The German Nipple Story (Or the Art of Imparting Cultural Wisdom)

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Mural in Westboro, Ottawa, June 2017

The orange hand was already flashing. I sighed and slowed down, waiting for the pedestrian signal to show a white walking symbol again.

I was tapping my foot, perfectly aware that my childish impatience wouldn’t make the light turn green any faster, when I saw her. Woman, mid-thirties, professional attire, her skirt accidentally tucked into her underwear.

Traffic stopped, people started crossing.

“Sorry, you may need to check your skirt, have a good day!”

I heard “oh, shit!” as I breezed past without looking back to avoid further embarrassment because this is the kind of comment that can save a day but doesn’t require any follow up or a lengthy explanation. Wardrobe malfunction happens. “Your butt looks very toned” or “nice choice of underwear” just can’t be uttered in this case.

I smiled to myself, secretly glad I said something.

Then I remembered the time I didn’t speak out.

It was a hot and humid summer day and I had taken Mark to the neighbourhood’s playground. We arrived at prime Canadian dinnertime, around 5 p.m., so it was empty but for a woman and two kids. If the toddlers hadn’t been her spitting image, I could have assumed she was the nanny. She looked both careless and energetic, two adjectives that hardly describe most mothers of toddlers at the end of a long summer day.

Mark, who was two at the time, went straight for one of the giant trucks the kids had brought. Of course, since they were all around the “you will not, under any circumstance, share your toys” milestone, one of the toddlers started protesting. The mother said something in a language I didn’t understand and, obediently, the toddler let go of the four trucks he was hoarding.

“Your son can play,” she said. “We have very nice trucks. We are Germans, Germans make good trucks!”

Indeed, the toy trucks looked sturdy and had the VW logo. And indeed, she looked like a National Geography poster for Germany—long, braided blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin, square shoulders, slender limbs.

Still, I’m French. I can’t possibly acknowledge the superiority of German automotive engineering, so I just nodded and smiled politely.

Her two kids were busy inspecting Mark, touching his hair. Once again, she said something in German and the kids backed off. Suddenly, I wished I spoke German—this language seemed to be a very effective discipline tool.

“They look at your son’s hair because it’s so black!” she explained.

“How old are your kids?” I asked.

“18 months and 3 years old.”

“You must have your hands full!” I joked.

She looked at her hands then at me, confused.

“I mean, you must be very busy.”

“Oh, yes. Sorry, I need to practise my English.”

She sounded like the usual German villain in French movies—and yes, many French movies have German villains—but again, maybe I sound like the typical French chick in Hollywood movies.

“Are you new to Canada?”

“My husband takes a course at university here, we joined him for the summer.”

The kids politely respected each other’s personal space for another ten minutes, then one of them crossed the Maginot line and I decided it was time to go home.

Mark’s tantrums were bad enough, I didn’t want to witness German toddlers’ emotional outbursts. Nein.

“Maybe we see each other in the park again,” she said when we left.

“I’m sure we will!” I replied.

A week later, on yet another unbearably hot and humid evening, I took Mark to the playground again. He ran toward the splash pad, and in the distance, I spotted two blonde-hair blue-eyed boys playing with a bucket. The Germans. But where was the mother?

It’s only when I was a few feet from the boys that I saw her. She was lying flat on her back on the grass, reading a German novel.

She was also topless.

Her older kid said something in German. She lowered her book and squinted.

“Oh, you came back! It’s so hot today,” she sighed, sitting up. “So, I pretend I’m at the beach.”

“Ah, yes, I see,” I acknowledged.

What else could I say?

There are signs for a lot of things in Canada—no loitering, no smoking, no idling, no skateboard, no littering, don’t feed the bird, etc., but I have yet to see a “no visible nipples” sign. The closest I can think of is a “no shirt, no service” sign in stores. So yes, I guess going topless in a small residential neighbourhood park is technically allowed but it’s still a major culture faux pas—or at least, it will be seen as such.

I don’t know much about German culture but in France, “les pays du nord,” a term encompassing Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Scandinavia, are said to be more casual about nudity, body and sex issues. French go topless too at the beach… or at least, I do. Meanwhile, North Americans can’t seem to see the difference between nudity and sex and enforce a much lower threshold for what’s considered “indecent behaviour.” I’m not even getting into the US laws where urinating in public (admittedly, not classy and gross) can make you a sex offender.

