Thursday, December 3, 2015

For science

Hi! Do you want to help me with my grad school project? Take five and fill out this super fun, super short survey on blame allocation in morally ambiguous situations! I will be forever grateful! 

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.


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.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Zara spring jackets

The weather is warming up, it's starting to look like spring.  Zara has every coat you ever dreamed of for warmer weather.  So many choices, how can you pick only one? Spring jackets Zara

How to be thrifty like a German

I've been married for 8 (!) years and known my husband for 11.  Needless to say, Germany has changed me a lot.  I've adopted a lot of husband's German attitudes and habits. One of the best habits I've picked up is German thriftiness.  

This topic gives me an excuse to post this picture H took when I still a student at NIU.  It was 2006 and we went to Florida for spring break.  I was so not thrifty back then.  I also apparently didn't wear sunglasses which is why I'm squinting.
Those were fun times.
In Germany banks just don't hand out loans and credit cards like they do in the USA.  A lot of Germans don't have credit cards and prefer to pay cash or use bank transfers.  You have to prove that you can pay for things before you get a line of credit.  Every time I tried to get a car loan in Germany I was always denied because I worked as a freelancer.   We ended up saving the money and then paying cash for my first tiny little black Smart For2.  It was the first time in my life I couldn't get a loan.

My spouse has a credit card but he always pays off the balance at the end of the month.  He's insured for everything you can get insurance for and he even opened a retirement fund for me a few months after we got married.  He doesn't like to buy things, or anything for that matter, which sometimes clashes with my American materialism.  He's also really into recycling and saving stuff like energy, water and gas.  Everything in our home is energy efficient, water efficient and whatever can be recycled is.  H is responsible if he is anything.  It turns out that after living with him for a third of my life some of these awesome traits kind of rubbed off.   Here's some of the ways I have changed.

Don't waste food and cook from scratch

Food is one of the biggest areas of waste in the USA.  Americans throw out hundreds of millions of tons of food every year.  I used to be really bad at this.  I would make a bag of popcorn, eat half and then throw the rest in the trash.  I would buy too many groceries and let things go bad.  You would have thought as a poor student I'd have been wiser, but I was terrible at food economy. 

Now that I've had some years running a household food waste drives me crazy.  Groceries aren't as expensive in Germany as they are in the USA but they still take up some of our monthly budget.  Why waste money by wasting food?  It's almost become a principle of social responsibility these days.

Of course, we still waste some food but not nearly as much as before.  These days I always know what we need and how much without much effort or planning.  On a normal day I know if we need eggs or if we still have a carton in the fridge.  I keep a list in my phone that way if I find myself at the store I know exactly what to get.  

I use kitchen hacks like keeping staples on hand and doing food prep for the week on Sunday nights.  At least once a month I buy a whole chicken so I can make stock.  I hadn't realized how easy making things at home is because I was used to buying everything ready made in the US.  When we make big batches of stuff like homemade pizza, pasta, lentils, or soup we freeze half but try to eat those leftovers on busy nights when we don't feel like cooking.  You might think this wouldn't work because freezers are small in Germany, so far it hasn't been an issue.  As long as we eat what's in the freezer within a couple of weeks we don't run out of room.  We almost never have to eat something out of bag or a can. And now if I have a bag of microwave popcorn I share it with someone.  It's so hard to find in Germany to begin with I would never throw it away.

Keep utilities costs to a minimum

As an American I didn't think utilities costs that much.  I was pretty careless about leaving electronics running or turning off the lights.  Now I am super careful.  I have a dryer but I almost never use it, especially during the summer.  I have a routine that works with the laundry so that everything gets washed, dried, ironed and put away by Monday with little fuss.  

We don't have any lights or electronics that aren't energy saving.  A lot of our lights are LEDs.  Our apartment is on the bigger side but it's divided into two parts, with the bedrooms in the front and the living room, dinning area and kitchen in the back.  We usually don't heat the bedrooms because we sleep with out windows open at night, even in winter.  The apartment is designed so they are the most insulated rooms and don't get very cold anyway. 

Usually we end up overpaying utility costs which means we get a refund at the end of the year and a couple of times our rent has been lowered.  Another plus is all these habits are great for the environment. 

If you like it, mend it

When I was home last Summer I bought a designer sweater (on sale).  It was one of my favorite things in the world and I loved it to death.  I wore it almost every week for months.  Of course, one day it got a little hole in it.  I was totally bummed because it hasn't lasted a year.  But instead of throwing it away I decided to fix it.  I read a quick DIY on darning, cobbled together some supplies form our meager sewing kit and voila!  
I was able to fix the hole.  Months later I still wear my favorite sweater all the time.  You can't tell I mended it myself.  I'm not a very crafty person and I haven't touched a sewing machine since home economics in 7th grade.  Darning is really not that hard at all.  

Another great fix is getting high quality shoes resoled instead of throwing them away.  I never buy cheap shoes anymore and I always make sure they're made of leather.  I've had my favorite pair of Zara boots for four years and I've had them resoled twice.  Resoling shoes makes them last two or three times as long.  When it come to wardrobe basics, like black pumps or riding boots, buying a new pair that looks almost identical every year doesn't make sense.  Good quality boots can cost from €100-€200 in Germany, getting them resoled is about €20.

