We land in Germany at 6:06 a.m. in the rain. “Typisch deutsches Wetter!” (typical German fall weather), I am thinking. What else is typical German, I wonder. Travelling with my non-European partner, I am looking at Germany through his eyes.
The first confusion arises for him when we enter the airport restaurant to have breakfast. Nobody waits to be seated in Germany. Customers walk straight in and choose their own seats.
We then pick up our rental car. Standing in line waiting our turn, we hear the interactions with other customers. My partner is appalled at the lack of customer service. The tone is unfriendly, bordering on what North Americans perceive as rude. The customer agents behind the counter are impatient and confrontational. This is bad customer service, yes, but also a bit of “culture clash” and a different perception of what an adequate way of communicating is. The staff is not educated or trained enough to go beyond translating their German almost word for word into English. Their mannerism and idioms are different. They are not able to soften the tone or adapt their manner of speaking—which is very direct. When the lady behind the counter discovers she can speak German with me, I would still call her anything but friendly but what is rude in English sounds different in German.
My partner can’t wait to drive on the German Autobahn after having heard all the tales of no speed limits and being able to cruise along at 200 km/h. The reality looks a bit different: Lots of constructions sites or areas on the highway where speed limits do exist. Sometimes the limit is 130km/h, other times 100km/h, or even 80km/h. When we are able to go 200km/h though, the high speed is barely noticeable. The highway and the cars are built for going fast. The road is smooth and the car easily glides along. If you are on the third lane, the other drivers get out of the way for faster cars. My Canadian is pleased. Does this make up for the personal rudeness in the interactions, I wonder? On the Autobahn, my partner also notices how everything is labelled very clearly and the exits are counted down in 100 meter increments. “Why don’t we do that in Canada?” he asks.
We stop at an en-route rest stop to have a coffee. He takes off into the direction of the restrooms to come back slightly confused. “Do you have 70 cents for me? It seems I have to pay to go to the restroom.” Yes, he does. Collecting money assures that the public washrooms are clean. If one buys something at the rest stop store, part of the amount (50 cents) can be applied to the purchase.
We leave the highway and drive into the first city. There are bike paths and bikers everywhere and often the bikes have a lane of their own on the street. You better pay extra attention, especially when turning. “Why is their light only on when they are riding the bike?” asks the Canadian puzzled. “Because the bike lamp does not have a battery but a dynamo. This dynamo clicks onto the wheel and ergo only works when the wheels are turning.” He also notices that the traffic lights are different. They are not across the intersection but on your own side of the intersection, so somewhat harder to see. And then he points something out I hadn’t thought of in a long time. In Canada, the traffic light goes from red to green. In Germany it goes from red, to both red and yellow, and only then to green. “Why?” he muses again. “One does not need a warning that the light is about to turn green, does one?”
We arrive at the apartment we are renting and he comments “Wow, German locksmiths must make a fortune!” Why? Because German doors lock when you pull them closed. If you leave the house without your key, you have locked yourself out. Next he looks at the bed with horror. “How are we supposed to sleep in that?” It has two mattresses with a crack in between! “Yes, my love, German beds have two separate mattresses and two separate covers”. He is bewildered that there are no closets in Germany, but admires the beautiful wardrobe we get to use instead. Then he visits the bathroom. Confusion hits again until he has figured out how to flush the toilet. Instead of having a water tank with a lever, modern German plumbing is behind the tiled wall and all you will find is a small button on the wall.
Then we are ready to go for our first walk through the city. We are soon walking through one of many pedestrian districts, often times covered with cobble stones. Lots of people are walking or riding their bikes. Many pedestrians are smoking. Even bicyclists are riding their metal horses one handed while holding a burning cigarette. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if the rain stopped and we could sit in one of those many outdoor cafes or pubs?” “Yes, honey, it would. However, there again you will find people smoking at the tables next to you while you eat or want to enjoy your coffee!”
Only recently has Germany changed the laws about smoking inside. What used to be normal when I grew up here, smoking inside all restaurants and pubs, is prohibited now. By the end of the vacation, we have decided that 75% of Germans must be smokers as one can’t walk along the street without breathing in second hand smoke all the time. In fact, when I research the statistics, it turns out it is “just” 34% of the adult population who smokes at least one cigarette or more a day, which is still every third person. The German fondness for smoking is a contradiction of a nation otherwise obsessed with health and the environment.
We have lunch inside and enjoy a glass of Federweißer with Zwiebelkuchen (a warm onion tart made out of a thick yeast dough). Federweißer is an unusual alcoholic drink produced and enjoyed only in the fall. It is made out of the early grapes. Federweißer is the product of freshly fermented grape must. The alcohol content can be anywhere from 4 to 10 percent, depending on the stage of fermentation. The name Federweißer (which means feather white) is due to the milky white color, and to the tiny bubbles, or “the dancing feathers” that the process of carbonation creates.
My Canadian starts a collection of Bierdeckel—the paper coasters the server puts your drinks on and keeps a tally of how many beers you have had. Over the course of the holiday, we get to try out all sorts of different beers: the Pilsener, the Kölsch (drunk from glasses almost as small and narrow as chemical test tubes) and Schwarzbier.
As we walk back to our apartment, he discovers that dogs are allowed not only in restaurants but also in stores. Being a dog lover, he is thrilled. Then he stops the next couple with a dog on the street, like it is his habit back home. They look at him with great surprise. Somebody wants to pat their dog. The husband is delighted, his wife is suspicious. What a strange man from across the big pond…