My Experience as an American Volunteering in Heidelberg

I recently submitted a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, the Rhein-Neckar Zeitung, detailing my various failed attempts at volunteering for charities in Heidelberg. Shortly after, I received an email from the editor, in which he suggested we turn the letter into a full article, for which he would interview me. I obliged. The letter appeared a few days later in the paper, as well as online.  Unfortunately, and yet somewhat expected, the article paints a different picture than that which I meant to convey. Surprisingly, the many of the comments that the article received were negative: Either I did not try hard enough to volunteer, or I had no skills to offer the charities, etc, or other ad hoc fallacies based on pure speculation.  In light of this, I decided to write about my experiences in detail, as well as what I meant to convey in my original letter to the editor.

The Story

Shortly after moving to Heidelberg, Germany, my girlfriend, Julia,  and I decided we wanted to volunteer in our free time. This was in 2014, before the so-called “refugee crisis”, but there were still many refugees in Germany at that point in time. I often think about how I can maximize my “good” output, and decided that helping refugees, especially children, with their integration into Germany society would be among the most effective uses of my time. 1)I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.

Julia and I went to the Asylarbeitskreis, an organization that helps refugees and explained we would help in any capacity we could, but that specifically we could be helpful in teaching children German or English, helping them with their school work, or providing after school supervision. If that was not available, we could do something else, too. The woman at the office said it sounded great, and she would contact us in a few days. Much to our surprise, we received an email a few days later saying that there was room for our (free!) help.

I went to next to Obdach e.V., a local homeless organization. Homelessness has always been a social problem that I could not wrap my head around. How could it be that in super rich societies like the United States and Germany that such a problem could exist? In Heidelberg, there are many homeless people, who are on the street every single day. There is one man with one leg who drags himself up and down the street with his hands for more than a full work day of hours and asks for change. I wanted to investigate how this could be and to help tackle this problem, so, I offered my services. I was accepted, although I was told they had no need at the time. I could visit a man who was in social housing and keep him company, if I wanted. I was not excited by the idea, as I thought I could have a much bigger effect, but I said yes. I was warned many times that the man was very strange and could not speak clearly, and I was told she understood if I did not want to meet him again. When I met with the man, it was even worse than she said: the man was drunk, smelled like it, could not speak clearly at all, repeated himself, and after our meeting called me 70 times in a row. I told the woman at Obdach that I did not want to meet him again and she understood.

After this, I did some small jobs, like helping to renovate an apartment for a man who lived in the high rent section of the city. He had lived there for 20 years and had smoked the walls yellow, so it was time to repaint them. Everything needed to be taken down and furniture needed to be cleaned and moved. I asked myself how this man was classified as homeless and what exactly I was doing there. It seemed like I got shoved into random jobs that were at best loosely related to the topic of homelessness, and that at most I was having an extremely tiny impact.

With these thoughts, I proposed that I write an article for the local homeless newspaper that Obdach put out four times a year, thinking this might have a larger impact and support homelessness more generally. The responsible party at the organization thought it was a good idea, and seemed excited about the topic, which argued to make the local library services free in Heidelberg, since the homeless have less access to culture if they have to pay for all of the good literature. I wrote the article and submitted it. I was promised it would appear in the next issue of the paper and that I would receive a copy. Months passed, and I received no other jobs to do, and was not notified that the article was in the paper.  I sent many unanswered messages and was eventually told that the editor of the paper was stubborn and did not want to publish the article. It was clear there was frustration between the woman with whom I spoke and the editor of the paper. I emailed the editor multiple times and received no response. Persistent and frustrated, I continued to email. Eventually, I received an email saying that he never got the article and asked me to send it again, which I did. He promised me it would appear in the next issue. Again, months went by and no article appeared. I wrote him again and received no answers. Like the previous time, I continued to email, not accepting silence. Eventually, I was told that they would no longer be printing the paper, so the article would never appear.

While this was going on, I also proactively asked if there was anything I could do for the website of the organization, and again my offer was accepted. I met with the man responsible for maintaining it, and we had a meeting about what needed to be done and made a plan. I was going to the United States to visit my family for a month, so we would start when I got back. We planned a meeting for my return. When I came to the second meeting, I was told that the site had already been redone – the work had been contracted out. After this and the other experiences, I had been with the organization for more than a year and had accomplished almost nothing. I decided I was done with Obdach e.V2)While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.

