Don’t forget the flowers, Richard Armitage

John Porter (Richard Armitage) brings flowers to Katie Dartmouth in the hospital after her ordeal, in Strike Back 1.2.

I’m sure Richard Armitage has noticed by now that when a German invites one to visit his or her home, a small host(ess) gift is always appropriate and in some contexts, de rigueur. There’s even a German word for this item: Mitbringsel (a small thing that one brings along — a word that can be used equally for the hostess gift or a souvenir brought back from a trip to a friend who stayed at home). Appropriate are: a small box of nice chocolates, a small bouquet of flowers, or (if for dinner) a bottle of wine. The point is a small, courteous acknowledgement of the host’s hospitality, so it’s not supposed to be extravagant or flashy. This gift also falls in a different category than normal presents, which are usually tailored very closely to the specific personal tastes of the recipient. Initially, I would bring a book along as a Mitbringsel, but on some level, that kind of gift demanded more attention from the recipient than was really appropriate in this setting. Mitbringsel flowers are different, too, than the flowers that one gives for a specific occasion such as a graduation or a promotion, or than the ones given by lovers. They are supposed to be kind without being deeply meaningful.

Pralinés from my favorite chocolatier, but you can only get them in Göttingen.

The custom of the Mitbringsel is discussed in an introductory German language or culture class, where the student is told in the broadest possible brushstrokes never to go empty-handed to a German’s home. This is a generally good rule, particularly if the host is older or socially or hierarchically superior, but it’s typically not necessary with very close friends or at casual meetings among students. As with any entrenched cultural practice, however, there are rules and taste issues the outsider doesn’t know. In practice, Germans are the soul of politeness with their guests, so no one would ever point these things out, but one learns them by hanging out with Germans. Because of the taste issues involved, I never bring wine as a Mitbringsel unless it’s an occasion for sparkling wine / Champagne or I know the host extremely well. The easiest way to go is chocolate, and in fact, most supermarkets and all chocolatiers sell packaged combinations, often tastefully pre-wrapped, for this purpose. Flower stores are everywhere in Germany to facilitate this custom — back when the rules about shop closings were stricter and more uniform than they are now, as recently as twenty years ago, florists were one of few businesses allowed to be open briefly on Sunday mornings, so that flowers purchased could be fresh for visits to cemeteries after church, or for afternoon coffee and cake tables.

This would be an appropriate Mitbringsel if you were invited to Kaffee and Kuchen — on the sedate side, very traditional taste especially appropriate to the older crowd. Typically the guest brings only the flowers, not the vase. You remove the wrapping from the flowers just before ringing the doorbell, so as to great your host with the flowers in hand.

 

As a Mitbringsel goes, flowers are a sort of middle of the road option — they show more thought than chocolate but they are harder to get really wrong than wine. Still, there are rules. For someone whom one does not know well, just as many flowers as one can easily hold in one hand — about the size of a posy, for Americans — in cheerful, warm colors, cut down to a height that will not be obtrusive on a table, and surrounded by leaves and decoration, are the traditional choice. However, an arrangement of predominantly red roses is never appropriate (romantic intentions!), and one should absolutely eschew carnations, which are solely for funerals or mourning. This was something I frequently forgot, as they are a tremendously popular flower in the U.S., in fact, my mother’s favorite. As a custom with a remarkable persistence — it seems like something older people might do, but in fact isn’t really falling off — it is of course always at risk of falling into the realm of petty bourgeois manners (Spießigkeit). If one wants to avoid the retiree aesthetic or be more casual, a handful of tulips — which can easily be found — will always be appropriate, although typically for the Mitbringsel, one wants something that the recipient doesn’t need to arrange immediately. Just picking up a bundle of flowers may signal lack of attention or care on the part of the giver. A tiny arrangement around one striking bloom like a sunflower is a frequent choice these days.

This is the kind of flower Mitbringsel I typically choose, mostly because I like sunflowers.

But because of the frequency of the custom, one is not often put in the position of having to create one’s own original flower Mitbringsel in Germany — florists know about and create little bouquets that are appropriate and speak to different tastes. In general, I’ve found florists to be really helpful in Germany. If you go in and describe the occasion you’re bringing flowers for and the people to whom you are bringing them (including your social context and relationship to them), the florist will tell you what is appropriate and be spot on.

