What I’ve learned (so far) from living abroad

Well, I’ve reached that 1-year mark. One year of living in Germany, of living in another country, far away from the mores and laws of the United States. I thought that this would be an appropriate time to reflect on some things that living in Germany has taught me.

The individual is not always that important.

When I first got to Germany and started teaching English, I would try to build rapport with my classes by telling them stories from my past, adventures I’d had and things I’d achieved. And more times than not, my efforts would be in vain because much of my talk would fall flat. Students would either not ask me any further questions on the information I would offer or my stories would just be met with tepid responses. For weeks, I wondered why my banter wasn’t wooing them over.

And then I realized: for that very reason.

Banter, personal stories, the “me”– it doesn’t really go over the same way in Germany as it does in the United States. In the United States, it’s all about the person. Just look at our presidential races. We are obsessed with the person, who he is, what he’s done, how charming he is, if you’d like to have a beer with him. It’s the cult of personality. Not in Germany. Go around in Germany and tell people you’re a doctor or a lawyer: “Oh. Good for you.” Tell people you’re a journalist or a radio personality: “That’s nice.”

They just don’t have the same kind of reverence for the person and his accomplishments as we do. In addition, a lot more emphasis is put on teamwork and what you can accomplish as a team. For example, some job interviews here are group interviews, with applicants all in one room, responding to questions and performing small tasks together. As such, interviewers can see how the applicants perform in a team. How foreign. Bottom line: Living in Germany for this long has really shrunk my ego.

America is a violent. America is rough.

Now let’s not lie: Germany wasn’t always the safest place. There is no doubt a massive history of violence exists here. But living in Germany, far away from the U.S., has sort of given me a bird’s eye view of my home country. And, man, what I have seen straight scares me. The shootings, the killings, the paralysis, the racism, the guns, the murdered children, the rage, the fear. Germans, it should be noted, are not always that nice. But do things devolve into violence and killing in Germany as quickly as they do in the U.S. nowadays? I have to say no.

Just how desperate the situation is in the United States these days is reflected in my reactions to things that happen to me in Germany. For example, sometimes, when someone here does something not so nice to my girlfriend — maybe they push her a bit when she is trying to get on a busy bus — she responds by saying, “F— you, a–hole!”

When she responds like this, I instinctually grab her arm and tell her to stop. Why? Because I come from the U.S. and in the U.S. doing something like that, just cursing someone out, can get you killed. Granted, it can get you in trouble here, too. But the worst reaction you get, from what I’ve seen, is the other person just curses you out, too. They don’t blast you out of existence.

Germans do have a sense of humor.

Some people say Germans don’t have a sense of humor. And you know what, I can see why some people, especially people in the U.S., might think this. In America, we’re big on sarcasm. But Germany is a “say what you think” culture. Germans are very straightforward and often have no problem telling you exactly what’s on their mind. So it’s kinda crazy for a German to be walking around saying things he doesn’t mean all the time. As such, sarcasm, as we know it, really is not their bag.

But Germans do have plenty of humor. German humor is one rich with irony — deep, brutal irony. In addition, a lot of times, German humor is very concise. All one person has to do is say one or two cutting and perfectly timed words and it’ll get the people around him rolling. But back to the irony thing. Let me give you a good example of this “deep” irony.

One time, my girlfriend and I were walking home from the supermarket. On the way, we saw this 2-year-old girl, cute as a button, pushing a big, heavy grocery car, stocked super high with all kinds of groceries. I mean this cart was piled high and she was barely moving it. That, in itself, would have been funny and ironic enough. But then, this girl’s father (who had been behind her all along) noticed that my girlfriend and I were looking at the tyke in amusement, just as he was. And instead of his just laughing along with us at the sight of this tiny person struggling to push something so large, he decided to take it a step further. He started pretending as though he were a slave driver and that he was whipping the little girl to make her keep trudging the load. Once he did this — he just mimed the whole thing — we all bursted out laughing at the absurdity and total “wrongness” of it — deep irony.

