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.