Berlin Spazieren Gehen

6 03 2018


While living  in Prague for the summer, for the first time in my life, I had foreign culture at my fingertips. On weekends, studio mates would plan quick excursions to neighboring countries. I had never been to any of them. With feverish abandon, I gobbled up every opportunity. Although our true purpose was to study the Architecture and develop our design skills, I was deeply afflicted by the travel bug that could not be denied.


Anywhere I was invited, I went. Some weekends we just went to the train station and found the cheapest ticket to anywhere.


An overnight train to Poland, switching trains in Warsaw to go to Krakow? Absolutely! My modest attempts at learning Czech actually paid dividends there, as I discovered that Polish language overlaps significantly with Czech, and I could still communicate the most basic needs. Krakow was a dull, dirty town, when we arrived at 4:30 in the morning to an empty station lit with orange lights. It felt appropriately depressing as a transition to go pay our respects and weep at the horrors of the Birkenau-Auschwitz holocaust death camp.

How about Hungary? Why not? Another weekend a fellow travel grrrl and I went together to Budapest. I studied the language book feverishly during our trip, struggling to make heads or tails of this unusually difficult language. The city, however, felt instantly familiar. I began to notice that most old European cities follow the same basic pattern of settling along a major river, infilling the river basin on one side with the old town, while across the river an elevated cliff was dominated by an old castle surveying the kingdom. We actually stayed inside the Citadel, overlooking the Danube as it gently embraced  the town square.

Berlin? Our studio professors organized an optional group trip to Berlin, where I had just explored intensely for 10 days a couple months prior. I loved Berlin, and was thrilled to go back to practice more of the only foreign language in which I actually could converse fluidly. Since most of my studio mates had never been before, they set off on a whirlwind tour of highlights, all of which I had not only seen, but studied immensely for a semester before traveling there.


Berlin_Eiermann_Memorial_ChurchAfter I revisited the few highlights that I enjoyed the most, I departed from the group to explore a bit more off the beaten path. It was thrilling and a bit scary to be completely on my own in a big city in another country! I walked the streets, already feeling fairly oriented in Berlin, and familiar with the major metro lines to traverse the city easily.


I wound up at a large open green space, a lovely respite from a long day of flanuering on foot. I found a park bench, and sat down to absorb the sounds of birds dsc03240chirping from the trees, and to watch the steady stream of locals moving thoughtlessly through their daily routines. An elderly man slowly walked towards my park bench and asked, in German, if he could sit next to me. I politely agreed with a smile, secretly thrilled to get to use my German.


We sat side by side, gazing contently, the only two people breathing in the moment. He started making some small talk, and quickly noticed my accent. “Wo kommen Sie her?” he inquired about my origins. I smiled, and he quickly followed up with “Russisch?” I couldn’t help but chuckle… “No,” I told him in German, “I am not Russian.” “Really? But you sound so Russian!” he exclaimed in disbelief. I had never heard that one before!


We had a lovely conversation, and after a few more minutes he said, “Wir sollen spazieren gehen,” which is a German phrase meaning we should take a stroll together, and talk while we walk. I loved the idea, but then I remembered that, however sweet this old man seemed to be, I was a single foreign woman, in an unknown location, talking to a stranger, and perhaps changing destinations would be ill advised. He continued to suggest this, and I felt bad declining. It felt like such a German thing to do, but, alas, I elected to be safe.


I often wonder what wondrous things this elderly man might have shown me on our walk, what stories he might have shared from his younger days. If he would have talked about the war, or the wall, and what life was like back then. He’s probably passed away by now, and I wonder if he ever thought twice about that Russian-sounding American young lady that he met at the park that day.


Going Shoeless in Laos

23 11 2014

734808_409663145782982_653643432_nAfter a full day of traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River, our group of 100 locals and adventurous visitors stopped for the night at a small Laotian village called Pak Bang. It was dusk when we arrived, and we quickly found our way up the steep hill, past the men and women holding signs for rooms, to a small inn where we had a room waiting for us (at the steep price of $8). We were hungry, and ready for food, but wanted to explore the tiny village with what little light we had left.

