Thursday, September 23, 2010

Big cucumbers, small carrots

I feel like I'm looking at Germany through Japanese eyes. All the things that strike me as odd or awesome about Bonn are simply a collection of the things that clash with Kyoto.

Japan, not Canada, is the measuring stick against which I judge Germany.

When I moved to Japan, I remember being shocked by the size of the vegetables. The cucumbers were tiny and the carrots were huge. But I got used to it eventually. Tiny cucumbers and huge carrots became the new normal.

Two years later, I moved to Germany and found myself dealing with vegetable shock all over again. Only this time the cucumbers were huge and the carrots were tiny. Walking into a grocery store in Bonn was like walking into an alternate universe. The cucumbers weren't just big, they were obscenely big. Each one was longer than my forearm and thicker than a baguette.

I felt dizzy, as though the ground had suddenly shifted beneath my feet. Were cucumbers always this big? Had I become so accustomed to living in Japan that I had forgotten what cucumbers in the rest of the world were like? What was really real? And why do my existential crises always take place in grocery stores?

I've had a few other mildly discombobulating moments in Bonn. Like when my landlady Christine invited me into her apartment and insisted I keep my shoes on. Keep my shoes on? Inside the apartment? It felt wrong and dirty. Taking my shoes off in Japan is no longer just a custom I follow to be polite; it has become an ingrained habit. I actually flinch when I watch movies and see characters walking around indoors with their shoes on.

There are other things about Germany that I probably wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't come here directly from Japan. Like the bread, for example. I always thought the bread in Japan was terrible, I just didn't realize how awful it was until I arrived in Bonn. Japanese bread tastes like ground chicken feathers sealed in waxed paper compared to German bread.

The bread here is melt-in-your mouth good. It is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The butter tastes the way butter is supposed to taste -- rich, creamy, and smooth. And when you spread that butter on a freshly baked bun, the deliciousness of it all is enough to make your head explode.

Don't even get me started on the cheese. Cheese is non-existent in Japan and omnipresent in Germany. It's not all good, though. I bought some firm, yellowish cheese that looked tasty until I got home and opened it up. Its vile stench (a fragrant bouquet of hot vomit mixed with dirty socks and dead rats) made it impossible to eat without gagging.

And while we're on the topic of food, I might as well bring up one of the biggest cultural differences of all -- cafeteria food. The Kyoto University cafeteria and the UN cafeteria are like night and day. As far as I can tell, I am one of the only people who actually like the UN cafeteria. Most people prefer to either pack a lunch and eat at their desks or leave the compound in search of more palatable options. The general consensus is that the cafeteria food is too spicy, too heavy, and has too much sauce.

Which is exactly what I like about it. I've been eating lunch at the Kyoto University cafeteria for the past two years, and the food is never spicy, saucy, or heavy. Japanese food is great but a girl can only take so much cold fish, white rice, and miso soup.

My enthusiasm for the spicy, saucy cafeteria food is causing a few raised eyebrows. I ran into one coworker on my way back from the cafeteria the other day and she asked me how my lunch was.

"Delicious!" I told her.

She eyed me suspiciously.

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Two weeks," I said.

"Just wait," she laughed. "Your opinion will change."

I hope she's right. All of this gorging on heavy food is making it tough to fit into my jeans. But I don't feel bad about gaining a few pounds in a place where the vast majority of the population is tall and strapping. I could gain 10 pounds here and still be small by comparison. It's a nice change from Japan, where so many women are slaves to an unhealthy standard of skinniness. I feel like a sasquatch in Japan. Especially when shopping for clothes. Shoes stop at size 8 and pants stop at your ankles -- if you're lucky enough to get them up past your butt and hips in the first place. One of the first things I did in Bonn was buy a pair of pants. Hooray for Western sizes!

Of course, not all of the differences are positive. Public transit is so good in Japan that public transit anywhere else is insufferably bad by comparison. No one does public transit like Japan. It's fast, efficient, convenient, and reliable. There isn't a single corner of the country you can't get to by public transit, and you can guarantee the white-gloved driver will get you there on time. If a train is scheduled to arrive at 12:32 p.m. it will arrive at exactly 12:32 p.m. Bus drivers treat you with respect and courtesy. They'll go out of their way to help you and throw in a bow or two (or 10) while doing it. After all, you are the customer and the customer is king in Japan.

Not so much in Germany. I have taken the bus three times in Bonn. The first time the bus driver screamed at me after I didn't pay my fare properly. The second time the bus was 15 minutes late. The third time the bus was one hour late. There has not, and never will be, a fourth time. Walking is faster and less stressful.

Besides, walking gives me time to reflect on all the things that are odd or awesome about Bonn, and how incredibly lucky I am to be here.

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