Germany: The American Point-of-View
by Caitlin Cerra
09.02.10 Germany: The American Point-of-View
I noticed something this morning. In the blog that I had written to keep my American friends and family updated on what I’m doing, the majority of what I wrote was about pretty tourist attractions and what I was doing. So I was basically writing just another superficial diary about a very non-superficial foreign experience. Anyone can go to the Brandenburg Gate, T.V. Tower or even the Berlin Wall and “ooooooh” and “aaaaaaaah” and write thousands of pages of text about it. But how many people can tell you what makes the Germans standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, T.V. Tower, and Berlin Wall so different from all the other cultures? How many people can tell you what makes them tick?
Only an exchange student can tell you what living in a German family is like, or what Germans do during the day, or where they party at night. Only an exchange student has had the immersion experiences of two cultures, both her home and host cultures, and is therefore able to understand both cultures better, by seeing where they are different.
I want this… whatever this will be, to have a purpose. I want Germany: The American Point-of-View to be special. If it’s destined to be a travel guide, then I don’t want it to tell its readers something that they can get from a thousand different sources about pretty buildings. I want it to be a cultural travel guide; it should be a guide that tells its readers that there are different ways of thinking and living, and to explain why and how the German culture is unique. This will be a people guide, not a guide to all of the pretty gardens in a foreign country.
I’m an American in Germany.
More exactly, I’m an American exchange student in Germany. When I first came to Germany in August 2009, I could speak absolutely no German, but I quickly learned and wrote Deutschland: Der Einblick einer Amerikanerin (Germany: The American Point-of-View), a book-blog about what makes an American tick. This is going to be the same thing, but in reverse. Now I’ll write for Americans, describing how Germans think and are.
My journey started in Arizona in August 2008. I met a German boy who had received the CBYX (Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, a program that annually sends 300 Germans to America, and 250 Americans to Germany) Scholarship to go on an exchange to America, and so was sitting behind me in French class at my high school. He was pretty awesome, so of course we became friends, and when he presented in French class about his scholarship program, I knew I had to apply. Long story short, less than a year later I was in Germany with about 50 other Americans, living in a monastery for a month-long language camp. When that was over, we Americans went to our own individual host families, which were spread all over Germany. I went to Staaken, Spandau in Berlin, but moved to Alt-Kladow, Spandau, Berlin when I switched host families.
For the first time in my life, I was living in not just any city, but the capital city. I, the little farm girl from the little farm town of Buckeye, Arizona, where “getting out of Buckeye” meant going less than an hour away to Phoenix, was living in Berlin clear on the other side of the globe.
(3) German “Discussions”
Every year exchange programs in Germany are confronted with exchange students wondering why their host family fights and yells so frequently. The truth is however, that the host family isn’t actually fighting, but just discussing rather loudly, since discussing almost everything has recently become ingrained into the German way-of-life. In America, I was more accustomed to avoiding sensitive topics, and just hoped that the issue would resolve itself. Much to my surprise, my first host family was a family that loved to argue their hearts out with each other, and would often do so in their outdoor voices. At first I was extremely shocked, but vigorous discussion was just this family’s way to communicate not just their ideas, but also their love for each other since they used it as a family-bonding tool. This “vigorous discussion” was originally completely alien and rather intimidating for me, but like everything strange, it does have its own merits. Instead of waiting for issues to just solve themselves, my first host family worked together on solving problems. For example, if the daughter didn’t want to go on a family outing, then she would say why she didn’t want to go, and her parents would say why they wanted her to go. If they couldn’t manage to convince her, and she still didn’t want to go, then they wouldn’t force her to do something she didn’t want to do.
(4) The Bus Situation
This morning I thankfully got onto the right bus, since yesterday I ended up heading in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. But, I was extremely shocked – and that’s an understatement! – by how many sardines were packed into that can of a bus. In my tiny desert village back in the US of A, I was used to a scarcely populated school bus, and no public transportation at all. So of course, the bus packed with not only students but also with regular people going about their business led to my previously large allotment of personal space being exceedingly violated as I joined the other sardines in the can.
