Friday, April 25, 2014

Traveling to Germany

It's nearing the end of April, and we will be having several visitors from the U.S. during the second half of May. I thought I would take this opportunity to write about some of the tips I have for Americans traveling to Germany in the spring, in case I can be of service. The following advice applies to trips of approximately two weeks in length.

Things to bring:

  1. Your favorite OTC pain killers (Aleve, Advil, Tylenol). The main reason is that such things must be purchased in a pharmacy in Germany, which means you'll need to speak to the pharmacist, who may or may not speak English well enough to select the right medicine for your ailment. Besides, the American pills seem to me to be stronger, or more effective.
  2. Your favorite cold medicine, just in case - for the same reasons. You'll be breathing recycled airplane air for 10+ hours before you get here, and you'll be lucky if all you catch is a cold.
  3. One or two copies of your passport, kept where you don't keep your passport. If you lose your passport, this will make the horribly annoying process of getting an emergency replacement slightly less terrible.
  4. Clothing you can layer. This is not different from in the Midwest - it can be right chilly in the morning, and blazing hot by the early afternoon.
  5. Sturdy, comfortable, broken-in shoes for walking! If you're doing it right, you'll be doing a LOT of walking - don't bother with flip-flops and cutsey little shoes, ladies. Comfort and a lack of blisters are the only important factors.
  6. Noise-cancelling headphones for the flights! Trust me.
  7. Fewer clothes than you think you'll need. I have come across this packing tip many times: Pack in your suitcase what you think you'll need, and then unpack half of it. You do not need twice the number of shirts than days you'll be here. Quite honestly you can easily wear a shirt twice without washing - who's going to notice or care? The people you're traveling with are worrying about their own outfits, not yours. Remember, you'll want to have space to bring home souvenirs!
  8. A washcloth in a plastic bag (in case you have to pack it and it's still damp), if you usually use one. There are bath towels and hand towels in German hotels, but not washclothes.
  9. A compact umbrella, even if you would never use one at home. Don't let a little rain spoil your plans. If you don't use one because you think they're uncool, you will be the one looking silly, drenched, and cold. Bring it with you every day you go out sight-seeing unless the weather forecast for that day has assured you it will remain dry.
  10. A book, crossword puzzles, Sudoku... entertainment that doesn't require a charged battery. You may very well find yourself with a dead battery and no opportunity to charge it at some point. Have a back-up plan of the old-fashioned kind.

Things to leave at home:

  1. Your USA pride t-shirts. This is not a big deal, but I wouldn't wear them here. The main reason is that they peg you as an American tourist (easy and desirable prey for pick-pockets).
  2. Anything to which you say, when thinking of packing it, "This could come in handy..." If you can live without it for two weeks, leave it at home.

Things to know about being in Germany:

  1. Outlets have 220 volts. Make sure your various chargers can handle that. I have had a student blow out the power in a small hotel with a hair dryer, and another one set off sparks plugging in his Ipod.
    Outlets and plugs look like this. The plugs have two round prongs, and the outlets are often set into the wall by 2 cm.
    If the outlet you're using is child-proof (like in a bathroom), you have to push really hard to get the plug in. I struggle with my hair dryer every day.
  2. Refills are not free. If you ask for water in a restaurant, it will be bottled water and you'll pay for it. Tell the server you'd like still water, or you might get carbonated.
  3. Most clothing is more expensive in Germany than in the U.S.. A good pair of jeans is at least $100.
  4. Come to think of it, nearly everything is more expensive here.
  5. Many small stores and businesses, including family-owned restaurants, do not take credit cards. It's a good idea to have several hundred Euro in cash with you, and/or to check as you enter if credit cards are accepted if you are hoping to use one.
  6. You will not find public restrooms all over, so always use the "WC" when you stop at a restaurant or cafe. When you do find a public restroom, you may have to pay to use it. Therefore...
  7. It is best to always have Euro coins with you - 50 cent pieces especially, which is usually how much a restroom visit costs. 
  8. If you see a sign on the outside of a restaurant or cafe that says "Nette Toilette," ("nice toilet") that means you are welcome to use their restroom even if you aren't eating there. Otherwise such places frown upon people walking in off the street and using their restroom. In case of an urgent need, just ask. Most proprietors will understand. Still, it's best to plan ahead, and use the restroom when you happen to see one.
  9. Air conditioning is not common in stores, homes, small hotels, restaurants, or museums. On a hot, humid day, it's hot and humid inside as well. If you need some relief from the heat, find a big medieval stone church and have a look inside. Be quiet and respectful, though, because you will often find people in there who came to pray.
  10. Breakfast will likely be included with your hotel fare. You'll probably find yogurt and a granola-like cereal (Müsli), but expect rolls (crunchy on the outside, deliciously soft on the inside), cold cuts and cheese, big pretzels, and fruit. You may be asked if you'd like an egg, which will probably be soft-boiled. Pancakes, waffles, and sweet rolls are uncommon except at big fancy hotels.
  11. There are no Taco Bells here. McDonald's is everywhere except Esslingen, and yes they serve beer. It's not very good beer, from what I was told, so I wouldn't bother. They don't have Quarter Pounders because they use the metric system here.
    But for pity's sake, eat authentic, delicious German food while you're here! Ask your server what he or she recommends from the local specialties.
  12. Tipping in a restaurant: Forget about percentages. A tip is already included in your final bill. Round up by several Euro to an even amount so the server doesn't have to dig for small change. Before your server comes back for the money, decide on the total amount including tip that you want him/her to keep, and say that amount to him/her. See here and here for more details about dining and tipping in Germany. 
There's probably more to say, but I'll quit here for now. In a recent post I gave some advice specifically about air travel, if you're interested. For those of you who have traveled to Germany for a vacation, what tips do you have?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cracking the Egg Code

