Sunday, June 29, 2014

Driving in Germany 5: Verkehrssünder!

A mere two weeks ago I wrote about how proud I was to have dared to drive all the way from our house to my mother-in-law's house in Esslingen. In a wildly ironic turn of events, my ego was dramatically deflated when, in the mail last Wednesday I received a love letter from the Bußgeldstelle (German authority in charge of fines) of the Landratsamt (administrative district office) of the Landkreis Böblingen (county of Böblingen), informing me that they caught me speeding recklessly on the B28 (highway) near Bondorf at 10:29 on June 9th.

I am now a Verkehrssünder. That is a real German word, and it translates to "traffic sinner."

This is my mug shot.
Yes, it took them two and a half weeks to get around to informing me of my crime, but give 'em a break - there were two holidays in there (Pentecost and Corpus Christi - which are both full days off here in the south) and a two-week break for Pentecost in which many families go on trips. Was I driving on the B28 on June 9th? Yes, I was. That was actually my very first drive on the Autobahn, though I didn't write about it. I drove home from the Stuttgart airport after Martin and I dropped off a friend. The mug shot was taken just after I exited the Autobahn and turned onto the highway that leads to our town.

Clearly I have to get better at seeing all signs on the roads in Germany. I surely would not knowingly speed (quite the opposite, actually - though most of this highway has a speed limit of 100 km/h, I hover between 80 and 90. That's fast enough for me.). Unlike many places on German highways and roads which don't have speed limit signs because drivers are supposed to know what the speed limit is based on the type of road they're driving on (and there IS a sign indicating what type of road it is - too bad they can't also add a speed limit sign for those of us who are mainly concentrating on not getting killed while merging), I'm sure there was a sign after I exited the Autobahn that indicated the Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung as:

It's a sensible speed limit for an area with on- and off-ramps, merging traffic, and a turn-off to a gas station. But I missed it, probably because I was trying unclench my fists from the steering wheel after those 25 minutes on the Autobahn. They clocked my wicked ass going 79 km/h, or rather that's what they're charging me with after the Toleranzabzug (permissiveness deduction). Nine km/h is equal to 5.5 mph. Wisconsin cops wouldn't even bother with that, but then again all they had to do here was snap my picture and mail me a letter rather than pull me over, check my license and registration, write a ticket, etc.. The missive included the relevant bank account numbers of the Bußgeldstelle, to which I was instructed to wire transfer €10 within one week. (€10 = $13.31) I briefly considered mailing them a photograph of this:

For the record, this is my first speeding ticket since 1988.  

And yes, the €10 taught me an important lesson, and I will go forth and sin no more.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It's just not realistic

We're in the midst of WM-Fieber (World Cup Fever) over here in Europe, and the energy is fun, exciting, over-the-top at times, and after Germany's resounding win on Monday against Christiano Ronaldo Portugal, even cautiously optimistic. Only during the WM and EM (European Championship) can one buy German flag items just about anywhere, because it's during those few weeks that it is acceptable to show patriotism. Except for soccer championships and the olympics, Germans do not get into nationalistic displays of pride. Although one of our neighbors flies the German flag on a pole outside his house all year 'round, that is very unusual.

Optimism isn't really a German thing, either. A fellow blogger described the spring weather in Germany as "gray with hints of darker gray and a general hue of hopelessness." Spring in America is a season of hope, beauty, new life, bright happy colors, warming winds, and a general sense of looking forward to the joy and fun of summer. On a warm sunny day Americans look blissfully to the heavens, inhale the spring scents, and dream of lying on the beach sipping a summer cocktail. Germans go about their daily business, briefly notice the sun, and comment, "Yeah, it's nice today. But it's gonna be cold and gray again soon."

And this is where the German head coach of the American national soccer team went wrong recently. Jürgen Klinsmann (who is a Swabian, by the way) has been the head coach of the U.S. men's national team since 2011. Prior to that he was the head coach of the German national team, and led the lads to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup.  He's been living in California for quite a few years, though, and so he should have known better than to be publically realistic.

