Return of the prodigal Hamburger

People with German ancestry are the single largest ethnic group in US.  Yet, it’s a testament to their ubiquity that it’s often not understood by Americans themselves just how subtly German popular culture has influenced their own.  My mother’s family are typical German-Americans as they live in Midwest in a semi-rural setting. German-americans largely live in “fly over” country, not the coasts.  My great grand-parents immigrated to the US shortly before World War 1 and made a bee-line to Midwest and it’s promise of relatively cheap farm land.  My Grandmother spoke a dialect of German (similar to Luxembourgish or Blatt in Alsace) with her parents and 14 brothers and sisters.  While she continued to speak German with her sisters into old age it was very much a private, behind closed doors activity.  The last thing she would have ever considered was teaching her own children to speak German.  World War 2 comprehensively denatured a whole generation of Germanic Americans.

In the Americas (aka the New World), the word “European” is used almost as a snobby superlative.  There is common delusion, for example,  that all Frenchmen are chain-smoking philsophes with 3 mistresses and a fine wine cellar.  Germans are coldly efficient techocrats, and so forth.  OK, there is some truth to stereotypes, but most “culture” is low-brow, and Europeans are no exception.  I put forth to you that much of Midwestern US “redneck” culture is German popular culture, crudely grafted to a new location.

The most obvious vestige of this German heritage is food.  Much of what we think of as generic “American” food is German; Hamburgers, sausages (including the ubiquitous hot dog), inordinate fondness for bread, dill pickles, potato pancakes, fried fish and beer to name a few.  If you’ve eaten at a State fair in the US and then attended a similar event in Germany, the parallels are obvious.  Home style baking in the US is largely influenced by German, not British or French, tastes.  The German fondness for big portions arrived in America and immediately took steroids.  The apfel doesn’t fall from the tree, y’all.

In my last post I mentioned that I took part in a 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation last weekend  https://wordpress.com/post/expatpowerlifter.com/1438.  The competition took place is a smallish town in a beautiful semi-rural setting to the north-east of Cologne.  In short, it was the German equivalent of the community that my mother’s family hails from in the US.  And, yes, it was a powerlifting meet, not post-doctorate symposium on String Theory.  It was a perfect setting to observe German popular culture in action.

First, however, a quick word about me and the German language.  I’ve never failed so completely to learn a language.  Experience has shown that give me a Romance or creole/pidgen language and I’m off to the races…so I’m not a language dunce.  It was therefore with quite a bit of hubris that I began my study of German…and failed spectacularly.  My kids speak (amongst other languages) German and my daughter has a special fondness for it, maybe because it confounds her parents.

Nevertheless, when I arrived in the parking lot of the facility that was hosting the competition, I couldn’t help but feel at home.  There was just a very familiar red-necky vibe…if I squinted a bit I might have been in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Literally,  as in some of them looked like cousins of mine, dark hair, stocky compact builds.  Beer, check, fried food, check, baked goods, check.  Talk about sports, check, talk about cars, check, crude jokes, check.  “Unique” grooming and vestimentary choices, check.  The attitudes, the facial expressions were uncannily like a backyard BBQ in Michigan.  Good people, for the most part, but with a pronounced insular streak, just like back home.  The event was only in German so good luck to the non-Germanophones.  I was the only non-European at the event and people couldn’t have cared less except for a few odd grumbles about my lack of German.   Again, just like you know where.  (The ironic part is that I am 1m80, fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.  So I while look the part in a central casting sort of way, the reality is most Germans don’t seem to fit the blond hair/blue eyes mold.  In my experience, it’s much more common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.)

I wish I could describe this feeling better.  I feel more comfortable in a similar situation in the UK or France, Belgium, etc because I speak the languages.  Yet, in spite of my profound ignorance of the language, this felt more “familiar”.  It felt like home.  Take that as you will.  Home is often far from perfect, but it undeniably informs who you are.

Coming to America…and then leaving.

