Archive for ‘Culture’

July 31, 2015

Sweet and salty

A long while back I wrote a short blog post about acquired taste and today I want to point one out that is – at least in my mind – very American: the combination of sugar and salt on any given food.

In Germany I grew up with the notion that these two flavors are mortal enemies and could never, ever co-exist in one dish.  You have to make up your mind whether you wanted one or the other, you can’t have both.  Period.

The first serious shake to this fundamental belief came when I had an American boyfriend in Germany, who, to my utter shock and surprise put salt on apples.  Apples are in the sweet category and may only occasionally and for a very good reason cross the border into savory territory, e.g if served as part of a meat/main dish (Berlin style liver comes to mind, fried liver served with sautéed slices of apple and onions or latkes with apple sauce),  By themselves, however, they are considered sweet and sprinkling them with salt is an abomination (or pretty damn close to one).

Much later I should learn that American boyfriends are not the only ones that put salt on fruit.  I remember a fruit stand in Guadalajara, Mexico on a hot day selling containers full of fresh, juicy slices of water melon, mango, etc. I ordered a container and before I realized what was going on and could scream “no, por fovor, no quiero sal!” the vendor had put a generous helping of salt over everything.  Try as I did, I couldn’t eat most of it.

But Americans take it far beyond the apples and water melons to things like popcorn, ice-cream, and chocolate.  They see nothing wrong with putting sweet and salty stuff on the same plate at a buffet without erecting a Chinese Wall or something between the two enemy flavors on the plate.  They heartily bite into a mini cupcake that has been exposed to salad dressing.  Oh, the horror of it.

In grad school I asked a friend about this once, rather I expressed my shock in such weird habits and he had no idea what I was talking about.  He had grown up combining sweet and salty, and to him it was the logical brother of sweet and sour.  He added – a bit tongue in cheek – that Americans just like to have it all and don’t want to choose between the flavors.

Over the years I have learned to tolerate the mixture in most instances and even appreciate it in some.  The one example where it is outright delicious is kettle corn style popcorn.  Made fresh in huge  kettles at farmers markets with a lot of sugar and some salt it is delicious.  Sugar alone makes it overly sweet and uninteresting, salt alone is not exciting either but put both in and you have a winning combination.  On first try it is hard to even determine whether the popcorn is sweet or salty but once you had a few you can’t stop eating it.  I will however, stay away from any bakery products that have been exposed to meat sauce, salad dressing or are sprinkled with rock salt.  That taste isn’t “acquirable” for me.

For you visitors of the US, if somebody offers you some very unintuitive sweet/salty concoction, please keep in mind: this is no attempt on your life and not meant to be an assault on your taste buds – just simply the American idea of “having it all”.
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July 28, 2015

About Slang

I have one simple and easy piece of advise to give when it comes to slang terms: stay away!  To use an American expression “don’t touch it with a 10-foot pole” – meaning “don’t even go near that one.

If you live in a foreign country and get to the point where you can speak the language rather fluently the temptation is great to adopt slang terms, or maybe dialects and regional expressions.  Some of that can be okay, some might be unavoidable and some should be avoided at all cost – 10-foot pole stuff.

Let’s start with the unavoidable.  I live (lived, will live) in California.  Wide roads with multiple lanes, on-ramps and exits and no cross traffic are called freeways, technically speaking freeways are limited access highways.  So in Northern California we take freeways to get to work/wherever and we refer to them by number.  We would, for example say something like: “I take 280 South and then 880 East to get to work”. In Southern California people also take freeways to work but their they use articles, so they would use “the 405″ to work but the 10” to get to the beach.  What we never ever use in California are things like turnpikes.  That’s for those Eastern folks.

In California we eat subs, not sandwiches and if we talk about you in the plural we will say “you” or something like”you guys” but never y’all.  That’s what they do in the south or mid-west or wherever. So if a foreigner picks up the “y’all habit” when living in “y’all territory” that is pretty much unavoidable and okay.  I use the expression “you guys” all the time, giving away my Californian “heritage”.

So something like: “you guys, let’s take 280 instead of 101 to go to the city” is perfectly acceptable.

