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.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Art. Not Modern, Contemporary

            Last Wednesday, I got to partake in one of my most favorite activities, going to an art opening.  I love them, and I am always surprised.  This particular show was much anticipated and took place at three different locations with a bus that took museum goers from location to location.  Very happily, my ever charming friend Kaska joined me for the excursion since she and I are – as she put it – the Beavis and Butthead of the local arts scene. 
Unfortunately, neither Kaska nor I have clothing that is appropriately artistic for an art opening.  One of our fellow patrons was donning a hot pink dress with hot pink stripper shoe accessories.  She was either a well dressed art viewer or a personification of a flashlight.  She looked pretty good.  A distinguished, middle-aged German man was wearing a well tailored grey business suit punctuated with man jewelry made out of red Legos.  He was similarly delightful.
            We moved on to the next gallery and met a woman who had a hat made out of a ball of yarn and another who wore a single earring made out of drapery tassle.  We saw some fascinating fountains and saw a little dollhouse with a tiny man sitting at a tiny desk.  Then we went to another room, but it was the same room from the dollhouse, but it was life-size, and the man was a life-size statue sitting at a life-size desk.  Then we went out of a doorway that was HUGE and we were ourselves the man sitting at the desk in the dollhouse.  It was the most Alice in Wonderland of all my previous life experiences. 
            The show was absolutely packed.  We saw a painting of a man vomiting out a second story window onto the lawn below.  “You see,” Kaska said.  “This is what happens when you don’t have a balcony.”  Good point, Kashkers, good point.
            The focal point of the museum was a very attractive young woman naked in a tube filled with water.  It was a clear plastic tube, about two feet in diameter and seven feet tall, and it was constantly replenished with warm water.  Set against a set made to look like a turn of the century laboratory, two men in white lab coats moved lights and old fashioned surgical implements around the scene.  The woman's head was above the water level, and she chatted with the artist, and turned around, and moved up and down.  I think the idea was that she was supposed to look like a frog in a laboratory jar or like a butterfly pinned to a mat.  I think the artist was going for something deep, something about how human beings are just animals after all.  Something about how scientific study is important for progress but also ultimately dehumanizing.  But, since he picked a ridiculously attractive woman instead of your average Joe, I bet the artist also wanted an excuse to hang out with a beautiful woman naked in a tube. 
            I kind of wanted to go up and talk to her.  I didn’t, of course.  She was working.  But she was also an American, speaking English. Even though she was a naked woman in a tube of water, hearing the accent again was comforting.   Nevertheless, it would have been so strange to talk to her.  How would you introduce yourself to a naked woman in a tube?  You can’t shake her hand. 
            On the way out of the show, we took a quick look in the gift shop.  There was a mouse pad printed with the words, "Ist das Kunst oder kann das Weg?"  Which translates to, "Is this art, or can I throw it out?"  Good question, mouse pad.  I'll think about that and get back to you.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I don't understand this one

           So here's the thing.  Apparently, when you are a man in Germany, you have to get married before you turn 30.  This is mandatory for some reason.  For your bachelor party, you then have to walk around the city selling some sort of bizarre service.  One time, I saw a groom to be dressed as a giant human ipod who was selling songs.  For a Euro, he would have to sing a song you selected for a handy song menu he carried.  One of his buddies would accompany the singing on a small plastic ukelele.
It was - and I think this goes without saying - just delightful. 
          Now, if you are a German man, and you fail to get married by your thirtieth birthday, you have to dress up like a super hero and clean trash off the steps of the town hall. 
          I can't say I understand it, but that is exactly what is happening in the pictures here.  You may think, dear English speaking readers, that I have made this up, but I am not.  Come to Germany and you will see these events taking place. :)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New Blog!

Hello All,

All the posts that complain about the New York Times are going to be in their own blog, Has the Grey Lady Been Drinking?

This blog will now be just about living in Germany.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

German Rubber Duckie, you're the one

 You don't normally think of a German electric company as being a gigantic group of adorable people - but it turns out they are.  We are all, apparently, getting a 5% rebate this month.  So, to advertise, the company plastered these rubber duckie magnets on these round billboards all over town.  I got a picture of them setting up and then a picture later, after some duckies had been taken by enthusiastic energy customers.