Here's what he said when asked by a reporter about the U.S. team's chances in the Brazilian World Cup: "You have to be realistic. Every year we're getting stronger...We're going to take the game to Ghana and they will take it to us, and it will be an exciting game and then we go from there. For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it's just not realistic."

Frankly, I find nothing wrong with his statement. He made this comment last December - before the World Cup had even started! To talk at all about winning a competition that doesn't even start for another six months is ridiculous, isn't it? How about focusing on the job at hand - training, working out, practicing, talking strategy, and watching the competition - rather than jumping way ahead to make superfluous predictions about who will or can win? But that's what American sports fans expect. Crazed and painted fans of any sport are filmed in the stands with beer in hand before the kick-off, first pitch, tip off, etc. shouting, "YEAHHHHH!!  WE'RE GOING ALL THE WAY, MAN! WE'RE GONNA WIN THIS THING!!"  Has the U.S. team ever won a World Cup? No, but that doesn't matter. We Americans want to hear our coaches and players say pretty, optimstic, and team-building things like this. In the world of American sports there is no room for realism because blind optimism fills the bench. Klinsi probably should have said something along the lines of "We're going for it, we're going to give 110%, and God-willing, we'll take home that trophy."

But he's German, and he couldn't choke out a statement like that if you fed it to him on a cue card. A German knows there's no such thing as 110%. "If it's God's will, then we'll win this championship"? A German is definitely not going there. And a German keeps his dreams in check and focuses on reality. Is it possible? Of course it is. Klinsi and his lads are there to play soccer, and they're going to play their best. They'll take it as far as they can go. I would imagine that's what every team in Brazil is going to do.

According to ESPN, Klinsi has been saying this privately and publically for several months - that it's just not realistic for the U.S. team to talk about winning the World Cup. Then why, for the love of all that's holy, do reporters keep asking him the same question?!? I picture these reporters saying, "Oh look, there's Klinsmann! Let's go ask him if he thinks the U.S. team can win the World Cup!" and then giggling like little schoolgirls. In the recent interview Klinsi added, "First we have to get through the group we're in, so let's stay with our feet on the ground and get that group first. And then the sky is the limit." Right, but that bit isn't what gets everyone's attention - it's only the "It's not realistic" which gets everyone's boxers in a bind.

Clearly, if one listens to everything Klinsi said, he was and is not saying the U.S. can't win. Before Game 1 he said it was not realistic to talk right then about the U.S. winning the whole thing. Don't do that to a German! Don't ask him if something that has never happened before can happen in the next several weeks. If the reporters had asked him if the U.S. had a chance against Ghana in their first game, he might have been able to produce the sought-after optimism or at least "Yes, it's possible." But don't even ask him if they are going to win their group. He doesn't know, and Germans do not confidently declare favorable outcomes of sporting events weeks or even days before the events actually occur.

I think that's one of the reasons I feel comfortable around Germans. Pep talks and pep rallies always pissed me off:
"This is going to be our best year ever!" or "This is OUR year! We're going to win this thing!"
"Really?" I'd think. "How do you know that? Stop wasting my time with your fantasies and tell me what needs to be accomplished so I can get to work."

"All things are possible with Christ." (I taught at a Catholic school.) No, all things are not possible. Even if I pray real hard, it is not possible for me to, for instance, swim across the Atlantic Ocean and survive, or learn Italian within a week.

Optimism works for Americans, and it can be charming. Much has been written about the American Dream and the idea that serious hard work can lead to success and open unimaginable doors. "Don't fence me in!" "Don't hold me back!" "Work with me or get out of my way!" Americans set goals and throw their effort and energy into achieving them. When they come to a roadblock, they find a detour and keep going. These are the values we admire.

Germans tend to want to figure out what is possible and realistic, and go for that. "Wouldn't it be great if..." is met in Germany with, "You're losing focus." Germans admire someone who does what he can do and does it well while keeping his head out of the clouds and his feet on solid ground.