Were it gets less acceptable are expressions used by an ethnic or other groups you do not belong to.  If you are a white woman from Germany it will sound stupid if you try and speak like a black kid in the Bronx.  It will also sound stupid if you if try and speak like a surfer dude or your teenage daughter.  It starts with you not sounding authentic and not being able to carry on a whole conversation in that style and ends with you likely using words that are so last week.  That then, instead of making you sound cool, makes you sound lame.

There is also a risk of mixing perceived cool terms, slang and regional vocabulary that do not go together in one sentence making it sound even weirder.  To make this effect clear I always think about  how a foreigner with an accent (because most non-native speakers will retain some form of accent) would sound mixing Swabian words, with Saxon words and a few far northern idiosyncrasies thrown in for good measure.  Add to that a few words my pre-teen son uses with abandon and you have the perfect storm of ridiculousness.  If you do an exercise like that with your own language in mind you’ll undersatad what I mean.

Some of these slang terms eventually make it into the common language by which time they may be carefully adopted in special situations; although I have to say that I find all the “yo, bro” and “whazz up, dude” going on between middle aged men rather annoying.  Something similar goes for women in their 30s, 40s and beyond who scream in high-pitched voices “oh my gosh, this is ,like, so awesome” as if they were 15 years old.  Not so good.

So, again, my advice would be to stay away from the slang and the overly colloquial terms as well as any language that is associated with a specific group you do not belong to.

Of course I am expressing my own views in this blog, not some universal truth but I have seen these things go wrong so many times that I am at least claiming to have a well-informed opinion on this.  An opinion nevertheless.

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July 24, 2015

Different Rules for Dining Out

Now that I have been back in Europe for a while traveling different countries I noticed – or rather re-noticed – that there are substantial differences in the rules for dining out.  There are two in particular that I want to point out, one at the front end of the restaurant experience and one at the back end.

Dinner rules here and there. Photo: (c) Tina Baumgartner

Dinner rules here and there.
Photo: (c) Tina Baumgartner

Let’s start with getting a table.  There are two ways of doing so in the US: you call and make a reservation or you get in line. The first is easy and logical but sometimes one forgets or the restaurant does not take reservations.  The second is quite different from my experience here in Germany. In the US, at least in California every restaurant, including the fish&chips place by the beach and the fast food restaurant have an orderly process. You go up to the hostess and ask to be seated.  If she can’t seat you your name goes on a list and that list gets taken care off starting from the top as patrons leave the restaurant and vacate tables.

Sometimes there is no hostess but there is a list and people take it upon themselves to put their names and the number of people in their party on that list – in the right order, without cheating and without trying to skip the line.

Then one waits, patiently or not, that doesn’t matter, until one’s name is called.  Sometimes one just hangs around the front area of the restaurant or one is given a buzzer thingy that one takes along while browsing the shops in the mall or whatever. When it buzzes and blinks the table is ready and by that I mean it is ready for you to sit down and order: no half-empty glasses and partially eaten dinners are lingering.

In Germany there are also two ways of getting a table: you call and make a reservation or you outrun your competition for a table. What you do not do is stand patiently at the entry and wait for the next table to become available.  I mean you can do that but what will inevitably happen is that somebody else, who came long after you, has been pacing the place to get a good pole position.  That art starts with keenly observing the room to see who is close to being done and has asked the waiter to pay up, then one hangs out near that table and as soon as the first person at that table as much as lifts half a butt cheek those skilled in the art (everybody) grab that chair, plunk down and declare victory.

Meanwhile you have politely waited and taken a few steps towards that table as you see the patrons stirring but by the time you get there the whole posse already sat down, pushed the dirty glasses and plates aside, opened the menus, started discussing their wine selections.  And they certainly have no intention to leave the table to you.  In fact any such inquiry will be met with blank stares.  Securing a table in a busy German restaurant is a full contact sport.  I find it rather strange by now but if you want to sit down and eat you better play by the rules.

Now let’s assume you got that table and have had your food and a glass of wine and another and maybe a coffee, then there is another cultural difference to negotiate.  In Germany and other European countries I have traveled to now it is time for you linger; maybe have another glass of wine, in the olden days a cigarette or two, a little brandy and since we are all having such a grand old time, let’s have a round of Grappa.  The waiter would never, ever dare putting the check on the table (unless it is past closing hour by now), you call for the check when you are ready.  Then the waiter will come with an itemized list and – unless you are lucky somebody pays the entire bill – every person picks what they had, that gets added up and they pay their share.  In the rare case when an unclaimed beer remains  everybody will contemplate whether they in fact didn’t have three instead of the two they paid for and somebody is generally found pretty quickly who agrees to pay for it.  This I find a rather civilized way going about paying.

