Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Living in Germany: The good, the bad and the weird

Cyclists in Bonn get their own little traffic lights. How cute is that?

There are many things about living in Germany that strike me as weird or wonderful. Here are a few of them.

Naked swimming
Public swimming pools in Bonn are pretty much like public swimming pools in the rest of the world. Except that public swimming pools in Bonn have naked days. The first Sunday of every month is known as Adam and Eve day and wearing a swimsuit is not an option. Go nude or go home.

Panic shopping on Saturday evening
Nothing is open in Bonn on Sunday. All of the shops and all of the supermarkets shut down on Saturday evening and don't open again until Monday morning. So every Saturday evening, just before the stores close, a mad rush of people charge into the supermarkets to stock up on food and drinks for the rest of the weekend. Most supermarkets only have three check-out counters so the lines are long and the aisles are crowded and if you don't get there early enough all of the fresh stuff is long gone by 7 p.m.

White asparagus. What's the point?
White asparagus is mysteriously popular in Germany. When it's in season, grocery stores, restaurants and markets are bursting at the seams with white asparagus. Green asparagus is nowhere to be found. I have no idea why white asparagus is so popular and green asparagus so elusive. White asparagus doesn't taste as good as green asparagus and it's less nutritious (white asparagus is grown under thick mulch. Deprived of sunlight, it can't produce chlorophyll, which is why it is white not green).

Padded coffee
Just like white asparagus, coffee pads are mysteriously popular in Germany. Germans class up their coffee by putting in into a pad and selling a machine whose sole purpose is to brew said pad. I had never heard of coffee pads until I moved to Germany. My apartment came with a coffee-pad machine and my German landlord (a huge, raving fan of coffee pads) taught me how to use it, telling me I'd never go back to freshly ground coffee again. Coffee pads aren't as delicious as fresh coffee but they get the job done quickly and the coffee isn't as bad as you'd think it would be.

Brewing up some coffee pads in my funky coffee-pad machine

Waiting for the little green man
Jaywalking is verboten. People wait for the lights to change, even in the middle of the night with no cars around for miles. If you must jaywalk, make sure there is no one watching you. Otherwise, prepare to get a nasty look or publicly scolded in German. Which, based on personal experience, is way scarier than getting yelled at in English.

Clarity-frei street signs
I don't understand this sign. What does "frei" mean? Does it mean you can bike freely down this street even though it's a one-way street? Or does it mean this street is free of bikes because it's a one-way street? Adding to my confusion is the fact that I got scolded (twice) by a police officer for riding my bike the wrong way down a one-way street. The street in question wasn't marked with a bike-frei sign, which I had originally interpreted to mean no biking (like lactose-frei milk, I assumed the "frei" in bike frei meant "without"). So I figured cyclists were free to ride down any street without a bike-frei sign. But now that I've gotten into trouble with the law for riding freely down a street without a bike-frei sign, I'm having second thoughts. Now I'm starting to think bike frei means to bike freely in any direction. But I'm still not sure. Feel "frei" to clarify in the comments section.

Free of bikes or bike freely? Your guess is as good as mine

Cheese overload
I am officially sick of cheese. I don't want to eat it. I don't want to smell it. I don't want to see it. Even writing about it is making me feel queasy. Eating out in Germany usually means ordering something baked with cheese, covered with cheese, sprinkled with cheese or carved out of cheese. What's with all the cheese? (The bread, on the other hand remains melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I will never get sick of German bread.)

Tap water is taboo
I have never seen so many people guzzle so much sparkling water in my life. Forget beer. Sparking water and Apfelschorle are what everyone really drinks here. If you order water at a restaurant, the waiter will ask if you want sparkling or flat. Flat water does not mean tap water, it means bottled water that isn't bubbly. Don't even bother asking for tap water. No one drinks it, no one orders it and the waiter will probably fight you on it. It's not worth the hassle.

The multi-person beer-drinking bicycle-riding machine
I don't know what the German word is for this contraption. Let's just call it the multi-person beer-drinking bicycle-riding machine. These things are all over the road in Dusseldorf and Berlin. As far as I can tell, a driver (presumably sober but who knows?) steers the thing through traffic while everyone else drinks beer and pedals. It's just like drinking at a bar but with way more people checking you out. (It's illegal for me to ride my bike the wrong way down a one-way street but it's legal for these guys to block traffic with their giant, boozy, 10-seater bicycle?)

Calorie-neutral drinking

Telling time the old-fashioned way
I live across the street from a church that rings its bells four times an hour. They ring on the hour and they ring at a quarter past. They ring on the half-hour mark and again at a quarter to. Sometimes all the bells ring at once in a loud, clanging frenzy for several minutes straight. This happens absurdly early on Sunday morning and carries on most of the afternoon. Is all of this bell ringing really necessary? What's the point? Especially the time-telling function. Is there anyone out there who actually relies on church bells to know what time it is?

