Saturday, May 9, 2015

German vs. American fitness

One of my biggest problems with juggling my roles as employee/student/parent/person is that I never have enough time for exercise.  I tried really hard last semester but in the end I couldn't keep it up. I might be able to work a 5k or strength training session into my weekend if I don't have any papers to edit or any assignments for school.  During the week I'm too tired to commit to exercise and most days there just isn't time even if I had the energy.  This is frustrating because while exercise is important for physical health I really need it to reduce stress and for my mental well being.  I am way less irritable and pleasant to be around if I've been working out.

The answer to this problem has been right in front of me the whole time.  I just needed to exercise like my German husband.  H has the ability to eat whatever he wants and never become overweight.  Not only that, he takes and passes a fitness test every year even though he eats the same standard German diet on which I struggle not to gain weight.  Oh yeah, and he works 45 hours a week, does an MBA program in the evening and does his share of co-parenting.  What's the secret?  While we joke about his 'skinny genes' there are some very real lifestyle differences between my husband and I.

Since I love statistics I figured I'd do a little research into possible contributing factors to back up my anecdotal evidence.

It's possible after spending a little bit of time in Germany you might notice two things.  First, the standard German diet includes a lot of foods that have been demonized in American culture: bread, chocolate, mayo, potatoes, pork, fried foods, heavy cream sauces, cakes, processed meats and alcohol.  Second, Germany has less than half the obesity rate of the USA and about a third less than the UK and Australia.  What's up with that?

2014 OECD rates for obesity
France 14.5%
Germany 14.7%
Spain 16.7%
South Africa 16%
United Kingdom 24.7%
Canada 25.4%
Australia 28.3%
New Zealand 31.3%
Mexico 32.4%
USA 35.3%

Clearly Germany has a significantly lower rate of obesity.  I thought this might have something to do with the level of physical activity.  Looking at the data we see that more people are regularly active in Germany than in countries with higher rates of obesity.

Percentage of the adult population that are inactive
Germany 28%
Canada 33.3%
Mexico 37.7%
Australia 37.9%
USA 40.5%
New Zealand 47.7% 
Spain 50.2%
United Kingdom 63.3%

Now we're starting to get an interesting picture of some of the differences between the USA and Germany when it comes to fitness.  Another interesting cultural difference is the way that Americas exercise versus the way Germans exercise.  About 16% of Americans have a gym membership as opposed to only 6.2% of Germans (source, source).  But if Germans aren't going to the gym, how are they managing to be more active than Americans?  The answer is that Germans get more of their exercise by biking and walking. 

H likes to run and swim but the majority of the years we've been married he's also biked to school or work.  I admit when I first showed up in Germany with a bunch of stilettos in 2007 I didn't think much of walking places. Now I've totally reversed my attitude.  I haven't worn a pair of shoes I couldn't walk in for years.

My school is too far away for biking to be an option but Germany has a fabulous public transportation system.  It's almost always more efficient and cost effective to take the train than to drive places.  Public transportation causes people to walk a bit more than they would if they were driving.  Using a pedometer I discovered that when I take the train I end up walking two miles a day.  It doesn't seem like that much, walking from the train station to my classes but it adds up to an extra 36 miles a month.  Walking is a load bearing exercise, just as healthy for you as jogging.  

Now you could walk everywhere but the one problem with walking longer distances is that it isn't very time efficient.  This is perhaps why so many Germans ride bikes.  Especially during the warmer months Germans bike everywhere.  They bike their kids to Kita, to the store, to work. Biking three kilometers only takes about ten minutes.  It's almost as time efficient as driving for short distances.  If I bike to the train station in the morning and to run errands I can easily end up getting 100 of the 150 recommended minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week recommended by the Department of Health.  And that's the not so big secret about German fitness.  By making fitness a regular part of their day they get in a lot of physical activity without having to go to the gym.  

This semester  I finally, after eight years of being in Germany, have my own bike and helmet.  I've been doing my best not to fall off or crash into anything the last two weeks (harder than you'd think). Leaving a few minutes early and biking to the train station is something I can manage, no matter how busy I am.  I should know in a couple of months if my husband's fitness is really genetic or if it's a result of his German lifestyle.  I'll keep you posted.


Friday, May 8, 2015

May Day (and some disjointed nonsense)

Hey there.

Do you ever get some kind of cold that isn't really THAT bad but then it lingers and lingers and starts ruining your life because you can only function at the bare minimum of normal capacity?  That's me right now.  I've been debating going to the doctor but I'm pretty sure unless it's been more than ten days they're going to say 'it's viral' and send me on my merry way.

I caught this nasty bug from my kid, who probably got it at kindergarten.  She's been sick two of the three weeks I've been back at university and at this point I would like to crawl under a rock and drink rosé until the end of the semester, which would be my version of hibernation, but yeah, clearly that can't happen.  I have too much work to do.  So this is why so many people hate being an adult. (I'm kidding, I love being an adult).

The combination of collective illnesses, the DB strike (seriously F U, DB, enough is enough already) and a deadline at the end of the week meant I only phoned it in until Tuesday.  After that I gave up as much as one can give up when they still have to get up at 6:30 every morning.

The following is random and probably makes very little sense.  Sorry.

