Sunday, June 9, 2013

How Free Are We Really?

Jean Paul Satre once commented: Man is condemned to be free. Then thrown into the world, he is responsible for all his actions, constantly subject to judgement by peers and society at large. 

Sure, he has freedom of speech, as long as his words are politically correct; inoffensive; do not hurt the sentiments of women, minorities, gays, patriots, environmentalists, fur coat haters, handicapped, vegetarians and any special interest group intent on improving the world and make it a better place to live in. If he is one of those who believe big business create jobs, nurture innovation and pay taxes for the top class infrastructure and social security system in the country, he is best advised to do so amongst like-minded "capitalist" or prepare to brave the wrath of some anti-globalization activist or the other; these are extremely eloquent and vociferous beings waiting for an opportunity to make themselves heard. Most Germans conform in speech to the prevailing socialist ideology or follow the wise saying Reden ist Silber, Schweigen ist Gold: Speech is Silver, Silence is Gold. 
Sympathize with the downtrodden, the under privileged, the bio-farmers or Blockupy, a person can do no wrong.

Being free is like balancing on a tight rope, neither leaning too far to the right or the left.  

Man also has freedom of action. He carries with him an iPhone, iPad, a Notebook, iPod, a Kindle to exercise this freedom. He needs these gadgets all at the same time. He also downloads hundreds of Apps to increase the playing field of his freedom and receives a prompt on his gadget as soon as a new App is released into the market; he queues up all night outside an Apple store to be one of the earliest to own the latest iPhone.

In a consumption driven society, we have become slaves of consumerism. How free are our decisions really?

Our decisions are influenced not only by peer pressure but also by a continous barrage of advertisements on television, radio, iPhone, placards, magazines, newspapers, online platforms the whole day long. The constant exposure continues even while relaxing at the movies, theater or a football game. The media surreptiously targets that part of our subconscious that shapes our buying decisions. Neon colours are in this season! Suddenly fashion conscious young girls and boys in bright neon clothes are everywhere. Millions are spent by the advertisement industry to study behaviour patterns eg. the desire to be perceived cool, in, sophisticated or sporty, with the aim of evolving ways to enhance the influence of advertisements and selling techniques. It is impossible to escape the ubiquitious exposure to elements intent on moulding and influencing public thought; an alarming trend for the young and malleable. These elements are per se not the problem but rather the fact that individuals do not have a choice.

If an individual has no opportunity to exercise the greatest freedom that safeguards his or her individuality, the freedom of choice, how free is she or he really? Individuality is at the root of all creativity and without creation a society stops evolving and stagnates; the protection of individuality is the hallmark of a progressive society. 

(Programs broadcast on the two state owned television channels ARD and ZDF are not interrupted by advertisement.)

I conclude with another quote from Jean Paul Satre: Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you.  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Unword of the Year

Every year the Germans take one word from their precious language and flog and disgrace it in public. It is then crowned the Unwort des Jahres, Unword of the Year and its nomination is eagerly awaited each year.

Often, it is a word created during the year by the unfolding of an event that drew considerable public attention, after all the German propensity to infinitesimally string new words together throws open mind-dazzling and increasingly tongue twisting possibilities. 

Always, it is a word that prompts deep introspection and comtemplation into the state of society at large and precipitates a debate on values. Thomas Mann once said, “the finest characteristic of the typical German, the best known and also the most flattering to his self-esteem, is his inwardness.”  
The Unwort des Jahres provides a gleeful and splendid opportunity to exercise this inwardness.

Some Unwords*:

Unword of the Year 2012: Opfer-Abo which translates into “Subscription to declare themselves Victims”.
The term was coined by a prominent TV personality, Jörg Kachelmann for his ex-girlfriend who took him to court on charges of sexual harassment and rape for what he claimed was a consensual act. He claimed that women in today’s society have a running subscription (like a magazine subscription) to declare themselves victims and use this against men to the extent of, say, inventing charges of sexual harassment or rape and are thereby perpetrators themselves. A serious accusation, the generalization to all women was considered insulting and inacceptable.

Kachelmann was crucified by the press. The gory details received wide media coverage and his offensive remark found a deserved place in the annals of the Unword of the Year 2012.

The Jury contended that in light of the fact that a mere 5-8% of such cases are reported to the police and thereof only 3-4% are taken to court, the accusation is not based on factual data and is a gross attack on the dignity of a real victim. It did not attempt to arrive at a verdict on this or similar cases. Its main criticism targeted the usage or even coinage of a term that gives tangible shape to existing prejudices against victims of sexual harassment and rape and thereby perpetuates the prejudices.
Words such as this and their influence on shaping public thought have no place in a civilized society.

