10 things I have learned about Germany
Having spent the last academic year on my year abroad in Germany, where I lived for 9 months, I would like to think that I have managed to learn a little bit about this amazing country and its people (alongside doing not much work, screaming at children and drinking way too much, way too often…). As I am a big fan of a good list, below are the 10 things that I have to say are without a doubt the biggest things I have noticed since I arrived here many, many moons ago…
- 1. That good old, fabled German efficiency
- 2. How to dress like a German
- 3. Thou Shalt Not Disobey the Red Man!
- 4. Thou Shalt Recycle EVERYTHING (and earn a little from it too…)
- 5. Still water? Water in its natural form? Ach, WAS?!
- 6. Everything you’ve ever heard about the British? It’s true.
- 7. Sunday really is a day of rest
- 8. Hardworking, official, closed-off – just what are the Germans like?
- 9. Breakfast is most definitely THE most important meal of the day
- 10. Education – why rush? Take your time!
1. That good old, fabled German efficiency
Although it is without doubt 100% true that Germans love a good bit of bureaucracy (no seriously, come here and try and open a bank account or register with the local authorities, then come back and talk to me when you’ve extracted yourself from the mountain of paper you receive…), I have to report that the huge myth about Germans being the most efficient of people is built on quite rocky foundations. Yes, this is a country that seems to be single-handedly holding up the Eurozone which, credit (no pun intended) where credit is due, is pretty impressive. As far as I concerned however, the pure state of Deutsche Bahn cancels out any brownie points this may accrue. You arrive for a train – oh look at that, late again. By 50 minutes you say? Excuse me, what? *2 hours later* Oh, now it’s cancelled. NO! Trains cannot just be cancelled willy-nilly: this is the collapse of modern society as we know it. If a train was cancelled just like that in England, I think there would be anarchy – at the very least a large news report on the devilish event. If that happened every time there was a train problem here, there would literally be no air time for anything else. That’s all I’m saying…
2. How to dress like a German
This is something I have definitely not cracked – my clothes at all times may as well scream ‘I am foreign, look at me!’. When it comes to wardrobe choices, German people are without doubt the most practical people I have ever known. While I wandered happily out the house on the first days of winter (very naively) thinking my jacket and scarf combo would be enough to keep out the cold, everyone around me was wearing enough layers to make the Michelin man take another look. And everyone has some form of sensible mountain-climbing style jacket. Now you may think this is very prudent. However, dress style seems to change very little throughout the year and since the sun has started to appear I still see people wearing black skinny jeans, jumpers and scarves… In boiling sun. How they manage this I do not know but it is fair to say that my short/vest top combo made me feel a little like I was showing too much flesh for everyone else’s liking… Mind, given that I have been on a night out here, I know how this feels. Coming from Leeds, it’s fair to say that I am used to dressing up a little on a night out. This is a no go here. Skinny jeans and converse more than suffice for a night out. I have tried this before but I don’t know, it’s the English in me – I just can’t do it. So I wear what I usually do and deal with the (at times, judging) looks. Come at me bro!
3. Thou Shalt Not Disobey the Red Man!
Yes, it’s illegal to cross on when the red man is showing at a crossing and you can get in trouble with the police for it but what you really need to worry about is the looks of death you will get from Germans waiting patiently if you decide to take a gamble and cross despite the prospect of a fine – rebel. THIS IS JUST NOT DONE. OR ACCEPTABLE. The Germans will think you are crazy, ignorant or have a death wish should they see you put on toe onto that crossing before the reassuringly green man appears to wave you across – and you will see this disbelief/sheer disgust in their faces. You have been warned…
4. Thou Shalt Recycle EVERYTHING (and earn a little from it too…)
If there is one thing in Germany that you MUST do, it’s recycle. This is not like in England where we recycle to be good, or feel environmentally friendly – this is a way of life, my friend! Glass, plastic, cardboard must be separated. Rubbish put in different coloured bins. The lot. Although I have to say, the ‘Pfand’ system is pretty epic. Allow me to explain: when you buy some drinks in a glass or plastic container, you pay a deposit on the bottle itself. When you have finished the drink, you take the bottle to a local supermarket, feed it into a very clever machine and get your money back. Simple as, makes you recycle and you would be surprised how much the money builds up! Also a good way for homeless people to get a bit of income collecting empties to return: they must have made a fortune after Karneval after all the bottles left lying in the street!