Of course, the bus felt like making the situation worse for everyone onboard, so it hit a turn exceptionally hard. I could hardly keep my balance in the first place, so I suddenly found myself in the lap of a reasonably attractive person. Sadly my life is not a romance movie, and I wasn’t asked for my number. Instead I stood with my butt in this random stranger’s face for the rest of the ride, since there was nowhere else to put it. My personal space has never recovered from that fateful day.
The closeness of the Germans shocked me, not jut in busses and trains, but also in how they touched each other. Females would greet both male and female friends with a kiss on the cheek, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a guy and girl somehow laying on each other. This touching was obviously just friendly and not sexual in nature at all, but it’s still strange to see when you’ve never witnessed something of the like before; although, what surprised me the most were the gigantic group massages. Students sat in lines, massaging the person in front of them, and getting massaged by the person behind them. I found it rather full of hilarium.
While reading a collection of stories about the lives of German people, I was surprised by how many women were housewives. I know absolutely no housewives in America, but both of my host mothers were housewives. I assume the reason why I know no American housewives is because I live in a very poor area, and I knew a lot of German housewives because in Germany I lived in rather well-to-do areas. So although I first assumed that the feminist movement and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique completely skipped Germany’s social development, I corrected myself by realizing that the two places I was comparing are demographically very different.
But still, I always assumed being ‘just’ a housewife was something no one did anymore (I thought the same of foreign exchanges, until I met my first exchange student my sophomore year of high school). So… what makes a German woman want to become a housewife? The very simple desire to raise a family does. Although it’s looked down upon to discontinue an education or career in favor of raising a family, every female takes advantage of the amazing maternity-leave perks. Some women have it planned that they want to give up their job to have a family; others never end up going back to work. In richer areas, a second income isn’t necessary, so the wife can stay home; although, I knew a couple that comprised of a working mom and a househusband who stayed at home to care for their children since she made so much money that he didn’t have to work. Not to mention, spots in a kindergarten are exceedingly difficult to find in Germany, putting more pressure on the mother to stay home. These last two issues explain a surprising correlation in which areas have a higher percentage of housewives. Western Germany has, in general, more housewives than eastern Germany, which was a communist regime in the Soviet zone of Germany during the Cold War. A lot of people moved from East Germany to West Germany after WWII, leaving few people in East Germany before the walls were built to keep people in. Since there were so few people, everyone was needed to keep society moving, resulting in ubiquitous kindergartens so that women could return to work after having a child. But, eastern Germany is still in general poorer than western Germany, because the West underwent much more progress during the Cold War, leaving the East behind. So a combination of more kindergartens and the necessity of two incomes probably strongly contributed to the lower concentration of housewives in modern eastern Germany.
Of course, a German housewife isn’t ‘just’ a housewife. My first host mom practiced yoga, and my second one had a part-time job and was an active volunteer in an exchange organization just to keep herself busy. Many housewives engaged in volunteer work to give back to the community.
(6) Oh My God! I’m So Beautiful!
I find myself extremely attractive. In fact, almost everyone in America thinks they’re attractive to some degree, and if they don’t, then they receive mountains of peer pressure from the media forcing them to think they’re beautiful. The Tyra Banks Show is just one of many television talk-shows built around finding the beauty in every person, even if that person happens to be a morbidly obese backcountry hick with a snaggletooth. It’s looked down upon when a person has a negative self-image, and it’s seen as a problem that must be fixed.
Unsurprisingly, here is yet another topic upon which the American and German cultures diverge. First of all, anyone that openly compliments and praises themselves would be charged guilty of being cocky and vain. It’s not that being amazing is looked down upon; it’s that Germans think most people simply aren’t amazing. Instead, they’re average. So, if you see yourself as not being super-duper special, you’re praised as being more in-touch with reality about your specialness, or lack there-of. This is mainly because although the Germans do think some people are the best thing since sliced bread, when you start saying it about yourself, then you no longer see what you can improve about yourself. This constant self-improvement is what Germans see every time they look in the mirror; their triumphs and good qualities are overshadowed by their constant search for something about themselves that they can change for the better.