Unword of the Year 1994: Peanuts, term for fifty million Deutsch Marks. Used by a leading banker to describe the bills that could not be paid by bust real estate moghul, Schneider. The eponymous comedy film Peanuts – The Bank Pays it All, die Bank zahlt alles produced in 1996 is a satirical depiction of the Schneider story.

In a society generally hostile to the capitalist values that banks are perceived to represent, the word came to represent the arrogance of bankers and their apparent detachment from the normal, prevalent social value system.

The jury for placing the crown of thorns on the Unword of the Year, consisting of a team of linguists and a journalist, was founded in 1991. Everything the Germans do is bound by by a set of rules and this is no exception. The winning word fits into one of the following categories:

- It is an affront to human dignity.
Unword 1999 Kollateralschaden: collateral damage, belittlement of civilian killings during the Kosovo war.

- It represents a disregard for democratic priniciples.
Unword 2009, Betriebsratverseucht: Trade Union pollution, an irreverent description of  workers’ representives and the ideology of the social state, Sozialstaat.

- It discriminates against particular social groups.
Unword 1997 Wohlstandsmüll: The garbage of affluence, for people living on social help.

- It is euphemistic, obfuscating or outright misleading.
Unword 2005: Entlassungsproduktivität: increase in productivity by firing employees.
If words and language identify a Volk and engender its unique consciousness as the great German philosopher Herder observed, the Unword of the Year gives a good insight into that consciousness and the values of the Volk in a roundabout way.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Naked Truth


Far from the hustle bustle of an overcrowded Indian city, the calls of persistent hawkers, the traffic jams and honking, with his passport stamped with a visa, after queuing for hours in a long, serpentine line spilling over several blocks outside the consulate, several rounds of "interviews" behind him, each more intimidating than a college entrance exam, the expat finally sets foot in a German city. 

He looks around in wonder, it is so quiet here, not even a honk in gods own land of automobiles. The city is curiously bare of people, almost deserted if it is a weekend, the streets populated by rows and rows of silent parked cars. He can hear the birds chirping.

Within this sound of silence, he soon discovers his one constant companion, his Private Sphere, which he carries with him wherever he goes. His very own mobile holy shrine, a nebulous area enveloping him, threatened by all sorts of elements intent upon besmirching its pristine purity, to be fiercely protected at all times. Where was this private sphere all those years back home?

Learning of the private sphere and staying clear of the private sphere of others is one of the first steps in the process of acclimatization in the new environs. Entrance strictly by invitation, date agreed well in advance.

Nowhere in the world is the Data Protection Act followed with such meticulous care in word and spirit, an act especially designed to protect and safeguard the individuals right to privacy.

With all this noise about privacy, the German way of enjoying the sauna comes as a bit of a shock.

Relaxation is a serious pursuit in this country and visits to the sauna are especially popular in the cold winter months. Public saunas are often offered within the same recreational facility as swimming pools and gyms. The dress code in a sauna is simple and uniform i.e. there isn't any. Sauna goers' sweat it out in their birthday suits in a cabin full of naked strangers. A sauna is a Textilfrei area, which means swimming costumes or robes are not allowed. This allows the pores to sweat freely and rid the body of toxins. Modesty is a misplaced virtue here. 

A strict behaviour code applies within the steamy cabin nonetheless, which ensures a certain kind of comfort by way of adherence to an accepted pattern. 
The first code involves odour. Odour can offensively penetrate the private sphere, so perfume and garlic are to be avoided at all costs before a visit. 
Two towels are necessary, one to sit on, placed at a decent distance on the bench from the neighbour; the other may be used for circulating the hot air risen to the top of the cabin by fanning in a rapid rotatory motion. 
Slippers are left outside, a hello or 'guten tag' in a soft non-intrusive voice on entering is considered polite. The door should be closed quickly while entering and leaving to not let cold air in, otherwise a sharp reminder from a guest inevitably follows. Every sauna has an 'Aufguss', hot stones on a brazier on which plain water with or without scented oil is poured at intervals to humidify the air. Aromatic oils such as eucalyptus, lavender or mint enhance the complete experience. Some saunas meter the time between each Aufguss by a bygone relic, the hour-glass, one of its few remaining practical uses out of a board game. 

A sauna is not the place for avid conversation, eating or drinking.
Staring at other sauna inmates an absolute no-go.

Three rounds of fifteen minutes each in the sauna is the norm for getting hot and sweaty. Periods between the rounds are for cooling off by plunging into a cold outdoor pool, a douse of cold water or stepping onto a sub-zero patio. The abrupt change of body temperature stimulates and invigorates the system and one leaves the sauna experience relaxed and recharged.  

