On Being Altruistic vs. Being “American”

A couple weeks ago, I met a friend for lunch who was debating what her next life steps would be. She’s American, having a rough time of it in her life, wondering if she should stay in Germany or move on. And no, there’s no “home” to “go back to.”

I’m not usually one to bash zee Germans … although things are done differently here on this side of the pond than what I am accustomed to from my childhood, I don’t like to think of something as being normal or abnormal. I’m fond of saying Typisch Deutsch and Typisch Ami as a way of getting around the problems of pigeonholing an entire culture based on the actions of some of the people who represent those cultures. Most of the time, I try to keep a sense of humor about it. After all, Germany is my Wahlheimat and it would do no one any good — especially not my daughter who had no choice about having Germany as her home — to hate the place in which I live and bash it because things don’t work as I’d like them to.

That disclaimer in mind, this conversation was not one of bashing but more one that bordered on nostalgia. Friend said, “I just feel like there’s part of me that’s missing when I’m in Germany,” and “There are some parts of my personality that I like that are dying while I’m here.” Lest this sound too melodramatic, she gave me an example that I could fully relate to: the problem of niceties.

For example: a frequent complaint I hear among Americans is that Germans, especially Germen, don’t hold doors open for other people (except train doors, when they see people running to catch the Bahn). I didn’t think much of this until I struggled to get a door open while carrying groceries and pushing a stroller and spilled the food all over the front stairs. Sometimes it’s the little gestures that help make a person’s life easier. And it’s gestures like these that my friend said were failing her, making her day-to-day life less rich. So while life in Germany is okay, it’s not as good as it could be. Not as good as it might be in other places.

I feel this. I really really feel this.

I read an article a few months ago in Brigitte where the author was raving about how wonderful and friendly Americans are and she cited the example of the pay-it-forward coffee movement in Berkeley. Someone at Starbucks paid for her coffee before she’d even bought it. What a lovely gesture, she thought. It made her day so she did the same and before you know it, the entire line had bought each other’s coffees. “Why can’t we be more like this in Germany?” she asked and I nearly lost my shit. Not only because this movement originated in India or Sri Lanka and was adopted by Calis as a form of “karma yoga” but also because have you ever been to Berkeley? Have you seen the way the homeless are treated there? Sure, they’ll buy you a $4 cup of joe but that change the dude out on the streets is begging for is not going to come into his possession anytime soon.

As the bumper stickers say, people in California are fond of these “random acts of kindness.” The problem, however, is one of altruism. What are the intentions behind these gestures? Is it to make someone’s day better? To clear their own conscience? Or to make them look good in front of their peers? Is it the pressure they were feeling because everyone else was doing it? Or was it just meaningless goodwill because really, only one person donated that cup of coffee and everyone else was already planning to be for his or her own and no one wants to be the asshole who says, “Yo, free joe here. Sweeeeeeet.”

I’ll be honest here: I do nice things for people. Sometimes. When I can. And partially this is because I’m altruistic and have good intentions. Partially because I think the kind of place I want to live in is one in which other people help each other. Partially this is because I know how hard it is to be in a place where no one cares about the problems you’re having. And partially because this is how I was raised. If it’s because I’m American, I don’t know. If it’s because of my age or my midwestern upbringing, I’m not sure.

I also do shitty things to people. I can be a real dick. Sometimes. When I want to, and sometimes when I don’t even realize it. Partially this is because my everyday life is tough. Partially this is because I live in a place where no one cares about the problems I’m having. And partially because this is how I was raised.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is intention is everything and although these niceties commonly accepted in the US are missing from our lives in Germany, it’s not necessarily because Germans are “bad” or whatever. That doesn’t make their absence any less difficult for expats to bear but remembering that there are assholes and nice people in every culture is really important to me at the moment for getting through life. And concentrating on the nice ones is the key to well-being. Not paying for somebody’s overpriced coffee. I just wish we could all be a little more altruistic. Doing nice things for the sake of the community and not because it makes us feel good.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m nostalgic for Zizek’s communism — the one in which the Starbucks system, where you can pat yourself on the back for donating 1 cent for every $4 cup of coffee to some poor starving kid in Africa — is replaced by people motivated by a greater love for others than for themselves. Whether that be in Germany or America.


