Ulrich Plenzdorfs Berlin

In her second post on literary images of Berlin, Jana Maria Weiss introduces us to Ulrich Plenzdorf, a German dramatist and writer who spent much of his life in the GDR.*

Edgar Wibeau liebt amerikanische Jazzmusik, J. D. Salingers Fänger im Roggen und vor allen Dingen echte Jeans:

Für Jeans konnte ich überhaupt auf alles verzichten … Jeans sind eine Einstellung und keine Hosen.

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Ulrich Plenzdorf by Günter Prust (1993)

Kaum zu glauben, dass wir es hier mit einem Romanhelden der DDR-Literatur zu tun haben – dem Protagonisten aus Die neuen Leiden des jungen W., dessen Autor Ulrich Plenzdorf (1934 – 2007) über sich selbst sagte, er sei „von Biographie und Tradition her rot bis auf die Knochen“.

Plenzdorf, ein gebürtiger Kreuzberger, stammt aus einer kommunistischen Arbeiterfamilie. Mutter und Vater engagieren sich aktiv in der KPD. Und landen so während der Nazizeit mehrfach im Gefängnis. 1950 – ein Jahr nach Gründung der DDR – siedelt die Familie von West- nach Ostberlin über, wo Ulrich Plenzdorf 1954 die Schule abschließt. Mit bestandenem Abitur in der Tasche zieht es ihn zunächst nach Leipzig. Das dort aufgenommene Studium der Philosophie bricht er jedoch bald ab, um sich als Bühnenarbeiter bei der DEFA einer praktischeren Tätigkeit zu widmen. Er bleibt beim Film hängen und beginnt 1959 sein Studium an der Deutschen Hochschule für Filmkunst in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Berlin hat ihn wieder. Bald schreibt Plenzdorf eigene Filmszenarien für die DEFA – darunter sein wohl bekanntestes Werk Die neuen Leiden des jungen W., das 1972 als Filmerzählung in der Zeitschrift Sinn und Form erscheint. Der Text macht Ulrich Plenzdorf schlagartig bekannt.  Bald druckt man ihn in Ost und West als Buch.

Die Geschichte des Mittenberger Lehrlings Edgar Wibeau, der nach einer Auseinandersetzung mit seinem Meister die Ausbildung abbricht und in einer Ost-Berliner Laube untertaucht, begeistert die Leserschaft. Edgars Flucht vor gesellschaftlicher Bevormundung in die Einsamkeit ist eine Art Selbstverwirklichungstrip: In der verlassenen Laube tanzt und singt er amerikanisch, malt abstrakte Bilder und liest Goethes Werther, mit dem er sich bald seelenverwandt fühlt. Natürlich erscheint auch bei Edgar, dem „jungen W.“, bald ein reizendes Mädchen, zu dem die Liebe aus gesellschaftlichen Gründen unmöglich ist. Denn Charlie – wie Plenzdorf sie in Anlehnung an Goethes Charlotte nennt – ist verheiratet. Auch sonst gelingt Edgar die Rückkehr ins soziale Leben nicht. Er beginnt als Maler zu arbeiten, hat jedoch stets Probleme sich in die Handwerkertruppe zu integrieren. Es wird klar: Edgar ist alles andere als ein sozialistischer Held. Statt sich an fremdvorgegebenen kommunistischen Idealen zu orientieren, bekennt er völlig selbstbezogen:

Mein größtes Vorbild ist Edgar Wibeau. Ich möchte so werden wie er mal wird. Mehr nicht.

Doch seine individualistische Rebellion scheitert: Als er im Alleingang versucht, eine spezielle Farbspritzpistole zu konstruieren, kommt er durch einen Stromschlag in der Berliner Laube zu Tode.

Warum aber gerade in Berlin? Hätte Plenzdorf seinen Edgar Wibeau nicht einfach in Mittenberg lassen können, um diese Geschichte zu erzählen? Ich meine nicht. Denn gerade die Großstadt verdeutlicht als Kulisse den Konflikt zwischen Individuum und Kollektiv, der Plenzdorfs Werk bestimmt. Dem Großstadttreiben steht die einsame Laube gegenüber.

Plenzdorfs Berlin hat viele Augen. Wenn die Verliebten Paul und Paula in der Legende vom Glück ohne Ende durch die Straßen Friedrichshains spazieren, dann blickt die ganze Stadt auf sie. Wenn Paul vor Paulas Türe wacht, um sie nach ihrer Trennung zurückzugewinnen, schwirrt diese Nachricht bald durch ganz Berlin. Und das nicht, weil es sich bei den beiden um Ostberliner Promis handelt. Die alleinerziehende Kassiererin Paula und der studierte Paul sind ganz gewöhnliche Menschen. Wirklich realistisch ist das natürlich nicht – aber es zeigt, wie das Handeln des Einzelnen von der Gesellschaft beobachtet und dadurch eingeschränkt wird. Selbstverwirklichung ist im Kollektiv nicht möglich. Es fehlt der Raum für Eigensinn.

Paul: … es gibt Verpflichtungen, denen muß man nachkommen. Keiner kann immer nur das machen, was er will, vorläufig ist das so.

Paula: Und einfach … glücklich sein?