I like eggs: scrambled, poached, fried, hard-boiled, omelettes, egg salad sandwiches, breakfast burritos, quiche... In Wisconsin I bought eggs at the grocery store and never thought about or cared where they came from. Germans like to know where their fresh food originated. In this week's grocery store flyer, for instance, I can see that there are special prices on: lettuce from France, tomatoes and onions from the Netherlands, oranges from Spain, apples from Chile, pears from South Africa, and carrots and rhubarb from Germany. The more local, the better, in most cases.

In Germany all eggs (except colored Easter eggs) are stamped with a code that tells the consumer something about the history of the egg. The code looks like this:

The code is interpreted thus:
       2 = Bodenhaltung  (came from a barn [but not caged] chicken)
    DE = Deutschland  (the chicken resides and laid the egg in Germany)
     08 = Baden-Württemberg (the farm is in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where we live)
02992 = the code for the farm (this one is in Bondorf, 12 km from our home)

So I know that this particular egg and its nine companions, which are in my refrigerator right now, are from a local farmer, and I love supporting small local businesses (I bought the eggs from our butcher)! Oh yes - egg packages here come in two sizes - either six, or ten. We can't get a dozen eggs here, which still seems strange to me.

I also have two eggs left from the previous pack of ten, which I bought at the grocery store. I checked out their code:
Ok, still barn-raised and still Germany. But if our state is 08 (the first two digits after the country code), then these eggs didn't come from anywhere near us. Conveniently, there is a website, whose title translates to "What does it say on the egg?," on which I can look up where these little buggers came from. I punched in the code and discovered... they came all the way from Thüringen! The farm is located in the town of Wandersleben (never heard of it), which is 385 km away!  Tja, those chain grocery stores... They're fine for convenience, but not necessarily for freshness or supporting local farmers.

By the way, yes the package also tells me whether the chickens were barn-raised, free-range, or "ecologically produced" (there is also a code for eggs from caged-raised chickens, but who would buy those?), but if I really want to get to know my egg, I can find out more from the code.

And here's something else waaaayyy different about eggs in Germany. Each package - even one shipped in to the grocery store from way off yonder - comes with two "best before" dates. The earlier date is the one to use if you don't keep them in the refrigerator. WHAAA? Who doesn't store their eggs in the fridge? Lots of Europeans, it turns out, at least in the countries where it's not blazing hot. The eggs in the grocery store and at the butcher are not stored in a refrigerated section, either. They're just on shelves. Especially with fresh eggs, there is no reason they need to be rushed to the refrigerator. Room temperature is just fine, up to two weeks. If they are stored in the fridge, they can last two to four weeks beyond their "best before" date - or so I just read on We store ours in the fridge because that's what I'm used to and we don't have a lot of counter space. But I am no longer shocked when I see raw or colored hard-boiled eggs just sitting out on counters or shelves in stores.

