What You Say Depends on Where You Come From

footbridge covered with white and purple flowers connects market square to stone church with onion steeple, and to the "red house"
View of the Protestant City Church of Monschau (Evangelische Stadtkirche Monschau) and bridge covered with flower boxes. Monschau’s “Red House.” Monschau, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

The charming village of Monschau is in Germany, but Americans and Belgians were filling it up the other day. It’s very close to the Belgian border and so charming that it draws Americans from much further away.

It’s a mix of cultures. I overheard this classic exchange in a café:

“Salt or sugar?” An American tourist picks up the glass dispenser from the café table and shakes it.

Her companion says, “Sugar. No one eats that much salt.”

My German husband and I have been married 29 years, so I’ve forgotten things I didn’t know when I first came to Europe. This exchange resonated with me. I’ve heard it many times before. We don’t realize how much our cultures influence us until we leave home.

When we were first married, we met someone who was researching communication and conflict among international couples.

“How do you know if it’s cultural or if it’s personal?” I asked.

“Couples from the same pairs of countries say the same things,” she* said, somewhat dryly. “When you hear the same thing again, you know it’s cultural, not personal.”

Obvious to anyone outside the marriage. Impossible to see inside an international marriage. Two mini-stories:

We hadn’t been married a month when I asked my new husband if he’d like to take out the trash. “No,” he said, taking what I’d said at face value.

Another time, we watched TV with relatives in a tiny living room. I didn’t realize I was blocking anyone’s view, so when someone asked if I could see all right, I said, “Yes, thank you” and sent the whole room into laughter.

Learning to ask for what you need is challenging in any culture and is less tied to language than we think.

My mom once pointed out how children change their tactics when they reach school age. Babies and toddlers can point at what they want without being impolite or use brand-new words to demand something.

But once we have language skills, no one gives us credit for plain words any more. Older children have to gaze longingly and hope someone notices and offers it to them.

We know children need help to learn language, but it’s easy to think that some kids are born knowing how to communicate and others are “shy” and will never learn.

My upcoming book**, Trouble With Parsnips, is a fairy tale for readers 9 to 12 about a girl who is puzzled that no one seems to hear the important things she has to say. She’s moved on to become an inventor instead.

**The book is taking up all my thoughts and leaking out into every conversation! If you’re remotely interested, you can find out more here. If you’re not, sorry for the accidental commercial!

*I really wish I knew this researcher’s name, because I’d love to read her work. If anyone else knows, let me know in the comments or send me an e-mail.

Stone tower with doorway through the middle.
Whoever built this Tower didn’t feel like chatting with strangers. 🙂 Monschau, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

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Olives and Antifreeze ALWAYS come in Two Colors except when They Don’t.

Spring in Sicily. 500 green olive trees against a blue sky.
These 500 olive trees have nothing to do with antifreeze colors, so this is foreshadowing. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We have a supposedly American car, a Ford Fusion, but it lives in Germany, so it has to have German antifreeze. Natch.

Instead of 5-gallon, yellow, Prestone jugs, Germany has white, soda-bottle-sized Kühlerfrostschutz bottles.

I was a little leery about Kühlerfrostschutz, because buying oil for the car was a major research project, even after I copied down all the numbers from my two-volume car owner’s manual. I’ve lived in places with cold winters all of my life, so I get the 10W40 and 5W30 and such (thanks, Dad!).

Still, I was unprepared to be an oil buyer. In Germany, the make and model of my car influences the kind of oil. Really? Remember, it’s a Ford Fusion, not an airplane.

Newsflash: Germany is the land of car drivers. I somehow missed that. I was taken in by the excellent train system.

So, I was cautious about making an impulsive antifreeze purchase. The wrong kind might give my car culture shock. At a local building mart, I asked which antifreeze I should buy, figuring the Hellweg* would be as close to Target or Wallmart as I could get.

*(The name doesn’t mean what you’re thinking–it actually means path of light, but that’s only true at Christmas decoration season. The other building mart is called Obi which sounds like Star Wars, but isn’t.)

My first advisor said he thought the blue antifreeze was for newer cars and red was for older ones, but–maybe because he was half my age–we weren’t quite clear on what ‘older’ meant.

My second advisor said if the car had ‘red’ already in it, it should always get red, because you NEVER mix them. This seemed like an astonishingly simple answer for a car-related topic in Germany.