This sounds perhaps rather __________ (insert your reaction here), but in Germany being average is accepted, since that’s what most people technically are. Seriously, look it up in the dictionary. In America, there’s an insane amount of pressure to be the best of the best/a shooting star, and being average is seen as a bad thing. This pressure is especially evident in the school system, where students are constantly pressured to get “A”’s, and also in the race for scholarships, spots at colleges, and the highest class ranks. School is sometimes little more than a fight to get the best grades, with the benefits of getting an education left underappreciated; however, this is also just because of normal short-sightedness. It’s more fun to think about each class as a competition with your peers instead of about all four high school years as achieving their first big academic step before going to college.
That same pressure isn’t present in Germany, and the grading system accurately portrays this lack. Most students in a class get a “3” (American “C”’s), while some get “2”’s (“B”’s), and just one or two get “1”’s (“A”’s). A “3” or a “C” might be ‘average’ to Americans, but Germans don’t have the same pressure to be rocket scientists. Although it might seem cold, the German philosophy is that some people are just not cutout to be anything but janitors. Think about it though – there can’t be more leaders than followers, and without janitors even rocket scientists wouldn’t have a clean and decent facility to work in.
In America, everyone can be whatever he or she wants to be if they just try, while in Germany people have their limits. Americans believe that you can do, achieve, and be anything you want, but Germans believe that everyone has their own limits, and they won’t pressure someone to achieve something that is beyond their abilities.
(7) The Look of Death
The next time you’re on any sort of public transportation, look at what the people are doing. You’ll most likely see a lot of friendly faces, willing to carry on a conversation with you if you sit next to them. But in Germany, everyone stares off into space as if they’re intently trying to ignore the world. I call this look the Look of Death, since there is almost no emotion on their faces to a frightening degree, as if they’re not even alive. Although it sounds intimidating, Germans aren’t antisocial – they just don’t want to draw attention to themselves in public places, so they outright avoid even eye contact with strangers.
This concept was entirely foreign to me at first, and I violated the unwritten law of avoiding all contact on public transportation. One time on the bus this lady looked at me like I was completely insane for talking to her, but didn’t respond. I repeated my question, and she answered, but then she looked out the window like she was secretly repeating in her head, “bitte lass mich, bitte lass mich” (please leave me alone). Although a bit on the extreme side, it’s also a manifestation of the German aversion towards mindless banter. If you’re a tourist though, don’t worry – for the most part Germans love tourists and wouldn’t mind giving them directions, and will in fact engage in mindless banter with you, but if and only if you’re a tourist.
This delves deeper into how Germans communicate. It’s not at all that they’re anti-social; Germans actually seemed to be much more involved in their communities. They just needed more substance packed into a conversation. I could talk to my American friends about the color blue for as long as I wanted to, but my German friends would think I was crazy. But don’t despair – Germans are more willing to talk to someone who is a tourist, because then that conversation has a reason and sparks their interest.
Although a bit off-topic, when I visited my first German city, Leipzig, I was really surprised because I thought cities were supposed to be noisy. But, in Leipzig you could hear a needle being dropped on the other side of the street. Even in Berlin it wasn’t so noisy, and there weren’t nearly as many people on the streets as I expected… I had thought Berlin would be more like New York City, but I was completely mistaken.
(8) My Awesome Bicycle! (Health in Germany)
My amazing host mom got me an awesome used bicycle today and I took it for a test-drive as soon as I saw it! But that’s not the point here. Every time I venture into Berlin, I always see at least one bicyclist. On the other hand, every time I ride my bike through the desert heat into downtown Buckeye, people think I’m crazy. The main difference is that Americans see bike riding and walking as ways to exercise instead of just methods of transportation, while in Germany they’re just ways of getting from point A to point B. Germans, especially the older ones, enjoy riding around for pleasure, and to look at the beautiful landscapes in Germany. My host mom even rode her bicycle for about an hour in the summer to get to work, but mainly because she didn’t want to risk losing said beautiful landscapes by polluting the Earth with her minivan.
