If you’ve ever visited East Germany during the Cold War, you probably saw a lot of grey, cheaply-built apartment buildings that might have made you feel depressed. This sort of building is what Germans referred to as Plattenbau – a structure made up of prefabricated concrete slabs. Basically, an inexpensive structure with little originality.
In this context, Platte means “concrete slab” and Bau means “building.” World War II had left many parts of Germany damaged and in need of reconstruction. By the 1960s, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was struggling financially, and most of its new apartment buildings were therefore built in the Plattenbau style. There were several different designs, varying in size and height, but overall each one was made up of concrete panels.
The Plattenbau design made it possible for the GDR to rapidly build new apartments across the country. GDR architects claimed to base their construction on the world-renowned Bauhaus style. Indeed, the Plattenbau was a functional concept, but lacked aesthetic qualities. At first, East Germans were excited about their new homes; many young people wanted to move out of their parents’ apartments to receive a Plattenbau-style apartment of their own, because at a minimum, they had central heating. But after the wall came down in 1989, things changed; East Germans saw the higher-quality homes of the West, and few remained content with their Plattenbau apartments. They sought out homes exhibiting greater originality in their design.
Over time, many of these buildings were modernized. Some were demolished. Others remain occupied, but are often a cheaper alternative to Western-style buildings. But if you visit cities in former East Germany today, you will probably see at least one Plattenbau. You’ll know it when you see it.
A Bratkartoffelverhältnis, which literally means “fried potato relationship,” is not about how much Germans love fried potatoes, but it is about finding a meal ticket, or at the very least someone who cooks for you.
“Er hat ein Bratkartoffelverhältnis mit ihr,” essentially translates, for instance, into “he only sees her because she feeds and waters him.”
At the same time, “er sucht ein Bratkartoffelverhältnis” means “he’s looking for a meal ticket.”
According to some online sources, the origin of this expression dates back to the early 20th-century, World War I era, when short-term love affairs were entered into because of the better provisions provided by one particular partner in the relationship.
These “relationships of convenience” often revolved around adequate food, shelter and other basic needs – things that are often in short supply in wartime or other crisis situations.
Today, however, this expression is more often than not used in Germany as a tongue-in-cheek, synonym for a “wilde Ehe” (wild marriage), a reference to co-habitation without tying the knot. This is a not entirely uncommon relationship status, for instance, in Germany and most Nordic countries, where a couple might live together for decades, with or without children, in what is officially recognized after a certain period of time as a common-law marriage.
Bratkartoffeln (fried potatoes) are, incidentally, a very popular side dish in Germany, usually fried up in a pan with some onions and bits of ham or bacon. They are often served with fried eggs, sometimes with ketchup on the side, a meal that is also known as “chips’n’egg” in Great Britain. (Note to anyone who might want to try this at home: the Bratkartoffeln are usually prepared by slicing already pre-cooked, boiled potatoes into a hot, greased-up skillet – this is a way of using up leftover boiled potatoes, another staple of the traditional German diet.)
A Verhältnis, moreover, refers to a “relationship.” So if you hear someone say “er hat ein Verhältnis mit ihr” (he has a relationship with her), it usually means there is some kind of hanky panky going on.
Other nouns that share the “Brat-” prefix – besides the classic bratwurst (sausage), or brats, natürlich (of course) – include: Bratfisch (fried fisch); Brathering (fried herring); Brathühnchen/Brathendl (roast chicken); Bratfett/Bratenfett (fat for frying); Bratensoße (gravy); Bratenfleisch (meat for roasting); Bratenwender (fish slice); Bratofen/Bratröhre (oven); Bratpfanne (frying pan); and Bratrost (Grill).
Many Germans – like the Scandinavians – celebrate the Sonnendwendfeier, an annual midsummer festival marking the summer solstice, or longest day of the year (on June 20 this year).
The marking of the summer solstice dates back to pre-Christian, pagan times across northern Europe. Stonehenge, for instance, was erected in England to mark the Sonnenwende (“solstice”), which occurs twice per year – the Wintersonnenwende (“winter solstice”) on December 21 or 22, and the Sommersonnenwende (“summer solstice”), marked from June 20 to 23 (or a later date, depending on the country in question).
