Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dusch Das vs. Douche bag

       One of the best parts of the German language is the verb to shower, duschen.  Shower the noun is Dusche.  This can definitely provide some comic relief when we hapless English speakers wander into the shower gel drug store aisle only to be confronted by a lavender scented product called DUSCH DAS.  (Shower this)  Hee hee hee . . . it says douche . . . har de har har.  I secretly chuckled under my breath the day my very attractive young lady German teacher got frustrated with the leaky shower in her apartment and said, "Ich muss Dusche!!!"  Ah, good times.
       After awhile, though, you stop thinking of douche bags whenever anybody says they have to shower, and it's just another word.  What never occurred to me was the the Germans might be curious as to why people in American movies were always calling one another douche bags.   But apparently they are.  German and English share many cognates, and the Germans would have no reason to think that to douche in English would be all that different from duschen in German.  Over a fun lunch of Goulash, potatoes, and Bavarian beer, I had this conversation (in English) with one of my European women friends:

European Friend:  Can I call somebody a douche bag, or is it an insult?

Ivy:  You can certainly call somebody a douche bag, but it is definitely an insult.

EF:  Oh ok, good to know.  So, in English, it's an insult to call somebody a wash bag?

I:  Well, it's not really a wash bag.  A douche is a completely unnecessary, and often medically harmful, vaginal cleansing product.  Vaginas don't need to be cleaned with harsh, fragrant chemicals.  Douches are bad, that's why it's an insult in English.

EF:  A what?  Cleaning of what?

I:  It's a sexist pre-sexual revolution thing.  Women were taught that their bodies were dirty, so they had to scrub their vaginas with special cleansers to make them more appealing to their husbands.  But, of course, douches caused all sorts of other medical problems.

EF:  (with her hand in front of her face and her head turned away)  I'm going to need a minute.

A few hours later, I emailed her the vagina douche page from the CVS website.  I am happy to report that we are still friends.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Who Knew that Marathons Actually Inspired People?!

And Then You Leave Home is back by popular demand!!

Actually, my sister told me that I hadn't blogged in awhile.

       Luckily, I actually have something to say.  A few weeks ago, my husband ran an marathon.  Now that wouldn't sound like a huge big deal - lots of people run marathons.  There was even a woman last year who ran a marathon and then had a baby in the same day.  But the thing is, my husband and I aren't exactly jocks.  We ride around our European city on our bikes, and we walk, but we're both really short and clumsy.  We're really short - like really really short.  I can buy my shoes in the kids' shoe department.  My husband was a non-jock even within the rarefied nature of the performing arts magnet high school he attended.  I went to a college that won about 5 football games in the four years I was there, and I think I went to about half a game once.  For me, exercise was a yoga class with middle aged women where we all just talk about Johnny Depp and then leave five minutes early. 
       Nevertheless, my husband decided about half a year ago that he was going to run a marathon.  I tried to talk him out if it, saying maybe he could start with a half marathon or do something more fun - like getting a weekly colonoscopy for a year.  I told him that over 30 is a bit old to start long distance running.  He told me that I wasn't being very nice or supportive.  He was completely correct about me.  Nevertheless, he started running.  I told him to give up, but he kept going.
       First we got him the fancy running shoes, then a few weeks later we got him the belt of mini water bottles.  Not long after that, I started biking alongside him for his 2+ hour long runs.  After he started running more than 13 miles, we got him those carbohydrate gel packs to keep going.  I started being supportive, the way I should have been all along.
       Then marathon time came.  He had chosen a marathon that takes place in a small city in the former East Germany, and we packed our bags and headed out the day before.  He registered and got his number, and got up at 5:50 the next morning to catch the subway to the bus to the starting line.  I saw him off and then went back to sleep.  I spent the rest of the morning getting lost and going to the art museum before I headed toward the finish line. 
       It was amazing.  There were tons of people cheering.  There were actual cheerleaders.  A DJ from a local radio station announced everybody by name as they came across the finish line, "Coming in at 238th place is Johann from Berlin!  Looking good, Johann!  Now in 239th place is Ilka from Dresden, good job, Ilka!"  It was like everybody was a celeb.  Some people had their small children join them for the last few feet across the finish line.  Married couples ran across the finish line holding hands.  Children waved homemade says that said things like "Mom, we are proud of you!"  As soon as one man ran across the finish line, his wife doused him with a shower of fizzy champagne. 
       What amazed me most were the people I saw running past the loud speakers and into the arms of their companions.  They weren't all six feet tall and thin, as I had expected.  There were people as short as I am.  There were middle-aged moms and teenagers still going through that tricky awkward phase.  There were also plenty of people who carry around a few extra pounds.  But they were all fit - they ran over 26 miles.  There were people who ran the marathon barefoot.  There was a young man with no legs who wheeled himself in his wheelchair the whole way.  One finisher was a 77 year old man.  Not all the marathoners looked picture perfect - and that was ok.  Running a marathon is a more amazing thing to do with your body than just looking like a swimsuit model. 
       But the best moment of all was when my husband crossed the finish line.   I screamed his name, and he came over for a victory hug, and I took a gazillion pictures.  We got him a juice and a place to sit, and he said, "That is the hardest thing I have ever done."  I had never seen him so sweaty or exhausted, but I was so proud.
       It was only after he had changed and showered and we were on the way home on the train that I realized how amazed I was.  My husband isn't really the marathon type, at least I never thought he was.  But he put his mind to it, trained from months, and then he did it.  He really did it.  And if he could do it, maybe there are things that I could do too.  Maybe I could learn German one day after all. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

