Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Dirty South

Flanders – future newest member of the EU?

I promise to return to the lighter, stranger, funnier side of German culture in 2013. But first, one more foray into the complex dynamics of an increasingly unstable European Union...

In my previous post about the chinks in the armor of the European Union, I mentioned reinvigorated regionalist and independence movements within national borders of EU member states. Among others, the Catalonians, the Flemings, and the Scots have made concrete moves in this direction in recent months (read this very interesting and informative profile of the movements from die Zeit. The author does a great job of concisely describing and comparing their situations and histories). Though I personally think the recent rise of referenda on independence have a lot to do with the present economic and cultural uncertainty in the EU at large, these local movements have long histories as well, and tell us a lot about the human story in general. Indeed, human nature seems to dictate that as long as one is comfortable and provided with basic needs and work, political and cultural differences can be and are put aside in the interest of larger political and cultural units. We probably also have to add authoritarian government to the list of unifying forces, as in the case of the USSR and Yugoslavia, which promptly broke down into their regional parts – and in many cases descended into serious conflict – following the weakening or downfall of the respective regimes.

Scotland's flag – a long history of resistance,
and finally an independent land?
So there were really two things that struck me when reading this piece in Die Zeit. First and foremost is the European – and I would argue worldwide – trend away from national identities and borders toward more localized structures. As any history student knows, the nation seems like an eternal edifice to us today because all of us were born in an era where the world would look completely foreign without national borders. But of course in many cases in Europe, the nation wasn't even born until the second half of the 19th century, so the memory of a pre-national society is much more salient in many Europeans' collective consciousness; I think there are lots of places in Europe beyond the above-mentioned territories where you could ask residents with whom or what they identify most intimately, and the answer wouldn't be Germany, Italy, or Spain, but Bavaria, Lombardy, or Andalusia (or even Munich, Milan, or Granada). In the United States, even as regionalism is being muted by increased long-distance and urban migration, states such as Texas are reasserting their historical rebellious identities in the face of the clearly-tyrannical Obama administration. In China alone there are perhaps a half dozen examples of regional movements struggling against a government that spends much of its time and effort trying to hold together and justify the idea of one China. There are countless other examples in post-colonial Africa, the Middle East, etc. The case of regionalism in the EU is particularly interesting, though, because its constitution has specifically encouraged the preservation of these unique identities, perhaps to the detriment of the Union itself. Interestingly, if the Flemings want their own country, the 'Belgians' – or whatever is left if the Flemings separate – would have to agree to their entry into the EU along with the rest of the member states. Likewise, Spain would have to agree to Catalonia's legitimacy as a state. Can the EU really survive if the regionalism ball gets rolling and gains momentum? I can think of quite a few other regions that could gain momentum if these first regions successfully gain independence (South Tyrol, Friesland, Basque, etc.).

The Catalonians – funding Madrid amid
economic instability in Spain.
The other thing that struck me as I read about these referenda was just how often regional and cultural divides are defined by a north-south border. Italy, Great Britain, Germany, the U.S., and indeed the entire continent of Europe have distinct cultural and political borders that run horizontally. Though the south of Germany breaks the mold by being the richer region in Germany, the southern regions of all of these examples are viewed by their northern counterparts as being less productive, more provincial, or less economically successful parts of their respective nations, just as southern and Mediterranean Europe is seen by the North as the delinquent participants in the European Union. In this context, I couldn't help but remember Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs & Steel, which, though flawed in many respects, does a pretty solid job of outlining in broad strokes the tendencies and trends of human movements, the proliferation of technologies and disease, and the distribution of cultures. In short, he points to the fact that all of these things tend to move much more readily and rapidly horizontally than vertically. This idea is based largely on the fact that weather and climate are huge factors in determining which microbes, plants, and lifestyles are possible or likely in a given place (geography and just plain chance also admittedly come into play). This is why a New Yorker would most likely feel more at home in London than in Savannah, Georgia, and it also reinforces itself because people from northern climes and cultures have a lesser tendency to migrate from north to south or the other way around. 

