Thursday, June 30, 2016

Differences between the US & Germany: bathrooms

Travel to the United States prompted some thought on how the US and Germany are different. I've been living in Germany for three and a half years now and have settled into the German and European styles of life. Trips back to the US result in the feeling of reverse culture shock, a situation not uncommon for expats who've lived abroad long enough.

For example, when returning to the US and visiting the ladies' public restroom, I'm shocked at just how much space there is between the stall door and the frame. Holy smokes, I feel as if I'm putting on a show with some of the gaps! In Germany, I appreciate the privacy of the stalls with toilet stall dividers that are flush, if not completely to the ground.

However, it's not that (most) people really would ever look through the cracks of American stalls. If we try to figure out if it the stall is available, we usually look down for feet; we don't try to look into the stall itself.

Friday, June 24, 2016

My week: June 12 ed.

This week, we redid our huge database project at work, and unlike our efforts in May, it was successful. Phew! There were many little issues that crept up but nothing catastrophic.

I met with my tandem partner A as normal.

My friends D and S invited A and me to their farm that's in a village in what feels like the middle of nowhere but is actually not that far from Kaiserslautern. The weather was completely nuts; a huge thunderstorm rolled in and A got stuck in it. She finally showed up, being politely escorted by a random guy with an umbrella as the storm raged. It turned out that she got out of the train with some others who were worried about her and wanted to escort her to D's house. It morphed into a huge rigamarole as they literally got a household of people to try to find the address where she was going. She could have ended up at a Russian D's house since her helpers were convinced that was the person named "D" that she was seeking. You definitely can't say that the people weren't helpful!

We ate a delicious dinner of vegan pasta (some wheat-free, which makes me happy) and even some with stinging nettles used like spinach. We stayed until midnight and by then the crazy storm had died down. However, emergency services were still dealing with the aftermath.

As we were driving down the road, I saw a sign that the road had dirt on it and ran into a grumpy crew.

Emergency services people :"why did you come down this road!? Didn't you see the sign?" Me: [merp.eep.] "I saw the sign but I don't speak good German. The sign said the road was dirty and I saw das, nein, der dirt in road so I think I can drive straight." Guy, rolling eyes, "No, turn around. Do you need to go to Kaiserslautern? Go left." We did finally make it safely home and I found a good back way to go. Thank goodness I'm a ninja with navigating!

To be fair: I looked up the sign and it DID mean that the road was dirty (i.e. mud had come down the mountain). The other sign about the road being closed either wasn't there or someone had taken it down.

I traded services and was able to have a local lady come by and mow the tiny strip of my backyard lawn. She has an electric lawn mower with a tiny trap that needed emptying three times. We had a great chat in German and she complimented my language skills, earnestly telling me that it's really a sincere compliment and that it's awesome that I speak such great German. How sweet of her! (I sound great compared to a lot of Americans here though I still need a lot of work.) 

On Saturday, I ran tons of errands, including dropping off a donation of clothing and food at Fairness in Kaiserslautern. They participate in the Foodsharing Project, where one can donate food that isn't wanted but it unspoiled. Volunteers also pick up leftover food, especially baked goods, from local stores, which helps reduce food waste, and put it in the cooler there. Anyone in the community can pick up food there.

My coworker was celebrating his birthday so some of us loaded into the van and drove out to his house near Heidelberg. He made homemade Mexican food, which was delicious! He made awesome salsa that did NOT have curry powder or sugar in it (which is my major pet peeve about the restaurants in our area).

Here's his recipe: fresh tomatoes, cut into pieces; onions; plenty of cilantro; finely diced jalapenos; a pinch of salt, and freshly squeezed lime juice. It was divine!

It was fun to listen to his kids. My coworker is Mexican American and his wife is German. He speaks English with his kids; his wife speaks German with them. The four year old was excited and mashed up German and English: "papa, come and guck mal!" Super cute.

The next day some guys from one of the social groups hosted an Indian Cooking Demo and lunch. We crammed 17 eager learners into their tiny two-room apartment and watched as they dry roasted spices, blended them, and cooked up a delicious lunch for us. I helped make chipati, which are quite easy to create. It's too bad that I'm a bit allergic to the wheat in them because they're very tasty!

Monday, June 20, 2016

My week: June 5 ed.

Monday was Memorial Day and I had it off. While it's sometimes not optimal to have American holidays off vs. having the German ones off, I do enjoy being able to get some things done when all the German businesses are open and everyone else in town is working. It feels like a tad bit of freedom.

I used this freedom to pick up my Moo-sitting friends A and R up and to take them to lunch at Royal Aroma restaurant in Hohenecken. We enjoyed the buffet there and even A, who's from SE Asia, gave her approval.

Another day, I met tandem partner J and was walking through campus. All of a sudden, a small bird flying overhead almost crashed into me and then dive bombed the curb. Upon inspection, he appeared to be quite young and was just learning to fly. He sat on the curb for a while, dazed. Poor guy!

