Culture Shock #6: History is Live

“Ja, Hamburg is full of bombs.”

Three sets of eyes turned towards the voice. It was Ingo, one of our freelance copywriters. He sat, completely relaxed, behind his computer, as the three expats discussed the latest breaking headline: a bomb threat had closed the subway. Only this wasn’t an ISIS threat or a domestic terror attack. It was a (potential) blast from the past.

 


It turns out that we had translated the headline wrong. When the line read, “bomb found”, they literally meant “found”—as in, discovered in a construction site. According to a Guardian article, back in World War II, the British and American Allies pounded Germany with 1.5 million tons of bombs. Officials estimate that 15% of the bombs failed to explode—which means that throughout this country, thousands of live bombs are hidden like Easter eggs, waiting to be found.

Luckily, this being Germany, there is a system in place for when such a bomb is found. This past weekend, for example, we were returning from a visit to see Tim’s family only to find out that a massive evacuation was taking place in Frankfurt, where we had to change trains. In the largest evacuation since the war, 60,000 people were ordered to leave their homes for the day as experts came in to defuse what’s known as a “blockbuster”—a bomb large enough to flatten a whole city block. Over beers and a pizza at the central station (which was outside of the potential detonation radius, don’t worry Mom), we watched the coverage of the evacuation. Uniformed officers went door to door, ringing every bell and ensuring that everyone had properly exited the area. (The Guardian also tells me they used helicopters with heat-sensing cameras to make sure nobody was left behind). Then a team of police explosive experts came in and defused the bomb—and by the evening, everyone was back at home again. Like clockwork.

This type of occurrence is regular. So regular that Ingo didn’t even bat an eye when he heard what we were talking about. But in America, the bombs that fell in Europe in WWII are just lines on a history page. It’s hard to imagine that this type of Frankfurt bomb fell with a legion of others—and harder to imagine the type of flattening damage the bombs unleashed when they did explode on impact.

Amid all of the recent controversy about race and history in the States, I’ve found it so fascinating to see how Germans deal with their blemished past. I think part of it helps that the history is still alive for people to experience. You can still see the signage in Berlin that routed the trains to their different concentration camps. You can visit the camps. Theoretically, you could even be blown up by an active munition. It’s hard to glorify a history that weighs so heavy on you—and that’s one thing that should be appreciated about the German approach to history. They not only allow, but insist on that weight. They refuse to forget. And so history—its evil, its beauty, its danger—doesn’t die. It lives, breathes, and demands to be remembered.

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Things We Are Not Taller Than

“Excuse me, would you mind taking our picture? We have a little tradition we do—just hold on and we’ll get into place.”

It started as a little gag—Tim had once put me on his shoulders and I said I was taller than anything else around. When I came to Aachen to visit him, I found a stat on how the Aachen Cathedral, when built in 798, was the tallest and largest structure north of the Alps. “I want a photo of me sitting on your shoulders next to it. It can be something we are not taller than.”

Tim paid it back to me on his visit to San Francisco in December. We drove up to Hawk’s Hill and walked the viewpoint to the Golden Gate Bridge. Onlookers laughed as I springboarded off a nearby log and scrambled onto his shoulder, whacking him in the face with my gloved hands.

And thus came the tradition. Every vacation we go on, we try to find one thing that we are organically not taller than—and someone kind enough to wait while we struggle into position.

For two years and ten countries, this guy has walked beside me, driven me crazy, swept me off my feet, and yes, carried me on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively. We’ve both got road left in our shoes…I can’t wait to see where we end up.

 

Postcard from Edinburgh

A few nights ago, sitting on the couch on a gloomy Saturday night, Tim poured us two glasses of whiskey and we settled in to watch a movie. He’d gotten Glencairn whisky glasses for his birthday; they are specially-designed with a tapered mouth to let you catch the nuanced smells of each pour. While he sipped American bourbon, I’d opted for Jura, a Scotch whisky we’d purchased on our November trip. As I brought the glass to my mouth, the smell instantly transported me to Scotland. This particular Jura is known for its peatiness—the smoky smell and taste that makes many whiskey novices turn their heads (or stomachs).

But this smokiness is exactly what makes me think of Scotland. It reminds me of a roaring fire, a sleeping dog, thick, felty tartan blankets, rain-lashed windows. The crunch of cobblestones. A fine mist dancing across your face and settling on an upturned collar.

