Follow the Signs: Things I like in Germany


Remember when you were a kid and you could cut through the neighbor’s yard on the way home from school? Is cutting through the neighbor’s yard even a thing anymore? Do kids still walk?

Well, that’s beside the point. The point here is that if you happen to find yourself in Germany and you see this sign, don’t be concerned. This is not a place to abscond away with small children. No, this sign indicates a city sanctioned backyard shortcut. Most times they’re shorter than walking the sidewalk; sometimes they aren’t.

But I have never regretted taking one.

They’re often out of the way, you’ll never find a car on one, you can see what’s coming up in the garden and steal some blackberries. Plus the air is generally clearer. And as a marginally nosy neighbor, I have discovered that these paths are the perfect opportunity to stick your nose in other people’s business legally.

All hail the blue circle sign with the woman and the kid.

Serious Shit

GMOs, BGH and Reasonable Objections


See this image here? This is what bothers me about the whole  GMO debate. A libelous statement presented as truth labeled as ‘Opinion’.

There are sneaky things going on. A PR masterpiece of epic proportions is underway to sway public opinion by any means necessary.

There was the Vandana Shiva hit piece in the New Yorker last winter, then the Smithsonian talking about GMO-hating hipsters, followed by some crazy article in National Geographic comparing anti-GMO folks to anti-vaccine folks. Slate recently piled on with a person spouting off research purporting that GMOs are safe and healthy.

In this massive PR push, the hacks are relying on a time-tested, mother approved format to divide and conquer, obscure and refute, and force through an agenda.

I don’t oppose GMOs on health claims. Or because I hate science. I oppose them on grounds of sovereignty and choice. It’s the continuing capital creep that has driven people out of work for generations and consolidated more and more power in the hands of few.

But back to the whole PR thing – and this is what interests me while watching this whole debate. Back when Monsanto introduced BGH/rBST, they touted it as a safe alternative for farmers to effortlessly produce more milk from the same cows. An FDA – stacked with folks who worked at some of these companies – approved it for use. Studies paid for and bought by the company put out similar ‘BGH is safe’ mantras, but ultimately consumer choice won out.

At that time, the price of milk was already low, but the same arguments emerged then as we see now: ‘We have to trust science! We have a world that’s growing to 9 billion! There’s only one way to feed them all! Get more from less!’ And small farmers, like my Dad were told that ‘the only way to survive was to get bigger and produce more. Your margins are too high!’

But it was never truly conclusive that it didn’t harm human health or the health of the animals (or maybe it was according to this 2009 FDA Review, except read the intro and the fact that long-term studies were never conducted, whoops!).

Monsanto fought tooth and nail against any regulation. Their PR machine attempted to eliminate any efforts on labeling.  But slowly they lost the battle. Milk started showing up on shelves labeled BGH/rBST free. It was a value add, but as the effects proved evident, it became obvious, consumers weren’t buying it. Monsanto tried to rebrand. After a while they sold it and now you’d have to search to find milk without a BGH/BST-free label.

Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not sure.

Now we’re at the same debate whether the consumer is truly right or not. Can we trust the consumer to make wise choices?

I’d hope that GMOs would get a fair shake in the media and in the public and be judged based on the science, but there is just too much monkey business – on both sides. Anti-GMO folks are using scare-monger tactics and presenting shaky evidence. Pro-GMO folks are bulldozing and buying out any and all critics, working every media angle to force people to accept their products, whether they want to or not.

This is really not about health. The key is the ability of people to choose. The independence of farmers to not have their fields invaded. The choices people want to make.

But I fear the PR teams behind the pro-GMO are have learned their lesson from BGH and we’re in trouble.

What do you think, folks?

Light Crap

Maybe it all stays the same

There was a woman in my old neighborhood. And you know how people start to look like their pets?

Actually, scratch that. There were a whole bunch of people in my old neighborhood.

And it’s cliché, but it’s true.

