Posts tagged ‘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 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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July 17, 2015

Especially devious false friends

My husband pointed out a particularly devious pair of false friends for the German speaking crowd out there to me the other day and so I decided to write a quick blog about it.  The culprits are:

Pathetic (engl.)

Pathetisch (d.)

Let’s tackle pathetic first.  The word has two meanings, both not particularly pleasant.  The first basically means “in such a bad state that it arouses pity”.  An example would be “the poor abandoned dog looked pathetic, I had to adopt him”.  Synonyms would be pitiable, heart-breaking, distressing.

The second, and probably more common usage means “miserably, completely inadequate”.  Examples would be “his performance was absolutely pathetic. It was a disgrace” or me to my son “a B in math is pathetic, you shouldn’t ever have a grade worse than an A-.” (I am not crazy, the boy is a math whiz and anything worse than an A- indicates laziness, not lack of understanding).

Let’s turn our attention to “pathetisch” – it means passionate, maybe a bit too much so, solemn, declamatory.    The word can have a negative connotation and indicate that the speaker is totally overdoing it, might be showing off , use overblown or sententious language.  What it does not mean is paltry, miserable, abject, pitiable.

So one needs to be careful here.  Though a “pathetischer” talk can be annoying and too much it is a far cry from pathetic.

Another devious pair is sensible (eng.) and sensibel (d.).

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

It is sensible to wear sunscreen, esp. if you have sensitive skin.

The English sensible means rational, practical, prudent and is used in sentences such as “She is wearing boots for the hike, that is very sensible” or “Although I really would like you to participate in the meeting it is sensible to stay home if you are sick.”

The German “sensibel” on the other hand means “sensitive” in English.  It is used for example when talking about people “eine sensible Person” is a sensitive person not a sensible person. The word is,  particularly devious in German as it is spelled “sensibel” in some cases (das Kind ist sensibel – the child is sensitive) but takes the English looking version “sensible” although pronounced quite differently, if used as an adjective in certain cases “das sensible Kind weint” (the sensitive child is crying”).

So you can see who a prudent, rational person can quickly become a sensitive one if Germans are involved.

 

 

 

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.

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 13, 2012

Moral High Ground

pic: wrongcards.com

“Taking the moral high ground” is an expression you might hear used in discussions about controversial topics where ethics/morals play a role.  I realize that a discussion about different baseball teams or the advantages of certain cars over others can be controversial as well, but the opportunity to take/claim/seize the morale high ground are less abundant in these situations.

The clearest definition I found (and I found a bunch of confusing ones) is the following: The moral high ground, in ethical or political parlance, refers to the status of being respected for remaining moral, and adhering to and upholding a universally recognized standard of justice or goodness.”

And that, I might add, despite the fact that this position might not be the most personally advantageous one could possibly take.  The phrase implies a critique of other, less moral positions and a person who takes the moral high ground may come across as a bit of a snob.

I was looking for an example and only found ones pertaining to politics, seems that field is ripe with moral high ground but remains in dire need for it.  So here is one:

“Under the leadership of President Bush and Vice president Cheney, the United States has given up the moral high ground that we used to occupy as an international leader.” Marty Meehan 

September 11, 2012

Dirty words

dirty words, no longer just the usual suspects and now featuring what used to be honorable words like government and liberal, pic: http://new.exchristian.net/2011/09/dirty-words.html

In 1972 the comedian George Carlin defined seven “dirty words” – offensive or indecent words – that could not be used on TV.  To this day most of the words on Carlin’s original list remain taboo on American television and are bleeped out should they happen to escape somebody.

What these seven words are I leave up to your imagination or the power of a Google search or – as a shortcut – the clicking on the following link.

If that was it, this wouldn’t be much of a post but things have become a little more complicated as new “dirty words” in the second sense of the word – namely ” things regarded with dislike or disapproval” – are added all the time.  Good old terms like “government” and “liberal come to mind.  I thought of this as a rather recent development but at least for liberal I found an article complaining about this 10 years ago (here).  It is still quite unclear to me how liberals could let that happen, especially considering the definition (type define Liberal into Google) “Open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.” – who wouldn’t want to be that?  And who would want to be the opposite (that would be conservative then): “closed to new behavior or opinions and unwilling to let go of traditional values”.

Government as a dirty word goes even further back, it has it roots in the 60s but the person who made this way of thinking popular was Ronald Reagan in the 80s.  Here is a NPR article about this topic.

The worst of all dirty words appears to be atheist.  But that is a long story and deserves a separate blog post.