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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