I believe the idea was that you would take your duck home as a reminder of how awesome the electric company is.  Don't worry, dear readers, I did grab a duck, and it is happily holding stuff up on our refrigerator.

I took a single duck, since I am a very classy - only touch the brownie that you are going to eat - kind of lady.  However, this woman with a baby in a stroller and a little boy took a whole pond of ducks!  I took a picture of it, just so you would know.  She stashed several of them with the baby in her stroller.  You better have like 7 more kids at home, lady!

As for my duck, my husband and I have come to a disagreement.  He thinks that it should stay as a magnet on the fridge.  I thought it should go into the bathroom so as to fulfill its rubber duckie duties as originally intended.  Nevertheless, my husband insists that electricity (and thus energy company rebate advertisement ducks) and water don't mix, so the duck should remain in the kitchen.  It's a tough dilemma, but he does have a point.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Water, Water Everywhere, but not a drop without bubbles in it

          You’d think that something as basic as drinking water would be roughly the same across all cultures, but it’s completely different.  For some reason that nobody can explain, Americans bought into the idea that we all need to drink eight glasses of water a day to be healthy.  They even used to sell little personal water coolers that held exactly eight cups of water, just so that you could make sure you had had enough.  Numerous books and articles have been written on the subject, and nobody can adequately explain where this myth seems to have come from.  Doctor after doctor after bio-chemist after nutritionist says that it’s crap – that healthy adults don’t need to drink that much water.  Nevertheless, we Americans really took the super hydration theory to heart.  Bottled water is sold in every vending machine, water fountains are omnipresent in buildings and public parks, and a refillable bottle of water can be found in virtually every cubicle, on every desk, and in every backpack and diaper bag.  As soon as you sit down at an American restaurant, you get a gigantic cup of tap water, and they keep refilling it as long as you sit there and keep drinking.
             We Americans are used to drinking water all day long, whether we subscribe to the discredited “8 cups a day” rule or not.  The Germans, simply, are not.  A glass of wine is all they need with dinner.  They (and I am speaking in generalities) don’t really drink tap water, they only use it for cooking and making tea and coffee.  For those who don’t know, the Germans are all about order, cleanliness, and good quality.  Accordingly, the German tap water is 100% safe at all times (it is tested many times a day) and tastes good – at least it tastes good to me.  But, most Germans still prefer to drink mineral water exclusively.  Unless they live in a fifth floor walk up and don’t want to lug bottles up that far. 
            Now, dear readers, German mineral water isn’t like a bottle of Dasani, or Aquafina, or Poland Spring, or FIJI, or any of the other bottled waters we are accustomed to in the United States.  In Germany, the mineral water is full of sodium and almost always carbonated.  I wasn’t really aware of the sodium content of German mineral water until I went to a very soy sauce laden Chinese buffet and ordered a bottle of still mineral water to drink.  I was so oversalted and dehydrated that I nearly passed out.  My husband and I (and most of our American friends living here) typically run kicking and screaming from fizzy water.  Yet, many Germans are confused as to why you would drink still water.  Pregnant women often crave the fizzy water, particularly FOR the salt content.  Many German children refuse to drink anything but the carbonated water, and they are somewhat dismayed when somebody asks for still water.  In many a German mother’s purse is a bottle of Apfelschorle, which is a blend of apple juice and carbonated water, and a sure cure all for any grumpy little ones.  If you want a glass of tap water in a restaurant, you have to ask for it.  About half the time, they won’t bring you any at all, unless you have to take some medicine – in which case they will bring you a shot glass filled with tap water.  The other times, they will sympathize with the fact that you are an American and bring you a glass of tap water in whatever random glass is lying around. 

I literally had this conversation the other day:

Setting the scene:  I am filling up my water bottle at a fancy sink that dispenses filtered water of different temperatures.  Since I am not making tea, I am filling my bottle up with cold water.

African woman who has lived in Germany for 15 years:  Ivy!  I thought you had coffee in that metal bottle you carry around.  Do you really drink that water?  Is that healthy?  Are you sure you want to do that?

Ivy:  Sure, I drink the water from this sink all the time.  It’s good.  In America, as soon as you go to a restaurant and sit down, the server brings every person a big glass of tap water.  

African woman who has lived in Germany for 15 years:  That is disgusting!  I am never going to America.

Ivy:  Well, they don’t make you drink it.  You can always order another drink too, you just get the tap water automatically and for free without having to ask for it.