Both ways of thinking are valuable and appropriate. The awkwardness arises when we come together in politics, in business, or in sports and try to lead the others to our mindset or world view. Don't try to get Klinsi to be optimistic, and he won't try to get you to be realistic.

Let's just enjoy the WM!
Graphic: wikipedia

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Driving in Germany 4: I finally did it!!

The short version of today’s tale is that I drove all the way from our house to, into, and through Esslingen to get to my mother-in-law’s house and survived to write about it! This was a big step for me, because I truly hate driving over here. I love train travel, but it would admittedly be convenient if I could get over my terror. The problem isn’t that our car has a manual transmission – my Jetta in Wisconsin was stick-shift, too. It’s really more about a debilitating fear that Death is waiting for me in the form of an oncoming or merging Audi, Mercedes, or 18-wheeler. I also naturally do not want to screw up on the road and cause an accident that would inconvenience someone else’s plans for the day.

The whole experience was probably harder on my husband, who was sitting in the passenger seat and apparently had a phantom brake pedal at his feet as well as a door handle that doubled as a steering joystick. He first started a bit when I didn’t stop quite soon enough for his taste as I was backing out of the driveway and our park-assist-beepy-thing changed to a solid buzz. I only looked at him askance – I do this four times a week. THIS part, I can handle. So on we went.

I’ve driven the stretch from our house to the on ramp near Ergenzingen enough times that this was no big deal. And since this was Sunday, driving on the Autobahn wasn’t much of a problem either because trucks are not allowed on the Autobahn on weekends (which is why I chose today to see if I could make it to his mother’s house). I still had to navigate around Wohnwagen (campers) and buses while avoiding getting in the way of Porsches, Mercedes, and Audis peaking over the horizon in my rearview mirror, but at least there were no big trucks. Every five miles or so I had to unclench my fists from the steering wheel (one at a time, of course), shake out my knuckles, and check the cramps in my ankles, but happily I never actually lost feeling in any limbs.

In Wisconsin, for the most part everyone travels within a 10- or 15-mile speed zone – say, between 60 and 75 on the freeway and between 55 and 65 on highways. You get the odd nut from Illinois now and then, but generally the cars are going at predictable speeds. Here in Germany, especially in the sections of the Autobahn where there is no speed limit, you might have one car in the far right lane going 80 km/h (50 mph), a car in the middle lane going 120 (75 mph), and one in the right lane strolling along at 220 (132 mph). I learned today that I really like the zones in which the speed limit is 100 (62 mph), and I am also ok going 120 (75 mph). For about 13 seconds I tried 140 (87 mph), but then returned to a more reasonable speed.

There came a time when I wanted to get around a Wohnwagen, and I asked Martin if I had enough time before our exit. He said, “You still have 15 kilometers.” I silently wondered at what point I should tell him that “kilometer” really doesn’t mean shit to me. I’m bad at judging distances anyway, even in miles. But double-digits sounded safe enough, so after making sure there was not one single car anywhere in my rearview mirror, I sped up to 120 and passed the slow-moving vehicle.

The real fun began when we approached Esslingen. As we neared the city and my heart took on a new rhythm (changing from “nervous bunny” to “freaked out hummingbird”), I started to wonder if I should throw in the sponge and pull in to the McDonald’s we visited in 1998 (the last place I knew where I could pull over) to let Martin take the wheel. I only told him later what I was thinking: “Well, I don’t think I’m actually going to throw up; I just feel a little ‘off’. To hell with it! I can do this!” A new wave of nausea hit as I shot past the McDonald’s and headed for the steep drop around hairpin curves into the heart of downtown Esslingen.

So driving down into town, the speed limit around each hairpin curve was clearly marked: 20 km/h (12 mph). I dutifully slowed down, glad no one was behind me, and cautiously navigated the curve. This felt unusually slow, to be honest, and I almost asked Martin about it since I don’t remember him ever driving that slowly on this road even in the winter. But maybe it feels different in the passenger’s seat. He didn’t say anything, so I just kept on at 50 in the straight stretches, and 20 in the hairpin curves. Fast forward three hours to the three of us sitting on his mother’s balcony discussing the drive, and when I mentioned the speed limit in the curves was 20, Martin said, “Bei Nässe.” Oh. I didn’t see that part of the sign. Here it is:

 “Bei Nässe” means “when it’s wet.” It was a beautiful sunny day and the roads were bone dry.