A traditional Sonnenwendfeier involves the lighting of a big, blazing bonfire. Villagers, for instance, might gather around such a fire on a field in the northern German states of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony or Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. They will hang out together at the fire, which might become the center of a local Volksfest with sausages, beer and other items for sale. (In the same vein, many Germans set up Osterfeuer (Easter fires) in their own backyards, which they observe with friends, family and neighbors.)
In the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, many cityfolk will drive out into the surrounding countryside and light such summer solstice fires, around which they will launch lively outdoor celebrations that last late into the night. (Legend has it that many children are also conceived on this particular night!)
Although it may at first sound like a reference to a refreshing riverside swimming hole, a Sommerloch (“summer hole”) actually refers to something entirely different – the dearth of “real news” smack dab in the middle of summertime.
The Sommerloch occurs during the Sommermonate (summer months). During these long, languid days punctuated by many vacations in Germany (and beyond – most Germans are avid globe-trekking travelers!), people don their Sommersachen (“summer stuff / summer clothes”) and might even acquire a few Sommersprossen (“freckles”). They may also retro-fit their German-engineered driving machines with Sommerreifen (“summer tires”).
The German media, meanwhile, just might start concocting some far-fetched April Fools’ type tales to confuse and bemuse – their audiences. Past Sommerloch stories in Germany have, among others, included reports of an escaped seal swimming up the Elbe River near the eastern German city of Dresden, as well as alleged “sightings” of a crocodile that decided to call a lake in the southern German state of Bavaria home.
“For most of last week, there had only been one topic of discussion in Schwandorf, Germany: ‘Klausi’ the crocodile, the first big story of the country’s annual silly season of slow summer news,” Spiegel Online International reported a few years ago in a story aptly entitled “What a Croc – Dangerous Reptile Might be a Beaver.”
Welcome to the “Far Side” of the annual German news cycle.
So who ever said Germans have no sense of humor? Clearly some German media folk, at least, like to indulge in the lighter side of life during the Sommerloch, which sometimes leaves them scrambling to find any “hard news” to report on. If they fail to deliver any such Sommerloch stories, their audiences would moreover take note, for they have come to expect them.
Many of us may be carrying a few extra pounds around the middle, and in German there’s a nice word it: Hüftgold!
Directly translated, Hüftgold means “hip gold”, and it refers to the extra weight around your hips. One English translation would be “love handles”, although Hüftgold refers more to the hips than to a person’s love handles. Both the English and German words, however, refer to the weight in a friendly manner: after all, who wouldn’t want hips as valuable (or beautiful) as gold?
However, most people who possess Hüftgold don’t want it, and they choose to exercise or eat healthier to cut down on that Hüftgold.
But there’s also another definition for the term: Hüftgold may also refer to the calorie-rich foods that cause you to gain weight. In this context, Hüftgold could refer to that gallon of chocolate chip ice cream in your fridge or the french fries you ate last night. Either way, the Hüftgold that you consume will transform into the Hüftgold that you carry.
If you’re trying to express how serious you are about something, what word would you use? In German, you would say you are bierernst (“beer serious”). No joke! Or is it?
The word bierernst (which is an adjective) does not sound like one that you would use to express your seriousness. But it is – seriously! Someone who is bierernst about something is someone who is not kidding around. Germans are clearly serious about their beer – so serious, in fact, that the word “serious” is overly emphasized when combined with the word “beer”.
Let’s look at an example: your friend tells you she is moving to Fiji. At first, you think she’s joking – why would she take off and fly thousands of miles away? She looks at you sternly and tells you that she is bierernst. At this point, you know she’s telling the truth.
The term can be traced back to the early 1900s. At the time, it was assumed that wine makes people act happy and relaxed, whereas beer changes someone’s mood and makes them more serious. But whether or not this is the case, you can still use the word bierernst to express your sincerity!
Have you ever wondered what to do with any leftover colored Easter eggs you don’t plan on keeping for next year or are unable to eat anytime soon? How about conducting an “Eiertanz” (egg dance) with them, an expression that once was taken literally but today has an altogether different meaning.
