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Thursday, December 30, 2010

There Are Two Sides to Everything....Reflections on German and American Culture

So, since I am back in Germany some things have come to my attention that I would like to share with you, Dear Readers, about differences in the cultures of Americans and Germans.  Some things are positive, some are not so positive, and some are merely observations.  Here goes!

Things I really love about German Culture:

1. They separate their recycling meticulously.  They make a distinction between bottles which are given back for monetary reimbursement, green and white glass containers and bottles, cardboard and paper, plastic packaging materials, things which can be composted, and simply "all other things which don't fall into the categories mentioned before this one".  What a great system- and helpful too.  (Though, I do have to say, things can get a little stressful sometimes when you are, let's say, opening something which has all of these materials included, or perhaps, three or more of the materials in the categories included, then....it's no picnic to open 5 trashcan lids in short succession.)

2. They have freshly baked bread in every bakery, and it is usually a really wonderful variety of types (e.g. pumpernickel, sunflower seed, poppy seed, rye, multi-grain, cinnamon raisin, potato, sourdough, sweet yeast dough etc...).  Although, there was a news report I heard the other day, that they throw a lot of this lovely bread out at the end of the day now because no one wants to shop at the bakery that at the end of the day only has 3 loaves on display.  It turns out that the customer now wants to have the same chance at a large selection as the customers who might have come in at 9am that day and therefore, the baker is now almost forced into baking more bread throughout the day, simply so that the customer is satisfied at the end of the day (regardless of whether or not all the loaves will be bought or thrown out).  In essence, hopefully the consumers in the future will be less picky and the bakers will bake less bread just to throw it out at 6pm.

3.  They sell unbelievably cheap freshly cut flowers all over the place, even at Aldi!  And, they are just beautiful!! I mean, where in America can you actually buy freshly cut blooms which don't look half wilted for approximately $2.50?  (1,99 in Euros)

4.  They encourage people to drive less by having a very efficient train (regional, subway, streetcar, intercity) and bus system, even for the very smallest of towns.  There are normally very frequently occurring bus stops (even in the oddest of places- for example, the other day we were driving on a highway outside of Duesseldorf and there was a bus stop right on the side of the highway seemingly nowhere near an on-ramp, or other means of accessing this stop to pedestrians....but...maybe it was just for those getting off a bus to change to a different one? Not sure but anyway...) and the times that the buses run are normally not less than every 20 minutes.  The fares for these modes of public transit are also quite reasonable.  They are raising the fare in 2011 for a single ride in Dortmund in the "A zone" (basically the entire city center) to 2,30 Euros, but that really is still quite reasonable considering that owning a car, paying for gas, paying for parking, paying for insurance, and paying for a driver's license here in Germany is quite expensive.

5.  They don't litter (on the whole)!  Can you believe it?  Honestly, there are very few instances that I can remember thinking to myself, "Whoa! This place is filled with litter...gum wrappers, bottles, cans, etc...." and I sadly can't say that same thing when thinking of places in the USA with which I am familiar.  Although, on the flip side, they do often have tons of cigarette butts lying around (as many people still smoke here, even though they are now considering adopting those frightening images of people dying on cigarette packs, like the USA is also now considering).

6.  They have the most awesome indoor swimming pools I have ever seen!  Honestly, in America we normally associate indoor swimming pools with olympic-sized pools for lap swimming, or Aquacise for elders.  However, in Germany they have a type of pool called "Freizeitbad" which literally means "free-time-pool" and which could include any or all of the following: an olympic-sized lap pool, a pool strictly for diving with different levels of diving board, a warm salt water pool with jacuzzi areas to lay or sit in, a salt water jacuzzi, a normal jacuzzi, an area for babies to swim in which is only 2-4 inches deep and includes slides and fountains and water toys, a rock climbing wall overhanging a pool, water slides, tube slides, speed slides, saunas of various and sundry types, inner tube slides, regular temperature pools which are shaped so that the swimmer can swim from indoors directly to outdoors, and even pools which have currents that allow you to float along like many of the lazy river rides we are accustomed to from water parks in the USA.  I mean, why don't we have anything remotely like that in the USA?!  I wonder that every day.  Well, congrats to the Germans for being brilliant on this one!

7. They drive fuel efficient cars!  Yes, they are normally quite small, and they are something which we Americans could probably never get used to on a regular basis (unless you are already a happy Honda civic driver, or a car of similar proportions) but, to their credit, they seem to manage just fine without driving around a however-many-ton Ford Excursion or Cadillac Escalade just to pick up a few things at the store every day.