This is a party favor, but without the nametag, it would work really well as a Mitbringsel — combines tradition (pansies are the most grandmotherly flower) with ecological awareness (the flowers are alive) and the perfect personal touch of the ribbon and holder. This would be an A+ gift.

So you’re asking why I am writing all of this about this trivial topic? A fellow fan put me on to this interesting blog about Berlin signage a few weeks ago. The classic signs from previous historical periods are one of the things that make the city cool.

In today’s post, the blogger discusses the cool signage on Berlin’s ubiquitous independent flower stores. I loved this post, although I have one comment, which is that I’m relatively certain that the slash over the “u” is a nostalgic reference to the way the “u” was written in Kurrentschrift, the handwriting used by German professionals from the eighteenth century into the twentieth. The mark was necessary to differentiate “u” from “n” in that alphabet, and in the case of “Blumen” (flowers) it separates the “u” from the “m”. There was a general sentiment in much of Germany after the war that not just the National Socialist era, but also Weimar before it, had been wrong turns, and so the 1950s and early 1960s heralded a brief return to the morals, aesthetics and culture of the late German imperial period in many places — before the uproar eventually caused by the “Generation of ’68.” Signs like these older neon ones would have been seen in their original contexts as classic and stylish at once — their presence is very much an index of the economic miracle years.

In any case, I hope Richard Armitage has bought or sent at least a few bouquets while in Berlin and been invited into a few homes. Germans are truly wonderful, generous hosts.

~ by Servetus on April 18, 2017.

51 Responses to “Don’t forget the flowers, Richard Armitage”

  1. Thanks for this post!
    By the way, I’ll spend 4 days in Berlin very soon ^^
    (my 1st ime in Berlin)

  2. The guest brings only the flowers not the vase 😂 Really, I’ve never thought of that …..

    • Because every German household has several vases appropriate for a Mitbringsel. I’m not sure I’d necessarily assume this in the US. The custom of giving flowers here is different. Most established households would have a vase, but it might be in a dusty place. Frequently Americans who give flowers will give a very cheap glass receptacle along with them.

  3. Love the word “Mitbringsel” – Just says it all.

    • isn’t it perfect? One of those words where the contiguity with what it describes is 100%.

      • And it’s done so well in German. Danes have the exact same custom, but we haven’t got this lovely word for it. We just call it a ‘gift for the hostess’ – værtindegave – and what if the host is male…? Just saying….

        • Sorry for the male host! Pech gehabt 😬 Most times the females are disadvantaged….. poetic justice.

  4. I totally love everything about this post – and I also marvel again how well you know German customs. Especially as this particular cultural detail is something I would have never thought about – and yet you are spot-on. (As put into practice today, when I welcomed a German family for Kaffee und Kuchen whose daughter had been in the same class with mine but who moved away to Vietnam 7 years ago. We had lost touch, and they are here for a short break and got in touch – and came for tea with a box of chocolates. Even abroad, Germans hold on to these customs 😉 ). As a little addition: When visiting a family with children teenage and younger, good guests also bring a separate Mitbringsel for the kids – or give them a coin. “Eine Mark in die Hand drücken” used to be the term… Maybe this custom is now dying out – but when I was a child, I always loved it when my parents had visitors because it meant there was either sweets or a bit of money for me in it…
    As for the line above the letter U – another observation of yours that shows how well you know the Germans (and Germany). Absolutely true – not a “rakish swoosh” above the word “Blumen” but a sign to show where the U stops and the M begins. My mother (born 1949) uses the U-line to this day, and I remember that actually quite a few of my own contemporaries were marking their Us like that in the mid-1980s.
    And thanks for pointing out that typography blog – really interesting. I am glad someone is documenting those fabulous, now-so-old-fashioned neon signs. Subscribed.

    • Thank you! I didn’t know about the coin — but I didn’t know a lot of Germans with children that age — most of the kids I knew were Russian Jewish immigrants. But it is an undying custom, witnessed to by the idiom “wir kriegen Besuch” — it’s such a neat thing.