So I think my point with all of this is that I think that so much of the conflict within nations and continents is based on this inherent, fundamental difference between the sober, determined, industrious, colder, cleaner North, and the emotional, profligate, lazy, hotter, and dirtier South. At the small scale and the large – that is, at the continental or national, or even state level, these differences continue to strengthen and reinforce these regional (and linguistic!) identities. Where that leaves us in the globalized age remains to be seen, but I feel like humans – being animals that by nature organize in smallish groups – will always have a strong desire to identify with something on the local level. This tendency seems to be gaining traction again, perhaps as a backlash to the pervasiveness of global economies, culture, and technology. The question is whether the nation really has any relevance in this hierarchy as technology continues to render its borders irrelevant. The European Union just might be the perfect place to keep an eye on to find out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

European (Dis)Union

Greek discontent with German euro policy (or just the Germans?)
     Now that the U.S. elections have passed, and the Americans haven't yet peeked over the edge of the fiscal cliff, the Germans can get back to the business of discussing the euro, austerity, the fiscal responsibility of their southern neighbors, and the general future of the European Union. When the grand European project began in the wake of the Second World War, it was clear that Germany and France would have to be the core of the union. In the opening decade of the EU, Germany relished the chance to resume it’s role at the heart of Europe’s economic and political world. Indeed, the euro opened with a bang and quickly established itself as a consummately stable currency, despite the fact that cost of living pretty much instantly increased in all member states. Exports were strong, the elimination of trade barriers and international investment leading to booming economies in countries like Ireland, Spain, and later in the former Soviet territories. What lurked beneath, however, were some very key structural flaws in the common currency that have left the euro – and the Union as a political/cultural entity – where it is today: the currency remains stable against the equally fragile dollar, but it's future as the EU's common currency is quite uncertain. The Union itself, I would argue, wavers amid doubt that the differences between the countries (or perhaps regions) of Europe are just too great to reconcile. I even saw these chinks in the armor when I was living in Austria in 2006 and writing about the EU on the unfortunately now-defunct 'Stusie' blog.

     So if we boil it down to a nice, viscous goo, the problem in the European Union is that it is probably now too united to drop the common currency (read: boot Greece, Portugal, Italy?, Spain?) without inducing a domino-effect run on the banks of the rest of the Mediterranean, which would in turn surely send the world economy back into a spiral. On the other hand, it is not united enough to control a common currency the way it should be governed. Now, I'm no economist, but I do understand that when an economy in a given country stagnates, interest rates and a number of other currency controls can be manipulated to navigate and hopefully reverse the downturn (just as overheated economies such as China 5 years ago can be cooled). The planners of the euro – perhaps due to oversight, perhaps resulting from naivete regarding the debt boundaries set prior to the euro's debut (even the solid German economy is now hovering above the 60% of GDP debt limit set by the Maastricht Treaty) – did not foresee the fundamental differences between the member states' economies. The 2008 crisis shined a floodlight on these differences, but over time – even had the crisis not happened – this problem would have emerged anyway. In essence, with the euro pegged to the economic trends of the most 'core' members (Germany, France, the Netherlands, etc.), the rest of the countries were left powerless to react in an agile manner to the drastic effects of the downturn, or any other hypothetical financial event that may happen.

     Greece has become the face of this problem in Europe, and their economic failings have been attributed (mostly by politicians) to everything from corruption in the public and private sectors, excessive pension programs, and general laziness and profligate spending. The EU's (read: Germany's) response to this problem has been to scold Greece and the other 'problem states' for the above-mentioned shortcomings, and to institute austerity measures to quell debt. In a way, I think Merkel might feel like she's in a strategically stronger position advocating austerity: if it fails, she can simply point to the Greeks' inadequate implementation of the recommended steps. However, I'd like to set aside the debate about whether one can actually 'cut' one's way out of an economic crisis (for commentary on this, see nearly any column written by Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman) and have a look at the cultural complications brought about by Germany's response.  
     As the EU (read: Angela Merkel, having 'convinced' France and 'the north' to acquiesce) redirects money toward the south in order to calm market fears about those countries' economies, the general populations of both contigents are increasingly resentful and angry with the other side. The Spaniards and Greeks wield placards depicting Merkel in Nazi garb, believing that it is the intention of the Germans to 'punish' the Greeks for their impropriety. In Germany and the rest of the 'paying' customers, an already-present-but-latent air of superiority toward the lazy and profligate South has become more and more prevalent. In my experience, the average German is not aware of many of the advantages that Germany's economy derived from having free reign in the less-developed economies in Europe, and therefore view the ECB bailouts as pure-and-simple charity given to the problem states. In effect, I think both angry groups are missing part of the story, but who can blame them for being livid about losing their livelihood/jobs/tax revenues? 