8. They have really reasonable grocery prices, especially for things which in America you'd pay a bundle, like chocolate, muesli, alcoholic beverages like beer (of course this is the one everyone knows), fresh veggies and fruits, and fancy meats and cheeses.  (Keep in mind my idea of "fancy" refers to things which I don't normally eat in America, like Camembert or Gouda.)  Another good thing about their grocery set-up is that they tell you where everything fresh (veggies and fruits) is grown right on the shelf next to the price, and that way you can make educated choices about whether to purchase something from Chile versus Germany, etc.

Though, I recently found out that these prices at the grocery store are due to government subsidies of things which are considered 'necessary' for a healthy diet (so, produce, milk, eggs, flour, salt, etc).  Therefore, no wonder! However, why don't we do this in the USA again? It would certainly make all the lobbyists' jobs easier and then the milk industry wouldn't have to pay those people to get the gov't to care about milk, therefore lowering our milk prices at the store. Hmm....yes....that might be a great idea, actually!

9.  They are quiet in public.  Sometimes, honestly, for my taste a little too quiet.  It makes me want to stir up a ruckus.  But, it is truly serene sometimes when you are in a very crowded place, and I find myself stopping to consider, that something like that could honestly never happen in a normal circumstance in the USA.  It just would be simply impossible.  Someone would always be saying something.  It's just how we're wired, I guess.  But again, kudos to German people for really understanding and being courteous when in public with unnecessary chatter and saving all of our hearing ability!  Maybe we won't need those hearing aids at age 80 after all... :)

10.  They have invented something which is installed in most bathroom stalls (not sure about Men's rooms honestly, never even dreamed of entering that jungle...sorry, Men!) and is designed specifically to hold a liquid sanitizer that you can squirt onto toilet paper and use to clean off the seat of the toilet before coming into contact with the toilet seat and your germ-free (hopefully) backside.  How brilliant!  I mean, how many times (Women, I am talking to you!) have you thought, "Whoa.....that's okay! I really don't have to pee quite THAT badly...." after going into a stall and witnessing something that absolutely scared the pee right out of you!?  I mean, yuck!  Well, thank you again, Germans, for thinking ahead.  Backsides all over Germany (and places besides America) applaud you!

11.  They have had the foresight to make Opera (after all, let's face it, this is a blog from an Opera singer about operatic topics, so therefore, there had to be something in this post about Opera, right?) an affordable evening (or afternoon, for matinĂ©e performances) out for a family of four to attend, and they program operas for children which are interesting and musically worthwhile, and which keep their audiences interested for the future when they have families and children of their own!  This, might be, hands down, one of my most beloved features of German culture, even if it is quite in danger of being a thing of the past in the years to come (due to decrease in government support monetarily speaking).  For this, I give Germany ten thumbs up! And, believe me, I only have two to give, but I know at LEAST four other people who would give both their thumbs up about this too!

12.  They only let people (legally) set off fireworks on New Year's Eve.  Let the wisdom of that statement sink in for a moment.  No more times when someone, at some oddly inappropriate hour, decides to set off fireworks in a too-close proximity to your bedroom window while you're sleeping, or where the rocket lands in your pool and you find it the next day, or where your neighbor's kids set off fireworks on a random Tuesday afternoon just for fun and scare the bejeezus out of you while you're concentrating on something important.  Yeah, no more of any of that stuff!  How much clearer do I have to make this?  It's honestly just plain obvious that we should follow suit in the USA.  Am I right?

13.  They invented such wonderful culinary delicacies as Rouladen, Apfelstrudel, Sauerbraten, Sauerkraut (are we noticing a 'sauer' pattern here?), Kartoffelknoedel, Weisswurst, Brezeln, (Bier) (but everyone knows that was actually the Monks in Germany who did that) and Gummibaerchen.  Therefore, they are to be praised for these things, and for all the other wonderful foods that they do have in their arsenal.  Without their innovation in the kitchen, we would certainly be lacking some pretty important foods that I personally love, so again, yay Germans!

Things I don't especially like about Germany, but for which I appreciate America all the more....

1.  I recently had a quite powerful hankering for Cheddar Cheese.  Not any particular kind, just something with a sharp taste and cheese-like consistency.  Now, normally I would be able to find this cheese in endless variety in America in nearly every grocery store I enter (except convenient stores, and nowadays, even Wawa has those single cheddar cheese to go sticks so.....).  Anyway, much to my dismay, after running through Real (pronounced "Ray-ahl"; their version of Wal-Mart) I was saddened to find out that in fact, they don't have 5 types of Cheddar cheese at every supermarket like we do in the states.  However, thanks to the good old Irish Cheddar cheese lovers, they do carry exactly one type of Irish Cheddar sold in the deli case.  I guess I will have to content myself with that until I get back stateside, but I must say, that was a sad realization.