You bike to work every day for like four years. And it’s just a 10 minute bike ride, but everyone has a routine. They walk the dog every morning and stop at the bakery for a croissant. They get on their bike after a night at the bar and wobbly ride home. They have their living room on the street side and you can look in on their daily life as you bike past. They stand at the bus stop with their kids and wave as you go by.

In fact, you join them, become part of the local fauna – the creepy guy on the trashy bike with the big yellow saddle bags who’s always staring at everyone.

And it’s all like Sesame Street in your mind and it never changes.

When I got here I wanted to make up stories about all of these people I saw. And then I wanted to go and introduce myself to each one and find out the real deal and then write about that.

I never did that.

But there’s one person I still think about. The little old lady with the brittle dog on plinky glass legs.

Germany, Light Crap

Throwing it all away…

When I arrived in Germany, Spermüll was God’s gift. As a newly arrived ex-pat working for an NGO, I had little cash to spare furnishing a home. And so I looked forward to every third month, when people dip down into their basements to find that old Ikea cupboard missing a handle. Or that bookshelf that your second child colored on in a fit of jealous rage.

You take and drag all that bulky waste (translation of Spermüll) to the curb and the next morning trash trucks come and whisk it all away. For those of us living on a non-profit wage, it was an opportunity to clash with Eastern European van drivers to scavenge choice articles.

But at some point (namely when I found a 3-foot tall garden gnome), it got old. By that time I had furnished my home with about 40% trash – mostly Ikea detritus still in good condition, but for a few dents, scratches or smells. But each successive Spermüll seemed like a bigger and bigger waste.

There seems to be no middle ground here. There are no garage sales really – I’m uncertain if it is illegal or what the deal is. There are flea markets and people will try to unload old things there, but then they’ll look at that Ikea shelf missing a handle and charge roughly 90% of what they originally paid for it. So the motivation is not necessarily on cleaning out the basement, but rather making some cash. Then if it doesn’t sell, well, then just drag it out to the curb and it disappears in the morning.

This is a problem (as you can see from the short film above). Every week, nearly every day, some neighborhood in Germany is having Spermüll.  It bothers me to think that every day, somewhere there are orange trucks loading up all of that perfectly good furniture to be taken to the dump… Continue reading

Serious Shit

Christmas Giving with 100% Impact that You’ll Never See

Yes, you could put these kids through school. And never even hear about it. You just have to trust me.

Yes, you could put these kids through school. And never even hear about it. You just have to trust me. Granted, this was taken in 2003, so these kids are probably done with school now… but you could fund their kids.. possibly.

(edited 1 January 2015)

Now that I have your attention. Say it’s the end of the year, as it is, and say you have a little bit leftover this year, as you might. You’re looking for a good place to make a kind donation. May I suggest that you consider a donation to Friends of Guatemala.

Your contribution will provide scholarships for students in Guatemala. 100% of it will go directly to funding students. You give $127, kids get $127.

The only catch is you’ll get no letter in the mail asking you to send more. You’ll never know who the kid is that got the cash. They don’t have a website with cute pictures of the kids going to school with little uniforms and backpacks (see image at right). They’ll never send you a newsletter that you’ll never look at. They don’t spend money to do any impact reports highlighting all of the good things they’ve done. The only thing you’ll get is an acknowledgement of your donation for your taxes.

It’s like the Fight Club of charities.

In fact, you may feel like you’re throwing your money in a hole. But speaking from experience, you’re not. I can attest, I have been throwing money in this hole for years and now my friend’s kid is studying in Florida on a scholarship.

Does this sound appealing to you yet?

If it does, please consider a contribution to the Friends of Guatemala (Link to their Guidestar profile – but you won’t see much. No overhead, hence no money for reporting too much.). It’s run by returned Peace Corps volunteers who just shuffle the money back and forth and send out the letters, but everything you give, all of it, every bit goes to fund promising students in Guatemala.

If this sounds appealing, you can send checks to:

Friends of Guatemala
PO Box 33018
Washington DC 20033

You can also find them on Facebook page if you want to like them.

