Friday, February 22, 2013

Cherman Engineering

I read an article today by Stephen Hill in the Atlantic about how President Obama is looking to Germany as an economic role model. Specifically, the article addresses how Germany has managed to maintain a healthy manufacturing sector in the face of international economic woes and increased competition from cheaper labor markets.

I found the article particularly interesting because I think it touches on a few very good points where the U.S. can learn from Germany (and Europe in general). First, the author talks about how German industry maintains a healthy industrial Mittelstand (middle class - but referring to middle-sized businesses rather than individuals) that specializes in high tech, high precision goods. These companies actually supply the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut with the tools they need. In most cases, these companies have workers that get paid well and have full health coverage. Most important, however, is the fact that none of this would be possible without a strong (and longstanding) link between private companies and Germany's vocational training programs:

"The Land of Bismarck has fed its manufacturing machine with a steady supply of technicians, engineers and skilled workers through a superb apparatus of vocational training and technical apprenticeships. Companies work closely with regional technical schools, sometimes sponsoring programs to prepare the graduates so they are immediately job-ready." 

Though trade school numbers in Germany are high, they've also seen declines since the 90s. Source: German Federal Statistical Office.

As the author states, Denmark does an even better job of this than Germany; the vocational schools there know years in advance exactly which companies will need to fill which positions. I think there are two big challenges that the U.S. would face in trying to emulate this kind of workforce planning. With a population about four times the size of Germany's and many more times the size of Denmark, coordinating the needs of companies and the respective training programs would be much more difficult in the vast United States. Second, and more fundamentally, a paradigm shift would have to happen in the U.S.: I feel like in the last 20-30 years, young Americans have been told time and again that you've come up short if you didn't go to college and at least complete a Bachelor's degree. Many students who did reach this goal, and beyond, are now finding that college degrees aren't all they were cut out to be, and meanwhile, U.S. manufacturers can't find skilled workers. I think there needs to be a general reevaluation of the "value" of vocational training, along with various other professions beyond skilled industrial labor (Primary and secondary school teachers are the first that popped into my head).

The second thing that the author brought up that I found particularly interesting was the fact that "Germans have harnessed their wealth to foster an equitable and broadly shared prosperity that has given Germans an enviable living standard." A comment from a reader expounded on this: "In many ways, Germans are simply better at living and working together. They have a sense of national community combined with inherent resourcefulness which, when combined with smart and inclusive policies, ensures a great part of their long-term success." Though I think both of these writers are on to something, I also think both are perhaps a tad on the idealistic side in ignoring many of the shortcomings of German society. I think that Germany in fact has many of the same internal divisions and conflicts that are also present in the U.S.; but in Germany, the fierce American individualism and libertarianism is notably absent, so that highly progressive taxes and a robust welfare state are widely accepted facts of life (one indicator of this: the FDP are the strongest anti-tax/pro-business party in Germany – though not nearly as extreme as the Republicans or Tea Party – and after seeing their best result ever they still only received 14% of the vote). These social programs actually work for the most part, and the result is that the gulf between rich and poor is not nearly as wide as in the States.

Finally, a bit that the article does not mention: that despite having all of these efficient vocational training programs that help maintain a healthy manufacturing sector, Germany has also piggy-backed on some of the extremely harmful developments in the working world that the U.S. has spearheaded. I'm talking here about the rise and spread of the concept of the eternal intern (see this article from the Washingtonian). It's a buyer's market (for the employer, that is) out there on the job market, so German as well as American companies know they can get highly educated people to work for next to nothing because they want to gain some experience; at the same time, employers don't have to make any long-term commitments to most of their workforce.

As a former TA, I'm finding out now that I jumped out of the pot and into the fire of the private sector: it all looks a whole lot like what I experienced as the current employment model at universities: fewer and fewer well-paid professorships and an army of well-educated, underpaid "teacher-interns" teaching courses previously taught by professors. With the number of 'real' jobs shrinking, this 'well-trained army' in turn has nothing to look forward to but vicious competition for the few positions that remain. Not only is this employment model unsustainable, it will eventually come back around to bite employers in the ass as well. In the end, an intern with little or no job security and little hope for a permanent position are also less invested in their employer's success. It's a scary world out there, so let's hope the U.S. starts copying more of the German model when it comes to vocational training, and that the Germans realize that they're better off not taking a page out of the States' book in this case.