My point in all of this is that the crisis with the euro, in some sense, has served to bring all of the underlying non-economic problems to the European Union to the surface. Now that business isn't booming the way it was in the early 2000s in Europe, the South-North divide has reemerged, Great Britain has suddenly walked back its participation in the Union, and perhaps most importantly, a number of historical intra-national local/regional independence movements (the Basque/Catalonians in Spain, the Flemings in Belgium, the Scots in England, etc.) have gained huge momentum in the past couple years (watch for my next post on this topic). Though peace persists on the large scale, all is not well in the Union, and I'm here to tell you that austerity won't bestow satisfaction on the North for having taught the South a valuable lesson in fiscal responsibility. Likewise, the debt-ridden states will find no resolution of their economic woes until the underlying shortcomings of the common currency are addressed.

Update: another interesting contribution to the debate from prominent economist Joseph Stiglitz in Slate magazine. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mitt oder ohne?

The Obama-Romney election last night was the second presidential election I have watched from abroad. The first was the ill-fated Kerry-Bush election in 2004, which I watched in a dorm room just outside Vienna, crammed in with some 25 people, every one of us with incredulous and downcast faces as we watched the results come in. Aside from our massive disappointment that four years of George W didn't convince the American people to choose an admittedly boring (but still far superior) Democratic candidate, we also knew that a solid chunk of our year of teaching English abroad would center around trying to explain to Austrian youth why the American public didn't seem to see what was even obvious to them – that Bush and co. had run the whole ship aground.

Europeans – and from my experience specifically Germans – are alternatively fascinated, disgusted, vexed and curious about our political system, and also the epic campaigns and sums of money surrounding our elections. I have observed that Germans are fascinated by the spectacle of the presidential debates and the drama stirred up by interest groups and the campaigns themselves, but they are also disgusted by the sheer sums of money wasted on negative campaign ads, frantic travel to events, and behind-the-scenes fundraisers involving the super-rich. Being a frugal people in general this comes as no surprise. Now, of course I realize that many Americans harbor the same feelings, but the Germans and most other Europeans have a point of contrast that we as Americans do not: German and European elections are extremely subdued affairs by comparison, and legally limited to very short time periods, with strict rules regarding financing, advertising, and running a campaign. They are certainly boring, but to me they seem to be a much more fair and measured method of instituting a popular democracy.

Having such boring elections, I've found that Germans really enjoy simply sitting back and watching the show unfold in the U.S. in all of its glory: the gaffes, the scandals, the ups and downs. However, this fascination is mixed with a very distinct awareness that what happens across the Atlantic will have a very real effect on their economy, their foreign policy, and their lives. Many Americans of course feel helpless voting in an electoral college system, where gerrymandering and various other obfuscations in the electoral system render the individual vote almost pointless, but imagine what it's like for Europeans: they look on from a distance without a chance to cast even a semi-pointless vote, knowing full well that the winning candidate could likely have an adverse effect on their lives.

Really, Pakistan??
One of the most interesting graphics that surfaced toward the end of the campaign was a 21-nation poll taken by GlobeScan, the findings of which showed that an overwhelming majority of countries – especially in Europe – would elect Obama in a landslide. German support for Obama remained steady from 2008 to 2012 at about 65 percent for Obama to just 8 percent for Romney (with the rest presumably having no opinion or being unsure). The most overwhelming support for Obama in Europe came from the French and Spanish, where just 2-3 percent supported a Romney presidency.

I found myself pondering the discussions in the U.S. media and political milieu about the shift to the right of the GOP, and thought it would be interesting to see if Europe's view of American presidential candidates had also shifted accordingly. I tried without success to find polls tracing these sentiments. Indeed, it would be incredibly interesting to see if such overwhelming majorities would have supported Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale or Lyndon Johnson, or if Richard Nixon would have had an equally anemic following in Germany or France. In any case, Germans (and I) now often joke that their most conservative mainstream party, the CDU/CSU, has a much more progressive agenda than our liberal party on nearly all social and economic issues. They are all in full agreement that a progressive taxation system is necessary (and fair!) for the funding of very useful and important government programs providing health care, pensions and infrastructure to its citizens. In Germany, being called a 'socialist' is hardly an insult. Furthermore, it was the conservative CDU's Angela Merkel that instituted Germany's unprecedented pledge to phase out all nuclear power generation in the coming years (with the caveat of course that this move came under significant political pressure from the more progressive Grünen and the SPD).

