Josna Rege

250. Culture

In 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, Nature, people, places, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, travel, Words & phrases on April 3, 2014 at 6:51 pm

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I have been in Germany—in Bremen, to be precise—for less than 24 hours, and of course, first impressions can be misleading or merely superficial. Nevertheless, I have been struck by numerous aspects of aesthetic sensibility and social organization that seem to be part of the culture here.

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P1050266A  deep-seated environmentalism is one: the belief that green space must be preserved and kept in the public domain; a serious recycling programme, subscribed to by all; bicycles everywhere, used by people of all ages and all walks of life, and supported by the traffic planners, so that bike lanes and cyclists’ safety take precedence over cars (in fact, I was almost knocked down by a bike today); and public transportation so ubiquitous and convenient that there is no need to own a car. No surprise, then, when my friend and host tells me that Bremen has one of the highest percentage of Green Party members elected into government office of anywhere in Germany. And Andrew reminds me that back in the 1970s when we were active in the anti-nuclear movement, two young German filmmakers whom we hosted, touring a documentary called (in English) Better Active Today Than Radioactive Tomorrow, were from Bremen.

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Then there is the aesthetic sensibility: flowers everywhere, inside the home and out, in private and public spaces; parks, canals, walking paths, open spaces of all kinds, set up and laid out for the greatest enjoyment of pedestrians; little conservatories and balconies, front steps and shared back gardens bursting with color, maintained with pleasure and pride; gracious, tree-lined boulevards to die for. Even the shops, with both their indoor and their outdoor displays lovingly created with the attention to detail of a curated museum exhibit. Just a little outing this morning to a local flower shop and a delicatessen made me realize that the beauty of everyday life is given tremendous importance in this culture.

Culture is my word and theme for today, but also one of my larger themes for this month in general, as I “travel light,” observing with an outsider’s eye, but trying to do so from a transcultural perspective rather than a national one. Culture is a fascinating and complex word and concept with many overlapping and contradictory meanings. I shall no doubt return to these different senses of the word over the course of the month, but for now let me make a couple of points about it, taken from Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), a wonderful book by the father of British cultural studies Raymond Williams.

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In Keywords’ entry on Culture (linked to here and well worth reading), Williams explains that originally, culture referred to the cultivation of the soil (as in agriculture and horticulture); a little later, it began to be used to refer to the cultivation of the intellect, the spirit, and the aesthetic sensibility; and later still—and this was in Germany, in the late 18th century (especially by Johann Gottfried Herder)—it began to be used to refer to particular cultures and ethnicities rather than a universal norm of culture in general. This was the beginning of modern cultural nationalism and often went hand-in-hand with an essentialist notion of culture, wherein it is thought that the qualities and characteristics that distinguish a culture are almost biologically innate, and have been there since the beginning of time.

In my opinion, culture is not innate; it is learned and can be changed. Germans are not inherently more in tune with nature than Americans are, but it is quite plain to see that, in general, German society today is more environmentally conscious and has implemented more environmentally sound policies than the United States has. I do not believe that this has always been the case, but that it has been learned, and that through collective human effort over the course of a single generation, this environmental consciousness has become part of the culture. We see it in pockets in the U.S., but it has not taken hold in the way it has so clearly done here—at least from where I stand right now, in Bremen.

Boy, did that ever turn into a lecture! I promise to increase the ratio of photos to words as the month progresses. Come travel with me!

bird house, Bremen

bird house, Bremen

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. I am interested in different ‘cultures’ and I enjoyed reading your pondering on the word ‘culture.’ Travelling in foreign countries must be a good way to learn about their cultures, and at the same time, our own.
    Though I have never been to any foreign countries myself, I am ‘traveling’ to many different places now through this A to Z Challenge.

    • Thank you for visiting and commenting, Romi, and Im glad that this A-to-Z blogging experience is giving you a chance to “travel.” I have hardly moved around at all in the past six years, and during the past four years that I’ve been keeping this blog, I have travelled in my imagination and through the contact with friends, family, and people who were previously unknown to me whom I met through Tell Me Another. Hope you enjoy the rest of the challenge, and I will enjoy coming to visit your blog next.

  2. didn’t feel like a lecture! loved it.

    • Thank you, Allie. I know that I can be too insistently didactic, and try to guard against that tendency taking over the storytelling in Tell Me Another.

  3. Great post, Josna… so inspiring to see that whole communities can take on that mind-set… more please !!!

  4. I have a friend in his late 80s. He grew up in Maine and was a social worker in Maine and Newark for many years. He finally quit and spent years in the Czech Rep. teaching English. Now he has been some years in Ecuador also teaching English. He spends a several weeks to a month in Germany every year. I don’t know how I got off on that, but he also thinks that they are on the right path.

    • What an amazing person this friend must be. I have a friend and colleague who goes to Ecuador regularly, taking students with him some of the time. I would also love to go there sometime; it seems like a huge gap in my experience not to have traveled to either Central or South America. I wonder what introduced your friend to Germany in the first place. Thinking of all the German friends we have gotten to know over the years, of the German student and environmental movements, of all the influential German thinkers, just looking at details of design of ordinary household items here, one feels strongly that they have got some important things right here. Not that there isn’t racism, inequality, power politics, hypocrisy; of course there are important sites of struggle. Nevertheless, a very interesting place to visit.

  5. Wow, that looks like a lovely city! Especially the flowers. Two things that really grow a city on me are flowers and running water–even if it’s just fountains, or little streams.

    Also, I honestly didn’t even know Bremen was a real town. I knew the name from the folk story “The Musicians of Bremen” which I loved as a child. Thanks for the new info!

    • There’s lots of running water in Bremen. First and foremost, the River Weser (known to English speakers from Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin), but also lakes, canals, and fountains (at least, I’ve seen one magnificent one so far) in abundance. As I look out of the window from my desk I can see water in the form of one of these mini-canals that seem to be all over the place. Now I remember “The Musicians of Bremen”–had completely forgotten it! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. I have just read and enjoyed your “D” post and will comment soon.

      • That sounds lovely. Over here in Kyoto we have lots of little canals running from the Kamo River. In the spring and summer they are especially beautiful, and when the rainy season hits, I love nothing more than to watch the streams swell, and the canals fill. There’s something about moving water that is just relaxing.

        If I ever make it to Germany, I will definitely put Bremen on my destination list! Thank you for coming by my blog too!

        • I love your description of the streams swelling and flowing into the canals. In India we had ditches running along the sides of the road that just had leaves in them during the dry season, but in the monsoon they turned into muddy, fast-flowing streams. We used to make paper boats and watch them get carried away on the flood.

        • I sometimes want to do that on the Kamo during the rainy season, but it’s too dangerous to get that close to the river then. I can picture it in my mind though; very cute!

  6. I wonder what sort of bird chooses to nest in a house so near the ground? It is certainly decorative!
    I’m enjoying your daily blog so much!
    Thanks, Marianne

    • Now you mention it, Marianne, I didn’t actually see any birds in or around that house. The building behind it was a stables. What about birds that tend to stay close to the ground, like mourning doves?
      So nice to know you’re following along! It makes me feel less far away. xxx J

  7. […] Culture After 24 short hours in a new country, some observations about the culture as I see it as well as on Culture in general. […]

  8. I love being in Germany – it’s an easy country to travel in and people are so polite (mostly). Great post 🙂

    • Thanks! Yes, I too found people very pleasant and polite. And the public transport was a dream. I was able to move about on the buses easily, despite not knowing German (which was embarrassing, since so many Germany spoke English beautifully).

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