[steps down from soapbox]

Update: A new look for vocational training in the U.S., from NPR's Morning Edition

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Berlin Water Pipes You Don't Smoke

This is a new-fangled blue pipe!
If you've ever taken a stroll through central Berlin, you've probably noticed the massive blue/purple/pink pipes winding along the sides of streets, over streets, and into the ground. In many cities, these structures would stand out starkly and draw a fair amount of attention from residents and visitors, but in Berlin they sort of blend into the fabric of the often-just-dirty-enough urban landscape. The surrounding graffitied walls and ubiquitous construction sites render the pipes relatively unremarkable. They themselves are often adorned with various tags and street art – just another kind of urban canvas to be utilized.

On the surface, the pipes are mere curiosities, but they actually reveal a pretty interesting and oft-forgotten aspect of Berlin's history; namely, that the entire city was built on top of a swamp. The region around Berlin has historically been referred to sarcastically as the "Streusandbüchse", and presented challenges from day one during the settlement of the area. The term Streusandbüchse translates literally as "sand box", but actually refers to a small box containing fine sand that was used to dry the ink on manuscripts. So what exactly does the Brandenburg-Berlin Streusandbüchse look like?  

The Spree-Havel region in Brandenburg/Mecklenburg.
Berlin is situated right in the armpit of the Spree and Havel Rivers, the latter of which flows into the Elbe about 150 km north of Magdeburg. Berlin sits just 35 meters above sea level on average, and just to give you an idea of just how flat this region is, the River Havel drops only 50 meters in its 325-km trip from the already-quite-flat Mecklenburg to the Elbe (see map, with the Havel in dark blue). A quick glance at the whole region shows that the rivers often bulge out into lakes as they pool up on the flat land. The Wannsee in southwest Berlin and the stretch along the Havel bike trail west of Potsdam are great examples.

Historically, Berlin was a late bloomer on the European landscape. As a backwater trading post on the outer fringes of the Holy Roman Empire, Berlin sat on swampy, primarily nutrient-deficient, loose soil (with the notable exception of the Havelland west of Berlin), and Middle Ages settlements were perched on silt islands that rose out of the lake-like Spree of the 13th century. The settlements were important for east-west trade, but for the most part stagnated. Some 400 years later in the mid-1600s, however, following a few spoonfuls of Black Death, a healthy dose of malnourishment and the death or emigration of half of its population during the 30 Years War, the Hohenzollerns looked to reincarnate Berlin, only this time much bigger and better. They called pretty much everybody to come on over, but perhaps most crucial to the expansion of the city were precisely those people who knew best how to build on swampy silt and sand: the Dutch. As Berlin expanded beyond the silty high ground around the river, engineers and architects from Holland came to the rescue, drained the land, and the rest is history.   
Unter den Linden. Notice the copious
construction cranes.

Today, the colored pipes are most commonly spotted near large construction sites. Together with modern pumps, they are used instead of windmills to lower the water table in order to set building foundations. There are also many problematic spots where the pipes are basically permanent, and on these you're more likely to find ads and/or graffiti, depending on what you call art, of course (see photo and check out Pink Pipes of Berlin!). The latest example of Berlin's high water table causing problems is at the now-notorious, to-be-finished-at-an-as-yet-uncertain-date-for-a-much-higher-price Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER) being built on the southeastern outskirts of the city. While the massive public project has been delayed for just about every reason ranging from flaws in the fire safety system to a shortage of check-in counters to the actual size and capacity of the airport, if the thing is actually sinking into the Streusandbüchse as this Focus article says it is, all those problems may be a moot. One would have thought they would have learned from the Dutch engineers in the 17th century, or from the myriad water pipes throughout the rest of the city. Lord knows, we'll probably be able to snap pictures of these above-ground pipes at the construction site for the BER airport five years from now!
Photo by rituffo: 'Pink Pipes of Berlin'

(If you're into early-80s German TV documentaries, this one on the Berlin freeway ring gives a nice idea of the idyllic landscapes that are Brandenburg. They mention the Streusandbüchse at 12:00, and unrelated, but the Fisherman at 27:00 has a pretty solid Brandenburgisch dialect)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Döner mit Allem – und Scharf

The indomitable, delicious Döner. What would a blog about life in Germany be without it? Ah, but first, I must begin with a heartfelt apology, for in case you hadn't noticed, I heartlessly slandered the Döner last week in order to make a point about cuisine in Berlin. I dared mention it in the same sentence with the far inferior Currywurst. Yes – today, I take it all back. This is my "Ode an den Döner"...

