What You Say Depends on Where You Come From

footbridge covered with white and purple flowers connects market square to stone church with onion steeple, and to the "red house"
View of the Protestant City Church of Monschau (Evangelische Stadtkirche Monschau) and bridge covered with flower boxes. Monschau’s “Red House.” Monschau, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

The charming village of Monschau is in Germany, but Americans and Belgians were filling it up the other day. It’s very close to the Belgian border and so charming that it draws Americans from much further away.

It’s a mix of cultures. I overheard this classic exchange in a café:

“Salt or sugar?” An American tourist picks up the glass dispenser from the café table and shakes it.

Her companion says, “Sugar. No one eats that much salt.”

My German husband and I have been married 29 years, so I’ve forgotten things I didn’t know when I first came to Europe. This exchange resonated with me. I’ve heard it many times before. We don’t realize how much our cultures influence us until we leave home.

When we were first married, we met someone who was researching communication and conflict among international couples.

“How do you know if it’s cultural or if it’s personal?” I asked.

“Couples from the same pairs of countries say the same things,” she* said, somewhat dryly. “When you hear the same thing again, you know it’s cultural, not personal.”

Obvious to anyone outside the marriage. Impossible to see inside an international marriage. Two mini-stories:

We hadn’t been married a month when I asked my new husband if he’d like to take out the trash. “No,” he said, taking what I’d said at face value.

Another time, we watched TV with relatives in a tiny living room. I didn’t realize I was blocking anyone’s view, so when someone asked if I could see all right, I said, “Yes, thank you” and sent the whole room into laughter.

Learning to ask for what you need is challenging in any culture and is less tied to language than we think.

My mom once pointed out how children change their tactics when they reach school age. Babies and toddlers can point at what they want without being impolite or use brand-new words to demand something.

But once we have language skills, no one gives us credit for plain words any more. Older children have to gaze longingly and hope someone notices and offers it to them.

We know children need help to learn language, but it’s easy to think that some kids are born knowing how to communicate and others are “shy” and will never learn.

My upcoming book**, Trouble With Parsnips, is a fairy tale for readers 9 to 12 about a girl who is puzzled that no one seems to hear the important things she has to say. She’s moved on to become an inventor instead.

**The book is taking up all my thoughts and leaking out into every conversation! If you’re remotely interested, you can find out more here. If you’re not, sorry for the accidental commercial!

*I really wish I knew this researcher’s name, because I’d love to read her work. If anyone else knows, let me know in the comments or send me an e-mail.

Stone tower with doorway through the middle.
Whoever built this Tower didn’t feel like chatting with strangers. 🙂 Monschau, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

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Tour a German publisher: Kiepenheuer and Witsch in Cologne

office with Cologne Cathedral visible through the window.
The Cologne Cathedral is so huge, it feels like you could reach your arm out the window and touch it. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Last week, our local library visited the German publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch in Cologne. Their offices look right out on the Cologne Cathedral. Their location next to the main Cologne rail station make it easy for their internationally renowned authors to drop by for coffee.

They have a fascinating history. I never thought about German publishers being shut down after World War II. Kiepenheuer & Witsch was one of the first to receive permission to resume publishing (because the Nazis had shut them down earlier.)

We had a tour “in publishing order” from the front desk:

bright red front desk with name of publisher in white and a row of books in a built in shelf
Welcome to Kiepenheuer & Witsch! © Laurel Decher, 2018.

to the mail room:

beautifully made old fashioned scale with dial to show weight
An heirloom scale to weigh packages of books. You can’t have more than 30 kilos of books on this scale at a time. Kiepenheuer & Witsch publishing house. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

This place values books. I enjoyed the author portraits and sideways bookcases in the hallways:

hallway with square portraits lined up in a grid 4 high by more than 10 across
Once you have your second book published with Kiepenheuer & Witsch, you can have your portrait on their walls. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Book covers are designed here. We were allowed to take pictures of these final versions, but the concepts for the next catalog are top secret. They publish 100 new books a year with about a dozen editors. People work hard here!