In general, Germans are in much better physical condition than Americans; however, that’s mostly because sport clubs are much more popular in Germany and attractive to people of all ages, and P.E. classes are required each grade before college. That’s right, Germans have mandatory physical education classes each year they’re in school. Not to mention, some areas in Germany even have the dreaded “Cooper Test”. Basically, your teacher puts you on a track with the rest of your class, sets a timer, and makes you all run for 12 minutes before stopping the timer, and then grades you on how far you went. You had to run about a mile and a quarter in that time to get full credit. My very first day in German school, I was thrust into a room full of strangers – well, technically they were my classmates, but I had only known them for four hours -, had to change with them, and then had to run run run for 12 minutes. Unsurprisingly that was the first time in my life I failed any type of test.
Germans also looked much thinner and had better complexions, most likely because they ate a healthy diet. Although they pretty much ate just bread for breakfast and dinner, the preferred bread always had whole grains and was visibly dark, whereas the common American bread, white bread, was rarely eaten. For lunch they usually ate a homemade meal, made with fresh ingredients. They had an extreme distrust of artificial ingredients and flavorings.
The food offered in my German school was completely different as well. For example, at my American school you can only buy junk food other than fries and burgers from a vending machine, and only at certain times. The same goes for soda as well, so junk food addicts can only nourish themselves after school hours. In Germany there was no lunch period, since students were released early enough to eat lunch with their family at home, but donuts, soda, pizza, practically any snack food you can imagine, was offered at all hours by the small school cafeteria. Of course there were healthier options, like a simple piece of cheese melted over a bun, but most of the school “cafeteria”‘s edible offerings were loaded with either chocolate or icing – or even both.
As a last note about bicycles, there are actually lanes in Berlin just for bicycles. Sometimes they’re in the street, but for the most part they’re actually on the sidewalk, and made with a differently colored brick so that pedestrians can clearly see where they shouldn’t walk. Thankfully, everyone responds to a bicycle’s bell, and will move out of the way as soon as they hear one.
(9) I Love You! (But I Won’t Tell You!)
To me, Germans are utterly unromantic. Sorry. My boyfriend is an exception to that rule, and there’re surely a lot more like him, but in general Germans are just not as romantic as Americans. Germans aren’t completely lacking in that broad category, they just show their feelings in different ways.
Pretend it’s Valentines Day. Look around you at all of the commercials on the radio, television – perhaps even printed on the toilet paper – about how you should do something breathtakingly extravagant for your beloved to prove your undying passion. That is how Americans show affection for each other. They buy something like a gigantic bouquet of roses, or profess their undying love and wishes for marriage on a billboard. Nothing is left to interpretation; we mean exactly what we say, and if we don’t say something, it’s because we don’t mean it.
On the other hand, my host mom and her husband obviously care for each other deeply, but they never said, “I love you” in front of me the whole time I was there. In fact, they’ve only told each other “I love you” about three times in their entire, successful marriage, which has brought three children to this world. I asked my host mom why she married my host father, expecting one of those mad stories of ‘the one’ that I had grown accustomed to in America. But, she married him because they cared for each other, had the same interests and both wanted a family, not because he was a suave Casanova and couldn’t possibly imagine life without him.
That is how Germans show love to each other. They don’t have to paint it on the roof for all to see; that would actually be embarrassing for both parties. They just show their love through actions instead; they don’t need to be constantly told that they’ve they’re loved, since they expect to be able to see it in the actions of their partner.
(10) Nudity. Everywhere.
One day while I was using Berlin’s extensive subway system, I looked out the window and saw a gigantic naked woman. She was a 30-foot tall poster that someone stuck on the side of a building in the middle of the city, advertising a photography exhibit of Helmut Newton with her bare, voluptuous bosom. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually illegal in America to post nude pictures in public places, but I had certainly never seen it before. Nudity just doesn’t bother Germans as much.
So imagine this, you’re at a spa, have never been to one before, and have never even seen anyone naked but yourself. Suddenly, you’re confronted with hordes of naked older ladies coagulating around the sauna room. That’s how I felt. I couldn’t believe they were naked at first, and felt extremely uncomfortable. To make matters worse, the ladies kept trying to talk to me, but I didn’t know where to look. I sort of faked being sick so that I wouldn’t have to get naked in front of everyone, but no one else had a problem with being naked.