In the US the waiter will put the check on your table before you have even finished your last bite of dessert, sometimes before you even ordered dessert.  You can, of course, say that you want dessert and then the check disappears and the dessert menu appears.  Once you half-way through that triple chocolate cake the check will reappear.

Once you are done eating you are expected to pay and leave.  You want some more wine – that’s what the bar is for.  One simply does not linger once one is done with dinner.  It is time to pay up and leave.  I once observed a German couple getting totally outraged by the rudeness of the waiter who put the check on their table while they were finishing up their omelet.  “Honey” I wanted to say “they don’t mean to be rude, it’s just how it is done here.”

Then comes the paying part and this irks me to this day.  The waiter brings an itemzied list of everything consumed and expects that one person pays it all or the patrons figure out among themselves who pays how much.  Smart phones with calculators help some, but often it isn’t the math that is limiting.  What makes it infinitely more difficult in the US is that you need to add both taxes and the mandatory tip which people forget or sometimes “forget”.  So in the end there is never enough money in the pot and everybody feels that they paid their fair share along the lines of “I only had a sandwich for $8.50, I put $10 in so that should be enough.  Well, no, not in California at least, you need to add at least 25% for taxes and tip, so $11 would be closer to the truth.  The higher the bill the larger the discrepancy gets.

Another bad method is “going Dutch” where the bill just gets split by the number of people and everybody pays the same whether you had a small salad and water or the Filet Mignon plus appetizer, dessert, wine and a cocktail.   This works if you go out with your three best friends and everybody is conscious of not charging the others too much.  At your colleagues large birthday party – with a bunch of people you don’t even know – this spells disaster.  Especially if the Filet-Mignon-cocktail people need to leave early (oh so busy) and don’t leave enough money to cover their part.  After falling for this like a sucker one time I decided to never attend such large birthday parties again.

So, in the end, each culture could learn from the others.  The Americans do the getting the table part better, the Germans the paying up part.

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January 27, 2013

Superbowl

Superbowl is coming up to the excitiment of everybody, pic: cartoonaday.com

Superbowl is coming up to the excitement of everybody, pic: cartoonaday.com

THE annual event is coming up.  No it is not Christmas and I certainly don’t mean Valentine’s Day either.  I mean Superbowl, one of the most holy and revered sporting events in the US.  There are others, but I don’t now anything about baseball and World Championships and basketball and whatever very important events they have.  But I know a thing or two about American football and I have been to a Superbowl party for 10 years straight.  That makes me an expert – at least for an expat from Germany.

Every year through some mysterious process which I don’t tend to follow, 2 teams end up playing the Superbowl.  Whoever wins is the champ.  I am sure they get something cute to put on the mantel and tons of money.  This year a catastrophe was narrowly avoided: the home team, the San Francisco 49ers, qualified and the Patriots (the Boston team) was a hot contender to play the 49ers.  Now that would have thrown me into a big conflict over whom to root for as I also spent two extremely educational and very pleasurable years in Boston.  Alas, the Patriots lost to the Ravens (Baltimore) and so I won’t have to face this conflict.  Go 9ers!

If you want to know about the football rules, there are better sources than this blog to educate you.  I can follow the game, yell “interference” with the best of them or say something like “3rd and 8” with a grave face if it pertains to “my team” but the subtleties are lost on me, sort of like off-side in soccer.

The point, though, is that Superbowl is an excuse to party.  And by that I mean drinking beer during the day  and eating food that would generally not pass the “healthy, whole-grain, gluten-free” test but will score high on fat, carbs, spices, and preservatives – and lots of it.  It’s also the day where the man cave turns into the center of the house and the poor schmucks who don’t have a man cave dust off all sorts of comfy reclining chairs that have been banned to the basement by wives with a finer taste in interior design .  Wives/girl-friend pass platters with nacho chips and salsa during the game, chat among themselves and wait for their moments: the abundant ads.  Superbowl ads are super expensive and legendary and anticipated as eagerly as the game.  A classical radio show host question has become: “what do you look forward to most?  The game, the ads or the snacks.”  In recent years companies have started to leak sneak previews of their anticipated ads a couple of weeks before the Superbowl – as if these things were big movies.  This years anticipated ads include VW and Mercedes Benz, Coke, Best Buy and a bunch of others to be found here.