5. Still water? Water in its natural form? Ach, WAS?!
One of the things that gets to me most about Germany: you cannot find normal, still water ANYWHERE. I’m not sure how much the German people understand about the concept of tap water but they certainly do not seem to think it is for drinking. What you may say? But this bottle of water says ‘Natural Water’. What is that if not still? WRONG. Natural water in Germany is water that has had heinous little carbonated bubbles forced into it, creating (in my humble opinion) the beverage of the devil. IT. TASTES. DISGUSTING. But the Germans cannot get enough and no household is complete without a crate upon crate of this devil incarnate stashed away somewhere. I have a mild suspicion that if a house ran out of Sprudelwasser, the world would actually come to an end. No joke.
6. Everything you’ve ever heard about the British? It’s true.
Yes, we have all heard the rumours: British people are too polite and very, very prudish. I didn’t realise however just how true these stereotypes were until I arrived in Germany. The first time I let someone in front of me onto the train (mistake in itself if you want to look like you belong) and they did not thank me I nearly had a very well concealed (stiff-upper lip and all that…) heart attack. The first time a teacher at my school said ‘no, you’re doing that wrong, I want you to do it like this.’, my instant thought was ‘RUDE’. And when I walked into the pool showers to find naked women strutting like they owned the place, I swear to God I almost nearly combusted on the spot. I have soon realised however – this is the German way. And I have come to love it. They say what they mean, get to the point and are so comfortable with all things body/naked/sex wise that it makes me look like a nun. You know where you stand with a German, and I now love and value this so much – although it goes against anything I ever knew, it is possible to be too polite, it is OK to wander round the pool changing room proudly with nada clothes, and if you want something done? Well it happens quicker if you just say it. Germans do not have a word for awkward at all – says something about England? No? Oh, and don’t even bother trying to make small talk about the weather. I made the mistake once. It went a bit like this:
Me: It’s nice outside today.
Teacher: (looks suspiciously out the window) yes, this is true, I can see that. And… *looks genuinely confused*
Me: ….. Erm.
7. Sunday really is a day of rest
You walk out of the house on a Sunday and genuinely wonder whether it is in fact the apocalypse and no-one has bothered to tell you… In England, our ‘day of rest’ is really anything but – the shops are shut for maybe a few hours less but that is about as much of a break as we get. Ditto on bank holidays. Here, the Germans take their time out seriously. Shops are all shut (as well as supermarkets – if you want food, go on a Saturday!), trains run much less frequently and generally nothing happens. Aside from Kaffee und Kuchen dates of course, nothing stops the Germans from enjoying a spot of confectionary heaven. Seeing as how I have spent most of my Sundays here hungover and the takeaways are open (thank God), this situation doesn’t really have a large impact on my life abroad. It would be nice to know however that should I want to leave the house, I would have somewhere to go… Fully intend to go shopping the first Sunday back in England. Just cause I can.
