Friday, March 7, 2014

ABCs of German life

Hello friends and family!

We've been in Germany for well over a year now, which is really hard to believe.  This seems like a good time to reflect on life over here and how it is different from the States.  I'm going to go through some of the things that I've noticed living here in Germany that have taken some getting used to, some obvious, some less so.  Sometimes, the German way seems better, sometimes worse, sometimes just different.  Some of these things would be obvious in a short visit, others became more obvious only over time, but hopefully this will be interesting to you. I'm going to do it alphabetically, and (to make the letters work better) am going to switch between the German and the English. Blogger's prerogative.

A: "Amt" or "anmelden": an Amt is basically a governmental office, and anmelden is the process of registering with the government any time you move.  The government gets to know all sorts of details that to me seem like none of their business, like my religion.
  Yes, we have the equivalent of Amts in the US (think RMV/DMV, etc.) but I swear there are way more here.  Now, if any of you are scientists and have come to Germany to give a talk, you probably were surprised at how easy it was to get your honorarium; at some point you were probably led to an administrative office and handed an envelope of cash.  This might lead you to believe that the bureaucracy is less in Germany than in the US where such a simple task could be quite frustrating.  Not so if you actually live here.  I think there are forms and rules for the forms and rules.  Luckily, however, there seems to be much less enforcement than regulation, however.  Which is good, since I'm sure we've missed some form or another that I don't even know about.

B: bike paths: Boston has been voted a bike-friendly city by some magazine or other, and they're crazy.  In the states, people paint a bike lane on a heavily used street and call themselves bike friendly (as if turning cars and opening doors on parked cars don't exist).  Germany is actually bike friendly, which is good because in this college town, there are bikes everywhere.  I think the hills keep many people from biking into my work, but a survey we read in German class said that biking is the most popular form of exercise here, and I believe it.  In addition to bike lanes on the streets and/or sidewalks throughout every town I've been to, there are bike route signs and dedicated bike routes throughout the surrounding countryside.  And not just one rail trail, we're talking hundreds of km in Hessen alone.  Now, I may complain that it's hard to guess from the map which are paved and which are dirt (which matters on a road bike during mud season) but still, it's awesome here.  Biking is really accessible to everyone.

blast doors: OK, so most windows have these crazy metal things, and many Germans roll them down over all their windows most nights. They're basically just shutters, but they make Sasha and I think that there may be storm troopers lurking nearby. Hence our nickname.

C: currency: We don't pay for things in dollars, but rather, in Euros.  And I get paid in Euros, too.  I still have to double-check all the coins when I'm paying for something, even though the coins and bills are more different from each other than those in the states.  I mean, the bills are even different sizes to match their worth.  If they ever made a million Euro bill, I think it would be the size of a legal pad or something.  When I was in Germany for 3 months in 2002, the exchange rate was almost exactly 1:1, but with inflation in the states and the weaker US economy, it isn't any more.  I still think about the prices as if I just switched the currency symbol, though; I'm not good at doing exchange rate math in my head, or about remembering that I ought to.

D: dogs:  As many of you know, I'm not a dog person.  They smell, they're loud, they jump on you, and most importantly, they are really scary if they are mean and are loose when you are just out for a bike ride or roller ski.  After a year dealing with country dogs in upstate NY, my fear of un-leashed dogs while riding is at an all-time high, but I'm amazed that I really needn't worry so much here.  The dogs are actually polite.  Usually, I can ride by any dog, and it will not even bother looking up at me.  If a dog barks or anything, I swear I hear it getting a lecture after I pass, on the order of "you are a German dog, you don't do that to people. It's not polite."  Awesome.

E: effusive greetings: something the Germans just don't do (well, except for a subset of college women).  Sasha's waved and said hi to people we pass in the streets, and they look at him with this scared expression like "who is this wierdo talking to us? We don't know you!"  You are kind of allowed to stare at each other in a very impolite (by American standards) way, but don't wave or say hi.  But it's also funny in that if you don't say hi to EVERYONE that you pass once you get to work (even random people in other labs who you don't know), people think you don't like them or are antisocial...still figuring out the unspoken rules, and who knows how specific they are to my workplace, etc.  When do I not get to say hi, and when is it rude not to say hi? Tricky.

F: forests: Hessen seems to be a fairly agricultural state, but there are also large regions of managed forest, especially the hillier bits of land directly around Marburg.  This is great.  I can walk through the woods every day on my way to work, and the woods are full of birds and deer and wild pigs.  The woods are FULL of hiking paths and roads that are open to bicycles, so that makes exercising quite pleasant.  What really takes me by surprise, though, is the way the forests are managed.  They don't seem to clear cut, but instead pick an area and heavily cut/thin the trees, and we're not just talking about areas of forest that are far from town, but the area with a designated fitness path near our house even gets logged.  To me, it feels like if the Middlesex fells (Boston people) or Theodore Wirth Park (MN people) were logged, in terms of how close the logging is to town.