In the mid-80s I was finishing my somewhat checkered high-school career in a 3rd, no, scratch that, 4th world country somewhere in Latin America.  I lived with my mother who is a highly educated, brilliant woman who, nevertheless, was not paid very much at that point in her career.  Anybody familiar with 3rd world countries knows that scratching out a living is a challenge.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – forget NYC, which is a cakewalk in comparison.

Anyway, we had a standard of living that you might call middle-class for that country (whose middle-class was very small indeed) but would probably be considered poverty level in the US or Europe.  I should add that as blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man I rather stuck out in the neighborhood.  (NB:  I am American born to US parents, I just wasn’t born nor spent most of my formative years there).   Without straying too far into the minefield of political correctness, suffice it to say that without money in a place like this you are powerless.  I learned early on that many people of who have any sort of power love to see desperate people squirm.  I had a very hard time with that dynamic, it stuck in my throat.

It wasn’t all bad.  I wouldn’t have swapped growing up there, at the time that I did, in the way that I did, for anything.  It’s an amazing country, culturally vibrant, amazing beaches and blessed with a very funny, welcoming populace.  I was an overwhelming minority, and people brought it to my attention all the time, but it was usually not mean-spirited. It was so much fun that, upon discovering partying and girls, I pretty much kissed my high school career goodbye.  In spite of outstanding SAT scores and potential, I barely graduated from high school.  2 weeks later my long-suffering mother wished me well and put me on a plane for States.  I was 18 years old, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket and vague plans of either living with my sister (who was going to college) or some high school buds who were in very similar situation.  I hadn’t bothered to apply to any colleges because my grades and financial situation meant it wasn’t an option.

Given my level of maturity and proclivity for partying, I lasted roughly 3 weeks with my sister before she gave me the heave-ho.  I didn’t have any hard feelings then, nor do I now.  It was best for everyone that I go.  So I took the train a few hundred miles up the East coast to join up with my aforementioned pals.  The five of us managed to score a small studio that was leased to one of the guys’ older brother.  We had 2 twin beds and 3 additional mattresses on the floor.  We had to be very careful about not drawing attention to ourselves given we’d have been thrown out if the landlord found out 5 guys were living in 1 studio.

Failure was not an option and that realization clarified my goals and game-plan almost immediately.  I knew I was in for a few years of hard-slogging so I resolved to make the best of it.  Crappy, minimum wage dead-end jobs weren’t going to cut it as they were a waste of time and potential.  I took the best-paying jobs a mere high school graduate could hope to score, but also ones that would hopefully allow me to progress to better jobs.  I started working in high-end restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then bus-boy, waiter, apprentice baker and eventually as a commis.  Restaurant work was exhausting, but it was an education.  There were periods when I held down 2 jobs.  All the while I lived in series of horrible apartments in crappy neighborhoods with, of course, room-mates who were in similar situations.

I eventually scored a mail-room gig in a bank in the financial district.  I mean, this was straight up old school – I don’t think mail rooms even exist any more.  Basically I delivered mail, and written memos (common use of email – and networked PCs – where still a year or 2 down the road) as well as performed a number of odd-jobs.  I busted my butt and hustled on every single task because I knew it was the only way to get noticed.  I eventually was promoted into “Data Processing” (the IT department as it’s generally known now) and I was off to the races.  I began to acquire valuable skills that enabled me to find better paying jobs, pursue my college degree (while working full-time) and, some years later, finally get an apartment all to myself.  This was the Holy Grail, a studio in a trendy downtown neighborhood.  It was also strangely lonely at first, after so many years of living with friends.

I finally had my own apartment, a college degree, a less than impressive used car and a decent job that employed both my IT and language skills.  I traveled often to Latin American, Africa and Europe for work.  I’m happy to say that all of my pals from the “5 guys in a studio” days had similar trajectories.  So there came a point when we were victims of our own success in the sense that people began to move away to follow their careers.  I had just turned 30 and I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to stay.  Many of my friends were moving away and I had just ended a serious relationship.