Our butcher has a sign letting customers know that the meat she sells has been born, raised, and slaughtered in Baden-Württemberg, which is important to a lot of the locals. The meat is more expensive than at the grocery store, but the frugal Swabians draw the line at saving Euros by buying mass-produced meat that comes from some other sketchy country (or state). It's the same with eggs and fresh produce. The purists prefer to buy those at an open-air market or local farm rather than in the grocery store where the produce, for instance, often comes from other countries and has been on a truck for several days.

Like many people in Wisconsin are doing as well, the law of the land around here is BUY FRESH! BUY LOCAL!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Osterhasi and the Tanzverbot

In Germany Easter is celebrated much the same as in the U.S.. Lent is over so we can indulge in the things we gave up for those forty days like chocolate, soda, or afternoon naps, the stores are full of colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, and Easter baskets, and parents are getting ready to lie to their children about a giant rabbit that comes in the night like Santa Claus, hiding baskets of treats while the children settle in for nightmares.

Photo by Duncan Hull (

The traditional meal is a darling little delicious lamb, which we and my Schwiegermutter will be cooking on Easter Sunday.

"Run, lads! That bloke looks like he wants to eat ye!"
Peeps® are unknown over here, thank goodness, and I haven't seen Jelly Beans®, either. The main treat is chocolate, which comes in all the expected shapes - bunnies, eggs, lambs, and ducks.

Most likely the churches are fuller on Easter Sunday than on regular Sundays, but surely it's a day for family.

As I wrote in more detail last year, it's Good Friday that is so different here from in the U.S.. First of all, it's a stiller Feiertag (quiet holiday) in all of Germany, meaning that all businesses, factories, stores (including grocery stores), butchers, banks, schools, and most bakeries are closed, there's no mail delivery, and trucks are not allowed on the roads. There are some exceptions, of course: I believe gas stations and rest stops along the Autobahnen are open because many people are traveling, and of course hospitals...

Bad Bunnies! BAD!
On Good Friday there is also a Tanzverbot (dance ban). You can do what you want inside your own home if your windows are closed, but no one should appear in public to be having fun of any kind. Laughing, dancing, partying, sports, playing tag...there are 364 other days for that kind of fun. Good Friday is a day for quiet, solemn, contemplative behavior. Most public events are closed for the day, though exhibitions and events in the name of art, science, or education are allowed to remain open. Even theaters and opera houses have to consider the spirit of Good Friday in their schedule, though I don't know exactly what that means. I imagine they may have dramas and concerts that evening, but nothing comical or whimsical.

Easter Monday is also a stiller Feiertag in Germany, so most places are closed again. What this means for day-to-day planning is that we have to have all our shopping finished for the Easter weekend (Friday morning through Monday night) by Thursday, since grocery stores are closed on even regular Sundays, not to mention Easter Sunday. Yes, Saturday is a normal day, but the grocery store will be such a madhouse that I wouldn't brave that scene for anything.

I suspect that would be the toughest thing for Americans to get used to here - that on Sundays and holidays, stores are CLOSED. If you suddenly realize you've run out of onions, flour, wine, or potatoes which you need for your dinner, you're out of luck and have to do without. There are no stores open 24/7, and on holidays grocery stores are not open several hours in the mornings for those who need to grab something last-minute. This is why I have become good at planning meals for a full week. I'll have all the vegetables I need by Tuesday evening after Mustafa, our rolling farmer's market, stops on our street, I pre-ordered the meat last week at the butcher, I have a spare loaf of bread in the freezer, enough wine in the cellar, and I'll be driving to the Kartoffelhof* and the Spargelhof** on Thursday morning.  It's Spargel-Saison!!! (Asparagus season - blog post pending)

   *Potato farm
  **Asparagus farm (Yes, we drive to a farm to buy fresh white asparagus picked that day. So worth it.)

I wish you all a Happy Easter!

Bunny Illustration by Nicola O'Byrne

Monday, April 7, 2014

Day Trip 1: Tübingen

My second favorite town in Baden-Württemberg is Tübingen. It's an easy 40-minute train ride from Horb, and I truly enjoy exploring the town. Often my mother-in-law meets me there and we have Flammkuchen for lunch at a great cafe on the Marktplatz, walk around town and learn as much as we can, stop for a Cappuccino, and then return home. Last Friday we did exactly that because a new book has come out called Geheimnisse der Heimat: Tübingen (Secrets of home: Tübingen), and we wanted to see if there was anything new to learn. Indeed there was!

