Chris and Jordan spent two weeks with us during probably the hottest two weeks Germany has had in a hundred years. I must say they were real troopers and survived living in the tiny student apartment I have rented on the third floor of a building with no lift, in very close quarters with only fans to help us keep cool (completely impractical to open the windows fully and no air conditioning). To illustrate the level of smallness and heat, when we did laundry and hung it out to dry (no dryer), the drying rack occupied space we would have used to sit, but the wetness of the laundry provided some relief from the heat. On most days the apartment was hotter than it was outside. Yet, we survived and all still love each other.
For both, it was their first time in Germany and it was fun to be able to show them around and let them get a feel for the country (even though it was very hot and uncomfortable most of the time). I love cultural observations, so this post is about the observations they made while here.
One of Chris’ first comments was that the women wear no makeup. This is true for the most part (especially when compared to what is fashionable in our neck of the woods in Georgia). An earthy and natural look for women seems to be the norm and I love it (must also add that anyone wearing makeup during the past few weeks, would probably have melted off anyway). They were also intrigued by the level of recycling and the sense of responsibility people have about their rubbish. Even the train stations have different bins for different categories of rubbish. In contrast to that, he also commented on the number of people who smoke and the array of cigarette butts littered all over the place, especially at tram stops and on street corners.
To ensure they had the most authentic experience possible, we decided to rent bikes one day and take a ride to the Cospudener See. Genevieve had seen all the wonderful ways that parents transport their kids on their bikes and was desperate to give one of them a go (there are amazing bikes with big boxes in the front for the family, trailers that double up as prams, and extra bikes that can be attached to the back of the parent’s bike). Of course, G wanted daddy to drive her so we ordered a bike with an attachment for kids. The bike guy assured us that the child did not need to be able to ride and it would be a piece of cake. They also said that the saddles were a bit high, but they were sure we could handle it – this basically meant that Jordan just never stopped riding as she couldn’t put her feet down (and had saddle bum the next day) and Chris had to really stretch. The attachment turned out to be much harder to cycle with than anticipated and I think Chris felt he was on the verge of a wipeout at any moment. I was riding behind him and I think our littlest has not quite got the balance thing worked out on a bike. Every time she saw something interesting she would lean over to whichever side to have a look. Sometimes she would even look backwards and seldom peddled. Needless to say, there was a lot of compensating going on in the front and poor Chris had to work very hard. Anyway, we made it to the lake. Now, for those of you who have never been to a German beach or lake, the sights can be quite breathtaking at first and you might find be quite surprised by what you see. Germans really love nature and many enjoy being naked in “the nature”. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what your build is, the fresh air is to be enjoyed all over. Of course, these days it is more the exception than the rule, but there is definitely unabashed nudity to be found at the lake. We even saw a bit of volleyball.
One big fascination was the amount of beer consumed. Beer is available everywhere (McDonalds, playgrounds, on trains, fast food places) and is often the same price or cheaper than water (which is mostly bubbly). People really drink beer everywhere and anywhere and it is not uncommon to see someone walking down the street or on a tram with a bottle. Beer is also the perfect accompaniment to the salty sausages or pommes (chips/ fries) available almost everywhere. We totally embraced this tradition and also visited a number of beer gardens, supposedly some of the best in the region (the Prater Garden in Berlin, Bayerische Bahnhof and Gosenschenke in Leipzig and the Schiller Garden in Dresden). Jordan really seemed to enjoy the Radler (a beer shandy), which doesn’t seem to be served too much in the States and I have never understood why. One thing that was rather an issue in our outdoor eating adventures, was the vast amount of bees hanging around wherever there was food. I am not exaggerating when I say that one evening at the Bayerische Bahnhof I looked over at Chris and there were at least twenty bees swarming around his head and food. He looked rather queasy and bewildered and left his eisbein practically untouched.
For the most part, our mode of transport was trams, buses, and trains. This was quite different from how things work in Georgia where public transport is not nearly as developed. We had a good time hopping on and off trams and trains (and G was very good at punching all of our tickets). One thing Chris noted was that there is an honor system in place in Germany regarding ticketing and unlike in most cities, it is up to you to make sure you have the right ticket and punch it before riding. Germans seem to be really good at sticking to the rules and this system seems to work for them (cannot see this working successfully in any of the other places I have lived). Tickets aren’t checked systematically (i.e. before or as you get on the train), but rather randomly by ticket inspectors who walk through the train or tram. To Chris’s surprise, we were not checked at all on the public transport for the first week. He then wondered whether it was entirely necessary to buy tickets and only right at the end of their trip (on the way to the airport) did he witness the perils of traveling without a ticket (traveling black/ schwarzfahren). In a rather volatile situation, the man found without a ticket could not communicate with the ticket inspectors and a rather intense confrontation ensued when he refused to get off the train. This ended up delaying the train by 9 minutes and Chris and Jordan missed their connecting train. We got on another train only to hear the same situation repeated, but this time with another foreigner who did not buy a ticket, but asked to buy one from the ticket inspector. Of course, this is against the rules and I heard the inspector say many times that the rules are the rules and he was ordered to pay the 60 Euro fine on the spot and get off at the next stop.
Of course, the language was something completely new for both of them. Not being able to understand the basics or participate in conversations can be somewhat unsettling at first, but by the end of their stay, both of my Americans were throwing out a good few German words with confidence and it tickled me no end the thrill this gave Chris. One of his favorites was “Haa-Low” (said with a lowered pitch on the second syllable ), a cute greeting that somehow sounds so different to your average “hello.”
What I found interesting, but was not too surprised by was that neither Chris nor Jordan felt they had experienced much culture shock. There are so many global chains and brands that everywhere one looks, one can see something familiar. Since I lived here before the number of English speakers has also radically increased and just about everywhere we went people would speak to us in English quite happily (this made me think that so much about Western culture and the differences between nationalities is in the nuances, traditions, and languages -will cultures lose what makes them unique or binds them together as we work so hard to become global citizens?).
Anyway, there is nothing like a family holiday to remind us of how important and special family is! Auf Wiedersehen, Schatzie.