I am optimistic and hopeful that with the re-election of Obama the U.S. and it's population is moving in a direction that will result in a more progressive, tolerant, and environmentally-friendly society, but the spectacle of the 18-plus-month-long campaign – and the fact that 3 billion dollars of largely private and anonymous campaign funding were funneled into it – is a clear indication to me that we have a long way to go before anything like Europe's progressivism could emerge as a formidable force. The U.S. might be getting less conservative, but we are still by a good margin the most conservative Western nation in the world.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mudlarks, Dumpster Divers, and Pfand-collectors

A London Mudlark ankle deep in refuse.
As long as the big city has been around, there has existed an underclass of citizens that – out of sheer poverty and necessity – works to recycle the waste of those classes living above it. They create economies and markets in the deepest, darkest and rankest places, making use of the things the super rich, the rich, the middle class, and the 'normal' poor have tossed. The practice is as old as humankind, and it continues in the modern metropolis – even in Germany.

But let's look first at England. Early Modern London had it's proud class of 'Mudlarks', plodding the muddy and silty mouth of the Thames at low tide for anything that could be scavenged and resold. From half-broken corn cob pipes to discarded food to bones, the Mudlarks sifted through garbage, excrement, animal and human remains, and worse to reap their harvest. Most Mudlarks were robust youngsters (which shouldn't surprise us given that most never reached their 20th birthday even if they grew up in luxurious circumstances), often orphaned or deserted, or at least without a skilled trade. Their tales have been told in 19th century novels such as Poor Jack, and more recently in Neal Stephenson's stellar Baroque Cycle, where main character Jack Shaftoe begins his adventurous journey through life as a garbage sifter and general ruffian in and around the Thames River. Amazingly, this job was legitimately seen as having a set of advantages not enjoyed by other professions, such as freedom to set one's own hours, being one's own boss in general, and working outside in the 'fresh' air. Their story also comes up in a book I've already mentioned, Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map. Here, the author talks about the decline of the Mudlark profession as London city planners eventually decided to re-direct human and material waste away from the river. The decision notably had nothing to do with the fact that the planners were concerned that city's river had the consistency of a hearty Hungarian goulash; rather, they simply wished to monetize waste materials. This included collecting and spreading London's massive supply of human excrement over the city's surrounding fields. In doing so, planners vastly improved the health of the city's iconic waterway and it's populace (which drew it's drinking water from the river), but also induced the decline of the Mudlark trade.

So centuries later, the urban waste bins of yesteryear – rivers and canals – have given way to today's rubbish bins, and instead of the Mudlarks, we now have Dumpster Divers. Lucky for them, city-dwellers no longer discard excrement and corpses in the same places they discard their household goods, food and clothing, making dumpster diving a marginally less pungent exercise. "The Local", an expat magazine here in Berlin, recently did a piece on the growing popularity of dumpster diving as a kind of sport. The mission: recover, eat, and yes, enjoy some of the 11 million tons of food discarded annually in Berlin. The interesting development with dumpster diving is that people aren't really doing it because they must, but "because they should", according to the Local's article. They're simply trying to do their part in reducing the massive waste by food service industries and the population at large, and by strict laws guiding product consumption and expiration dates. As long as one doesn't care if his/her fruit is sharing space with egg shells, dirty socks and half-eaten steaks, one can probably live solely off dumpster-dived rations.

A Pfand-collectors wet dream.
This brings me to my final example of the modern-day urban recycling economy, and it surrounds the Pfand system I describe in my previous post. Nearly all glass or plastic products are sold with a return fee, which can be redeemed by using Automaten in every grocery store. Now, most true Germans among the Berliners obediently return their own bottles on a schedule as timely as the Deutsche Bahn used to be. However, being a city with an enormous number of tourists, non-Germans and party-goers, many of these Pfandflaschen get discarded in bins or on the ground all over the city (there is no open-bottle ban in Germany!). The result: an extremely robust and efficient bottle-recycling program headed by those in need, but increasingly by not-so-poor hobbyists. These two groups are joined by many of Berlin's seniors, who have recently borne the brunt of fundamental changes in the German social security programs, and are thus left trying to supplement their insufficient retirement support from the state (the viability and effectiveness of the Hartz reforms are the subject for another blog post).

This brings me to my personal experiences with the Pfand Collectors: The last time I was at the ever-popular Görlitzer Park having a beer with a friend, the packed public park felt like a full-service outdoor bar, where empty beer bottles were promptly cleared by roaming collectors toting their bags on rollers. It even began to border on the overly attentive service one often gets in U.S. restaurants; collectors began to pester you for your bottles despite the fact you were in mid-swallow. I would venture to guess that any Pfand bottle in Berlin really only spends around 10-20 minutes in the garbage, on the ground, or in one's hand before the next collector comes along to swipe it. The best place to observe the sheer scope of the Pfand industry in Berlin, though, is to go to one of the few supermarkets that are open on Sunday (e.g. at the Hauptbahnhof or Friedrichstrasse) – following a long night (and morning) of revelry at the myriad clubs. Like trick-or-treaters with garbage bags full of candy, collectors wait in the queue to cash in their haul.