Tübingen is a university town with a population of 89,000 (24,000 of whom are students). It is rich with history, there being evidence of hunters and gatherers living in the area back in the Middle Stone Age. The "modern" history of the town begins around 1050 A.D. with the building of the fortress. Burg Hohentübingen stands proudly on a hill overlooking the town, and it is now used by the university (founded in 1477) for archeology and Egyptology classes, among others.

The geographical center of Baden-Württemberg is located in Tübingen, in a little forest called "Elysium," on the edge of the New Botanical Garden. Tübingen is a very picturesque town in just about every season, with the colorful houses lining the Neckar, the many Fachwerkhäuser, and its old world charm. There is a fair bit of up- and downhill walking on cobblestones to see the whole town, so it's a good idea to wear sturdy shoes.

So what secrets did we learn?

das Brot-Zimmer

Do you notice anything odd about the windows (rather, one specific window) of the building on the left?

I never had either, though these are two houses on the Marktplatz, and I've seen and photographed them before. Even if I had noticed, I probably wouldn't have wondered about the fact that the window on the 3rd story (im zweiten Stock) of the left building furthest to the right has white frames, whereas all the other windows of that building have brown frames. All the windows of the building on the right have white frames. Guess what that means? The room of the house on the left with the white window frames belongs to the house on the right. So how did this come about?

Mainly wealthy families lived on the Marktplatz. However, the owner of the house with the brown windows wasn't good with money and squandered his wealth. (Sounds like he wasn't a true Swabian...) This occurred during a famine when bread was especially expensive, and his children would have gone to bed hungry every night had it not been for a deal he struck with his wealthy and wiser neighbor. In exchange for bread (one version of the story says it was ONE loaf), the owner of the house with the brown windows gave his neighbor that room. The deal was recorded in the land register and therefore is still valid today. It's called the "Brot-Zimmer" (Bread Room).

Gehörnter Moses

On the end of one of the choir stalls in the Stiftskirche, there is a wooden carving of Moses.

But what is on his head? Are those horns? Yep. This is not the only depiction of Moses with horns - the most famous one is Michelangelo's statue in Rome. Why on earth would an artist put devilish horns on Moses? Language teachers will love this one: it stems from a translation error, and this was even (obviously) before the dawn of Google Translate. 

At the end of the 4th century, (later St.) Jerome was charged with translating the Hebrew scriptures to the Latin Vulgate. In the story of Moses returning to his people from Mt. Sinai, the Hebrew word "keren" was used to describe his face. "Keren" can mean "coronata" (radiant/beaming) or "cornuta" (horned), and Jerome chose the wrong one. Since his translation became the authorized version for the Roman Catholic church, there are many artistic images of a horned Moses to be found around the Christian world.

Huhn im Stein

If you didn't know exactly what you were looking for, you'd never notice this figure etched in the south wall of the Jakobuskirche.

Thanks to my photo, you can stare dumbly at it and wonder, like you did when your kids brought home a picture they drew in kindergarten, "What is that supposed to be?"

That, my friends, is a wildly flapping chicken, and here's the legend behind it. This chicken is presumed to have been carved into the church wall sometime in the 12th century in connection with a young family on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The family stayed overnight in Santo Domingo de la Calzada in an inn. The innkeeper's daughter made eyes at the travelers' son, but he did not notice her. Offended and enraged, the next day she stashed a valuable cup in his traveling bag and accused him of stealing. Her father notified the police, they stopped the travelers, discovered the cup, and the lad was sentenced to be hanged. His heart-broken parents continued on their way to Santiago. 

On their way back, they went through the town again, where they saw their son still hanging there, but quite alive. St. Jakobus (James) must have protected him! They dashed to the prefect, who happened to be at dinner and about to devour two roast chickens, to plead for the boy's release. The prefect declared, "That boy is as dead as these chickens!" And with that the chickens both began to flap about on his plate and somehow managed to fly out the window. Great powers were clearly at work, and the prefect let the boy go. Out of gratitude when he returned home, he carved the chicken in the wall of the Jakobskirche (St. James' Church).