Silence is OK.

In the U.S., we really fear silence. Think about it: God forbid you are on a first date and a moment of silence occurs between you and your date. It would — of course! — signal that you two not compatible, it’s all no fun and it just won’t work out.

But in Germany, I’ve noticed that sometimes people think you are crazy if you actually don’t pause for a moment. Constant talk can lead to people thinking you are super stressed or maybe a little frantic. Germans allow the weight of silence to wash over them and perceive silence as time in which one can think or reflect.

In addition, it’s OK in Germany to do absolutely nothing sometimes. For example, there have been instances in which I have walked into my living room only to find my girlfriend just sitting there, staring into space. And I’ve always uttered the same thing upon discovering her: “Uh…what are you doing?”

Initially, I had just shrugged off her ability to just sit in a room and do absolutely nothing as one of her idiosyncrasies. But then I saw other Germans displaying such behavior. I would watch people in waiting rooms or train dining cars, and they would just be sitting there, no magazine, no cell phone, nothing.

Germans, at least I think, really seem to embrace non-activity better than Americans, or at least they don’t fear it as much.

Germans have a different idea of Nazis.

Growing up in the U.S., the basic idea was that Nazis were the sickest, most evil people, period. At least that was the idea that I came away with after having learned about the Nazis in middle and high school. The picture really wasn’t all that nuanced. And perhaps, when explaining the Nazis and similar concepts to young people, there really isn’t much room for nuance. After all, there’s no doubt that my teachers and the culture at large were trying to cultivate in us students a belief system that was starkly different to the Nazis’, and in order to do such a thing, it is necessary, initially at least, to paint with broad strokes.

But, in a way, when it comes to Nazis, there is some nuance. I started to find this out one day when my girlfriend and I were talking about her friend’s grandfather, who was a Nazi. My girlfriend told me, “Yeah, [my friend's] grandfather was a Nazi, but she doesn’t like to talk about it because he was a bad Nazi.”

What I had thought that she meant by this phrase, “bad Nazi,” was that this guy was a member of the SS or of a mobile killing unit or something. Because, really, that’s the only way that that phrase “bad Nazi,” would make sense to me, if he had done some really monstrous stuff. After all, I had thought, and was taught to think, weren’t all Nazis bad?

But what I later learned was that this man, who was still alive at the time, didn’t necessarily kill anyone. What made him a “bad” Nazi was that he still believed in Hitler’s ideology after the war.

And that’s what really hit me. First off, that there is even such a dichotomy, Nazi vs. bad Nazi. And secondly, the thing that was presented to me as being taboo wasn’t having a Nazi in the family. It was having in the family a Nazi who never stopped believing in Hitler’s ideology.

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Stroudsburg vs. Strasbourg

Strasbourg, a city in northeast France. My mom had sometimes accidentally referred to Stroudsburg as "Strasbourg."

My mom likes to travel. She’s been to South America, Europe — Greenland! Really, she’s been all over. Because she has seen so many things and been to all these locales, she sometimes winds up getting the names of places confused. Such was the case when I moved to Stroudsburg in 2010. For months, even a year maybe, my mom would say, “So how are things going in Strasbourg?” She was obviously confusing Stroudsburg, a nice little borough in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, population 5,600, give or take, with, well, Strasbourg: a historical city in France, near the German border, with a population of about 260,000.

Well, there’s been a funny little turn of events. A couple days ago, my mom arrived in Germany. I had vacation time and she thought it would be nice if we both spent some time together in Germany and did some traveling around Europe, too. One of the places that my mom has long wanted to see is, yup, you guessed it: Strasbourg. And so, my dear Stroudsburgers, I am now writing to you from a little hotel in Strasbourg, France. My mom and I boarded a train in Hamburg on Thursday morning and arrived here in the afternoon.

And since I’m now here in Strasbourg, I figured I’d give you a little portrait of the place, if at very, very least to show you the difference a few vowels can make.