By this time, the refugee crisis was in full force. Thousands were sent to Heidelberg, as we have a large, newly-empty US Army base where they can seek refuge. What better time to contact the Asylarbeitskreis and offer again to help out? I never received a response from them. I also read online and heard from others that they were at capacity and could not make use of any extra effort.

I went to der Paritätische Forum, a group that helps interested volunteers find matches, and asked what I could do. I met with a woman who asked me about my interests, and we then proceeded to examine different charities and organizations to find potential matches.This was very efficient and a breath of fresh air after the slow, ineffective experiences I had previously dealt with. With the contact information of five or so organizations, I left the building re-energized and positive about the prospects. I contacted all five organizations and explained who I was, how I got their information, and how I thought I could help. The first said there were no opportunities. From the rest, I received no replies. I decided to give up.

About four months later, I received an email from one of the organizations, HD Ink, apologizing for it having taken so long. Would I like to come to a meeting with the other prospective helpers and learn about the organization and get the ball rolling? Sure. I went to the meeting: we tossed a ball around for 30 minutes and learned each other’s names. Then we had to make claims about each other’s personalities just based upon appearance to show how stereotypes are not always correct. We also were told to ask questions about how the organization functions, to see if our expectations matched the reality. It was all intended to be a fun ice-breaker. We filled out paperwork saying when we could start working, how many hours a week, what our skills were, etc. The organizer was happy with my application. I asked when we started, and she said something like “well, Easter is in a couple weeks, so we will start after that.”, almost implying that in two weeks time nothing could get done. Will it surprise you at this point, dear reader, to find out that I have received no message from them, months after Easter?

This time I really gave up and decided to write the letter to the editor of the newpaper, figuring that shining a light on this apparent problem might be the most effective thing I could do and also not having the energy to search for more institutions. Shouldn’t volunteering be easier than a job search?

Lessons Learned?

Summing up my experiences, I believe I have learned a few things. If not concretely, then at least I have some suspicions, which could be more deeply investigated. I do not know which apply to just the charities I contacted, which apply to Heidelberg, and which to Germany in general. Obviously I have a relatively small sample size, so take it for what it is worth:

  • The majority of people I was in contact with did not seem very motivated to do their jobs efficiently. Things moved slowly. Emails went unanswered. On that point:
  • Emailing probably is not the best method of reaching an institution, at least in Germany. I usually prefer it because I can express myself more clearly in German when I write in advance, but in hindsight I think I should have just knocked on the doors of the various charities.
  • There seems to be a crazy imbalance in the way jobs function in Germany, and the employer has the advantage. Most German students I have talked to have done multiple unpaid internships and often struggle even to get those. I know others who, despite having master’s degrees, have all but given up getting a normal paid position and are looking instead for “traineeships”, which are another source of cheap labor from the highly educated. But this is a broader point which I may expand in another post. This seems to extend to the charity sector, which is why I mention it here. In the US, whenever I have volunteered I have been accepted immediately and have done meaningful work.
  • Charities here do not seem to have the ability to “think outside of the box”. This may be due to legal considerations or may be simply the “we’ve always done things this way” sickness. Many people, including the head of der Paritätische Forum, the newspaper editor, and many others have told me that the problem is at the administrative level. The organizations do have a need, but they do not have the administrative resources to manage the volunteers. If this is the case, why not either: 1)let the volunteers do administrative work that is easy to delegate or 2) give out work that does not require much overhead? It seems like most people I came in contact with expected to pigeon-hole me into a role that already existed within the organization, instead of allowing me to do something new. If all of the roles were filled, well, then they did not need any more help. At a higher level, it is easy to see that a lot of help is needed with the refugee issue, for example. I have an friend in the US who recently went to the mayor of a city and asked if he could volunteer and help out. The mayor gave him a job and now he sits in on meetings and helps organize events to help promote the city. This seems unthinkable in Germany, and other Germans have echoed this opinion.
  • People’s interpretation of a situation conform to their pre-existing biases. This is probably the most frustrating observation of all, and something I plan to expand into its own post. As I stated in the beginning of this post, many people were critical of the article about the situation that was in the newspaper, saying that I must have been the problem. Maybe part of it is my problem. I do not mean to make the claim that I tried every day for two years to volunteer and it never worked out. I just wanted to make the claim that it is more difficult to volunteer than it should be, and that I probably was not alone with such problems.3)And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it. Regardless, many people do not want to take a look at themselves or their society and make a change. If they had read an article about a land far, far away, they would have overwhelmingly agreed that the system in Land X was dysfunctional and urgently needed changing. But when the article is closer to home, there cannot be a problem. It must have been my fault, since I, in this case, am the aspect “furthest thing away.” How can dysfunctional systems change under such a structure of thought?
  • Due to these experiences, I have thought about developing a website where people with a social need could be matched with volunteers, to avoid the problems which I’ve outlined. As an example, a refugee using the site could get matched with a person who could help them learn German, with their daily visits to government agencies, or what have you. The match would have nothing to do with an organization, and could be efficient, and content agnostic, meaning any need could be fulfilled by a willing volunteer. This would save the volunteer from finding an appropriate organization, signing non-disclosure agreements, waiting on emails, etc. Maybe such a site already exists. If you know of one, let me know.

