Germany: a picture of health?

Well, Days 1 and 2 of my no-alcohol-no-chocolate attempt went successfully. I went out for dinner with a couple of friends last night and I suppose it helped that they weren’t drinking either. However, I’m not sure my choice of full-fat Coke really did much for me…

Talking about health. When I thought about writing a new blog, there were a few topics that immediately came to mind. This post is one of them. And it’s a long one, so bear with me…

There are lots of amazing and lovely things here to enjoy in Germany – I’d like to get that across before I moan about something. Some time ago, a friend asked if there was anything I really missed about home. Family. Yep. Friends. Yep. Danish bacon. Yep. Was there anything I really disliked? At the time, I said I couldn’t think of anything but as I headed home, it hit me.

The smoking.

I’ll come back to this.

Something that intimidated me when I first arrived here was the sheer healthiness of the Germans. Sport and keeping yourself fit is important here. Whether you play sports, go running, attend a gym, or go hiking regularly, an interest in healthy pursuits seems to be pretty prevalent. Cycling and walking are very popular ways to get around too, despite how much the Germans stereotypically love their cars.

Now, I’m no slouch. After a substantial bit of weight gain a few years ago, I took to the gym and started running. I do now try to keep myself fit and there are plenty of opportunities here to stay active. With spring round the corner, I’m about to step up my gym routine and strap my running shoes back on. However, regardless of how much I can enjoy these things, I may never be as naturally inclined towards sport and outdoor pursuits as so many of the Germans I meet. But – as long as I live here, I think that keeping active is going to be more of a priority for me.

On top of this, we have food. Good food is important here. People here do eat junk just as much as any other nationals. And let’s not forget the huge varieties of meat, cheese, cake and beer consumed! However, there’s a big appreciation for good food – real food. I don’t see a lot of ‘diet’ products on the shelf, as I do back in the UK. I do however see a ton of organic (or Bio) foods. It isn’t a more expensive, fancy-pants option to choose an organic cucumber over the bog-standard supermarket produce. I’ll go as far as to say that there does seem to be an obsession with it that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Organic is mainstream and certainly not something to roll your eyes at. There’s even an official government stamp on thousands of products that lets you know your food item hasn’t been touched by anything chemical or unnatural.

Going back to the idea of ‘real’ food. There’s an appreciation for eating well and an enjoyment of simple, uncomplicated food which I really like. You can criticise how much meat, bread and cheese is consumed, but you can’t criticise the quality of it.

It catches on too. I linger longer in the Bio section these days and find I shop there more frequently too, I feel vaguely guilty when I buy sliced white ‘cardboard’ sandwich bread for toasting, and yesterday I ‘treated’ myself to a tub of muesli for 7 Euros.  (This is likely more my own stupidity. Yummy though.)

I also love that you have organic-only supermarkets which are mainstream. You can do all your food shopping there if you like. I’m aware of one Whole Foods back in London, but that’s all I can think of back in the UK.

Let’s talk about beverages too. Germans drink their own share of nasty alcoholic concoctions, of course, but beer is different. Beer production here is governed by special purity laws, ensuring that it’s brewed to a very specific, all-natural standard. This seems to be an important source of pride here.

Recycling is important too. Luckily, living in Japan waaaaay over-prepared me for a complicated recycling system. Germans like to recycle but it’s fortunately not as complex here as it was in the land of the rising sun. (Remind me to tell the story about the older gentleman who used to lie in wait for me to put out my plastic rubbish before going through it – and in one case, returning it to my building).
Here, we have less categories of recycling, but it’s important you abide by them. There’s also the ‘Pfand’ system, where you pay a small extra fee on many plastic or glass bottles which will be returned to you upon return of the bottle. (I think this is a great idea, but it does lead to substantial collections of plastic bottles in my apartment….).

Anyway, I digress! My point is that when living in Germany as a foreigner, you start to become very aware of healthy living and a responsibility to the environment. These are just a few of the things I’ve noticed. Depending on where you’re from, you might disagree with me. Regardless, I have a huge admiration for this way of life. There are certain things that other nations could definitely take a lesson from.

Bearing this admiration of the health-oriented culture I observe so often in mind, you might understand my sheer disbelief at how much smoking I see here.

As in the UK, you (typically) cannot smoke in public establishments anymore. Pubs, bars and restaurants are off-limits. But outside of public places? It’s everywhere! I’m stunned. There also seems to be a blatant disregard for non-smokers. I would say that on a daily basis, I find myself moving away from the smoker sitting next to me at the bus stop, or speeding ahead of the group blowing smoke backwards into my face. Then there’s the university – groups of students hang around entrances and seating areas, puffing away. I don’t recall seeing that many whilst at university in the UK.

I suppose what bothers me is that so many of the smokers here don’t try to shield you from the smoke or make an effort to distance themselves. There are also so many young smokers. According to a census taken in 2013, 35% of 18 to 25-year-olds are smokers. I don’t know how that figure stands in 2016, but that seems high in a society that seems to embrace such healthy lifestyles and has been discouraging smoking via laws for a number of years now. I can’t quote more numbers than that, but I ask any other fellow foreigners to observe the level of smoking here and ask how it compares to their home country. Does it seem excessive?

On top of that, there’s actually still advertising for cigarette brands, which I find incredible. The topic came up in one of my sociolinguistics seminars last semester and an Australian student and I expressed our shock at this still being the case here. Here’s a few modern examples:

Finally. I already mentioned recycling and it should be said that I rarely observe littering here. I believe it’s taken quite seriously if you’re observed throwing rubbish on the ground – particularly by the Polizei. But cigarette butts? There seems to be no such regard. They’re simply tossed to the ground. I’ve had two occasions on which I had to jump out of the way of someone throwing a still-hot butt in my direction before getting on a bus.

It’s really a conundrum for me. I am full of admiration and praise for the good food, healthy lifestyles and respect for the environment that I see here. But when it comes to smoking, all of this seems to evaporate. It doesn’t add up. Am I imagining things? Am I overstating the healthy lifestyle here? I’m sure there are some good social reasons underlying this, but the undeniably high volume of smoking shocks me every day. I’d love to hear other opinions on this.



Germany: a picture of health?