Strasbourg is a charming little city with lots of old-world architecture and a sophisticated network of canals. It’s located in Alsace, one of France’s 21 regions. Though the city’s charm is a huge draw — everywhere you go you see cross-timber houses that have baskets of flowers hanging from their balconies, narrow alleys with stone walkways, facades painted in faded pastels, stone wharfs and more baskets of flowers — Strasbourg is probably best known, along with Alsace, as being a place that has, over the course of history, belonged both to Germany and France. In other words, Strasbourg, and the entire Alsace region, depending on politics, the outcomes of wars and how borders were recreated, has “changed hands” about four times in a hundred years. The region again belongs to France, of course, but it was only returned to France after the defeat of Hitler, at the end of World War II.

In any event, all this “give and take,” if you will, has produced an interesting kind of culture. French, German and a bit of English are spoken in Strasbourg. In fact, it’s not unusual for a waiter to switch languages based on what nationality he thinks you are. And according to a recording I was listening to today as I took a boat ride around the city’s canals, Alsace is one of the only places in France where both German and French are taught in the schools.

So, yeah, that’s the history lesson. As for what else is here in good ol’ Strasbourg, well, there’s a massive gothic cathedral made of red sandstone in the center of the old town; wrought iron bridges; accomplished street musicians, who can be seen playing jazz, samba and even rock ‘n’ roll on street corners and in front of cafes; German tourists; French tourists; American tourists (I actually even met some Americans from Arkansas today); pigeons drinking from puddles in the squares and tall carousels that are covered by beige shrouds after sundown.

Yup, so that’s about it. My mom and I have been having fun here. I think we have the most fun when we’re walking around the city discovering new things and taking pictures together. And, yes, sometimes when my mom and I are passing cross-timber houses and she is talking about how beautiful she finds the city, she refers to it as Stroudsburg.

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sending the wrong message

One of the things that living in Germany has taught me is that we in the United States, especially the men, can be kind of strange sometimes with the things we do and gestures we make. For example, when I was in college in upstate New York, I would notice that a lot of the guys in my dorm would unabashedly put their hands on their crotches, all Al Bundy style, when they were hanging out in the dorm’s hallways or rec rooms, or they would adjust, touch or scratch their crotches at will. I was guilty of such behavior, too.

And in all honesty, I’m not exactly sure why we guys did this. Perhaps it just felt good or comfortable. Perhaps it was something that we were really never told we were fully forbidden from doing. I had lived in co-ed dorms and, time to time, the girls would say, “Why do you guys always touch your crotches?” And we would usually reply, very matter-of-factly, “Cause we’re guys…sometimes you just have to adjust.” Or, “Cause it feels comfortable, that’s why.” After getting these answers, the girls would just roll their eyes and that would, more or less, be the end of it.

I really didn’t realize how strange and, some might argue, inappropriate, this habit of briefly touching one’s own crotch might be until I started spending a lot of time in Germany.

During the first significant chunk of time I spent here — an entire summer, in 2008 — my girlfriend, Maya, was still living with her mother. Maya’s mother is super sweet and let me crash at the apartment for the entire summer. Naturally, as time wore on, I started to get very comfortable around the home; I almost felt like it was my own. But I guess I got so comfortable that sometimes I would, as I had done in college and many times before that, put my hand on my crotch or tuck my hand into the waistband of my basketball shorts, Al Bundy style. And I would sometimes do this when I would be talking to Maya’s mother in the kitchen or living room.

Well, yeah, let’s just say that this little unconscious “habit” did not go over very well. I learned the hard way about just how differently this habit is perceived in Germany one day during the middle of that summer when Maya pulled me aside and said, “What the hell are you doing when my mom is around…?”

Maya then went on to tell me, in a flabbergasted way, that her mother had been noticing that sometimes when I would be talking to her, I would have my hand on or near my crotch. “OK, but why is this such a big deal?” I asked. But before letting her answer, I went on: “I mean, yeah, you’re right. I probably did do what you’re saying I did. I guess I shouldn’t have.”

