Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Life in the fat belt

I found out a while ago the area of Brandenburg we live in is called the fat belt.  Obviously that's translated from German.  The fat belt is a special strip of land around the Havel that encompasses several small towns, including my own, and Potsdam.  It's called the fat belt because it leaches off the prosperity of near-by Berlin, raising property prices and the overall standard of living of its residents.  This explains why our rent is so high.  It's comparable to apartments we looked at in Zehlendorf.  Our Brandenburg place is newer which is a small part of the reason why we live here.  As far as I can tell there are no other Americans and almost no one speaks English. 

The fat belt basically operates the same way suburbs do back in the USA.  Once you get outside the narrow strip of land housing prices drop, jobs dry up and people are more cut off from everything.  Sometimes in the summer we go to a pool in Beelitz (another small town further out from Berlin) and I always amazed at the lack of any there there.  The German countyside is frightfully empty for someone used to more developed level of civilization.  My husband turned down a fantastic job outside of Neubrandenburg because I didn't think I could deal with the isolation of living so far from everything.  I'm pretty sure the reason I love Malente so much is because it's sandwiched between three major cities: Kiel, L├╝beck and Hamburg.  I don't need to live in the city, but I do need to be as close as possible.

Deciding to live in the fat belt instead of Berlin had positive trade offs.  The biggest is having my husband actually home every night at a decent hour.  He's always home for dinner, he can pick up Sophie from Kita on the evenings I have late classes which is at least twice a week.  If we lived in Berlin we'd have to find a Kita open until 7:00 p.m. (I don't even think they exist) or hire a nanny.  So for better or worse, we live in this very special part of Brandenburg where I can be in the West downtown or my university in thirty minutes, but also be at a wilderness wild park in 20.  There is a big forest preserve down the street where I can jog or the dog can run free, lakes with beaches for swimming in the summer and a fantastic Kita on a farm with chickens, cows, pigs, horses and even turkeys.  I really love the turkeys, I do.   But I don't love everything about the fat belt.

Mostly it has to do with the mentality of some of the people living here.  It's very hard to describe but it's a narrow minded, me-first kind of thing.  Some people with a tiny bit of perceived power or advantage try to lord it over everyone else. It's a true keeping up with the Joneses rat race and it drives me nuts.  I can't wrap my head around the little ways people try to exploit each other to feel superior.  I'm a pretty reasonable person.  I don't care what kind of car people drive or where they live.  Maybe I might like someone's shoes, admire their aerobic endurance or artistic talents but I never cross the line to envy because I'm ok with where I am in life.  I have friends who have a lot and friends who don't but none of the people I know would try to exploit someone else just to make themselves feel superior or think buying an expensive car actually makes them better than other people.  Again, it's not everyone.  There are a lot of lovely people here too, especially at our kindergarten where the other parents and staff are super friendly and nice. 

For a long time I was really uncomfortable when I would have to walk the dog in the morning.  I'm usually in leggings or yoga pants with no makeup and a fleece.  This is perfectly acceptable walking the dog attire in Chicago.  At least once a week I'm out and about taking Sophie to Kita in these workout clothes so I can go for a run after.  I always run into my neighbors and some of them give me a look of disgust, literally curling their upper lip every time they see me.  I was paranoid.  Was it muffin top?  Camel toe?  Was my messy hair and no makeup face so gross and disgusting people were actually sneering at me?

Then I noticed that a lot of people gave me this look in Berlin and Potsdam too, even when I was wearing nice clothes and makeup.  It's the look I get when the young woman at the bakery over-charges me.  The look the local teenagers give me when I go jogging.  The look the cashier at Douglas gives me when she tells me she can't give me a refund even though we both know she can.  Also the look I would get when I would try to buy stamps at one little kiosk where the cashier refused me service.  It's nothing personal.  A lot of people around here find anything different to be distasteful and unbeknownst to me I was breaking the social norm of being showered and dresses by eight in the morning.  Everything I do that doesn't conform perfectly to the social standard of a thirty something woman is met with disgust. This is a big contrast to living in Western Germany where anything different I did was forgiven because I was American.  This part of Germany is the first place I've ever lived where people automatically didn't like me because of my nationality and it is weird.

Now that I know it's just my foreignness making everyone uncomfortable and I can go outside again with no anxiety.  There is no way I'm going to get up at five in the morning to run in darkness just so my neighbors don't have to see me in workout clothes.  I'm still a student for the next 18 months so I will take as much sleep as I can.  In an inconsiderate way I think it's kind of funny that me just being me causes such a stir around here.  They'd probably have a heart attack if they saw how American teenagers dress when they go to the mall. But I have to admit the mentality of some people is a little bit exhausting.  I have to be very careful not to let it affect my mood or allow myself to create negative stereotypes about East Germans.

What do you think?  Is east or west a better place for expats?


Monday, February 23, 2015

Xenophobia and racism in Germany

I can't believe I've never written anything on racism or xenophobia in Germany.  Maybe because I always want to keep things kind of happy around here?  Racism is a depressing topic but if you want to make it better sometimes you have to acknowledge what's going on.  The topic of racism and xenophobia first came up a few weeks ago in my studies.  I was amazed at the flat way academics approach the issue.  They stated that Germans, and Europeans in general, are proven to be xenophobic.  I was totally shocked that something I had sort of concluded from anecdotal evidence collected in my eight year abroad was undisputed fact among German academics and backed up by cold numbers.

There are German students at my university who can talk about racism in the US but they generally have a lot less to say about racism in their own country.  There is very little dialog about this topic.  The issues of racism and xenophobia are ever present but not much discussed.  Given the recent influx of refugees and asylum seekers it's an issue Germans can't ignore forever.  Anti-immigrant and anti-Islam protests in Dresden have sparked some debate about the topics of changing demographics in what used to be a very homogeneous society.   There is a clear divide between political Germany and the people. 

