barbaraStory today on NPR about the song “Gottingen” from French singer Barbara.  A beautiful song, beautifully sung, on an unlikely subject for a popular French song – French-German friendship.  This was even the more the case at the time when the song was written, in 1964, when the memories of WW II were fresh.  More surprising is the fact that the woman who wrote and performed the song, whose real name was Monique Andrée Serf, was a French Jew, who had a traumatic childhood, hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. She had been invited to come to Göttingen, a small university town in central Germany. She categorically declined the offer, but eventually was persuaded to come for just one concert, but then ended up staying for a week, having been overwhelmed by the positive reception and the friendliness of the people.

At the end of the week, she wrote the moving tribute to the city, in which she dares to compare the sleepy German town to Paris.  She celebrates “les enfants blonds de Göttingen” (the blond children), the Grimm fairy tales (Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were professors there), and the dark soul of the Germans (“Eux, c’est la mélancolie même” – with them it’s melancholy itself).  The images strike us today as stereotypes, but they are positive – not like the negative images prevalent at the time in France. The song had an impact on the relations between the two countries and has been referenced by politicians from both Germany (Gerhard Schröder) and France (François Mitterand).

Coffee not soda

gulpArticle in today’s Wall Street Journal on the decline in consumption in the US of carbonated soda drinks, worrying companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Young Americans are increasingly drinking water, energy drinks and coffee. It’s of course not just a question of taste, but increasingly of health. Americans are becoming more conscious of the importance of a healthy diet and increasingly aware of how much the consumption of soft drinks is a factor in the obesity epidemic in the US.  High profile actions like the recent initiative from New York mayor Bloomberg’s to ban the sale of large sodas at restaurants and movie theaters help to spread the message.  The soda companies have been fighting back; Coke has a recent ad encouraging Americans to fight obesity, which has been received with considerable sardonic criticism.  Drinking soft drinks – and lots of them – has been culturally entrenched in the US for decades.  Tourists from abroad are often amazed by the size of American soft drinks (like 7-11’s Big Gulp) – the small size here is often equivalent to the largest size available in many other countries.  When I was hiking with my son in the Black Forest, he complained about the fact that my (standard size) beer was half a liter but his (standard size) soda was .3 or even .2 liter.  And no free refills! It must be that the move away from soft drinks is part of a communist conspiracy (probably from our Socialist president!) to undermine American culture, just like the sneaky move years ago to fluoridate our water (see Dr, Strangelove for the truth!).

Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that Americans are turning away from soda to something healthier.  Young Americans in particular are getting ever larger doses of caffeine.  A story recently on NPR discusses the trend on American campuses for students to drink more and more coffee, as well as caffeinated energy drinks. Besides the high cost on the wallet of this trend, the cost in terms of health is high as well.  High caffeine consumption interferes with getting a good night’s sleep.  This can have negative consequences in terms of academics.  A researcher cited in the study comments that high caffeine has been linked to decresed REM sleep, which is important for memory consolidation and learning.  Of course, that’s part of the conspiracy as well – trying to get us to dump our soft drinks and switch to drinks that make us dumber!

Rise of the Nones

empty-church-with-wooden-benchesInteresting series this week on NPR about religion in the United States.  Today’s broadcast was about the increased number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion.  The data is based on a Pew Research Center study released in October, 2012.  The study indicates that about 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, a percentage that has been on the rise in recent years.  The percentage of those under the age of 30 is higher, about 1/3.  Harvard Professor Robert Putnam was interviewed for the report.  His explanation of the drop among young people:  rebellion – based on disillusionment of a generation coming of age during the “culture wars” in the U.S., which created a toxic mix of religion and politics.  He associates the lack of interest in organized religion with the lack of participation by young Americans in civic organizations.  I would offer a different perspective – I assume that under 30’s have simply re-directed from conventional social institutions to online social media.  Maybe the Church of the Internet has replaced the brick and mortar versions.

Putnam points out that even with the drop indicated by the survey, the U.S. stats in terms of religion are high: “Even with these recent changes the American religious commitments are incredibly stronger than in most other advanced countries in the world…The average American is slightly more religious than the average Iranian, so we are a very religious country even today.”  What has been very striking to me is the radical drop in religious affiliation in Germany.  The wonderful medieval cathedrals throughout Germany are virtually empty on Sundays.  More and more Germans are leaving the Catholic and protestant churches.  Part of the reason may be financial:  if you are a (Christian) church member, you have to pay a church tax.