      Did your mother learn Sutterlin in school? The official material all says it was no longer taught after 1944 (one of the things that sometimes goes on the same list as “Hitler built the Autobahn”) but I know so many people her age who still wrote some version of Kurrentschrift.

      It’s a really neat blog, I think. There’s a post on stone letters that is really cool, too.

      • Danke schön Serv! Eine wirklich wunderbarer Exkurs! 🙂
        Auch Haricleas Bemerkungen und Deine sind wirklich “spot on”, wenn es um die Art oder Anzahl der Blumen geht oder darum, dass man nicht “spitze” Gegenstände schenken sollte…
        Bin gerade eben auch unter die Historiker gegangen und habe seriöse Zeitzeugen (aka meine Mutter… lacht) befragt; sie ist 1934 geboren und hat definitiv keine Sütterlin-Schrift gelernt. Ihr erstes Schuljahr war bedingt durch ein sogenanntes Kurzschuljahr wohl im Herbst 1941.
        Einen schönen Abend noch wünscht,
        Andrea

        • Interesting — so maybe it was being eliminated even before the official “Verbot.” I wonder if anyone has studied this in detail … lol. I am sure someone has. Thanks to your mom for the eyewitness data!

      • Meine Großmutter ist Jahrgang 1925. Sie lernte erst Sütterlin, dann wurde das abgeschafft. Ich habe ein Poesiealbum mit Einträgen von ihren Schulfreundinnen gesehen – in alter Schrift. Ich habe mir leider nicht die Daten gemerkt, aber wenn wir von einem Durchschnittsalter der Schreiberinnen von 10-12 oder so ausgehen (was mir plausibel für ein Poesiealbum erscheint – aber ich kann mich da auch irren), dann wäre die Änderung zumindest an ihrer Schule ca. 1935 oder etwas später erfolgt. Ich würde sagen, dass meiner Großmutter Handschrift Elemente von beiden Schriften enthält – einschließlich dem u-Strich.

        Was den Strich über dem u angeht: Ich mache ihn bei meiner normalen Handschrift. Und meine n sehen genauso aus wie das u, nur eben ohne Strich. Und die m sehen aus wie n, nur mit einem Bogen mehr, klar.
        Ich habe mir diese Handschrift allerdings bewusst angewöhnt, zum Teil vermutich, weil die Schrift mit Spitzen nach oben statt Bogen angenehmer und flüssiger zu schreiben war. Ich nehme an, dass die Handschrift meiner Mutter da meine Inspiration war – ja, sie schreibt ebenfalls so -, und sie hat’s vermutlich von ihrer Mutter (oben erwähnter Großmutter, genau) übernommen.

        PS: For the record, ich habe wahrscheinlich den einzigen Haushalt in D, in dem es keine Vase gibt, und wer mir Blumen anschleppt, hat garantiert das falsche Mitbringsel gewählt. – Das gibt’s also auch. gg

        • I am strongly in favour of the “u-Strich”. I have experienced it so often that my last name was changed from the “n-Version” to the “u-Version” because even the people who wrote down the name themselves misread them afterwards.
          I am sure that all those people out there with the “u-Version” of my name were originally “n-Version” names which were misread and misspelt over time 😛

          • I agree that it’s really useful. However, I’m always initially confused when I see it — in medieval and early modern paleography, the line over a letter typically means it’s doubled.

            • Right, but they look different. The u-“Bogen” is really a kind of swish while the straight line over a consonant means doubling it (usually n or m – I just learned through google that it is called “Nasalstrich” and it’s origin dates back to times when parchment was expensive and thus abbreviations of all kinds were used).
              Explanation on the u-Strich (I am copying from a discussion forum): “Vor allem ist der Strich überm u in deutschen Schreibschriften (Kurrent, Sütterlin etc.) das einzige Unterscheidungsmerkmal zwischen dem n-Zackenpaar und dem u-Zackenpaar.”
              But both of these conventions are probably unknown by the younger generations unless they are interested in typology/old handwritings.