Julia and I are moving to Berlin in a few months and I have a feeling things will be somewhat different there, or at least I hope it. Either way, I will eventually write about my experiences here. If you have any comments, I would be interested to hear from you.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I think the most effective cause, to which one can contribute, is vegetarianism/veganism. There are many reasons for this: 1) Billions of animals are killed each year, most under terrible conditions. Since we know many of the animals we are talking about feel pain and enjoy experiences as we do, and that we do not need meat to survive, this is morally wrong and unjustifiable. 2) It takes more resources to feed animals than we get from the animal itself, contributing to hunger issues as well as water issues, since more water is required as well. 3) Meat production contributes more to global warming than cars do, so cutting down on meat would have a sizable, positive impact on one of the world’s other largest problems. I plan to discuss this issue in more depth in another post.
2. While all this was going on, I volunteered for the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, but only ended up getting called every Halloween and Easter to help run parties for kids. Something good, I suppose, but not really effective.
3. And it appears I am not the only one. I was contacted by a man who read the article who also had had similar experiences and who told me he would likely never volunteer again as a result of it.


Scattered throughout the streets of Germany (as well as in many other streets in Europe and in Russia) are so-called Stolpersteine:


12 Stolpersteine, with my shoes for size and layout reference.

12 Stolpersteine, with my shoes for size and layout reference.


These “stumbling blocks”, as they would be translated, are set in the ground in front of houses of victims of the Holocaust. They are not quite flush with the ground, but are instead raised a little bit higher, allowing one to stumble while passing by. Each mini monument is engraved with information about the victim and their fate. The 12 featured here are from Karlsruhe, and tell the stories of twelve representatives of Parliament who were forbidden from doing their jobs, arrested, deported, interrogated, sent to concentration camps, or any combination thereof.

I think these stones, designed and laid by German artist Gunter Demnig, are an amazing form of art. They are deeply meaningful, evoke many emotions, and preserve a dark history so that it cannot be obscured with time. They honor and commemorate. They bring about deep reflection in the viewer. You don’t have to go to a museum to see them; they confront you whether you want them to or not. I suggest reading the wikipedia article for more information. If you speak German, you can also read the Gunter’s site.

The Existential Prefix: The German “Er”

German, like English, has prefixes that attach to the front of words to alter their meaning. Some, like the English “pre”, which usually carries some idea of “before”, and “re”, which often contains the idea of “again”, are pretty easy to get ahold of relatively quickly. There are others though, that are not so clear and take time to grasp.

One such prefix is the German “er”, which in many of its usages seems to me to be very existential. “Er”, as we shall see, usually attaches to the front of verbs to alter their meaning, giving it a more human touch and often having the notion of the highest and most complete form of a given act. Oftentimes there are no good translations into English for these words, as we use the un-“er” form if we want to express the same thing, albeit with less specificality. This is an aspect of the German language that I have really come to love, as I first thought that when I translated two words and got the same translation that they were just synonyms. It took me a while to realize that, no, we in English just don’t make the fine-tuned distinction that is made in German. Here are some examples of the prefix “er” in use in German:

  • Erleben: The verb “leben” is translated as “to live”. A plant can “leben”, just as I can, but the “er” in the front of “erleben” gives it more of a personhood touch likely unknown to plants: to have an experience – to “live through” something might be a good translation.
  • Erfahren: “Fahren”, as I mentioned in another entry, means “to fare”, as in “to travel somewhere”. Adding the “er” to make “erfahren” once again takes this and makes it existential. Confusingly, if you translate “erleben” and “erfahren”, you will get the result: “to experience”. I believe (and Germans can correct me here), that “erfahren” is more of an intellectual experience: Through a lot of experience at your job, you can skills that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. This seems to be more erfahren. If you lived through the Cold War, this would be more erleben, but of course you would erfahren something here as well, because you got some experience that would shape your life and the way you think about things.
  • Erkältung: The common cold. Just like in English, the word for “cold” (“kalt”) is reused, but the “er” is added to give it, in my opinion, a more human quality.
  • Erfolg: “folgen” means “to follow”. The noun form, with “er” on the front, “Erfolg”, means “success”. I have the feeling of following something to the end, such as your dreams. A bit poetic, perhaps.
  • Erbauen: “bauen” means to build. Erbauen also means “to build” in English, but in German it carries a notion of building something bigger and maybe more permanent, like a Cathedral.
  • Erlernen: Similar to “erbauen”. “Lernen” means “to learn”, but “erlernen” is more like “to master”. To learn something so long and in such detail, that you own it.
  • Erdenken: “denken” means to think. “Erdenken” is more like developing something new after giving it a lot of thought.

That is probably enough examples, although there are many more. The nice part about all of this is that I can get a feeling for a word even when I have never seen it before, which I think happens a lot less in English. Consider the following: You are armed with the information that “to know someone” in English is the German verb “kennen”. Now you see a sentence with the verb “erkennen”. You can have a pretty good idea that the verb (although not always!) has something to do with knowing the person. In this case it turns out to be “to recognize”. Now, if you are learning English you would be hard pressed to understand “to recognize” if you had never seen the word before. Sure, you probably know what “re” does here, but you would have to know some etymology to come up with the “cognition” sense of “cognize”. In German, you can clearly see the connection to “kennen”. To take this a step further, there is also “anerkennen”, which is also “to recognize” in the sense of “to acknowledge” as in “We recognize Palestine as a state.” Again, if you had never seen “to acknowledge” before in English, you might not know what to do with the word. In German, you can more clearly see the connection.

The German language contains many prefixes that have interesting shades of meaning. It is just one aspect of the language that is fascinating to me and I hope to you as well. I plan to outline more of these interests in the future, but in the meantime, comments and questions are warmly welcome.

My Recent Trip to RPI

Last week, Julia and I went up to my old college: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. I hadn’t been there in quite a while and now that I am bit older and am attending another university (Universität Heidelberg) in Germany, some things were apparent that hadn’t been while I was there. This is, then, a short list of random observations that I made in my few hours at RPI.

Dining Hall

The food in the dining hall was okay, but not as good as I remember. There were far more posters on the wall calling for people to eat healthy. Each section had a vegetarian meal and there was even a vegan meal in the center of the room. I assume they offer it every day. I was really happy to see this. They have the same in Heidelberg, but I was not sure the same movement in the states.

The Commons cafeteria at RPI.

The Commons cafeteria at RPI.

There were still the same two soda fountains in the cafeteria offering a variety of drinks. Refills are free, as you are only required to pay once when entering the cafeteria. In Germany by comparison, no drinks are free (including water) and prices usually start at 2 Euros, or $2.50 for a 20 ounce bottle. There is a strange incentive to take soda/juice when you have already paid the entrance fee. Even though I drink water 90% of the time, I felt like I was wasting something by not taking a free “upgrade” drink. I can’t help but wonder if small differences like this partially account for the weight/diabetes epidemic in America.

Land of the free soda.

Land of the free soda.

On the same topic, after offering free hard and soft ice cream with toppings, by the exit you could get a Magnum or Nutty Buddy ice cream “to go.”

The technological church

I always thought it was weird that an old church in RPI was turned into a computing center, but I never realized just how weird. I can’t imagine another time in all of history when such a blasphemous act could be committed. What better tangible example of Nietzsche’s idea of the shift from faith in God to a faith in Science?

The front of the Voorhees Computing Center.

The front of the Voorhees Computing Center.

Stained glass windows among computers.

Stained glass windows among computers.

The EMPAC Building

When I graduated in 2005, the new EMPAC building wasn’t yet completed. It is quite an architectural marvel. Julia and I got to walk around a bit inside and go into the huge blimp-shaped theater that protrudes out of the building.

The EMPAC building.

The EMPAC building.

The reflection of the city in the glass of the EMPAC building.

The reflection of the city in the glass of the EMPAC building.