For the skeptics among you, it has also been suggested that a market woman, whose stand was located there, carved the chicken in the wall behind her so people would know what she was selling.

der Marktbrunnen

On the market square near the Rathaus is this Brunnen (fountain):

In this photo the bottom part is covered to protect it during winter, and you can see the very unique Rathaus behind it. The bronze figure on top of the fountain is Poseidon, and it was created in 1948. The Marktbrunnen is much older than that, however.

The original fountain was designed in 1617, modeled after the Neptune Fountain in Bologna, Italy, and made of sandstone. Weather and time took its toll on the fountain and it started to crumble.

After World War II, the future Bürgermeister (mayor) of Tübingen arranged to have the Marktbrunnen reconstructed. Instead of using sandstone, however, he had the artist use melted scrap metal from war weapons. How poetically ironic: church bells all around Germany - including in Tübingen - had been melted down during the Third Reich to make weapons and ammunition. So the metal of bells that were created to call believers to worship God was turned into weapons that destroyed people. But after the war, those weapons were melted down again and became something beautiful. The Poseidon figure on Tübingen's Marktbrunnen was the first public structure created in the town after the war, and it became a symbol of peace for the citizens.

There are many more secrets to be learned about Tübingen, along with not-so-secret, but equally interesting details, stories, and history. If you come to southern Germany, I highly recommend a day in Tübingen.

These brightly painted houses line the Neckar River in Tübingen. Two buildings stand out (because of their architectural design, not their color). Can you find them? There are stories connected to those two houses as well!

Update August, 2014: 
I have added this post to the Expats Blog Hop Travel Edition at Young Germany.
You can view other entries here.

Bast, Eva-Maria and Heike Thissen. Geheimnisse der Heimat: 50 spannende Geschichten aus Tübingen. Überlingen, Germany: Schwäbisches Tageblatt, 2013.
Bachmann, Andrea. Tübingen: der Stadtführer. Reutlingen, Germany: Oertel + Spörer Verlags GmbH, 2010.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Driving in Germany 3: Look what I found!

STOP!! Hold everything!  Look at what I found yesterday in our little town!

That's right - it's a STOP SIGN!  I have been on the hunt for a stop sign for several weeks now - just to take a picture of one and blog about it - but kept coming up dry. Until yesterday.* Neither in our town (pop. 2200) nor in Horb (pop. 6000) did I remember coming across one nor could I find one. But this one is at a narrow T-intersection with limited visibility on a street coming from a residential area onto the highway snaking through our town. It's such a sketchy corner that a left turn here is illegal.

My German readers are wondering, "What's your point?"  My American readers are thinking, "What do you mean there are no stop signs? How does THAT work?" In Wisconsin not only do we have stop signs on almost every corner where minor streets cross major ones, but we even have multiple stop signs in grocery store and shopping mall parking lots! Uncontrolled intersections are almost unheard of, and 4-way stops (meaning EVERYONE has to stop whether there are other cars in sight or not) are the norm.

I can almost assure you there are no 4-way stops anywhere in Germany. Where there is an intersection where cars come from more than three directions, there is either a stoplight or a roundabout. Many intersections are only three-way intersections, and for those the Germans have the "rechts vor links" rule. Simply put, if someone is coming from your right, YOU YIELD unless there is a sign telling you you have the right-of-way.
This yellow diamond tells me I don't have to yield to drivers coming from my right.

Incidentally, the speed limit in residential areas in Germany is 30 km/h, which is 18.5 mph. Damn, it seems faster than that - or maybe it's that I'm the only one actually driving the speed limit. The speed limit for normal streets within city limits is 50 km/h, which I just discovered is 31 mph. It has always felt like 50 mph to me...

I must admit, though, I like the lack of stop signs. If no one is coming, I don't need to stop even when I'm turning onto a main road. Of course I slow down and make sure, but if I no one is coming, I can keep going. Why are there no stop signs in parking lots in Germany? I suspect it's because officials are counting on drivers' grasp of the obvious: if there are pedestrians walking in the parking lot, don't hit them. Where there are intersections in parking lots, the "rechts vor links" rule applies. In situations where signs and rules are unclear, drivers tend to do their best not to hit anything or anyone, because it messes up their cars.

And just sayin', but the person who thought to develop the roundabout instead of the 4-way stop deserves a medal. Simply brilliant.

*To be fair, the only reason I was able to find the above stop sign in my little village was because it was mentioned in the local newspaper the other day. I think it's new.

Driving in Germany 1: Speed limits
Driving in Germany 2: Verkehrsfunk