I’ve visited Scotland twice now, once with Tim last November on a trip through the Highlands, and back to Edinburgh in April with my friend Alex. Both times the weather was sunny but cold—I kept my coat buttoned to the throat and a flask of whisky in the pocket to ward off the chill. Alex and I didn’t have much of an itinerary (it’s what makes us such good travel companions). We wandered the Prince Streets Garden while munching on buttery, oven-fresh shortbread; flipped through thick books of fabric swatches as she contemplated getting a custom-made kilt skirt; admired the arches and colorful glass windows at St. Giles Cathedral; took tea breaks whenever it struck our fancy.

We finally ended up at Edinburgh Castle and slipped in right before the close, meandering through the sprawling keep in search of the shiny stuff. We found it in a high tower, where bejeweled swords and crowns lay in a thick glass case besides what appeared to be a massive rock.

“What is the rock for?” Alex asked the security guard. He appeared surprised.

“That’s no rock—that’s the Stone of Destiny,” he said. This epically-christened oblong piece of sandstone is also called the Stone of Scone (or in Scottish Celtic, An Lia Fàil). It’s the coronation stone used for centuries by the Scottish kings and now the British monarchs. According to the guard, when Charles ascends the throne, he will sit on the throne chair—but beneath it will be this very rock, brought down from Scotland.

On our last day, we woke early and headed to the base of Arthur’s Seat—a different rock named (according to legend) for a different king. Arthur’s Seat is often mentioned as one of the possible locations for Camelot, the legendary castle and court of King Arthur. At a height of 250.5 m (822 ft), it’s a relatively easy hike that offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. We took our time, chatting and picking our way over the grassy knolls. Shortly before the crest sat a man playing lilting Celtic songs on an acoustic guitar. We paused to savor the moment.

“Do you ever think these moments are our rewards for doing good in this world?” Alex asks me. “The ways that karma manifests for us?” The sun was bright on our faces, the wind crisp and strong. The city of Edinburgh unrolled at our feet, and the roughness of the mountain was cloaked in freshly-sweet heather. I replied with the only answer that occurred to me. “God…I hope so.”

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Hamburger Sliders: Then and Now

My favorite thing to do when visiting an old city is to see how much of its architectural history is still intact. To wander through these old section of town is not unlike watching a 90-year old grandma busting a surprising move on the dance floor—they have surprising charm, elegance, and even a hipness to them despite the age. So you know I love this interactive feature from the Hamburger Abendblatt (and subsequent opportunity for punning).

Hamburg – eine Fotoreise von 1888 bis heute

What surprised me most about the Hamburger Abendblatt’s interactive feature, however, is not how different Hamburg is today from the Hamburg of 100+ years ago, but how similar it is. Through two World Wars and a lot of growth, you can still see those old bones all throughout the city. And yeah, they still can show the young’uns something.

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Deutschland: Year Eins

Last Saturday marked the start of my second year in Germany. Which seems insane. It feels like I just landed from California (oh wait, because I did…). But in seriousness, I learned a lot in the past year—about myself, about my new country, about people. In truth, I think a lot of things I knew already. I’ve been lucky to have traveled a lot, lived abroad, and worked cross-culturally before. But I like that my lifestyle now serves as a constant reminder of these lessons. Here are some of the ones that resonate most with me:

Practice Empathy

The constant struggle of being understood reminds me all the time to be more patient with others—whether they are struggling with language issues or struggling with simply finding words to express themselves. This goes for being culturally different too. My team at work is made up of myself, Germans, Brazilians, an Iranian, and the occasional South African freelancer. That means that on any given day, we’re working across an average of three cultures. It’s taught me to be aware of our differences, as much as we celebrate our similarities. Things that I might find offensive might be completely regular to someone else. When I get confused or frustrated, I try to always have my first reaction be to question, “Ok, is this a cultural thing?” and then go from there. (And truthfully, while sometimes it is, other times the person is just being a jerk)

Collect Moments, Not Things

Giving up so much of my stuff when I moved reminded me that you can live with less—and that I’m completely okay with having fewer things and more stories. I spent a lot of money on travel within the last year, but I’d much rather have the experiences versus a big television or fancier bike. Moving here was expensive, and if the choice is between buying something I don’t really need or having a nice night out with friends, I’d rather use the money towards doing something instead of having something.

Work is Not Life*

Speaking of traveling all the time…here in Germany, I have 30 days of vacation. And while it may amuse some of my friends here that I’ve learned lessons about working less (considering the crazy hours I do work), living in such a society has convinced me how imperative some sort of work-life balance is. This is honestly my biggest hesitation when it comes to moving back to the States—the feeling that work is always there. To some extent, it is here too (especially for me lately), but I also know that when I go on vacation, I’m untouchable. And for the most part, work respects that.

*and I’m writing this at 10 pm from the office, so this is definitely something I will continually remind myself.