German Graduate Student:  So, even children drink still water?  Don’t children in America demand carbonated water?

Ivy:  All children in America drink tap water every day.  Very few children in America have ever had carbonated water – carbonated water would be hard to find in an American grocery store.

African woman who has lived in Germany for 15 years:  Wow – my children refuse to drink water that doesn’t have bubbles in it.

German Graduate Student:  Oh come on, you must have Perrier in America.

Ivy:  Yes, but Perrier is only consumed by old people and pretentious douche bags and even then not as a substitute for tap water.   Of course, there was one time that my parents were a little late in preparing for the possible arrival of a hurricane, so by the time they got to the grocery store, all the bottled water was sold, so they just had to get a gigantic amount of Perrier – but that was an embarrassment to us all. 

The moral of the story is:  When your German friends come over for dinner, pour a goodly amount of tap water into a nice glass pitcher and put it in the fridge for a few hours to chill.  That way they can trick themselves into believing that it’s mineral water and won’t be so grossed out by you and your weird American water drinking ways. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

East / West and I become a dirty old woman

I’ve been in my German class four days a week since February, and it’s all kinds of interesting.  I took German in high school and college, but taking German to communicate in an actual German speaking country is completely different.  For instance, when you take German in college, your professor expects you to know things.  She expects you actually to remember what nouns are masculine, feminine, and neuter, as well as what parts of the sentence are nominative, accusative, and dative.  She tests you on these things.     
Alternatively, in German to communicate in actual Germany class, the teacher stood in front of the class the first day and said, “Only people who learn German as small children can truly master the genders of nouns and the nominative, accusative, and dative.  Over time you will make fewer and fewer mistakes, and that is all you can hope for.”  Whew!  What a load off.  Also, there are no tests in German to communicate in actual Germany.  If you show up 70% of the time, you can go on to the next level class. 
 On Monday and Tuesday, we have a teacher who is around 55 years old and grew up in the former East Germany.  She has an outstandingly beautiful quaff of salt and pepper hair and a figure that would be the envy of any 16 year old cheerleader, and she bounces around the classroom, joking, and laughing, and drawing pictures on the chalk board so that we know what she’s talking about.  She then switches into bonkers East German woman mode and says she’s an atheist and that Nietzsche was right, that God is dead, and then she talks about some book by Karl Marx’s son in law or her boyfriend’s spine surgery or how she thinks being cheerful is idiotic or something.  Then, she switches right back into her normal delightful self.
The Wednesday and Thursday teacher is a young woman around my age who grew up in the town where we all now live, securely in the former West Germany.  She is also fun and cheerful, and then she tells us that the former East Germany is a wasteland, and that anybody with any sense at all leaves, and that they have a growing xenophobia problem, and that they have some assholes who harassed some Turkish restaurant owners.  Then she goes home to her boyfriend, whom she promises never to marry because marriage is not her thing, and eats a vegetarian meal before picking out her dress for the Lutheran church service on Sunday.  She is tremendously likable, except for the fact that she doesn’t really seem to shower enough – or at least not enough considering that she commutes to class on a bike.
I also have a delightful classmate from a very sadly wore torn country who is a professional body builder.  This is particularly fantastic, since he’s about 5 feet 4 inches tall and has four daughters under the age of seven who demand princess parties at all times and gave him flowers and homemade cupcakes for his birthday last week.  He has shown us all competition photographs of himself fully waxed and in a speedo.  I fear he may have a muscle growth enabled brain tumor pushing on the 'be extraordinarily cheerful all the time' part of his brain.
I also thoroughly enjoy the company of the Chinese woman who sits to the right of me, and the Filipino woman who sits to the left of me.  They are both excellent cooks and insist of feeding the class at every class break.  Good people to know.  Then they talk about how they both love to eat chicken feet, and everybody is totally lost.
Unfortunately, I learned that the ridiculously good looking gay hairdresser from Spain is only 21 years old.  He was born in 1991.  You guys, I am such a pervert.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tomáš Sedláček