G: German: the official language of Germany is German and it's what the people speak.  You'd think I'd get used to this, but working all day where the important conversations mainly happen in English and then coming home to an English speaking husband, there are days where I speak very little German.  On those days, I wander by people and feel surprised all over again to hear German coming out of their mouths.  I think what gets me is that I couldn't separate Germans from Americans from a line-up, so I always assume people are more like me than they really are.

H: half-timbered houses: you can picture them, the stereotypical German house with a tile roof, darkly painted wooden beams, and plasterwork between the beams that's painted white and sometimes has flowers or other designs pressed into the plaster. When I'm riding along some road in the woods, there are moments where I feel like I could be anywhere, and then I crest a hill and look down at a farming village, and the German-ness is unmistakable.  Most of the farms around here are also in remarkable shape given the years carved into the beams; a far cry from some parts of rural US, where you're as likely to see run-down mobile homes as anything else.

I: ice cream:  It's different here.  I can't exactly explain how, but it is.  Also, you buy it differently.  If we go to an ice cream shop, you pick however many flavors you want, and then pay about a euro per scoop, and each scoop is pretty small.  Don't get me wrong, I love Bedford Farms and Kimball farms in the Boston area, but it is nice to just have a little bit of ice cream if you're in the mood for something sweet and not to have a small that is so big that you feel sick for an hour after eating it.

J:jogurt:  it starts with a j in German because they don't really go for those Ys.  I like the yogurt here better than that in the states.  I can't really tell you why, maybe the texture is nicer.  It's liquidy and smooth, and comes in nice flavors and usually isn't too sweet.  I like it with Muesli for breakfast. 

K: kalium: that's German for Potassium.  Our chemicals in lab are sorted by the name on the bottle, which means that sometimes (if the label is in English) Potassium whatever is sorted under P, and sometimes (if it's in German, which is most of the time) it is under K.  This kind of fits under German, but it just seems funnier in the lab, since we mostly speak English all day.  Making solutions, though, does sometimes turn into a German test...quick, what's the German name for urea, and which letter does it start with?

L: the Lahn.  the Lahn is our river here in Marburg and it is very cute.  We are trying to bicycle from one end to the other, and once we have, Sasha will tell you all about it.  I don't know, maybe it's not particularly distinctive as rivers go, but it's here and it's cute and it starts with the letter L, so there.

M: Market/Markt.  There are markets here, and they are awesome. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, there are markets in a few places in town, but the bigger one is over in the Sudviertel.  It's not a farmer's market like in the states; it's more like people set up a bunch of small, portable shops.  There are cheese shops and fish shops and bakeries and butcher's and people selling fruits and vegetables and flowers and honey and olives and all sorts of delicious things.  I try to go on Saturdays.  While not all of the produce is local, I think they must cut out a middleman or two because even the imported stuff is usually fresher looking than anything at the supermarket, and there are several stands with really nice local produce.  It's starting to be apple season again. Yay!  Also, there's my favorite butcher's stand, and they must have 20 different kinds of sausage of all sorts, sliced deli style or in lovely rings.  I have my favorite, the Krakauer, that is kind of like a Kielbasa but not.  They also often have hot ones with fresh crusty rolls and mustard.  Yum!

N: north. I always forget that Europe is much further north than I think it is.  I don't feel like Germany is far north (I mean, it's way south of Stockholm, and Stockholm is pretty far south in Sweden, so there's a lot more Europe north of here) but we are.  We are at 50.8 degrees North here, and for perspective, Roseville, MN is on the 45th parallel, Boston is at 42.36, and Presque Isle, ME, which felt really far north, is still only at 46.67.  That is nice in the summer with nice long days, but the winter is dark. And wet. (see R).

O: outsiders.  I sometimes wonder if we moved here for good if we'd ever really feel accepted.  Don't get me wrong, my labmates are nice and we've made some German friends at church, but there are still people we've been sitting near at church for over a year now who have never said "hi".  Granted, we aren't exactly extroverts ourselves, so perhaps we have only ourselves to blame, but I definitely will try to make more of an effort once we get back to the states to try to be more intentional about being welcoming and friendly to newcomers.

