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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The Day the Wall Fell

Church and graveyard surrounded by green hills covered with vineyards.
A whole peaceful world in a tiny valley. The town of Mayschoß in the Ahr River valley. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, Germany celebrated the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, (literally, the “Day of German Unity.”) It’s the day when East and West Germany came back together after World War II.

Once as a student, I visited East Berlin while the Wall was still there. I’ll never forget the eerie passage through the restricted zone. Guards armed with machine guns stood their shifts in abandoned subway stops where you were no longer allowed to get off the train.

For me, this holiday is about the falling of the Wall. The Berlin Wall was on television in the U.S. when the first people were allowed out of East Berlin. Excited people were reaching down and pulling others up to stand next to them on top of the Wall. Guards waved tiny East German cars through. The razor wire was no longer relevant. People offered each other champagne and bananas in a violent place where peace suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.

Let’s help peace along wherever it appears. There are so many celebrations I’d like to see and smile about. So much healing and pain where we could help each other up instead.

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The Comfort of Home Food: Bagels in Leiden, The Netherlands

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This tiny bakery in the Netherlands, Better Bagels, sells the real thing. It also has Joe the Slicer, a 90 km/hour table saw for bagels. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A German Brötchen is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

A chewy bagel is just about the opposite. So, of course, Germans crave Brötchen when they live in the United States and Americans crave bagels when they live in Germany. (Can you tell we’ve had both of these conversations in our international family?)

We were happy to discover this tiny bagel bakery on a recent visit to Leiden in The Netherlands.

While we waited for the bakery to open, we looked at this odd contraption in the window.

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More like air hockey than a table saw. Joe The Slicer slices bagels. We saw him(?) in action. That fuzzy circle in the bottom middle of the picture is a bagel in motion. The blade turns fast (90 km/hour) but it doesn’t saw right through the bagel, it catches it and flings it the length of the conveyer belt with a resounding thump. P1060254

This is making me hungry all over again.ABagelInLeiden

The owner told us how he learned to make bagels after living in Ramsey, New Jersey. A handy bagel flow chart painted all the wall shows all the boiling–chilling–baking steps. Once he convinced himself he could make them in his home kitchen, he opened this bakery in Leiden. It’s a kind of alchemy, moving food culture from one place to another.

Time to get back to work. I’m getting too hungry anyway and the nearest bagel is much too far away. I’m inspired by this “do one thing” attitude.

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6 ways rhythm helps us feel at home in a new world

2-day-old foal standing next to mare cropping grass in a green meadow.
New neighbor in our world. This 2-day-old foal is getting used to day and night, rain and sun, traffic and kids on bikes. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

On the weekend, I practiced a new skill and had a sudden aha! moment about learning to adapt to a new culture by finding the beat.

(1) Every culture has its own heartbeat. When I lived in West Africa for a year, the people next door talked all day every day. There are many languages in Ghana and I never learned the one(s) they spoke. I couldn’t tell if they were talking or shouting, angry or excited. But after a year of living near them, the rhythm of their voices told me when something unusual was going on.

(2) The beat keeps going. When I took my youngest to music class as a baby, the teacher taught us to pat the baby gently in rhythm to teach to idea that music is continuous. It doesn’t stop in the middle to do something else. It keeps going because music has a heartbeat like our own. When you’re trying to learn to join in the music, it’s stressful when you can’t find your place. There’s a feeling of jump rope game that’s going on without you because you don’t know how or when to jump in.

(3) Drinking coffee has its own rhythm. It’s not always the Gemütlichkeit of Kaffeetrinken in Germany or Austria where people sit down together and have a piece of cake with their coffee. Knowing “how” people drink coffee can make you feel at home.

In Sicily, people stand up at the counter together and knock back an espresso before heading out to do the things that need to be done.

A German friend who’d spent many years in the U.S. theorized just yesterday that Americans love their coffee to-go because American culture encourages busy-ness. Sitting outside in a café where everyone can see you can get you a “slacker” label. Hence few outside cafés. But she also mentioned the beloved bookstore cafés (and libraries!) where you can drink coffee and read.