Act Your Age

At the gym a few weeks back, I was chatting about my body with a dancer who very much likes to stand around in the buff and is very proud of the many things her body can do. We were talking about injuries and getting older because goddamned if I don’t keep hurting myself for no good reason and this woman is a decade older and her body is a workhorse.

“Can I just interrupt for a minute to ask how old you are?” said a woman standing nearby.


“Wow. I never would’ve guessed. You have a really amazing body.”

Wait, what? Because 47-year-old women don’t have amazing bodies? How are 47-year-old women supposed to look? Or 38-year-old women? Or 29-year-olds?

Don’t answer that. It’s a trick question. There is seriously no way to respond to that question without revealing your own biases.

Every day I look in the mirror, I think, huh, so this is what 38 looks like. I look at pictures of myself at 18, remembering how much I hated my body and how old I thought I looked and realize, shit, I was young. In ten years, I know I’ll feel the same way. I only look old when I’m doing really shitty mentally and I think that’s true of most people. You look on the outside how you feel on the inside and if you feel 47 is awesome, then your appearance matches that. This dancer has some of the most positive energy of anyone I’ve met and has no plans on stopping anytime soon. She put me in my place regarding aging and injuries. It’s all in your mind.

When I was on Kur this summer, I walked in on a discussion among the other mothers there. Women whose lives were weighing on them pretty heavily and it showed. There was a 41-year-old grandmother there who looked ancient. A 25-year-old who could’ve passed for 40 if she’d wanted. Women who didn’t smile yet whose laugh lines had added years to their faces. Nothing ages you faster than having a kid — and I’m not just talking about the sleepless nights. Anyway, they were discussing the magic foods required to keep them looking young. Flax seeds, said one. Blueberries, said another.

And then I walked in. What do you do to look so young, they asked. They’d seen me running nearly every day. Knew that I ate only vegetarian foods. They already knew I didn’t smoke or drink and so the question felt totally false. Besides, I thought I looked ancient. I’d been bathing in the ocean, had left my make-up at home along with any pants that didn’t have an elastic waist band.

Botox, I laughed. Spritz away the pain, ha ha ha.

They didn’t laugh. They didn’t get it. Most of us don’t.

To quote some silly old rapper from the 80s, age ain’t nothing but a number. And yet.

One of the things I’ve learned since living in Germany is that there are cultural differences in what those numbers mean. In Germany, the average person doesn’t marry until he/she is 31, compared to the US’s mean of 26/27 (which is heavily influenced upward by the coasts — in my Midwestern hometown, everyone was married by 22). The same time I had my daughter, one of my brother’s co-workers had become a granddad at the age of 40. Even my sister’s super slutty best friend got married before she turned 30. There are expectations of the ages at which we do things. And alongside those expectations for actions are expectations for looks.

At 30, you have to hang up your mini-skirt according to Elle USA. By 40, you’d might as well bust out the moomoo (not Miu Miu). When we compare the looks on old episodes of two of my favorite tv shows, Golden Girls and Designing Women, there was a definite desire for women to “look their age,” which after 30 seemed to mean wearing below-the-knee skirts in pastel colors and ugly blouses. But here in Germany, I’ve seen some gray-hairs rocking leather S&M style dresses.

As I’m staring down 40, I’m thinking long and hard about what that’s going to mean for me. Do I look an idiot when I wear a leather jacket (or maybe more importantly, do I embarrass Diva when I do so)? Should I just pack on a couple of pounds instead, embrace the gray hair?

Honestly, I’d prefer looking like Betty White than Wolfgang Joop when I got older. But really, are these the only options? I saw Laura Dern in Wild last week and realized she and I are almost the same age. For most of my life, I’d thought Laura Dern was in her 40s — she always seemed to play older women, or maybe it was her long hair that made her appear older than, say, Naomi Watts — and now that she’s there, all I can think is, wow, 42 can look pretty good. And yet I don’t want to be compared to her, looks-wise. But when I see the 20-year-olds these days, I cringe. They’re babies. Help! What’s a middle-aged woman to do? Just what sort of acting should I be doing to represent my age?

Getting Naked in Germany

No stereotype about the Germs holds more true than that of the Teutonic fondness for nudity. Kids here run around without bathing suits until just before puberty, after which there’s about a five year period where disrobing is done in the locker room without much shame before the teenies discover the strangeness that is singles’ night at the mixed-gender sauna, complete with disco balls and strobe lights, and corporeal shame is left in the locker room with the trousers and pants.