Take Care of Yourself

My mom often tells me that I “burn the candle at both ends”—always taking on a full plate. But without the safety net of close family and friends, you wind up looking out for yourself a lot. That means knowing your limits, and when it’s necessary to push them. Here, I’m responsible for making myself uncomfortable and trying new things—but I’m also responsible for knowing when to take a night in and spoil myself.

Get in Front of People

Whenever you move somewhere new, you have to force yourself to be social, because otherwise, you’ll be a hermit. I’ve been really lucky to have found a crew of wonderful friends since I’ve moved here. A mix of German natives and expats, they both remind me what’s good about living here, and give me someone to vent to when I need to complain something Typisch Deutsch.

Be More Direct

This comes directly from the Germans, and it’s one lesson I’ve really relished learning. Americans always complain about Germans being rude, but what they are is direct. They say what they mean and they do so unapologetically. I love this culture of real talk—it’s a great tactic for professional as well as personal life. I’ve also been forced to learn how to articulate my own feelings more regularly. It’s not enough to not like something or to be upset: Germans want you to be able to analyze why you feel a certain way and why you think that is. It’s been kind of fascinating to be so in touch with myself versus the self-shrug we typically do in the States.

Celebrate Stupid

Stumble through your bad German. Ask silly questions. Push the red button. Wait. Try. See what happens. Squawk in surprise. Be embarrassingly American. Stick out like a sore thumb. Have fun. I’ve felt utterly ridiculous at least 3 times a day since I got here, and while some nights I am so frustrated I want to break something, overall it’s refreshing to laugh at yourself so often. I know that I’m trying. And it’s so rewarding when I finally do find success—whether it’s being able to ask the butcher for the right cut of meat, cracking a joke in German that makes my boyfriend’s best friend laugh, or giving a tourist directions.

After a year, I’m starting to feel things clicking. I’m starting to feel like I belong.

Eating Like an American in Germany

“Tacos.”
“Cheez-its.”
“Corn on the cob.”
“You know what I can’t find here? Pumpkin!”
“You looking for pumpkin? I got. You want?”

So went a recent conversation with my Ami* amie, Britt. Sharing a post-inauguration drink to drown our sorrows, we were resigned to staying in Germany, but bemoaning four years without our American food favorites. (And yes, this is definitely a First World Problem. Namely, a First-World Expat Problem.)

Sure, American food isn’t impossible to get. Certain specialty food stores have an American aisle, where bright boxes of Safeway familiars crowd together. And Amazon recently launched an online version (although a box of Twinkies was retailing for 11EUR, so perhaps it’s not the most cost effective). If one of us is going home for a visit, we collect the grocery lists of the other. Over-the-counter medicines, Trader Joe’s favorites, Target snackbags. Cajun seasoning and jars of peanut butter.

But the best is when friends come visiting from the States, bringing with them a taste of home that is as literal as it is figurative. It feels like Christmas to see the suitcases unzip and spew forth such delightful contraband as corn tortillas, bags of black beans, name-brand Sriracha, Louisiana hot sauce, boxes of ramen, gallons of Soy Sauce, my favorite Detox Tea. And the ever elusive cans of pumpkin puree, perfect for making pumpkin pie desserts.

Of course, there is an upside to foregoing our processed American food. It’s challenged me to do a lot of made-from-scratch cooking that I never would have bothered with otherwise. For my farewell Obama dinner, I made enchiladas. I could find basically everything I needed…except for enchilada sauce. So for the first time, I made my own (note that the recipe calls for Chili Powder, which is way easier to get in the States). And I’ll tell you what—I am NEVER going back to the can again. I make my own soup stock now too, like a regular Hausfrau.

And the local favorites are nothing to scoff at. German bread is way, way better than anything you can buy in the U.S. The meat and vegetables you buy at the market (even the chains) are typically all locally-sourced and seasonal—which leads to incredible taste. The cheese selection will blow your mind, and the dazzling array of quality two-buck chuck will have your winerack stocked for less than 20 euros.

But sometimes you’re hungry for more than just food. Sometimes you want a little of that Americana nostalgia that only a bag of baked-but-not-fried Goldfish crackers can provide.

Just be sure to ration them util your next visit(or) is planned.

*Ami is a German slang shorthand for American

Postcard from Tenerife

One of the delights of learning new languages is playing with the new words in the patterns of the languages you already know. In English, you can say, big to mean “cool”, “heavy”, “brilliant”. Germans will use their equivalent, groß, the same way. Do Spanish speakers? If they didn’t, they might now.