“You ‘guess’ you shouldn’t have?” Maya charged. “Yeah, you definitely shouldn’t have.” She then explained to me that the only time a man in Germany would touch his crotch while talking to a woman would be if he wanted to have sex with her. In fact, this is what the gesture sort of signaled. And by my nonchalantly touching my crotch during normal conversation, I was not only being offensive, I was also raising some major questions about what exactly my intentions were.

“…Holy crap,” I said, when the effects that my actions were having finally registered. “Yeah,” Maya said, “pretty bad, huh? You need to never do that again.”

And I never did. But, man, what a cultural difference. What a far cry from the simple eye-rolling that we guys would get in the dorm.

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Reactions in Germany to the killing of a German exchange student in the U.S.

Diren Dede, 17, an exchange student from Germany, was shot to death in Montana by a man who mistakenly took him for a burglar.

OK, well, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but another person has died tragically in the U.S. due to guns.

This time the victim was a German exchange student, a 17-year-old named Diren Dede. Coincidentally, Diren, who was doing an exchange year in Missoula, Montana, was from a district in Hamburg called Altona, which is where I live. His family actually lives in an apartment building a short distance from mine.

In any event, before I launch into what the German reaction to this young man’s death has been and what that reaction illustrates about the way many Germans perceive violence and gun culture in the United States, here’s what was said to have occurred:

Just after midnight on Sunday April 27, Diren was trespassing for some reason in the garage of one of his neighbors, a man named Markus Kaarma. Kaarma’s garage had been burglarized several times in early April and he said that he was not satisfied with the help police were offering. So he and his girlfriend, with whom he lives, decided they were going to try and catch the perp themselves. On Saturday night, they placed a motion-detecting baby monitor and video camera in the garage, left the garage door half open, and waited.

It isn’t exactly known why Diren chose to enter the garage. Some news agencies have said that he and a friend were “garage hopping,” or going into neighbors’ garages as a prank in search of small trinkets or to grab a can of beer or some soda from a spare refrigerator. In any event, seconds after Diren entered the garage, Kaarma exited the front door of his home with a shotgun, went to the front of the garage and called “hey” into it. Diren said “hey” or “wait” back, it isn’t quite clear. But Kaarma, unable to see into the garage — he said he was blinded by the external garage lights — and spooked by what he thought was the sound of “metal on metal,” opened fire.

The bullets hit Diren in the head and arm and he died a short while after at the hospital.

Though Kaarma said he believed that he was about to be in life-threatening danger and his lawyer invoked the “castle doctrine” law, which is more or less Montana’s version of the “stand your ground” law, police still charged him with homicide. An investigating officer, in his decision to file charges, cited ballistics tests and testimony from a haircutter who said that Kaarma had told her a few days before the incident that his house had been burglarized and he was just waiting to “shoot some kid.”

In reaction to the shooting, the German consulate in San Francisco said that it finds it reprehensible that one of its citizens, or anyone for that matter, could be killed for simply trespassing in a garage and has demanded a comprehensive investigation.

But even though the consulate struck a note of outrage in its reaction to the shooting, I’ve come to the conclusion, due to the articles I’ve been reading in German newspapers and the conversations I’ve been having, that this incident has generated more perplexity and disillusionment than anything else.

On the day after Diren was killed, almost all the newspapers in Hamburg ran an article about the incident. But one article that really stood out and helped me get an idea of how Germans were processing and responding to the news was an article in a midsize daily called the Hamburger Morgenpost. The headline was “Why did Diren have to die?” and the article was in Q+A  format — a format that was chosen, I think, to quickly answer the most pressing questions that Germans, being Germans, were bound to have. The first question in the article that caught my eye and seemed to offer insight into the larger German reaction to and understanding for the events was this one:

“Is it possible that the perpetrator might be acquitted?”