I do enjoy these events, they are so quintessentially American (although, where I live the majority of the Superbowl party attendees are of Indian or Chinese origin) – and a perfect excuse to eat junk food.  Go, 9ers, go!

January 4, 2013

Drive Thru II

On our road trip over the winter vacation I saw something I referred to in my last post, not knowing whether it exists or not: the drive thru dry cleaner.

Walking around Bakersfield, CA after a long day in the car I came across one and here is the blurry picture to prove:

The drive thru dry cleaner.  I should have known it existed.  Pic: mine

The drive thru dry cleaner. I should have known it existed. Pic: mine

December 28, 2012

Drive-thru Nation

I never thought that eating while driving was a good idea.  I also always thought it was a rather good  idea to actually park your car, get out, walk 30 feet to a door, walk in,  order your food, sit down (or the other way around if you choose to not go to a fast food restaurant) and eat it without spilling ketchup all over yourself because you are eating that double burger with extra cheese and the curly fries with one hand while maneuvering a big ass truck (or a Honda Civic or anything in between).  Alas, I seem to be in the minority as some recent observations have confirmed.  We are all used to the Drive-thru fast food joints, all the big names of this world and slowly getting use to the drive-thru upscale coffee places (yes, I am talking Starbucks) although I am still wondering why I would want to pay almost $5 for a medium (they call it grande) Frappuccino and then not enjoy it because I am  negotiating Los Angeles/Bay Area/Toronto/add other places as appropriate traffic.

The latest, and I have seen it several times now including today, is a Drive thru drug store, like Walgreens, or Rite Aid or one of those.  I am waiting for Drive thru Safeways, and Drive thru fine dining (you’d get a complimentary linen napkin and probably one of those self-heating containers to keep the bisque warm ), for men only I could envision a Drive thru haircut place, I assume most women would not go for that one, but one could definitely drop off dry cleaning in a Drive thru kind of a way.  Why hasn’t anybody thought of that yet?  They probably have and I am just too out of touch to have heard about it – yet.

Drive Thru - so very convenient.  classbias.blogspot.com

Drive Thru – so very convenient. classbias.blogspot.com

What I still don’t understand is the appeal of all of that.  Is the act of getting out of the car so inconveniencing people that they avoid it at all cost, although we are reading constantly that even a little exercise every day helps a lot in terms of health outcomes or do people love sitting in their cars so much that they don’t want to get out ever?

One thing, I believe, Drive thru anything is often not: faster.  The Starbucks this morning had a line of at least 5 or 6 cars whereas we were the first in line inside.  I remember distinctly one time when, on a road trip, we went to have lunch at a fast food restaurant and on our way between tour parking spot and the door had to cross the Drive thru lane.  We almost got run over by a driver too focused on deciding between the tantalizing meal options so I remembered the car.  When we came out, after ordering food and eating it, sitting on a chair with a table in front of us, washed our hands in the bathroom, and walked out, that driver was just ordering his food at the Drive-thru window.

So much for faster.

I think it comes down to the word I have learned to hate: “convenience”.  Getting ones butt out of the car and walking a few steps  is so not convenient so people much rather sit in the car longer to avoid that hassle.  How sad is that!

November 9, 2012

Of Cows and Curtains

I just returned from a business trip to Australia and so a blog post about an Australian

can’t be far.   This specific one is about Queensland, the subtropical north-eastern part of Australia where my travels always take me.

No DST here! pic: au.totaltravel.yahoo.com

In late October, when the rest of the country goes on daylight savings time, Queensland doe not.  Queensland keeps its regular time with the comment that there is nothing wrong with it (true) and that a subtropical climate does not require that (well, maybe).  The reasons you hear when questioning that inconvenient habit (for travel to other states  it means to get up at 3:30 am to catch a 5:00 am flight to be in Sydney for a 9:00 am meeting) is that it negatively impacts the cows resulting in less milk.

It appears the Queensland cows are a very delicate breed as clearly the Californian or Austrian cows are not affected by the time change and happily continue to produce milk.  But, of course, we can’t rule that out.