Treasure hunting in Wedding.
In the end, regardless of the motivations behind those participating, the recycling economies of big cities will certainly continue on. As long as there are rich and wasteful people who have more than they need, there will be those to swoop in, happy to make use of discarded goods. I don't see this changing anytime soon. Though the poorest cities in the world doubtless have much more complex and elaborate underground recycling markets, I find Berlin's particularly interesting if for no other reason than – despite having an ample population of people living in poverty – so many seem to be engaging in it purely for sport.

Update: it seems that New York has also become a popular spot for can collecting, in this case due to job losses in the industrial sector. Listen to this interesting and sad story at NPR.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Into the Drink

If you get hit by a truck in Germany,
chances are it'll be a beverage truck.
We all know that Germans love beer. Germany is home to the world’s largest beer festival (more than 7 million liters of beer are consumed each year at Munich’s Oktoberfest), has the world’s oldest known law protecting the quality of beer (the Reinheitsgebot was enacted in 1516), and as far as I’m concerned (sorry Czech Republic) still makes the best damn pilsner in the world. German Knaben and Mädels are already well-acquainted to the world of alcohol long before reaching the legal age of 16. This is perhaps the subject for another post, but it’s notable that – in most cases – the earlier drinking age in Germany compared to the U.S. or England actually results in much healthier, more mature behavior when it comes to alcohol consumption.

The juice quantities alone are simply staggering. (Photo: Peter Menzel Photography)
Less well-known, however, is the deep-seated German passion for Getränke (beverages) in general. Now, you might ask, how do Germans store the requisite numbers of bottles required to slake their insatiable thirsts with such diminutive refrigerators? After all, many Americans have entire fridges dedicated solely to beer storage, and I don’t think we’re nearly as drink-happy as the Germans. The answer: der Kellerraum, or cellar – chock full of slightly-lower-than-room-temperature beverages, neatly stacked in their returnable plastic carrying cases. In Hungry Planet – a thought-provoking book about eating and drinking habits around the world – families purchased a typical week’s worth of groceries and posed with the resulting pile. It’s absolutely fascinating how much you can tell about how a family lives and where they’re from just by seeing what they consume. So anyway, after letting my disgust subside upon seeing Americans’ and Britons’ horrendous heaps of frozen, processed, sugar-laden and unhealthy foods, I had a good look at the German family’s formidable stack. I couldn’t help but notice how many neatly-aligned rows of beverages dominated the picture. It almost looks as if they realized the silly proportion of liquids in their pile, at which point they tried to visually reduce the utter beverage domination by trying to hide those juices and drinking yoghurts way in the back (by the way, Germans are also big coffee and tea drinkers, which is not evident in the photo – the vacuum-packed Tschibo coffee packages and Teekanne tea bag boxes are in all likelihood hiding behind those red wine bottles on the left).

At least €100 of Pfand just waiting to be cashed in.

In my experience, Germans usually have a solid two-week supply of liquid consumables on hand at any given time. The smartest, most dedicated Getränke-lovers make a special trip to the nearest Getränkeladen (see picture), where the selection is wide, the prices low, and the carts and aisles specially designed for some seriously efficient drink-purchasing action. If it’s a Sunday or a holiday, not to fear (when nearly all other stores are closed); there are Spätis (late-night shops) and gas stations that can fulfill your diverse beverage needs in a pinch.

It is the German take on the most basic, simplest of beverages, however, that I find most interesting. Water almost always comes from a bottle in Germany. If you’ve traveled here before, you know that restaurants don’t bring water to the table, and if you ask for water, you’ll get it in a bottle. You’ll also be asked whether you want it mit or ohne Gas or Kohlensäure (with or without carbonation).

A very brief excursus: Germans also love carbonation. To wit, the aforementioned Getränkeläden have at least three levels of water carbonation on offer, and any non-carbonated drinks present in the Hungry Planet photo will most likely be diluted with carbonated water before being quaffed.

