Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Germany in Three Lessons

I've learned three important lessons in the last few days that I believe might sum up German culture, politics and history.

1. Germans are not being silly when they tell you that every building in Berlin or Bonn, which is made of glass, was built that way to represent transparency ("Transparenz") in government and business. To an American (even one who knows German history,) this concept seems a bit forced. I think of the US Department of Education building, which was made to look like a school house when President Bush created the "No Child Left Behind" program. Just because the building looks like a school house, doesn't mean the programs that are being created there are good for children. The same goes for glass buildings and transparency. (This lesson was learned when I made a joke while touring the Federal Chancery...oops!)

All of this talking about glass makes me think of the US expression, "those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." There has got to be a joke that can be made about trans-Atlantic relations in the last three years and stone throwing but I will try to avoid such sarcasm!

2. Germans are also not joking around when they talk about German Purity Standards for beer. Purity standards...for beer...oh brother! I started teasing my boss about this yesterday and I think he thought I was using the Lord's name in vain! His comment back to me was "you put weird junk in your beer like fermenting rice and corn."

3. Since I am trying my hardest to "be German" this year, I have been sorting my trash like a German-- plastic, glass, paper, organic and everything else. Sorting trash is fine, I am actually amazed at how little you have to throw away if you sort stuff. The lesson I missed in the whole process, however, was that it is not advisable to go away for the weekend and leave decomposing food in the organic waste trash can in your kitchen! Gag!!

So there you have it: lessons about the fallout from WWII, beer and recycling. At the risk of German:-)


At 8:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 11:47 AM, Anonymous anne cadovius said...

Believe me there are some Germans who are able to appreciate the joke... Such a funny idea to believe if a government works in a glass-house all their decisions - or most of them - become transparent.

It's even sillier if you bear in mind that these buildings were planned under former Chancellor Kohl whose decisions and political actions were so transparent that his people spent weeks (day and night) destroying important papers from their 16 years of governing when he wasn't re-elected. In some ministries the new government found only empty folders. So, a lot of doubtlessly quite interesting decisions have become completely obscured - the very essence of government transparency, don't you think?

At 6:11 AM, Blogger Erin said...

Hi Anne, thanks for commenting! I too thought of the Kohl example, but decided that sometimes criticism of a government is best left to the people it represents and not observers. So thanks for being that criticism:-)

At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Anne Cadovius said...

I didn't want to sound too cynical when I wrote my first comment but all the time whenever people talked about this wonderful transparency I couldn't help thinking that lots of people try to dupe others by outwardly propagating values and opinions that are directly opposed to what they really value and think.

German governments have been notoriously restrictive in allowing the general public access to vital health information and the new government is not promising to do any better. The other day I watched an interview with the Bavarian Minister for public health and cosumer protection. She explained at great length why it is NOT a good idea to inform the public if public health inspectors find restaurants where food is cooked in truly horrible hygienic conditions.

The reporters asked why this is possible and is done in America without ruining all snackbars and restaurants - she only smiled...
Transparency indeed...

Quite an amount of the little bits of informations that German governments have grudgindly allowed to become public came originally from America where people get much better information on medication etc - as you of course know.

At 2:28 AM, Blogger Erin said...


First I must say that I always assumed that food stands here must be held to the highest cleanliness standards because, well, this is Germany! I am going to think long and hard before buying my next order of fries at the corner stand!

As for medicines in the US, the labeling and instructions are really quite lengthy, but then again there are also lots of court cases involving people who have suffered adverse effects from taking new drugs. I brought my own little stash of cold and headache medicine from the States so I wouldn't have to go to the local Apotheke. As an American, it drives me nuts that I have to tell a stranger about my illness in order to get medicine.

In any case, someone told me last week that a Freedom of Information Act is getting ready to be implemented in Germany. FOIA in the US has been a wonderful thing. Maybe it will be here too!


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