Yeah, that’s the fun with German road signs. I like red. Red says, “Pay attention to what’s in this red circle!” But apparently I have to also take the time to read all the auxiliary shit on any signs attached to the main sign. I passed three signs telling me to go 20 around these curves, but never once saw the “bei Nässe” signs, which Martin assures me were attached to each one of them.

So then we drove on the “ring” that curves around the Altstadt, and headed up the cliff leading to his mother’s home. This is a 1½-mile stretch of steep, narrow, windy streets with cars parked on at least one side (sometimes both), buses and bicyclists coming in either direction, no stop signs, and cars occasionally coming from a road to the right to which I have to yield despite the lack of signs. All the other 348 times I’ve been in a car driving up those roads to her house, I’ve offered a silent prayer thanking my Maker that I did not have to be the one driving. (One winter Martin was driving up there, and two of the roads leading to her house were so slippery with freshly frozen rain that his car just slid right back down again.) The parked cars on each side of the road create a kind of slalom course which is all kinds of fun when an oncoming car approaches.

Though he was sweating, had a strained look on his face, kept banging at his phantom brake pedal and grasping his door handle, Martin did quite well. He knows I appreciate it if he tells me when I’ve missed a speed limit sign or when I’m in the wrong gear, and he gives me plenty of warning when I need to change lanes. But he drove home, and we both enjoyed the drive much more.

I’d like to say I’m looking forward to my next stint behind the wheel, but I’m not. Still, I made it over this frightening hurdle and it’s now behind me. I have several other challenges awaiting me:

  Driving back from Esslingen
  Driving to or from Esslingen on a week day
  Driving into and parking in a parking garage
  Driving out of a parking garage
  Driving to and from a place other than Esslingen
  Driving in a big city (Esslingen has only 90,000 inhabitants)
  Driving with the radio on or a passenger talking
  Overtaking a slow car on a two-lane road (I have already overtaken a tractor and a bicycle…)

Just for some extra fun, have a look at this photo. Do you spot the signs telling you that there is no longer a speed limit and you can drive as fast as your car can go? 

Please note: I took this photo (and the following) on the way home
 while Martin was driving.

What do you mean, "No?"! Click on the photo - it will get bigger. See them now? Oh, you think it doesn't matter because you wouldn't be driving that fast anyway? Oh, Dearie, it DOES matter. In these zones, keep your ass out of the far left lane if you value your and your passengers' lives. If you get stuck behind some slow guy, just stay the hell behind him. Oh, and don't pass on the right. It's illegal.

Take this example:

See the bumper of the car on the left? If it is going slower than Martin wants to go right now, despite the open hole in front of both of us and in all four lanes, Martin cannot pass him - at least not legally. He has to brake and hope that the other driver will notice that he doesn't belong in the passing lane, and merge right. Then Martin can merge left and get around him. In this particular instance, that car was passing us at some wicked speed. I just wanted to take a picture of how nice the Autobahn can look on a Sunday afternoon without trucks.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

der Arztbesuch, or Visiting a German Doctor

I have recently been in to see a dentist, an orthopedist, and an OB/Gyn, and quite frankly, if I had been able to prepare my American self by reading a "What to Expect at your German Doctor's Appointment" article online, I would have done so. Therefore today I offer such a post for women who would like to know what they're in for.

das Wartezimmer / the Waiting Room

The first thing you need to know before going to any medical appointment is that you check in at the reception desk (duh). Stand patiently while you are ignored, until the receptionist gives you clear and direct eye contact and says, "Bitte schön?" ("Wassup?"). You might find the reception desk behind a closed door, however. If so, knock on the door, wait for some voice inside to indicate you can enter, and go in. While you are being ignored, fish your insurance card out of your wallet and have it ready - you need to show it at every visit.