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Take away 1, 2 becomes 3

The time has come to return the extra hour borrowed last October, at the start of wintertime,  Winterzeit. October 28th 2012 was a 25 hour day. For a quick recall read:

On the night to Sunday 31.03.2013, the clocks will jump one hour from 2:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. in all of Germany and Sommerzeitsummertime will start. At the stroke of the hour, clocks at railway stations, airports, traffic controls, radio and television will automatically skip an hour. All mechanical clocks will be adjusted manually.   The night will be shorter by one hour, one hour less sleep for everybody. This Sunday will consist of only 23 hours. An unheard event in India, where a day consists of 24 hours all year long, without exception.

However, in the land of the orderly and precise, twice a year, man pulls asunder the orderliness of the divine timekeeper.  And he suffers for his audacity. His biological rhythm is thrown out of sync yet again. A 23 hour day is stressful. People complain of tiredness, lack of concentration and experience problems falling asleep. Advice from health gurus abound in plenty: a brisk walk in the fresh air, herbal teas or start adjusting for the Lost Hour three days in advance, by going to bed, say, 20 minutes earlier each day.

Office goers leave for work the following Monday when it is suddenly darker than usual. Those driving through woody areas have to be cautioned against wild animals, such as deer and rams, who are most active during these early hours and are often seen running across the road.

Introduced in 1980 as an energy saving gimmick, the majority is not convinced of its effectiveness. There is no concrete proof the trick works and that it has resulted in significantly reducing energy consumption. Over 70% of the people surveyed, according to a study, would like to do away with the daylight saving time. 

So much for now. Have a wonderful 23 hour day!

Signing off from Frankfurt am Main

Shormila Junak

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Searching History for an Answer

In my previous posts, I have written on some particular traits that arguably define the typical German character. That is, if you like arguing.

Being German is a responsible, serious business not to be taken lightly. And like all good businesses, the society functions efficiently within the parameters of well defined rules. 

The members of the society have Important tasks to accomplish every day, some of these are listed in my post "The importance of being German"

It also has a self regulatory mechanism in place to ensure the adherence of recalcitrant, wayward members at no extra cost to the exchequer. A truly social, democratic corrective mechanism called "The national hobby of finding fault". See my post for more on this.

Rule bound, punctual, precise, matter-of-fact and orderly with a rigorous thoroughness. Typical Prussian traits. Is it possible to search history and pinpoint a period in time responsible for elevating these character traits as role models for the perfect citizen, groomed with calculation to serve a larger purpose? The purpose may have changed over time in content, if not in reach, but the characteristics defining the role models have retained their relevance right into the twenty-first century.

The 16th century is a good place to start. The Protestant Reformation movement in the 16th century was spearheaded by two critical events in Germany: the translation of the Bible from Latin, a language restricted to the educated elite, into the German vernacular by Martin Luther and the invention of the mechanical movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. The very first era in mass communication was ushered in, which coupled with a rise in literacy, snatched the monopoly in education and learning from the elite and made it available to the public at large. 
Against a backdrop of increasing discontent with the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope, the ready availability of translations of the Bible put the teachings of Martin Luther directly into the hands of the masses and thereby transformed society forever, threatening the existing political and religious structures. He made a call to purify the Church and questioned the supremacy of the Pope by claiming the Bible to be the ultimate spiritual authority. Needless to say, Martin Luther was excommunicated. Lutheranism and the Protestant Church were born.

Our role model citizen is now ready to be shaped.

By the late 17th century the adherents of Martin Luther felt the church had moved away from its original ideals, distanced itself from its followers and fallen prey to the shortcomings it once sought reform. A movement called Pietism started within Lutheranism, stressing a return to its original disciplined pristine simplicity. As a practical form of Christianity, Pietism put the character of the individual on centre stage, focusing on inner development over doctrinal authority imposed by the Church and practical acts of charity, prayer, Bible reading over intellectual sophistication. 

The shift of emphasis to the inner being enabled the authorities greater leeway in imposing moral discipline. Pietism became the new form of State religion in the absolutist State under Elector Frederick Wilhelm of the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty. Strong work ethics, commitment to the state and discipline characterized the Pietist. The aims of Frederick Wilhelm and Pietism coincided wonderfully. By the time Frederick the Great came to power in 1740, the Prussian kings wore military uniforms and practised an ethic of austerity whereas other European courts were characterized by ostentatious pomp and splendour.  The most far-reaching influence of Pietism was in the military and bureaucracy, the Prussian civil servant was known for his efficiency. 

Pietism was a significant movement that played a leading role in defining the ideal Prussian character traits. 

The Prussian state under the Hohenzollerns rose to become one of the most powerful in Europe, leading to the formation of the German Empire in 1871. Widespread social disturbance after World War I and the formation of the Weimar Republic finally forced the Hohenzollern monarch to abdicate in 1918. The House of Hohenzollerns ended after a rule spanning several centuries.

The legacy initiated by Pietism carries on.