398036_409663169116313_790757319_nAs we got checked in to our room, the English-speaking grandson of the owner told us that we would get a discount off dinner if we chose to dine at their restaurant as well. The village only had one road, about a mile long in total. After a short walk through the village to examine our other options, we decided this was the wisest choice. At least we knew we could easily translate “fish sauce” to avoid an unpleasant meal.

We walked back to the inn and followed signs for the restaurant around the sandy courtyard. We saw a wide open doorway, bathed in warm yellow light from inside, with a pile of shoes just outside the door. I paused, momentarily confused. Was this the owner’s room? 1748_409662782449685_1220354557_nI peered inside and saw that the space opened up to the river on the other side, and was filled with tables and chairs. In all the places we had traveled in Asia, we were very accustomed to taking off our shoes before entering a Buddhist temple, but this was the first time we had seen shoes outside a regular business like this. “So, no shoes in the restaurant?” I asked Bethany. She shrugged her shoulders and we leaned down to untie our laces.

Could you imagine going to a church on Sunday and everyone taking off their shoes? This is exactly what we discovered in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. While I have always believed in taking off shoes in the home, it never occurred to me that this would apply to other buildings as well. Temples, I also quickly understood. But restaurants? Shops? I was very surprised. We learned to simply remove our shoes whenever we saw other shoes sitting outside.

A Long History of Shoelessness

Many other cultures, far older than my own, have had this policy as a social norm since shoes were invented. Modern day countries such as Japan, Russia, Korea, Turkey, Thailand, India, Scandinavian, and European countries like Germany have the custom of removing shoes in homes. This is also the case in most Middle East countries and some African countries.

shoe sign3It is absolutely mandatory to take off ones outside shoes in most Asian homes, and even in some public places and business establishments – like traditional restaurants, inns and hotels, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and grade schools and kindergartens.

In Japanese architecture, homes are designed to have an area near the entrance called a genkan, which is one level lower than the rest of the house. Here, you remove your outside shoes and place them so the toes are facing outwards towards the door. You then are usually supplied with a pair of slippers, though socks are also fine in their own house or at a friend’s house.

734282_409663845782912_1649442926_nToilet Slippers?

When we were visiting the famous White Temple in northern Thailand, there was a long line of toilets outside, each with a door onto the sidewalk. At the front of the line, was a large bank of black rubber sandals. Although I did not understand, I watched as each person before me removed their shoes and donned the slippers to enter the toilet room. I suspect this was more to keep my shoes clean, rather than to keep the toilet room clean. Once it was my turn, I saw that they were squat toilets (no seat, just a ceramic base to stand on while you squat) this made some sense to me. Apparently, some inns or restaurants also have separate slippers just for the toilet room, which you are supposed to change into before entering, although this practice is slowly disappearing.

The Role of Shoes

bare feetIn Mesopotamia, (c. 1600-1200 BC) a type of soft shoes were worn by the mountain people who lived on the border of Iran. The soft shoe was made of wraparound leather, similar to a moccasin. Shoes were invented to protect our feet from the elements. A nice perk was that it meant that your feet stayed cleaner, and as dirt floors became outdated, you actually could keep your indoor floor clean!

The health benefits of removing shoes in modern society are pretty clear and numerous:

  • EPA conducted a “door mat study” showing that 60% less lead dust and other chemicals were brought into the home by removing shoes and using a front door mat. There was also a reduction in allergens and bacteria tracked into the home.
  • Shoes pick up and carry into your home pesticides, fertilizers, traces of gas fumes, industrial pollution, and animal waste.
  • Bacteria brought in from shoes can cause stomach and lung infections, especially in the young, sick, and elderly.

shoes mudBeyond health, there are many other reasons why shoes come off:

  • Your feet can breathe, relax, and return to their natural state. This is healthier for your feet and more comfortable.
  • You create a more relaxed, informal atmosphere in your home.
  • You have to sweep and dust your home less.
  • Psychologically, this act of removing shoes separates the home from the rest of the world, and can be an important ritual for brushing off the worries of your work day.

With all these good reason for removing shoes, it made me wonder. Why doesn’t everybody do this?

