About martynfarmer

Observer, Reader, Communicator

Neither cottage nor cabin


Underground maps sometimes throw up names that seem out of sync with the city or culture they appear in. A case in point is Onkel Toms Hütte (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) here in Berlin. I’ve always wondered about that name. What link could there possibly be between this leafy west-Berlin suburb, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic abolitionist novel? Reader, I googled it. The area takes its name after a Gaststätte (restaurant-pub) built in 1885. Its owner, Thomas, or Tom, built some cabins in the beer garden where patrons could seek shelter from the rain, and eventually the restaurant gained the name ‘Onkel Toms Hütte’, a jocular nod to the 1852 internationally best-selling novel. Sadly, the restaurant was knocked down in 1977.

It still seemed worth an expedition, though. Apparently, the restaurant was located near the junction of Riemeisterstrasse and Onkel-Tom-Strasse, and at this spot I found myself on a warm and humid July afternoon some weeks later. No signs of the Gaststätte, though, but across the road I spied the eastern perimeter of the Grunewald Forest. I went to have a look, and had not gone far into the forest when I saw what appeared to be the concrete foundations of a stepped garden, moss-covered, and cracked out of shape by the roots of tall trees. I’d found it but needed to celebrate and confirm my discovery, and an enquiry at a near-by pub, the Rodelhütte, confirmed that I had indeed found the ruins of Onkel Toms Hütte. The beer I drank to celebrate was none the worse for being served by the friendly landlady of the Sledging Cabin, rather than Tom.

My mind now wandered to Swiss Cottage on the Jubilee Line in London, another underground name that seems somewhat out of place. I used to live near it, and remember a rather out of place structure stuck between the junction of Finchley Road and Avenue Road, a mock chalet-style pub called Ye Olde Swiss Cottage. The current pub stands at the site of the Swiss Tavern, an inn from 1805, though this tavern was not what was known as the Swiss Cottage. That name was given to a farmhouse and one of its outbuildings that stood nearby – this was at a time when the area still reflected its countryside past. The outbuilding, or cottage, was first a dairy, then a tollhouse, and was, for whatever reason, deemed to look Swiss. The tavern was named after it, and cottage and farm stood undisturbed for nearly 200 years until it was knocked down in the sixties. The modern spirit of the age could not stamp out the name, though, and once the underground station had been expanded, Ye Olde Swiss Cottage was erected.

Neither the original Swiss cottage nor the American cabin remain today but their names live on and stand out as foreign and somewhat maverick in a sea of ordinary suburban place names.

The Berlin Tiergarten, from England with love?

ImageThere are some obvious similarities between Berlin’s Tiergarten and London’s Regent’s Park. They were former royal land (indeed, Regent’s Park is still owned by the Crown) which were later landscaped into city parks, and today they are both home to zoos. But whereas there are no horticultural echoes of Germania in Regent’s Park, there is a little piece of Albion in Tiergarten: the north-western corner of the garden is home to the Englischer Garten, a 40,000 square meter area sporting classic English designs such as a pond of with grassy bank and weeping willows, a rock garden, a bridge of folly-like design and a wilder nature garden for exploration, all within the safe confines of the big city. There is also a formal garden with small fountains, flowers, and lawns laid out in symmetrical patterns, but the less said about that the better.

This is not, as you would perhaps suspect, a nineteenth century German version of the English style of garden design that was the height of fashion in that era. Inaugurated on May 29, 1952, it first acquired the nickname ‘The Garden of Eden’, after Sir Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister, who was present at the opening ceremony. The garden itself was the brainchild of General Bourne, the British commander in Berlin after 1945. Seeing the devastation the war situation had wrecked on the Tiergarten, he found garden enthusiasts in England who shared his dream to re-build the park in a vision he felt appropriate. Over 5000 trees were sent from the English towns, gardening organisations and private donors, with some trees and plants coming from the royal gardens and forests of George VI, the father of Elizabeth II. The royal connection was sealed when Elizabeth II planted an oak tree from the garden at Windsor Castle in 1965. The design of the garden was thanks to Willy Alverdes, a German garden planner, and the place stands to this day as a symbol of how the Germans and the British managed to work together through the blockade of the city in 1952.