2.  Something else I recently discovered when we had that rather large snow storm (more like a snow marathon!) was that here in Germany, the only thing that they really care about when it snows, more than I'd like to admit to myself, is the Autobahn.  Therefore, if you live in a town, city, or village, it is all equal- you are not being plowed out!  Period.  Nothing else to it.  They will not plow your street, and they will not plow the street next to yours- they simply do not plow.  They figure that there is a reason why they instituted the law about everyone being obligated to install snow tires on their cars, and therefore, why should they plow?  It would hardly be necessary!  I mean, really.  It's not like you have a small car with a low wheel base, or anything!  (A.K.A. be ready to own a snow shovel and go at mountainous piles of snow with a gusto like you never dreamed you possessed.)  Also, not my favorite part of German culture, but it has given me great arm muscles!

3.  I must preface this next comment with the fact that I have become spoiled from my time spent living in NYC, but, I do find it terribly annoying (on occasion) that here in Germany they have strange store opening and closing times.  For example, the post office down the street from our apartment is open from 10am until 1pm and then from 3pm until 5pm.  How they find that to be convenient to the customer, I will never know.  And, it's not like it's not a necessary or important place to go--I mean, everyone needs to go to the post office sooner or later, right?

Also, because I was spoiled from living in NYC, I am used to being able to buy pretty much anything that I need at nearly every time imaginable, and if not, then ordering it on the internet, and having it delivered to my door the next day in a timely fashion.  (Who am I kidding? I never ordered anything online and had it delivered!  But, the point remains, if I wanted to, I could-thanks to websites like freshdirect.com and soap.com, and no, this is not an ad for those sites.)  At any rate, that convenience of time flexibility for shopping is certainly not present in Germany.  If you want to get things fresh you should go shopping early in the morning (preferably around no later than 10am) and if you want to get things later in the day, then you better get them before 8pm, because otherwise you will have to wait until tomorrow.  Now, here's the thing, I understand that this is not really so inconvenient and I am sensible enough to see that really, there is normally nothing so urgent that it can't wait another day to be bought.  However, there is just something about the fact that I am forced into these hours to do my shopping that irks me.  I mean, what if I am (like I am) a night person, and get much more active in the later part of the day?  Should I really be forced to be rushing around to get all my errands done before 8pm on any given day?  And, God forbid it is a Sunday (where nothing is open except the Bakery- if you are lucky, and then only until 12 noon at the latest!).  I mean, am I selfish, or do I just not like these particular rules?  Not sure which, but nonetheless, it still irks me.

4.  Finally, this would not normally be a point of contention, however it's the end result that disturbs me the most.  They, as a culture, eat entirely too much processed sugar and food that is just plain bad for them.  And I am not just talking soda, candy, chocolate, and ice cream, but also pastries, cheeses, puddings, dairy drinks, fruit juices which let's just say aren't 100% fruit juice, fast food (Mc Donald's, Burger King) and too many fried foods to name here.  The thing is, for a culture that has such hearty and healthy heritage in its own cuisine, but who eats so badly on the whole (more often than most Americans I know) it is absolutely astonishing that nearly everyone here is not completely obese.  And, by not completely obese, I actually mean, most Germans could probably feel completely comfortable in their own skin when stacked up against their American counterparts, because they look amazing!  How they do it, I will never know.  But, these people hardly have one ounce of fat on them!  I mean, they are taller than most Americans on average, they are more muscular, and they are less likely to get winded after climbing a huge set of stairs, or, you know, a mountain.  Whichever.  (Go figure!)

5.  Lastly, and most oddly, the Germans' penchant for the idea of FKK.  No, this is not some strange branch of the group in America who wear white hoods and have strange beliefs, but rather, a section of society who partake in what they term FKK, in German called "Frei Koerper Kultur" or, literally translated "Free Body Culture".  In essence, being totally naked around complete strangers for lengthy periods of time, a.k.a. "NUDITY".  For those of you who are interested in reading further, you can look it up on wikipedia (the German version) under FKK.
There are several nude beaches in Germany, places to go camping in the nude, and even family getaways for those who wish to be completely nude for the entire trip.  (Possibly barring the flight, if that is included...but, who knows!)  At any rate, that gives my American sensibilities a bit of a shock, because I think fundamentally we are a visual species but....yeah.  Again, not my favorite part of German culture.

And, on that note, (seriously, what could follow that!?) I will close and wish all of you a wonderful start to a very happy and healthful New Year 2011!!