Of course missing buttons or ripped seams are never a reason to throw something away.  Those are super easy fixes anyone can make.  If a piece of clothing isn't cut the way I like I take it to a tailor.  This is super cheap, most alterations cost around €10.  One of my favorite dresses was a too long maxi, I took it to a tailor and had it made into a midi.  The length is more flattering and I get a ton of compliments on it every summer.

Minimize your little costs and fees

When I lived in the US everything was always about convenience.  I didn't care if I had to pay a dollar to get cash from the ATM as long as it was easy.  As a result I spent hundreds of dollars every year paying little fees I could have avoided. 

Drive or take the train?  Spend €2 on a soda or bring a water bottle?  Pay an ATM fee or get cash for free?  Buy a sandwich or bring your own?  There are a bunch of tiny costs every month that can be eliminated.  I always think twice about what I'm spending and why.  If there isn't a really good reason to drive I take the train.  I try not to pick up expensive drinks or snacks when I'm out.  We haven't paid an ATM or money transfer fee in years. 

Sometimes paying more is worth it

There are some things we pay a lot more for in Germany.  I buy Cheerios from even though they are five times more than a box of sugary cereal from the grocery store down the street.  My husband likes high quality chocolate and we order wine from a vineyard a couple times a year.  We always get bread from the bakery and meat from the butcher.  I don't mind footing the bill to get my cut and highlighted at an expensive salon in Berlin because it save me the time and money of running around getting bad highlights fixed.  Remember the orange hair debacle?   I could have spent the weekend in Istanbul with the money I paid to get my orange hair fixed.  Sometimes we have date lunches on Fridays while Sophie is in Kita at the fancy Italian restaurant in our town.  And last year I bought Sophie big colorful building bricks from America even though the shipping was crazy because it was a toy all the kids I knew back home totally loved. 

So sure, we try not to be wasteful people but we're not living like Spartans.  It's all about balance. 

I still have a long way to go

I've come a long way form my materialistic American roots but I still have a long way to go.  I'd love to say I never spend money on clothes I don't need but that's just not true.  I guess a lot of things rub off but my love for shopping is too deeply ingrained to go away so easily.  Oh well, maybe after another ten years of living with H and I'll hate shopping just as much as he does.

Or not ;).


Friday, January 9, 2015

Insulation vs. immersion

I've been thinking a lot about the degrees of immersion or insulation expats experience in Germany and how that effects their overall experience in the country.  There is a lot of variation due to personality and individual flexibility but overall the level of immersion vs. insulation can determine how well someone integrates into German culture. 

High levels of immersion come from things like speaking German, having German friends, having German family, living in areas where people do not speak English, the amount of time spent in Germany, sending your child to German schools and kindergartens, living outside of city centers, having a job that requires you to speak German and work with Germans.   On the other side things that insulate foreigners from German culture are having international friends, spending a limited amount of time in the country, speaking your native language, remaining within the boundaries of cosmopolitan areas, international or bi-lingual schools, working at international companies and having a spouse and family not from Germany.

Now most people will probably assume that a high level of immersion will result in successful integration.  Paradoxically, most expats I know actively seek to insulate themselves as much as possible from a high level of immersion.  Why would foreigners here for the most authentic 'German experience' not fully immerse themselves in Germany?

The answer lies in the deep-seated sense of order and precision in German culture.  For all its progressive politics Germany is a traditional country with tradition values.  Just because Germans are open minded about public drinking, prostitution and gay marriage doesn't mean they will allow you to drop your child off half an hour late to Kita.  Just because Germany says it wants to combat sexism in the workplace doesn't mean German companies are going to start hiring women as their CEOs.  This is what I like to refer to as a politically progressive but socially restrictive cultural norms.  Germany does much better on paper than in real life. 

Not following the unspoken social norms results a lot of covert or outright social aggression.  Because foreigners will naturally posses different cultural norms a high level of integration can result in experiencing a lot of 'correction'.  Correction might not seem malicious in nature but it is in fact one or more individuals trying to impose their norms or preference on another.  Since social correction is abrasive and intrusive many foreigners will seek out more international areas of German society where individuals are likely to be more open minded and understanding.  Many foreigners will need a certain amount of insulation from too much correction.  They might find solace in their spouse, friendships with other foreigners, or by exclusively speaking thair native language.  Successful integration rests on a balance of being immersed without being overwhelmed.   If foreigners can maintain this balance then they will find they can ease themselves into the more open areas of German society.  Not having this balance is akin to being a seal thrown into a tank of hungry sharks. 

Lately I've had a totally backlash against all things German.  This is probably a reaction to the high level of immersion and low level of insulation I am currently experiencing.   Criticism comes from every area of my life and the cracks are starting to show.  I'm so sick and tired of being told what to do, how to do it, being reprimanded, reminded, challenged.  I'm tired of arguing with sales reps and receptionists.  I'm tired of people telling me what I should and shouldn't post on Facebook, tired of being talked about, of having my every word picked apart.  I'm tired of people trying to out-parent me.  I'm tired having to be precise and exact in what I say.  I'm tired of being told not to talk about things, to keep this and that a secret.  I'm tired of pointless drama.  I'm tired of everyone taking themselves so mothertrucking serious.  I want everyone to mind their own business and leave me alone for a while. 

Which we all know is not going to happen.

This weekend will be dedicated to finding ways to insulate myself against the constant (seriously, seriously constant) barrage of criticism and correction before it drives me batty.