8. Hardworking, official, closed-off – just what are the Germans like?
In the English media (and particularly in panel shows), the stereotype we get of the Germans as a people is that they are efficient, hardworking and very, very serious. Not to mention quite closed off, official and distant. While there is no doubt that this is a people who like to get the job done, the other quirks of their personality could not be further than the image we receive. Throughout my year abroad (perhaps because I know mostly students – no idea!) I have found every person I have met to be chilled out, relaxed, laid back and genuinely interested in what I am doing here. Indeed, I cannot think of one incident when I have been made to feel less than welcome, whether at school, in the streets or at a random party (of which there have been many). People are so patient when I am blabbing wildly in drunken German and even love to switch to English, just to make me feel at home (which, while amazing when I have lost the ability to think, is not good for my language learning – tricky!). Even schools in Germany are a lot more laid back: no uniform, no detention and a much closer relationship between the pupils and teachers (who more often than not wear hoodies and jeans rather than the standard English shirt and tie combo). The fact that teachers here can joke, shove and touch (don’t) the students surprised me – in England, we would never get that close to one another – probably due to the ‘sue me for anything’ mentality we seem to be inheriting from the good old US of A. Life here is definitely more entspannt and less official…
9. Breakfast is most definitely THE most important meal of the day
The breakfast. In England: just a way to start the day, something of quite little importance – we all know we should eat it but we don’t really take it that seriously. Yeah, in Germany, this does not go down well. And no-one eats cereal which, to me, is insane. I mean I could understand everyone eating bread cause it involves Nutella usually – food of the Gods! But surely that gets a little boring every now and then?! So don’t judge me when I get a bowl and have cereal – that is normal too! At a weekend however, a German breakfast resembles some kind of feast spread across the whole table and lasting anything up to about 4 hours: bread rolls, jams, Nutella, eggs, ham, cheese, coffee, juice – you name it, it’s there. I genuinely don’t think I could handle that much that early in the morning but the Germans love nothing more than eating their way til midday which, I guess is kinda a nice way to spend the morning. Also, perfectly acceptable here to crack open a beer in the middle of the day (although definitely NOT with a bottle opener. Lighter, ring, another bottle – you pull out a bottle opener and you out yourself straight away as not being one of the gang. Just not done. Note to self: must learn this before I leave) – even when in charge of 50 children on a school trip. Could you actually imagine the health and safety heart attack that would cause in Britain?! Blood pressure would never have been recorded so high! Mind I guess that in England, we have a slightly different attitude to alcohol – one which seems to be a lot healthier and involves a lot less drunken embarrassment…
10. Education – why rush? Take your time!
In the English education system, I can’t help but get the feeling that we are constantly just being pushed along the conveyer belt towards the world of work – with a few sporadic exams, essays and generally unpleasant assessments thrown in along the way which, more often than not, test how good you are under pressure rather than what you have actually learned… In Germany however, there is no such rush. In fact, you are weird if you do rush. People here studying until their late 20s in completely normal – spending many periods of time abroad is not seen as putting off ‘getting a proper job’ but a life experience, and a chance not to be missed. Telling people that I will have got my degree before I even turn 22 results in gobsmacked looks and questions of ‘but… but, then you have to get a job? At 21?’ – this is not normal here. Take studying to become a teacher: 3-4 years at uni, then one and a half training in a school before you can even consider being qualified – usually by the age of about 27. Being the type of person who wishes to eternally be a student, this kind of lifestyle appeals to me but then I guess there are downsides – settling down does occur later and marriage and kids are most definitely far off in the future for the mid 20 something’s here. Hence the usually older parents and families. Not necessarily a bad thing but, coming from a family of very young parents, I have to say that having your first child at the age of 35ish does seem quite late! But then, each to their own. And studying til your late 20s definitely has a large appeal to it for sure!
So there we have it: a few things that make the Germans the Germans. Things that I have definitely noticed as essential to life in the Bundesrepublik, or things that to me seem a little different to the way we do things in England. Seeing the different quirks of each country has made me realise that although very different, we do have some big similarities. And, in my opinion, both countries are incredible in their own little ways. I have definitely missed the German quirks since returning at the end of May but I have to say, I did enjoy getting back to a country of Dairy Milk, Come Dine With Me, Yorkshire Puddings, decent biscuits and proper Tea (not just herbal infusions that are all the rage here!). Germany, I’m sorry, but on the tea-front, you just cannot compete!