Dissecting racism in Germany, and the rest of Europe as well, is tricky because the concept of racism overlaps heavily with other types of ethnic and religious discrimination.  Race is a social construct with no biological basis.  This is because the genetic differences between any two people are far greater than the genetic differences between racial groups.  That means that individuals of a particular racial category just as much genetic difference as those outside the racial category.  This construct does not fit well with the kind of discrimination we see in Europe.  It's easy for white people to put someone of Asian or African descent neatly into a racial category.  But what about peoples from Turkey or Albanian?  What about people from Spain or Italy?  North African and Turkmenistan?  The constant flow of peoples back and forth through all of these regions have created an ethnically diverse population that requires a more complex social construct than just race.  Racism in Germany isn't the same as racism in the USA.  In Germany racism is really ethnic-religious-nationality discrimination.  Basically, this means Germans have a hard time with everyone who isn't a white-Anglo-Saxon Protestant descendant and it really helps if you are blond and have blue eyes. 

Negative stereotypes are deeply ingrained in German culture and they encompass every country that isn't in Northern Europe.  I have personally heard a lot of negative stereotypes about Southern Europe, Eastern Europe (especially people from Poland), North African, Western Asian (especially against people from Iran and Turkey) and Russia.  I have so much racism in my daily life that I would actually prefer to go back to America where at least we know we have a race problem.  As we all know, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.  And Germany has a very serious problem with outsiders.  They have an even harder problem caring that they are racist.  Racial stereotypes are an excepted way of life and often go undisputed.  Immigrants are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be lower paid and more likely to face social isolation than people who are German citizens.

It is a fundamental part of human nature to form social groups, identify with that group and then defend that group from outsiders.  A part of the modern human struggle is learning to deal with social tendencies that might have served us well in the stone ages but no longer fit with modern day society.  Germany is trying to grapple with the highly visible backlash against immigrants and refugees as best it can.  There have been recent reforms to jus sanuinis citizenship laws that used to bar anyone without at least one German parents from attaining citizenship.  Without more education and dialog about race and ethnic relations Germany could find its continuing to struggle with opening itself to immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Surviving my first semester

You guys!  I survived my first semester!  It's over! 

Technically I still have to write a very long research based term paper but I'm done with classes, I'm done with finals.  I can finally relax and the relief is palpable.  In the same way that a good meal tastes even better when you're starving, getting to do nothing after being so busy and stressed feels delightful.  Yesterday I sat down and watched a movie and it felt so right.  Next week I can start my research and do something about the dust bunnies proliferating in every corner.  And my car.  My car hasn't been cleaned all winter and it's so dirty you can tell I'm America just by looking at it. 

The sun has returned from it's three month long winter absence and the only productive thing I have on my to-do list is take a daily leisurely walk through the Stadtwald with Louis, paint my nails and maybe take Sophie to the zoo if I'm not feeling too lazy.  I feel positively euphoric just thinking about the seven weeks of freedom I have until the next semester starts.  Of course I won't know my grades for ages still but I have feeling I did alright.  I don't anticipate having to retake any finals or repeat any courses.  Which was never part of the plan anyway.  That feeling of accomplishment is the little piece I've been missing for a long, long time. 

The sociology program is not a joke.  It's tough and it requires a lot of hard work.  Several students have echoed the theory that this first semester was intended to be difficult as a way to weed out everyone who wasn't serious.  A good number of people have already dropped out and others will have to retake classes.  They really do expect us to master the material. Something I only started to realize after I failed two practice tests in two different classes right after Christmas break.  Three of the six classes I am required to take each semester hinge on a single final exam at the end of the term.  That means one test determines your grade and that test covers all the material taught in the last four months.  I spent weeks intensively studying, trying to retain as much information as I possibly could.  I was determined not to make the same mistake I had before. 

A week before my first my first final my computer decided to die.  I had been anticipating it's death for some time and had thankfully just backed everything up to an external hard drive but it was still a little bit stressful.  A new computer wouldn't arrive for at least a week so my wonderful husband lent me his HP and used the ancient MAC I'd been trying to throw out for years.  All this happened as I was working on a particularly difficult assignment in SPSS.   Oh do you not know what SPSS is?  Consider yourself lucky.   It's a computer program used to analyze statistics.

If you have never had the pleasure of using SPSS let me tell you, it's one of those things.  I spent more than six hours repeating the same assignment.  Each time I would hit a wall and have to start all over again.  Re-cleaning, re-importing and re-merging data.  It took forever but I just kept going.  Our teacher was the kind of person who pushes everyone a little bit harder than what is allowed so I couldn't give up.  When I finally, finally produced a gloriously beautiful scatter plot I felt like I'd scaled a mountain.

I'm really glad I stuck with it despite my initial doubt and feeling alienated.  After I started making friends I found out many people feel alienated and a lot of other people had considered quitting as well.  It was nice to find out I wasn't as alone as I'd thought.  Now I have my confidence back and I feel like I have a handle on how the system works.  I'm excited for next semester.  The classes look more interesting and I know about how much work it will be.  I have a plan and I'm happy to be here, doing something that I love.  But for now I get to relax.  I think I'll start with a marathon of terrible reality television and then see how I feel later.


Sunday, January 25, 2015


This picture pretty much sums up my school life :)

I just got finished writing yet another political science essay on the EU.


Political science is not my thing guys.

Fingers crossed I make it through finals, turns out my masters program is actually really very difficult considering I have limited time and a small child.

Seriously, pray for me.