My False Friend: The Eagle

My host family in Germany always throws the most amazing parties. They’re German affairs, featuring perfectly folded napkins, a nice array of food, alcohol and cake. Preparing for these parties is no small affair. If it was a Big Enough Deal, I guess they would have it catered–I never really paid much attention to that part, honestly. These parties were so far removed from how things happened in my family (pick your own box of cake mix!) that I had no frame of reference. But I didn’t mind helping with the preparations.

One party, they told me I could make the eagle. Huh? They showed me a bunch of gehacktes (raw ground pork) and some onions and told me to shape it into the form of the an eagle. This wouldn’t be cooked, either, in case you were wondering. Germans are among the nations of people who still think eating raw meat occasionally is good for you. I thought it was disgusting back then. Now I’m merely on the fence.

At any rate, I stared at the mound of ground pork, picturing an eagle in my mind.

Where the heck was I going to get that kind of wingspan out of ground pork?

Confused and seeing no easy solution, I got to work and shaped two kind-of wings a head and some kind of feet-like talons with onions. When I decided it was close enough, I announced I was finished.

The Germans looked over at my eagle and said with typical bluntness, “What kind of an Igel is that?” They quickly and expertly removed the onion and reshaped the gehacktes into a round mound, sticking the onions into its back like needles. I stared at it, totally confused.

At the nearest opportunity, I slipped down into the basement and pulled out my trusty German-English/English-German dictionary and looked up Igel. Hedgehog.


What can I say? We don’t even have hedgehogs in the states, much less sculpt them out of ground pork.


The Chicken Coop of Despair

Three years into having chickens and I’m still not sure if we’re doing it right. I’ve learned a lot about having chickens, for sure. People have started asking me chicken questions, which is a sure sign of having some sort of Chicken Owner Seniority. But things never go perfectly.

Take our coop, for example. It was a disaster from the get go. We hired a contractor to build it, being short both on time and construction skills. He didn’t understand what we were trying to do (we wanted a lightweight mobile coop), so we ended up with a very sturdy non-mobile coop with a wire floor. It took our contractor twice as long to build it as we thought it would, too, so it cost us about twice as much. We installed the roosts ourselves, first putting them perpendicular to the nesting boxes, which turned out to be a bad idea because it left no space for a waterer and feeder inside the coop. So we redid those and reinstalled them parallel to the nesting boxes, which means we only have two of them. This is fine, we still have enough roosting space because the nesting boxes were built inside the coop, instead of hanging off outside the coop. This means there is a nice shelf for the chickens to use as roosting space about it. It also means that all the poop gathers on top of it and we have to frequently go out there and scrape it off. It also means that there is wasted space below the nesting boxes, which usually serves as a good place for chickens to sneak under and hide eggs.

The doors to the nesting boxes on the outside of the coop are basic paneling. At first they shut fairly tightly, but over time they have warped and started to bow out, leaving a nice gap between the door and the side of the coop. This makes the coop drafty and that is exactly what you don’t want in a coop for your chickens.

Our contractor also insulated the coop for the winter. It’s a toss up whether or not this is necessary. Chickens tend to keep themselves warm well enough as it is because they have a lot of feathers. In our case, it was futile since neither we nor our contractor covered it with anything (such as hardware wire or boards), so the chickens ended up removing basically all of it. And then they pooped on it. So we had to drag torn up mats of chicken poop covered insulation to the town dump.

Originally, our coop was going to be mobile. I have no idea how we thought this would work. It’s built too heavy for the two teeny tiny wheels my husband bought for it. To even hold it up off the ground, we’d need at least 4 larger wheels. And we’d need to be able to steer it. Unless we wanted to only push it around, we’d have to get a tractor or something with which to pull it as well. And probably an axle so we could turn it. Basically, it’s a stationary coop.

We also thought we would have a coop with a wire floor so that the chicken poop from the roosts would simply “fall through” onto the ground below, thus saving us a lot of mucking out. This worked for a little while in the beginning. But once the chickens reached a certain age, the poop just started clumping up together on top of the wire with feathers mixed in for good measure. It started to smell, too. Then I read that wire floors are bad for heavy breeds, so we gave up and cut the floor out and switched to an impromptu “deep bedding method.” Since we never got around to putting in an actual floor, we’ve decided to stick with this one.

After Mr. Fox slid under our coop a few times to steal chickens, I took some wire fencing and stuck it around the coop with wires. This keeps the fox out and keeps our deep bedding in–a double bonus. Whenever I want to remove the bedding, we just remove the wire and rake it all out. Violá!

This year we’ve decided we’ve learned enough to really know what we want in a coop. So we’re going to make some changes. The biggest change is going to be in the nesting boxes. Since the chickens only use 3 of them anyway, we’re going to rip them all out and build one row of 6 nesting boxes hanging outside the coop. This will 1) prevent the chickens froom roosting on top of the nesting boxes and pooping up there 2) Get rid of the drafty gap from the nesting boxes’ door (the new door will be a lifting roof that should fit snuggly) 3) give us more room inside the coop for hanging feeders and waterers and another roost. We will reinsulate it and cover the insulation with paneling or hardware wire (we can’t decide which). We will take more hardware wire and staple it to the outside of the coop around the bottom to replace the wire fencing we currently have. This will prevent chipmunks, mice and rats from being able to sneak into the coop to nest and steal food, hopefully decreasing our feed bill. We will still be able to lift up the hardware wire when we need to clean out the coop.

