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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checking out women in Germany

I want to talk today about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Leering. That’s right, leering. Very interesting stuff when it comes to leering in Germany.

But wait, what the heck do I mean? Well, to give you an idea, first let me tell you about what the norms surrounding leering are like in the U.S.

In the U.S. it is more or less socially acceptable for men to leer at women, if only for a few seconds.

Think about it. Have you ever been on the street in a U.S. city on a summer’s day when a really pretty woman has walked by? Have you ever seen how some men react when she passes, how their eyes follow her, are glued to her?  Have you ever seen a man actually turn around to check out the rear end of a woman who has just strolled past him?

In the U.S., though we may not want to admit it, it is more or less socially acceptable for men to leer at women in this manner.

But in Germany, things are different. I can honestly say that with all the things I’ve seen in Germany over the last seven years, I really can’t remember having seen a German guy leer at a woman.

And believe me, there have been many opportunities where it could have occurred. Just imagine a country filled with lots of blondes, many of them tall, healthy looking, curvy, dressed in stylish and tightly fitting clothing that fits just right.

I was so alarmed that I had never seen a man leer at a woman here, in fact, that I brought the subject up to my girlfriend. One day, I said, “Babe, what’s up with that? Why don’t men seem to check women out here?”

Funnily enough, she was shocked that I even questioned her. She said the answer was simple. She said that Germans were discreet and that German men were taught not to look at women lecherously in public.

And you know what? When she told me this, I sorta believed her. German men, Germans in general, really are very discreet. In fact, when I first started coming to Germany, I would watch Germans interact and would sometimes wonder how they ever got together and made babies. It is very unusual for a German man to hit on a woman in public. In the U.S., on the other hand, you see men do this often:  “Well, hello…” a man on a city street might say to an attractive female, however cheesy it sounds, or “How you doin’?” he might toss out. Just think of the cliché of the construction workers whistling at the pretty woman.

But in Germany such stuff really doesn’t go on. Still, that’s not to say Germans don’t flirt. Go to a pub here, get alcohol involved, and you will see flirting. In addition, Germans are known to really let loose when they go on skiing vacations, off in the mountains. In fact, skiing vacations are really the Germans’ version of our spring break.

But when it comes to hitting on women on the street, you don’t see it. Even making eye contact to indicate sexual interest is different here. It’s a little less obvious than it can sometimes be in America.

My girlfriend, Maya, said that of course over the years she has seen men hit on women out in public, but doing so is just thought to be uncouth, even scuzzy, she said.

Funnily enough, it was at that particular comment when we were having this discussion that I had to cut her off.

After all, I come from a place where men are more likely to intently check out women, and I didn’t think that “scuzzy” was the nicest word to use.

Maya disagreed, we had a little back and forth, and looking, as I often do, to win the argument, I brought up to Maya, who is half French and is a complete Francophile.

“Well, what about France, then,” I demanded, thinking I’d scored a blow.

You see, in France, just like in America, it is sort of socially acceptable for a man to intently eye a woman. In fact, Maya and I have a photograph that she actually took, in Paris, of a guy doing this.

We had been sitting outdoors at a cafe clandestinely taking pictures of people walking by on the street and Maya managed to snap a photo of a guy the very moment he turned to have a look at the rear end of a woman who had just passed him. It’s a great photo.

“Well, what about France?” I pressed.  “What about French guys, who I know you know check out women like this. Hello, that photo!”

“Yeah, I know that guys check out girls on the street in France…,” she replied. And then she broke into a big smile. “But that’s why I love France.”

And with that, I just became exasperated. ”Did you just say that’s why you love France?”

“Yup,” she replied, laughing.

Women. Go figure.

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Nice, but little known, German customs

Let’s get real. Germans aren’t exactly known for being warm and fuzzy. They’re not really known for their nice traditions and warm customs. But that’s a shame. Because one thing that spending so much time in Germany over the last seven years has taught me is that Germans actually have some really nice customs, ones that many people would probably never think were uniquely German.

So let’s discuss some of them.

The first one: When Germans are drinking and they toast, they always look directly into the eyes of the person with whom they are clinking glasses. For the uninitiated, this can seem like a very intimate, even intimidating, thing to do. Think about it, when you clink glasses with someone in the U.S. during a toast, are you looking directly in that person’s eyes? You’re probably not. But once you get used to this tradition, it can be a really nice thing. And you probably do want to make it a habit. Superstition has it here in Germany that if you fail to briefly make eyes with your toast partner, you will be cursed with “seven years bad sex.”

OK, so moving right along. Another nice German tradition: When Germans for the fist time enter a room where other people already are, they often say “good day” out loud to everyone in the room. They often do this the moment they cross the threshold. The people in the room, for their part, usually say hello back. Similarly, when a German persons leaves a room with people in it, that person will often say “tschuess,” or “bye,” and the room will respond in kind. These types of exchanges often occur in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office or at car dealerships.

I really like this one. So many times in the U.S. we completely ignore the presence of other human beings coming into or in our immediate vicinity.

Another nice tradition: If a man sees a woman with a baby carriage getting onto a train or about to head down stairs, he will often help her carry the carriage. In fact, men in Germany are almost duty bound to do this. If man doesn’t initially help the woman, he might be told by strangers to do so. If he refuses for whatever reason, he may be chided by them — or her! Even though I personally get kind of nervous when I see a lone woman with a baby carriage getting onto a train — “should I help?/should I not?” — it’s nice that able-bodied men keep an eye out for mothers, who are often overworked as it is.