Thirty-one flavours of yogurt
Germany has more flavours of yogurt than ice cream. They have the usual flavours, like blueberry, strawberry and mixed berry. But they also have funky flavours, like pear chunks and chocolate flakes, mixed grains, coconut and figs. If you can think of a flavour, there's a yogurt for that.

Huge pillows
Why are the pillows so big? Germans don't have extra-big heads so why do they need extra-big pillows that take up one-third of the bed? These aren't decorative pillows. These are the pillows you're supposed to lay your head on when you go to sleep.

A Canadian-sized pillow on top of a German-sized pillow

Doners: not just a snack after binge drinking
There are doner shops everywhere in Germany. In Canada, I've only seen people eating doners on the street at 3 a.m. after stumbling out of a bar. Here, people eat them for lunch and dinner while sober.

Sidewalk rage is the new road rage
It's not easy being a pedestrian in Bonn. Especially when the sidewalks are overrun with cars. The roads are narrow and the sidewalks are wide, which probably explains why it is perfectly legal for drivers to park their cars all over the sidewalk. This is great for drivers but not so great for the pedestrians and cyclists who have to maneuver around these monstrosities. Cars and sidewalks go together like alcohol and rollercoasters.

Kind of like plaque constricting the flow of blood through an artery

Doors that lock automatically
Here's a lesson I learned the hard way: apartment doors lock automatically when you close them. I'm not talking about the front door of the building but the door to each individual apartment (like a hotel room). This is something the landlord doesn't tell you. Why would he? Everybody knows the doors lock automatically. Except for those of us who come from countries where the doors only lock if you put the key in the hole and turn the deadbolt yourself. Anyway, I found out the door locked automatically when I closed it with my keys still inside the apartment. It was bad enough that I locked myself out, it was even worse that it happened on a long weekend when my landlord was on vacation in the south of France. (It took a few hours but I managed to reach my landlord, who then coerced an intern to go to his office, get his spare key and drive out to my apartment and unlock the door. I have been paranoid about locking myself out ever since.)

Trains that run on time? Not in Germany
Contrary to popular belief, trains in Germany do not run on time all the time. They run on time maybe half the time. The other half of the time, the trains are delayed anywhere from five to 45 minutes (or cancelled altogether). I'm not sure why Germany has a reputation for fast and efficient public transit. 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.

Vibrator vending machines
Vending machines that sell tampons and condoms in public washrooms are par for the course. But in Germany, the washroom vending machines go one step further by adding vibrators to the menu. I wonder what they sell in the men's room?

Everything you need for a fun night out

Sunday, October 14, 2012

My morning commute

As someone who has never owned a car, the distance between work and home has always been my biggest priority when hunting for an apartment. The commute is the deal-breaker or the deal-maker.

I need to live in a place where I can walk to work. Walking to where I need to go is something I've done since childhood. I walked to elementary school. I walked to high school. I walked to university. And I walked to every job I've ever had since then. The reason is as simple as the act of walking itself: it makes me feel good.

Walking helps me wake up before I get to work and decompress before I get home. It gives me time to think about things or to turn off my brain and not think about anything at all. It's a way to lighten my footprint on the planet. And it's a guarantee that, no matter how busy I am or how late I have to stay at the office, I will get a little bit of exercise every single day.

Ideally, it should take me somewhere between 45 minutes and one hour to walk to work. Less than 45 minutes and it's too short. More than one hour and it's too long. The commute should also contain a good amount of beauty, something to make me feel inspired on a daily basis. The length of the commute is important but so too is the scenery along the way. The fewer busy roads the better.

That's how I picked my apartment here in Bonn. I looked at a dozen different apartments before settling on one. It wasn't the nicest apartment of the bunch. But it had the best commute. It takes about one hour to walk to work and I can get there several ways. I can walk along the Rhine River. I can walk through the park. Or I can walk along quiet side streets.

I can't imagine living in the suburbs and sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two hours each day. I couldn't do it. I also can't imagine living in a country where it's extremely dangerous for women to walk alone at night. I'm lucky to be free and healthy enough to choose a car-free lifestyle and it's something I try not to take for granted. So I walk because I can.

I always keep my camera in my backpack just in case there is something worth photographing. These are some of my favourite photos from my commute to work in Bonn.

Sunrise on the Rhine River in winter

Early morning on the Rhine River in summer

Fall fog in the Rhine park

As it gets cooler the morning walks get foggier

Lone tree in the fog

Winter in the Rhine park close to the office

Boat in the fog

Cherry blossoms this spring in the Rhine park

Sunset on my way home last Friday

View of the Japanese garden on my way home

Short cut through the train station to avoid waiting at the lights

Down and up

Waiting for the train to go by before crossing the tracks

My neighbourhood

The corner near where I live (for now)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

George Stroumboulopoulos and his distractingly tight pants

Every fall, a new season of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight begins. And with each new season comes big changes -- name changes, time changes, studio changes, channel changes -- but no changes have been as radical as the ones introduced this fall.