I asked if there could possibly be another color, but he was very firm: “There’s red and there’s blue.”

So I bought ‘red’, diluted it 50:50 with water, filled up my car, and felt generally virtuous and good-stewardly.

At the grocery store, I found the same antifreeze for half the price. Forget all those rules about what to buy where. What’s worse, I found another color: purple!

What if the red and blue got mixed together one day at the factory and. . .presto, new product? I can’t tell you. I shut my eyes to the purple. It’s the color of Byzantine Emperors and has nothing to do with lowly writers. I remain true to ‘red’.

While at the grocery store, I tried to buy black olives for salad. They all were labelled “geschwärzt” meaning ‘blacked’ like. . .uh, shoe-black.

I always thought black olives were ripe forms of green ones, in the same way that red sweet peppers are ripe forms of green peppers.

Another newsflash: Black olives can be simply ripe olives, but some have Eisen-II-Gluconat (E 579/ferrous gluconate) added to the brine to make them blacker or to ‘fix’ the black color. Evidently, this doesn’t make black olives a good source of dietary iron, but I’m not sure why not.

The California Olive Committee describes something similar, so it’s not just in Germany.

Even if you don’t like olives, the photos in this “Beginner’s Guide to Olives: 14 Varieties to Try” will make you want to go visit all of these places where they grow.

If you’d like to read about the 500 olive trees from the beginning of this post, you can find their story here.

Best wishes with your purchases of whatever color! May your 2018 be filled with happy meals featuring a healthy Mediterranean diet and safe transportation!

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“Sharing: A Practice of the Heart” at The Mudroom

Interior castle courtyard. Half-timbered houses nestled together for safety.

In medieval castles, people traded living space for protection. What will you trade for the life you want? Eltz Castle, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This month, I’m over at The Mudroom blog writing about Simplicity, Intentionality, and Living Small. That’s their theme for August. Here’s a taste of my essay:

Sharing: A Practice of the Heart

How do you decide to voluntarily limit the space you occupy in the world?

When I moved to Germany four years ago with my family, I thought we’d live the romantic European life. An apartment instead of a house and garden, string bags for the daily grocery shopping, errands by streetcar, vacations by train, and fresh vegetables from the market square.

Read the rest of the post over at The Mudroom.

Thanks for reading!

Laurel

 

 

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Marc Chagall’s stunning gift of reconciliation

"Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet." Stained glass window in shades of blues with flying angel and candelabra by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.
“Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet.” Stained glass window by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.

St. Stephan’s church in Mainz, Germany has stunning stained glass windows. The church burned on February 27, 1945 and Marc Chagall designed most of the current windows in the late 1970’s.

The windows show love stories of all kinds: Colorful people and angels float in a sea of blue glass. In light of the Holocaust, I was especially touched by the window of Abraham pleading with three angels to spare Sodom and Gomorrah.

“The windows in the church of St. Stephen were intended by the artist as a token of friendship between France and Germany, a pledge of international understanding and of the peace which we all need so badly.”

–Klaus Mayer [Genoveva Nitz, translator]. St. Stephan in Mainz, 8th rev. English edition. Regensburg, Germany: Verlag Schnell & Steiner GmbH Regensburg, 2015.

Marc Chagall was 91 years old when he designed the first windows. But when he was 98, he created several more and gave them to the church as a gift. He died a few months later. That’s a life full of art and faith, generosity and forgiveness.

An awe-inspiring role model. I don’t think I would be strong enough to be this generous after the destruction and the grief of World War II. I hope this for us all: that we find many ways to reach out in friendship, while it’s still easy.

Have you used your skills or talents to bring people together in friendship? Was it a special cake or meal? A painting or an ice sculpture? A story or poem? A replacement water pump? I’d love to hear about it.

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Create something new: What would you do with 500 olive trees?

Olive trees under a blue sky with a mountain in the distance and green grass underneath.
500 olive trees. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

I recently came across another inspiring example of using your inheritance to create something new.

Alessandro inherited 500 olive trees with his grandfather’s Sicilian property. Most people look at 500 olive trees and think olive oil, but Alessandro had a different idea: soap.

His engineering Ph.D. comes in handy for designing the tools he needs to create Saponi & Saponi’s soaps from local ingredients: bay laurel, prickly pear, oranges, honey, and, of course, olive oil.