Paul: Bloß nicht auf Kosten anderer.

Paula: Und wenn doch?!

Paula ist wie Edgar ein durchschnittliches Mitglied der Arbeiterklasse. Ihre Berliner Alltagssprache ist einfach und direkt. Für große Politik hat sie nur wenig übrig.

Daß das häufige Auftauchen von Reisrezepten bedeutet, es wird Schwierigkeiten in der Kartoffelversorgung geben, konnte man ihr noch klarmachen. Daß aber ein dreispaltiger Artikel über die hervorragende Qualität der Schulspeisung (…) bedeutet, die Schulspeisung ist generell unter aller Würde, das begriff Paula schon nicht mehr. Sie war auch der Meinung, daß ein normaler Mensch da nicht mitkam.

Viel zu sehr beschäftigt sie ihre unmittelbare Umgebung: die Arbeit, die Familie – die Verwirklichung ihres privaten Glücks.

Plenzdorfs Protagonisten suchen Rückzugsorte, die in den dichtbevölkerten Berliner Plattenbausiedlungen kaum zu finden sind. Neben den großen Straßen in Mitte, Friedrichshain und Prenzlauer Berg werden so besonders kleine private Verstecke – von der Garage bis zur Gartenlaube – zu den wichtigen Berliner Schauplätzen seiner Literatur.

Neben der ironischen Beschreibung von Plattenbauten und Produktengpässen zeichnet sich Plenzdorfs Ostberlinbild also vor allem durch eines aus: die Feinfühligkeit mit der er den Einzelnen aus dem Kollektiv herauslöst, um dessen individuellen Sehnsüchten und Problemen nachzuspüren.

Plenzdorf erteilt den kommunistischen Idealen damit keine Absage, stellt aber infrage, ob sie in die Realität umgesetzt werden und überhaupt umsetzbar sind. Mit den Worten Plenzdorfs in der Legende von Paul und Paula:

Ideal und Wirklichkeit gehen nie übereinander. Ein Rest bleibt immer.

Literarische Kulisse für solche gesellschaftspolitischen Reflexionen ist stets Berlin – die Stadt, der Plenzdorf sein Leben lang verbunden bleibt.

2007 stirbt Ulrich Plenzdorf nach langer Krankheit in einer Klinik bei Berlin.

Jana Maria Weiss, OGN Ambassador

*OGN is grateful to the publishers for permission to cite Ulrich Plenzdorf’s work here.

Mascha Kalékos Berlin

Welcome to a new series of blog posts on literary themes! Over the next couple of months, OGN Ambassador and Oxford student, Jana Maria Weiss will explore literary images of Berlin through the works of different authors. Here, she kicks off the series with Mascha Kaléko, a Jewish German poet of the early twentieth century.

„Paris ist schön … sehr schön. Aber leben, leben in Berlin“

schrieb Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975), geschätzte und geschmähte Lyrikerin im Berlin der 20er und 30er Jahre, von einer Frankreichreise 1932 nach Hause. Nach Berlin – der Stadt, die Mittelpunkt ihres Lebens und Fixpunkt ihres dichterischen Schaffens geworden war. Dabei fühlte sich die galizische Jüdin, die im Alter von 16 Jahren mit ihrer Familie nach Berlin umsiedelte, zunächst durchaus als Fremdling in der großen deutschen Metropole.

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Mascha Kaléko

Man lebte in der Spandauer Vorstadt – ein Viertel, das vor allem von armen osteuropäischen Juden bewohnt wurde, die zu dieser Zeit als minderwertige Gesellschaftsgruppe galten. Ihre Herkunft verschwieg Mascha Kaléko daher oft. Sie versuchte sich anzupassen, möglichst nicht als „anders“ aufzufallen. Sprachfeinfühlig wie sie war, begann sie sich in den Berliner Dialekt einzuhören und fand so den schnoddrigen Ton, der später zum Charakteristikum ihrer Lyrik wird.

Nach Abschluss der Schule beginnt sie eine Ausbildung zur Stenotypistin. Der Beruf füllt sie nicht aus – lieber hätte sie studiert, aber es sind schlechte Zeiten. Inflation und
Massenarbeitslosigkeit bestimmen das Berliner Leben. Raum für ihre eigentlichen Interessen bleibt Mascha Kaléko nur am Ende der monotonen Achtstundentage. Sie besucht universitäre Abendkurse in Philosophie und Psychologie – und entdeckt das Schreiben für sich.

Aus dem Alltag flüchtet Mascha in die Poesie. Und poetisiert dort den Alltag. In Kontrast zur traditionell gefühlvollen Lyrik dichtet sie in einem neuen Stil, der in seiner Sachlichkeit tatsächlich ein bisschen an Schreibmaschinentexte aus dem Büro erinnert. In ihren Gedichten skizziert sie das Berliner Großstadtleben, spürt den Sorgen der kleinen Leute nach und thematisiert zwischenmenschliche Beziehungen in der Anonymität der Metropole. Maschas Berlin ist das der jungen Bürodamen und Angestellten, die im Gewühl der Großstadt auf der Suche nach dem kleinen Glück sind.