   The best part about kicking off the local philosophy festival by going to a talk by a Czech economist at the history museum is that you get to be the sort of person who kicks off the local philosophy festival by going to a talk by a Czech economist at the history museum.  Since the talk was a groovy sort of event, in English, and free, I definitely said, “I’m in” when my Polish friend Kaska suggested we attend.  As Polish is very similar, linguistically, to Czech and since she has spent almost her entire adult life living in Germany, Kaska understood all the Czech and the German.  I struggled to understand every third German word and just ended up clapping when the German people clapped and waiting patiently for Tomas Sedlacek to start giving his lecture in English.
    The best thing about Sedlacek is that while he is an absolutely brilliant international economist, a professor in Prague, and a bestselling author, he also has a ginger madman vibe somewhere between Carrot Top and that weird guy your friend met on the internet.  The best part was when he told us that his book was published by some random poet he met at a bar.  Nevertheless, he gave a fascinating lecture explaining his, not exactly new, but vitally important and impeccably argued thesis:  We should not ask, “Does the market work?”  We should instead ask, “Does the market work the way we want it to?”  He went on to say that there are things, clean air, peace, love, etc., that cannot possibly be assigned monetary values, and that economics should be put in its very important, but ultimately constrained, place in political decision making.  Brilliant, brilliant man.  He should be on the Daily Show talking to Jon Stewart and hawking his poet-published book.
    Now, the trouble with going to a fascinating lecture is that lots of other smart people in the room want to talk about how smart they are as well.  I admit; I am one of those people.  I wanted to shoot my hand up in the air and ask Dr. Sedlacek how he felt about the somewhat obscure but still influential early 20th century American economist Thorsten Veblen, who just coincidentally, attended the same college I did.  But, I didn’t, because I make it a rule not to act like a complete douche bag and waste 150 people’s time.  Nevertheless, many of my fellow lecture goers decided to embrace their innate douchbaggedness wholeheartedly. 
    First came the woman who asked how economics was impacted by the gender imbalance among scientists.  Now, I’m as happy as the next gal to call out the patriarchy, but this question had nothing to do with anything in the man’s talk.  Sedlacek completely dodged the question and went on to talk about the economics of buying a friend a glass of wine.  Next came along the elderly German woman who told him that she was part Czech too.  Great!  Lady, thanks!  Now we just need an obnoxious American to tell everybody that he’s somehow related to the English royal family and we will be well on our way to complete asshattery!  At this point I think somebody actually asked a valid reasonable question, but it wasn’t nearly as memorable.  The last question was asked by a middle aged German man who actually sported leather patches on his corduroy jacket and horn rimmed glasses worn non-ironically.  He rambled on for about five minutes discussing capitalism and communism until somebody shouted from the back, “What is the Question?!”  It was amazing.
    After the talk ended, Sedlacek was swamped with more eager question askers.  As Kaska wittily observed, he answered their questions while he checked his pockets for a pack and longingly looked out the front door, where other economics enthusiasts were already enjoying their post lecture cigarettes.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Handy Guide to German Supermarkets

Rewe and Edeka:
These are nice, normal, typical grocery store chains that you see all over the place.  They are good places to go shopping for day to day things.   Things I have noticed recently are cherry sized bell peppers (not just cherry tomatoes) and an increasingly large number of rabbits.  I don’t know if it’s for Easter, but rabbits are all over the place.  Fresh rabbits, frozen rabbits, whole rabbits, rabbit pieces – and not just the chocolate ones.  I’ve never seen anybody try to sell chocolate rabbit pieces, but I would like to be there when it happens.  I haven’t actually ever seen lamb at a grocery store, but the Turkish restaurants must get it from somewhere. 

Denn’s Biomarkt:
This place is Germany’s Whole Foods but smaller.  Practically everything is organic, or – as the Germans call it – Bio.  This is the store where they are likely to have twelve species of mushrooms, four different kinds of crab, and no chicken breasts.

Penny and Netto:
These are more discount sorts of grocery stores.  The selection can be hit or miss, but the prices are great.  The best part is that the employees don’t really take the food out of boxes.  There are just stacks of boxes of yogurt cartons, for example, and you may have to dig through the boxes a bit to get what you need.  Same goes for flour, eggs, toothpaste – whatever.  It’s usually somewhat soul sucking and busy, possibly with some sort of spilled liquid on the floor.  Penny’s slogan is “Erstmal zu Penny” which I like to translate as “You know you should go check and see if they have that stuff at Penny first.  I mean, there is a 40% chance that they won’t have everything you need – but you know you’ll be kicking yourself if you go to some nicer grocery store and spend way more money on the same can of tomato paste just because you wanted to shop somewhere without the occasional pond of melted strawberry ice cream between the tampons and the vodka.”

