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Culture

Germany Offers Newcomers "How To" Book

The German government has released a handbook for immigrants aimed to serve as a guide through the labyrinth of German ways. It covers everything from navigating bureaucracy to separating your trash to garden gnomes.

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Want to understand Germany? Read the book.

For a newcomer to Germany, some aspects of the country, its culture and mores can seem as opaque as one of its dark beers.

But lest the new arrival be left scratching his or her head over the difference between a c urrywurst and a döner, the country's Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration has released a new handbook that is meant to provide clarity to Germany's complicated cultural landscape -- garden gnomes, cuckoo clocks, Oktoberfest and all.

The book, available in six languages in either 220-page form or on the Internet, starts easily enough, showing readers where Germany is on the map. It continues with rather cursory explanations about German art, customs and the economy and features a seemingly unending list of German holidays.

Politics and foreigners rights are also touched on, as are questions of equality before the law, women, marriage, abuse within the family, even same-sex partnerships. Questions concerning work and pay are addressed, including a longish paragraph on German income tax, although the authors seem to admit that topic can't be explained in anything less than an encyclopedic series of tomes.

"The German tax system is complicated and it can help to be informed," the handbook advises. The subtext: Even Germans don't get it, get thee to a tax advisor!

The daily grind

But it’s the section on daily life that provides the nuts and bolts of setting up life in Germany and perhaps a glimpse into the German soul.

Thüringer Rostbratwurst in Weimar

Goethe and Schiller and a good old bratwurst. It doesn't get much more German than that.

Have courage, the authors write, German is a difficult language, but don't give up! It can come in handy when ordering one of the typically German foods (which isn't originally German at all) from the stand down the street -- the döner (a Turkish-German sandwich with meat cooked on a spit), which the guide explains has replaced the bratwurst (photo) as the country's number one fast food.

Some tips are truly useful. When foreigners run up against the frustrating brick wall and sealed shutters of Germany's restrictive shop closing hours, they can make a detour to the local gas station, which is often open when the rest of the country has rolled up the sidewalks.

Other sections feature explainations that seem obvious to the point of ridiculousness. Under the rubric "Easter," the guide points out that Easter eggs don't come from chickens, rather from the Easter Bunny. Santa Claus, the handbook informs, is only an imaginary figure, often used by shops to advertise their goods. Who knew?

Typically German? According to the book, it's separating your trash between five different containers, coffee and cake with friends on the weekend, the beery Oktoberfest and the cute, kitschy little garden gnome, although many Germans would groan on hearing this.

Bundesliga 1. FC Kaiserslautern gegen Bayern München

Soccer is the German sport #1.

One musn't forget soccer, the national obsession, or as the guide says, "once described by a football commentator as the 'only real and vibrant national culture.'”

Addresses a real need

Joking aside, the book comes as Germany struggles with integrating its increasing foreign population and the two houses of parliament try to hammer out an immigration law both the government and the opposition conservatives can live with.

The government has argued that due to the country's low birth rate and aging population, Germany needs immigrants to fill a looming shortage of qualified labor. But immigration is still controversial here, and there has been criticism that immigrants already in Germany are not being successfully integrated into the larger society.

The new guide is likely meant to address those criticisms.

Still, there may be fewer people reading the handbook than originally expected. A report published on Thursday by the UN High Commission for Refugees shows that the number of people seeking asylum in the EU has dropped by 23 percent in 2003 from the previous year. Germany saw a drop of 29 percent in the number of asylum seekers. In 2003, around 50,000 people applied for asylum in Germany, the lowest total in 19 years.

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