Mit fast vier Millionen Einwohnern ist Berlin zu dieser Zeit nach London und New York die
drittgrößte Stadt der Welt. Auf den Straßen herrscht lautes und hektisches Treiben.
Ein Idyll war das Berlin der 20er Jahre sicher nicht – wie Mascha Kalékos Gedicht Frühling
über Berlin verdeutlicht. Spöttisch ironisiert sie darin das berühmte romantische Gedicht
Frühling lässt sein blaues Band… (1892) von Eduard Mörike. Und die bei Mascha Kaléko beschriebene Großstadtliebe scheint die Bezeichnung „Liebe“ gar nicht recht verdient zu haben – so unromantisch und kurzlebig wie sie ist.

Die Mischung aus Melancholie und Heiterkeit, die den Ton dieser Gedichte bestimmt, gilt bald als Mascha Kalékos Markenzeichen. Ironisch, einfühlsam und mit scheinbar plaudernder Leichtigkeit nähert sie sich ihren Themen und schafft es so, das Lebensgefühl der 20er Jahre in die Literatur zu übersetzen.

Bald drucken mehrere Berliner Tageszeitungen ihre Gedichte. Ihr erster Band Das lyrische
Stenogrammheft, der 1933 beim renommierten Rowohlt Verlag erscheint, ist innerhalb kurzer Zeit vergriffen. Mascha Kaléko ist zum neuen Star der Berliner Literaturszene geworden. Im „Romanischen Café“ an der Tauentzienstraße, dem damaligen Künstlertreff der Avantgarde, begegnet sie anderen berühmten Schriftstellern wie Else Lasker-Schüler, Kurt Tucholsky, Joachim Ringelnatz und Erich Kästner – sie diskutiert, phantasiert und schreibt. Viele sehen in ihr eine Vertreterin des neuen Frauentypus der 20er Jahre – selbstsicher und unabhängig.

Doch auf die „leuchtenden Jahre“ in Berlin folgt „die große Verdunkelung“ – wie Mascha
Kaléko es später rückblickend beschreibt. 1935 erhält sie als jüdische Schriftstellerin
Schreibverbot, im September 1938 – zwei Monate vor der Reichspogromnacht – verlässt sie Berlin und emigriert mit Mann und Sohn in die USA. Die Familie lebt nun in New York. Bald beherrscht Mascha genügend Englisch, um mit Übersetzungen und Werbetexten Geld zu verdienen, dichten kann sie jedoch nur in ihrer Muttersprache. Sie sehnt sich nach der
verlorenen Heimat, nach Deutschland und Berlin.

Zugleich ist die Erinnerung an das Land, das sie einst vertrieben hat, äußerst schmerzlich und bedrückend. Erst zehn Jahre nach Kriegsende wagt Mascha Kaléko die erste Reise nach Deutschland. Es kommt zum Wiedersehen mit Berlin. Der Besuch ist sehr aufwühlend. Die Stadt liegt in Trümmern und Mascha wird bewusst, dass „ihr Berlin“ für immer verschwunden ist. Das Wiedersehen wird zum Loslassen. Die geliebte, dann verlorene Stadt Berlin – nun nimmt Mascha Kaléko von ihr Abschied. Ein paar mal wird sie noch zurückkehren. Dort leben, „leben in Berlin“ – wie sie 1932 noch sehnsüchtig schrieb – wird sie nicht mehr.

1975 stirbt Mascha Kaléko in Zürich. In der Berliner Bleibtreustraße, Haus 10/11, wo sie vor
ihrer Emigration wohnte, erinnert eine Gedenktafel an sie.

Jana Maria Weiss, OGN Ambassador

Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland – German(s) beyond Germany

The Oxford German Network recently launched its annual national competition: the Oxford German Olympiad 2017! Now in its fifth year, this year’s theme is ‘Deutsch(e) jenseits von Deutschland – German(s) beyond Germany’. The OGN Team put their heads together to suggest some of the questions and topics you might like to think about when you enter the competition…

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A Pennsylvania Dutch badge design

Peoples have always migrated and taken their languages and stories with them. Moreover, languages and cultures are almost never confined to one geographical area or one nation. Of course, the English language provides a good example of this – but so does German! German and German dialects are spoken not just by those living in Germany, but also in Austria, Switzerland… and parts of the USA, and German culture has found its way into all sorts of unexpected places. So this year, the Oxford German Olympiad explores German peoples, language and culture beyond the borders of Germany. There’s a lot out there to provide food for thought!

Historically, Germany didn’t even come into existence until 1871 and Austria didn’t exist as a defined republican state until 1919. They’re both very young in terms of ‘nation states’. So what does that mean for what we might consider ‘German’? Would travelling back in time open up a world in which all of ‘German’ existed only ‘beyond Germany’?

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A shop sign in Liechtenstein. In Swiss German ‘Hoi’ means ‘Hi’ – ‘Hoi zäme’ is for greeting more than one person.

Like English, German is the official language in more than one country. Do people in Austria speak ‘German’ or ‘Austrian’? And what about Switzerland? Officially divided into German, French and Italian speaking areas – the German you’ll encounter here is again very different and even varies with each Kanton! Did you know that German is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg?

Like Britain, France, Spain or Portugal, Germany became a colonial power, but only in the late nineteenth century under Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was a latecomer seeking a “place in the sun” – “einen Platz an der Sonne”. There are still traces of that heritage, e.g. in Africa, where the German Empire settled colonies in areas that are now parts of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Ghana, and other modern African countries.