Over seven days in Tenerife, whenever we got a plate of delicious food or a glass of incredible wine, or turned a corner to see an amazing view, I’d hear Tim give a low whistle and say (to the baffled amusement of the Canarians), “Grande”. And Tenerife, the largest of the seven Spanish Canary Islands, deserves the word. Hovering off the coast of norther Africa, Tenerife is famous for its volcano, Mount Teide, the largest peak in Spain at 3,718-metres (12,198 ft); its stunning landscapes; and (most importantly for those visiting from northern Europe), its year-long sunshine and high temperatures.

We went all over but didn’t really do anything besides eat, drink, lay in the sun, and drive.

Long, winding drives through crazy landscapes both lush and alien. The road to Masca, which ribbons through the islands northwestern corner with hair-pin turns and cacti at every corner.

Through Anaga National Park, which occupies most of the northeastern corner and is luscious and green with Canarian pines.

We ended up at pristine beaches, thick with chunky sand and hunks of holey rock plunging out of the blue waves. I searched for sea glass in the crumbles of volcanic sand. We stacked colorful lava rocks in approximations of snowmen figures.

We passed through towns where the houses were built on each other into the mountains, balanced together like stacks of blocks. Little squares were still decorated for Christmas, and fat Santas rappelled down bright walls or dropped from wrought iron gates.

We ate tapas and paella, drank carafes of delicious cool red wine and tall cups of rum and pineapple juice—a lime bobbing at the lip of the glass. We bought avocadoes by the pound and ate a heaping bowl of guacamole every day. Our table was filled with vivid food—rosy slivers of Serrano ham, rough hunks of salami, moon-yellow slices of Emmentaler, pauncy green olives bloated with brine, persimmons and mandarins like little balls of fire. We bought spicy red Canarian mojo and topped everything with it—eggs, toast, avocadoes, potatoes—until the squat little jar was scraped clean.

We spoke Spanish, English, and German. Sprawled under the strong equatorial sun we talked about everything under the sun—about the ethics of keeping orcas at sea parks, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the differences between comets and meteors, the types of volcanoes, if it’s possible to grow a banana tree in a non-tropical climate (also known as our kitchen).

One night in the middle of our trip, we drove up to the slopes of Mount Teide to watch the sunset and the stars come out. We wandered around the edges of the volcano, a landscape full of rocks and cacti and wild openness. As the sun sank, we climbed up a burgundy finger of scoriaceous rock, it’s porous surface making it look more like coral than stone. The stars slowly began to appear—and there is no way to write about them without using every tired cliché in the book. It was incredible. A sky so dark and clear that, directly above us, we could see the faint flickers of the Orion Nebula.

And there’s no other word for that, I think, than grande.

Culture Shock #5: It’s (Unapologetically) Christmastime

Americans know better than to wish each other a Merry Christmas. Issue it with the best of intentions, and you’re likely to receive a lecture on political correctness. Holiday decorations have to be kept to generic winter themes, and even the traditional red, green, and white is often tweaked for inclusivity. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. Which is true, in America. But in Germany? Ah, homogeny.

I walked into my office in the first week of December to find not only a Christmas tree bedecked in the agency colors, but an Adventskranz, or wreath, in place of our weekly flowers and an interactive Adventskalendar, which raffled off prizes during every weekday in Advent. Advent wreaths are all over the city of Hamburg, in front of banks, city buildings, schools, and shops alike. It startled me a little to see such a flagrant show of celebration: the last time I saw an Advent wreath in public was when I was in Catholic school.

Christianity is the most popular religion in Germany, with about 67% identifying either as Roman Catholic or Protestant, so the prevalence of Advent memorabilia makes perfect sense. But on the whole, I’ve found Germany to be not as “in your face” about their religious habits (or, conversely, lack thereof) as other countries. For sure, not every German celebrates Christmas in the traditional sense, with church services and the religious hoopla—which is, of course, the reason for the season. Many of my German friends are not religious, but appreciate Christmas on a nostalgic or aesthetic level. In other words, it’s possible for the season to hold the reason at a pretty fair distance.

As someone who celebrates Christmas (or at least, doesn’t not celebrate Christmas), it’s hard for me to tell if this one-dimensional winter holidaymaking actually makes others feel excluded or is some form of incorrectness, the way we are so conditioned to believe in the States. Those who want to celebrate differently are, as far as I can see, welcomed to do so—there have been a few Menorahs around town as well. I really like that it’s possible to decorate or celebrate how you feel fit without feeling like anyone is pushing the “prepare for the birth of Jesus” narrative at you, or feeling that Christmas is a war that needs to be “won” or “lost”.

Rather, I think here, the society is better at understanding that sometimes, a beautifully decorated candle wreath in December is simply something that reminds you to reflect on the passing of the year. Or just makes your dining room look good.

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