Creativity isn’t limited to soap from olive trees. All around the house, his environmental worldview is in practice. A solar panel is installed just inside the gate. He has his own water purification and passive hot water systems and his house is heated with olive, persimmon, and pine grown on the property.

I’m fond of the sustainable mowing team: a horse and a donkey who are clearly good friends.

Horse and donket grazing among the olive trees. Sicily.
Sustainable mowing team. Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We got a glimpse into the culture of soap-making in the soap museum. The guided tour includes Alessandro’s steadily growing collection of soaps from around the world and an exhibit about the soap-making process (in English and Italian.)

I loved his story about the way soap is made in Aleppo–may peace come there soon!

Most scents fade away in traditionally hand-made soaps because of the long curing process. Aleppo soap is the exception. It’s a dark green color because up to 50% of the soap is bay leaf extract. It’s also a cube shape, rather than a bar, because the liquid soap is poured out in a thick layer on stone or tile floors, rather than in shallow frames and then cut.

Maybe the story feels even stronger if you hear it while standing in a stone building where olives were once pressed. The soap museum’s cool stone walls must be very welcome when the hot Sicilian sun arrives. Plain square tiles cover the floor, unpainted versions of the vibrant tiles common in this region. Local products, used creatively, yet again, this time by taking the decoration away.

Handpainted tiles with bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Ceramic tiles from Vincenzo Arena in Sciacca, Sicily.

Ceramic Artist: Vincenzo Arena

That brings me to questions I’ve asked before:

What in your life could be transformed into something new?

Or something beautiful?

How could you give new life to something you’ve had a very long time?

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A parable of physics teaching assistants: elegance, battlefields, and intimacy

Painting of 18th century fencers in knee breeches and gown.
Fencing with an unfamiliar foe. Source: “Fencing Match between St.-Georges and ‘La chevalière D’Eon'” on April 9, 1787, by Abbé Alexandre-Auguste Robineau (1747–1828) – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11260912

As an undergraduate, I took physics because I wanted to go to medical school. Physics promptly took over the structure of my week. Three lectures, a lab, and a recitation (where a teaching assistant went over the homework problems with us), and later an afternoon or two of tutoring. Needless to say, I wasn’t good at it.

The recitation was taught in the first semester by an American graduate student who clearly understood the material and had taken time to organize it for us. He wrote the homework problem answers on the chalkboard in neat and intelligent writing.

We dutifully copied down his elegant solutions, but inwardly, we despaired. These answers had a flawless surface that kept us out. They weren’t answers we would ever come up with. He was a physicist’s physicist.

The second semester’s recitation was taught by a graduate student from India or maybe Pakistan. His English was different than American English and elegant wasn’t the word for his methods. He attacked the homework problems as if they were hostile.

His answers scrawled all over the chalkboard and left a battlefield of cancelled terms, diagrams, and false attempts. He took us inside the homework problems and taught us to fight our way out. He was a physicist for the common man.

I speak German, some days better than others, but I’ll never be able to engage in the delicate verbal fencing that is the favorite sport of my English-speaking relatives. In German, I’m forced to be much more functional and to express my feelings and ideas in a straightforward fashion. Verbal asides or literary allusions are a thing of the past.

Before I moved to Germany three years ago, I thought it would probably be good for me to be forced to say what I meant. Oblique can be charming. Banter can be exhilarating. Complicated can be satisfying. But a flawless shield of language keeps everyone at a distance.

What I’ve noticed is this: When I’m slower to speak, I listen more, and the listening gives the conversation a sense of intimacy. When I stop striving for elegance and accept my limitations, I hear the conversation’s heartbeat. It’s more satisfying, because I’m on the inside looking out. I’m starting to appreciate this unexpected gift.

Like my international physics teaching assistant, story invites the reader inside an experience. This is what it feels like to face a dragon. This is how it feels when you use the magic sword. This is how you seize victory from the jaws of defeat. This is what victory feels like.


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Check it out: more evidence for the power of libraries

Vending machine for mystery novels from the city library in Cologne. Big red box with computer screen and door with window to get book.
A mystery novel “vending” machine for the city library of Cologne in an underground station. © Jan Decher, 2016.

On a recent trip to Cologne, I was surprised by this machine in the Neumarkt underground station. It lets library patrons check out and return mysteries and thrillers on their daily commute, 24 hours a day.

You gotta love librarians. They’re always thinking up some new way to share books.

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