The American Way?

shoe benchWhen friends come over for to my home for the first time, sometimes they pick up on the cues (the row of shoes by the door, the bench to sit on, the cubbies of slippers), but sometimes they don’t notice. I wait until they’ve fully entered my home and we given our greetings, then I politely ask, “Would you mind taking off your shoes?” Most of the time, people look down and realize their oversight, and often apologize, as if they’ve offended me in some way.

Occasionally, however, I can see that someone is uncomfortable doing so, and when they respond, “I’d rather not,” I simply let them do what is most comfortable for them. I may not know why, but it’s not my place to push. My reasons for removing shoes are mostly for comfort, cleanliness, and to prevent scratches on my nice wood floors.

Why is it that we Americans have gotten away from this predominant cultural norm? Do we see wearing shoes as a necessary part of being presentable, like wearing shirts and pants? Is going barefoot akin to walking around shirtless, or walking around with your fly unzipped? Is it simply too informal? Does it come from the south, where there is a stereotype about southerners that involves not wearing shoes and/or a shirt equating to being a “hillbilly” or a “redneck?” Signs on stores that say “No shoes, no shirt, no service” may help reinforce this idea.

sock monkery slippersThere may be concerns about embarrassment as well. Some people may have fears of foot odors, or exposing their ugly feet. I have definitely found myself regretting my choice of socks on occasion, when I realized as I was removing my shoes that my thin socks had sprung a hole.

There may also be more practical concerns. Perhaps wearing shoes prevents elderly people from falling and breaking a hip. Or, also in the south, Cowboy boots don’t have laces, straps or buckles. They aren’t the easiest thing to get off if you’re not a limber person, and if we didn’t have a bench to sit down on, it would be quite challenging to remove.authentic_womens_cowboy_boots-e1358885688446

I’ve been in people’s homes where the floors were so dirty or messy, I was actually afraid that walking around sock-footed might result in a wet sock, or a stabbed sole. Here in the north, winters can be very cold, and in many homes the floors can be downright chilly! I’ve learned to bring my own slippers to visit friend’s homes, in case my feet get cold.
Regardless of the reasons, I doubt that we are so different from the rest of the world- our problems SO unique- that we could not adopt this norm. Just remember what your grama told you- never leave the house without clean underwear- or clean socks- because you never know where the day will take you!

Have yourself a very Krampus Christmas!

22 12 2013

Last night we celebrated several lesser-known seasonal delights, and had the joy of sharing these with someone new. They were: Winter Solstice, and Krampus.

We have another international guest, Joel, from the Netherlands, who is staying with us forst nickolas boot 3 months. He arrived here just days before his own version of Christmas. In that part of the world, they celebrate St. Nicholas night in early December, instead of on December 25th. On this night, everyone places their boot outside the back door in hopes that they will be filled with candy and goodies as a reward for being good. We didn’t want him to feel homesick, so Bethany immediately started planning something to welcome our new friend. She couldn’t find Joel’s boot (since he was wearing them), so she filled a sock with little toys and candy from The Rocket and hung it on the back porch for him to find. It’s just our way of showing how much we love embracing all the different celebrations that we have.

Last year at this time, our home was filled with people sharing their holiday traditions. Our high school exchange son, Bank (from Thailand), was experiencing his first ever snowfalls, while we explained the traditions of Christmas. We also had two young men from Germany staying with us for 3 months, Sven and Torben, who shared their own European traditions. Lastly, we had Craig, the retiree who lived with us for a year and a half, who shared his life stories with us, when he wasn’t be a curmudgeonly recluse.

loy_krathong_yi_peng_san_saiThere we were, one big, makeshift family, covering the globe with our religious, cultural, and generational experiences. We gathered around the fireplace and shared with each of them the tiny tokens of our friendship that they pulled out of the six stockings hung by the mantle. Bank talked about how they have started to celebrate Christmas in Thailand, even though most people are Buddhist. It’s a secular celebration of lights, and lanterns, and gift giving. Sven and Torben talked about how their concept of Santa Claus differs slightly from the American version. Craig talked about when he was a little boy, and the memories he has of his family back then, and the joys of celebrating now with his grandkids.

solsticeSo back to this year. Our dear friends invited us to their Solstice party. It was a dreary, freezing rain kind of December night, but we invited Joel to join us anyway as we walked through the rain, about 20 minutes across town. Bethany splashed her winter boots in puddles along the way like a gleeful child, while Joel avoided drenching his sneakers, and shared my umbrella with me. When we got to the house, it was brimming with celebration. Packed with people, since it was too wet for an outdoor fire, it felt like we were salmon swimming upstream. And that’s not a bad analogy for a night where we celebrate the shortest day of the year, and the swing back towards more daylight and the springtime to come.