One of my last days in Berlin, I was riding my bike alongside a section of the Autobahn, videotaping it. As soon as I stopped the camera, I looked to see what was on the other side of me. There was a beautiful lake, with many naked people milling about it, all in the center of Berlin. I had never seen a nude beach before. This obviously wasn’t an official nude beach, it just started with one person taking off his or her swimsuit, then the next one and so on and so forth until most of the swimmers were naked. And nobody really cared. Surprisingly enough, I actually met someone who grew up in East Germany during the Cold War, and didn’t know that something like swimsuits existed until she came to Berlin to go to college; she had always swum naked in the Baltic Sea, where she grew up. The lack of swimsuits wasn’t unique to the coastal areas of East Germany during the Cold War, in fact East Germany in general had many more nude beaches than West Germany. It’s not uncommon either for a woman to take her top off at a regular beach, and I’ve even seen naked toddlers with their parents at the Havel River, which is not at all a nude beach. Toddlers rarely wear something when they are at the beach, since it’s absolutely normal to play naked in the sand and go swimming until they’re old enough to start school.
A definite benefit of being in an area that is so accepting of nudity is developing a better body image. After seeing naked people walking, sitting, and swimming around, it’s harder for me to feel uncomfortable in a swimsuit. Thanks Germany!
(11) To Be Honest, You’re Rude
If you’ve ever watched the Disney movie Bambi, you probably remember Thumper’s immortal line, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. That’s exactly what the American culture values, manners over honesty, whereas Germans value honesty over all else, no matter how painful the truth can be. Even if I came to school wearing a semi-fashionable potato sack, my American friends would praise me as if I had just walked off a runway. On the other hand, I was wearing ugly socks one day at school in Germany and my friends pulled me off to the side ASAP and told me to take them off. Although more extreme, a German guy even told me that I had to start hitting the gym and dressing better, or else I would never get a boyfriend for the rest of my life. I just stared at him, shocked, completely unsure of what to say. I didn’t beat him up like I would have if he was an American, because it was obvious he wasn’t saying that just to hurt my feelings. He honestly felt like he was taking care of me in a way, by telling me the steps that I could take to spice up my love life. He just honestly believed what he was saying, even if it made my American side want to slam his fingers in a door.
That’s just how people are though, and just like yin and yang, a good mixture has pieces of both opposites blended together. Although I didn’t like German guys calling me fat (I’m a size 6 anyways, what’re they talking about???), I did appreciate their freely given constructive criticism.
(12) Mommy, Mommy! Please Hold My Hand?
I was babysitting a three- and a five-year old along with their grandparents – which was actually strange, I think the grandparents just wanted to show their grandchildren what an American looks like – and we all went to the gigantic zoo in the middle of Berlin. We visited a gorilla, but the little kids had their view obstructed by some decorative boulders, and so the little three-year old was picked up by his grandma, but the five-year old was left to desperately grow a couple more inches while trying to stand on the railing to see. I asked why he wasn’t picked up to look at the animals too, and his grandma said, “Their parents want them to grow up to be independent”. Wait, what? This kid’s just like, five, right?
Although this might sound shocking to all of the American parents who put leashes on their children, the German parenting style really is just a let-them-fend-for-themselves style. No, children aren’t left unattended next to a shark tank, but even at the young age of five parents start to push their children to take care of themselves as much as they can. I read in a newspaper articles once about an Italian lady who came to Germany and was upset when she saw a child crying at a playground, saying it couldn’t find its mother. The kind-hearted lady quickly tried to look for the child’s mom, only to find her sitting a few feet off, watching the child the entire time. Upon questioning the mother said that the child knew that she was there, and there wasn’t any reason to worry, since the child was just throwing a tantrum of sorts. That perfectly describes German parenting – the parents are there to get their children out of trouble, but the children are largely left to either succeed or fail as much as they want. Although I’m terrible at telling how old kids are, I often saw the ones about waist-high riding the Berlin busses to go to school. My eldest host brother even walked the 15 minutes to kindergarten all by himself when he was 5. The first three or four days she sneaked behind him, checking whether he paid attention to the pedestrian signals, but later she trusted him and he went all alone.