The Dürüm-Dönerbürste being put into action in Vienna.
That handsome feller on the right didn't even have time
to put his umbrella down.
Where I live, we don't eat the Döner, we brush our teeth with the Döner (the term Dönerbürste, or Döner-brush, has been bandied about in certain circles). Four out of five dentists do not recommend it, but I personally brush my teeth with Döner approximately as often as I actually floss. Doctors don't recommend them either; a BBC study found that the average Döner in England had around 1,200 calories (if you consider the 5-10 beers you drank beforehand your lookin' at 2 grand or more). You also often must brave less-than-sanitary conditions if you're keen on finding the best Döner in town; "the dirtier the better" is a pretty solid rule here. If you're not just a little bit nervous on your way there, you're probably going to be disappointed. There is also no edible item that I have eaten more of between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. The Döner is a loyal friend of sorts; it's flavors and spices will accompany you wherever you may go, for many hours after eating. Don't think that a real toothbrushing will save you, either. Despite all of these things, I continue to thoroughly enjoy and love the Döner, and this keyed my interest in finding out just how a food with Turkish roots has ironically become one of the most iconic symbols of German cuisine.

The Döner gets its name from the Turkish word for "to turn around", and though its history begins on the shores of the Sea of Marmara in western Turkey, its true glory and worldwide fame wasn't realized until it traveled along with the Turkish Gastarbeiter (literally "guest workers") of the 1960s all the way to the German capital. Only there did it assume its current form as a sandwich, along with that wonderful mix of 'Salat komplett' (or ohne Zwiebeln if that's how you roll, though you're missing out) that we all know and love.

Where it all started: Iskender in Bursa, Turkey
So we first trace the roots of the Döner back to the the very brief capital city of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa (capital from 1326-1365). It's a city whose past glory as the center of a powerful empire – at least for 35 odd years – is today unknown to most. Its reputation certainly suffered from lying directly across the pond from its much bigger brother, Istanbul (or Constantinople, if that's how you roll). Likewise, it's importance as the prime mover in the development of today's Döner Kebab has gone largely ignored. I took a journey in 2009 that began in Istanbul. I crossed the Marmara Sea, and set off toward Bursa on a mission to find the original Döner (also, I had a day to kill on my Turkey trip and Bursa happened to be a quick and convenient ferry ride away, but this doesn't take away from how happy-as-a-clam I was when I found out the original Döner Laden was where I had randomly decided to go). After touring some of the fascinating original medieval villages on the outskirts of the city, my Couchsurfing host guided me to Iskender Kebab, the place where it all began. Yavuz İskenderoğlu, who lived during the latter half of the 19th century, was the first man to take the proverbial Kebab-bull by the horns – he deliberately and confidently turned what was previously a horizontal spit, and tilted it precisely 90 degrees. Just like that, the vertical Spieß was born. Iskender Kebab, as it's called today, is lean lamb, should be sliced thinly but widely, and is served on a plate over pieces of unleavened bread and with yogurt, and if you're lucky, the server will come around with the melted butter and tomato sauce and give you a nice friendly Turkish drizzle. Let me give you a little helpful tip at this point here though: when you're all sated and full of tasty rotated-meat goodness, you've finished your Iskender and are sipping Şıra and are brainstorming about possibly similar foods you've had before that you could compare to Iskender Kebab, don't say this: "Hey, this is basically like a Turkish gyro." Take it from me.

Only Döner is a better incentive than money (Photo from
the always-entertaining Notes of Berlin)