I hit the language wall

       Everybody told me it would happen.  All the other English speakers said, "One day, a few months in, you'll hit a wall with the language and you won't want to go on.  You'll be frustrated with your progress, and you'll happily retreat into your English language bubble.  You'll want to go home.  Or, you'll want to take the train to Hamburg and swim in England.  But," they all told me, "if you can get past that wall, if you can open your books one more time, then you'll be glad you did."
       Well, this past week I've been hitting the wall.  My German as a foreign language class is out for the summer, and my tutoring duties at the high school are out for the summer too.  Many of my friends are gone on their various vacations.  I find myself spending a little too much time at home, a little too much time reading articles on the internet, a little too much time sitting around.  And a little too little time working on German.  It's just so HARD!!  It's also hard to talk to my European friends who speak so many languages so well and for whom some things just come so easily.
       Last Friday I mentioned my frustrations to a Polish friend of mine who speaks a gazillion languages perfectly.  As good friends do, she told me she understood and then lit a little bit of a fire under my ass.  She said she understood, that she's felt that way herself sometimes.  But that most people live their whole lives in their home countries, and that I need to look at living in Germany not as a chore but as an opportunity to do something really interesting.  Rather than thinking about the job I loved that I had to leave at home, I should be thinking about the skills I could acquire here.  And she's right.
       Next Wednesday, we go to Russia for a ten day vacation.  Germany may be foreign, but Russia is really, really foreign.  They have a backwards R.  You guys - they have a backwards R.  A BACKWARDS R!!!  What is that?!  I have no idea.  I am excited for the trip.  I am excited for so many reasons, like the museums, the food, the palaces, the art, the culture.  But I'm also excited to get home.  Perhaps after leaving and coming back, I'll realize how familiar Germany and the German language really are.  I'll walk down the streets I know well, shop in the supermarkets where I know where they keep the brands I like, and it won't feel so foreign anymore.
       Fingers crossed.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Würstchen!!!! OMG!! Würstchen!!!

