance

After the border was opened, many Germans flocked to the wall, eager to help break apart the object that blocked their freedom for so long. To many, chipping at the wall was an emotional act in which they gained power over a restrictive barrier that was now a symbol of their triumph. Previously, this concrete structure was representative of the political system that confined and controlled the people in the GDR through fear, which made it even more satisfying for the wall’s former victims to break it apart themselves.

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A German guide to complaining about the weather

Complaining about the weather is an international art form, one at which the Germans excel. But when done incorrectly, one can sound like an awkward outsider.

“Oh man, it’s raining cats and dogs!” said no real person ever. Say that in an actual English-speaking place and heads will tilt.

“Man, this weather sucks so bad!” said a real person at some point. Say that in an actual English-speaking place and heads will nod in agreement!

The same goes for German. Sure, you could say, “Das Wetter ist nicht schön” (“The weather is not nice”), but that’s boring! Finding a playful cynical phrase to describe the crappy weather is the perfect way to fit right in. It’s camaraderie built over a shared experience of wet socks and/or icy windshields.

So how can we express our distaste of yet another cloudy, muggy, rainy, snow-filled, hot, humid, garbage-weather day? Here are 11 words and phrases to help you out:

1. “Was für ein Wetter!” (direct translation: “What weather!” meaning: “Isn’t this weather bad?”)

2. “So ein Sauwetter!” (“Such lousy weather!”)

3. “So ein Mistwetter” (“Such crappy weather”)

4. “Es regnet wie aus Eimern!” (“It’s raining buckets!”)

Here’s a fancy one:

5. “Bei dem Wetter schicht man keinen Hund vor die Tür!” (“This weather’s so bad you wouldn’t even put your dog out!”)

6. “Es ist saukalt!” (“It is sooo cold!”). “Sau” serves to replace “so” in slang. Together with the word “kalt” it means “so cold”

7. “Schmuddelwetter. Schmuddelwetter.” (“Nasty weather. Foul Weather”) *nasty, foul, and dreary all seem to work as translations here.

Here are a couple bonus words that can help you to describe those in-between weather conditions:

8. “Schneematsch”  (Literally: “snow mud”. Alternatively “slush”)
It refers to that brown, dirty slush that you find on the streets in the days after it has snowed.

9. “Nieselregen” (“drizzle”) Nieselregen is the German word for drizzle, or a very light rain.

Here’s one with a little more optimism:

10. “Morgengrau gibt Himmelblau” (Literally: “Morning grey gives way to a blue sky”, alternatively “Dawn brings a blue sky”)

While Germans have many colorful ways to be grumpy about the weather, it’s all a part of persevering and coping. Therefore, we wanted to leave you with one last expression to help you get through that rough, rainy, rancid day. It’s a bit of German practicality and wisdom:

11. “Es gibt kein schlechtes Wetter, nur die falsche Kleidung.”
(“There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothes”)

By William Fox, German Embassy

A German surprise: First Graders look forward to their Schultüten

A girl carries her Schultüte in the year 1905. ©dpa / picture alliance

For many Americans and their families, it’s back-to-school season! For some parents, this means back-to-school shopping for supplies, clothes and other needs for their children. In Germany, however, First Graders get a special treat on their first day of school: a Schultüte (“school cone”)!

A Schultüte is colorful and elaborately decorated cone that is given to German students on their first day of first grade. A typical “school cone” is prepared by a students’ parents and filled to the brim with goodies such as small school supplies (like pens, pencil cases, erasers, etc.) , toys and candy. These bundles of gifts evoke excitement in students during one of the most important days of their childhood – the day that school begins. As kids make their way to their new classrooms, they proudly carry their Schultüten with them. Receiving a Schultüte is often a highlight of a First Grader’s childhood. Many Germans eagerly reflect back on their first day of first grade, picturing their “school cones” and remembering the excitement that these gifts brought them.

This German tradition originated in the early 1800s in the cities of Jena, Dresden and Leipzig. Back then, parents brought the Schultüten directly to the schools, where they were hung on a so-called Schultütenbaum (“school cone tree”) in the classroom. When the tree was “ripe” with school cones, it meant that students were ready to begin first grade. On the first day of school, students were instructed to pick the cone with their name on it. To their surprise, the cones were usually filled with edible treats such as pretzels and candy.

Naturally, the tradition spread and evolved over time. Today, students often receive their Schultüten before they leave their homes to go to school – and their cones are often filled with school supplies, rather than candy. Even Austria and the Czech Republic have adopted this fun back-to-school tradition. So while American kids are often busy back-to-school shopping with their parents, German kids will receive a lot of these items in their cones!

