No, someone did not just sneeze. Gesundheit isn’t just something to be said after someone detonates virus-laden spittle from their mouths at 230kph before panic-strickenly checking themselves, and others, for contagious debris. Hardly anything ruins a happy moment faster than your boss – or worse, me – discovering a sticky mess stuck to their cheek which is, in essence, the health equivalent of radioactive schrapnel from a terrorist’s dirty-bomb. Like airport screeners checking for explosives, I may have to start administering cheek-swab flu tests at the door before allowing anyone inside the house. Don’t worry; if it comes back positive I, unlike the TSA, am unlikely to tackle you to the ground. The same cannot be said for our Golden Retriever, Buster, however. As I usually remove objects from his mouth that he has just retrieved, he may mistake the swab that I removed from your mouth as a toy that he must gain possession of, no matter the cost.
Meaning “Healthiness”, Gesundheit is a core principle of German life. Affordable, universal healthcare aside, life in Deutschland is all about moderation which, as any doctor will tell you, is the secret to longevity. Do you smoke? Okay, but do so only on occasion. Drink? As I mentioned in my previous posts about drinking, only have a few…unless you are wearing Lederhosen. Like Mormon underwear designed by Keith Richards, they seem to offer some sort of divine protection against consumption-induced repercussions, and it’s subsequent embarrassment, though not from the embarrassment of wearing the item itself. This is especially true if you have put on a few pounds as I have. I don’t know who designed these things but flattering one’s figure was certainly not the intent. Wearing tight leather shorts with suspenders and a chest strap frames, like a Bavarian Botticelli, one’s belly nicely but is anything but aesthetic.
Do you bungee jump or climb mountains that many others have perished on? You are likely an idiot with a death wish and, consequently, your AOK (German health insurance) card has just been revoked and your next of kin have been notified, in advance, of your impending demise.
As I have mentioned already, Germans, collectively, are quite healthy and so because of this, there is one small fact that initially puzzled me: Seemingly no one works out here. Okay, there are plenty of Ausländers (foreigners living in Germany) like myself, but barely any actual Germans go to the gym. Compared to the States where everybody that wants to be in shape goes to the gym in an effort to maximize their muscles, most Germans seem perfectly content to not have huge, veiny biceps. Weird, right? I mean, who doesn’t want arms that look like angry penises?
In the US, everything must be maximized; Physiques, pick-up trucks, vestigal 80’s hairstyles, etc. The more practical Germans, in contrast, are not particularly keen on maximizing anything (except maybe their insurance policies) but they are, though not particularly muscular, still remarkably fit.
Now, the only source for my statement that Germans don’t typically work out is my own experience in Mergentheim, Eve’s confirmation that this is true, and my best mate Marc who is the exception that proves the rule. Allow me to explain: Marc is from Mergentheim but after high school, he left for the UK where he went to college and then spent a year in Ireland before moving briefly to the States. Now, Marc does go to the gym, but here is why he is the exception: After that much time in different English-speaking countries, he is now only 1/8 German, i.e.; The average American. As many Germans that have visited America can attest to, when one of us hears that you are German, we say, “Really? I’m part German“. Then, when you reply, “Schön. Welcher Teil? Ihr rechten Fuß?”, we panic, yell, “Schnitzel!”, and then run away.
I have to add a little side-note about Marc here, potentially to the detriment of our friendship. Marc is tall, fit, generous almost to a fault, and has the kind of rugged good looks that make you want to punch Tom Selleck in the mustache. In fact, if I were more human and so given to such low emotions as jealously and envy, I would eliminate him as a threat by spreading malicious rumors about him. Luckily for him, I am not as I was so severely injured while on duty as a police officer that much of my brain, and almost all of my body, is now robotic which has left me a nearly indestructible and much-feared super-policeman.
Dammit. No, that’s Robo-Cop. Curse my movie-drenched 80’s upbringing! Now where was I? Oh. Right. Marc.
Did you know that Marc secretly…uhhh… That he…errr…
I can’t do it. The only skeleton in this guy’s closet is probably the halloween costume that he dons each year for a children’s charity.
Okay. Time to navigate this rudderless word-ship back to the point: In spite of not following each other over the fitness cliff in droves like Spandex-obsessed lemmings, Germans are a fit bunch. I attribute this to the following things:
1). Germans, unless being chased, don’t run.
This might seem counter-productive to one’s fitness goals so please, allow me to augment that statement in two parts. The first is that typical Germans aren’t prone to running, though you will occasionally see brightly-colored human Nike ads here and there. These are either Americans or Germans who have been to the States and witnessed either the Boston or New York marathon, as well as the perplexing rebirth of neon-colored clothing. If you see someone running and they are not wearing “I am visible from distant galaxies“ yellow, and if they are not me, then it might be my perpetually black-wearing friends Thomas or Johannes. If they are none of us, then they are most likely not excercising and are in actuality fleeing some tragic event and you should probably join them. Though tornadoes and asteroid impacts are almost non-existent here, there is flooding.
Because they cannot afford to have inclement weather hinder any of the constant outdoor spring and summer fests that begin in May, Germany had a few top minds from BMW and the Deutscher Wetterdienst (German Weather Service) engineer the weather. The amount of rain that would normally come down during the entire spring and summer now falls from the sky solely during the months of March and April. As intended, this provides not just sunny days for revelry during the warmer months, but also that the plants still get their adequate amount of precipitation, albeit all at once.
