Marburg: A Schooling in Social Rules

[Sorry for the delay in posting! Getting settled in can be exhausting (in the best of ways). There’s no way I could possibly fit the last few days into one cohesive post, so I’m going to go ahead and split them up a bit.]

After landing at the Frankfurt Airport in Germany, I spent the first two days of my trip (July 21 and 22) in Marburg. Marburg is about an hour north of Frankfurt by car or train and, like Frankfurt, is in the German state of Hessen. It’s home to a couple of fun attractions, including the Church of St. Elizabeth (whose presence prevented the area around it from being bombed during WWII), old Brothers Grimm dwellings, Marburg Castle, and Marburg University.

I didn’t go to Marburg as much for tourism, though, as to meet up with two specific people. The first was my cousin Vijay Bava, who had offered to help me get a German SIM card and with other miscellaneous logistics. During my time in Marburg, I stayed with him and his family: his wife Aparna Akka; Vina, their adorable 3-year-old daughter/my goddaughter (whom I got to meet for the first time); and Vijay Bava’s parents, who happen to be visiting from India. The second person was Jennifer Schmidt, a Udall Scholar I met online through the scholarship’s alumni listserv after reaching out for Watson help. Jennifer happened to go to Pomona College (in the same consortium as my alma matter, Harvey Mudd) and spent the last year doing a Fulbright at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Giessen (which happens to be only 20 minutes away from Marburg by train). She and I got a long lunch at Marburg’s Cafe Barfuss a few hours after I landed in Germany, after which I wandered around the Marburg train station, the Lahn River, and the outside of St. Elisabeth’s Church. (I also spent part of an evening watching a fun PBS episode on the U.S. electric grid; it’s long, but informative and easy to watch. I’d definitely recommend it.)

Although Germany is in some ways similar to the U.S. (e.g. I don’t have to dress that differently), I started to observe some key differences while staying in Marburg. The first pertained to German views on privacy. Before arriving in Germany, I corresponded briefly with Dr. Liridon Korcaj, who used to study the acceptance of small-scale renewable energy systems at the University of Freiburg. He was kind enough to answer some of my questions on Smart Grids even though they’re slightly outside his field. He said that based on his research, it may be difficult for Smart Grids to gain traction in Germany because “the average German values privacy and autarky more than other countrymen” and so “monitoring power usage may repell them.” Once I became aware of this attitude towards privacy, I couldn’t unsee it. When Vijay Bava picked me up from the airport, one of the first things he mentioned was that credit card acceptance in Germany is spotty because Germans are afraid of being tracked if they use their credit cards. When I went online, I started seeing cookie warnings such as the one below (rough translation:”Cookies help us deliver our services. By using our services, you agree to our use of cookies.”) that I’d never seen when using the Internet in the U.S. (I sanity-checked this claim using my VPN, just to make sure I hadn’t ignored the warnings before.) I wonder how generational this attitude towards privacy is vs. how fundamentally entrenched it is in German society.

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The second thing I noticed was the number of (sustainable) laws and regulations that affect Germans’ every day lives. Dr. Korcaj had had mentioned that the government mandates many efficiency measures, such as compulsory efficiency and insulation standards for new homes, and that “if you exceed governmental demands, you may even be eligible for lower interest rates on your mortgage.” However, I didn’t realize until getting to Marburg how extensive the laws are. In conversations with Vijay Bava and Aparna Akka, I learned that any residence of over 100 m^2 built or renovated in the state of Hessen after the 1990s must have solar, and in Marburg proper, every new development must have solar (the city is “going green”). Every Hessen residential plot must be 65-70% garden/green space; in fact, a local developer was trying to buy the back strip of Vijay Bava/Aparna Akka’s lawn to satisfy this requirement when building apartments nearby. If residents put any cement, tiles, or other non-water-permeable surfaces in the garden, then they have to pay a monthly tax because they’re preventing water from seeping into the ground. Many residents water their garden entirely with recycled rainwater systems, and I believe they have to pay an extra tax if they additionally install an on-demand garden water system (like the standard ones in the U.S.).  Residents pay a monthly tax based on the size of their waste disposal containers (of which there are four — paper, plastic, biomass, and other waste), causing residents to of course opt for smaller containers. (The picture below is of Vijay Bava/Aparna Akka’s containers. Plastic recycling gets picked up only once a month and the rest get picked up once every 15 days. Given that schedule, these containers seemed tiny to me, and the trash/recycling ratio is also much smaller than in the U.S.) Vijay Bava and Aparna Akka told me that these kinds of residential regulations exist in every state, although the exact numbers and percentages vary from state to state. And of course, government offices have sustainable regulations too — Aparna Akka’s research lab is government-funded, so they use recycled toilet paper, recycled printer paper, etc.


(Another strange but potentially unrelated rule was that residents are financially responsible for part of their street. For instance, if there’s a local renovation or new development that involves tearing up pipes under the street, residents who own part of that street are partially financially responsible for the rebuilding of the pipes. I didn’t catch whether this was a Hessen or national rule, but it’s unlike anything I’ve heard of in the U.S.)

A third thing I noticed is the amount of sustainable behavior “outside” the realms of these explicit sustainability rules. (Quote-unquote “outside” because as Harvey Mudd’s Prof. Steinberg taught me, social rules affect everything.) Jennifer had mentioned via email that biking is the easiest mode of transportation pretty much anywhere in Germany except Berlin or Munich, and I definitely saw a nontrivial number of bikers in Marburg. I saw many people hanging their laundry to dry rather than using machine dryers. Vijay Bava/Aparna Akka’s neighbors, with whom I chatted for a while, downsized to their current home (one floor in a couple-story residential building) after their kids moved out, and although this empty-nester downsizing happens in the U.S., it just seemed so normal that they would do so in Germany. During lunch, Jennifer mentioned that Germans are also very likely to buy local produce, though funnily enough not for sustainability reasons; Germans are extremely loyal to their regions, which translates to loyalty towards their respective region’s produce. It’s funny how seemingly unrelated cultural aspects can lead to sustainable behavior.

So basically, during my first few days in Germany, I started to learn more about German views on privacy, government laws/regulations (sustainable and otherwise), and Germans’ general environmental ethos. Thanks for reading this far!

Bonus: An adorable picture of Vina playing with Gatam, the Build-A-Bear dog I gave her as a “nice to meet you” gift.


6 thoughts on “Marburg: A Schooling in Social Rules

  1. You met up with Jen? I played with her for the Greenshirts! Pretty cool finding Claremont connections both near and far 🙂
    Really enjoy reading about your work; best of luck going forward!


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