We had a wonderful time visiting with old friends, and meeting new ones alike. As the evening waned on, Diana dimmed the lights and directed everybody on how to write down a thought or a wish that they would like to say goodbye to from the past year, or welcome into their lives in the new year. Then, one by one, we each reached out our hands with our tiny folded piece of flash paper, held it over the candle, and watched it disappear in a quick eruption of flames. Farewell, 2013! It felt more like Bank’s Thai tradition of Loi Krathong than New Year’s Eve, though all three of these share that reflective, introspective characteristic.

krampus-black-beat1After we left the Solstice party, Bethany and I explained that we were going to take Joel to another, far more obscure, celebration. It was the Krampus Ball. I found it ironic that we would be educating someone from Europe about a tradition that originated there. Leave it to American hipsters to resurrect the oddities of another culture and start practicing them here with full fervor, as if they’ve always been celebrated.krampus

We walked into the Corner Brewery to find it filled with music and people in costumes. They weren’t quite as authentic this year as they have been in years past, but still, it was eclectic. I explained that Krampus was the horned, hairy creature who was kind of like the devil version of Santa. He would come around and whip children who had been bad, instead of giving them candy. If they were really bad, he would stuff them in his sack and take them away! Krampus was a mythical creature that was used to scare kids into being good, and men from the village would dress up like him to make it more real. The creepy character was abandoned in the early 1900s, particularly after the war, when the Austrian government said, no more! They must have thought people had enough nightmare material already, and shoved this centuries-old tradition under the Alpine rug. The much more jolly red suit grew in popularity, but Krampus could not be contained, and was recently resurrected here and in Europe, prompting events such as this Krampus Ball.

There are hundreds of weird ways to celebrate this time of the year, and I always like to share that there’s more than just Christmas to December. Whatever you celebrate, I hope you rejoice in love, kindness, and acceptance of others. Don’t be a Krampus or a Grinch.krampus2 krampus couple

The Vegetarian Roll: A Love and Hate Relationship with Thanksgiving

27 11 2013

Ah, Family: a Love and Hate Relationship
Basket of fruits and vegetablesEvery year, around this time, I reflect on what it is to be a vegetarian in America. I have my own pleasant and tortuous memories of family feasts, where I was accused of not having a thick enough skin to ignore the taunting. It’s supposed to be a time of gratitude, when friends and family gather to celebrate the cornucopia that nature has belssed them with that harvest season. Our family meals were an extensive spread of wonderful foods, many of which were kindly altered to make them an option for ‘the vegetarian.’ In more recent years, as I have learned to cook elaborate dishes, my own uncles have admitted that “that tofu was pretty darn good” and gone back for seconds. A huge victory for me, and others who have lived through this experience.turkey cartoon

There were usually 20-25 of us sitting down together at various impromptu tables at a given holiday. About half of those were my cousins, mostly younger boys. For about 15 years, no Thanksgiving was complete until one of the boys grabbed his slice of turkey with two hands, and pried the slice apart, mocking the motion of a beak, while making “Gobble! Gobble!” turkey sounds in my direction. The others would laugh, or at least smile, at the ingenious humor and wit, which they had completely forgotten about in the 365 days that had passed since the last ritualistic display.