I felt very nostalgic when I visited RPI, which I hadn’t counted on. I had already visited a few times after I graduated and didn’t feel very emotional about it. I appreciated the architecture, the landscaping, and the weather more and genuinely missed being there with all of my good friends, with whom, I am happy to say, I still get to see much more often than most other people I talk to – what luck.

On a final note, one thing I don’t miss is the price. After we got home I looked it up: $46,000 per year without room and without food. All in all, you can count on $60,000 a year. That is $240,000, or one house, if you graduate in four years. In Heidelberg I pay 135 Euros a semester: less than the prices of two books at RPI (sidenote: I had to buy no books at Heidelberg last semester). This tiny price includes discounted food and public transportation as well as a free sport and fitness program, psychological services, etc. Many people in Germany have asked me how and why Americans do it instead of protesting: for Germans this price is unthinkable. I don’t have a good answer for them as I don’t know myself. I  guess we don’t think there is another option. I am here to tell you there is. People in the USA have laughed when I have told them to educate their child in Germany, but I’ve been serious each time. You get to be a part of a wonderful culture, expand your horizons, save enough money to buy a house, and the only “cost” is learning the German language, which is actually a joy in disguise.

Democracy and Toilets

Anyone who asks me “What is the worst part about living in Germany?” receives the same response. It is the same thing every time. Hell, anyone who has talked to me for more than 18 seconds in the past year and a half probably knows the answer: Water. I’ve given the explanations hundreds of times, so once more won’t hurt.

You see, I took water for granted in the USA. I would go to a park, visit a museum, go to the doctor, come out of the bathroom in a bookstore and there was a water fountain there pretty much every time. When I wentout to dinner, I was greeted with a large water before even ordering. My glass was refilled throughout the night without even asking. The first time I came to Germany I noticed the change pretty much right off the bat: free water is hard to come by. Water fountains are virtually non-existent. When you go to a restaurant and want a water you can ask for Leitungswasser (“Pipe” water from the tap) and be met with a dirty look or buy a water for your dinner which in pretty much every case costs the same amount as a beer which costs about the same as a soda which costs about the same as a juice: 2-3 Euros which is more like $3-4.5. Sure, the water is seltzer and has minerals in it, but when you drink water constantly like I do, this makes drinking each day an expensive proposition.

People sitting (but not drinking) near the wonderful Bächle that flow through the city of Freiburg.

People sitting (but not drinking) near the wonderful Bächle that flow through the city of Freiburg.

I am in a similar position when I need to go to the bathroom somewhere. If I am in the train station, I need to pay. If I am at a pitstop on the highway to fill up the car, I need to pay. Going to the bathroom is always tied with an economic transaction. In the US in comparison, there are many more places where you can go to the bathroom for free.

For a third example, when I go to the library in Heidelberg and want to check out a Best Seller or a DVD, I have to pay a Euro. When I want to reserve a book, I have to pay a Euro (although I can go to the bathroom for free there). There are, however, other ways to get free books.

“Who cares about water and toilets?” you ask. “If those are your biggest problems with Germany, then it sounds like things are great,” you claim. You would be correct. I only bring this up to illustrate two points: 1) you take aspects of your own culture for granted and more importantly 2) through seemingly trivial decisions such as water distribution systems, a society expresses its care or concern.

What do I mean by care or concern? I am borrowing the term (in German Sorge) from Martin Heidegger, an extremely influential 20th Century philosopher, who was, in his magnum opus Being and Time, interested in finding out what it meant to be a human being, for lack of more complicated terminology. Human beings, even through they are thrown into the world into some social, political, and economic context engage with the world and constantly make decisions based on some sort of concern for the future. For example, I brush my teeth twice a day because 1) it was what I was brought up to do and 2) I want to have good teeth in the future. Outside of right now, I never really reflect on this activity – it is just a part of my life and a concern that I carry with me throughout my life, so to speak.

What I want to say is, the social and technological institutions that a society has reflect its ongoing cares over time. When one looks at these three aspects of German culture: water, public access to restrooms and library access, I think it is easy to see that they express a lack of democracy in these three areas, which I hope to illuminate.

First let me say: I am not trying to attack Germany. I have a more acute awareness of these aspects only because I am an outsider with a different perspective. If I went to any other country I would have a different list. America has its own list (e.g. the Death Penalty) and outsiders of the USA are more acutely aware of the items on that list. The point isn’t really about any specific country but about how a society, through what it does and doesn’t do, reflects their cares, in this case: democracy.