This was at the height of the “internet boom” of the 90s.  I realized that I had been working very hard over the last 12 years, often taking, at best, a week of vacation per year.  I figured that I could probably find another job pretty easily.  So I quit my job to go backpacking for a few months through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with these French girls I knew.  I have never, before or since, taken off that much time just to do my own thing.  For those of you who know Mexico, at the time Playa del Carmen was a village where we rented hammocks on the beach for 3 dollars a day (i.e. you slept in them) and there was virtually nothing in Tulum.  Hanging at the beach all day and sleeping under these huge palapas, surrounded by legions of hot euro-babes, I though I had died and gone to heaven.  Not to mention the cheap tacos, ceviche and beer.

When I got back to the US, I found out that I had scored a 2 year contract in Europe was welcome news as I was short of funds and I was itching to move.  So I did, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’ve only been back a few times given most of my family is living elsewhere.

I often wonder if my trajectory would be possible for a young guy starting out now.  I sincerely doubt it.  Firstly, I did not have to deal with globalization so I was competing for jobs on a national, not international level.  I was at the tail-end of the last generation when it possible to pull yourself out of the muck without impeccable academic credentials.  Also, by going to a very good state university (partially subsidized by my job) I graduated without crippling debt.  In my generation, having any college degree on your CV was good enough to get your foot in the door.   From what I hear and read in the US media, that is not the case any more.

As a father and somebody who interacts a fair amount with younger people, I always try to stress that excelling academically is actually the best way, to “hack” the system.   If you’re a young person blessed with the common sense to not go off the rails academically AND have a good idea of what you want to do in life, you have an enormous advantage.  I was able to find a reasonable level of success, but I worked extremely hard to do so.  Young people these day do not have the luxury my generation had of going to college to “find themselves” or earn less than practical degrees.  In the age of outsourcing, you best choose your academic path extremely wisely and pursue that career to the best of your ability.

 

 

Down the Youtube rabbit hole

Over the last few years I have realized that I tend to watch more Youtube content than I do mainstream TV.  My habit began when I realized that YouTube contains some fairly solid powerlifting content.  Then I discovered a number of good cooking resources, some excellent podcasts, alternative journalism and down the rabbit hole I went.  While the recent “de-monitization” policy has hit certain youtube content providers somewhat hard, I find it’s still viable and capable of producing informative content.   Below is a list of past and current favorite Youtube channels:

General interest

  • Joe Rogan Experience –  Yeah, he’s a guy’s guy and the talk tends towards the locker room but I know of no other podcast that addresses so many different subjects and fascinating thought leaders.  I was initially floored to find out he’s an intelligent, hard-working and highly capable interviewer.  This one goes far and wide – excellent to listen to while driving or getting ready in the morning.
  • Casey Neistat – just because…admit it, he’s strangely watchable.
  • VICE – Thought provoking journalism that covers a huge range of topics.
  • Great Big Story – similar to VICE, a bit less edgy.
  • Tim Ferris – Similar to Joe Rogan, but more geared towards personal growth.  Also very good to listen to during long trips or in the morning whilst shaving.
  • First we feast – Hot Ones:  How can you not love this premise?  The guests eat increasingly hotter buffalo wings while the host peppers (sorry, it was low-hanging fruit) them with questions.  Also, the guests just keep getting better and better the more popular the show gets.
  • BroScience Life – Gym behavior is fertile ground for parody and, surprisingly, only “Dom Mazzetti” has consistently funny material.  The Buff Dudes mine this same vein (with better production values) but lack the gonzo riffs and creative edge.
  • Awaken with JP – Love this channel, love it.  His deadpan delivery is second to none.  The Prancercise video went viral recently…but there are so many other good ones on this channel as well.
  • Bill Wurtz – Unique, mind-blowing animated shorts.  “history of the entire world, I guess” is the single most brilliant thing I have seen on Youtube.

