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.

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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.

 

Bike Riding in Germany

In all three of the cities in Germany that I have spent the most time in, Freiburg, Tübingen, and Heidelberg, bikes have been a big thing. You can find people whizzing by you on their bike just about everywhere: people of all ages, in all outfits, with or without a child trailer – everyone loves riding their bike.

Even the common expression “Fahrrad fahren” in German reveals a bit of this intoxication. The verb “fahren” means “to drive” or “to ride” – to get an idea of the sense of this verb, think of the English verb “to fare” (as in “farewell!” or “sea-faring”), this verb has its etymological roots in the verb “fahren” . “Rad” means “wheel”, so “Fahrrad”, which translates to “bike”, has a literal translation of something like “faring-wheel”. “Fahrrad fahren” is then “faring-wheel faring”.

Bike riding seems to be a general trend in the “greener”, university cities of Germany, where students not only seem to consider the environment in their actions, but probably couldn’t afford a car even if they wanted one. Freiburg, which is currently run by the Green Party, even has a pole that shows you how many bike riders passed a certain spot on a certain day, the total count of riders for the year, and the amount of CO2 that was saved as a result of their decision to ride a bike instead of a car. (Heidelberg, incidentally, also has a sign showing the “goodness” of the air that day, although it contains no information pertaining to bikes). In Heidelberg, there are even streets that only allow bike riders for most of the day.

Thebike and CO2 monitor in Freiburg.

The bike and CO2 monitor in Freiburg.

The air quality sign in Heidelberg.

The air quality sign in Heidelberg.

Some bikes parked in front of the Neuenheimer Feld campus of Heidelberg University.

Some bikes parked in front of the Neuenheimer Feld campus of Heidelberg University.

Germany’s layout is also conducive to bike riding and public transportation. Many small to medium sized cities have a pretty dense layout and you can get to anywhere you need to go within 10 minutes on a bike. In many places in the United States, you really need a car if you want access to all of the things your area has to offer. A movie theater is 10 minutes in one direction, a supermarket 5 minutes in the other, the home improvement store 10 minutes in yet another direction. Of course there are exceptions in both places, but it seems that overall the transportation structure in Germany is a lot better than in the US.

Many, many people in Heidelberg have bikes, and many (most?) purchase them second hand. I have already been to three such used bike stores, all within a 3 kilometer radius of my apartment and these certainly aren’t the only ones. There are also used bike flea markets, one of which is hosted by the city train station so that they can get rid of all of the bikes parked in front of the station that have not moved for months. When you get a bike at a shop they usually in okay shape, often taking on their new life with the addition of other parts from some bicycle graveyard.

I purchased a bike from just such a shop, and have been riding my bike every day for the past month, usually from home to class and back. Each leg of the trip I get to cross over the Neckar river and get a beautiful view of the city with the old castle in the background. This is my favorite part of the trip, but unfortunately I don’t have a great picture yet from this spot.

My new bike, in front of the store that is next to my apartment.

My new bike, in front of the store that is next to my apartment.

Today, my bike was making a lot of strange noises so I took it to an on campus bike repair center that is run by students and provides free repair and learning. Someone diagnosed the problem and then gave me the physical and theoretical tools to fix it myself. The staff was very helpful and friendly and really just wanted to help me get my bike working again. I can go there any time they are open and I have access to all of their tools and knowledge (and yes, their own bicycle graveyard as well). If any Heidelberg friends are interested, here is their website.

I am happy to join the bike culture in Heidelberg. Bike riding is good for the environment and it has definitely been good for my health. I have been traveling 6-12 kilometers a day just to go to and from class and when I get there I can park right in front of the door without ever having to worry about finding a spot.

I leave you with a song I love by an old German a cappella group, The Prinzen, that wrote a song about bikes. The last line sounds better in German and says something like Only connoisseurs ride bikes and they always get there faster. I think that is true!

Easter in Cologne (Köln)

Julia and I traveled to Cologne for the Easter holiday. We met up at her brother and his wife’s house as did the rest of the immediate family.

We took the train over to Köln from Heidelberg and it was about a two and a half hour ride. A lot of the trip was along the Rhine (Rhein) river, which is really wonderful to see. We joked about how many castles are to be seen on the landscape – it seems like every few miles you see the ruins of another huge castle.

When you walk out of the train station in Cologne you walk into the main square and are immediately confronted with the Dom, the massive thousand year old gothic cathedral. It is impossible not to be instantly impressed by its size and grandiosity. It is hard to imagine that generations of people worked on the single goal creating this monument. In any given place including high, high up you can look in a tiny corner and see intricate stone carvings that only a professional could have crafted.

The Dom is so big that I couldn't fit it in the frame. Look how small the people are compared to it.

The Dom is so big that I couldn’t fit it in the frame. Look how small the people are compared to it.

The tower of the Dom.

The tower of the Dom.

Later in the day we climbed the 533 stairs of the tower of the Dom and got a wonderful view of the city. We have climbed many church towers at this point; many of the churches in the cities here offer the climbing of their liberally-graffitied, narrow-spiralling-staired towers for a nominal fee.