paper printouts of final bookcover designs, put up with fat round magnets
Kiepenheuer & Witsch don’t all look the same. Each book’s design is based on what the author put in it. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Finished books in the marketing department are ready to entice bookstore owners:

white bookcase with square cubbies to hold stacks and display standing up copies of new books, some shrink-wrapped
Posters and finished books, like a giant box of brand-new chocolates. The Kiepenheuer & Witsch sales department is ready to go out to bookstores. © Laurel Decher, 2018.
White t-shirt with Kiwi logo pinned to wall.
KiWi is a hip abbreviation for Kiepenheuer & Witsch and the name of a paperback imprint begun in 1982. Team shirts for bygone days when each publishing house had a soccer team to play in a tournament. Happy the house with athlete authors! © Laurel Decher, 2018.

World Championship-Level Book Formatting

This book, titled simply S, by Doug Dorst and J.J. Adams, is the designer’s ultimate formatting dream. *cough* There are guides about how to read this book with notes and accessories but there was no guide for putting it together.

This book might seem like the ultimate argument for a print book, but there are ebook versions. (My head hurts thinking about it!)

If the German translation is 10 to 35% longer than the English original, that must have made the hand-lettered notes challenging:

Printed book with marginal notes in two ink colors and formatted handwritten lists, postcards and other papers tucked in strategically.
Your mission should you accept it: Make the German translation, probably longer, fit into exactly the same space on every page. Include two colors of hand-written notes in the margins and all kinds of crazily formatted postcards, shopping lists, and dials. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

The book I want to read next: Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.

The subtitle sums it up: First Aid for German Problems. This book calls to me. For years, my relatives and friends have been using German in ways I never learned in class. This book promises to make everything clear–in a light-hearted way.

My city library lists an edition with over 700 pages. Yikes! That’s a lotta German grammar. But I’d really love to understand why my German relatives say things the way they do.

The title means: the dative case is the death of the genitive case. A grammar murder mystery? I know–it sounds deadly–oops!

[If you’re wondering: English sort of has these “cases” but we’re not as serious about them. Dativ is somewhat like what we call indirect objects: I gave it to him. Genitiv is somewhat like using apostrophes. The author’s book.]

author and book cover photo with a bright green list of German grammar tips in entertaining language
This book is the one I want to read first after the tour. I saw it on the author photo wall–book covers are up in the hallways too. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Kiepenheuer & Witsch’s decisions shaped the kind of publisher they have become. The tour made me think about the role of a publisher in society.

  • What books do you publish?
  • What is a “book?”
  • What will make readers want your books?
  • How will you show authors you value them?
  • What public conversations will you start or take part in?
  • Who’s going to try and shut you down?

Hope you enjoyed the tour as much as I did!

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Olives and Antifreeze ALWAYS come in Two Colors except when They Don’t.

Spring in Sicily. 500 green olive trees against a blue sky.
These 500 olive trees have nothing to do with antifreeze colors, so this is foreshadowing. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We have a supposedly American car, a Ford Fusion, but it lives in Germany, so it has to have German antifreeze. Natch.

Instead of 5-gallon, yellow, Prestone jugs, Germany has white, soda-bottle-sized Kühlerfrostschutz bottles.

I was a little leery about Kühlerfrostschutz, because buying oil for the car was a major research project, even after I copied down all the numbers from my two-volume car owner’s manual. I’ve lived in places with cold winters all of my life, so I get the 10W40 and 5W30 and such (thanks, Dad!).

Still, I was unprepared to be an oil buyer. In Germany, the make and model of my car influences the kind of oil. Really? Remember, it’s a Ford Fusion, not an airplane.

Newsflash: Germany is the land of car drivers. I somehow missed that. I was taken in by the excellent train system.

So, I was cautious about making an impulsive antifreeze purchase. The wrong kind might give my car culture shock. At a local building mart, I asked which antifreeze I should buy, figuring the Hellweg* would be as close to Target or Wallmart as I could get.