Germans, at least I think, just can’t seem to grasp that a person could go unpunished after shooting someone to death. Though Germans have much less strict punitive penalties — there is no death penalty in Germany and the longest prison sentences are usually around 15 years – they still can’t understand that if you kill someone the way Diren was killed, in a modern society like the U.S., you can sometimes escape punishment entirely.

Another question from the article that I found interesting and telling: “Why would people in the U.S. want laws that protect people who kill other people?”

To answer this question the authors of the article worked hard to explain that there is overwhelming support in certain U.S. states for both guns and the right to own them, which has resulted in some states’ having laws that grant gun owners more rights and more latitude.

So there you have it: The Morgenpost article and many of the questions in it, I think,  really speak for the  feeling of perplexity that this incident has generated in Germany. But I had said that the killing provoked much disillusionment, too.

Many people I’ve spoken to here about the matter have repeated the sentiment that they simply can’t believe that so many people die so violently in a country like the U.S. This feeling of disillusionment, I think, may have actually been best captured in comments that were made by Diren’s father himself.

Diren was of Turkish decent and his father, Celal Dede, is a taxi driver who has been doing the job for almost two decades. Dede said that Diren was inspired by the family story – that is, a family moves to Germany from Turkey in hopes of a more prosperous life, and achieves this goal. Dede, in fact, said one of the reasons Diren wanted to go to America was because America is said to be the land of dreams and possibility.

But after traveling to the U.S. in the beginning of May to claim his son’s body, this is what Dede said when he was asked how he now viewed America:

“There in the U.S. everything looks very charming and very friendly. It doesn’t appear that murderers can reside there. But America remains dangerous because anyone can go out and buy a gun. I’ve been a taxi driver for 20 years in Saint Pauli [a district in Hamburg that some consider dodgy] and I have worked many times at night; I have even had my house broken into. But I have never thought to run out and buy a weapon! Everything in the U.S. looks so idyllic, but something else, something dark, lurks behind it. And America says that it wants to bring justice to the world. But this is not justice.”

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Germans: serious about bike riding

“Born on a bike!”

That was the taunt, or desperate retort, rather, that I hollered at my girlfriend a few hours ago when we were both on bikes, peddling up a steep hill near the Elbe River. She had been about 15 feet in front of me, clearly in the lead, under no visible stress, and there I was, huffing and puffing. When we were almost to the top of the hill, she turned back and noticed that I was totally out of breath. Cooly, she said, “Are you serious!” then laughed at me.

But I didn’t care. Not really, anyway. I just lobbed it at her like I had in the past: “Born on a bike.”

Let me explain. Bike riding is incredibly popular in Germany. It’s friggin’ nuts how many people ride bikes here. And they don’t exactly ride bikes the way we do in America — all quaintly or to get some recreation on a Sunday. No. Bikes are serious business in Germany because bikes are part of the culture and many people use them instead of cars.

So, as you could imagine, they ride their two-wheelers with verve. They fly, they pass, they dart…they cut in and out, they use hand signals and shout and ring their thumb-operated bells like it’s nobody’s business. Sometimes you even see elderly ladies riding bikes up hills and from their perfectly erect posture and the expression on their faces, you wonder if they even know it.

But what’s gotta be the best sight of all, and one that you often see: kids maybe 2 years old, barely out of diapers if not still in them, riding these tiny, two-wheel bikes. And that’s two wheels, folks. No training wheels. In fact, the most these little riders get in the form of stabilization is the intermittent hand on the back from their guardian. But that’s it. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen training wheels in Germany.

All of which brings me back to that comment I made to my girlfriend when I was huffing and puffing up the hill.

Whenever Maya makes fun of me for getting tired so easily on a bike — I’m still not sure why I tire so easily — I like to tell her that the only reason why she is not as exhausted as I am — after all, she is not in perfect shape — is because, well, she is German and she has been riding the damn things since she was literally in diapers. She’s only better than I am because, sheesh, she was born on a bike!