The second in line argument is even quainter and has to do with curtains.  So here the story goes: the typical Queenslander comes home from work and apparently draws the curtains shut immediately to keep the sun out.  Now, this habit will inevitably lead to some fading of the curtains which is only exacerbated when – due to daylight savings time – the typical Queenslander gets home an hour – as the sun goes – earlier .  Just think of all the additional fading that takes place during that hour.

Both arguments, but especially the latter one, strike me as quaint, sort of from the 50s.  My interpretation is easy: people just don’t want daylight savings time and for no better reason than “we didn’t have it before and so we don’t need it now.”

Just guessing, though.

October 12, 2012

Bubbleboy is Smart

I haven’t posted about my experience with the California primary education system in a while.  We might have just gotten used to it and things seem a bit more normal than they did 2 years ago.

We have, however, now encountered another “issue”.  It turns out Bubbleboy is a really smart little guy.  By that I mean by that is certifiably significantly above the average of his peers.   “I wish I had that problem, whiner” I hear you say thinking of struggling through homework with your child  and I realize that I am complaining about a desirable problem to have – but a problem none the less.

The California public educational system simply does not have money to deal with kids like Bubbleboy. The gifted program, once nicely named GATES, has been discontinued and what remaining resources are available for special training is going towards supporting those who can’t keep up with the goal to improve their performance so that the funds – based on achieving certain minimum levels in standardized testing – keep rolling in.  Smart kids don’t get in the way of that so no extra money gets spend on them.

But smart kids have other needs and issues that, when left unmet, create problems.  Some of the issues are social, e.g. Bubbleboy finds sports boring and does not play soccer with the rest of them – which does not make him popular with many of his sports-obsessed peers.  He tends not to be particularly patient in group work when he has figured stuff out and others haven’t – again, annoying but not surprising.

He also does not like math, although he is really good at it, because by and large it is to easy = too boring.  For the teacher the situation is not easy either, she tries to accommodate but without funds that is purely a labor of love.

What is truly mind-boggling, is that a State like California whose economy depends on smart people inventing cool stuff and selling it to the rest of the world – does not have money for gifted education.  Instead we build more prisons.  Makes sense how??

September 19, 2012

Bicycles

Every year I come back from a summer in Europe to find things changed (and prices for staple foods up).  Last year it was the local Borders bookstore that, along with all others in the nation, was about to close and during its last days of “final final everything must go sale” offered mainly fluffy blankets made of shiny synthetics and left over shelving units.  This year it was the inexplicable disappearance of your local chain Mexican food place which we actually quite liked.  We still find ourselves saying on Sundays “lets go to Baja Fresh” to then add “oh, no.  It’s closed, darn.”  (of course we only say darn because of your son, else stronger language would be used).

Ways to go before Silicon Valley looks anything like this, pic: blog.brothercycles.com

This year I came back to a better change: bike paths have appeared.  Nothing like in Germany or Holland but there are bike paths now.  Along busy 4 lane city streets which are pretty much suicidal to ride on, bike paths that suddenly start and just as suddenly stop leaving you to wonder whether you are supposed to just disappear or have a friend with a car pick you up or what.  But bike paths never the less.  And I have actually seen people ride on them: few and tentatively and quite fearful – understandably.  But it is surprising and good.  This is how it starts.  I don’t expect our silicon Valley suburb to ever look like Amsterdam but every little but helps!

September 15, 2012

Upper Hand

This phrase is read this morning in the newspaper in connection with the current unrests in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.  It is an interesting one, actually quite obvious what it means in the context of most sentences – to have /get /keep /regain the upper hand means to have /get /keep /regain a dominant position, the position of power, the advantage over.

The little guy on the right has the upper hand – at least so far.

The phrase is used widely, in sports a team can have the upper hand over another, in war or in politics one group can have the upper hand over the other and at home mom has the upper hand – at least that is what I tell my son.

The origin of the term seems to go back to a game:  a player grabs a stick with his/her hand the next one puts his hand on top and the first one on top of that and so they go until they reach the end of the stick.  Whoever manages to squeeze in the last hand wins.  Apparently this method was also used – or maybe is -on playgrounds for selection of impromptu baseball teams, the captain who has the upper hand gets to choose the first player for his team from the group of kids wanting to play.