I had learned by age 13 to just ignore them, as it only egged them on to get a reaction from me. Still, this didn’t exactly make me feel embraced in our family. This did not stop until one year, when I was 26 years old, and I finally erupted. I declared that this was rude, inconsiderate, and childish behavior and I was sick of it. I left the room and did not return. The “Gobble, gobble” noises have since not returned either. The holidays have been vastly improved ever since.thanksgiving cartoon

Who Are ’The Vegetarians’?

a_vegetarian_thanksgiving_menuThe holidays are probably the hardest part about being vegetarian, depending on your family, but by no means is this the only day of the year where we feel different. There are plenty of other challenges to being in this ‘other’ category for something that is such an integral part of daily life. In the 1970s, approximately 1% of the population in the U.S. was living on a plant-based diet, sometimes including animal by-products like milk and cheese. Today, self-reported vegetarianism is between 10-13% of our population, with more and more people switching their diets for health or sustainability reasons. (For a country by country breakdown of vegetarianism, see

The definition of ‘vegetarian’ is also not consistent. When I first became one at age 11, I began feverishly researching and writing a research paper on the topic to learn more. This was back in the ‘dark ages’- pre-internet. I discovered that, at that time, there were as many as 7 major categories of vegetarianism. You could be a pescetarian (eat fish but not other animals), you could be a lacto-ovo vegetarian (most common, eating eggs, cheese, milk, but no other animal-based foods), or, the most extreme type, vegan (eating only 100% plant-based foods). So when you ask, “Is the soup vegetarian?” in a restaurant, it must be followed by a dreaded onslaught of follow up questions. “Is there fish? Chicken broth? Bacon bits? Cream?” By any definition, being vegetarian means you are a minority.

Travel Much?

When we travel, we all enjoy the tasty, unsual flavors of exploring another culture’s food. As a vegetarian, you always have to take extra steps to plan ahead to ensure that you will find sustenance along your travels. I always learn enough of the local language to be able to ask for vegetarian food. This sometimes means spelling it out, “No meat, no fish, plants only, please,” since some cultures don’t really have a word for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan.’

india veg mcdDepending on where you go, it can be hard or it can be easy. In Europe, there is a lot more education and awareness, and therefore sensitivity to diet needs, despite the relatively low percentage of vegetarians who live there (typically less than 5%). In Germany you have to politely ask for dishes “ohne Speck” or without bacon crumbles, since they view this as ‘other’ and not really meat. In Thailand everything comes with fish sauce, and it can be a struggle to get a truly vegetarian meal unless you are pescetarian. This is in contrast to countries like India, where various sources estimate that 20-40% of the population is vegetarian, and the cheaper the food, the more likely it is to be veg. There is a country-wide mandated identification of non-vegetarian items, noted with a red dot. Even chains like McDonald’s are jumping on the bandwagon in India.

What’s ‘God’ (Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Nature, etc.) Got To Do With It?

bibleAs we quickly learned from our Thai exchange son, diet does not always align with religion either, as we sometimes have been led to believe in overly simplified stereotypes. I always thought that all Buddhism, like Hinduism, was aligned with the belief that we should not take other lives. However, in Thailand, Buddhist monks must accept whatever food is given to them, including animal meat (usually fish). Our Thai son told us that, “Buddha give us fish so we can eat them,” which was a very different interpretation than what we have seen in most American Buddhist traditions.

There are also interesting twists in religion where the faithful have chosen over time to ignore some pieces of scripture, while embracing conflicting quotes. For example, the bible warns Christians not to eat animals at all in some passages, while giving a specific list of approved animals in others.

  • “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:21)
  • “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.” (Leviticus 19:26)
  • “Thou shalt not eat animals that ..walk on paws… or unsplit hooves.” (

book of mormonSimilarly, the Book of Mormon states that “Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” (D&C 89:12-13) Despite this relatively recent (and therefore less diluted by interpretation) religion, many followers do not follow this religious scripture on diet.

With so many interpretations, innumerable sects of religions, cultural norms, and geographical reliance on local food, who is to say what is truly the ‘right’ answer? You will never hear me telling someone that they are wrong for eating animals, although I have a long list of reasons why I choose not to. I am happy to share my reasons with those who want to know, but, as with religion, I do not think it is right to force my beliefs onto others. We each have to find our own path to happiness, and no two paths will be the same.

Who Cares, Let’s EAT!