The name should be seen in this context, I think, rather than as a home away from home for the English with green fingers. The garden, while picturesque is as well-kept as the rest of Tiergarten, which means it’s neater than most other parks in Berlin. But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the Teehaus (tea house): here there is even less of England than in the surroundings. The menu is one of those intent on ensuring that no one will go uncatered for: everything from matjes filets, to pasta and New York cheesecake. The only English item is fish and chips, which would not make it onto the menu of many tea houses west of the White Cliffs of Dover. The indifferent collection of tea sachets are served in glass mugs. There are no cream teas, no English teapots and no cucumber sandwiches on china side plates.

Maybe it’s just me. The Teehaus is well visited, and on sunny days the lawn by the pond is a popular picnic spot. I guess you can take the Engländer out of England, but you can’t take England out of the Engländer; what remains is an irrational love of lawns and foods only ever enjoyed vicariously (when did I last eat a scone?). Anyway, an almost-English garden is certainly better than no English garden.

Pastries, sticky things, indeed!

There were a few articles doing the rounds in the British press last week to commemorate John F. Kennedy’s speech 50 years ago in Berlin, on June 26th 1963. It was on this occasion that he, to declare his solidarity with the put-upon Berliners, said the famous words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. Many of those stories chose to focus on his well-known grammatical faux pas, namely, that by including the indefinite article ‘ein’, a literal translation would have it that Kennedy believed himself to be a doughnut. Another thing one might learn from this is that the British press are as comfortable with German grammar as they are with schadenfreude.

It is true that in German it is incorrect to use the indefinite article when stating, for example, your nationality, profession or what city you come from. Kennedy should have said, ‘Ich bin Berliner’. However, it is argued by Berliners that since they themselves do not call doughnuts ‘Berliners’ but ‘Pfannkuchen’, their jubilation at his words was not caused by his unintentionally funny mistake. Kennedy came two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall, which, in addition to tearing families and friends apart, yet again put the city on the front line, this time of the Cold War. To the Berliners gathered in front of Schöneberg Rathaus that little ‘ein’ sounded like a way for Kennedy to emphasise his message of solidarity, and they responded in kind.

Pastries it seems are a rich area for cultural misunderstandings. The rest of Germany, bar a few regional exceptions, call doughnuts ‘Berliners’ – as they do in Denmark, the supposed ancestral home of all buttery, flaky pastry. Except that in Denmark, Danish pastry, as the Americans and British call it, is known as ‘wienerbrød’ (Vienna bread). Just to make matters worse, there is another Danish pastry called a ‘spandauer’ – and Spandau is a town within the city limits of Berlin. In a parallel world, Kennedy might have made his speech in Spandau, which no doubt would have resulted in more Schadenfreude, this time from the Danish press. So pastries can get you into some sticky situations, indeed.

Currywurst – A British invention?


On one of my first visits to Germany – back in 1979 – I was introduced to a snack of fried, sliced sausage covered in spicy tomato sauce served with fries on the side.
This, I was told, was the nation’s favourite dish. I, too, took to it, so much so, in fact, that I tried to make it myself back home in London.
I never successfully managed to reproduce the sauce’s consistency and taste, though, and I couldn’t find the right sausages. The fries were easier to come by, but without the rest, little remained of the dish I remembered.

What I had acquired a taste for was Currywurst, Germany’s beloved fast-food dish, popular especially [here] in Berlin, where it is eaten in more fast-food outlets than in any other city in the country. But where did it come from, and why was it so difficult to copy at home, given the ubiquity of curry in Britain?