So once you’ve caught on to the default of having to pay for water at restaurants, you pull out your conversation dictionary or travel guide and subsequently practice saying the word Leitungswasser until you’ve memorized it, only to realize that whenever you order it, you’re either faced with a disquieting scowl, annoyed sigh, or maybe even a well-practiced monologue about how water is not served from the tap at this establishment, not because the water is somehow non-potable or will give you worms or cholera or worse, but because one simply doesn’t do that (so was tut man nicht). You may wish to point out now that the Germans’ consumption of bottled water isn’t consistent with the rabid environmentalism and conservationism I've mentioned in previous posts; but to nobody's surprise, they’re way ahead of the game: there is a Pfand (deposit) of up to 25 cents per bottle. They also tend to put the largest deposits on the little flimsy plastic bottles or cans that are most likely to get carelessly tossed into the garbage – so if you’re too lazy to return your bottles, someone else certainly will (stay tuned for my next post on precisely this topic!). 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Wind and the Windows

Another fantastic German ad campaign.
The Germans have a very complex relationship with air – and more specifically, moving air. If you've ever heard a German say "Es zieht," you've experienced the German's deathly fear of moving air, even when said air is quite warm, and the draft provides much-needed relief in a stuffy environment. Perhaps the most common setting to hear such an utterance is in a regional train car. Next time you're riding the RE from Munich to Salzburg on a warm, sunny summer day, try cracking several windows – especially if there are a few octogenarians present – and there's a great chance you will be scolded for endangering the health of all of those on board. I've seen otherwise immobile elderly ladies abruptly stop knitting and spring up out of their seats at the slightest hint of air disturbing the tufts of hair on their chins, thus stopping the deadly draft before it strikes. I've also seen perfectly healthy young men without a word aggressively slam shut windows that had seconds ago been opened by other equally healthy, but suffocating passengers. Once again, the Spiegel's German "Survival Bible" has stolen my thunder here in attempting to explain this phenomenon; a few readers give a great little summary of their experiences with the German aversion to drafts. My favorite part from that piece: according to one reader's wife, leading "scholars" and "doctors" claim that moving air is behind a whole set of maladies including pneumonia, flu, colds, and clogged arteries (!?), but "the biggest paradox of all is that Germans are busy walking and cycling throughout quaint little villages and busy urban streets on a daily basis." Needless to say, it seems strange that doctors and scholars would adhere to what at least seems to me to be pretty arcane ideas about how people get sick. But having read the recent book "The Ghost Map" about London's massive cholera epidemic in the 19th century, I'm tempted to think that this just might be a carryover from the days of miasma theory. Trying to explain sickness in the days before germ theory emerged, it posited that moving bodies of air carried with them nefarious diseases: "The miasmas behaved like smoke or mist, blown with air currents, wafted by winds." 

But the story of the "Wind and the Windows" gets a whole lot stranger when we introduce the idea of "Lüften" (Eng. 'ventilation, aeration'). Despite their aforementioned fear of drafts, Germans are very serious about ventilation. Many Germans lüften their apartments, houses, and other abodes on a very strict schedule, but others will sit in a room, and with just as much conviction as the octogenarian train passenger, stand up and declare that this room urgently requires ventilation. In order to properly ventilate (see graphics), the largest available window in the room must be liberally opened, and a door or window directly opposite must also be opened, thus creating a nice, steady stream of flu/cold/pneumonia/clogged artery-causing airflow. In doing so, one replaces the stale, already-been-breathed air (ABB air) that has accumulated over the previous 12-24 hours. When I've pointed out this seemingly contradictory air-maintenance behavior to my German friends, they confidently respond that drafts are "unwanted" streams of air, whereas lüften is an intentional, short-term refreshing of the air supply in a room. 

Getting serious about lüften.
Now, I would let this explanation stand – and I can totally understand the logic behind these practices in isolation – but the problem is that in my experience, the appropriate times for lüften versus draft-avoidance seem completely arbitrary. On the one hand, we must keep the hot, stuffy air inside a train car or room, but it's very necessary to completely throw open a wall of windows and the door of a university classroom during mid-winter in Berlin because the previous class spoiled the air inside (based on true events).

The best thing to come of all of this seriousness about air is that Germans have incredibly functional and high-quality windows. In fact, I would venture to say that 90% of houses and apartments that have been renovated in the past 20 years have the same 3-position system: fully closed, fully opened, and gekippt, or tilted (see above graphic again). The connection between this design and German ventilation practices became very clear when compared to the ubiquitous crank systems in the United States. This design is great for Americans who love to keep the fresh air coming all day long in the summer, but simply impractical for the German who lets the air rush in for 15-20 minutes (or kipps it for an hour while they go to the store), and then closes them again afterward. So in conclusion, form follows function in German window construction; this should not surprise us. And with that, I say: "Be safe. Be healthy. Beware the rogue draft."