More surprisingly, children are actually treated like equals in German society. Although American society is prone to discard someone’s opinion simply because they’re under the age where a fairy waves a wand about your head and you’re suddenly no longer a minor, the opinions of children, even pertaining to family issues, were just as valid as the ideas of the parents. When teenagers wanted to go out with friends, or just do something outside of the house, they didn’t have to ask for permission, they just asked to see if it conflicted with family plans. Parents didn’t have and didn’t want to have the same control over their children that American parents do, because the children were mature enough to handle the responsibilities laid on their shoulders, and therefore didn’t need their parents to direct all areas of their life for them. To Germans the purpose of parenting was raising a child with the maturity and independence to take care of itself, so controlling a child’s life would be considered counter-productive
It might seem like bad parenting to not put a leash around your children; however, it does eventually produce young adults more ready to challenge the world. On the other hand, since America doesn’t have the same extensive transportation system that Germany does simply due to size, children do have to rely much more heavily on their parents to get from point A to point B, and it might not be possible for an American youth to develop that same sense of independence until they’re able to drive and/or are in college, even if they desperately try.
(13) American Social Paranoia
Ohmigawd, so like, did you like see how like, completely fat Jenny is? I mean, she totally asked me if her fugly new jacket makes her look fat, but I’m like, “no Jenny, your fat makes you look fat”.
Back to the point, American teens love to talk about each other. And if they’re not talking smack about someone and jabbing someone in the back with a knife, they’re waiting for the perfect opportunity to start doing it again. If you’re pregnant or homosexual, suddenly it’s everyone’s business. If you’re sexually active, suddenly you’re either a slut or a stud. But getting away from the blatant sexism, every teen loves to talk about every other teen, so they know that they’re getting talked about too. This makes them constantly worry that people are talking about them behind their backs. There you go, we have the classic case of American social paranoia, I want a copyright on the name and a million bucks for diagnosing this disorder.
Basically, everyone knows that they’re not immune to the smack that they throw down every day, and is constantly wondering what negative thoughts people are harboring about them behind their beady little eyes. Now here is where we get to Germany, where everyone stays out of everyone else’s business.
WAIT! WHAT!? (Is that even possible?)
Yes, in Germany you get rejected for talking about how someone else is doing/being stupid. One of my very first days in Germany, my friends pointed out a group of girls to me as being so uninteresting that they can never talk about themselves, so they only talk about other people. There goes my main conversation starter. But when Valentine’s Day and the only school dance of the year rolled around, I was approached by a group of tenth graders who were all drunk and were asking me brainless and immature questions (please note, the drinking age in Germany is 16). The next day I was mentioned how foolish the kids were acting, and a girl stopped the conversation immediately by telling me it was their business if they wanted to do that.
Of course, Germans do talk smack about each other, but usually only to their innermost circle of friends, and very rarely. Since they progress through the grades with the same group of about 27 kids in the same class, they’re also nice to each other, even if they hate someone’s guts. No wonder they never contracted my American social paranoia.
(14) German Travel Fever
Germans love to travel. And I don’t mean the saving-up-for-one-year-to-spend-a-week-in-Italy sort of travel either. My first host mom used to be a travel agent, and together we drove across Germany, rode a train across Germany, and planned a trip to the Baltic Sea, all while they planned a month-long stay in Australia for the next summer. My second host family drove with me to the Baltic Sea about three times, and my host parents toured a small section of America and Canada for about two weeks for their son’s graduation, since he graduated from some college in New York, and they wanted to visit him and the country at the same time. Oh, and they spent about a week on some small island in Africa around Christmas, and then visited family on the other side of Germany for Christmas. Germans don’t travel once per year to some far off, overly romanticized destination; Germans travel often to every place imaginable. Germans just love to travel, no matter how much money they make. Most people who can afford it travel during every school vacation; and those who can’t would save for the next big break. In America I can’t remember the last vacation I went on with my mom, but in Germany I visited over 15 different cities in less than a year, sometimes with just a bicycle.