       I remember the first time I learned.  I was 23 and a grad student who wanted to earn a little extra cash, so I started babysitting.  There was the mother, cutting up a hot dog in the kitchen.  She cut it up so small, each piece was about the size of half a tic tac.  Tiny.  "Hot dogs are a huge choking hazard," she said, so it's always important to cut them up.  So, I started my babysitting career of cutting up hot dogs.  I cut up tons of hot dogs.  They are a CHOKING hazard for little kids, after all.  You can read about the hazard here.  Hot Dogs are one of the 10 most dangerous foods.  Read all about it from TIME here.  The American Academy of Pediatrics wants parents to cut up hot dogs before kids eat them, because kids chould choke.  Maybe even hot dogs should be labeled as choking hazards!  Some groups have pushed for that too.  They cause 17% of all choking deaths for children under the age of 10.  At least that's the statistic we read.
       But now, I'm older and live in Germany, and I have several wonderful German women friends who have small children.  They are all awesome mothers.  Their homes are full of picture books and toys, and their baby bags are full of organic apple slices and sunscreen.  They breastfeed and read parenting manuals and research kindergartens and have the pediatrician's number in their cell phones.  They have college degrees and involved husbands and grandma is sending along a few too many princess crowns.  They are moms anybody would be lucky to have.
       And they feed their children würstchen.  Dearest friends, a würstchen is just a German hot dog.  My friends feed their children hot dogs, and they don't cut them up.  I have a friend who gives her daughter a würstchen almost every day.  Her daughter is not yet 2, couldn't be a happier child and just loves loves loves her sausages.
       How could this be?  How could such awesome moms not know to cut up their children's hot dogs?  Aren't those children going to choke?  Something didn't add up.  So I looked into it.  It turns out that the 17% choking figure came from a paper published in 1984, based on a study done from 1979 to 1981.  It was long before cutting up hot dogs came into common practice, and we honestly have no way of knowing if the widespread cutting up of hot dogs decreases the number of deaths by hot dog asphyxiation.
       So, I looked into it.  How dangerous are hot dogs, really?  It turns out that children do choke, they choke on lots of things.  They choke on nuts, raisins, all kinds of food, non-food objects, and balloons.  They also choke on hot dogs.  But children don't often die of choking.  In fact, very few do.  In the oft cited study, around 5 children - in the entire United States - died of choking on hot dogs every year.  That's horrible, and every death is a very sad.  But really, 5 is not very much compared to many other illnesses and childhood accidents.  To put it in perspective, around 550 children drown every year in swimming pools. 
       Additionally, I have problems with the 17% figure.  Ok, so 17% of childhood choking deaths are from hot dogs.  Ok.  But that doesn't take into effect how often children eat hot dogs. Which is quite a bit for many of them.  Hot dogs are delicious, easy to cook, and inexpensive.  Say a child eats hot dogs for 2 meals a week - and that would be EASY.  That's just about 10% of all meals.  The problem with the percentage, is it doesn't tell us if children choke more on hot dogs than they do on anything else they eat.  Perhaps they choke on more hot dogs than duck a l'orange simply because they eat more hot dogs than duck a l'orange.
       It seems like, and please tell me dearest readers if you disagree, that it is easier for a child to choke on a hot dog than on most other foods.  But, that the risk of a young child dying from choking on a hot dog is vanishingly small.  It may be so vanishingly small that it's never really been mentioned in the German media, so it would never occur to my friends to cut up their children's hot dogs.  I'm not the best at searching German media for moms, but a search on my part didn't come up with anything particular about children choking on würstchen.  There are articles about children, choking, and Heimlich maneuvers, but nothing about würstchen being a special hazard.  My guess is, it's not really a public health concern, so the German public isn't really concerned about it.
       Instead of worrying about not cutting up hot dogs, or not cutting them up small enough, or cutting them up too small, or should they have warning labels or be redesigned, perhaps we should be more concerned as to why we blow insignificant risks out of proportion.  Why do we worry about hot dog choking when any one child has an infinitesimal chance of dying of hot dog asphyxiation?  Is it because hot dogs are inexpensive and thus associated with lower economic status?  Is it because hot dog slicing is something we can control in an uncontrollable world?  Is it because it never hurts, so why not?  Is it because 5 American children a year demands a redesign of an age old food and countless warning labels, media appearances, and 10,000 children in Africa dying of malaria is a tragedy that just can't be helped? 
      I wonder all these things.  But I do know that it wouldn't hurt us to look at the real statistics and do our best to measure the real world risks.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

School's Out for Summer!