We fast forward to the 1960s in Germany, where work was plentiful, but working-aged men were not. Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Moroccans, and of course Turks came to Germany as Gastarbeiter to fill the ranks. The full history of the Gastarbeiter is a topic for a different blog, but suffice it to say that – to the chagrin of many a German xenophobe – thousands upon thousands of Turkish men came in large numbers, and their families eventually followed. Somewhere in that mix, some Iskender enthusiasts settled down in Berlin and sought to give their fellow Turkish workers a little 'slice' of home, but this time a slightly more convenient and portable one. As with many of my favorite legendary food and drink inventions (the Reuben, the Martini, sliced bread, etc.), there is some dispute as to who exactly was the first person to take the bread that Iskender was served over, and repurpose it as a vehicle for the turning meat. One of the main claimants to the Döner Throne is now a retiree in Berlin named Kadir Nurman. With his humble stand near Bahnhof Zoo in the early 70s, he was slingin' Döner before it was cool, and it didn't take long before his Turkish clientele was joined by ze hungry Chermans. Let the controversy begin, though, because in 2009, the very reputable Guardian reported the death of the 'man who invented the Döner' in 1971, Mahmut Aygun. Perhaps the world will never know who really created the Döner. I like to think it was the multi-cultural soul of the city of Berlin that birthed such a divine drunk food. In the 40 years hence, Döner Kebab spits of wildly varying quality can be found on every street corner on nearly every town in Germany and increasingly Europe-wide: today, there are well over 1,000 Döner shops in Berlin, and over 16,000 in Germany alone. 

Despite a fair bit of controversy in recent years stemming from questions on the origins of the Pressfleisch-type Döner meat, the Döner continues to be serious business. Over 720 million Döner are sold annually in Germany (!), and even Angela Merkel was recently photographed awkwardly trying her hand with a big slicer. There is now an official certificate issued by the ATDiD (Avrupa Türk Döner Imalatçıları Dernegi, or the Union of Turkish Döner Makers in Europe), who despite piss-poor website design are at the very least pretending to regulate the quality of the turning meat. They even have their own annual conference, so it's gotta be legit, right? I mean, I'm sure at least there's no horse meat hanging out in there.

Mustafa's Kebab in Mitte (also in XBerg).
Yes indeed, the Döner has joined a long line of semi-circular, tasty, practical foods. The Cornish pasty, the calzone, the gyro, the taco – I'd even submit that the semi-circle competes with the beloved cylinder as today's shape of choice for handheld food. For all of its faults, the taste and smell of a nearby Döner Laden will never leave my memory, and I thank Iskender, Nurman, and all of the best shops in Berlin today that I'm still discovering (for me, there's no comparison thus far to Imren or Mustafas – you've gotta check out the latter's website). But in the end, I'm really no expert. To those of you in Berlin or elsewhere, I'm calling out to you: I want to hear where the best (and the worst) Döner is hiding out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Pan-Asian, All the Time

The first part I believe...not so much the second.
Berlin isn't exactly known as a foodie capital among the world's metropolises. In fact, it's not even a foodie capital in Germany: its two most widely-known signature "dishes" are a sliced hot dog swimming in curry ketchup and a Turkish more-often-than-not mystery rotating meat sandwich (stay tuned here for part two of cuisine in Chermany). Now, I'm the first to admit that I love me a good quality Döner as much as the next guy, but by any standards these are not products requiring refined tastes.

Japano-Thai food, anyone?

Now, before I get into what I think are the cultural and historical roots of Berlin's lagging food culture, I wanted to mention my new personal favorite symbol of Berlin's food 'handicap'; namely, the ubiquity of the 'Pan-Asian' restaurant. On nearly every street, in train and U-Bahn stations, in tiny kiosks, shopping malls, and especially in certain corners of the former East Berlin, you can't help but notice the stereotypical pointy Far-Eastern typefaces on cookie-cutter style signage (see photos). 'Asia Restaurant', 'Oriental Wok', or the most honest of them that I've come across, 'Pan-Asia', call out to you to take a closer look at their amazingly versitile menus offering Vietnamese  pho and bahn mi, Japanese sushi rolls, Korean rice bowls, Chinese crispy duck, Pad Thai and the wonderfully generic 'China-Pfanne' (literally 'China pan'), which in no way has anything to do with China beyond having brown, asian-looking noodles and some soy sauce in it. In fact, these 'restaurants' can really be best described as the hybrid bikes of the food world: they do a lot of different things quite poorly. Your sushi rolls might look like fish wrapped in seafood and rice, and your pho will indeed contain a brown-colored liquid, but it will taste only vaguely like the original. At the very least, you can expect your spicy Thai dish to have about as much kick as a Wiener Schnitzel. I really hope somebody living in Beijing reads this and sends a pic of the pan-Europe restaurant around the corner slinging pizza, gyros, paella, fish and chips, and Wurstsalat on the same menu.

