Short thoughts on Germany

Here are some short, unsystematic thoughts on two months of living in Germany. Instead of giving broad overviews of what life is like here, I’m trying to keep these thoughts idiosyncratic. They’re mostly things I found personally surprising.

(Since moving to Freiburg I’ve also visited Berlin, Prague, Colmar, Strasbourg, Paris, Basel, Zurich, Milan, Luxembourg, and Brussels. I’ll share pictures of some of these places at the very end.)

Canadian > New Yorker > American > Chinese. I’ve tried introducing myself in various ways. People are most enthusiastic when they hear that I’m Canadian or that I study in New York; they’re not quite so impressed to hear “Ich bin ein amerikanischer” or that “Ich komme aus China.” When people hear that I’m Canadian they ask thing like whether I speak French, if it’s true that there are lots of jobs there, and whether people really don’t lock their doors. (The answers are “yes but not well,” “I guess in some areas,” and “I wouldn’t know since I’d never try to open a door without notice.”)

Germans follow rules. Most people don’t jaywalk; they will stand because the crosswalk light is red, not just because there are no cars coming. Cashiers don’t always examine my change when I’m buying coffee or groceries. On the train, nearly every car ends up being a Quiet Car; the conversations that get loud are usually in English or French.

Berlin feels oppressive. Its buildings are wide and not high. They’re huge, low-slung blocks, the sort that you’d use the word looming to describe. Many buildings cover the length of an entire street, and not just in the central Mitte area. You’ll find yourself walking beside the same wall for a few minutes, realize that it’ll be a while more before you can leave it behind, and then see that the next street is like this too. You won’t get this feeling in Paris, where buildings are lighter and more ornate.

Other Berlin thoughts: East Berlin is 1000 times more interesting than West Berlin. I didn’t have a single bad meal, and all of them were cheap. It’s amazing how different things can look at the end of a 10-minute walk. It’s much more edgy than Paris. You can find expressions of German shame all over the heart of the city, sometimes it feels like on every street. The Berlin Philharmonie has some of the cheapest student tickets I’ve found: 8 euros one night for a string quartet. The whole city is cheap: someone told me that rent for his two-bedroom apartment is 200 euros a month.  I’m already wishing of going back.

The European concert experience is less alienating than the American. I’ve seen some kind of show, usually an opera, in the half-dozen cities I’ve visited. Europeans tend to be better dressed, but they’re less reverent toward the concert experience. Here, ticket sellers are more friendly, ushers smile more, and the applause doesn’t feel so gratuitous. It’s amazing how cheap tickets can be in Zurich or at La Scala. A lot more young people attend, and I think not just because student tickets are so cheap and easy to get.

German bakeries are underrated. You’ll find a bakery on every other street. They’re independent but quite uniform. Behind a glass case you’ll find pastries, rolls, and either lunch-y sandwiches or cakes. Behind the counter are shelves of large, round loaves of bread, usually at least a dozen varieties. I don’t have their names down, but the typical German bread is dark, thick, and seeded. I much prefer these dark breads to the boring, crusty French baguettes. Alas I’m still not yet used to German coffee; it gets much better in Italy or France.

Chinese food is the opposite of German food, but you can make do. Chinese uses meat sparingly, and many dishes are about maximizing its flavor to enhance vegetables. Germans will give you a big piece of schnitzel or wurst, throw in some potatoes or fries, and round it out with sauerkraut or red cabbage. It’s hard to find greens here, and that includes spinach and kale, not to mention the heartier Chinese greens. Nonetheless you’re not entirely without hope if you want to cook the Chinese way. The key is to find the flavorful cured meats. Look for the salamis, Schwarzwald ham, and the drier sausages; you can find them cheaply and easily in any supermarket. Slice these up thinly, toss them in the wok, and then throw in lots of cabbage or whatever leafy vegetables you can find.

Germans come in all shapes and sizes. I’m getting better at distinguishing Europeans based on behavior and facial features. The French and Italians are distinct, and there are some giveaways that people come from Eastern Europe. But I don’t know yet how to tell whether someone is German. What are the signs that give it away?

Bitte (BE-te) is a very useful word. Its meanings include: please (as in both “Yes, please.” and “Please pass the salt.”), you’re welcome, pardon me?, and here you go. There are more uses depending on context. Another common German word is schön, which means beautiful, also with lots of uses based on context.

Germans talk to me in English. They would do this even before I open my mouth to badly say the few German phrases I know. This would only happen in Germany, which mystifies me; Zurichers would start with German, Parisians with French. My new friends insist that it’s because they wish to be polite and make me feel comfortable, which makes me feel guilty for making them speak in a different language in their own country. Everyone is so keen to speak English to me that I’m finding it difficult to practice any German at all. My American friends sometimes get annoyed at this too.

Some places in Europe feel more like China than America. I find very little similar between living in America and living in China. In Europe I occasionally get the same feelings I get walking the streets of China. In China and Europe, you find more open-air markets where you can grab a meal; the bargaining between pedestrians and drivers/cyclists tends to be more confident; it’s much easier to catch the smell of exhaust; and there’s more chaos but no less order. You get the sense that most people in cities are used to living in cities, which is a feeling I don’t much get in American cities. Or maybe I just feel this way because I’ve properly never lived in a DC or an NYC…

One final story. Here’s something that happened on the very first day that I arrived in Germany. I was getting off the train from Frankfurt when my bag bumped against the door and my water bottle fell out. The mid-forties German man behind me made a grab for it, but it ended up on the tracks. He told me to wait, and stood with me and all my bags for about five minutes before the train left the station. When we could see my bottle, he first tried to recover it when a rope knot he fashioned, and then looked for one of those grab tools you use to pick up trash.