But, German and American ideas of what counts as a ‘vacation’ are also vastly different. Americans think of relaxing on a beach when they hear vacation, but to a German it’s marching through a city, enjoying as much of it as possible before leaving. German ‘vacationing’ was more stressful to me than the regular school week. But, from my experience, Germans immersed themselves more in the local culture, enjoying old monuments because of the history behind them. While on a tour with a bunch of other Americans and Canadians in Paris, I felt like we were only appreciating the expectations we had of the buildings, instead of what they actually are. If Paris was the “City of Dog Feces Everywhere on the Sidewalks” (which it totally is if you’ve been there) instead of the “City of Love”, then the American in me wouldn’t have wanted to go there. But, because other people thought so highly of a place, the American in me wanted to go to it, just to be there and superficially enjoy the place, and then to be able to say that I had been there. The German in me appreciates even filthy old monuments, because I like them or because they have an interesting history. To a German, sipping real French hot chocolate in the corner of a small Parisian cafe while watching and enjoying two French men at the bar discuss politics in their unusually hot temperament would even be considered ‘vacationing’. Perhaps that’s why German ‘vacationing’ requires more mental energy than American travel, since they try to immerse themselves in the time and place, instead of just wanting to spread out on a sand sofa for a week, checking out all of the attractive foreign people prancing around on the beach. But then again, that can be fun too, and maybe even lead to landing an attractive foreign person’s phone number.
(15) Did You Know That…?
Something doesn’t have to be hugely important for it to vary by culture. I saw a lot of simple, everyday things in Germany that were completely different from what I knew in America. Even though they’re small, they’re still interesting. So, did you know that in Germany…
- The number “1” is written differently. Instead of a single line, it’s like a 7, but with the horizontal line bent over more, so that it’s almost touching the stem. To differentiate better between 1’s and 7’s, a 7 always has a second horizontal line through its stem.
- When someone says that something tastes “interesting”, it’s not an insult, the food actually tastes interesting.
- The currency sign goes behind the price. For example, fifty Euros would be written 100€ instead of €100.
- You pay a little extra money for certain bottles (such as soda bottles) when you buy them, but you can get the money back when you return the bottles to the store. These bottles are reused or recycled afterwards. You can often see people searching through trash looking for bottles, hoping to make a quick Euro.
- It’s actually encouraged to put graffiti on certain parts of the Berlin Wall, and the East Side Gallery actually showcases works of art that were painted onto the Wall. There is a historicbackground to this: When Berlin was still divided, the Berlin Wall was heavily painted with graffiti on the west side to protest the separation. On the east side there was a 100m (328ft) wide “no-man’s land” which nobody could cross without getting shot.
- There’s no poison ivy, but there are burning nettles and a plant, the Riesen-Bärenklau, that can literally give you burns. Reading its Wikipedia page can give you both information and nightmares.
- It’s considered unprofessional to use anything other than ink to take a test.
- Because everyone writes in ink, there is a type of liquid eraser that can erase it; however, the liquid is absorbed by the paper and so if you reuse your original ink it will disappear. Thankfully, the liquid erasers are double sided and the second side has a special ink that will write over the erasing liquid.
- Graphing paper is used much more often, and even takes the place of lined paper. I personally preferred it.
- I never once saw someone get sent to the office, no matter how disruptive they were. Someone literally spat at someone else during class once, and the only thing the teacher did was make him apologize. Later, the same person grabbed the teacher’s keys, locked the classroom from the inside, and sat back down. I don’t even know if there’s any sort of behavior-corrective system in German schools.
- Military time is used for all official times, and sometimes even in casual conversation.
- You can’t turn the doorknobs. All of them are literally just grips to open the door when it’s unlocked.
- Toilet paper packages have handles.
- Teachers are government employees,so it’s extremely hard to fire them. At the German version of PTSOs (Parent Teacher Student Organizations), when confronted with complaints about a teacher, a school official will literally say, “we know about this problem, but we can’t do anything about it.”
- Students do almost whatever they want during class, including playing video games and talking. One person in my class played with his iTouch during every single science class.
- About half of the student’s grade comes from how much he or she takes part in classroom discussions. The other half comes from the single test that is taken each semester.
- There are no multiple-choice tests. Instead, the student has to write responses to different questions. A typical test with only six questions can last for about two hours; however to graduate from a Gymnasium (think of it as an “honors” high school without a higher price) and go to college, German students have to take an exam called the “Abitur”. The exam consists of three questions and you have five hours to answer them.
- Germans write the day before the month when they’re writing dates.
- You drive on the same side of the road as in America, the right side.
