Saturday, July 20, 2013

Vacation Time!

In Baden-Württemberg schools are just about to let out for their six-week holidays. That's right, my American friends - in Germany summer vacation is only six weeks long! Granted, they have more frequent and some longer breaks during the year than schools in the U.S., but summer break seems quite short here. In Wisconsin we complained about the heat in early June and were glad when the real heat and humidity hit, that we at least didn't have to try to learn (or teach!). Here the school year goes to the end of July, and it does get hot!

Anyway, in today's newspaper, just above an article about executioners in the Middle Ages being shunned and avoided because they were considered bad luck even though they were also called upon to minister to sick people at times when a doctor wasn't around, is an article entitled "Andere Länder, andere Sitten" ("Different Countries, Different Customs"). It is a cautionary piece to German readers about playing along with the traditions and habits of people in other countries when they are traveling there.  I think the tips and pointers the writer gives can tell something also about the habits and normal behavior of Germans.  For instance, in an article advising Americans how to behave in other countries, you probably wouldn't find "Don't strip on the beach." More on that in a bit.

The writer (s/he is not credited, so I cannot give credit where it's due) informs readers that in America, a tip of up to 20% of the bill total is customary, but that in most other countries the tip is included. In Italy, one pays "Coperto" in addition to the cost of a meal, which covers the bread placed on the table (whether you eat it or not) and the use of the table. I believe that charge shows up on the bill, and a small tip is still expected on top of that. Tipping is handled differently in every country, so that alone is not terribly shocking or revealing.

Also in the world of dining, in Belgium, Spain, and Italy it is not usual to pay on "separate checks" when you and a bunch of friends are dining together. Pay the waiter once and figure it out amongst yourselves afterwards.  In Finland do not sit down at the unused end of a table where others are already sitting. It would be considered strange even to ask if you may use those places.

This is an important one: Drängeln (pushing and shoving).  If you don't want to be considered terribly rude while traveling in Finland, the UK, or Ireland, do not get pushy or cut in line anywhere! In these countries, people queue/line up and wait patiently. This applies in all circumstances - from boarding a bus to lining up for theater tickets. Imagine that!

[Incidentally, I think this is the one situation in which the German adoration of Order does not apply. I can be standing for 10 minutes in a spot waiting for a train, and as the train pulls up, I suddenly have at least eight Germans standing in front of me, right next to me, and trying to shimmy around me. When the doors open, at least 15 people are trying to fit through the doors at the same time, while pretending to make way for the passengers getting off.]

The next section of the article is about clothing choices. In most churches all over the world, booty shorts, ultra mini-skirts, low-cut tops, and spaghetti strap tank tops are not tolerated.  In Turkey and Croatia this is the case for many other tourist attractions as well. In general, except on beaches, people in Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, and Turkey place significant emphasis on proper or modest attire.

The writer makes another note about proper attire for people who plan to vacation in the mountains. This could be summed up with the words, "Use common sense!" If you go trapsing through the hills in a beach outfit or tennis shoes, you will meet with the scorn of regulars who know better. And you'll pay for it - literally - if you get stranded in the mountains because you chose to go hiking in flip-flops or some other ridiculous shoes and find yourself without the strength or stoicism to suffer through your blisters to get back down again. If the rescue squad has to come and get you because of your own stupidity, you'll get a bill.

Now for the beach bit.  "Too much skin is not necessarily welcomed even on the beach."  FKK fans will need to search for those beaches on their own, because if you treat every beach like one of those, you'll face a fine at the very least. FKK (Freikörperkultur, i.e. nudist) beaches do not exist everywhere, and although it's generally ok for women to be topless even on regular beaches in Germany, that is not the case elsewhere. In America it's not even ok to change on a beach! Find yourself a changing locker - don't drop trou on an American beach even if you've covered yourself with a towel. Besides that, young children need to at least wear swim suit bottoms.  [In Germany, children happily play naked at beaches, in fountains, in kiddie pools, and in streams, and only the foreigners get their knickers in a knot about it.]

Mind the siesta time in the southern countries. They tend to have longer noon breaks, leading to different business hours than in Germany. [And in Germany the business hours are already more restricted than in the U.S.!]. Don't expect to visit a museum in Spain between 12:30 and 16:00, the writer says.

Lastly, Germans need to realize that traffic rules (maybe it's more about driving habits) in other countries differ from in Germany. In France, the Czech Republic, and Denmark, for example, drivers can't be relied upon to yield to pedestrians. Before you step into a crosswalk (sacred territory in Germany for those on foot or on bikes), look carefully in all directions!  In Spain, Italy, and France, not every driver stops for red lights. And in the Netherlands drivers are expected to use foresight at all times. At any moment a cyclist could come around a curve!

So what does this article tell us about the Germans? Look at the many interesting countries where they commonly vacation! Ok, Italy, Spain, and France are exotic enough for most Americans. But Turkey? Croatia? Denmark? The Czech Republic??  It also tells us that it is ok in Germany to ask if you can share a table with strangers in a crowded restaurant. Beyond that, apparently the Germans tend to push and shove rather than line up, many girls and women like to wear short skirts and low tops when it's hot, they expect stores and other businesses to open up again around 14:00, and nakedness  (at least near water) is not a big deal to them.

This article also tells me that it's ok for me to give all the tips and pointers I do to the people I travel with (mainly teenage students) about how to blend in while abroad. Ok, don't hide or deny who you are, but respect the habits of the natives where you are a visitor. It's your job to find out how they do things, and follow suit as much as possible.

And keep traveling! Nothing opens your eyes like traveling.

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