Can you think of any famous German migrants in the UK? You could start with looking into the ancestors of the Royal Family or the ancient Rothschild financial dynasty… A wave of migration to other parts of the world was caused by National Socialism in the 1930s and early 1940s, but Germans also moved across Europe and across oceans for religious and economic reasons from the sixteenth century onwards. Religious reforming communities, like the Mennonites and the Amish, which have Dutch and Swiss origins in the sixteenth century and still maintain some of their linguistic heritage (e.g. ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’) to this day, can be found in parts of the USA, South America and elsewhere.

People migrate for many reasons: they may follow a friend or partner, work for an international company, seek an education abroad or just want to try living somewhere else. How many people in the UK do you know who originate from a German-speaking country?

Of course, texts also migrate – above all through translation – and can be adopted and adapted by other cultures. Think of the international cultural influence of Goethe’s Faust or the many well-known fairytales collected, adapted and published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the nineteenth century. Pick a piece of German you find interesting – a song, a poem, a news article or part of a story – and try translating it. It’s fun! You’ll find words that are almost the same, and words that are challenging. Are any untranslatable?

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Rumpelstiltskin ‘spinning’ a tale, from an edition of Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane and illustrated by Walter Crane, 1886.

You’ll find lots more inspiration and interesting ideas on the Oxford German Network’s competition pages, as well as all the competition tasks and guidelines. The deadline for entries is 12 noon, Friday 17 March 2017 (note that submission is online only). If you have any queries you can email the OGN Coordinators at ogn@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk.

Deutschland 83 – Exploring the challenges of subtitling

In the midst of a month that saw reading groups galore, Olympiad celebrations and the end of another Trinity term at Oxford, OGN hosted one further event, this time focussing on translation and in particular the challenges of subtitling.  The topic?  The highly acclaimed and highly watchable German TV show Deutschland 83

As part of Oxford Translation Day 2016 the editor of New Books in German and OGN’s former Coordinator Dr Charlotte Ryland ran an event looking at translation from a German perspective.  Deutschland 83, a German drama brought to British audiences by Channel 4 using English subtitles, seemed a fruitful topic to discuss and dissect.  With the aid of clips from the series and quotations from UK press reviews, the workshop explored the linguistic and cultural issues that arise during the translation process.

The popularity of the show suggests that it reached a far wider audience than is usual for ‘foreign language’ films/tv shows, where the use of subtitles often feels off-putting for those who are not familiar with the original language.  Of course, the rich subject matter – Cold War Germany, a young soldier being sent to West Germany as a spy for the East, myriad family complications and love interests – did much to recommend the programme to UK audiences, but the fact that viewers tuned in week after week arguably has much to do with its watchability and the high quality of the subtitles.

The group of approximately twenty attendees at the event – Oxford students, local teachers and pupils, other lovers of German – were first asked to consider some of the complexities of translation in general, before then focussing on the specific constraints of subtitling for film or television: How to reduce speech to short, readable lines?  How much context to give for cultural references?

Moving to Deutschland 83 itself, Charlotte presented a series of short clips for the group to consider – did the subtitles ‘match’ with the original German?  Was anything lost where there were in fact differences between the two?

The real challenge for the group then came as they were asked to attempt their own English subtitles, armed only with the transcribed German and a set of dictionaries.   It quickly became clear just how tricky it really is to produce a rendering that is concise, clear and culturally relevant!  All left the event keen to further explore translation and subtitling, and to re-watch the first series of Deutschland 83.  Here’s hoping for a second series very soon!

Nicola Deboys, OGN Coordinator

UK-German Connection Trip to Thüringen

The UK-German Connection is an organisation “dedicated to increasing contacts and understanding between young people in the UK and Germany”.  As part of its work there is a ‘calendar of opportunities’ throughout the year ranging from ‘Host a German Teacher’ to ‘Magical Christmas Trips’ and of course longer study trips to Germany.  Why not take a lot at the list of ‘German Pupil Courses’ here.  Ben Bonnici, an A-Level student studying German went on a UK-German Connection trip this summer – here he tells us more.

I found the UK-German Connection trip to Thüringen incredibly useful in helping me improve my German skills, as well as intriguing, as I discovered many interesting cultural quirks during my two week stay.

In my group there were 12 people from all over the UK, including Northern Ireland! We flew to Frankfurt Airport and then drove the remainder of the journey to a small town called Friedrichroda. The town was beautiful, surrounded by verdure and mountains. I stayed with a lovely host family for the duration of the trip, and they were fantastic in the way they completely immersed me in their regional culture. I ate countless types of sausages over the two weeks, but my favourite kind was the Thüringen Bratwurst (which tasted even better with a dash of Senf!).

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UK-German Connection enthusiasts in Friedrichsroda!

Every day, I took the bus in to school with my Gastschwester and attended a few hours of German grammar lessons with the group of 10 from the UK. After the morning session, we would then sit in on lessons with our hosts, and it could be any subject. It was quite amusing sitting in on an English lesson, and interesting to see how they taught the language. In the afternoons after eating our packed lunches, that usually consisted of Schwarzbrot sandwiches with all kinds of meat, the UK group would then go on some kind of outing, whether it be visiting a castle, or going to a local primary school to teach English to the children there! My favourite outing was the Erlebnis Bergwerk Merkers, a visit to a salt mine 800m underground, where we got driven around in the endless labyrinth of mining tunnels.