This is even more strange when you learn that the Currywurst has Britain to thank for its very existence. In 1949, Herta Heuwer, former dressmaker, saleswoman and home economics student, ran a fast-food stand at the junction of Kaiser-Friedrichstrasse and Kantstrasse in the British sector of Berlin. Ingredients were hard to come by, but Herta had the wartime knack for making things with limited resources. From the British forces she managed to procure tomato paste and curry powder, and on September 4, 1949, she concocted a sauce of those two parts, plus what else was cheap and at hand. What she made was not the British version of the Indian kari – the hot, spicy sauce used for meat, fish and vegetable dishes – but a very German Currysoße. Tomato paste, onion, vinegar, vegetable oil and sugar, plus a good dusting of curry powder. The sausage was and is more often than not a Bratwurst; in the former East Germany it comes in an inexpensively produced skinless version. The curry taste, which the British returning home from India could not live without, and, so to say, remade in their own image, had been adapted again to fit the German palate.
So that is what makes up the Currywurst dish and how, in post-war Germany’s hard-pressed economy, it became the favourite snack. Thanks to cheap ingredients, an entrepreneurial saleswoman, and the British love of curry.

May Day or International Workers Day?

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Taking the U-Bahn, this time on the U2 just pulling into Alexanderplatz and I notice a news article on the train’s TV screen.
Today is ‘Tag der Arbeit’ (International Workers Day) and the DGB (The German Trade Union Organisation) are holding marches to commemorate this fact.
In Great Britain however, you would probably see pictures of people dancing around a maypole and celebrating with the May Queen in a far more rural affair. So why the difference between Britain and Germany?
Well, it began over a century ago when the American Federation of Labour adopted a historic resolution which asserted that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1st, 1886″. International Workers Day is widely seen as the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, where numerous workers and police died in a riot, and the first Workers Day was set in 1890 as an act of solidarity for the victims.
In Germany, it ironically first became a national holiday under the Nazi regime in 1933 and the emblem for the day is a red carnation.
In Britain Workers Day is virtually ignored. Old pagan traditions die hard and May Day descends from pre-Christian times, as the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers (May Queen). The only tenuous connection with workers day in Great Britain was due to the reform of the catholic calendar with May 1st being the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of workers. In rural areas seeding was completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm labourers a day off. But the most significant of the traditions on this day has always been the festivities of the maypole around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.
This also incidentally happens in the Baden, Bavarian, and Swabian regions of Germany and maypoles are decorated with either flowers or emblems of the local trade.
So be it Workers Day or May Day on May 1st, the emblems that seem to be consistent between Germany and Great Britain are either the maypoles or the flowers.


We have ways of making you talk..

We have wats of making you talk

Taking the U-Bahn and getting off at Kochstrasse on the U6 near to Checkpoint Charlie, I noticed the attached poster for the Berlin School of English. It made me smile, remembering the British cliche of the German interrogator in WWII films saying in a clipped, teutonic accent ‘Vee have vays and means of making you talk..’ The thing is this maybe amusing for me but would it be amusing to the people the school is trying to attract i.e. Germans wanting to improve their English?

Probably not. The sentence may not be complex, but its implied message is likely to be lost on a German audience: the familiar ring of ‘We have ways of making you talk’ is not heard by an audience who see their movies dubbed into their own language. They may have heard the sentence as many times as their English counterparts, but only in its German wording. What may be amusing to one culture, may, for very good reasons, fall flat in another. Germans don’t lack the humour (that other, well-worn stereotype) to understand it; it just doesn’t mean the same to them.

Simon Anholt, an expert in international communications, observed in his excellent book ‘Another One Bites the Grass’ (the German equivalent of the saying another one bites the dust) that advertising is not made of words, but of culture. This poster ad is made of British culture, and needs a British audience (or someone familiar with its tastes) to decode it – which is hardly its intended audience. Communicating in a culture different from your own requires awareness of the all-important differences. Otherwise the message risks becoming muddled, confounding, or even offensive.

Anyway, I understand from a good friend who has worked at the school as a teacher that they do good business, and have done so for many years. So it would seem that they do, in fact, have ways of making people talk.