*(The name doesn’t mean what you’re thinking–it actually means path of light, but that’s only true at Christmas decoration season. The other building mart is called Obi which sounds like Star Wars, but isn’t.)

My first advisor said he thought the blue antifreeze was for newer cars and red was for older ones, but–maybe because he was half my age–we weren’t quite clear on what ‘older’ meant.

My second advisor said if the car had ‘red’ already in it, it should always get red, because you NEVER mix them. This seemed like an astonishingly simple answer for a car-related topic in Germany.

I asked if there could possibly be another color, but he was very firm: “There’s red and there’s blue.”

So I bought ‘red’, diluted it 50:50 with water, filled up my car, and felt generally virtuous and good-stewardly.

At the grocery store, I found the same antifreeze for half the price. Forget all those rules about what to buy where. What’s worse, I found another color: purple!

What if the red and blue got mixed together one day at the factory and. . .presto, new product? I can’t tell you. I shut my eyes to the purple. It’s the color of Byzantine Emperors and has nothing to do with lowly writers. I remain true to ‘red’.

While at the grocery store, I tried to buy black olives for salad. They all were labelled “geschwärzt” meaning ‘blacked’ like. . .uh, shoe-black.

I always thought black olives were ripe forms of green ones, in the same way that red sweet peppers are ripe forms of green peppers.

Another newsflash: Black olives can be simply ripe olives, but some have Eisen-II-Gluconat (E 579/ferrous gluconate) added to the brine to make them blacker or to ‘fix’ the black color. Evidently, this doesn’t make black olives a good source of dietary iron, but I’m not sure why not.

The California Olive Committee describes something similar, so it’s not just in Germany.

Even if you don’t like olives, the photos in this “Beginner’s Guide to Olives: 14 Varieties to Try” will make you want to go visit all of these places where they grow.

If you’d like to read about the 500 olive trees from the beginning of this post, you can find their story here.

Best wishes with your purchases of whatever color! May your 2018 be filled with happy meals featuring a healthy Mediterranean diet and safe transportation!

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Basic Garden Vocabulary in German and a side-trip to Mexican Oregano

Vegetable garden overtaken by poppies, nasturitiums, cosmos and zucchini plants
Clearly this garden needs tools and more plants. 🙂

I’ve never grown vegetables in Germany–until this year. That means I need lots of new words!

If you’re considering gardening in Germany, maybe this list will help you out. Or provide you with a little entertainment. Or I’ll just be able to look things up here when I forget them. 🙂

die Gartenschnur–garden twine, jute, often dyed green here.
die Harke–rake (memorization: Rake and Harke both have r’s in them.)
die Hacke–hoe

Note: When my father-in-law (from Northern Germany in Sauerland) said Hacke or Harke, I always thought it was the same word. He pronounces the “r” way back in his throat, somewhere near his toes. When we visit this weekend, we’re going to have a Harke/Hacke challenge. Stay tuned!

Update: I’m crushed at how wrong I was. Even I can hear the difference when he says them. On the bright side, I can finally ask for the tool I want.

die Samen–seeds (not to be confused with der Samen which means seed of the human variety.) Or stay on the safe side and use:

das Saatgut–seeds

der Setzling, die Setzlinge–young plants ready for transplanting into the garden.
das Unkraut, die Unkräute–weed, weeds
die Kräuter–herbs

And for the Dark Side:

der Laubbläser–leaf blower. I was hoping for a creative word for the whining distractions like the German word for vacuum cleaner–der Staubsauger–which is literally “dust-sucker” but I guess you can’t get more literal than leaf blower.

Oh no, now I need to buy 8 different kinds of oregano–these all sound so delicious!

According to the Californians at Rancho Gordo, who are experts in beans of all kinds, these are the two kinds of Mexican Oregano I need to try.

Mexican Oregano

and

Oregano Indio

Who says book research isn’t a plus for family life? You’re probably wondering what Mexican Oregano has to do with 11th century Italy. I was looking up how to cook beans in a glass fiasco for my revised Chapter 1. Anyway, I’m sure Mexican Oregano helps keep up with the zucchini harvest.