              • yes, but these are neon signs — so it’s different seeing it typographically where there is little confusion vs on a sign. I’d encountered it first in old manuscripts.

        • I love these sort of historical details!

          I’ll try to remember to bring chocolate 🙂

    • Such a coincidence! Just two hours ago I watched ‘Strike Back’ while ironing (which I hate) and drooled over charming JP delivering this very colourful bouquet to Kathy…
      Nice post about typical german habits, never thought about it. And the typographic site is also interesting to look at. Sadly, the curved neon signs disappear gradually, not only on flower shops but also on old cinemas.

  5. Love love love this and fully applies back home too with flowers being preferred except carnations are ok but flowers need to be uneven number Even numbers only for cemetery visits When i go visiting i De my Mitbringsel are usually tea and biscuits 😁

    • that’s theoretically a rule in Germany, too, although I’d put it in the category of very advanced practice (along with “never bring German wine to dinner at a German’s house” or “never give a friend a knife or a scissors as a present”).

  6. I know I (somehow) learnt the “Kurrentschrift/Alte Deutsche Schrift” in school (Bavaria). Must ‘ve been the 5. Kl. Gymnasium – or 4. Kl. Grundschule. Can’t remember properly and admittedly I’m having a hard time reading it now. But thinking of it, it seems really weird that we still learnt it as an addition to the “Lateinische Schrift” at the early seventies (end of sixties?).
    BTW Lovely post! Thanks for mentioning this interesting blog. Those fifties/sixties written neon signs are wonderful. Sadly a lot of them disappeared over the years.
    When it comes to flowers I am a downright strong supporter of “Blumenläden” !!! ,-) I buy myself regularly “Blumenmitbringsel” as one never gets enough of them and they are a perfect “Stimmungsaufheller” for me! 🙂

    • well, you know, mia san mia. Bavarians will do it their way 🙂 and of course: Bildung ist Ländersache. I find that 20th century variant hard to read. 18th and 19th centuries are much easier.

      re: little Blumenmitbringsel — I agree, they are very cheery. As are the tulips in the spring. And they are not ridiculously expensive.

  7. i have a friend who lived in London for a few years due to her husband working over there. At the time of her relocation her husband’s employer gave a class to the expats to explain the customs of London. My friend tells me that when one has a workman come to their home (like a plumber or something) you are expected to offer refreshments? That one seemed a bit ludicrous to my US sensibilities. I’m paying my plumber enough, I don’t think I need to offer him cookies and tea as well.

    Is this done in Germany (or other European countries) as well?

    • I’d say…. No, not really. We do not offer refreshments in Germany. Maybe under certain grim circumstances, like when it’s extremely hot or you get snowed in (very unlikely!! 😉 LOL!!!

    • In Denmark, yes, if they are working all day, perhaps not lunch as such, but some water, coffe, perhaps a biscuit/cookie to go with it.

    • Maybe it depends.
      We are living in a more rural community, and a coffee (or tea) in the morning or some water/Spezi (fizzy softdrink) during the day would be normal – also because we usually know the workmen.
      And when the piano tuner comes, he even gets a piece of cake.

      For teams staying over noon, they usually get their “Brotzeit” (light meal to take away) in one of the shops/butchers, unless you agree with them that you will provide it.
      I remember the carpenters changing our roof a couple of years ago got informal sit-down meals for almost a week (in the neighbour’s yard as they had more room for a long table and two benches).

      • I’ve had workmen in my home all day every day since February 5 and haven’t offered any refreshment. I’m feeling a bit sheepish right now

        • Well, as I wrote, we live in rural community where you treat the workmen on quite informal terms. They will probably call you “du” and vice versa 😉
          So, it may not be the norm how it is done here.

          And I guess most people are happy enough to have their own meal with things they really like.
          Coffee/tea (especially on cold days) would probably be an exception. I see it as a nice gesture, not mandatory (then again I am usually at home and to make a tea or get a glass of water is no big deal for me).

    • Thanks for asking this question, these were interesting answers.