My German friend, still topless, got up and broke up a fight between her toddlers, then she sat beside me on the grass.

“I was hoping to get tan before going home,” she said. “But no, white skin, white skin, white skin!”

“Oh, you’re going back?” I asked.

“Yes, on Sunday.”

It was Friday. I looked at her two kids playing, I looked at her, then I decided it wasn’t my place to tell her that going topless was very much frowned upon here. Canadian public moral could survive two more days of German sunbathing, after all.

I’ve never been in a position where I had to warn someone of a faux pas being committed. I do give advice, on this blog, based on my own cultural trials and error, but it feels different because by definition, advice is preemptive. For instance, I write, “don’t forget to tip!” but I wouldn’t shame a foreigner who doesn’t master the rule.

Cultural norms are weird and are best learned over time, observing people.

Who knows, maybe the German could have started a trend if she had stayed longer.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

22 Comments

  1. Well, there’s very few things that makes me angry as much as the nipple problem in North America. It’s a sheer form of sexism. And I don’t care if it’s a cultural thing, I still don’t approve their problem with nipples… Nipples are just nipples. They’re to feed children. If you sexualize a woman that’s just here to get a tan or to swim, well that’s your problem (I’m actually not talking to you because I know you don’t have a nipple issue). I even saw mothers hiding to breastfeed!
    That makes me quite mad!

    • I find it silly as well and I never understood the big deal about breast/nipples. I take the top off easily whenever I can, but I have to admit I can’t think of a place where I’d do it in Canada. It’s mostly a beach thing…

  2. Me prévenir que ma robe était prise dans mes sous vêtements est la plus gentille et utile chose qu’une de mes collègues m’est dite lol. Je ne l’avais jamais croisée à cette époque, et on est devenues copines ensuite… Quand j’ai manqué lui renverser mon café dessus au détour d’un couloir (j’ai un fort côté miss catastrophe). C’est sur que la tolérance envers la nudité n’est pas la même partout 😉 je reste encore baba devant les débats du type “cette fillette de 8 ans peut elle rester torse nu à la piscine publique”

    • J’ai eu un choc la première fois que j’ai été au “splash pad” (les jeux d’eau dans les parcs) avec Mark. Les gamins étaient habillés des pieds à la tête! En France, ils sont souvent tous nus ou en slip/culotte, ce qui me paraît assez normal vu que 1) ce sont des gamins 2) la sensation des vêtements mouillés est vraiment désagréable.

  3. Nice of you to have warned that lady! Every woman wearing a skirt’s worst nightmare 😉
    As for the “nipple incident”, I probably would have reacted the same way you did. Remind me of when I was 19 or 20. I met an American in Paris (we had been talking on MySpace).
    A- He didn’t let me leave my huge bag in his hotel room “in case I was a terrorist” but then took me on a date…
    B- He was shocked to see pple kissing in public in the park (he was from Texas)
    C- He took his shirt off then sat on a bench to eat his sandwich (not sure why but it seemed weird to me… If he’d done it on the grass then it wouldn’t have been as awkward?)
    D- I don’t think I’ll ever forget sleeping with him, it provided me with a VERY funny story about a move called the “Helicopter” and faded blue kangaroo pants (but now that I’m a respectable coupled up lady I don’t really share those kind of stories anymore).

  4. Haha, somehow after living here in Germany for almost 5 years, I know the context to this one. The thing is, Germans embrace nudity. Even the largest public park here in Berlin have nude areas that are plainly visible to passersby. It’s called FKK (Freikörperkultur – Free body culture).

    There’s a small lake a few metro stops from where we live. A year or so ago, we went there for a stroll. One of its sides is lined up with restaurants and cafes, while the other side was a sandy beach. There were two children and their father swimming. The children were wearing bathing suits, but the father was skinny dipping. In plain view of everyone. Totally normal.

    • (Your comment was moderated, I have no idea why. Sorry!)

      Thank you for the cultural perspective! I kind of like this attitude. I’m pretty casual about nudity in a non sexual way as well and I don’t see anything wrong with it. I remember that Facebook picture that was a mini-scandal a few years ago… a mom snapped a picture of her young daughter and her father (the little girl’s father) under the shower. The picture didn’t show genitalia, it was a very cute shot. Yet some people felt the need to say it was completely inappropriate. She was a toddler, it was just a cute moment!