Real is like a Super Target – but it’s a huge pain for me to get to.  It has groceries as well as clothing, bicycles, lawn equipment, books and videos, etc.  It has an entire grocery store aisle only for Haribo candy.  It has a delightful Polish butcher who is happy to help me with weird gram amounts of recipes that I might need after translating from some recipe that used pounds.  I like talking to him because, as a fellow Auslander, I assume he is sympathetic to my inability to speak good German.  Of course, he could just be being nice to me because I’m a customer and really be thinking – to hell with this bonkers American woman and her weird requests for 920 grams of stewing beef.  I also like Real because nobody fussed at me when I dove head first into a freezer for the last packet of frozen stir fry vegetables that was stuck at the very bottom.  You’d think they would have had problems with me when my feet actually left the floor – but they seemed to be cool with it.

I Shop:
I think the idea is like iPod or like iPhone, but I’m not really sure.  This is the Asian grocery store, and there you can buy any number of delightful things, such as peanut butter, tofu, and a large gas can full of soy sauce.  I am an English tutor for a few German high school kids.  One young lady was born in Tunisia, has lived in Germany since she was about eleven, and is uncompromisingly dedicated to Chinese food.  She was worried, a few weeks ago, that we didn’t have Chinese food in the United States – America being so far away from China on the globe.  She was much relieved when I assured her that not only did we have Chinese food in America, we had even had many Chinese-American people, and that she could take a very inexpensive bus from a Chinatown in one American city to a Chinatown in another American city should she ever plan to backpack around the country at the age of 21 or so, which I feel should be mandatory for everyone who is 21 or so if at all possible.  (Thanks so much to the wonderful college friend of mine who suffered the youth hostels of the Europe with me in 2002)

Galleria Kaufhof:
Galleria Kaufhof is actually a lovely, multistoried department store full of middle aged women buying nice pink silk pantsuits to wear to spring weddings, but the basement is the most beautiful and awe inspiring grocery store this side of Harrod’s food halls.  As you step off the escalator, a choir of cherubs descends from the ceiling and flies from the hand dipped chocolates counter, to the pyramid of perfectly ripe exotic fruits and emerald green broccoli, over the exquisitely aged prosciutto, to the dry goods section containing all of my favorite foods from the United States and from that one semester I spent in London.  The chips, the BBQ sauce, the taco seasoning!!  The first time I went in, I saw food I hadn’t seen months and then wandered aimlessly in a daze as my eyes drifted from Campbell’s Soup to the tortillas to the 35 different brands of Earl Grey tea.  Of course, it is cruelly and insanely overpriced.  Seriously.  That can of Campbell’s soup is like $5.

This place is like a grocery store combined with a Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  You can get all kinds of Swiffers and then buy a bottle of wine and thirty chicken wings.  They also have a tremendous produce section, although all the sweet potatoes in Germany are imported from the US and cost more, per weight, than most meat.  This was a bit frustrating for me when I dropped a large chunk of sweet potato on the floor where it was snatched up by my friend’s dog, and I said, “Jeez loueeeze dog, I could have just given you pork, and it would have cost less.”

Indische Gewuerze und Spezialitaeten:
This little corner Indian grocery store is my favorite.  I have always loved eating and cooking Indian food, but the very best part of this grocery store is the fact that everything, aside from a few German language Indian food cookbooks, is in English!  Yay!!!  The prices on spices, lentils, and rice are just amazing!  They know who I am and are happy to chat with me in English.  Good times.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