I picked up a dehumidifier to help reduce the humidity in the basement following the flood from last week. The selection of dehumidifiers was very disappointing; they are very small and are reasonably expensive. The one I chose was the size of a carry-on piece of luggage, only had one liter of capacity for the water reservoir, and was 100 euros. Oh well; it certainly helped with the moisture.

My neighbor was working on the other basement storage rooms, ripping out the flooring damaged by the floods. It's interesting to see that there's a brick floor down there. I think that the building is from the 50s; it was in an area that had been bombed during WWII. Considering that 60-70% of Kaiserslautern was bombed, it wasn't too surprising.

During the weekend, I mostly stayed around town but A came over and I baked some pizza for us, which A declared better than any restaurant's. In the past, I made it more often but because I now know I have a slight allergy to the cheese and crust, I try not to eat it too often.

We also took a really nice bike ride along the Lauter River and to Weilerbach. It's great that there are so many bike trails around and we're looking for the Auto Freies Lautertal bike ride on the first Sunday in August. I've attended every year since I arrived in 2013 and am looking forward to continuing that tradition.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Not cold, but reserved

Ay yi yi. Delve into the expat blogosphere or chat forum and you'll find people lamenting how cold Germans are. Americans especially are wont to say how their little feelingsies were hurt when the meanie German didn't return their goofy grin. Others have felt the cold, hard stare of  a German having a good look. Or heavens forbid one needs customer service.

Do those reporting on this try to learn German and try getting to know Germans personally, in a social setting, instead of out in public? Have they ever tried to learn about a culture and find out what facial and body expressions are typical for that area? Instead of expecting the store clerk, who is there to serve all the other waiting customers, to be a perfect test person for trying out German, have they considered finding an actual tandem partner to work on the language in a non-stressful environment?

I don't find Germans cold at all. Do I find the German culture more serious? Yes, I do, but that doesn't mean that its residents are without mirth. Do I find their behavior with strangers a bit more reserved? Yep, but I appreciate this in some ways.

When I'm out running errands, I have no desire to smile at random strangers or chitchat with the cashier at the store; I'm going about my business, and to be frank, I'm not interested in what others are doing. As an introvert who is socially quite active and plans many group events, I feel as if I don't get enough time to myself, so errands are "me time" and allow for introspection. I don't mind a polite hello-your total is-thank you-have a nice weekend-goodbye with the store cashier; that is sufficient conversation with a stranger.

Why should there be a pressing need to look at/smile at strangers on the street (other than to have a general awareness of your surroundings for safety reasons)? I find it very curious to hear from Americans who feel slighted if random people on the street don't want to engage in smiling at one another or saying hello. I try to avoid doing this with strangers unless it would be blatantly impolite to do so in a situation with low risk factors. For me, it's a safety measure and means of avoiding harassment. I've found, from attending university somewhere that has a tough downtown scene, that not allowing strangers to engage you or approach you is part of keeping yourself safe. While I don't feel that it's so insecure here in Germany, it's still important to be careful.

Before judging random Germans to be cold (or any other culture, for that matter) just because they don't want to engage in your ways of interacting, I would like to suggest integrating more into German life. Meet people in social situations where they're more likely to have the time and interest to meet others. Don't judge things based on some very superficial interactions.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Cornsona non grata

My coworker was throwing a party with (delicious, might I say) Mexican food. When we arrived, he told us he had a story we'd find funny. When he was at the (German) butcher, he mentioned that he was buying the Hackfleisch to make tacos.

His German wife leaned in to us and said, "Would you guess what they asked us?"

Me: "Are you going to put corn in it?"

Answer: "Yes, they did!" (rolling eyes)

Me: "Well, you should add some kidney beans, while you're at it, because you know, Mexican chefs are 'always' adding that."

Another party-goer: "Oh, and don't forget the cabbage. A German burrito needs cabbage."

[More rolling of eyes, all around.]

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Hi, Harald!

I saw my good friend Harald again, this time by Adler at Globus. This guy is so over the top. It would be interesting to meet him sometime, and that's not outside of the realm of possibility because he only lives about an hour away.

The totally crazy thing is that I saw him just before the flood. Over the weekend, even the inside of Globus flooded. I hope that poor Harald (in poster form, at least) made it out okay.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

My week: May 29 ed.

Our work project was supposed to wrap up this week and we were working like crazy. We put everything into order that we could, ran through our lists, and stayed late. I didn't schedule anything other than my regular tandem meeting with my friend. The night that the changes were supposed to happen, I received a text from coworker who said that the software changes we made had generated too many failures. That was a feeling of dread for all of us; we weren't sure where the errors had occurred and then we wondered if the project was going to be in serious trouble. Later in the week, we held a meeting and found out that we could redo some of the steps and change some settings to counteract the failures. Phew!