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Meeting one of the locals in Thüringen

Due to the constant exposure to the language, I found that by the end of the first week, I had started thinking in German, which unsettled me at first, but was also quite amazing. By the end of the second week, my German had improved a lot and I really felt like I had a much deeper understanding and appreciation of both the language and the culture of Germany.

I would highly recommend this course to anyone who is currently learning German and would like to further improve their linguistic skills, whilst having a lot of fun and making friends in the process.

Ben Bonnici, Magdalen College School, Oxford

Reflections on my first year studying German at Oxford

Back in Michaelmas Term 2015 (Autumn/Winter 2015) some Student Ambassadors suggested that OGN launch a blog.  And that’s exactly what we did!  In this post Zoe Aebischer, one of those students, reflects on the first post she wrote for OGN and indeed on her whole first year studying German at Oxford.

I’ve just looked back at the first blog post I wrote at the beginning of my first year studying German, and I am shocked/amazed/confused that the year has passed so quickly and I am now only a few days away from starting second year (eek!). I arrived in Oxford having read very little German literature, so the fact that I have now read works by German philosophers, playwrights, poets and novelists, ranging from being written in approximately 1190 (‘Gregorius’ by Hartmann von Aue, an epic poem, the plotline of which was always amusing to explain to my friends) up to 1975 (‘Einen Jener Klassischen’ by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann), has taught me that you can achieve a lot more than you ever thought possible. It definitely helps build your confidence knowing that you can, you can do more than “just” recite a list of vocab in a foreign language (although that’s still something I need to work on…), but can analyse a poem or write an essay on the narrative voice of a novel written in a foreign language.

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Views of Oxford and Worcester College

I think the most important thing I’ve learnt in the last year (other than how to include German puns in as many places as possible, or how to…endure…a two and a half hour philosophy seminar while being ill with the flu) is that, although Oxford is at times incredibly overwhelming, pressure-piling and demanding, every other student is in exactly the same position, and this leads to the creation of some really close and supportive friendships. There is also, of course, time to squeeze in things that are fun and relaxing, such as dressing up for the colourful and chaotic college bops or going to see poetry slams by Julia Engelmann (if you haven’t already, I would highly recommend looking her up on YouTube!).

And so I go into second year feeling generally positive: I’m looking forward to helping my college children (new first year students) navigate life at Oxford; to many more amusing moments in German classes (I’m reminded of the time in a translation class when we were given a chunk of text in English: one person translated it into German, then passed it to the next person who translated it back into English, then to another person who translated this sentence into German and so on until we had gone round the whole group – somehow from ‘The fog came pouring  in at every chink and keyhole’ we ended up with ‘Chaos permeated every chimney and every keyhole’… ok so perhaps it’s not that funny, but it’s these kinds of moments that bring a bit of light to your day.) I’m even (sorry to any medieval German enthusiasts reading this) looking forward to studying more medieval German texts – despite my initial sensation of pure fear when, last year, I saw the medieval German text on my reading list.

Best of luck to everyone starting or continuing at Oxford this year!

 Zoe Aebischer, Worcester College, Oxford

More tips for flathunting…

Following on from our previous blog post, here’s part two of our guide to flat and house hunting in German-speaking countries – jargon busting for flathunters and the perils of viewings!

  1. Jargon and abbreviations

Abbreviations obviously save space in adverts with strict character limits, but they can leave foreigners scratching their heads in puzzlement. Here’s a handy guide to some of the most common to help you avoid any nasty surprises.

1-Zi-Whg. = 1-Zimmerwohnung. Bed-sitting room or bedsit. Flats and houses are not measured by the number of bedrooms (as they are in the UK), but in how many rooms. A 1-room flat will be the space in which a tenant sleeps, eats, and works/sits.

Altb. = Altbau. Old building. This could mean a range of things, though generally will mean a building built before 1940. In cities that suffered severe bombing in the 1940s, it could also mean that the advertised property is in a building that was part of the rush to reconstruct in the 1950s. In addition to some genuinely charming original features, you can expect such things as wood frame double glazing and no lift access, high ceilings, thinner walls or possibly showers located in kitchens. Listings may also give the ‘Bj.’ or ‘Baujahr’ – year of the building’s construction – as an indication.

 

Bes. = Besichtigung. Viewing.

DG = Dachgeschoss. The room or flat is located under the eaves of the house. Rooms and flats located here are often cheaper because they are smaller and, in old buildings in particular, prone to getting very warm in the summer (and cold in the winter).

Nicola Deboys' YA kitchen
Nicola’s kitchen in her year abroad flatshare

EBK = Einbauküche. An installed kitchen is present. If you’re intending to live on your own, be aware that not all flats come with a kitchen and white goods ready to use. Tenants frequently install their own on moving in (and remove them when vacating the flat) or – especially in the case of 1-Zi-Whg. (see above) – will purchase relatively inexpensive hotplates on which to cook. If you do not see this abbreviation in an advert, ask about it.