College Seniors – what you are doing wrong

I have been fortunate to have gotten to work with a number of really wonderful, very smart, and eager college students.  Because I care about these kids so much, it makes me sad that so many wonderful students from my alma mater and other elite colleges tend to make the same mistakes over and over again when looking for their first jobs out of school.  I know that leaving school is incredibly hard, and advice graduates receive is often outdated, inconsistent, unhelpful, or just plain wrong.  I am just one person with one opinion, but I do want all these kids to do as well as they can.  This is my advice.
1.       Nobody cares what you did in high school
Take absolutely everything from high school off your resume.  I can’t tell you the number of resumes I’ve seen that have SAT and ACT scores on them, parts people had in high school plays, etc.  Those things are unprofessional; take them off your resume.
2.       If there is a discrepancy between your education / experience and what you want to do with your life, you need to address it
If you are a chemistry major and you want to go into fashion merchandising – fine, good for you.  But you need to explain, and figure out for yourself, what work experience you are going to get (or have already gotten) and/or what additional classes you are going to take (or have already taken) to make up for your lack of a degree in fashion merchandising.
3.      If you ask someone for job advice, you need to return their emails in under 24 hours
I once had a good friend who was looking to staff a wonderful entry level job at the well-regarded institution where she works.  I knew two young people who would be qualified.  One was a young woman who went to my alma mater, the other was a young man who went to the (easier to get into) local public city university.  She took twelve days to get back to me, while he responded to my emails within two hours.  It was an easy decision to pass his resume along instead of her resume.  He got the job and is now enjoying a wonderful opportunity and making good money.  Even if you are not interested in what an older person has to tell you, you need to take five minutes to say, “No thank you.”   It’s awkward, but it’s better not to burn bridges.  
4.       Do not act like you want a job so you can “goof off” before starting your real career
If you are an employer, would you rather hire somebody who says, “I want to give trail tours for a year before applying to medical school” or somebody who says, “I want to give trail tours because I have always been interested in working with people, science, and nature.”  It would be a no-brainer.  Which one of those applicants sounds like he would take the job more seriously?  Banish the term “gap year” from any conversation with a possible future employer.
5.      Do not ask for an internship if you are no longer a student
Most institutions will only allow students to be interns anyway.  If you are no longer a student, you need to be looking for a job, not an internship.  You can always volunteer at a school, museum, etc., but you are going to rub a lot of people the wrong way by asking for an internship, and it happens all the time.
6.      You can be picky about the job you have or the place you live but probably not both
We live in an increasingly global world, and it may just not be possible to find a job you want in the one place you want to live.  Lots of people at all levels of their career face this dilemma, and the decision is always difficult.  If you insist on being in New York City, you might have to wait tables at a diner at 5 in the morning for quite some time.  If you find your dream job, you may have to move to small town Alabama.  It’s just life.  One young woman at my alma mater sent out an email blast to alumni saying she wanted to bake bread in the mountains.  She mentioned no professional bakery training or experience.  What?  How is somebody supposed to help her?  Does she want to ski or does she want to be a baker?  It sounds like she has a romantic idea of what she wants to do – like she enjoys making bread in her own kitchen and going on vacation in Colorado.  On the off chance that some alum owns a bakery in a mountainous area that is hiring new people, is he or she supposed to email this girl and tell her to move across the country on the off chance that she is going to be a wonderful bakery employee with no experience or training? 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Buddha is Selling Tennis Rackets Now?

            Could someone please explain this to me?  I never quite understood it when Buddha statues because the latest interior design fad when they started selling them by the dozens at places like Crate and Barrel.  Why, people, why?  Why is it OK to knock off another religion’s sacred art and turn it into scenery?
            Now, if you are a Christian, or an Athiest, or a Jew or whatever else that is not a Buddhist, and you are a collector of East Asian art, or you spent two years in Japan studying Japanese history, or your beloved daughter-in-law/stepfather/friend is from Vietnam and gave you a Buddha statue, then I understand owning one.  If you backpacked around China with your college buddies one summer and brought back a souvenir that was a Buddha statue, by all means display that beauty in your apartment.  But why why why, dear friends, would anybody ever buy a fake Buddha statue made in some factory to be sold in America or Europe as a decorative object?  It makes no sense. 
            Luckily, a sporting goods store in Germany has decided to make the people who bought their Buddha statues at Target look like the sane ones.  I wandered in last week to pick up my husband’s birthday present, and low and behold, there was Buddha, sitting by the gym bags.  Maybe the sporting goods store is owned by a religious Buddhist family - nope it's owned by a giant publicly held German company.  Maybe it's a valuable work or art in a corporate collection  - nope, I'm an art historian and that thing is no fine work of art, believe me on this.  It bothers me that this is disrespectful to actual Buddhism, but it’s also inconsistent.  Sorry guys, until you have a giant Jesus standing next to the sports bras, I think you need to send that Buddha back to the tacky and vaguely offensive concrete statue factory from which it came.