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kitchen table dispatch

So I’m just sitting here at my kitchen table. It’s around 8:20 p.m., Central European Time, and I just thought I’d give you a little dispatch as I wait for my pizza to cook. Crazy day it was. About an hour ago, I was sitting at my living room table, where I often do work, and was looking at my girlfriend and Filou, my dog. Both of them were sleeping on the couch. Crazy day. Around 11 a.m., we took Filou to a grassy and hilly area that’s adjacent to the Elbe River. We took her there to play fetch. On what must have been the 20th time she retrieved the ball, I noticed that she left a bloody paw print on the cement path. Upon further inspection, we noticed Filou was bleeding, and bleeding bad. She had gashed her front paw on something, probably a piece of glass.

Once we noticed exactly what was going on, Maya and I jumped into action. I took off my shirt and Maya tied it around Filou’s paw as a tourniquet. I then picked Filou up and carried her, and Maya called the vet. This was an emergency. The vet gave Filou stitches and told Maya and me that Filou shouldn’t play vigorously for at least two weeks.

Crazy, huh? So, yeah, we had a little shock today.

Anyway, yeah, so I’m still sitting here at my kitchen table but I’m starting to smell the pizza. I have to work tomorrow. Teaching English is fun. But making time to do journalism, my first love, can sometimes be challenging, especially if you have a job, a girlfriend, a dog, and a girlfriend that likes to spend a lot of time with you.

Someone I once met put it so well. He was a journalist, Hassan M. Fattah was his name, and he came as a guest speaker to one of my classes when I was in J-school. He came to the class to give us students a motivational speech of sorts, sure, but he also did something else, which made an even more lasting impression on me. To help the students understand the pitfalls that come with being a journalist and what kind of demands we might face, he passed out three objects: a pencil, a Nokia cell phone and a photo of his wife and children. He passed out these objects, he said, to illustrate very specific points.

The pencil. He said that as a journalist you should always have a pencil on you because a) a pen could run out of ink and b) pens don’t always write in the rain. The Nokia cell phone. It’s smart to have a Nokia cell phone because it’s the most popular cell phone in the world (still true) and if your cell phone loses a charge, you have the best odds with a Nokia of finding someone who possesses an adapter you can use. And the picture. “Look at this picture…,” he said. “It’s my family. Believe it or not but you are going to have to consider your family a lot in this business. In fact, your family is probably what you will have to consider most when making your choices. You may not think it now, but at some point you are probably going to have to weigh how much you love your wife and your family and what is best for them against your love for journalism. These two things — the interests of your family and journalism — are probably going to be the two biggest competing interests in your life.”

And you know what? Fattah was right. Now that I’ve moved to Germany to be with my girlfriend and I sorta have had to restart as a freelancer when I’d already had a nice journalism gig back in the U.S., I have a better understanding for this “scale” that Fattah was taking about.

But it’s all good. I’m happy and things are moving along pretty well.

OK, pizza’s ready. Until next time.

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postcards

Hey y’all, I feel like I’m always writing these treatises on this blog, so I thought I’d just keep it light with this post. Here are some “postcards” from my life in Germany. Enjoy.

My dog, Filou, often likes to look out our apartment window.

Don't even ask what was going on here. Let's just say it was a lot of fun.

During the summer, we would take Filou swimming at a lake in Bremen, home of Beck's beer.

You know how in the U.S. we "park and ride"? Well, in the Netherlands, where this photo was taken, they park and ride, too. Only they park their bikes.

Me posing b-boy style. My girlfriend, Maya, and I went to an event in Hamburg sponsored by the camera company Olympus. At the event, we were allowed to "sample" one of Olympus' new-to-the-market cameras.

I went to Haarlem. But it wasn't in NYC; it was in the Netherlands.

How's that for Holland? And did you know that Holland is not a synonym for "the Netherlands." Holland is actually only a section of the Netherlands.

The Rhein River (at the famous Lorelei, I think).

Filou needs a lot of exercise. We recently took her to these flood plains located on the outskirts of Hamburg. She ran around like crazy and swam, too.