HK = Heizkosten. Heating costs. Note that many online listings will also give the heat efficiency rating of the property.

 

Kaut. = Kaution. Deposit. Typically 2 months’ rent.

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Kehrwoche – is it your turn?

Kehrwoche = lit. ‘sweep week’. If you live in southern Germany, especially in the Swabian part of Baden-Württemberg, you will find frequent references to this practice of having a communal cleaning rota for the shared areas of the building. Look out for the rota notice in the building entrance hall.

KM = Kaltmiete. Rent ‚cold‘. Rent listed with no Nebenkosten.#

NK = Nebenkosten. These can include some or all of the costs for heating, water, electricity, weekly rubbish removal, Hausmeister services (note not all buildings will have a Hausmeister), TV & radio licence, internet. These are charged on a monthly basis in addition to the basic rent and can range between anything from 40 to 250 Euro. If you don’t see them listed in the ad or they seem rather low, ask about them.

 

NR = Nichtraucher. Non-smoker.

TG = Tiefgarage. Underground garage. This may indicate that the flat comes with a parking space, which could nevertheless be an extra cost in addition to rent and Nebenkosten. In some cities, parking spaces are like gold dust, so if you don’t have a car, consider subletting your parking space.

WG = Wohngemeinschaft. Shared flat of 2 or more people.

WM = Warmmiete. Rent ‘warm’ or ‘heated’. Rent listed with Nebenkosten, but remember the Nebenkosten may not include heating!

ZKB = Zimmer, Küche, Bad / Zimmer, Küche, Balkon

 

Zweck-WG = A flatshare that is functional, not about being friends (often young professionals).  Ads like this may be less picky about who they accept, but living here could be lonely if you’re completely new to the area.

 

  1. Viewings

You should always view a room or flat before you sign the contract and hand over your money. If you cannot do the viewing in person, ask a trusted friend to go on your behalf and take photos or even Skype or live chat with you.

If you are planning to move into a WG, the chances are that all or some of the current group of flatmates will want to meet you. This could range from a very informal chat and tour of the flat to an interview panel situation (be prepared to answer some unusual questions). You will almost certainly not be the only applicant and you could even find yourself being shown round with a (large) group of other hopefuls at the same time. However, remember that viewings are also an opportunity for you to decide whether you would want to live with them and whether the space is as advertised. Just because you have looked at the flat or room doesn’t mean you have to take it.  Things you might like to ask are:Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sink

  • Do the flatmates spend time together – cooking/parties/going out etc? (Or actually a Zweck-WG?)
  • Is there a Putzplan for allocating cleaning? Is anyone a Putzteufel??
  • How long do the others intend to stay? Are they in fact also about to move out?
  • Are pets allowed? (Do you really want to end up living with a large dog called “Kaiser”??)

You’ve found a room or a flat, seen it and met your landlord and housemates, and signed the contract? Congratulations! Now hot foot it to the Bürgeramt to register your new address – don’t forget to take your copy of the contract and your passport with you! To avoid having to wait in a long queue, go very early in the morning – or make an appointment (your local Amt will have on online booking service). Usually your registration will be valid from the start date of your contract, so you’ll be able to do things like open a bank account on and after that date. Make sure that your administrator at the Bürgeramt gives you written confirmation that you are registered at that address and keep that letter safe for future reference.

And relax!  You’ve successfully completed your search for a WG!

Madeleine Brook & Nicola Deboys, OGN Coordinators

Still searching? How to find that elusive first German flatshare

So it’s time for your year abroad or you’re moving abroad for your first job. The thought of trying to find somewhere to live in a foreign country – and then also having to grapple with that country’s bureaucracy can be pretty daunting, especially if you’re having to do it on your own. Knowing that you can’t open a bank account or do anything else involving a contract for services until you have registered a local address with the Einwohnermeldeamt or Bürgeramt (citizens’ registration office) only adds to the pressure. So, following on from Francesca’s post earlier this summer, we (OGN Coordinators Madeleine and Nicola!) have got some tips for making the process easier and at least more predictable, if not actually completely stress-free. The experience of finding somewhere to live will vary from place to place and your options will depend on your own situation. So we aren’t going to be able to cover every eventuality or permutation, but we hope these hints and pieces of advice will provide some good general starting points for your search!

  1. Getting started – when and where to look, and what to look for

Now, of course, you may already know people in your destination country, or know people who know people – that’s great! Spread the news of your upcoming move, let them know that you are looking for somewhere to live so that they can ask around as well. Even in the age of the internet – or perhaps most especially in the age of the internet – word of mouth is a valuable tool.

If you’re a student, then the most obvious thing to look at is university accommodation. The Studentenwerk (also more inclusively known as Studierendenwerk) in a university town provides a range of rooms at cheap prices for students, as well as meals, kitchens, laundry, and socialising facilities. As soon as you know that you’ve been accepted by a university, check the incoming international student and staff pages of its website for contact details and the application process.