    • Just curious, when I was in Munich I watched late-night TV show, and it was a show with 4-5 completely nude female, and I was wondering whether it is ok or not later on? after reading your comment, I think it is just a normal TV show.

      Because, when I was in US, those kind of show was very restricted (only available in paid TV cable if I am not mistaken). I always think nudity is okey in western countries, but I guess I was wrong.

      btw, in my country, the only beach you can go topless is in Bali.
      do not try in on the other area unless it’s private beach 😀

      • I don’t know for Germany but in France, full nudity on TV is rare. Genitalia wouldn’t be shown… breast, probably.

        Every Western country has a different threshold for what’s okay and what’s “indecent” and of course, it also depends on the context. Like I said, going topless on the beach is generally perfectly acceptable in France, although people tend to just stay on the sand and put the top back on to go swimming.

        You’ll also notice that many French ads show half-naked women or sexual postures. It’s… weird, I guess, but you get used to it, although it’s questionable to use the female body to sell stuff.

  5. Martin Penwald on

    I just heard a few days ago about a case in Ontario of a woman complaining that she hasn’t been allowed to go topless in a public pool. And even if the case hasn’t yet be solved, it was mentionned that it was perfectly legal to be topless in public in Ontario.
    Technically, it was a feminist fight more than 40 years ago, and here we are, still confusing exhibitionnism with nudity.
    And an extrem case of this confusion, in the U.S.A :
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/foxyfolklorist/that-time-someone-called-the-police-on-me-in-belly-dance-attire/
    Think of the children!!!

    • I think of the children *all the time* and I truly want to protect them from the terrible trauma of seeing body parts in a completely non-sexual way. I’d rather expose them to constant marketing and some violence, it’s much healthier, right?

      /s

  6. Martin Penwald on

    Ah, seriously, German trucks? Beeeh… It is either M.A.N or Mercedes, and I’ll take a Netherlander DAF or a Swede Scania largely before that.
    Incidentally, the truck I want to buy is from a company under Daimler-Benz ownership, with a Mercedes engine rebranded and tuned for the area by the local engine manufacturer Detroit. So maybe it is not that bad. I hope.
    On another hand, Renault …

    • Huh, never thought of Dutch and Swedes as truck builders. Are the Swedish trucks sold in 10,000 pieces at IKEA like giant LEGO?

      • Martin Penwald on

        Nope. And beside, my own truck is a Volvo which is a Swede brand too (they are build in the U.S.A for the North American market, but still).
        In fact, Volvo cars are under a Chinese company ownership, but Volvo trucks are still Swede. And they own Renault V.I (Véhicules Industriels) since a few years, which, by transitivity gave them ownership of the North American brand Mack, which was owned by the French Renault since the 90’s.

        • I have weird insight into Volvo because my aunt is working for them–well, for a subsidiary. And as I’m typing this, I’m realizing she is dealing with trucks actually. Mmm… gotta ask her about it. Unfortunately, she mostly complains about her work/the commute etc. and getting info is hard. She’s been with them forever… since I was a kid, at least.

          • Martin Penwald on

            Ah, so a technical question : when will Volvo start selling its European cabovers truck on the North American market?

            (It is purely rhetorical, because I have the answer and it is never).

          • Apparently, she works in financing so she wouldn’t have known. They can’t or they won’t get into the North American market?

          • Martin Penwald on

            When I inquired about it, the answer I got was that they can’t, but the justification for it was ridiculous and I really think that they don’t want to.
            In fact, I discussed recently with the boss of the company I subcontract, and he told me he too would preferably consider cabover trucks (so, like in Europe, with the engine under the cab, or the ***cab over*** the engine) instead of bonneted trucks (with the engine in front of the cab), but no brand in North America still sell this kind of trucks since 2009.
            The reason is that people don’t want them, but it has to be considered that technologically, trucks in North America are waaaayyyyy behind what we have in Europe (I mean, 15 to 20 years behind), and North American cabover trucks didn’t benefit from comfort and safety improvements we had in Europe, and they felt out of grace.

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