10 October, 2017

Weird German Wisdom (That May or May Not Be True)

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Despite what I said in my last post about considering a new direction for my blog, I'm back with another German culture post! This time I'll be talking about even more things that I've learned about German culture over the years that have surprised me, specifically some everyday wisdom that makes up part of the shared cultural awareness.

In addition to many of the cultural and bureaucratic differences of everyday life in Germany that I've written about previously, there are certain beliefs that seem to be universally accepted as fact in Germany that I had never heard of or even thought about before moving here. I've been surprised and even shocked by some of the weird German beliefs that I've come across, and upon further research some of them have turned out not to be entirely true. Here they are in no particular order:

 1. Raw green beans are poisonous

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When I was an au pair my host family got fresh, seasonable vegetables delivered every week, and I was delighted one week to find green beans in our delivery. I snacked on their crunchy deliciousness as I cooked lunch and prepared some raw on a plate for the girls to snack on as well. Even after introducing them enticingly and telling the girls that green beans are one of my all-time favorite snacks, they didn't touch them. The green beans sat on the plate for the next few hours until I ended up eating them myself. I was baffled that the girls didn't want to give my yummy snack a try, and it wasn't until a few years later that I received a shocking explanation for this event: green beans came up randomly in conversation and someone claimed that eating them raw was poisonous!

I couldn't believe my ears. We were talking about the same food, right? We even searched for images online and clarified that we were talking about the same long green vegetable, and he still vehemently claimed that they were poisonous. How could that be? I've eaten them raw my entire life and not once have I been even remotely poisoned. On the contrary, I prefer them raw and can't wait for them to come in season so I can eat them fresh instead of frozen. On multiple occasions I've been almost physically pained by how cooked to death green beans are almost everywhere I've had them in Germany, when I know how much better they taste when they are allowed to keep more than an iota of their natural shape and texture.

Well, now I have my answer. Apparently to Germans green beans belong in a category with the vast majority of other beans, which are never to be eaten raw because they cause digestive issues. Granted, I would consider the word "poisonous" too harsh to apply here (I think it's partially a translation issue), but, in any case, there is a substance in raw beans that can cause gastric distress. What Germans aren't taking in account, however, is that this substance is present in much smaller quantities in raw green beans than in other types of raw beans, and if your system is used to it your body can handle that small amount with absolutely no problems (as I am living proof of). Tragically, by not being exposed to the small, tolerable levels of this substance in raw green beans from a young age, Germans are cursing themselves to a life without the magic that is a freshly picked green bean.

2. Reheating spinach will also poison you

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When I first moved to Hildesheim, Maxim stayed with me for a while, and during that time we usually cooked together. One day we made something that contained spinach, and he expressed concern when I reheated it to eat the next day. As with the green beans, I was baffled. Why shouldn't we reheat leftover food? What were we going to do, eat it cold? He explained that reheating spinach would probably kill us, and I even looked on the label and saw a warning on the bag of spinach specifically telling me not to reheat it.

I did some googling and came to the conclusion that there is a reason behind that warning, but with today's food standards and access to refrigeration we have nothing to worry about. If spinach is cooled too slowly and/or not reheated quickly enough, nitrites can form which can cause acute health problems in some people. But in a country where every house has a good-quality refrigerator and stove this is a completely misplaced fear, leftover from a time when it actually was something people had to worry about. More likely than not it just causes unnecessary food waste when people freak out about a mostly imagined danger.

3. Steeping black tea longer will make you sleepy

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I've heard from multiple Germans that steeping black tea for longer than usual will make you sleepy. While there is some scientific basis for this, I've never noticed any difference myself (and I drink black tea every day).

As black tea is steeped, a variety of different substances and chemicals are released from the tea leaves, including caffeine, which heightens alertness, and other substances that have a calming effect. Since caffeine is one of the first/fastest things to be released and the calming substances are released later/more slowly, steeping it longer enhances the effects of the calming substances. As I said, I've never noticed a difference, since the caffeine is in there regardless of how long the tea is steeped. (I've only noticed the increase in bitterness if I steep it too long.) However, I am particularly sensitive to caffeine, so it could be that people who are less sensitive to it would notice the calming substances more. (Fun fact: German has different words for the caffeine found in coffee—Koffein—and the caffeine found in tea—Tein.)

4. If you don't wear shoes inside you will get sick

I realize these have Swiss and not German flags on them, but it was the best picture I could find.
Image source: pixabay.com 

This one is not specific to Germany—I also ran into this bit of cultural wisdom when I lived in Spain. While Americans are more likely to worry about getting sick if you don't wear a hat outside in cold weather, in Germany there seems to also be a concern often bordering on panic about being barefoot or even just socked indoors. Slippers or shoes (Hausschuhe, literally "house shoes") are a must at all times and in all seasons to prevent cold feet and illness. Many households even have spare pairs of house shoes for guests, and it's also perfectly acceptable to bring your own when you visit someone else's house.

Again, there are some possible explanations for this, but they only go so far to explain why this issue ranks so highly with Germans. In the US it's common to have fully carpeted floors, so in many houses there is no danger of freezing your toes on chilly hardwood or tiled floors. Maxim also pointed out that some houses with hardwood floors in America have radiant floor heating, making house shoes unnecessary, but I don't think that contributes much to the difference because 1) not all uncarpeted American houses have floor heating, and 2) I've also been in German houses with radiant floor heating and their residents still wore shoes.

I think this is just one of those cultural differences that can't be fully explained with logic. I've lived in many houses in the US, all of which had at least partially wood floors, and I didn't wear slippers or house shoes with any consistency. I sometimes owned slippers, but I usually only wore them on really cold days or if I felt like it. All the other times I just wore socks if my feet were cold and bare feet the rest of the time. And look, I didn't die of pneumonia!

It's the little things like these that make living in a new country exciting (or frustrating, depending on your perspective). Being confronted with a different way of doing things or a belief that is considered standard that you had never thought about before makes you reflect on your own unquestioned beliefs. Even after living in Germany for over four years, I continue to be confronted with new and unusual details that surprise me, and I will probably continue to stumble upon more things like this for many years. It makes me wonder what things I still take for granted due to my particular upbringing that people in other places would find totally bizarre.

This is of course just a fraction of the beliefs and bits of German wisdom that I could have written about, but these are the ones that stand out to me the most. If you are a newcomer to Germany as well, have you run into similar things that I've forgotten to mention? Let me know in the comments!

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