©dpa / picture alliance

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

Word of the Week: Geisterbahnhof

Have you ever been on a metro train that passed through an empty station?
The word Geisterbahnhof means “ghost train station” – and as its translation implies, it signifies an empty or out-of-service station that gives off a ghostly vibe. This word originated during the Cold War, when so-called “ghost stations” arose in Berlin’s public transportation system. Today, however, the word may also be used to refer to any desolate train station, regardless of its location.

When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the transportation system in Berlin was drastically affected. Parts of Berlin’s metro system (called the U-Bahn) were in the East and others were in the West, leading to a divided railway system. Many lines ran through both parts, and in most cases, they were split to create individual lines. In these instances, trains would stop at the border and turn around. But some Western lines – specifically the U6 and the U8 – ran through small portions of East Berlin. These lines took Western commuters from one part of West Berlin to another, but not without going through the desolate Eastern stations that became known as Geisterbahnhöfe.

These ghostly out-of-service stations were heavily guarded by East German police. Barbed wire fences and an electrically charged third rail ensured that no East Germans would escape into the railway system. Trains slowed down as they traveled through these stations, but they did not stop. Looking out the U-Bahn windows at the dimly-lit platforms, commuters often had an eerie vibe. Over time, each of these desolate stations were referred to as a Geisterbahnhof. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, these stations reopened and have since been modernized – but the word is still used.

The entrance to an U-Bahn station in East Germany. ©dpa / picture alliance

Today, the term Geisterbahnhof describes any and all disused train stations. From New York to Hamburg to Moscow, many of the world’s metro systems have stations that are out of service – either temporarily or permanently. Looking out at the empty platforms as your train passes through one, the hairs on the back of your neck might stand on end as you imagine the ghosts of a station that has been shut down.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

This map shows you every single German island we could find. What did we miss?

When you think of Germany, you probably think of the typical stuff like beer, lederhosen, the Berlin Wall, trains, etc. But after looking at this map, you should also think of ocean islands!

It’s weird, isn’t it? We usually associate a smattering of near-coast islands with nations like Greece, Italy, or Japan. But Germany has its fair share as well! Have a look:

  1. Borkum
  2. Kachelotplate
  3. Memmert
  4. Juist
  5. Norderney
  6. Baltrum
  7. Langeoog
  8. Spiekeroog
  9. Insel Lütje Hörn
  10. Wangerooge
  11. Langlütjen II
  12. Minsener Oog
  13. Mellum
  14. Heligoland & Helgoland-Düne
  15. Nigerhörn
  16. Neuwerk
  17. Trischen
  18. Südfall
  19. Nordstrandischmoor
  20. Hooge
  21. Gröde
  22. Oland
  23. Föhr
  24. Sylt
  25. Norddorf
  26. Nordmarsch-Langeneß
  27. Japsand (sand)
  28. Norderoogsand (sand)
  29. Hallig Süderoog
  30. Pellworm 
  31. Fehmarn
  32. Walfisch
  33. Insel Poel
  34. Insel Langenwerder
  35. Ummanz
  36. Großer Werder
  37. Bock
  38. Hiddensee
  39. Greifswalder Oie
  40. Ruden
  41. Usedom (Eastern half is Poland)
  42. Insel Vilm
  43. Rügen

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Wildlife in Germany: Here’s what you might see, from the Baltic to the Alps!

While Germany is known for its mountainous landscapes, quaint villages and picturesque castles, not many people travel to the region to see the country’s wildlife. While Germany may not have as much wildlife as, say, Ecuador, the country is still home to a number of species worth seeing (if you’re lucky, that is)!

Alpine Ibex

If you’re hiking at a high elevation in the Alps, you might stumble across an Alpine ibex (commonly referred to as a Steinbock in German). This is a species of wild goat that is an excellent climber and lives in rough terrain near the snow line. So in order to spot one, you have to be pretty high up!

©dpa / picture alliance

Red Fox

One of Germany’s most famous inhabitants is the red fox – and if you spend a lot of time in nature, you have a good chance of seeing one! Red foxes are common throughout Europe, and you’ll be able to spot one easily due to its red-orange fur. According to one study, there are about 600,000 red foxes living in Germany. So bring your telephoto lenses and start looking!

©dpa / picture alliance

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Word of the Week: Dreckspatz

If you have kids, there’s a good chance they’re sometimes a Dreckspatz – especially if they love playing in the mud. The German word Dreckspatz is a fusion of the words Dreck (“dirt”) and Spatz (“sparrow”), and describes a person who gets him-or-herself dirty easily.