- Bicyclists have to abide by the same rules as cars.
(16) I Talk with My Hands, Not with My Mouth!
I was sitting on the bus when I decided to really look at and examine another passenger. His skin was rather dark, so I wasn’t sure if he was German, but then he started to express himself with wild hand gesticulations. Then I was certain that he wasn’t at all a German, and that people could easily tell that I’m not either, since I also talk with my hands. Germans simply don’t do that, but I do have an excuse! I forget where, but I read that when you’re speaking a foreign language, you use more hand gestures to express yourself. Perhaps that’s what he was doing too.
Most importantly, this is a wonderful example of how culture can be immediately visible by manifesting itself in how we connect to the world around us and express ourselves. But when it comes down to it… isn’t that really all that culture is?
(17) German Cleanliness
Every day at my American high school I traverse the desert of 20-year old gum covering the floors of the halls. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone started a gum museum with all of the specimens found in just one square foot of Buckeye Union High School’s cement sidewalks. But, in Germany the corridors didn’t have any of these age-old dark splotches covering the floor, and instead looked immaculate. To the Germans, throwing your gum on the ground is just nasty and something that they won’t do, even though they do other things that to an American aren’t the cleanest thing ever. For example, many Germans wear their clothes two days in a row, since they’re not considered dirty after being worn only once. They hardly ever eat with their hands (some even use silverware for pizza!), but they also won’t shower more than once a day, unless they were exercising. They might even shower only every second day, but wash up at the sink in between. Soap was often lacking in the bathrooms at my school in Germany, and the students wouldn’t be bothered if they didn’t wash their hands with soap after using the restroom. Water bottles could also be filled everywhere, including the sink in a public bathroom.
Although most of the things I listed here are considered sins against cleanliness in our American culture, there are surely a lot of things that Americans do that would make a German want to wash their eyes out with bleach to heal them of the nastiness they just witnessed. There is one misconception I must clear up though: German women do shave. Some older ladies prefer to not shave during the winter, but they will shave before shorts season comes around. German teenagers in general actually had better hygiene than the majority of my American classmates.
Some people get beer-bellies, others get food babies, but I’m opening up a candy store where my stomach used to be. In my opinion, German candy just tastes better than American candy. So I can’t stop eating it. After about a month spent nourishing myself exclusively on Milka bars, I had a Hershey bar and it tasted so bitter that I got rid of it.
But there’s a difference, a very peculiar difference, between the candies from the two countries. If you look at the different candies in the American candy aisle, almost all of them have a tubular shape, like a Snicker’s bar. On the other hand, German candy is almost all in a bar/rectangular shape, like a Hershey’s bar, since Germans like to slowly break off smaller pieces. If you think about it, people eat tube-candy much faster than they would a candy bar, so it’s like we have “fast food” candy. The chocolate manufacturers are making us food specifically designed to be easy to shove into a human mouth.
Sadly, not all food is candy. When I first went to Germany, I thought everything needed more sugar, since Germans prefer to have little to no artificial ingredients, and like the “all natural” taste. But I eventually got used to the German food, so when my mom sent me candy from America, after the first bite I thought, “So this is how science tastes!”. It’s really a matter of what you’re used to. My first impression of German food was that it’s nasty, but after I came back to America I became a vegetarian partially out of a fear of what nasty stuff McDonald’s sticks in their meat.
There are a lot of other small things that are different over there, for example, peanut butter. It’s extremely hard to find, and almost no one eats it. And sauerkraut? It’s not just something they eat with hot dogs; it’s actually a vegetable. In general they also eat less meat than Americans, although in my opinion the most interesting difference is their relationship with bread. Bread is eaten for both breakfast and dinner (lunch is the only cooked meal), and even brought to school by everyone as a snack. But, if you really think about it, you eat bread, not for the bread, but for the taste of the toppings. Germans eat bread to taste the bread, and the toppings are just to spice it up a bit.
All in all, German cuisine can be summed up in one word, “hardy”. It’s nothing exotic like snails or frog legs; instead, the most exotic items on the menu are cow cheeks and pig legs. Food there isn’t meant to be extravagant; it’s meant to be practical.
And once you get going, it’s practically impossible to stop eating it.