It all started with a documentary about East German housing policy. No, really, it did.
East Germany made a promise to all its citizens that they would have a place to live provided by the State. That promise was fulfilled with the help of the now-infamous Plattenbau — literally, "plate-buildings." These were prefabricated 5-or-6 story apartment houses that sprang up all over the East in socialist times.
You can instantly recognize Plattenbau, because it all looks the same — buildings composed of interlocking brown pebble-concrete construction units. It was cheap, it was easy to build, it provided living spaces for humans. And it was ugly and uniform. [But before you capitalists begin chuckling about how those poor communists had to live with so much ugly uniformity, remind yourself that a most new structures in the United States are built on the same principles — a new McDonald’s, for instance, arrives prefabricated at the installation site, and takes an average of less than 24 hours to erect.]
The documentary director interviewed one East German city planner, who reported that the government commissioned a report which found that the Plattenbau policy had, perhaps, been too successful. People were leaving the decaying inner cities to go live in Plattenbau suburbs, which offered more green spaces and often more room. In fact, more people were leaving the inner cities than the government could build new suburban housing blocks for. This could lead to housing problems in the socialist paradise, which would be problematic from many perspectives — social, ideological, etc.
The response to this report, the architect observed with a chuckle, was ein richtiges Affentheater — "a real monkey-theater." The closest dict.leo.org online can get to the English meaning is lame substitutes like "complete farce" or "ridiculous business." But really, does any English phrase convey the glorious image of monkeys dressed in formal costumes jumping about the stage, screeching, howling, and scratching their genitals?
This is much more than a German word of the week. It’s a story of epic cultural misunderstanding with cross-national sexual overtones.
You wouldn’t think so from just looking at the word: Latte. The ordinary German meaning is "pole." However — and this is where you put the kids to bed, ’cause this post’s gonna get a little blue — it’s also a slang term for the erect male member. From this comes the term Morgenlatte — Latte of the Morning, to put it poetically.
So OK, latte means something like "boner." Big deal, you might be saying. Well, think about what you drink in late afternoon, especially if you’re in Europe. Ah yes, an "italian" "caffè latte" would be just the thing. And, as we all know, most people drop the first word and just order a Latte.
Trust me, this amusing cross-cultural ribaldry provokes any number of winks and sniggers in Germany, usually involving ordering a particularly "creamy" or "stiff" latte. Here is a more clever recent example from the latest issue of Titanic. It comes from a section in which ordinary readers write in with wry observations from everyday life. Someone apparently spent a little time at a singles website and noticed this:
When a woman puts in her online "Flirt-profile" that she loves to get together with her girlfriends from time to time and "lesiurely slurp a Latte," she shouldn’t complain when her Inbox fills up with smut…’
Jammertal — literally, it means "valley of whining." Here’s an example from a recent interview with two people who have been writing about East Germany. As most of you surely know, the Wall between East and West Germany fell in 1989, and by 1991 a series of contracts and treaties had been signed dissolving the former East Germany. Under these treaties, the West promised untold billions in assistance to bring East Germany’s infrastructure up to date and modernize its industry.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned: the economy is still lagging far behind the West, brain drain has depleted the East of its most talented residents, and the remaining residents seem to be trapped in a cycle of despair and dependence. The author Ines Geipel concisely explains (translation courtesy of Sign and Sight) the current condition of Jammertal Ost: "Looked at in broad daylight, East Germany is a pure social desert. The bright flash of clear-minded civil consciousness in autumn of ’89 has now flagged, weariness is visible everywhere. All the posts are occupied, the structures are inflexible. The game is up, as they say. A debate on the constitution? Communicating the rule of law and democratic values? It would really take courage, not to mention a good deal of wit, to seriously try to change things now."
To end on a lighter note, let’s look at another German phrase. In the former East, almost everyone could receive West German television and watched it regularly, even though you could get in trouble for doing so. The only exception was Dresden, where reception was blocked by a mountain chain. Because Dresdeners were therefore a little out of the loop culturally, the city became known as the Tal der Ahnungslosen, or "Valley of the Clueless."