(4) Every journey has a song. The rhythm I noticed for the first time this weekend was on the drive back from my in-laws’ house. We’ve used our GPS unit to find our way through the bewildering combination of highways, single lane country roads with two-way traffic (with cows), villages with traffic-calming and traffic circles to my in-laws’ house. This trip, I realized how much I need to practice this “song” until I recognize the rhythm. Looking at a map would definitely help me.

(5) Time to process. When we alternate between moving and resting, we’re much happier and less stressed when we come home. Writing a few postcards in a café or taking time to photograph something carefully helps us to process.

(6) Remember your own culture in this international world. I once invited two young West African friends for a big Sunday dinner and they arrived unable to eat. They had visited the American church in Bonn where Thanksgiving was celebrated as a huge potluck. They had eaten all they could already. I had forgotten about Thanksgiving because it’s not a German holiday!

We start to feel at home when the rhythm is familiar. It’s much easier to do things when we’re in sync. Picture books and songs with catchy meters stick in our minds. When we feel the beat, we can play instruments together in an orchestra or sing different parts in a choir. We can be ourselves and still participate in the group.

Questions for you: What have you noticed about the rhythm of your life? What happens when we internalize other peoples’ rhythms? Or if we make our own easy to follow?

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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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Spring is coming. Let’s not give up on hospitality yet.

Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany.
Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if migration is our natural lot and living peacefully in one place all our lives a rarity. Cranes are migrating and their calls remind me of spring.

The current news shows destroyed cities in Syria, failed cease-fire talks, and a refugee bus being shouted down by people in the former Democratic Republic of Germany.

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party, some friends told how their families fled from the invading Russians, near the end of World War II. One family fled as late as 1945. Here’s my rough translation into English:

A knock came at three o’clock in the morning: we had to get out. We fled in a matter of two hours, with only the clothes we had on. The snow was up to the horses’ bellies and my mother packed us into the hay wagon with bedding, so we wouldn’t freeze.

Our father was one of three men assigned to the farm, to keep producing food. Unarmed, they were supposed to stay at the farm to defend the front against the Russians.

The countess, our angel, helped us to get out. She didn’t take any extra luggage for herself and invited three new mothers with their infants into her carriage, so they would survive the trip.

She bought a big sack of bread whenever we came to a big bakery and hung the sack from the side of the carriage. We had a camp kitchen, a “Gulaschkanone,” to cook huge quantities of soup. We had plenty to eat then.

Once we came to an abandoned town with a castle and people had fled, leaving everything behind. We slept anywhere we wanted, even in the castle. The houses were full of food, because these people had also fled. But after three weeks, we heard the Russian guns.

Eventually, we arrived in Schleswig-Holstein.  The countess’ brother had made arrangements for us, but the Nazi’s were still in charge, so they assigned people to various houses in the village as they saw fit. It was awkward and unpleasant.

We lived over a bakery in a tiny room with five other people. Baked goods were rationed, so we smelled a lot more bread than we ate.

People looked at us funny because we weren’t from there. My mother and sister argued about words for years, because my mother didn’t want us to blend in. She thought we were still going “home” one day. She wanted us to fit in there.

Epidemiologists like to study the “immigration effect.” That’s the idea that people who stay home are systematically different from the people who don’t.

For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar in their home country may have a low risk of colon cancer. If some migrate to a country with the opposite pattern, they will probably increase their risk of colon cancer compared to those who stayed at home. But because they keep some of their home country traditions, they will probably have a lower risk of colon cancer than the natives of their adopted country.

For epidemiologists, a pattern like this means the risky behavior is “modifiable,” not genetic. If you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar, then you will probably see less colon cancer. It’s hard to change behavior, but it’s possible. It means hope.

After World War II, many, many people fled from the Eastern block into West Germany. They know what it means to be forced to rely on strangers. They know first-hand that the scarcity mentality isn’t true. Hardship can teach us generosity, if we let it.

We all wish for peace, but in the mean time, people all around me are eager to help the new arrivals feel at home. When peace comes, I think our hospitality will be gladly returned.

Spring is coming. Let’s not give up hope.

 


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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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