Neither worked. He looked both ways, and said: “Grab my hand.” Then he jumped down, took the bottle, and hopped back on the platform. He handed it to me, turned around to leave, and called out: “It’s better for a German to get in trouble here than for an American.” I didn’t see him again.

It was very, very decent of him. I was infinitely impressed.

And now some pictures.

Landscape - Alps

The Faulhorn in the Swiss Alps, close to Interlaken. It took about two hours to get to the top with a sled, and it takes about 40 minutes to slide down to the bottom of the mountain.

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Short thoughts on Zurich

From my home base in Freiburg, I’ve visited the following cities in the past month: Berlin, Prague, Colmar (France), Strasbourg, Lucerne, and Zurich. Zurich is my favorite, so I’ll share a few thoughts.

I spent two days in there, one of which in nearby Lucerne. The area is breathtaking, but the highlight is still the city. Zurich is old, but every building is well-maintained; you can’t say the same for Prague. The downtown area wraps around a river, which leads to Lake Zurich in a twenty-minute walk from the center of town. I lived in the east bank, close to the Grossmünster.

Here are some short, scattered thoughts of what I saw, with a few pictures thrown in between.

Zurich as a perfect city. Every one of the centuries-old buildings are well-kept; it does brisk trade with people near and far; it has so many opportunities for culture; and it’s on a lake that leads into the mountains. The people who live there are sophisticated, serene, and enjoy the highest standards of living on earth. They are nature-loving, live routinized lives, and they’ve built hidden defenses throughout the whole country, ever ready to be used against an invading army. Don’t you see? The Swiss are the elves of modern day. Has it been documented yet that Zurich was Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell?

(Isn't this Rivendell, or maybe the Grey Havens?) (Like, isn’t this Rivendell, or perhaps the Grey Havens?)

Zurich is expensive. Going to Zurich as a student is the easiest way to feel indignant towards the rich, Piketty-style. It’s a place where a cup of coffee costs around $5, where a slice of pizza costs around $15, and pasta around $30. No, you can’t find cheaper options if you look in a different part of town. When you walk around a big city and can’t find a lunch option for less than $15, you start to despair. How are prices driven this high?

That said, the best parts of my trip were the cheapest. The three things I most enjoyed: First walking around, which of course is free. Second going to the Swiss National Museum, which has cheap student tickets. And finally going to the Zurich Opera for Tristan. Last-minute tickets cost $17, for a splendid production. Who else offers Wagner of this quality for the same price as a slice of pizza would cost?

Zurich Operahouse(Zurich Opera House)

More people should be let in. Zurich has a high number of foreigners, but these are mostly already talented people from other developed countries. We all know that the Swiss are highly restrictive with granting residency and citizenship. When you walk around Zurich you can’t help but feel that this place could absorb a good deal more people from poorer places. Zurich gets more diversity and lower labor costs, and of course the migrants benefit a great deal. There’s so much space; it shouldn’t be enjoyed only by rich foreigners and generations-old Swiss.

Swiss historical importance… I don’t know enough European history, but let me present a hypothesis. Zwingli did his most important work in Zurich, which makes it not just an important site for the Reformation but also the Counter-Reformation. The Swiss has either sent mercenaries or used its diplomatic position to influence every war in Europe. Pretty soon after it industrialized, it exported more per capita than any other country. If you want to learn a general history of Europe by studying a single country, perhaps it should be Switzerland.

So much culture… I’m glad that such a good production of Tristan could be my first live German opera experience. The Swiss National Museum had fantastic displays, at just the right level of detail. The not-far Basel Kunstmuseum has an amazing collection. Swiss culture is splendid, and kept cheap. Tyler of course has a theory about this.

Little historical shame, but should there be more? You can’t walk two blocks in Berlin without being reminded of some terrible episode in German history. That’s not the case in Zurich. But Swiss history is by no means all nice. Some examples follow. Although Switzerland never permitted slavery, many families made great wealth from the slave trade. Although it never established colonies, it profited a great deal from colonialism. Although it doesn’t provoke conflict, it has sent mercenaries to fight in most major European wars. It has managed to make money from many of the terrible things done by Europe. You can argue in all sorts of ways that neutrality is not always morally justified. Maybe Berlin goes too far in the other direction, but shouldn’t Zurich be commemorating more?

Languages spoken in the street…  On the weekend I heard slightly more Chinese than English in the streets, and hardly any German. I wasn’t just only in the shopping district on the west bank; it was the same around the Grossmünster and Kunsthaus area too. The Chinese I heard spoke Mandarin, mostly in dialects from the northeast.

Every shop is closed on Sunday. Nearly two million live around the Zurich area, the city is a major business center, and it attracts many tourists who come here specifically to shop. So it’s mystifying why no store is open on Sunday. The only place open is a mall area under the main train station. Again Tyler has written on this.

Visit Zurich. It’s an aesthetic experience, and I don’t just mean that it’s nice to see pretty buildings. Just make sure to bring your wallet.

Zurich sunset

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