If you’d rather have the normal giving experience where people send a letter, tell you that you’ve done great and show you pictures of the good things you’ve helped them do, then I suggest you look here: Food4Farmers, Coffee Trust, Pueblo a Pueblo.  These folks are also doing great things and are totally worth your while.

Serious Shit

RIP Coffee Kids or not the holiday greeting I hope for


Long Beach Parking Lot, 2007

I was standing in a hotel lobby gift shop surrounded by California trinkets. Printed towels, souvenir spoons with lighthouses, stuffed toy dolphins and other crap. I saw a middle-aged guy, soft around the middle with an SCAA* bag slung on his shoulder,  looking at a snow globe.

“Have a good show?” I asked.

It was the last day of the world’s largest specialty coffee conference in 2007. I was working with Coffee Kids, an NGO dedicated to helping coffee-farming families improve their quality of life.

“Yup, it went well, yours?” he asked.

We talked a bit about our work, the average trade show ‘what do you have that I might need’ banter.

We work in coffee communities, I said, supporting projects in education, food sovereignty, health care, economic diversification – whatever was the priority for the community. Our funding comes from coffee companies or others in the industry and supported a wide variety of projects.

“Hmmm… well that doesn’t sound like a good idea, sounds like you’re training farmers to get out of coffee,” he challenged. “Now why would I ever want to support something like that, something that could drive my prices up?”

Continue reading

Germany, Light Crap

It’s still funny, Freund.

I’m not sure who did it first. Our name anyway. It’s German. It’s spelled ‘Freund’, properly pronounced ‘froind’, but our family pronounces it ‘frend’. Throughout my youth we were confronted with frequent misspellings and a barrage of jokes. Actually, it was only one. Exactly one. The same one, every time.

This is the image you find when you search 'fat guy cigar office chair'

This is the image you find when you search ‘fat guy cigar office chair’. Found here.

One day I drove to the dump in our old rusty Chevy with the old bumper sticker ‘I got the crabs at Durty Nelly’s’ (which I never understood until much older)  to drop off the trash. You had to stop in at the office and let them know you were bringing trash. On this particularly brisk, fall day a cute girl I knew from school who never looked my way was working.”Freund (friend),” I said sheepishly.

Behind her was a large man in striped overalls leaning hard into a creaky office chair. He had a couple chins that folded into his chest as he leaned back. His lips hung loose like those people who smoke too many cigars and once they get to the nub, it just sort of hangs there from their calloused lower lip. If I remember right, he even had some burn marks on his shirt from when he probably fell asleep smoking.

Anyway, at that instant this comic genius decided to take a moment from ogling the girl at the desk and rasped out, “Huh, hey friend, are you my friend? Wa huh, huh, huh, *hack*cough* heh, heh.”

The joke went the same way, every time, without fail. And the witty reply was always the same, “yes.”

Beyond that we would have to spell out our name for every phone call or any time we went to the bank. F-R-E-U-N-D, but pronounced ‘frend’. I thought that things would change upon moving to Germany.

Obviously I’d have to get used to pronouncing my name correctly, but there would be no more spelling it over the phone. No more confusion with the mail. No more explaining, “Nope, I don’t know when they changed the pronunciation.” Just smooth sailing.

Granted I like the fact that we pronounce our name this way against all logic of spelling, but I did think it would make things much simpler. But I’d never expected the hospitality I’d encounter here. While most people would read it properly as the German word that it is, any time I went to a bank or had any other verbal interaction and said, “Mein Name ist Freund, wie Freund,” they would write down F-R-I-E-N-D.

It seems the obvious – and very considerate – conclusion was always something around, ‘Oh, he’s American, so he must be just trying to fit in. Even though he says his name is Freund, it must be spelled the English way.’

And so now, four and a half years after moving to Germany, I still find myself having to spell out my last name. Although fortunately, I do not have to deal with the jokers anymore. No one here bats an eye.