08 May 2009

7 Quick Takes--Typisch Deutsch Edition

I realized the other day that there are a number of little things about German culture and lifestyle that I have come to take for granted. After 4 years of living here, I find when I return to the States on vacation that the American way of doing things now seems foreign. So, seven quick takes on some everyday German idiosyncracies.

Two-toned hair. The genesis for this post was my cashier at the German grocery store last week. She was in her maybe her late forties and had short, tousled dark hair. Well, dark except for the wide streak of purple in front. Now, I've seen plenty of wild colors in hair in the States. Never on anyone over, say, 30, though. But two-toned hair is no respector of age in Germany. Purple is unusual, but I regularly see well-coiffed middle-aged and older women with blond hair on top and dark hair on the bottom. Or magenta. Or orangey. Yes, the bright red-orange colors are neck in neck with the blonde. When your mother has two-toned magenta/black hair, what's a young teen girl to do? Oh, yeah...bright blue or pink.

Driving. Germany is famous for its no-speed-limit autobahns (and for its legendary traffic jams on said autobahns). But it's the little roads through towns and residential areas that you really need the driving skills for. Whether because the roads were built before the age of autos, or just to make sure cars don't whip through residential areas, the roads are narrow. But that doesn't mean you can't park on them! So, narrow roads with parked cars on one or both sides of the street equals one-lane roads. When driving along this type of road, keep your eyes peeled for 1) cars bearing down from the opposite direction and 2) breaks in the parked cars so you can pull over and let opposing cars pass you. At any moment you may have to wheel into a gap and stop. Then manuever back out into the road and go on your way. This does not seem to be much of an irritant to Germans, who generally are happy to yield right-of-way and just seem more patient and cooperative while driving.

Until you're on the autobahn of course. Now you see why, once Germans get onto the autobahns, there's no stopping them.

Speaking of which, the main rule on the autobahn is: watch your rear. If you're in the left lane, you better be passing someone on the right. And if a car is, ahem, RAPIDLY approaching you from behind, get the hell into the right lane because it is not stopping or slowing down. This key traffic law differs dramatically from the States. There are very few cars puttering along in the left lane here. It's a matter of survival as well as law.

Fresh air. Many Germans despise air conditioning. They think it unhealthy and unnatural. Few public spaces have AC, not even malls or museums. Fresh air is the cure for all that ails you...and the key to preventing mold in your house. German houses are built with concrete blocks, so moisture does not escape easily. If you don't at least crack your windows frequently (preferably every day, no matter how cold it is), you invite mold and lots of it. The tenant's responsibility to open the windows daily is written into every apartment lease.

Also, the way to air out your bedding (Germans use duvets but no top sheets) is to open your window and fold the duvet over the windowsill, so that part of it hangs outside. And dryers are expensive and unnecessary when you can hang clothes outside. German washers have a very high velocity spin cycle, so clothes come out just damp and ready to be hung outside (when weather's good) or inside on a clothes rack. Many Germans do not own a dryer.

Restaurant service. It takes some getting used to, eating in restaurants in Europe. In the States, your perky server checks in with you at least once a meal, more likely two times or more. "Everything okay? Can I get you anything else?" In Europe (not just Germany), this is seen as intrusive. The server takes your drink order, brings your drinks, takes your food order, brings your food, and then goes away, never to return unless you flag her/him down. Eating out is a luxury and a leisurely activity. There is no concept of "turning tables" at any sit-down restaurant. If you reserve a table, it is reserved for the whole night.

Also, in Germany, the food comes out whenever it is ready...no hot lamps in the kitchen or perceived necessity to bring out all the food for a table at once. If you wait to eat until everyone is served, you will have cold food. If you order pizza and your companion orders steak, you could be finished with your pizza before the steak arrives. Believe me, I know.

Sundays. Everything is closed on Sundays. Yes, that includes grocery stores. Some bakeries are open on Sunday mornings. Restaurants are open, movie theaters are open, gas stations are open. Stores are closed. Car dealers are closed.

And, from what I have seen, a common Sunday outing is to take a walk and stop and look at the cars at the closed car dealership. I don't know why...no sales pressure? But whenever we're out and about on a Sunday, we see people peering into car windows and otherwise inspecting the cars on the outside lots of a darkened dealership.

Unless, of course, the stores are open. "Verkaufsoeffener Sonntags"--open Sundays--are very popular. A particular town will announce the date of their open Sunday a month ahead of time. And the town will be flooded with eager shoppers with nowhere else to go. Often, the open Sundays coincide with some special event, like a carnival (Kerwe) or market day (we went to the Landstuhl Mai Markt last week).

Spargel! "Spargel" is German for asparagus, and Germans seem to love it. In the spring, every restaurant has a "Spargel Menu," usually including spargel soup, spargel with hollandaise sauce, and at least a few other dishes. But this isn't your petite green American asparagus spears. German spargel is white and kind of looks like giant fingers. I'm not a fan of spargel (can't get past the "giant fingers covered in sauce" thing), but when the spargel signs start going up, you know it is spring.

It's Spargel! Who needs other vegetables?

See Conversion Diary for other quick takes.


Lisa said...

What a wonderful education eduction on German culture! I love that Germany is virtually closed down on Sundays. But have to comment on #1 -- I think you have not been to either San Francisco or Boulder, Colorado recently. Plenty of two-tone middle-agers in both places, I'm afraid. Makes for very interesting people watching... What a pleasure to have "met" you, Jennifer! Hope you have a good weekend!

Jennifer said...

Thanks for stopping by, Lisa!

Anonymous said...

It's funny to read that! I am from Germany but I'm in the U.S. as an exchange student right now. There are some things I cannot agree with (e.g. the food being served whenever it is ready. You will hardly ever experience that.) Some other things make me laugh because they are true (e.g. the air conditioning. I was shocked by the air conditioning here. It was beautiful outside but you were freezing inside every building because of these stupid air conditioners! :D ). Was nice to read an american person's view on Germany!
Ps: I don't like Spargel, either ;)