Ahh, last one. I like this one. When you are a guest in a place in Germany, you are a total guest. What I mean is this: Let’s say you visit an office and someone brings you a cup of coffee and a saucer. You drink the coffee and after you do so your host tells you that you and he have to for whatever reason go into another room. It is not at all your responsibility to worry about where that coffee cup and saucer now go. You don’t need to put your dishes in the sink or, really, even ask if you should. You can leave your cup exactly where it is, right there on the table, dirty. It will be handled for you.

OK, so there are just a few of the many nice German traditions that are probably little known to Americans.  Of course, some German traditions I’m not so thrilled about. Like how some people on the street make your business their business — stranger to me: “You’re not allowed to park here”; stranger to me: “I think you’re being too strict with your dog” — but there are still plenty of nice traditions and customs to go around.

Who knew, right?

 

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Normal sight

Every day many container ships enter and leave the Hamburg port. Ships like this one usually have about 10,000 containers on board.

Yup, so what we have here is pretty much a normal sight in good ol’ Hamburg. The city has the third largest port in all of Europe and scores of massive container ships enter and leave its famed harbor each day. Hamburgers have a special love for their port and sort of have a sentimental attachment to things that other people might just consider infrastructure: cranes, wharfs, tugboats, ropes, lifesavers, containers, etc. In fact, Hamburgers have so much affection for their port that they often decorate offices and businesses, even homes, with photographs and paintings of it and all its interesting idiosyncrasies.

I took this particular picture in the morning, right before I headed into work. The ship is on the Elbe River and is heading to port. Ships like these can hold around 10,000 containers, which if you ask me is a darn lot of merchandise.

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German rush hour

I used to think rush hour in New York City was fast. But nothing could prepare me for rush hour in Germany. It’s brutal.

Germans are just a generally fast people and have a very different idea of personal space. This can make traveling in Germany during rush hour a disconcerting experience for an American.

Let me illustrate.

You’re at a main train station, or “Hauptbahnhof,” in any major German city. It’s around 5:30 p.m. and you are walking quickly toward the platform from which your train will soon depart. But as you try to make your way there, hundreds of other commuters, also trying to get to their platforms, are seemingly walking straight at you. Meaning, they see you, but they don’t readily budge from the path they’ve chosen to accommodate you. If you’re not paying very close attention, these hurried commuters may just walk right into you.

In the United States, we usually do all we can to avoid bumping into strangers. Americans are very conscious of proximity, and when walking, we often maneuver as nimbly and as quickly as we can to avoid a collision or confrontation.

Not so in Germany. When Germans are walking straight, they mostly stay walking straight. To survive without getting body checked or having a collision here, you must constantly pay attention to who is in your immediate and non-immediate vicinity.

And don’t think that if you do reach your train platform unscathed, you’re out of danger.

When a train pulls up to the platform during rush hour here, the people who want to board it stand in clumps on either side of the car doors. They are careful to make a little egress room for the passengers who are already on the train and want to disembark.

But once those train doors open and most of the passengers in the car have disembarked, it’s no holds barred. You will sometimes get folks pushing and elbowing you out of their way so they can get into the train as fast as possible for a good seat.

It’s actually kind of culturally acceptable in Germany to push, or at least shove slightly. I have been shoved a few times at train stations and in several other high occupancy venues. But I always got the impression that the shoving happened because I was simply in the way or not paying attention; it did not feel like some kind of affront to my honor.

Now, assuming you survive the rush-hour train experience and do make it back out onto the street in one piece, you better not look down at your smartphone or tune out in some other way.

During peak commuting times, bike riders are everywhere, as many people use their bikes to travel to and from work. Germany has many designated bike lanes, but most of these lanes are on the sidewalk. In fact, most sidewalks in Germany are divided into two sections: the actual civilian walkway and then the bike path. And if you’re walking on the bike path while a rider is coming down it, you are in territory non grata, my friend.

You will either get shouted at — “Achtung!” — or you will get — ding! ding! ding! — warned off the path by the bell that is fixed to the rider’s handlebars and which he is ringing repeatedly.

Again, don’t expect the rider to go around you or change his course for you. Most often, if you are on the bike path, the rider will play chicken with you until you move, and if you don’t, he might just crash into you.

And don’t even get me started on traveling by car. If you thought tailgating in the U.S. was bad, well, they tailgate in Germany, too.

But on the autobahn, they do it at 100 mph.

 

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Greetings

Here is my girlfriend Maya and I with our moving van on the day we moved into our new apartment in Hamburg. The dog's name is Filou.

Hey everybody, good to see you again. Before I begin this blog in earnest, I want to bring you up to speed on where I’m at. As you may remember, I used to be a reporter for the Pocono Record. I worked between 2010 and 2013 for the Record as the West End reporter, but I also did a lot of general assignment stories, too. In spring 2013, I moved to Germany to be with my girlfriend, who is German. I’m now teaching English in Hamburg, where I live, and doing journalism on a freelance basis. It’s good times. My girlfriend and I also have dog, a Weimaraner named Filou. I still think about the people in the Poconos often, and now I have a direct line to you guys. So tune in for some interesting blog posts about life in Germany and more.

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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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