So, wherever you are this week, whatever you choose to eat way too much of, remember that there is a vast and varied world out there, and you are simply enjoying one tiny slice of the ‘pie.’ Our cultures and traditions are no more right or less wrong than anyone elses, and nobody should be made to feel different or lesser because of what they choose to eat.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!The-Last-Thanksgiving

Willkommen to Ypsilanti!

28 03 2013

Nearly two months after the arrival of our foreign exchange student from Thailand, we had two new guests arriving from Germany. Sven and Torben, based on limited email conversations, would be two young twenty-something college students coming to America for a three month internship in Ann Arbor. They understood that our home would be vegetarian, and close to the bus line, and the basic house rules. The rest was up to fate to see if they would be a good fit for such a long visit as guests.

This was the first time that we have ever accepted a guest for such a long stay without first meeting them. Usually, it’s a U of M student who is in the process of graduating and relocating for a new job, who just needs a month or two after their lease is up. Most international visitors are here just for a couple weeks, or a month at most. We were a little worried about how it would be to host two young males on an American adventure.

wilkommenI made a large sign, “Willkommen Sven & Torben. Du bist HERE in Ypsilanti, Michigan.” with a map of Michigan and a cartoon plane flying into Ypsilanti. We made plans to take our new guests out to dinner Friday night to show them around. By that time, they had already walked to the gym, figured out how to ride the bus back home, and had researched where things are around town. We quickly felt like these twenty-somethings were more like Bank- our exchange student- than like a typical, autonomous house guest. Our role as host moms just got a whole lot bigger.

Here we were, surrounded by testosterone, and it struck us that it was a little like a reverse Harem. M-e-r-a-h, we starting calling it.  We went to Sidetrack’s, where each of us could enjoy a variety of menu options to choose from, but specifically the new guys could try a nationally recognized American burger. We were seated on the quieter side, but near a birthday group of 10. As the meal went on, the mid-life ladies grew more and more inebriated, and it became more difficult to hear one another over their loud cackling. It was quite the contrast to our male guests. Despite the din, we managed to share quite a bit about ourselves and our cultures.

germans welcomeWe were surprised at how many little things were the same in both Germany and Thailand. Several times I heard, “Really? We have in my country TOO!” It was a very fun multicultural exchange, and we were glad that Bank was able to participate so fully in welcoming the new Germans. After dinner, we walked the guys over to the Ypsi food co-op to show them what they could walk to for groceries. Then we started walking back towards home, with plans to go to the Tap Room for drinks and a game of pool. Bank was exhausted and decided to head home without us, while the four of us remaining kept going another block to Michigan Avenue.

We walked into the dark, half-empty bar, and saddled up next to the pool table. We grabbed a table nearby, and then also explained the shuffleboard table that was just on the other side of the half wall from where we were sitting. After Bethany ran into the owner and got a lengthy explanation of the rules for shuffleboard, we decided to try that instead. Bethany likes to say that she beat us handedly, but in reality they came out ahead at the very end to beat us 15 to 13. We retired to our table to continue our conversations, only briefly. Bethany noticed that someone had left the pool table with an unfinished game. I encouraged her, and she stood up to finish the game and show them how to play.shuffleboard

There are two pool table next to each other at Tap Room, and another group was celebrating and looming around the other table. Bethany quickly introduced herself, since they would be knocking pool sticks together soon anyways, and so began another chapter of our evening.

First, there was a woman who was there celebrating her boyfriend’s birthday, and Bethany offered to take their photo. The woman commented on my wallet chain with surprising interest. It did not seem to go with her high heeled pumps. Apparently, her interest was because she wouldn’t let her boyfriend wear his out that evening (perhaps because it did NOT go with her pumps), and insisted that he get a photo taken with me and my wallet chain.

With the birthday group was another woman who was extremely well-served and louder than the entire gaggle combined at the restaurant. She was there drinking away a bad day, and quickly latched onto us. Once she understood that Bethany and I were a couple, she wanted to know more. She lavished us with open acceptance, and wanted to know more about us both. She quickly discovered that she and I are both Geminis. Oh boy! At that point, I was her new BFF. She must have told me her name- Randy McQueen- a dozen times, to make SURE that I would find her on Facebook. (Note- I DID try to find her later, but my search yielded no results).