After check-in the receptionist will point in the general direction of another closed door, which may or may not be labeled "Wartezimmer". Go through that door, remembering to close it behind you, and say "[Guten] Morgen" if there is anyone sitting in there. (The "Guten" isn't really necessary - "Morgen!" is like saying "Mornin!" instead of "Good morning!") Sorry - only say that if it's before noon. After noon say "Grüß Gott" if you're in the south, "Moin moin" if you're way up in the north, or simply "Hallo!" if you can't remember or pronounce those. The important thing is to politely greet people in the waiting room, even though that's not done in the U.S. (at least not in Wisconsin).

Answering your cell phone and idle chit-chat are frowned upon in a Wartezimmer, so bring a book. During the 75 minutes I waited for the orthopedist the other day, a woman twice silenced and ignored her Handy (cell phone), and there were only a few words whispered between spouses, though it was standing room only.

If you have to go into the Wartezimmer again to get your jacket or umbrella after your appointment, say, "[Auf] Wiedersehen" to anyone still waiting.

I don't know why the Germans greet and say good-bye to fellow waiting patients, or why we Americans don't. I get the feeling it's a sort of "We're all in this death march together" sense of camaraderie.

But...on with the appointments.

Zahnarzt / Dentist

I'm a freaking chicken and, like many, hate going to the dentist though I face the horror every six months. I stress about it for days before, and did so even in Wisconsin where I visited the same dentist for 15+ years and knew what to expect. The mere memory of the pain I experience when the hygienist scratches a sensitive spot of a tooth near my gum with her pickaxe is enough to make me cringe while writing this, even knowing I don't have to go in again until winter.

That said, I was really pleased with my teeth cleaning and the dental check-up here. No pain at all, lots of sucking out of the saliva build-up while the hygienist scratched around thereby preventing me from drowning, and warm water for rinsing. Nice! The only thing I have to grumble about is that the tool she uses to sand-blast my teeth before polishing sounds like a high-pitched drill. It's even louder and higher-pitched than my tinnitus. Really?? What is wrong with the engineers who design machines for cleaning teeth? Are they not aware of the agony caused by the sounds of those machines? Or maybe in their previous lives they were executioners who were also responsible for torturing suspects into confessing to crimes whether they committed them or not. I wonder what they do for fun on the weekends...

I have not yet had any major dental work done here, though I'm sure that's on the horizon. I have a fair bit of experience with root canals and crowns from the U.S., so I'll be able to offer a comparison when the time comes.

"So? That wasn't so bad now, was it?"

Orthopäde / Orthopedist

I've been in to see this guy because I have hip pain that I shouldn't have at age 45. I described the pain and he located it with some distressful poking, twisting, and wrenching of my leg. At one point he told me to lie on my side at the edge of the exam table, and he leaned on my hip while counter-pressing on my shoulder to the point that I thought this test must be to see whether I'll actually break if he tries to twist me like the top of a bottle of Bud Light. I didn't break, but if I were Catholic I would be at confession this morning repenting for my choice of words. It seems here that doctors are more interested in witnessing your level of pain than hearing your description of it.

The interesting part was the X-ray. I was led into a room/hallway with a back door, a side door, and a curtain covering the doorway to the reception desk and glass-walled Wartezimmer. "Oben und unten bitte freimachen" ("Please free yourself above and below"), or in other words, "Strip, please." Well, alrighty then! To hell with false modesty, paper robes, and a closet to change in. She did say I could keep my knickers on, which was nice. The rest of my clothes I could throw onto a stool next to the window. She then told me where and how to stand in front of the X-ray machine, and every now and then some nurse or assistant walked through the room from one door to another as I stood there wearing nothing but my knickers and blushing American shame. In the States I got a robe that pretended to cover at least half of me even during a mammogram!