       Since February, I have been enrolled in a 4 day a week intensive German class.  Since I had a few years of German in high school and a few years in college (although they were long ago) I was placed in level B 2/1, which isn't absolute beginner but isn't exactly advanced.  Why they use this combination of letters, numbers, and fractions to denote the class level, I have no idea. 
       I took the class at the Volkshochschule, which is the nearest thing the Germans have to a community college.  The class tuition itself was a Christmas gift from my parents.  The class met every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 4:15 pm to 7:30 pm and was fun but incredibly draining.
       Truth be told, I don't think I really got much out of it.  Certainly not considering how much time it took.  The class isn't really geared toward people like me who have had some college level German and who have been in the country a few months and could (if wanted) comfortably live in an English speaking bubble.  The class really more geared toward people who have been in Germany for several years, function and work in the German speaking world daily, and who have been picking up German from a number of sources.  Many of them are married to Germans or have children enrolled in German schools.  While I would have preferred a standard text book with vocabulary lists and grammar exercises I could go over at home, the actual text book we used mostly featured pictures that were designed to stimulate conversion with classmates and the instructor.  It's not really a book you could learn at home from.
       We had to beg the instructor for a few basic grammar charts and rules on a sheet of paper.  We never had a vocabulary list, and we never really had any homework that took more than 10 minutes to complete.  I don't feel like I got much out of it, truth be told - but maybe I got more out of it than I think.
       Yesterday night was our last class, and we all brought food from our home countries and had a party.  I brought home baked chocolate chip cookies and homemade orange cream bars, which I thought was above and beyond of me.  But I was WAY way way off.  The woman from Colombia brought a beautiful punch bowl full of sangria she spent all day making.  A young man from the Middle East brought bell peppers stuffed with meat and rice - I don't even know how he did that while keeping the peppers intact.  The two women from China and the Philippines brought fried rice, tofu, Chinese vegetables, and homemade spring rolls.  The Nigerian woman brought chicken and a bundt cake.  An older man from the Mediterranean region brought an entire feast of felafel, hummus, salad, taziki, the list goes on and on.  Somebody put on a CD, and everybody danced and ate and chatted and had a great time.
       Much to my surprise, I found myself very sad that the class was finished.  It was such an interesting way to meet people from all over the world - people I never would have met any other way.  Sure, there were some assholes in the class - there always are.  But most of the people were just so sweet.  There were two Africans in the class, although they were form different countries and don't share a mother tongue.  One is a mid-30's mother of three and the other a teenage boy here in Germany by himself to play soccer for the local team, the rest of his family being refugees in Scandinavia.  Well, it didn't take long before the mid-30's mother of three had adopted the young soccer player as well.  She braided his hair, had him over for meals, fussed at him when he didn't wear a thick enough jacket - and he always insisted on helping her carry her bags to her car.  The Chinese woman always came early so that she could help the teenage girl (also a refugee) with her math homework before class.  There was the very sweet German teacher herself, who said that we all have her email address and if we ever need help preparing a job application to send it to her to double check first, she would be happy to look it over if we wanted her to.
       The class was, overall, an incredibly positive experience, and I think I'll take the same level again in the fall.  I'll take a different instructor who uses a different text book, but it'll be good to review the material again.  A few of the other young women in the class and I exchanged phone numbers.  The Colombian woman and I plan to meet for tea sometime soon, and stumble through it in our lousy German.  This makes me very happy, as she when she sees me, she comes up and kisses me on both cheeks.  I always wanted a friend who kisses me on both cheeks.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I Pretend to be Bill Cunningham