Our German guys found this entirely amusing, and, honestly, so did I. Bethany practically got an invitation to Sean Diddy’s New Year’s Eve party from the wallet-chain-disliking cougar with the young boyfriend, since she bonded with Bethany over dating a younger person. The whole encounter was surreal, and we were giggling about it for days afterward.

“Welcome to Ypsi, boys!” I felt like yelling as we left the bar. We’ve got it all in our fine town, and I’m sure you’ll find your place here just fine.

Lying Groundhog and the Radiator Dilemma

19 03 2013

The ides of March have come and gone. I’m still miserably cold. As I sit on the eve before Spring Equinox I realize that the groundhog has hoodwinked us all this year. punxutawney-phil1


Everywhere I turn, hearty Michiganders are complaining about the bitter cold weather we are currently immersed in. We all have some thick skin to get through a northern Midwest winter, but even the most frozen-snot-loving, dead-of-winter-camping types get sick of this by late March. We are ready for SPRING!!! It was promised to us by a burrowing, sausage-shaped mammal, after all, and we demand it be delivered sooner than later.


One of the interesting things about hosting is seeing how other visitors react to our weather. It’s a universal conversation piece, but there are so many commonalities. Now, of course, I expected our Thai guy to struggle with it, coming from such a hot climate. But, it’s especially interesting to see how otherwise hearty, winter-bearing countries react to Michigan winter.

A recent guest gave us the opportunity to observe those differences between Michigan, USA, and Germany. He hailed from Berlin. He showed up for a six-week stint at the University of Michigan, studying with colleagues on a joint research project in developmental psychology. He was a perfect guest: charming, intelligent, observant, and considerate. We looked forward to a great visit with him staying in our home.

The first night, he didn’t sleep well. He was too hot, then too cold, he said. We adjusted the temperature and gave him an extra down blanket.

The second night, he was still not sleeping well. He was STILL getting too cold in the middle of the night. Hmm… we began to wonder if he was sleeping in the nude, and therefore much more sensitive than we were. As I prodded further to find a solution to his nighttime woes, I found another clue. He said the furnace was too loud, and the sounds of the air rushing through the ducts was waking him up.


Aha! I thought. Although we had never heard this complaint before, there seemed an obvious solution. Earplugs!

Now, I know a great deal about designing spaces, and just how impossible it is to find a setup where everyone is thermally comfortable. The right temperature depends on your body mass, gender, age, clothing, humidity, and activity level. Name me one architect who can tout a 100% satisfaction response to any building heating system, and I’ll show you a big fat liar. So, I was even more perplexed that this relatively young, fit, healthy man was complaining about being too cold. Perplexing, really.

gender temperature prefernces

The third night he was still restless. We finally realized that it was truly the TYPE of heat that was posing him such difficulties. Not only was it the sounds, but the air rushed out all at once to heat the space, then stayed off for several hours between 12am-6am while everyone was sleeping, and then kicked back on, full force, at 6am to heat up the house before people get up for the day. So, he was not used to the sounds, the dryness, the temperature fluctuations, or the fact that the heat was transmitted via convection.


He had only ever slept in places with radiant heat. Nowhere in Germany is it common to have forced air systems, and THIS was the root cause to his discomfort! Once we realized it, we were shocked at what a difference it makes. Naturally, we are aware of the differences between forced air and old radiator heat. It IS much more comfortable (but also harder to adjust quickly because of the time lag inherent in a radiating heat sink). We added an electric radiator to his room, returned the thermostat to normal settings, and tried again. There wasn’t much more we could do to make him happy. radiator


With much sadness, we said goodbye to our new friend. We never could make his stay with us truly pleasurable, despite all of our efforts. We just don’t have radiant heat, and he just couldn’t stand forced air. Sometimes, it’s the little things that we take for granted and don’t think about when considering cultural differences.


I don’t think we will change anything about the way we describe our place. We could put a warning “Caution: This house is in America and uses modern, forced air heating ducts. Not for the faint of heart.” But I’m hoping that won’t be necessary. It is good to know, however, for the next time we have a northern European coming to stay with us in winter. forced-air-furnace-ductwork

%d bloggers like this: