Food for Thought…

30 Oct


As I’ve been packing our stuff over the last few days, I’ve been thinking of all the things I’ve missed about the States…The things I can’t wait to get home to in just a few days.  But I can’t help but think of the things I’ll miss about Germany once we’re back home.  So I thought it might be fun to highlight the best of both worlds: what Germany and the United States could learn from each other, if you will. So, in no particular order…
Things that Germany Does Better

1. Bread. Germany makes the best bread in the world, and it also produces more varieties of bread than any other country. Even the cheap, mass-produced stuff is made by real bakers who’ve gone through a three-year apprenticeship program. Granted, you can get good bread in the States, too, but it’s expensive, which is why so many Americans eat cheapy, spongy white mush.
2. Chocolate. Chocolate is less expensive in Germany, and it’s better, and it comes in infinite varieties. Maple, blood orange, or blueberry yogurt, anyone?
3. Cheese. The kind of cheese that Americans reserve for dinner parties and wine-tastings is everyday fare in Germany. Why? Because it’s inexpensive. A wedge of brie that costs $6.99  can be had for $.79 in Germany- and most other EU countries, for that matter!
4. Public Transportation. Virtually all cities of 40,000+ people have their own train stations with regular- usually hourly-transport options. Buses and trams run where trains don’t. Result? It’s perfectly possible to lead a ‘normal’ life without owning a car!  Not to mention that there are a zillion bike paths- both in and around all cities!
5. Knowledge of Foreign Languages. All Germans learn at least one foreign language- generally English- beginning in the third grade. Lots of people take a second foreign language, and learning a third or fourth language is not uncommon. In contrast, I doubt that more than 10% of the US population has more than a ‘tourist’ command of a second language.
6. Doner Kebabs. I’m sure you’ve seen me mention these in previous posts- like a gyro, only Turkish. Doner is actually the #1 fast food in Germany and it’s DELICIOUS.  Unfortunately, it’s entirely missing from the US. (Might I suggest a trade? You send us some Turkish immigrants so that we can have Doner stands, and we’ll send you some Mexican immigrants who can teach you to make salsa properly.)
7. Festivals. Every time you turn around, the Germans are throwing a huge party to celebrate something and there’s always plenty of food and drink to go around.  It’s fabulous.  Germans like to drink.  They like to eat, too, but they don’t make such as big a fuss about it. Other countries are known for their local dishes. Germans, on the other hand, are known for their beer. When Germans drink, they drink in groups, and they drink a lot. Statistically, a German will drink around 130 liters of beer a year.  Heck, why not have a party?!
8.Graffiti. In Germany (and much of Europe), graffiti is considered an art form and is rarely covered up.  As a result, much (but definitely not all) of the ‘art’ is actually very pretty, or at least interesting.
9. Vacation Time. 4 weeks (minimum) paid vacation is guaranteed by law for all professions. And, as generous as this sounds to Americans, it’s actually standard in many countries. Germans are shocked when they hear that many Americans have no paid vacations at all and are even required to work on public holidays!
10. Public Television. Although we haven’t been able to watch much TV here (when we do, it’s with subtitles, of course), I have done a good bit of research and found that German public TV is better funded; hence, it’s of better quality.  Like most European countries, it presents much more world news, less sensationalism and less bias.  In other words, you’re learning what the US wants you to learn about with American news.  Not the case elsewhere.
11. Fewer Nut-Jobs. Yes, Germany has a few people who advocate for the common man’s right to own an Uzi, or who don’t accept Darwinian evolution, or who go door to door to try to convert you to their religion. But in Germany these people are looked upon as reactionary nuts akin to flat-earthers or the Branch Davidians.
12. Maintaining a Healthy Weight. Portion sizes are smaller and people get more exercise here in Germany, so on average, people tend to be trimmer and healthier.  In my months here, I can count on one hand how many truly obese people I’ve seen.
13. Candy. Germans take their candy very seriously.  You know how, in the States, you might find half of an aisle in Target designated for candy?  Here, it’s at least 2 FULL aisles of everything you can imagine (except sugar free candies, which are very, very limited.)
14. Environmental Friendliness. Recycling is mandated by law, grocery stores charge for bags (so most people bring their own reusable bags), gasoline costs around $8/gallon (which encourages people to drive less and use transit more), electricity is pricy (which encourages conservation). They are now where we might be 20 years from now…maybe.
15. Attractive Cities. German (and European) cities are, on average, prettier than American ones. (Granted, a person who had seen only Berlin and San Francisco might not have this impression, but then, there are exceptions to every rule.  Also, Europe is SO much older that it can’t help but have that whole historical thing going for it!  In addition, there’s virtually no suburban sprawl- the countryside starts at the end of the city, town, or village- densely populated residential street here, rye field/forest/meadow there, with no transitional McMansions between them.
16. Pedestrian- and Bicycle-Friendliness. There are pedestrian-only zones, sidewalks and bike lanes virtually everywhere in Germany. Many communities in the US are sidewalk-free, and if you use a bicycle as a means of transportation you’re viewed as some kind of social deviant.
17. Not Being Homophobic. In Germany, gays and lesbians are fully integrated into society and can legally register domestic partnerships with most of the privileges of marriage. Without sparking a debate, this isn’t (yet) the case in the US.
18. Wine. I think it may have something to do with the close proximity to the world’s top vineyards…
19. Taking It Easy. On Sundays and holidays, businesses shut down and almost no one has to work. Germans actually use these days for relaxation…Go figure.
20. Sense of Place. Germans are sentimentally attached to their home towns in a way that’s quite rare in the US. Probably because many German families have lived in the same community- or even the same house!- for generations, if not for hundreds of years. There’s more regional diversity in German, and more local traditions. Heidelberg doesn’t look like Munich, and the Black Forest is very distinct from Berlin. In contrast, American suburbs in Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado can look really, really similar.
Things that the US Does Better

1. The College System. The US university system is more intellectually rigorous, especially at the graduate level, and especially especially in the sciences. This is why Germany is now attempting to restructure its “Unis” along US lines!

2. Integration of Ethnic and Religious Minorities. Citizenship laws aside, there is an unwritten rule that in order to be considered German, you have to be northwestern European and (at least nominally) Christian.  It’s difficult for them to grasp that in the US, black people and Jewish people aren’t considered ‘foreign.’ Both the United States and Germany encouraged immigration at certain points in their histories, but while the US encouraged the immigrants to settle down and helped their children to integrate into society, the Germans avoided them socially and encouraged them to return home. (Most didn’t.) Result: while we aren’t perfect either, we have a much less ghettoized society.

3. Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. They’re less expensive in the States, bigger, often more flavorful, and available year-round. Germany lacks our secret weapon…California. 🙂

4. Salsa and Barbecue Sauce. Both German salsa and German barbecue sauce have the consistency of ketchup and don’t taste much different from it.  Ah, how good it is to be a SOUTHERNER!

5. Fashion. OK, I’m sure some will argue with me on this one, but I really dislike most of the clothes I see here, especially on younger people.  Too-tight skinny jeans, hightop sneakers, ballet slippers, puffy marshmallow coats and shirts with logos and writing all over the place.  YUCK.  And for the elderly?  It’s as if women over 75 aren’t allowed to wear pants or short sleeves- just skirts and sweaters.  Yuck.

6. Service in Stores. American salespeople smile and tell you to have a nice day. German salespeople- and servers, housekeepers, etc.- scowl and bark at you.

7. All-Around Friendliness. An adjective that Germans often use for residents of the English speaking world is scheissfreundlich, meaning ‘shit-friendly.’ This means that we say ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘you’re welcome;’ we apologize if we bump into strangers on the street; we open doors for people (especially if they’re on crutches, or have their hands full, or are elderly); and that if you walk past a person on a quiet residential street (or share an elevator with them), you generally acknowledge them with eye contact, a quick smile, or a ‘hello,’ even if you don’t know them well. While we think of this as good manners, Germans see it as superficiality. Perhaps they’re right…but TRUST ME.  It’s a lot more pleasant to be smiled at by strangers than to be scowled at. The German attitude of indifference- ahem, outright aggression, ahem- to strangers causes their society a lot of unnecessary stress.

8. Volunteering. From what I’ve seen, Germans don’t really have a concept of volunteering or public service as we understand it in the US. Ordinary citizens don’t help out at soup kitchens or animal shelters on their days off– as Germans see it, that’s what the government and paid employees of private charities are for. I suppose that’s a logical side-effect of their well-developed welfare system, but it still strikes me as sad. Germans care deeply about their friends, but don’t seem to care as much about the well-being of strangers as Americans do. In other words, social problems are your concern only if you’re directly affected by them, or if you’re a social worker.

9. Personal Hygiene. Welcome to America, land of the well-scrubbed! While the stereotype of the smelly European is (mostly) wrong, we still have the upper hand in the hygiene arena. Almost all Americans shower daily, wash their hair at least every other day, and put on fresh clothes every day- not just when they smell strongly or are stained.  Definitely not the case here.

10. Hair. We definitely have better hairstyles than the Germans.  In some parts of the country, it’s Mullet-Land, and the place where every female between ten and seventy has dyed her hair one or more weird day-glo color, usually at the same time (this from a girl who loves to spice up her own hair with fun colors from time to time!).

11. Old Plantation Houses. I’m a sucker for gorgeous Southern plantation house. You know what I mean: a simple, but beautiful two-story wooden house, tin roof, wavy glass windows, big wrap around porch with rocking chairs…German houses, in contrast, leave me cold. Stucco-coated cinderblocks don’t do much for me. (Note to Germans:  No, our wood-construction houses are not hard to keep warm in winter! You’d be amazed at what one can do with fiberglass insulation!)

12. Discouraging Smoking. In Germany, if you manage to find a restaurant with a non-smoking section (good luck!), don’t be shocked to see people lighting up at the next table over. Don’t be shocked by the smoking lounge at the school (yes, some schools have them for both teachers AND students!), the cigarette vending machines on every corner, or the cigarette commercials before every movie in the theatre. The fact of the matter is this: 78% of Germans over the age of 17 smoke.  84% start when they’re 14. WOW.

13. Flexibility. Germans are VERY rigid. They don’t cope well with changes in circumstances. This is why, when Germans lose their jobs, they’ll draw unemployment checks for years rather than relocate (sell the house? you can’t be serious!) or find another line of work.  Germans love to organize public life, and make up rules, whether these rules are needed often, rarely, or never.  They are definitely creatures of rules, order, etc…

14. Gender Equality. In Germany, there are still strong cultural assumptions that 1. all women want to be mothers  and 2. mothers should not work. And there’s very little legal protection against gender-based workplace discrimination. Case in point: you must attach a recent picture to your resume!  Welcome to the US circa 1973, or to Germany today! An American woman with children who also has a job is not labeled an outcast, she doesn’t have to wait five years to get her kids into a reputable day care center, and prospective employers can’t ask her whether she has kids, whether she’s pregant, or married, or plans to encorporate either pregnancy or marriage into her future. German women aren’t so lucky.

15. Early Childhood Education. Just about all US kids attend kindergarten (free and usually compulsory), in effect beginning school at age 5. Many also go to preschool before that.  In contrast, only a minority of German kids have attended any type of school before they start first grade. At AGE 7. And when they do go to preschool, they don’t learn start learning the alphabet or pre-reading skills. Preschools are strictly places to learn social skills and to play.

16. Natural Beauty. Let’s see here: we have just about every terrain under the sun- deserts, oceans, mountains, rainforests, plains, primeval forests…While there are some BEAUTIFUL parts of Germany, overall, we have ’em beat, hands down.

17. Traveling.  Most Germans, about twice a year, are tourists (afterall, they get TONS of vacation time!). As much as you can spot American tourists because they like to do “Europe in 4 days,” and Japanese because they always carry cameras, you can spot German tourists in other countries because they complain it’s not like Germany.  One could rightfully say Germans don’t want to get to know another country, they just want good weather for a change.

18. Social Mobility. You are ten years old and in the fourth grade. Your name is Fabian, or perhaps Anna, or Aziza, or Mehmet. You live in the Ruhrgebiet. Both of your parents left school after completing the ninth-grade. Your father is a steelworker, and your mother is a housewife. Next year you will begin attending the Hauptschule, in affect condemning you, too, to leave school after nine years and become something like a steelworker or a housewife. In theory, the decision to send you to the Hauptschule was based on your abilities. But little Susanne, whose grades were only slightly better than yours, will be going on to the Realschule. Her father is an accountant. And Felix, whose grades are about the same as Susanne’s, will attend the Gymnasium (college-prep school). His parents are a business executive and a pediatrician. In other words, social mobility is limited everywhere, but the child of blue-color workers in the US has a much better chance of attending university than the child of blue-color workers in Germany.  American parents want their children to have ‘better’ and ‘more’ than they did, whereas German parents generally want their children to experience what they experienced.

19. Optimism. An American magazine might run an article entitled “The Ten Best Things about Public Education Today.” A German magazine would be more likely to run an article like “Ten Good Things about Public Education— Do They Exist?” Americans are a sunny people- we look for the silver lining on dark rainclouds. Germans interject that this “silver lining” is probably radioactive. Really, they’re probably right. But all that gloominess gets tiresome.

20. Macaroni and Cheese, biscuits and regular cakes. We have them, they don’t. Yes, this is trite and insubstantial. But it’s the cold, hard truth.  Indulge me!

I’m sure there are WAY more items that could be on either of these lists, but these are just the ones that stick out most to me at the moment.  If anyone has any thoughts or additions, feel free to post them!


2 Responses to “Food for Thought…”

  1. Julie R. Smith February 4, 2011 at 5:38 AM #

    Erin… ‘shit-friendly’!?!?! I am curled over my antique banker’s desk howling. Love your blogs and how you roll!!

    • Erin T. February 4, 2011 at 3:50 PM #

      Ha, Julie! If only you’d been there with me, we would’ve been howling over some of that crap daily! Thanks for the kind words, too- for the record, I feel the same way about your SJS column 🙂

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