Powerlifting/Strength Training –

  • Supertraining06/Powercast/Silent Mike – Supertraining06 was the very first powerlifting youtube channel I followed and via guests/collaborations introduced me to a host of other excellent channels.  I’m aware that I listed 3 different channels and that Silent Mike is no longer affiliated with Mark Bell, Super Training gym and the PowerCast but to my mind these 3 channels were at their peak when Mark and Mike worked together.  I don’t watch these channels nearly as much as I used to.
  • Alan Thrall – Tons of great information done in an engaging style.  Alan recently drank the Starting Strength kool-aid which is fine.  I have nothing but respect for the SS body of knowledge regarding form, linear progression, etc.  Like just about everyone else, I own a dog-eared copy of Starting Strength.
  • Omar Isuf – Very informative, one of the original OGs of youtube Powerlifting channels.  Collabs quite a bit with Silent Mike and Bart Kwan of Barbell Brigade.
  • Barbell Brigade – Like Supertraining06, I used to watch this channel quite a bit but now much less so as the content has become less entertaining and almost devoid of information.  It’s now more about marketing than lifting.  BB seems to have fallen victim to their own success.  Say what you will about Mark Bell, but Supertraining06 is about the sheer joy of lifting, not hard-selling his products.
  • Juggernaut Training – For the serious strength athlete.
  • Calgary Barbell – Not a huge following yet, but excellent production values with informative content for the serious powerlifter.
  • Starting Strength – An excellent resource for the beginning powerlifter or anybody interested in Strength Training.  Yet, while I respect his knowledge I find everything else about Mark Rippetoe to be extremely grating.  People say CrossFitters are smug and condescending but they’ve got nothing on the SS community which is dogmatic to a T.  Still, if you had to pick only one channel strictly for information on how to do the lifts, this is the one to pick.
  • Buff Dudes – Lots of very good general strength training content as well as the aforementioned parody skits.
  • Brandon Campbell – How can you not like the homey from RI?  His low-key humor, training vlogs and equipment reviews make this a must watch for Powerlifting nerds.
  • Strength Wars – the bonkers German channel that a few years ago came up with the brilliant premise of pitting various types of strength athletes against each other.  Pure entertainment with no educational value.  Nobody in their right mind lifts like this, which is what makes it so compelling.
  • Strength Sensei – Charles Poliquin has forgotten more about strength training than I’ll ever know.  Lots of information regarding training and nutrition here.
  • Elliot Hulse – this is more of a Hall of Shame entry.  WTF happened, Elliot?  Elliot used to put out somewhat informative strength training content liberally interspersed which his thoughts on life, philosophy, the universe, etc.  Elliot was the sort of guy who always had an answer to everything, though that answer might be 90 percent pure BS.  It made for offbeat, interesting content so Elliot gained a large following.  At which point he started believing his own BS, got full of himself and the videos became unwatchable.  You’re not the next Messiah, Elliot, chill.

Cooking, Nutrition and Health –

  • Food Wishes – Chances are whatever recipe you want to make, Chef John had already made video about it.  The unique delivery and bad puns keep me coming back for more.
  • Jamie Oliver – Like Food Wishes, Jamie Oliver has a huge back-catalog of recipe videos.
  • Gordon Ramsey – Love him or hate him, you can’t deny the quality of his recipe vids.  I can’t say I’ve ever actually used one of them to cook a dish, but they are informative.
  • Binging with Babish/Basics with Babish – a must for cooking nerds, one that is becoming a sort of pop-culture reference in some circles.
  • Dr. Josh Axe – “food is medicine” One of my go to channels regarding nutrition and how our food choices influence our health.
  • Dr. Eric Berg – Another excellent nutrition channel.  Not as slickly produced as Dr. Axe, but informative nonetheless.
  • Bon Appetit – Strangely enough, more gonzo and personality driven than dryly informative, but that’s OK.