I got a sweater from Anthropology that was super super on sale.  It looks like I'm wearing a blanket (maybe a horse blanket?) and I know if my husband ever sees it he will instantly hate it.  
Don't care.
 We survived the Spring festival and May 1rst.  I counted no less than 20 people falling down drunk in one night and while walking home came across a pile of twenty-somethings who had crashed into each other on their bikes and were laughing too hard to get up.  Don't drink and cycle, even if it results is hilarious situations for bystanders.
These are the German version of Triscuits.  #happy
Usually on May 1 we hide in our apartment and pretend it's Sunday.  This year I thought I'd venture out.  It was a beautiful day and one of my friends invited me to meet her in Kreuzberg.  I ended up walking 15 miles that day and woke up sick on Saturday.  Still totally worth it?  Maybe?
This is what Brandenburg looked like.  None of these people are sober. If you want to play a fun game try walking through this crowd without getting burned by someone's cigarette or having an alcoholic drink spilled on you. 
 May 1st Berlin

 The police shut down the U12 and as a part of crowd control they weren't letting people cross some streets.  Lots and lots and lots and lots of walking resulted.  I should not have worn ballet flats that day.  Next time, sneakers. 
 I don't know the name of this park but my friend told me it was known for people dealing drugs.  I thought she was exaggerating but less than five minutes after we got here someone tried to sell us drugs.  Not an exaggeration after all.

 May 1st is celebrated in Germany as Labor Day.  It's also International Workers day around the world.  In Germany this is a traditional day of political protest.  There are also many street fairs, live music and gatherings.

The day has special significance for Kreuzberg because it is traditionally a leftist extremist area of Berlin.  In 1987 the police actually lost control of part of the area for a period of time.  I read a news report that police had given up trying to control crowds one year (2010?).  This year nothing much eventful happened.  The police were mostly out of sight, we saw some large groups of them on side streets.

 I only saw two protests.  One was pro-labor and the other was anit-anti immigration. 
 The festival was really nice.  There were tables and tables of food and drinks set out on the streets.  Despite the huge crowds I had a great time.  I usually hate crowds but the good thing about Berlin is there is a lot of room for people to spread out. 

I thought it was so nice people were at least trying not to litter.

I wasn't the only one with tired feet.
 The end.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Value conflicts and Exceptionalism

One of the problems with writing about Germany is how to express value conflicts in a respectful manner.  How do I talk about another culture without delving into stereotypes or being offensive?  It's a lot harder than you would think.

I really started thinking about this one day when I talking about how I perceived a lot of people in Brandenburg to be hostile to foreigners with a couple of German friends.  Usually when I talk about this kind of thing with expats everybody has a couple of stories of terrible customer service or rudeness and it's not a big deal.  But my German friends surprised me by expressing embarrassment and condemnation.   At first I was puzzled but then I realized that in the same way I get embarrassed for particularly obnoxious American tourists so are why many Germans are embarrassed by xenophobia in their country. And then I started to worry if Germans ever did read my blog, would they find it to be offensive?  Have I fairly written about my experiences? 

Despite being a fairly homogeneous country Germany is still very regional when it comes to much of it's culture, language (darn you regional dialects!), attitudes and general friendliness.  Even within regions there is a high level of diversity.  When we lived in Malente I had some of my positive experiences with strangers going out of their way to offer help.  Still we also had to deal with neighbors who made it clear they weren't happy to be sharing an building with an American.  And herein lies the problem with stereotypes, they are too narrow to accurately define the parameters of reality.    

Making things even more complicated is the problem with cultural exceptionalism, i.e. the belief that one culture or nationality is somehow superior and singular, which is something that can complicate the way one sees a situation.  American expats could be divided into two categories: those who believe in European exceptionalism and those who believe in American exceptionalism with the lines probably becoming more blurred the longer one resides in Germany. Exceptionalism tends to exasperate me because I hate the ranking of places based on mostly arbitrary criteria as well as the European/American cultural hegemony that dominates media. 

Understanding perspective is key to understanding experience.  My interactions are filtered through a process of self-referencing the body of knowledge and experience I have accrued as a thirty-something, somewhat educated, white, middle class American.  If you changed my nationality, my gender, my age or my socioeconomic status then you'd change the way I experience a situation.  This is probably why expats sometimes like to hang out with other expats.  It's always nice to talk  to someone experiencing reality from a similar perspective.

So if you landed on this blog by searching for the answer 'Do American think they are better.' (hey Russia) the answer would be yes, some of them do but some of them don't but stereotypes are a super limited way of viewing the world.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How to put up a window screen in Germany

Hey, today we are going to talk about something very important.  How to put up a window screen.  A lot of expats think Germans don't have window screens.  This is not true.  But like your bathroom cabinet and sometimes your kitchen, you have to install them yourself.   We live between two huge lakes in Brandenburg so I make sure the screens are up before mosquito season starts.

Where to get them: drugs stores, hardware stores, construction markets and sometimes the grocery store.

How much:  costs anywhere from €2.00 to €10.00.

Installation difficultly level: super easy.

It will keep out: mosquitoes, bees, spiders, flies and most other creepy crawlies.  You can get them in different sizes so measure your window first.  I didn't buy this one, we had it left over from last year.

There are two parts to the screen. A Velcro tape to go around the inside of the window and the screen.   It's important to put the Velcro tape on the inside, just outside the black rubber seal.  Once the tape is applied the outside of the window gently press the screen onto the Velcro.  It's important not to stretch it too tight or leave it too loose. 

If your screen is too big you can cut it to fit.  I usually only cut after it's up because if it's too small the whole thing is wasted.  This is right before I trimmed off the excess netting.

Window screen! 

And that is how Germans keep mosquitoes and other unwanted guests out of their houses during the Summer. 

Sara Rieck