The length of the show has been chopped in half, the studio has been completely redesigned, the time slot has been moved to primetime, the news segment is out and a new three-person comedy panel is in. Also, George now wears skinny jeans that are distractingly tight in the crotch region (not that I'm complaining).

Here's how George explains the new format: "We used to go to bed together. Now we're having dinner together -- and maybe just that."

Cutting the show to 30 minutes and moving it from 11 p.m. to primetime may be good for ratings but it's bad for those of us who liked the freedom late-night television gave George to be George. Gone from the primetime show are George's musings on religion, politics and the environment. George was always impartial but he was never neutral. You never knew what party he voted for but you always knew what issues he cared about. His show was often a platform for his activism (he's an ambassador for the United Nations World Food Programme and he's traveled to the Arctic for a special on literacy, youth culture, and the loss of Inuit identity. He's been to Sudan with War Child Canada, and to Zambia for a World AIDS Day documentary. He sponsored the One Million Acts of Green challenge and he's a member of the David Suzuki Foundation's board of directors).

I miss the anti-religious, anti-consumerist and anti-authoritarian undertones of the old format. The only good thing about cutting the show in half is that it gives George less time to talk about hockey. I hate hockey.

But 30 minutes isn't enough time to let George do what he does best -- the long-form interview. George is a master of the long-form interview. He is sincere, interested, informed and intelligent. As a result, his subjects respect him. His interviews often feel more like conversations. He knows how to draw stories out of actors, directors, writers, musicians, athletes, activists and politicians. He's done the research and knows what he's talking about. He takes his time when asking a question. And, more importantly, he listens to what the other person is saying. He doesn't read scripted notes. He doesn't fawn. He isn't fake. He leans forward and draws people in with his natural charm and those big, brown liquidy eyes. He’s not just a good interviewer, he's an award-winning interviewer (as his collection of Geminis attests).

The CBC is making a big deal about moving the show to 7 p.m. But is this really a big deal? Do people still watch TV shows on television? I haven't watched TV shows on television since 2006. The beauty of watching George's show online is that I can watch it when it's convenient for me. So I can watch him when I eat breakfast or when I come home from work. Or I can just curl up on the couch and watch an entire week's worth of episodes back-to-back on Saturday afternoon. I suspect that most of his audience watches the show the same way, so why not keep it in the 11 p.m. timeslot?

Perhaps the move to primetime is a recognition by the CBC that George is one of its biggest stars. But what made him a star are all of the things you can't do in primetime. This is why Canadians like him. We sense he is genuine, deep and intelligent. If we want shallow and superficial, we'll watch CNN. The CBC is a public broadcaster. It should not be overly concerned about numbers and ratings and making money. Sure the CBC might get higher ratings by moving the show to primetime but at what cost? Is it worth getting more viewers if you have to sacrifice quality and depth? But there's no way to talk about this without talking about government funding and budget cuts and that's a post better left for another day.

As for the new set, I'm still getting used to it. It's too slick. Too bright. Too corporate. It's a beautifully designed set for a morning show. But not for George. The show's old set was always dark with lots of black. And I think this darkness contributed to the success of his interviews. It set a mood that helped people open up. The mood was serious and somber, a perfect setting for probing questions. The new studio doesn't match the mood that George tries to set in his interviews. It's too light, bright and airy. Of course, not all of George's interviews are serious. He's a funny guy and maybe he wants to inject more humour into the show. A lighter, brighter set better reflects this new direction.

The biggest change this season is the introduction of the three-person comedy panel. The panel takes up the last 10 minutes of each show and features two permanent panelists (comedian Ali Hassan and actress Naomi Snieckus) and one rotating guest panelist (filled by various celebrities but best when filled by the funny ones like Andrea Martin and Colin Mochrie). The panel riffs on random topics while George facilitates. Ali and Naomi are clever and funny. The panel is a good idea but it would be better to have it once a week rather than every night. Turning it into a weekly segment would keep it fresh and fun.

Anyway, I'm happy to see the show is still on the air. Nine seasons is an impressive run for a Canadian talk show. George just keeps getting better (and hotter) as he gets older. I just wish the CBC would recognize that George is one of their best interviewers and give him the time and space to do long interviews.

The new show is good. But I prefer the hour-long, late-night format.

Me and George outside CBC headquarters in Toronto this summer

Just for fun, here are a few of my previous posts about George Stroumboulopoulos:

We love George

George goes to America

Four hours with George Stroumboulopoulos

George Stroumboulopoulos: Canadian sex symbol 

An hour with George Stroumboulopoulos