      With the exception of the style on view at various art gallery openings (which I have mentioned in other posts) the fashion in my German city tends to be about as outlandish as that of Topeka or St. Louis.  There are many beautiful women, to be sure, but they tend to be dressed up for work at the office, or dressed up for work at the bakery, or dressed up in their casual mom clothes.  There are plenty of nice department stores and boutiques, but this is hardly a fashion capital, and muted colors are all the muted rage.
       So, when I do see a real fashionista out and about, I try to take a photograph of her with my cell phone.  I was waiting for the subway, when I saw this woman and her absolutely amazing orange shoes.  Are they not the most fantastic shoes you have ever seen?  Don't get me wrong, I know they probably are painful enough to be a way of making witches confess in the fifteenth-century - but seriously!  They just look fantastic.
        My mind was blown once again, when I saw this amazing older lady outside the ballet.  (I whited out her eyes to be polite)  I didn't get a great picture, my phone camera is kind of crappy - but isn't this woman outstanding?  She has a black and white toile-de-joy jacket with hot pink pumps, a hot pink purse, and a giant hot pink flower pin.  She was a work of art!  The huge hair helps too. 
       I also get sad when I see horrible, idiotically expensive dresses in store windows.  Let me show you this one.  Look at this ridiculous thing.  It is some sort of horrible fabric with an awful pastoral scene, just in case you wanted to look like a really ugly landscape painting.  The worst part is how the sleeves are actually longer than the dress.  This looks like something that somebody who didn't quite make it to the final 3 on American Idol would wear to go to a beach party and be found in the next morning, having died in a lawn chair of a cocaine overdose.  And it was $149 Euros - about $190 in USD.  I kid you not.  Almost $200 to be able to be dragged to rehab in a polyester mural of a meadow.  You would would have some serious nose-wiping sleeves, though, if it came to that.
      Nevertheless, I think that monstrosity might not be as absolutely awful as this horrible white dress I saw.  It has a deep V neck that's so deep and that the V goes all the way to the navel.  Who ever thought that was a good idea?  Fine - Jennifer Lopez wore that style once a decade ago, and it was all exciting, and everybody took her picture, and that's grand and all - but this is a wedding dress.  In a wedding dress shop window.  Who would wear that?  Is that something you wear to the church in front of your grandmother?  What is the market of people who want to show their navels on their wedding day, live in smaller German cities, and are in the market for a dress that costs more than most people's rent?  Is that more than .003% of a person? 
       As the great street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham says, "He who seeks beauty, will find it."  I agree, Bill, but as I say, "She who seeks ridiculously overpriced hideous dresses in store windows will blog about them."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Right Hand Rings - AHHHHHHHHHHHH

     There are many things that Americans and Germans do differently, and most of them are really six of one / half a dozen of the other, type situations.  One of them is what hand people wear their wedding rings on.  Traditionally, Americans wear their wedding rings on their left hands, but Germans, traditionally, wear wedding rings on their right hands.  It's soooooo not a big deal. 
     I know an American woman who wears her wedding ring on her right hand because she doesn't have a left hand.  I know a German woman who wears her wedding ring on her left hand because it was messing up her tennis serve on the right hand.  I have another friend who wears no wedding ring at all because she's a hospital social worker, and she's in and out of patient rooms all day and night, washing her hands 45 thousand times, and she thought better to just wear no ring.  It's all ok, everybody still loves everybody else.
     But this topic of conversation came up between some Americans and some Germans last week, and one young American woman explained that a diamond ring on a American woman's right hand is a power symbol, one that denotes that she is independent (financially and socially) and that she wants to treat herself. 
     Forgive me, but Crap on Cheese - that right hand ring hogwash is nothing of the kind! 
     There was no such thing as a Right Hand Ring until 2003, when DeBeers decided it wanted to find a new way to sell diamond rings to single women.  It, and very successfully I might add, came up with the concept of the Right Hand Ring with the advertising slogan: 

Your left hand lives for love. Your right hand lives for the moment, your left hand declares your commitment. Your right hand is a declaration of independence.

 Are you serious?!!!  I remember thinking at the time, cynical college student that I was, that nobody would fall for that shit.  Little did I know that within a few years, one of my friends would say to me, "You know, I think I might buy myself a right hand ring.  I really like the message that it sends."
      Ok - the message that it sends is not, "I am an independent woman!"  The message is, "I am such an idiot, I let a corporate advertising slogan convince me that buying its products would declare my independence!" 
      Yes, there are many things that a financially independent woman can do to declare that independence.  She can pay off any debut she might have, buy a house or condo, donate money to a cause she believes in, save for retirement, and, of course, also buy herself something pretty and luxurious - just because she wants it.  But for goodness sake - let's not actually internalize a marketing slogan.