5 hard-earned tips for alleviating culture shock

As a seasoned traveler and a person who has lived in 12 fairly different countries, I tend to embrace a bit of culture shock and see it as a positive experience.  I embrace it precisely because years of experience has taught me the potential pitfalls and also the hidden joys of being immersed in a new culture .  For those who encounter culture shock for the first time, it can be a disorienting, isolating experience.

How one reacts culture shock is entirely dependent their frame of mind.  Yes, travel can broaden the mind, but only if you welcome the experience.  Here are the top strategies I’ve used to make encountering a new culture an enriching experience:

  1. Open your mind – Obvious advice, I know, but absolutely critical.  Most of the people I know who had negative expat experiences left their host countries almost entirely ignorant of the country’s language, history, cuisine, culture, politics, etc.  If you travel for extended periods of time and/or live in a “foreign” country,  you will enjoy the experience more by learning as much as you can about that country before you travel as well as during you stay.  Opening your mind also means realizing that travel is as much about new experiences as it is visiting places.  Don’t leave your common sense at home, but at the same time try not to judge every single thing through your own cultural lens.  Know that some hard work is required on your end, but that the ultimate reward is a much richer, more positive experience.
  2. Learn the language – Another obvious piece of advice that is nevertheless not followed by quite a few Anglophones who live in non-English speaking countries.  Nothing makes you feel more isolated and helpless than spending extended periods of time surrounded by people you can’t understand.  English speaking countries generally do not place a high value on learning a foreign language and, as a result, many Anglophones mistakenly think that one has to be a genius to learn a foreign language.  In the country where I live, almost everyone speaks at least 3 languages fluently and knowing up to 5 languages is not uncommon.  Telling somebody here that you can speak another language would be like telling them you know how to drive or that you can read.  My point is that almost anybody can learn,  at the very least, the rudiments of a language.  Most people positively react to foreigners who try to learn their language so even the potentially awkward act of, say, asking for directions in a new language can be a more pleasant experience that you’d imagine.  There are no downsides to learning a new language other than the effort you will need to put in.  And, yes, when you return to your Anglophone country, people will think you’re a veritable genius.
  3. Enjoy the sheer novelty  –  This is the hidden gem.  When you first arrive in a country that is unfamiliar your mind will kick into overdrive.  You will notice everything; the sights, the sounds, the smells, how people behave, how they dress, your new surroundings and so forth.  Some of those memories will be so new that they will be imprinted on your brain.  If I had to guess, it’s survival mechanism that evolution has bestowed on us.  Your mind is trying to familiarize itself as quickly as possible with the new parameters.  For some people who have never experienced this phenomenon, it might be stressful at first.  To be honest, adjusting to a radically new situation can be tiring.  The positive side is that, for a short time, you once again have the hyper inquisitive mind of a child.  Your brain is absolutely alert.  You see the world with eyes that are not so jaded by experience or the same old drudgery.  Know that this period does not last for a long time.  Eventually your mind reverts to homeostasis, so enjoy the feeling while it lasts.
  4. Enlist your baser instincts –  It’s a cliché but I tell you it’s 100 percent true.  The FASTEST way,  bar none, of learning a new language and/or culture is via one’s romantic partner.  If he or she is from the country in question, you have both the motivation and the means of broadening your knowledge.  Barring that, I find that attraction to the lifestyle, potential “romantic” partners (i.e. “Wow,  Barcelona is full of amazing women”) or the cuisine are pretty significant motivators.  Food and sex are, after all, primal needs.  As an aside, I arrived at my current situation in Europe fueled by a passion for my then girlfriend but also everything related to the world of wine.  Double-whammy.  I am no longer into the former and not as much into the latter , but the momentary motivation they provided me with made a big impact on my life.
  5. Continue to pursue your interests – The benefits of continuing to cultivate your interests in a new environment are twofold.  Firstly, it will give you a familiar anchor in an unfamiliar situation.  More importantly, in my opinion, is that shared interests offer opportunities to meet new people in your new country.  If you are truly passionate about your interest(s) and search out like-minded people, new doors will open to you.

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