People often feed the birds that swim in and congregate near the Inner Alster, a huge lake that's right in the heart of Hamburg.

A faraway shot of one section of the Hamburg port.

 

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different takes on sex

Bild, Germany's highest circulation newspaper, has been publishing a topless pin-up girl in its pages every day since the mid-1980s.

Let’s talk about sex.

OK, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s actually talk about sex and how it is perceived in the U.S. and in Germany.

In the U.S., sex is way more taboo than it should be. Sex will get you in serious trouble; sex will get you crucified.

Not so in Germany. Though Germans, lord knows, don’t have everything figured out, they kinda get sex right.

What I mean is, nakedness is not that taboo in Germany (or at least in northern Germany, where I live). If a man sees a woman naked in a locker room, OK, well, yeah, he sees her naked. Oftentimes, there ain’t that much of a partition between the men’s and women’s locker room: sometimes you can actually have a peep into the ladies’ locker room and see a few women naked if they happen to be passing by the area that is visible to the public at that moment. Germans also often go naked into unisex saunas together; babies at lakes often run naked; mothers sometimes breast-feed in public.

It’s just not that crazy.

And to drive home just how relaxed Germans are about sex and nudity and just how different their attitudes are, I’ve posted the photo above.

It’s the “Bild Girl.”

Bild is a newspaper here in Germany that ain’t a bad newspaper. It’s the people’s newspaper, in a way. It’s the paper that’s sold by the cash register at McDonald’s, the paper you often see blue-collar workers reading, the paper you can guarantee is at every newsstand.

I’m hesitant to compare Bild to any U.S. newspaper, but if I had to, I’d probably say it’s akin to the New York Post, even though I think the Post is a little more esteemed.

In any event, every day, Bild  featuers a pin-up girl called the “Bild Girl.” The Bild Girl, which has been around since the early 1980s, is always topless and there is always a little interview with her along with her photo. The Bild Girl can be found on Page 3 of Bild, but up until a few years ago, she was on Page 1.

Talk about differences in cultures, huh?

Could you imagine opening up the Pocono Record every morning to see a topless pin-up girl in its pages? Sure, you might find it offensive or shocking. And you know what, as an American, the thought sorta shocks me, too.

But, really, why? (And please indulge me here.)

Why does the idea of a topless pin-up girl in a newspaper have to seem so lurid, so terrible? Yes, many people in Germany including my girlfriend do not like the Bild Girl and think the whole idea is gratuitous and tasteless.

But in a way, again please be indulgent, the Bild Girl is not all that bad because it actually normalizes and embraces something that is often suppressed in the United States — human sexuality. The Bild Girl also helps remove the stigma that is often attached to women who are in touch with and unapologetic about their sexuality. It does all this, I think, by presenting the women in a light that is erotic, yes, but also kinda mundane.

For example: the text that accompanies the photo tells us where the Bild Girl is from, how old she is, what her profession is. The Bild Girl seen above, Marie-Christin, happens to be a housewife, but Bild Girls have been lawyers, veterinarians, fashion designers, etc. The newspaper also mentions if the Bild Girl has children and if so how many. All the info mentioned about the Bild Girl is info that is highly relatable.

Granted, even though I seem to be rallying in the name of sexual freedom and woman power with this blog post, it would still be easy to think that I’m all for the Bild Girl and what the Bild Girl may or may not represent because, well, I’m a man and in the end, female nudity is something I’m hard-wired to enjoy.

But I think at very least, at the end of the day, whatever your opinion is, we can all agree on this: The fact that the Bild Girl exists proves that a society that doesn’t suppress sexuality or stigmatize people for being sexual can function and function just fine.

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Watch those words

So today I want to talk about something that took me an incredibly long time to get used to: The way Germans interact with each other in public. It’s much, much different than how we treat one another in public in the U.S.

What I mean is this: In the U.S., we mostly mind our own business. We know that if we stick our nose into someone else’s business, we are crossing a Rubicon of sorts: we are committing ourselves fully to the situation, no matter the costs. So we often tend to shy away from getting involved.