“Eiertanz” is mostly used as a figure of speech to indicate how an individual might “beat around the bush” by avoiding the heart of a matter. In this vein, Germans might use the expression “einen Eiertanz aufführen/vorführen” (performing an egg dance) to connote careful or complex behavior and/or conversation used as a stalling and/or avoidance tactic.
Originally, however, this expression was actually used to describe a type of dance that was literally performed around eggs strewn about the dance floor. Among the first known German literary references to an “Eiertanz” was a citation dating back to 1795 in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre” (Wilhelm Meisters Apprentice Years), in which the character Mignon dances blindfolded between eggs laid out on a floor.
Similar expressions include “Herumeiern” and “Herumgeeiere,” which essentially boils down to “waffling around” or engaging in stalling tactics in difficult situations or social scenarios.
The expression “German Eiertanz” moreover wended its way into the English language according to news agency Bloomberg in 2011 to describe Germany’s alleged reluctance in dealing with the euro crisis.
A common “Spielart” (gaming tactic) of the “Eiertanz” is the “Salamitaktik” (salami strategy), which can in particular be observed in politics.
The English expression “walking on eggshells,” however, is not entirely synonymous with “Eiertanz.” This figure of speech applies more to avoiding conflict or confrontation with a disgruntled partner or adversary, particularly in the personal versus the political realm and is used more to critique the person being avoided due to their generally moody behavior.
What do you use to lift up a piece of pie and place it on a plate? A Tortenheber, of course!
It seems that Germans have a word for everything, even simple objects that do not have a name in English. One such object is the so-called Tortenheber, which translates directly to “pie lifter” or, more indirectly – “cake shovel”. If you don’t know what that is, do not worry – you’ve probably seen one, but can’t think of its name!
A Tortenheber is a tool with a handle and a triangle-shaped surface that is used to pick up a slice of cake or pie and move it onto a plate. This makes it easy to serve cake to a large group of guests – especially when the cake is dry and falling apart. It also prevents servers from having to use their fingers or other tools to serve slices of cake.
Search for a pie spatula, pie lifter, cake server, cake shovel or any other variation online and you will find photos of a Tortenheber. Luckily, Germans are less likely to get confused when asking for one at the store, since they have a word that clearly defines this highly specific kitchenware.
What do you do when you ate too much? You go on a Verdauungsspaziergang, of course!
A Verdauungsspaziergang is a walk that you take to get you moving and help you digest your food more quickly.
This colloquial term comes from the words Verdauung (“digestion”) and Spaziergang (“a walk”). A direct translation would be a “digestion walk”. After stuffing yourself, it may be wiser to go for a Verdauungsspaziergang instead of lying down, which would ultimately make it more difficult to get moving again. By getting some fresh air and moving your body, you are speeding up the digestion process.
In German, there’s a saying that emphasizes this belief: Nach dem Essen sollst du ruh’n oder tausend Schritte tun (“After eating you should rest or take a thousand steps.”) This phrase originated in Ancient Rome, which suggests that people have believed in the benefit of a “digestion walk” for centuries.
So next time you eat too much, avoid the temptation of lying down – and go for a walk instead!
The German language is filled with words that do not exist in English. One such word is Sehnsucht, which is difficult to translate accurately. Sehnsucht is a deep emotional state; it describes an intense longing, craving, yearning or “intensely missing” something or someone. English translations do not do this term justice; it is a much more emotionally charged word in German.
Someone can possess Sehnsucht for a faraway place – a deep yearning to be somewhere else, one that consumes your thoughts. Someone could also have Sehnsucht for another person; two lovers separated by distance may possess this sort of craving for each other. Someone could also have Sehnsucht for a different life – one that occupies their dreams while their reality is mediocre.
The term comes from the words das Sehnen (“yearning”) and das Siechtum (“a lingering illness”). The yearning described by Sehnsucht is, in some regards, like an illness, because it is all-consuming and will not go away easily. What do you have Sehnsucht for? Your star-crossed lover? A life in Hawaii? Your childhood? Or the future of your dreams?