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Mystifying, Malodorous German Shelf Toilet

Don't worry, it's only a Mars bar. (thanks Tom D.!)
Much ink has already been spilled on the subject I am about to broach. Nonetheless, I feel that I would be remiss not to put in my two cents about such a fundamental, intimate and personal experience of the expat in Germany. A simple 'german + shelf + toilet' Google search reveals a plethora of blogs, journals, and commentaries – many treating similar topics to my own humble blog – that have pondered the curiosity that is the German shelf toilet. Scott Anderson's take from 2003 not only provides a competent description of the mechanisms and experiences behind the shelf, but also includes a useful diagram. Even Spiegel Online includes a crash course on what to expect from your #2 experience in their "Survival Bible" for foreigners living in Germany. This one simple search also reveals that the shelf toilet is in fact not solely a German phenomenon – the shelf can also be found in the water closets of the neighboring Dutch, but has unsurprisingly been eschewed, to my knowledge, by the rest of the continent (this is not to say I prefer the stand-and-squat design still popular in the south).

Having read most of these German toilet treatises, I tend to agree with the most common conclusion that the only possible advantage that can come from designing a toilet that leaves your poo high and dry (and noxious) is the ability to examine the viscosity, texture, color, and scent of said excrement. Now, although I can imagine a few scenarios when fecal research might be desirable (recovery of lost or ingested non-digestible objects), or even required (stool sample collection), this cannot possibly amount to more than 1% of all deuces. In the case you're a big believer that self-monitoring your own solid waste for health reasons, I personally think that viewing it in water is just as effective as dropping it onto a dry dock. Indeed, I would have expected renowned German engineering ingenuity to yield something more along the lines of a mechanically operated, optional shelf for those specific times when examination is called for, thus avoiding the abundance of disadvantages resulting from the presence of a shelf. These include but not limited to: intense miasma, flush failure (I don't view the incredibly insanitary shit-brush as a viable solution to this problem), and discrimination against long-accepted male peeing positions.

'Der Dukatenscheißer' 
The overarching question, then, is whether Germans don't simply enjoy having a good look after they've finished up. This query invites a connection to a recent and controversial article by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair about how the alleged German obsession with feces and filth has affected the European economic crisis. Needless to say, his sweeping claims and questionable jumps of logic in linking shit with dubious financial instruments – most of which I will allow the reader to explore in the interest of brevity – invited a raft of mostly negative responses from all corners of the digital and analogue media realm (including the Economist, Mother Jones and the New York Times, to name a few). Just to give a brief example, he identifies the variety of words, phrases, and even fairy tale characters (der Dukatenscheisser, or 'money shitter') that are connected with feces, and discusses Hitler's overuse of the word Scheißkerl (~ eng. "shithead"). These examples are mostly drawn from a 1984 article by anthropologist Alan Dundes. Though I think this is all very interesting, and a tempting invitation to connect this with the above discussion about the motivations behind the aforementioned toilet design, I don't think we can chalk up the existence of the shelf to a tenuous claim about German fascination with poo. In my limited international experience, Americans or Australians or Lebanese or Italians are just as likely to be interested in their excrement as the Germans. I, for one, am content to conclude that the shelf is a peculiarity of German (and Dutch!) WC-culture, and that the natives' seeming indifference to the design is simply a result of it being familiar. Without doing any objective research, it's also my impression that the next generation of bowls seem to be trending away from the shelf. But if you're in the market for a new toilet and don't want to follow the crowd on bowl design in the U.S., simply Google 'toilettenbecken + Abgang + waagerecht' and you're in business.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Socken mit Sandalen