I wish I could say all this nakedness bothers me, because I’m American and Americans believe bodies are evil and wrong to look at (unless we’re paying to do so), but after seven years in Germany, I’m a bit more “to each his own” about it. Don’t get me wrong — I do believe in a time and place for nudity. I’m really not okay with other adults stripping down in the park in full view of everyone just because the sun has shined for the first time in what feels like a decade. I am an expert eye averter but that doesn’t mean I don’t *notice* nudity around me.

Still, I don’t think that when the weather is sweltering it’s such a godawful idea to let the Diva run around in the buff on the balcony. Or to strip down to jump in the lake, even if the bathing suit was left behind in the car.

no nudityIt’s taken me a while to get to this point. The first time I met my friend Ingrid’s parents, they invited us to go swimming at a local hole, hiked us down a little path in the woods, and stripped naked (except, ahem, for the standard black trouser socks and Birkenstocks, which were later left on the lakeshore) before putting their own bathing suits on. My jaw still hadn’t properly shut by the time they’d swum across the lake and back and stripped out of their wet suits and back into their practical summer gear and asked me what my problem was, why I was still standing on the shore in my bathing suit, dry. At that point, I don’t think I’d even seen my own mother naked in decades, and my mother was extremely open, so having to look Ingrid’s parents in the eye after that was impossible.

My membership at a sauna has really worked toward changing that for me, at least in terms of my own acceptance of other people showing off their bodies. Though that’s not putting it correctly, because for Germans, it’s not showing off. It’s getting naked and it doesn’t matter. Just like not a single German I knew was shocked by Bravo magazine (and were shocked, instead, at my shock), no German I know seems to get it when I talk about how weird it is to be sitting side by side with dozens of nude, sweaty people.

You sure won’t see any Germans writing blog posts about how uncomfortable they are with stripping down and doing the sauna thing (even though the SEOs on those posts would jumpstart their blogs). You won’t see me doing it, either, really — Resident on Earth created a nice guide for the newcomers on her blog — as I have become the master at staying as fully dressed as possible in the sauna (hint: wrap an extra-large bath towel under your robe) so I don’t find it uncomfortable at all. At least, not during the hours of 10 and 12 on non-holiday weekdays, which are the only times my ass is sprawled out on a towel (careful not to drip a drop of sweat on the wood) because that’s when the sauna is empty.

I will, however, say this: although I’m still not a fan of running around without clothes on myself, at least not in broad daylight, and you won’t see me playing beach volleyball (or frisbee, whatever) at an FKK campground, I think that being forced to confront every inch of your body — and being faced with every inch of other peoples’ bodies, not airbrushed — has really helped me overcome body issues that growing up American ingrained in me. And I’m doing it now, faking it a bit when I say it’s no big deal that that other kid’s wee-wee is hanging out while they’re splashing in the mud at the playground, because I don’t want the Diva growing up feeling ashamed of her body. I’d much prefer her to be German in that regard. Maybe not stripping down to her black socks in the park at the first sight of sun. But to be proud enough of her very normal body so as to not turn her chest to the wall of lockers, even in a single-gender locker room, is a real plus when it comes to being a woman in the world today.

In California this year, I got my first taste of how well that worked and it was pretty amazing to witness this cultural difference. While Diva stood in the locker room at the swimming pool naked, gnawing on her fruit leather while I changed out of my dripping bathing suit, a family of four girls and their mom all walked in, hid in the corner, and began to discuss why there was a girl without any clothes on. As if seeing a naked toddler was the biggest, worst thing to ever happen to them. Diva, German as she is, remained oblivious to the uproar she was causing to this family by nature of her god-given existence (especially the problems she was causing this mother who simply could not fathom why my daughter did not have her robe wrapped around her body and repeatedly told her kids as much). And so instead of getting all worked up and covering her up as that mom would’ve liked me to have done, I took off my own suit and walked with her through the locker room toward the toilets, leaving the towel behind on the bench. I may not be fully Germanized yet, but I sure am happy to be leaving that American body shaming behind.

Getting Naked for Strangers, aka, A Running Injury Is Making Me Insane

In case you haven’t been following the drama on Facebook or Twitter (and if not, why not?!? Be my fan! I’m way funnier in fewer words…), I hurt myself pretty badly while running recently, which means I’m getting to know the German healthcare system pretty intimately. I mean, if I’m going to fork over 70,000 goddamned Euros for insurance, I might as well use it, right?

To be clear: I still don’t know how I hurt myself. My self-diagnosis is that I am old and was stupid for thinking I could both run a 5k and go snowboarding in the same day and my body is just reminding me of my age by refusing to work. My doctor is insisting that I tore my quadricep and will feel better in 3-5 days with a healthy daily mixture of ibuprofen and exercise.

It started two weeks ago in Tahoe when I ridiculously decided to run the lakefront right after a snowstorm. I had just been snowboarding and though I didn’t injure myself, there is something to be said about jumping off cliffs into rocky crevices and landing on a slope with a 75 degree incline. (What’s to be said: Weeeeee! Then: Fuuuuucccck! Then: Ouchhhh!)

I may have overdone it that day by going for a run, too, but since I was about to have two mandatory rest days because of travel, I did it. I noticed a niggling in my knee, but that had become common, especially after running on an ice pack, where, I read later, you change your gait significantly to avoid slippage. Instead, at the time, I attributed the pain to lost fitness by not running as often or as far in the altitude.

Then I flew home, still paying attention to the pain, and decided to do a spinning class instead of run. When I finally ran about four days later, I noticed the pain at first, diminishing as the 7k run went longer, then flaming up so badly afterward, I couldn’t walk. Did weights the following day, careful to not do anything that would injure my knee but didn’t notice any pain except when I went from sitting to standing or when I tried to run.

Finally, after resting for four more days, I tried to run and felt such immense pain, I started to cry. So… off to the doctor. Here’s the fun part:

I got to the first doctor, who, after I took off my pants, asked me if I was an athlete. When I grinned and said, yep, I’m a runner, she replied, “Oh that’s strange. I thought you might be a kickboxer with all those bruises on your leg. Are you sure you didn’t get beat up? Or fall down?”

Nope. Normal wear and tear (jet lag is a lot like insomnia – I run into shit and have no idea because I’m so overtired).

Got referred to a sports doctor, who, immediately after I walked into his office, said, “Hey, I’ve got a kid from the local high school here who wants to be a doctor and is shadowing me for his career training week. Is it okay if he sits in on the visit?”

Yeah sure, why not? I said, forgetting that in Germany, the next sentence is:

“Take off your pants, please.”

Thing about Germany is, there are no paper gowns and no curtains to step behind.

I don’t think I turned red but the 14-year-old boy sure did.

And of course, as with any time I take off my clothes in front of strangers, I start the litany of questions in my head: When did I last shave? What underwear do I have on? Should I keep my socks on? I held my tongue and didn’t crack any of the stupid jokes I used to do when I first arrived and just took off my clothes like it was just another fun old thing to do.

And then I realized, oh fuck, I may still not have fully Germanized. I may have walked down the hall of the labor and delivery ward naked and bloody, but this, this nudity in front of a kid is too much for me. If there were a blanket, I would’ve tried to cover my ass up but as it were, there was only that thin paper sheet on the examination table.

Poor kid, I don’t think he expected his first in-real-life glimpse of a woman’s bottom to look anything like mine, with cellulite and bruises and old cotton underwear. I hope for his sake, actually, that it wasn’t his first glimpse, but with the distance he kept, I think it was.

I’ll spare you the details of what happened next, but let’s just say, I never expected to be lying down with my pants off, legs in the air, writhing around and gasping while an adolescent looked on. I’m trying to be adult about it and pretend this is just “normal” human behavior but I’m not that German yet. It is fucking embarrassing to be naked with complete strangers.

Even more embarrassing was when another doctor had to come into the office to check me out and they concurred that there really wasn’t anything wrong with me and that, you know, runners get injured all the time and I should just wait it out.

So that’s what I’m doing. Keeping my pants on and getting, as my spinning instructor noted yesterday, a little aggressive from not running. Which I suppose is better for me, given that all the snow on the ground means I shouldn’t be running outside anyway. But I’m going to need a punching bag pretty soon if this moratorium on running keeps up. And I’m afraid, if it gets to be too much longer, this dimply middle-aged bottom is not going to be seen by anyone, doctors included.