Nicola View WG Abroad
The view from Nicola’s WG room on her year abroad

However, you might prefer a flatshare (Wohngemeinschaft or ‘WG’) or even living on your own, although of course the latter option will be more expensive. This might go without saying, but it is infinitely easier to persuade somebody of your cleanliness, friendliness, reliability, and general viability as a potential housemate or tenant in person. You may well find that any enquiries you make via email while still in your home country fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, it is advisable to start your search early – if only because it will give you a reasonable idea of what is available, where, and for how much.  Try also to balance the desire to have everything organised in advance with having somewhere you’ll be comfortable living for a year – having found a year abroad WG online, OGN Coordinator Nicola had a beautiful fully furnished room, but  this came with a whole string of flatmates during the year, including a very large dog called “Kaiser”….

Online listings are plentiful, so here are some sites that we’ve found most useful:

For general searches:

Mitwohnzentralen and Mietwohnzentralen offer a free search service for long and short-term lets of furnished rentals to a range of tenant types, including families and businesses.

For flatshares:

Demand in some cities (e.g. Munich, Stuttgart, Vienna) is exceptionally high, so be prepared to send a lot of enquiries and not get very many responses in return. Decide what requirements you have (location, rent range, amenities in the area, etc.), but be prepared to be flexible.

Do also check listings in local newspapers (many will also have an online presence). Many will simply contain listings already advertised on the main online search sites, but are worth checking nonetheless.

  1. Temporary accommodation

It isn’t always possible to find somewhere to live before you’ve arrived in your destination country. If it looks like you’re going to find yourself without a home when you arrive, plan ahead and set up temporary accommodation for yourself so you have a place to lay your head while you hit the internet and the streets hard in your ongoing search. OGN Coordinator Madeleine spent six weeks in places varying from a hostel dorm to an Airbnb sublet before she found a flat to move into when she recently moved to Germany. Or maybe you’re only going to be in the country for a relatively short period anyway. Fortunately, there are plenty of inexpensive options for finding temporary accommodation in addition to the usual youth hostels, youth hotels, and couchsurfing.

  • Student dormitories may hire out rooms during vacation periods for short lets. Check university pages and the Studentenwerke.
  • Kolpinghäuser. There are a few hundred of these organisations spread throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Originally set up by the Catholic Church to cater for the needs of apprentices, they are open to all regardless of religious or political affiliation. In addition to providing support and accommodation to young trainees and apprentices, many also offer short-term accommodation at reasonable prices to all comers.
  • Airbnb is now widely used in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and can offer options for stays of a few nights to a few months. Airbnb lists subletting options (Zwischenmiete), and many similar Zwischenmiete listings can be found on the other flat-hunt sites, as well. One of the benefits here is that many of the additional costs of renting (heating, electricity, etc.), will be covered in the fee for your stay.
  1. (Online) safety first!

Although most adverts will be from genuine landlords and tenants, online accommodation search sites are a perfect hunting ground for scam artists, many of whom are operating outside Germany, so be vigilant at all times. Good accommodation search sites do monitor for hoaxes, but may not be able to react fast enough to remove suspect adverts.

If an offer seems too good to be true, then you’ll probably be best advised to give it a wide berth. Poor German or English in their written communication is often a good indication of a scam, but is by no means a certain identifier.

Under no circumstances comply with any requests to pay money as a deposit or rent through a third party or if you are not given bank details (e.g. scams frequently use Western Union and similar money transfer services). Make sure you have met your landlord, viewed the room or flat (or asked a trusted friend to do this on your behalf) and signed a valid contract before you hand over any money. The reverse is equally true: landlords in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland generally won’t make contracts with people they haven’t met and whom they know nothing about. So although you should never give out any personal information (the same naturally applies to any copies of your passport and your bank information), being able to name an institution or official person to whom they can turn for more information or a reference may be useful.

Hoax landlords often claim to live abroad and that it is impossible for them to come to the country of their property (Madeleine saw a lot of versions of this story – frequently using almost identical phrasing and layout, the difference between them was often only in the quality of the English or German!). Note that genuine landlords living abroad would usually have an official agent working on their behalf. So keys should not be sent in the post to you, but should be given to you in person by the agent on behalf of the landlord.

Madeleine Brook & Nicola Deboys, OGN Coordinators

Psst… More tips to come next week – stay tuned!

In the beginning: navigating the labyrinth of ‘WG-Gesucht’

About to embark on your year abroad and it’s the first time you have to look for somewhere to live? This week German student, Francesca, gives us her experience of landing in Germany and flat-hunting during her year abroad. Next week, some tips on where to look and what to expect…

If you are capable of briefly forgiving me my narcissism, then allow me to present my year abroad in Germany as a kind of story; a tragicomic tale of intrigue (over disappearing yoghurts) and swashbuckling encounters (with German bureaucracy)!

Remembering my secondary school tutor’s fascination with the seven basic plotlines, I would place my year abroad into the following categories: The Quest, Overcoming the Monster, and, (it goes without saying really) Voyage and Return. The object of an initial arduous month-long quest? A place to live. The monster to be slain? Well, I’m using the term monster very, very liberally here. Shall we say, the monster of reluctance? The monster of impatience? The monster of defeatism?  (Sorry for making you endure that awful metaphor.)