Uh, no. My chapter isn’t done. Funny you should ask.

Bye!

Hope your writing, reading, and summer are all going well!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

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Growing into shape: A 1,000-year-old linden tree

Enormous linden tree with a green canopy that makes an almost perfect half-dome over its thick trunk.This 1,000 year old linden tree has such a perfect shape from the outside. A really old tree gives me a new perspective on life and how long it takes to grow something beautiful.Close-up of linden tree showing a trunk almost as wide as a compact car.

This one almost certainly saw a procession of Emperors passing by. It’s very near the open-air museum of Tilleda, a kind of “Emperor rest-stop” as old as the tree.

The sign says this tree stood in the cemetery of a Cistercian convent, in the village, Kelbra. The tree is still here, but there’s no sign of the cemetery.Sign in German Klosterlinde, Alter: ca. 1000 Jahre Standort: ehem. Friedhof des Zisterzierserinnen Klosters Kelbra.

Things look far from effortless on the inside. View up into the heavy branches. Some were braced against the trunk with huge straps.Looking up into canopy of linden tree. Thick branches and lots of green leaves.

It’s a comfort to see a tree loved so well. I recently went to a reading where the author said the content determined the shape of the book. A tree makes it really clear how much the shape of anything depends on the space around it.

If you love old trees, you might like this epic tree too.

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Visual Story Structure with Cows

Green meadow in a valley next to a level road.
The idyllic Naafbachtal hiking trail is gentle on your eyes and on your knees. © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017

The Naafbachtal is a long valley full of meadows, originally slated to be a reservoir, and now a nature reserve. The lovely little Naaf brook babbles alongside the trail, wildflowers bloom in all colors, the leaves rustle in the breeze, and the birds are singing like crazy.

The resident zoologist says it’s perfect habitat for kingfishers.

Brown cows and a bull in a herd grazing in a meadow.
Ferdinand and friends holding back succession by grazing. © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017

Herds of cows graze among the buttercups, like Ferdinand before the bullfighters came looking for him. But no ones coming to make these happy German cows fight in the ring.

Presumably, the cows’ mission is to keep the vistas intact, one mouthful of grass at a time. They’re doing it very well.

But whoever had the task of picking out livestock had fun. The next field had white cows.

White cows reclining in a grassy meadow.
White cows in the Naafbachtal. © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017.

And the next one had. . .

Water buffaloes coated in gray mud, standing in a deep mud puddle "bathtub"
“Do you mind?” © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017.

Water buffaloes.

Everyone stopped and took pictures because it’s a classic set-up, development, and twist. So the next time you have a boring old brown cow scene in your work-in-progress. . .

Remember the water buffaloes.

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Love Springs up Like Birch Trees

Birch tree lashed to a street lamp in front of a house. Stormy sky.
A traditional May tree in the Rhineland. © Laurel Decher, 2017

May 1st is a sort of  Valentine’s-Day-on-Steroids in this part of Germany.

On the last night of April, birch trees pop up everywhere. Young men put them up in front of their sweetheart’s houses and write the girl’s name in a giant heart hung on a tree.

It’s a windy time of year. You can imagine the number of cable ties involved.

This is a country of engineers after all.

Fathers evidently offer traditional payment for taking the huge trees down again at the end of May.

Something about a case of beer. It’s Germany, after all.

 

 

All this spring love leads to a lot of forestry. Last year was leap year and the girls put up the trees for the boys.

At least ten young birch trees lashed to a parked trailer. Their trunks are so long, they drag on the ground.
Cut birch trees ready for delivery. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The local paper reminded birch tree customers to get a permit before cutting their tree in the forest. The local craft store sells waterproof streamers so your oversized Valentine doesn’t leak dye on the white plaster front of the house.

Every village has it’s own huge May tree. The neighboring village “sings in the May” every year. All around, a charming holiday, don’t you think?

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