Recently I traveled back to Wisconsin somewhat unexpectedly. The first thing that greeted me as I passed through the doors of Terminal 5 at O'Hare was the greasy stench of McDonald's. Yep, after almost 6 months of being away, how fitting that the odor of McDonald's hits me in the face before I get out into the fresh air. Ok, the air at the airport isn't all that fresh, but still.
I was in Wisconsin for two weeks and had a lovely time with family and friends, despite the circumstances of my visit - my grandfather's funeral. During those two weeks we had one huge blizzard that all but buried my daughter's car in my parents' driveway - I think the final count was 17 inches (43 cm) - and one snow storm that missed us in Sheboygan but led to multiple flights being cancelled in Chicago on the day I was supposed to leave. Shortly after I returned to Germany, winter returned to the northern region, and Hamburg reported 16 cm of snow causing all kinds of problems for drivers. 16 cm is a little over 6 inches. Living in Wisconsin for the first 44 years of my life is why I do not complain about the weather in Germany.
As always, I spend time in both countries pondering interesting differences between life here and life there. One of these differences is what I'd call "natural exercise". Sadly for my own health, I have never been a fan of exercise, even though I know how important it is. I enjoy walks that have a purpose and a destination, and I even liked basement treadmill workouts as long as I could watch the news, Jeopardy, or a movie while doing it. Swimming was enjoyable for a while, but that required a membership to the YMCA which I didn't take enough advantage of to warrant the expense.
What I have here in Germany, though, is lots of natural exercise. It doesn't require an expensive gym membership, I don't have to drive somewhere to get it, and I don't have to change clothes. What I mean mainly by "natural exercise" is walking, climbing stairs, and biking to get where I need to go. Parking is such a hassle here that searching for a spot close to where I'm shopping or a spot on the street is an utter waste of time. When I go down into Horb, I park in the lot at the Bahnhof (train station) and walk over the bridge spanning the Neckar into town. If I need to go to the Ausländeramt (foreigners' office) or town hall, that involves a walk up a steep hill via stairs or a sloping road. It's possible to drive up there, but the narrow road twists and turns around an unforgiving stone building, and I wouldn't want to meet an oncoming car there. Besides, once up there, it's unlikely that I would find an available parking spot. It's much easier to make the 15-minute walk up from the Bahnhof.
I walk to the bus stop. We walk to our favorite restaurant because we can then both enjoy a glass or two of wine as well as the walk home in the fresh air. I walk to the mailbox. (Mailboxes are still common over here, since we cannot leave our letters in our home mailboxes with the flag up for the postman to take them, as one can do in the States.)
Our butcher is about 7 blocks away, and it would be ridiculous to take the car. If it's raining and I need meat, I use an umbrella. If it's snowing, I wear boots. The grocery store is 2 km (1.25 miles) from our house, and if I only need a few items, I walk there. I get fresh air, a little up and down hill action, and time alone with my thoughts or the song stuck in my head. In Wisconsin the grocery store I used was 1 mile from my house, but I rarely walked there even if I only needed a few items. Granted, I have more time now than I did when I lived in Wisconsin, but that's not even much of an excuse since I was a teacher and had 2 1/2 months off during the summer. And what about weekends and holidays? I could have walked then, but I didn't.
Many restaurants in the States are separate buildings with their own designated parking lots. It often doesn't work to park a few blocks away and walk to the restaurant, even though the walk after the meal in the fresh air would do lots of us some good.
When we go to Esslingen by car, we park in a Parkhaus (parking garage) and do everything we need to do downtown on foot. That might require walking back to the car to get rid of some shopping bags before having lunch, but at the most that's an additional 20 minutes of walking. There are all kinds of shops in downtown Esslingen, and everything I can imagine needing to shop for can be found there. In Wisconsin when I went on errands, I might have needed to go to Kohl's, Target, the grocery store, and Menards. It's not practical to go to all those places on foot because they are miles and miles apart and located on busy roads, some without sidewalks or crosswalks. I've had to explain this to German students going over to Sheboygan for an exchange experience - if they tell their host parents they want to go shopping, the parents are going to ask what they want to go shopping for. Depending on what they want (clothes, candy, souvenirs), the parents are going to have to drive them to various stores rather than just dropping them off downtown for a few hours.
In mid-size cities in Wisconsin, there is little need to walk any significant distance. Every store, restaurant, clinic, bar, and business has its own parking lot, with additional parking along the street. Shopping malls and hospitals are surrounded on all sides with thousands of parking spaces. You can always find a parking spot, even if it means a bit of a walk to the building's entrance.
Last week Martin and I went to see an eye doctor in a town about 20 minutes away by car. He parked in a Parkhaus and we walked 10 minutes to the doctor's office. The office was located on the marketplace, which is a Fußgängerzone (pedestrian zone), so it wouldn't even have been possible to drive to it. "But what do older people do when they need to see the eye doctor?", you may wonder. They walk. They probably walk to the bus stop, take the bus into town, and walk from the bus stop to the doctor's office and then back again. They walk slowly, some with crutches to help them navigate the cobblestones, slopes, and stairs, but they walk.
I think we Americans could be more fit with a few minor adjustments to our habits despite how spread out our cities are. Instead of searching for the closest parking spot to the door, park at the far end of the lot and walk to the door. Yes, this can be done even when it's cold or raining. I've known people to park at one end of a mall to shop in a store at that end, and then get back in the car to drive to the store at the other end of the same mall. It would be better to make that 5-minute walk and back. "But I'm in a hurry!" It does not take less time to go back to the car, start it up, drive it to the other end (stopping at the 5 stop signs in the parking lot), find a new spot, park, and walk into the store than it does to walk to the other end. If it does, walk faster. Your heart will appreciate it!
I know there are lots of Americans who get plenty of exercise because they make time for it during their days and weeks. I admire those people and wish I were one of them. The rest of us, though, could get enough exercise to counter some of our caloric intake by taking the opportunity to walk whenever and wherever we can.