"I'll have the Pad Thai"
So the question inevitably arises: why Pan-Asian? Why not a Korean restaurant, a Sushi bar, and a Vietnamese specialty restaurant, all doing the things they're respectively best at? After all, anyone who knows anything about biking wouldn't take a hybrid cycle to a mountainous downhill race. My personal theory has a two-part explanation. The first part draws on the fact that nowadays, the far-flung corners of the former East Berlin that haven't taken part in rapid internationalization and gentrification (see Marzahn, Lichtenberg, Hohenschönhausen, etc.) seem to be the most fertile ground for the pan-Asian restaurant – and consequently the most drought-ridden ground for finding traditional country-specific Asian food). While West Berlin and the rest of West Germany spent the post-war decades becoming more culturally and culinarily diverse, and certain hip(ster) pockets of East Berlin rapidly internationalized upon the fall of the Wall, the rest of the East remains relatively isolated from these developments, sticking with its traditional 'German' (i.e. Brandenburgisch/Deutsch) cuisine and just getting its toes wet when it comes to ethnic Eastern food – which brings me to part two of my theory...

And they put the most appetizing
dish on the front cover!
...that northern Germany – and indeed most of northern Europe – started the world foodie race with a ten kilo ball-and-chain attached to its leg. Though the following quote from a friend cites the Netherlands rather than northern Germany, it could very easily also be said about Brandenburg: "the Dutch don't just have bad cuisine, they have no cuisine." Yes, when we think of most traditional "German" cuisine, we're really thinking about southern German or Austrian cuisine. Schnitzel, Spätzle, Maultaschen, Schweinsbraten, Flammkuchen, Gulasch, Knödel...all from the South (or the former Hungarian Empire).  Now, before all the Brandenburgers, Dutch, and northern Germans get their undies in a bundle because I've slandered their regional kitchen, let me explain. The vast majority of "national" cuisine is firmly rooted in the distant past (the U.S. being an interesting exception, but that's a topic for a different blog), and generally incorporates ingredients, vegetables, meats, etc. that were found in that region at that time. Though people in the pre-modern world moved around more than one might think, the lack of refrigeration and slow transportation methods meant that ingredients had to be sourced from the immediate vicinity – a great reminder of this fact for me was when a (living) German acquaintance said that they hadn't eaten a banana until they were in their mid-20s or 30s. The point is, chilly northern Europe (and England) had some pretty paltry ingredients at their disposal: fish, salt, root vegetables, cabbage, a few of the hardiest fruits, and not much else (see photo). I exaggerate, but you get my point; pretty much any spices beyond salt, and pretty much any spicy food – chili, coriander, curry spices, nutmeg, cilantro – were all completely unknown to most of Europe until the Dutch East India Company and other international trade brought them there in the not-so-distant past...after a "cuisine" and regional tastes had largely been established. These things seem to also have a remarkable ability to stand the test of time and passing of generations. What you eat and become accustomed to as a child has a lot to do with what your parents enjoy eating, after all.

Ah, my favorite publisher from the 90s: Verlag
für die Frau
: Publisher for the woman (!).
So back to my original question: why pan-Asian? I think that (northern) German taste buds are playing catch-up. There are still a lot of Germans I know, most of them of the older generation, who are what I would call "sensitive" to strong flavors, intense spices, hot peppers and spices. I think the success of pan-Asian restaurants, at least up until now, has been in that they provide just enough in the way of exotic flavors (just as a hybrid biker wants to be able to ride in several different environments, but they don't want to go careening down a mountain). But things are changing fast here in the Hauptstadt, like rent prices and demographics and just about everything else. Many of my younger German friends are very well-traveled and are keen on a wide variety of world foods. In fact, we found the little Kochbüchlein depicted in these photos on a shelf in a fantastic little prix fixe restaurant across the street from our Friedrichshain apartment – a sort of symbolic novelty item reminding the diner of how food habits here have already changed dramatically. The gray foods, pickled and salted fish, and mushy cabbage are already in the rearview mirror in most areas, soon to be followed by all of these hybrid-bike-like pan-Asian restaurants. In anticipation of this development, a host of new region-specific ethnic restaurants are already booming in central Berlin, so much so that one has trouble booking a table at the multiple tasty Korean restaurants after Thursday (I'm looking at you, Kimchi Princess). There are now even a few Mexican joints that are actually worth their salt (look up Ta Cabron) – something I wouldn't have thought possible even five years ago. Like the shelf toilet and FKK, I think the pan-Asian restaurant will in all liklihood fade away in the next generation. I, for one, won't be complaining.