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 Economist.com)