Imagine for one second you are a homeless person and you want to get through your life, just like everyone else. For the homeless, access to water, bathrooms, and books are much more important than they are to me and can make the difference between a constant daily struggle and a much easier life. In this sense, they are democratic institutions that everyone, in my opinion, should have access to. With regard to the homeless in Germany this is a moot point as Germany has a very strong democratic institution for the homeless: every homeless person can get an apartment that is supported by the state if they want one [citation needed, but I believe this is true]. Regardless, the point stands: access to these basic necessities  is harder for everyone when there is a monetary price involved and puts a(nother) barrier between the haves and the have-nots.

I think it would do us all good to reflect more on what our societies are showing us and to try to change things for the better, whatever we think that might be. I think it is also helpful to look at things through a critical lens, even if “too” critical. A good example of this is education in Germany. When you look at the cost here to go to college (around $200 a semester) compared to the USA (thousands upon thousands of dollars) it is laughable and I look at the education here as pretty much free. But that doesn’t stop protestors from thinking that $200 is too damn much and that free is free, $200 isn’t free. Seen from the American perspective, this may look like overdoing it, but to me this is very critical attitude and a leads to a good societal jolt that shows democracy is alive and kicking. I believe we need more movements like this and that people should look more about which cares they are expressing and which they want to express.

If anyone has any other examples of democratic or non-democratic values that a society expresses, I would be very interested to hear and discuss them.

Public Books

Something that I have appreciated in both Tübingen and Heidelberg is the ubiquity of books. In these university cities you can find a book store every couple of blocks or so.

In Tübingen, a city I lived in a few months ago, there was a large culture of giving books away for free. I very often saw books sitting on the stoop of some apartment that said Zu Verschenken – basically that they are giving them away for free. This generalized to furniture and other items as well. When people didn’t want something anymore they just put it outside for someone else to take. I should note that this wasn’t always just crap – there are many books you would want to read and furniture that you could actually sit in.

I see this less in Heidelberg, but there is another phenomenon here: city sponsored bookshelves that are outside where people can take or leave as many books as they want. The one right near our apartment pretty much always has at least one person browsing, which is nice to see.

People browsing the free books where we live.

People browsing the free books where we live.

A second bookshelf in a neighboring section of Heidelberg.

A second bookshelf in a neighboring section of Heidelberg.

Bike Ride Along the Neckar

I ride my bike pretty much every day and on nice days I like to ride along the Neckar river, even thought it is a little out of the way. On one such nice day I decided to record my trip so others could see it a little bit like I see it. As you can see, the path along the river is pretty long, and the whole stretch has a nice section of grass where people play sports, read, suntan, grill, etc. When the weather is warm you can be sure that the people here will be taking advantage of it.



Main Street in Heidelberg

Julia and I live right off of the Main Street (Hauptstraße) in Heidelberg. We got really lucky because apartments are notoriously hard to get in Heidelberg, and especially hard in this location – it isn’t even all that expensive and much less than half of what I was paying in Arlington, VA. The Hauptstraße has a lot of shops, both boutique and chain and is very touristy with lots of hustle and bustle. According to Wikipedia, the Fußgängerzone (“Fuß” like “Foosball table” meaning “Foot”, “Gänger” like “Doppelgänger” here meaning “Goer”, and “Zone” as in “Zone”, altogether meaning something like “Walking Area” – see? German is easy…) is the longest in Europa at 1.6km long. Part of Heidelberg University is in this area, with the major part being on the other side of the Neckar River.

I made a little video to show a little bit of what it is like here. At the end, I go into a little area where we live. You can see a boutique shop with red awnings as well as where our apartment is on the upper right, which is above a bakery that you can see at the beginning of the video directly to the right of the gate.

Kant and Crosswalks

In most cities I have been to in Germany, the majority of people who want to cross the street wait when the crosswalk light is red, regardless of if any cars or bikers can be seen down the whole stretch of the road or if it is late at night and no cars are expected to come. They just wait. There are even signs that say something like “Be a role model for children. Wait at a red light.” In contrast,  I would say the majority of people in America (at least in the East Coast) cross the street when they believe it is reasonable, even if the light is red. If there are no cars in plain sight, it is reasonable. If they are late for something, it is reasonable. While this difference between the two lands is seemingly innocuous, I can’t help but think that a deep philosophical difference underpins this phenomenon and others like it.