©dpa / picture alliance

Sparrow birds bathe themselves in dust or sand to clean their feathers – thus, people who do the same are known as Dreckspätze in Germany.

Someone who constantly drops food on his lap might be called a Dreckspatz – especially if this person struggles to clean himself up afterwards, and walks through life with stains on his shirt. But more commonly, a Dreckspatz is used to describe a child — perhaps because children are more likely to get themselves dirty.

©dpa / picture alliance

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably cringed after seeing the grass stains on your child’s brand new dress pants or chocolate on that white shirt. Maybe your child likes to jump into puddles or play in the mud. Either way, it can be frustrating to scrub stains out of your kid’s clothes on a daily basis.

Du bist so ein Dreckspatz! (“You are such a Dreckspatz!”) is what an angry or frustrated parent might say after their child builds a mud pie or wears his dinner instead of eating it. But it’s not a serious insult – a parent might roll their eyes lovingly while calling their child that.

A similar German word is Schmutzfink. The word Schmutz is a close synonym for Dreck – both words mean dirt or filth (but Dreck is also used to describe soil). Additionally, the word Fink describes a finch – another bird species that often bathes in dirt.

©dpa / picture alliance

But ultimately, while it’s normal for children to be called a Dreckspatz or Schmutzfink, you probably don’t want that reputation. So make sure to keep those stains off your shirt to avoid the name-calling.

By Nicole Glass, German Embassy

11 German avocado words and phrases you need to make guacamole

Avocado consumption is on the rise worldwide! Though Germans aren’t known for their rabid avocado appetite, avocados can be found in supermarkets from Berlin to Bavaria. Germans consumed 57 million kilos of avocados in 2017, doubling the numbers from 2013! The average German citizen ate about 5 avocados last year.

One hypothesis on why more avocados are being sold in Deutschland recently is that a university education in Germany is effectively free, and therefore millennial Germans don’t have to feel pitiful for spending extra on 4-12 avocados during their weekly shop.

That isn’t a real theory. We just mashed it up. Well, except for the part about effectively free university tuition in Germany. If that planted a seed in your head, read more about studying in Germany here.

In any event, avocados are heart-healthy, delicious and squishy- and Germans are buying them more and more!

Ok. Let’s get to the more fruitful part of this article:

If you’re in Germany and you’ve bought an avocado at the supermarket, you might need to talk about it with your roommate or significant other. Maybe you want to impress your ‘very interested’ coworker in the break room about how you made delicious guacamole last night. Or possibly you want to write an article for a blog about 11 German words and phrases relating to avocados.

In any of the above examples, this vocab and phrase list will help you. Enjoy!

  1. Der Avocadokern – The avocado pit
  2. Das Avocadofruchtfleisch – The avocado ‘meat’ or ‘fruit’
  3. Die Avocado zerdücken – To mash the avocado
  4. Der Avocado ist braun geworden! – The avocado is brown!
  5. Die Avocado ist reif – The avocado is ripe!

Guacamole Seasoning

  1. Der Koriander – Cilantro
  2. Die Limette – Lime
  3. Das Salz – Salt
  4. Der Pfeffer – Pepper
  5. Der Kreuzkümmel – Cumin

Bonus!

  1. Drei Euro für eine Avocado!? Sie haben keine Tassen im Schrank!
    “Three euros for one avocado!? Have you lost your mind!?”

By William Fox, German Embassy

6 unique summer traditions in Germany

Germans love to spend time outside in the summer. While many Germans enjoy traveling abroad, others choose to explore their own country. From beaches in the north to picturesque mountains in the south, Germany has it all! If you want to act like a local, this is how you can spend your time when the temperatures begin to soar.

Head to an Eiscafe… and order a Spaghettieis!

If you’ve ever been to Germany in the summertime, you might have noticed the many different Eisdiele (ice cream parlos) or Eiscafes. Germans love to get together over a refreshing bowl of ice cream when it’s hot outside. In fact, there are over 3,300 ice cream shops in Germany! While gelato might hit the spot, a more unique option is a cool bowl of Spaghettieis – a German style of ice cream that literally looks like a bowl of spaghetti. We promise you, it still tastes like ice cream!

©dpa / picture alliance

Beat the heat and go Wasserwandern

Wasserwandern translates to “water hiking”. This means leaving behind solid ground to go explore Germany’s many waterways by canoe or kayak. Wasserwandern is particularly popular in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which is known as the “land of a thousand lakes”. Formed tens of thousands of years ago during the Ice Age, these lakes are home to a number of endangered species and make the perfect summertime getaway for nature enthusiasts. So pack a waterproof bag and explore Germany’s many rivers and lakes on boat!

©dpa / picture alliance

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