Felt Pantoffeln = warm feet.
I remember quite clearly the first time I crossed the threshold into a real German house as a strapping young 16-year-old. Before the tour of the three-level, three-generation household began – even before I had finished untying my laces to stand up to survey my surroundings – I was offered a pair of little grey felt slippers, well-worn but not worn out and fraying a little bit at the edges. It was one of the first staples of German culture – and definitely the first of many aspects of German footwear culture – that I was introduced to. My first impression in this case was curiosity, but this initial reaction was promptly replaced with a feeling of being welcomed warmly. How thoughtful of them to consider the welfare of my sensitive suburban soles. I later learned that this practice of offering loan-footwear to guests was such a basic form of social etiquette that one can buy these furry little foot-friends at nearly any store ranging from the patrician KaDeWe to the local Aldi, Pennymarkt or even Flohmarkt. It is perhaps the only product in Germany that you can buy at such a wide range of establishments with virtually no difference in product quality or appearance. Now, much older and wiser, I realize that the practice of offering indoor footwear to guests is actually widespread across many world cultures. A long-time Berliner and German professor recently informed me that this practice within Germany is much more common in the former East, and that if one travels further eastward across Europe, Russia, and eventually all the way to Japan, one will  in all likelihood rarely have cold feet as a guest. So it seems that – more or less – the iron curtain in this case seems to have marked a sort of Pantoffel (Eng. 'slipper') boundary. All of this aside, well over a decade later and now a seasoned resident in Deutschland, I still rest easy knowing that if I arrive at a friend's or acquaintance's house (especially if it's in the former East), I will have warm, comfortable feet despite the chill of the tiles and the squeaky, light brown parquet floor.

Sock-sandal combo spotting on the U2 in Berlin.
But I digress.  While the idea of Pantoffeln for all is one of the more solidly positive symbols of German Gastfreundschaft in general, the point of this post is really a vexing and much less practical manifestation of German footwear culture: namely, the practice of wearing Teva-esque, but usually generic strapped sandals with dress socks, the latter usually being dark grey or black in color. In this case, we have an otherwise relatively hip 60-something U-Bahn patron (I've chosen in this case to respect his anonymity), confidently donning his black cotton socks with a robust and high-quality pair of strapped leather sandals. Admittedly, it was a tad cool outside to be wearing sandals sans socks that evening, but in this case I would expect the typically sensible German mentality to opt for standard full-toed footwear. I would further argue that the marginal advantage gained in foot breathability is far out-shined by the obvious fashion and weather-proofing drawbacks. The cake is iced for me by the fact that I have repeatedly been stared at and questioned directly by German folk about my insensible choice of flip-flops or Birkenstocks sans socks in warm summer weather, being informed that I was actually wearing Hausschuhe out of doors – "that one does not do that." I think I speak for many when I say the same for the pictured footwear choice.

Though my observations suggest that this curious institution may be marginally more common in the older generation(s), I have observed many proponents of the sandal/sock combo well under the age of 30, suggesting that the tradition is – for better or worse – being imparted upon the impressionable younger generations. Indeed, Socken mit Sandalen appear to be set to survive well into the new millennium. Keep your eyes well-peeled, and you too may spot some in the wild.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Seriously German

German Chancellor Angela Merkel being serious.
Germany is a pretty serious place. One needn't look far for examples.
The Germans are serious about debt reduction: Angela Merkel and her colleagues still stand firm by their policies of austerity in the face of crumbling EU economies. They are serious about saving the environment: decades of protests and campaigns by so-called Wutbürger ("angry citizens") have culminated in an unprecedented pledge to close all nuclear plants in Germany by 2022. On an individual scale, the average German puts Americans, Britons, and other Europeans to shame by being almost painfully frugal with energy and water use. My former landlord made it a specific point to instruct me that I should wash my hands and face with ice cold water and to only turn the water on in the shower for the purposes of getting myself wet and rinsing myself off – both of these seem pretty absurd to the average American. I also initially thought he was out of his mind, but by the end of my year living in Berlin, I found myself doing both religiously (it certainly helped that energy costs were at least double those in the U.S.)

Germans are even serious about vacation, free time and fitness. According to the Independent, they spent more than any other country on travel in 2010 ($91 billion). The U.S., U.K., China, and France round out the top five. Most Germans also rigidly maintain exercise regimes. Obese people in German are a veritable curiosity (chances are, if you spot one it's actually a tourist or an expat), and this fact is all the more surprising when one considers the panoply of carbohydrate and fat-rich German specialities including but not limited to Würste, Schnitzel, Brot, Kartoffeln, Schweinsbraten, and of course ample servings of beer.

All of this aside, there are myriad funny things – peculiarly German curiosities – that all of us expats, visitors, students, and residents notice on a daily basis. These things often amuse us and sometimes delight us, but there are also plenty of things that drive us to drink, leaving us with an intense longing for the homeland, wherever that may be. There are other things – like the fantastically practical and efficient Rolladen or the Döner – that I and my friends have repeatedly talked about making a fortune on by importing them to North America. The purpose of the following posts will be to document these funny things about Germany, and to examine the backgrounds, stories, possible motivations, and histories behind them. But mostly I just want to document in one place all of the things I and my friends have laughed, joked, complained, and pondered the meaning of over the years. Enjoy.

(Obesity image from