During the weekend, I drove some friends to a campout offered by a world-wide group in which I had participated in the US. It's a quirky bunch of people who tend to be friendly and open. My friends were new to this group but really enjoyed the vibe as we met people from all over (but mostly Dutch and German ;)

I get such a kick out of Dutch people. I like listening to Dutch; I think of it as a happy-go-lucky-sounding cousin of German. I put my German to use a bit too; when the Dutch people couldn't think of a word in English, I said the German version and we were all on track.

When I arrived home on Sunday, I was in for an unpleasant surprise: what had been a general rainstorm where I was had turned into crazy weather in Kaiserslautern. Apparently several roads through town morphed into rivers as the rain deluged. My own basement must have flooded; there was dirt from the backyard everywhere. Oh, joy! Just what I wanted to clean up, even as my camping stuff was all wet. I laid the equipment out in my apartment and decided to tackle the basement the next day. Despite that, I was glowing with happiness from the weekend.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

My week: May 22 ed.

I spent the beginning of the week finishing up the trip in Sofia. During the trip, my feet were very sore. It didn't help that I wore some flat shoes but I find it so hard anyway to find shoes with good arch supports that aren't tennis shoes. I haven't been able to find any supportive shoes that don't look nerdy/touristy so I wore my other shoes. Anyway, A. suggested that I get orthopedic inserts for my regular shoes (if that isn't nerdy...). Since we walk anywhere from 5-15 miles a day and I already have arthritis and back injuries from a car accident (and I'm not that old), I decided it wouldn't hurt to take her advice. I stopped by the local orthopedics/shoe store and they had me stand in a box of foam like they use in floral arrangements. For 80-100 euros, I'd have shoe inserts a week later. I could have tried to get my health insurance to pay but that would've involved a trip to the doctor (and they love to get xrays or MRIs of my messed-up back) and copays so I figured it would just be cheaper to pay cash for the inserts.
Work was busy again since it was the week before the launch of our system update.

On Saturday, I attended the Stadtteilfest, which is a community festival held in the Stadtpark in downtown Kaiserslautern. Local organizations set up booths to disseminate information and also sell food or donated items as a fundraiser. The weather was sunny and the park beautiful with spring flowers.

These events are very enjoyable; old and young alike participate, whether it's kids coloring at the social club's booth or elderly men showing their model ships they've built. As I was walking around, I heard "heeheheheee!" and saw an elderly lady, assisted by her elderly gentleman friend, trying out the slackline. She was having a great time.

I was thrilled to visit the Fairness booth and find homemade Syrian falafel. Can I just say that while I love falafel, the ones made from frozen stock that are sold at kebab shops just don't do it for me? It's awesome when the mix is made fresh and the cook uses an ice cream scooper-esque utensil to make the falafel balls. 

There was another booth that supported Teachers on the Road, an organization that drums up volunteers to help refugees learn German and navigate life in Germany. They were offering, for a donation, various dips and some homemade Afghani bread. I was very interested in that and waited to buy some. The German volunteer running the booth was a bit flustered; she was probably filling in for someone. As she was trying to arrange a container for the food I ordered, a crusty old guy from the shipbuilders wanted to know who was in charge. He was scowling fiercely and I thought, oh, great, is he going to say something rude about refugees? All was well; he actually was Herr Doktor Sowieso and he wanted to help teach the refugees German. He just had what I call "resting old man grumpyface" and felt very strongly about helping newcomers assimilate. Good for him!

As I continued through the park, I was excited to see people playing a game similar to what I know as Sjoelbak, which is a Dutch style of table shuffleboard. My mom's family is Dutch and we compete seriously with this at our family reunion (you can win the magnificent fake crystal saucer and cup glued together trophy-thing). My brother even builds these for other family members. Anyway, the German one looked a bit different but the concentration and determination of the players was recognizable.

I was reading my blog entry from last year when I attended the Stadtteilfest and the similarity was funny. This is what I wrote in 2015: "I stopped by the Terre des Hommes bike market, the Stadtteilfest, Fairness (a thrift store I've been wanting to visit), picked up a few odds and ends for groceries, looked for henna to buy (with no luck so far),  cleaned the house, baked cupcakes, took a nap (definitely needed it after all the running around), and volunteered at the Tanztee."

This year, I did almost all the same things except for looking for henna (I finally found some), baking cupcakes, and volunteering at the Tanztee. Am I creature of habit or what?

On Sunday, I hosted a potluck for one of the social groups. Moo was at first very excited to welcome guests but then I think he was worn out so he reclined on the couch with a slightly disconcerted expression of wishing to take a nap but everyone was partying. We had a fun time and even engaged in a spirited discussion of Indian/Pakistani sweets. At one potluck, my friend had brought barfi, which is kind of like a South Asian "fudge," so to speak, and we loved it. We wanted to know where to buy it in Germany and some of the guys were in the know. The local Asian store, Tam Asia, orders it from an Indian sweets shop in Frankfurt and receives it once a week and the guys gave the lowdown on when to buy it. I love the network of knowledge in our group.

Moo says: party was fun but I'm tired now so please go home.