Germans, on the other hand, are constantly — and I mean constantly — sticking their noses into each other’s business.

For example, if a stranger who is standing behind you at the checkout at the supermarket thinks you are packing your groceries into your shopping bags too slowly and are therefore holding up the line, he might tell you, “Hurry up”; if you accidentally ever-so-slightly step on the back of a stranger’s foot while walking on a busy street, he might turn and say, “Watch where you’re going! “; if you park your car in a spot where parking isn’t really allowed, someone might just knock on your window, “You can’t park there”; and if a stranger doesn’t like how you are disciplining  your dog while on a walk, he might say straight to your face, “poor dog.”

In addition, if that doesn’t do it for you, Germans also curse each other out much more readily than we do in the U.S.

Just the other day, for example, a guy on a bike came kind of close to running into my dog. My girlfriend, who is German, was with me and immediately called this guy an a–hole and told him, “You better damned watch out next time!” After she shouted this, I said to her, “Babe, jeez, why did you just curse that guy out so bad–?” But apparently, she hadn’t committed that big of an infraction because the guy just waved her off and kept riding.

Germans, believe it or not, will curse each other out on the street if they are very unhappy with a particular behavior. ”Dummekuh” (dumb cow), “dummeidiot” (dumb idiot) and “blödes arschloch” (stupid a–hole) are all curses I’ve heard strangers here lob at other strangers without much hesitation.

Still, despite the fact that Germans are more comfortable with cursing, the type of frankness I’ve just been describing can sometimes lead to serious problems and major cultural misunderstandings.

About six years ago, my girlfriend, Maya, was crossing a street in Midtown Manhattan when a guy driving a minivan almost hit her. She immediately gave the guy the middle finger, which prompted him to get out of his car and threaten to hit her. This man, Maya told me, kept saying he would kill her and ultimately needed to be restrained by his wife.

Though this guy was a nut and was completely out of bounds, Maya hadn’t known that giving the middle finger to a stranger is often taken as an act of war in the U.S. No only that, she was so used to the way things are in Germany that when I told her she had just committed a major cultural no-no, she didn’t even believe me.

“Why? It’s just the middle finger — it’s just a curse,” she had said.

And, honestly, if you think about it, she had a point. Why is it that in the U.S., we are so darn touchy about curses and insults? And, more to the point actually, why aren’t Germans?

Well, I’ve had my own theories, but it wasn’t until I had a long conversation with an American woman who also lives in Germany that it all sort of clicked.

I mean, before I tell you what this woman said, it should be pointed out there is no denying that Germans are just generally more forward. It’s in their culture. They don’t waste time and they don’t feel as bad about hurting people’s feelings.

But the main reason that verbal insults don’t have as an incendiary effect here, this woman posited, is because Germany is an “unarmed society.” When you live in a society that is unarmed, where guns are not available to the public and the threat of being killed isn’t as real and immediate, people are often less polite to one another with their words.

Some real food for thought.

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Very un-American

So today I decided to do something interesting. See, every day, I take my dog for a walk. More specifically, I take her to a playground near my apartment so she can get exercise. But today, as I made my way to the park, I thought it’d be cool to take some pictures for the blog, pictures of things that I saw that were distinctly German or that exhibited some sort of European flare. These pics are below. Enjoy, y’all.

The outside of an apartment building on my street.

"Nazis Stoppen." That's always a good message. They're referring to neo-Nazis. Some neo-Nazi groups are still active in Germany, but the overwhelming majority of people here, from what I've seen, have nothing but scorn for them.

This means that bike riders and those on foot share the sidewalk in this area.

"Smoking ages your skin."

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  • Blog Author

    Chad Smith

    I'm a former reporter for the Pocono Record who moved to Hamburg, Germany, to be with my German girlfriend. I still do journalism but now teach English to pay the bills. In this blog I share my thoughts on life in Europe and often dissect the ... Read Full
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