We still need to find a solution for keeping the deep bedding from overflowing and falling out of the coop. We have two doors: the original one and a smaller chicken sized door we cut into the back of the coop. At this point, the smaller door is entirely covered and I’ve been adding blocks of wood in front of the bigger door to make a threshold. I hate having to leave that door open so the chickens can get out, but I don’t want to lose bedding through the back door. We’ve thought about cutting subsequent higher chicken doors, but then we’d need more chicken ladders. Other than that, I feel like our coop is finally getting to a point where it isn’t completely ill-suited to our needs.

Having chickens is complicated.

Why Americans Have Baggers–and Europeans Don’t

One of the major differences between the US and Germany and Finland is the lack of baggers. Seriously. If you shop at any American grocery store, they will have the cashier (standing because physical pain shows dedication) and a person at the end of register to bag your groceries. You as the customer only have to swipe your card. In some places, they will still even push your grocery cart out to your car for you!

They will not do this in Europe. In Germany, cashiers will not get up from their cushy chairs unless there’s a fire. You are expected to not only bag your groceries, but pay for the bags to do so (or bring your own, which most people do) and to do it quickly enough to spare yourself from the wrath of the cashier and the customer behind you. If you’re not used to packing your groceries, I recommend just taking them all to the bagging shelf where you can take your sweet time to do things properly.

Why these differences? There are several reasons.

1) Culture. Germany and Finland don’t really have a huge service culture. If you want good service in Germany, you pay for it. Germans are che—thrifty, so they don’t want to pay for service. They’d rather pay for quality. Finland is only nice to foreigners who are shopping there. Now that my husband has been out of Finland for about 6 years, he gets the foreigner treatment when he goes home and is constantly amazed at how much better he’s treated. Actual Finns: you’re own your own.

2) Labor supply. In the US, baggers tend to be very young, very old or mentally retarded. Occasionally someone hire up will be filling in for them, but this is the general rule. It’s unskilled labor. In the US we have a lot more unskilled labor than they do in Finland and Germany. This is partially due to the fact we have a lot more unskilled (and illegal) immigration. It’s also due to tradition. It’s a lot more “traditional” in the US for teenagers to work. I got my first official job when I was 15 (babysitting in a church nursery. I got $27.70 after taxes every two weeks). By the time I graduated high school I was working two jobs: church nursery and telesurveyer at a university. My husband’s first job was when he was in college: tutoring other students. His first real REAL job was after he immigated to the US. The foreign exchange student my sister had from Berlin actually got some jobs when he was a teen: as an extra in some soap operas being filmed in town. It definitely wasn’t anything regular though.
Of course there is regional variation. I was discussing contractors with a friend and he said that was the biggest difference between living in California and the Northeast: in California, you hire people to work on your house and they show up at daybreak, banging down your door ready to get started. Hire someone in the Northeast and they’ll show up…eventually. You might have to call them a few times though. If you fire them, it’s useless. The replacement will be just as bad. They’re like this because they know there’s not a lot of competition. Any immigration in the Northeast tends to be skilled white collar labor and population trends are down, kind of like Germany and Finland.

3) Labor costs. Labor costs are a lot higher in Europe than in the US. The Federal minimum wage is $7.25. Finland and Germany don’t have federal minimum wages, but wages are negotiated via unions by sector. But the average for unskilled labor, like a cashier, in Finland and Germany is higher than in the US. Or maybe that’s the issue: in the US, cashiers are considered unskilled labor. You will be set ringing after maybe an hour of training. In Germany and Finland, you’re probably educated and as far as I know, probably have to have a degree from a vocational school in cash register technology. Labor regulations also increase the cost of hiring an extra cashier. So you usually encounter two or three cashiers in a store and long lines. In the US, both retail chains I worked at (large chains, you’ve definitely shopped there), had rules regarding how many customers could be waiting in line. At the large box store it was something like 2+1 (Two customers waiting, one ringing). At the pharmacy retail store, it was “I-see-3.” If he saw 3 customers in line, the cashier was supposed to call that code for back up. This will not happen in Europe because there IS no back up. And you will wait. But those cashiers are damned efficient. Their productivity has to be high in order to justify their employment. The amount you’re paid signifies how productive your employers expect (or think) you are. Cashiers in Finland in Germany have to be a heck of a lot more productive. Go to a McDonalds in Europe and compare it to a local one in the US. In Finland, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than two cashiers at Hesburger (it’s like McDonalds) or McDonalds. They’re like octopuses. It takes longer to get your meals, you wait longer, and the employers are crazy busy, but it works. In the US, it depends what time it is, but generally three cashiers and people running the drive thru along with assorted other people running around doing things. Completely different.

Any other reasons?