In broad strokes, there have been two big ethical traditions (excluding a third, Virtue Ethics, that I won’t cover here): Consequentialism, often realized through Utilitarianism, and Deontology. While big words and big ideas, they have relatively straightforward definitions:

Consequentialism is an ethical system where the consequences matter. For example, if someone asks me if a dress looks good, it may be ethically good to lie and say “yes”, because I believe that the consequences (in this case, that the person feels happy) are better than if I had told the truth (the person feels sad). In any kind of system where the consequences matter, we must necessarily make a calculation to determine if our decision is ethical or not. In any calculation, you need some way of valuing the things that are to be calculated. In other words, what exactly does it mean for something to be “worth it”? Utilitarianism is a concrete system of Consequentialism that answers this question through the notion of utility. Utility in this context is the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of pain. Modern economics can be seen through this lens. Economic transactions are good because both parties are better off than they were before, or they wouldn’t have traded. It doesn’t really matter that much what they are trading, the fact that their respective utilities went up is a good thing and something we want to promote. This system is often intuitive, but like most things, can get into trouble at the extremes. While most people feel that it is ethically correct to divert a runaway train that is bound to kill 5 people two a track where it will only kill 1 person, thereby saving the lives of 4, many more people feel unsure when asked to kill 1 healthy person going to to the doctor for a regular checkup to save the 5 people there that each need one of 5 organs that the unlucky person could provide, even though the two cases appear to be logically extremely similar and it would be hard to point out any differences that should account for our change in attitudes.

The gut reaction in the doctor case is that people have a right not to be killed, even if the consequences are great. This view is much more deontological. Deontology, then, is an ethical system that has a set of rules that should not be broken no matter what. You have a right not to be killed regardless of the consequences. This system, while also intuitive in a lot of cases, runs into problems at the extremes as well. The most famous example is as follows: A person runs to your home in a panic, tells you that a killer is chasing them and asks for refuge. You oblige and moments later are met by another knock at the door. It is the killer and they ask if you have seen the refugee. In this case, it seems overwhelmingly intuitive that to lie is the correct decision. A deontological system that say lying is wrong, however, forces you even in this case to forget about the (huge!) consequences of your decision and to tell the truth, thereby directly leading to the death of the refugee.

In case this all seems abstract and typical philosophical hogwash, consider that according to German law, you can’t shoot down down a plane that has been hijacked by terrorists. From the article:

Germany’s highest court overturned a law Wednesday that had authorized the government to shoot down hijacked civilian airliners, ruling that it was unconstitutional to sacrifice the lives of passengers to protect potential targets of a terrorist attack. (my emphasis)

In hijacking situations, such as 9/11, there is a reasonable expectation that the people on board the airplane will be killed anyway, in addition to the people that will be killed by the plane crashing into it is intended target. For a Utilitarian, this decision is obvious: shoot the plane down, because Dead Passengers + Dead That Will Be Killed By Terrorist Attack > Dead Passengers. Germany, however, seems much more rooted in Deontology, which makes sense considering the modern proponent of Deontology, Immanuel Kant, was German.

So where does this leave us? It seems to me that, whether the average German is conscious of it or not, stopping at a crosswalk when the light is red because it is adheres to a rule that has been established to the society to which they belong and regardless of the consequences, is a result of the Kantian and Deontological ethical position and is just a tiny example of how ethics actually affects our daily lives even in the smallest of ways.

For a broad introduction to topics of ethics I highly recommend:

I am also interested in what people think about these issues, so please feel free to post something.


Skateboard Park in Heidelberg

Just a quick post since I usually sit on them too long and they end up never getting posted…

Heidelberg has a really great skate park.

It is:

  • under a bridge, so you can skate in the rain.
  • right on the river, so you are right in the middle of a beautiful area.
  • made completely of concrete, which makes for a really smooth ride.
  • lit up at night, so you can skate when it is dark.
  • covered with cool graffiti.
  • free.

Skateboarding has always been a great release for me. It is the closest thing to a Buddhist Enlightenment that I think I will ever have. Here are some pictures of the park and a quick video of me skating:


The skate park in Heidelberg.

The skate park in Heidelberg.


Nice graffiti.

Nice graffiti.

I spent all of my time on this section.

I spent all of my time on this section.

I think a homeless guy lives under here.

I think a homeless guy lives under here.