  8. Was man hier so lernt! Hatten wir auch schon besprochen, dass dieser Strich fälschlich den Buchstaben zu einem hingeschluderten Umlaut (ü) mutieren lässt? Wenn ja, dann endet das Gespräch hier und ich habe wieder mal nicht aufgepasst 😬

    • Stimmt! …und vom “ess-zett” haben wir ja noch gar nicht gesprochen… duckt sich und rennt weg

      • You’ll pry the ß from my cold dead hands — actually, I’m just too lazy to master the new Rechtschreibung. The old one was hard enough. But: this makes me think of going on excursions with the Graduiiertenkolleg I was affiliated with in the 1990s — the professors (who were in their 60s and 70s) would always complain about the signage with regard to the misuse of the form without ligature (“fs”) on restaurant signs … apparently there were rules for that too at some point that my generation had completely forgotten.

        • Ich bekenne: habe mich mit einer gewissen Bockigkeit und meinem antrainierten Deutschgeschick auch jahrelang erfolgreich um die Anwendung der Rechtschreibereform gewunden und ß/ss eher willkürlich angewandt. Stichwort: künstlerische Freiheit. Meine Stunde schlug, als es mein Sohn in der Schule hatte und wir gemeinsam gelernt haben. Seitdem habe ich es tatsächlich verstanden. Besser spät, als nie.

  9. I always thought that bringing a hostess gift was a polite custom worldwide. I know it’s the custom here in the States. (Usually I bring wine because no one has to hunt up a vase.) I can’t help but think that, being the polite Englishman Mr. A is, he knows to bring something to the host no matter what country he’s in.

    • I often bring a hostess gift in the US, but the custom is quite different in Germany. What I was trying to say in this article (see — there are general rules and then there are rules you only know if you hang out with Germans) is that while giving gifts is important, there are certain rules that apply in the German setting.

      Part of this is because there’s a social occasion that’s pretty rare in the US that Germans do all the time (“Kaffee und Kuchen”); it’s not unusual that an elderly couple in Germany, say, would have people for Kaffee und Kuchen or go to Kaffee und Kuchen at least once per weekend. In contrast, most Americans aren’t inviting people over for afternoon cake and coffee, and certainly not with that frequency, and I wouldn’t bring a hostess gift to an afternoon occasion in the US, or something similarly casual. In Germany a Mitbringsel is always appropriate, whereas in the US, it would often be seen as excessive. For instance, if I were invited to something like an afternoon BBQ in the US, I might ask what I could bring (which isn’t usual in Germany unless you’re a relative — the rule is that when someone invites you, they are responsible for everything; you also should not ask your German host if you can help them with the dishes, either). Or, I might grab a six pack or something to press into the host’s hand when I came, but you probably wouldn’t do that in Germany either.

      And this isn’t really a hostess gift anyway. I would bring a hostess gift if I were staying at someone’s home in the US, or possibly for dinner, but in that case I would bring something that would be of personal significance to the recipient (which isn’t really appropriate in Germany for this kind of gift, as I tried to mention — it’s supposed to be formulaic unless you are very close to the host), or I would bring wine (which I would try to avoid doing in Germany, because in that setting the gift can be seen as a comment on the host’s taste — hence the rule of not bringing German wine to a German dinner party).

      I may not be explaining this well — but if you took a course on “American culture” in Germany and there were a section on “what to do when invited to an American home,” item two would not be “be absolutely sure you bring flowers or a little gift.” I guess that’s maybe one difference — an American doesn’t expect to receive a hostess gift. If I invite people for dinner and they bring flowers or wine, I’m pleased and so on but I wouldn’t remember it a day later if they didn’t. A German who’s invited you to coffee and cake expects a Mitbringsel. Not in the sense that they will be put out if you don’t bring one, or tell you to your face that you have broken a rule, but in the sense that it marks you as someone who either ignorantly or wilfully transgresses convention.

    • The other thing that typically surprises non-Germans about this custom: there is a really high frequency of flower stores, even in small towns. This has a lot to do with the general German predilection for decorating with plants, but the proportion of cut flowers that are available for sale even in the most tiny town is more comparable to the selection in bigger cities in the US. The custom of the Mitbringsel helps contribute to a higher demand.

  10. The title made me lol 🙂

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