On that note, signing off from Frankfurt am Main

Shormila Junak


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Festive and some other Customs

December is a month rich in tradition and Germans are very particular about their customs. They are followed meticulously. The festive season called the Adventzeit starts four weeks leading to Christmas and each Sunday is a festive occasion. The countdown starts on the first Sunday, the first Advent, in every household by lighting one of the four candles on the Adventskranz and this officially inaugurates the season. On the fourth Advent, the last Sunday before Christmas, all candles are lit, each now of a different size and the spirit is in full swing.

Adventskranz mit 4 Kerzen
An Adventskranz, one candle is lit each Sunday leading to Christmas

Love and brotherhood of mankind is in the air mingled with the tantalizing aroma of roasted almonds, cinnamon, crepes and Glühwein, a hot sweet wine particular to the winter season, floating from the stalls in the Weihnachtsmärkte, Christmas markets. The Weihnachtsmärkte start on the first and end on the fourth Advent. Adventzeit is incomplete without a glass of hot Glühwein sipped standing at a stall in a Weihnachtsmarkt milling with people, in the freezing cold.

German children have to do some more counting. They are presented with an Adventskalender with 24 doors on the first of December; one door is opened every day to reveal a piece of chocolate.

An Adventskalender, 24 doors with hidden goodies

The discipline, with which one and only one door is opened each day, is a source of infinite wonder to many an Indian mother. Variations are sold now-a-days, with small toys instead of chocolate behind the doors, but they have by far not been able to replace the magic of the traditional Adventskalender.

This is also a time for socializing, parties and dinners. At a dinner party hosted by a German, it is customary that the host starts eating first, usually after raising a toast. The guests follow, sip after the host takes his first sip, and start with the meal on a cue from the host as he/she starts. A reverse order to the Indian “phele aap” tradition in which the guest is served and is expected to start with the meal first.

At a restaurant, pub or a Bockwurst stand, bills are always split unless expressly agreed otherwise in advance. The Indian custom in which one person pays the bill under the assumption that between friends equalization takes place in the long run does not apply. It is not precise enough. Waiters ask before presenting the bill whether the guests want to pay “getrennt oder zusammen” split or together, and are prepared to divide it minutely without batting an eyelid.
The communion between a German and his money is sacred and inviolable.

Polite greetings are extremely important, anywhere, at any time of the day whether on entering a lift full of strangers or passing a neighbour walking his dog. Rather a Guten Tag too much than too less. The unsuspecting expat will be stamped rude and taciturn in the highly structured German mind for this apparently minor transgression. A polite acknowledgement of the presence of others is placed high in the rule-book of everyday etiquette.

Also, a big deal is made of handshaking in private dos. Enter a party, meet a sea of people. Shake hands, shake hands. A new person enters. Shake hands. Leaving the party? Say goodbye. Shake hands, shake hands.

On that note, signing off from Frankfurt am Main

Shormila Junak

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Curious thing called Curry

If we were to choose one word that captures the quintessence of Indian cuisine abroad, the one word that represents all Indian food from north to south, east to west, regardless of region or culture, that word would indisputably be Curry. Say “Curry” and the whole world known you mean Indian food.

The term Curry refers to a yellow or mustard colour spice available in nearly every supermarket in Germany or European city and is an essential ingredient in Indian cooking abroad. It has managed to work its way up the cadres of spices and firmly established itself as a true representative of Indian cuisine. Ahead of widely used garam masala, paanch phoron or sambar powder known to every Indian housewife.

Curry as a spice is not found in a traditional Indian kitchen, it is unknown to the cook in India.

Curry? What is this Curry? wonders the expat Indian pushing his trolley down the supermarket aisle, to stop in front of shelves stacked with rows of condiments and stare at the yellow tin labelled “Curry”. Is it a kind of turmeric?

Curry is a spice mix. It consists of coriander, turmeric, fennel, cumin and fenugreek mixed in various proportions and ground to a fine powder. Some types also include cloves, garlic, ginger, chillies and mustard in the mix, to name a few spices. Each brand of curry powder has its own particular taste and aromatic accent.

To the Indian cook, the word “curry” signifies gravy or sauce. Popular dishes such as chicken curry, mutton curry and vegetable curry derive their names from this original usage of the term.

So how did Curry become an ambassador to Indian cuisine abroad?

Indian food started gaining popularity outside India in the 1950`s and `60 resulting in widespread growth of Indian restaurants. Indian cuisine soon acquired a large following and Indian cooking attracted the interest of cooks and hobby-cooks abroad. The spices required for the dishes were not readily available; some were rather exotic and most were not present in the normal assortment of spices used for western cooking.

The innumerable rare and exotic spices were mixed to a blend that approximated the aroma and flavour conjured by an Indian cook, merchandised as Curry, and made easily available to all fans of Indian cuisine. It soon became an essential ingredient in Indian dishes abroad.

And so the Curry was born.

On that note, signing off from Frankfurt am Main

Shormila Junak