P: pigs or pork.  I don't know where they all live, but Germany must have a heck of a lot of pigs given the amount of pork that's consumed around here.  While in the US, I feel like there's a good mix of hot dogs and hamburgers and brats going onto grills, here the mix tends to be: pork sausages, pork steaks, and thick-cut bacon wrapped around a stick.  Yes, sometimes people will bring in chicken pieces or cheese or vegetables, but the predominance of pork is fairly representative of what's available in the grocery store (and presumably what most people eat).  Here, I think it's chicken that would be called "the other white meat".  Yes, we do eat chicken and beef (and do eat meatless meals sometimes) but we definitely are eating more pork than we would have in the states. 

Q: Quelle. Quelle means source and Germans like their water from a source, and usually a carbonated one.  I don't know how much of it is "mineral water" from springs and how much of it is just tap water that's been filtered and had CO2 added, but in any case, it is really hard to get a glass of tapwater in a restaurant.  OK, I mean we know the word for it, but half the time, the waiter/waitress looks at us like we're crazy for asking, and then half of that time, they bring out glasses so small it would take half a dozen to be satisfying.  OK, maybe just 3.  People here drink sparkling bottled water, and many people think that "still" water is gross.  I find sparkling water rather sour tasting, and not at all refreshing, not to mention it seems like a waste to spend so much on water when it comes free out of the tap and tastes fine, but oh well.

R: rain.  It rains A Lot in Marburg.  I swear it started raining in November and didn't stop until May.  I would trade it for a cold but sunny MN winter any day. On the plus side, though, the crops all look healthy and bountiful, and at least the summer wasn't as rainy.

S: smoking.  SO many people here do it, especially young people.  AND, cigarette vending machines and cigarette billboards are legal.  At least now most restaurants are non-smoking inside, which wasn't so often true when I was here 10 years ago.  When the weather's nice, though, most people would rather sit and eat at the outside tables, which is nice, but we often do a calculation about the location of the open table relative to other tables and the wind direction to see if we can risk sitting outside without breathing in icky cigarette smoke.

T: Tiere (German for animals). There are sheep!  I see them while riding and they are fuzzy and adorable.  And sometimes there are goats!  Also adorable.  I keep asking Sasha if I can take one home, and he keeps saying no.  Something about not having any space on our balcony.  OK, so there are sheep in the US, but I see them more often here.  Sasha, are you sure I can't have one?

U: Umgebung. Umgebung means surroundings or area.  I don't really have a point to make, it is just a fun German word to say. Umgebung. You try it.

V: Villages.  Driving riding or training around the countryside gives a misleading perspective.  Germany is sort of close to Montana in size but has a population over twice as big as California.  And yet, there is so much farmland and forest, everywhere.  It's because the land is just settled differently.  Many, many people live in apartments or multifamily homes, and the people with their own houses have very small yards (and small houses) compared to the US.  Also, instead of each farmer having an isolated house surrounded by fields, the houses are all clustered in small farming villages, leaving the farmed or forested lands in bigger patches.  I like it.  I think the US model where so many people strive for huge McMansions in the outer suburbs and then drive an hour each way to work is unsustainable and inefficient use of the land.  That said, I do want my own house and think many Germans do, too, but no sense having acres of grass to mow surrounding that house. 

W: walking. Germans love to walk.  We'll be riding through forests or fields, many km from any village and see Germans out walking around.  Where are they going? Where are they coming from? Beats me.  It is healthy, though.  I also find myself walking a lot more here.  Probably this is largely because it rains a lot and we don't have a hose/nice bike washing station, and partly because the hill we live on is so steep, walking is much more pleasant than riding sometimes.  Plus, why would I want to wait for a bus when I could just walk and leave when I want and get there around the same time?

X:  so I can't think of any X words that fit. Neither German nor English uses the X much, but I guess that's a similarity instead of a difference.

Y: years.  It's been fun watching the seasons change here, and watching ourselves settle in to our work and our habits and surroundings.  Some days I can't believe we've been here for so long already, and othertimes it seems like we've been here for forever.  Well, maybe not quite, but you probably know what I mean.  I guess that's always true with the passage of time, but I think our time in Germany will always be special to us, wherever we go from here (although we'll be here for at least 1-2 more years, so there's still time to visit, hint hint).

Z: ze accents.  It's funny how much American accents are magnetic now.  Like I said, I speak English all day, but mostly it is English spoken by non-Americans.  By and large, their English is amazingly good, but still, if I hear another American at a seminar or even just in passing on the street, it's like part of me immediately homes in on them and thinks "there goes one of us."  I don't even have to exchange words, but I get this warm feeling towards a person that I never will speak to and may never see again just because for a second, it is like a taste of home.

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