There were unintended consequences, however. Like beer through a college freshman’s funnel, concentrating all of that rainfall into a narrower window increases its force and the normally gentle rain now gushes from the sky sideways. Mother Nature does not like to be messed with. The soft, David Banner-esque showers that fall during the rest of the year have in spring been transformed into the angry and Hulk-like Hurricane Hans.
“Why not just carry an umbrella?”, you might ask. Foolish human. Because Hans hates you and your dry clothes, that’s why. Hans’ sole business is vast amounts of water…and during spring in Germany, business is booming. Hans raises not just rivers, but everyones’ level of humliation by not just snapping umbrellas like cocktail garnishes, but by first whipping them against the side of anyone’s head who’s brazen enough to hold one. He then gleefully adds insult to injury by drenching you with a torrent of horizontal H2O which leaves you looking as if you fell, fully dressed, into a lake.
The second argument for Germans not running is that, quite frankly, running is one of the worst exercises for your body. Sure, running gives you that infamous “runner’s high” but this is Germany and a nice cold Doppelbock is a much safer alternative. Running is hard on the knees and leads to ankle sprains and shin-splints. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that injuring yourself in the name of fitness is about as counterproductive as swimming in an attempt to stay dry. If you can’t move, you will get fat…or worse. After eons of passing down Grimm tales of enemy knights and wolves, Germans have learned to save their running for when it is necessary. This ensures that when the time comes, they can escape rather than becoming a broadsword pincushion or an easy meal for the big bad wolf. Nothing is quite as unhealthy as being dead.
2). Germans walk, or bike, everywhere.
There are foot and bike paths literally everywhere in Germany. Like a 2D network of intersecting ant tunnels pulled to the surface, paths connect not just different parts of a colony or town, but towns themselves. They even connect countries. Should one have the desire, one could, in fact, walk from Poland to Portugal or from Luxembourg to Latvia, and so on. Harkening back to the pre-auto days of yore when most of the population walked from place to place (and Mr. Benz’s forbears were presumably hawking horse-drawn wagons to those that could afford not to walk), these meandering paths are now teeming almost constantly with people either strolling or cycling. Simply put, it’s hard to be fat when you walk or pedal 20 kilometers each day. As I am somewhat prone to slight exaggeration, you might think that I am embellishing here. I am not. On any given day, you can witness severe old women walking menacingly between Igersheim and Bad Mergentheim. The distance from one to the other is only 4km but, when you consider that they must also tack on quite a few kilometers by always impeding your forward progress, the 20 kilometers that I mentioned is quickly achieved. The mention of elderly women being menacing or slowing one down might be confusing if you don’t live here so I will explain: When you approach any crosswalk, a woman in a grey shawl and black head scarf will, even if you drove past her twenty minutes earlier, leap inexplicably onto it from out of nowhere but then proceed to shuffle across at the blistering pace of a two-legged turtle.
Logic tells me, of course, that this cannot be the same woman and so she must then be the other’s Doppelgänger. Most Americans will recognize this word – if only from the 1993 movie of the same name starring Drew Barrymore – and may even know that it translates to “Double Walker“. What they may not know, however, is that in German culture, and others, seeing a Doppelgänger is an omen of bad luck. This becomes particularly poignent when you are forced to suddenly stand on the brakes of your Mercedes to avoid hitting these gray-haired harbingers of doom and are promptly rear-ended by a Peugot. It is in this instance that the circle of life, and it’s usually intangible connection between past and present events, becomes vividly apparent: You have just been saved by an airbag whose original prototype – created by the same man whose name is on your car – was a puposely fattened sheep strapped across the lap of the wealthy wagon driver who, two centuries earlier, navigated those same trails that this woman just jumped onto right in front of you.
3). Germans, as a whole, eat sensibly.
That statement might, at first glance, seem like a bald-faced lie: Most menus in both German restaurants and households are full of starches and fats. Knödel, Spätzle, Bratwurst, Käsekuchen. All are not particularly healthy but there is, combined with the aforementioned fact that Germans are more active than most Americans, a reason why this is true: Portions are smaller here than in the states. Aside from the Michelin-starred snob-tablishments that give you a half-filled thimble for $200, virtually anything that you order in the US is often carted to your table on a plate the size of sledding saucer.
Additionally, and whether it’s true that they cause weight gain or not, GMO’s are banned in Germany. Fillers and additives that are secretly added in the US that swell the typical American’s waistline must here be clearly stated on product labels. Refined white cane sugar, another fat-inducing American staple, can be found here but is rare as most Germans buy the unprocessed local variety that comes from Zuckerrüben (sugar beets). Should you find yourself driving down a German road in late fall and wonder what those huge mounds of white orbs are that are piled along the side – those are sugar beets.
I haven’t asked him, but since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s last name means “Sugar Mountain“ in German, I have decided that his ancestors were German sugar beet farmers, so named after the enormous mountains of beets they erected each October. Excess sugar consumption swells one’s face and so, since ancient Germans were superstitious people, in early times the only remedy for this affliction was “Gesichtbuch“: The practice of firmly pressing one’s visage between the pages of a thick-volumed bible to reduce the evil swelling. That’s right, boys and girls, “Gesichtbuch” translates to “Facebook”. No further proof is needed. I rest my case.
(…to be continued).