I think these pesky creatures crop up in everyone’s day at some point, and having spent my first week(s) in Germany crying over various housing rejections, it’s safe to say that defeatism had a rather significant role. Everyone says ‘persistence is key’, but no one mentions exactly how many weeks you will have to be persistent for, how much of your Erasmus grant will be spent on air b&b, how frustrating it feels to turn up to a house visit and see a queue of seven other people outside the door- all interested in the one room on offer.  At least, however, I had been warned that the monster of impatience would put up a fight when it came to dealing with bureaucratic necessities, so the queuing up outside the town hall at 7:30 a.m. to register was to be expected. But eventually my quest was fulfilled: I had a room, I was officially a registered citizen, I had a bank account, several different university cards, and had signed and sent various forms that I pretended to understand.

However, the challenges of finding somewhere to live and the challenge of living with four people you’d never met before are very different. I am sure that most people, when asked, would consider themselves to be good at sharing. I had lived alone at university, I was independent, oder? Oder indeed. There is very little about living inside college accommodation that requires or promotes independence. I shared a communal hoover, an iron, laundry appliances and a couple of microwaves at best (to this day I have never used that iron). Now I share a whole living space, shelves, cupboards, a garden, chores, and, very pertinently for Germany, recycling.

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHowever, a house-share isn’t just called a house-share here, but a Wohngemeinschaft (or ‘WG’ for short), which literally  and very roughly translates as a ‘community that lives together’. Whilst house-sharing is by no means a unique concept, the German variation of it did seem unique to me in some aspects: The word ‘community’ seems to imply more than just sharing – there is also the expectation of harmony. Many WGs that I applied for seemed to run ‘auditions’ for potential Mitbewohner (housemates), and I seemed doomed to fail with my hesitant German and lack of persuasive powers to convince them that I was clean, tidy, responsible, fun and friendly all at the same time (probably because I’m not).

However, the aptly named Zweck-WGs operate on the basis that there are no expectations of particular friendship between housemates, but rather you just all live your separate lives under the same roof (a Zweck is a function, a purpose, an objective etc.). Even though my room was advertised as within one of these, it turns out that we do get along pretty well after all. Of course, learning to share is always going to be difficult. I woefully endure one housemate’s over-tidiness whilst inwardly bemoaning the other’s untidiness, yet I do sometimes lament that emptying the dishwasher seems perpetually befallen to me, and I sometimes think wistfully back to living alone and being able to walk around in my pyjamas all day free from judgement!

Wohngemeinschaft kitchen sinkHaving said that, gradually I have come to realise that washing up someone else’s plate won’t kill you, chores are an unfortunate necessity of life to be shared, there’s no need to turn into Gollum over a yoghurt and it is actually nice to have people to talk to, especially when those people are nice themselves. The WG world can be hard to navigate for any newcomer, and I am only qualified to talk about one, but to any prospective year abroad student in Germany I would really recommend it. You may have gone from talking about newspaper articles at university to talking about who last watered the plants in your flat, but language practice is language practice nonetheless. The whole point of year abroad is supposed to be about gaining an experience of the country, and there’s nothing like your landlord making you potato soup with sausages on your first night to confirm your preconceived notions about Germany, and nothing like your bus home being three and a half hours late to confute them.

Francesca

Very creative and a little bit crazy – German poetry for young learners

Along with the Oxford German Olympiad Prize-giving, throughout the month of June OGN ran a number of other events, all designed to offer an introduction to interesting pieces of German literature in as accessible and attention-grabbing a manner as possible.  This post looks at the first of these sessions, aimed at younger learners, and includes resources that teachers can use for their own lessons.

398px-Kalb_vom_Braunvieh
Photo: Friedrich Böhringer

Many of our local schools start teaching German around Year 8 or 9, so I decided to run a one-off session for pupils in Years 9 and 10 looking at ‘Modern German performance poetry’.  Having advertised the topic as “very creative… and a little bit crazy” I hoped the poems would live up to expectations!  The opening poem auf dem land by Ernst Jandl certainly provoked a good deal of surprise and laughter amongst the group, and already offered a sense of just what it can mean to “perform” a poem.  Trying to name all of the animals mentioned proved a challenge in some cases (see how many you can get!) so this film from a Berlin primary school gave some helpful hints.

The main focus of the session was the poetry of Nora Gomringer, who has won a number of prestigious literary prizes including the Jakob-Grimm-Preis Deutsche Sprache (2011) and the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis (2015).  Ursprungsalphabet is a fantastic poem for younger learners because the idea of an alphabetical poem going “Ich bin Ariadne… Rilkes Panther Tier-Pfleger… X-Men…” is easy to grasp and identifying familiar characters provides a great way in to closer analysis.  This video shows Gomringer’s performative skills and her ability to truly entrance her audience, whether through her incredibly S-L-O-W rendition of “Ich bin die L-A-N-G-S-A-M-K-E-I-T” or the quirky inclusion of “X-Men” near the end.

Having experienced these poems, along with Gomringer’s Daheim (written with no spaces and performed at breakneck speed) the pupils were let loose to prepare their own performances or write short German poems in the style of Gomringer or Jandl.  The results were impressive!

I think it’s safe to say that all the attendees left feeling that they had experienced a creative and crazy side to the German language and had an interesting first taste of German literature.  Look out for my next post giving a roundup of our Year 11-12 reading groups…

Nicola Deboys, Oxford German Network Coordinator