Inside the Dom.

Inside the Dom.

The inside of the top, after climbing the stairs.

The inside of the top, after climbing the stairs.

The view from the top.

The view from the top.

Another view from the top, including the architecture of the second tower.

Another view from the top, including the architecture of the second tower.

We stayed in Julia’s brother’s house for a couple of days and spent a lot of the time with her family. Each of the three mornings we had a huge – I would even say traditional German – breakfast with tons of fresh bread, jams, cheeses, meats, cereals, vegetables, etc. The house and her brother were both very accommodating and with the penthouse apartment we were offered a very great view of the city, including the Dom.

The view from the apartment.

The view from the apartment.

On Easter morning, after our breakfast, we drove to a park and hid some candy and presents for Julia’s nephew and then took a nice walk through the park. Later we drove to an old coal mine and got a tour inside. The tour guide spoke very clear German so I was able to understand quite a bit which was nice. After the tour, we drove back to Cologne and had dinner at a traditional restaurant for the area. It was a very different Easter for me – I am used to staying in the house and having a big meal with the family at home. This Easter felt less traditional in the sense that there weren’t as many customs, but at the same time it was still hugely family oriented with everyone interacting together and enjoying each other’s company.

The next day we went to a botanical garden and took another nice walk around as a group. It is hard for me to imagine American families talking walks as a group of nine people for over an hour. In the park we even saw a peacock showing its stuff. After a bit more walking around it was time to go to the trainstation and head back to Heidelberg.

The aforementioned peacock, showing its aforementioned stuff.

The aforementioned peacock, showing its aforementioned stuff.

Our Apartment in Heidelberg

We moved into our apartment last week and everything went better than expected. Julia’s parents and uncle helped us (a lot) take everything from Seelenberg, a small town near Frankfurt where Julia’s parents live, to our new apartment in Heidelberg. We were fortunate in that the previous renter left a lot of her furniture behind, which means that we didn’t have to buy and transport so much.

A difference that I have noticed in Germany is that more often than not you buy the kitchen when you move into an apartment. That means the previous renter also bought the kitchen when she moved in. When she moved out, she had the option of taking the refrigerator/stove/oven with her, or selling it to the next renters. I find this to be pretty impractical, as most kitchen appliances fit very well in the place for which they were bought and would not necessarily go with a kitchen in a new place. On top of that, you have to worry about transporting them and hooking them up. In addition, at least in the place we moved into, certain small things that I would never expect to be taken were in fact taken. For example, the standard bathroom sink mirror was gone when we moved in. Then we had to (more accurately: Julia’s dad and uncle) put up our own bathroom sink mirror. It seemed unneccessary since I take the following to be true: 1) A bathroom sink mirror is standard in a bathroom and 2) The style of the mirror is not very personal and is just there for function. Can’t we all just leave our bathroom mirrors? Anyway, these are just differences from America that I think others may also find interesting.

Our apartment is a “2 room” apartment. This means there are two “hang out” rooms: rooms where you can do things that aren’t purely functional like a bathroom or a kitchen. Our two rooms are the bedroom and an eating/living room. In the USA, this would be a 1 bedroom apartment. The bedroom is a good size and the second room is a bit smaller. What is really nice is that the hallway is really wide and doesn’t feel cramped at all which I think can often be the case in hallways in apartments.

The apartment is in a beautiful, small courtyard that hangs off of the main street in the old city area of Heidelberg. The main street (Hauptstraße) always has a lot going on and makes you feel alive. We are just far enough removed where our section of the courtyard is peaceful. We can be in the action in 20 seconds, though, if we want.

Overall, we really, really lucked out getting the apartment and are excited to live here. Heidelberg is notorious for being hard to find an apartment. There is a massive influx of students every semester that all need places to live and even the dorms are way over capacity. There also seems to be an unwritten law where the landlords don’t just jack up the price to meet demand like they would in the US. Our landlady said, for example, “the price from the last tenant seems fair, so let’s just keep it like that.” I can’t imagine a landlord/lady in the US saying that. I have the feeling the rent has been the same for six years and she could easily get a couple hundred Euros more per month for it. We saw worse apartments with worse locations that were way more money. With an overcrowded market and lower priced apartments the competition comes not in the form of money, but in the form of appearance and how well you will get along with the landlord. I have heard, but not seen, that there are often long lines of would-be renters that line up to see apartments when they become available. You write your name, age, and occupation down on a list and hope you are the chosen one. Again, we really lucked out and are excited for the times ahead.

Here is a video of the apartment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miCXD5Nc-sY

Burg Hohenzollern

A week or so ago, Julia, some friends and I visited the Hohenzollern Castle which is about 20 minutes away from Tübingen. It is thought to date back to the 11th Century, making it hundreds of years older than anything that can be seen in the states – it is pretty incredible. The castle has been rebuilt many times over the years and was often inhabited by German royalty. Here are some pictures from the trip:

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