But Germans are just not uptight about the human body. They are pragmatic, and since neither the doctors nor nurses waste time catering to your sense of modesty and shame, you can pretty quickly accept the idea that they see bodies all day long and you've got nothing they haven't seen before. When I had wondered what this particular appointment would entail, standing naked in front of an X-ray machine while assistants walked back and forth past me didn't enter my predictions. I couldn't help but wonder if any other patients would be walking through. That didn't happen, but I would not have been surprised.

Let's recap. What you need to know about visiting a doctor in Germany:
  1. Have your insurance card ready when you check in.

  2. Greet everyone in the waiting room.

  3. If you're experiencing pain anywhere lower than your neck, expect to have to shed some or all of your clothing at some point.

  4. Don't bother feeling modest. Embrace your naked self.

  5. As you leave, say "Wiedersehen" to the people in the waiting room if you pass through again.

Frauenarzt / OB/Gyn

Right. This is a whole new ballgame, and men, probably one you don't want to play. I mean...stop reading. Now.  Go watch some football.

Ok, ladies. At least with this appointment you know you're going to have to "free yourself above and below," so that part is no surprise. In the U.S., you change in the room alone, get a paper robe and a sheet to cover all your shameful bits, sit on the exam table awkwardly covered while trying to hold the paper robe in place, and the doctor works around the modesty shields. Not here, Baby! Why waste money and time with paper robes and blankets? The doc came in, shook my hand, sat at his desk, asked all the usual questions, then pointed to a curtained corner and told me I should go there and "unten freimachen" ("drop trou") while he continued entering notes in his computer. I should then come out and sit on the fancy mechanical chair on the other side of the room.  Right. Just in my socks and t-shirt, bare-assed and blushing, I was invited to walk across the room and plop my prat in the exam chair. Good lord, these Germans. I had to wonder, "Why bother with the changing closet?"

He had no cavity spreader - just a sort of wand-like tool with a camera connected to the computer which he used to check things out. As he started his business, he said, "You can watch on this monitor here." Uh, no thanks. I'm good. There's an intriguing spot on that wall over there...

He finished recording measurements of my various essential organs and then told me to return to the changing corner and "oben freimachen" ("free yourself above"). Oh, I get it - only half naked at a time. Well, that's something. This second parade was only slightly less awkward, but it will take a good long time before I get used to marching partially naked across a room past a doctor sitting at his desk. This would not even occur to Germans as odd, though. "You're here to be checked out by your doctor. What do you expect?" I WANT MY FALSE SENSE OF DIGNITY; DAMN IT! I WANT MY PAPER ROBE AND SUPERFLUOUS SHEET! I WANT TO AT LEAST PRETEND THAT THIS IS NOT AWKWARD!

Everything else about this appointment is predictable, so the only hurdles you need to get over are the naked parade and lack of modesty covers. I'm sure all doctors vary in their particular techniques and exam room layout, but I would bet money on it that false modesty is just not part of the program no matter which doctor you're going to see.

My final bit of advice to American women who have to see a doctor in Germany is to spend a few days in a German spa hotel first, such as this one in the Schwarzwald. Try out all of their saunas. It's a nice relaxing experience, and it will get you used to the idea of being buck naked around strangers. That's right - it's not a myth. You do not wear a swim suit in a sauna in Germany, and only the greenhorns wrap themselves in a towel. Embrace the nakedness. At the very least, it's a great excuse to spend a weekend at a spa!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Overheard in Germany

I have had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with Americans in Germany, through the student groups I brought here from my school in Fond du Lac, WI, 7th-grade exchange students who spend three weeks in Esslingen before returning home to Sheboygan with their German exchange partners, and family and friends who have visited and stayed with us from one day to several weeks. The things they say at times reveal some of the differences between life here and life there.

I would love to have a similar list of things German visitors to the U.S. say as they travel around and notice things that are different. I do remember several of the German 7th graders last year being surprised and uncomfortable about the fact that the bathroom doors in their host families' houses didn't lock. In German homes, doors to most rooms - including the bathrooms - are kept closed. In the U.S., generally a closed door means "Don't come in here" or "occupied".

Here are some of the things I've heard and remembered (or written down) over the years:

Does everyone smoke over here?
What do you mean, 'They don't take credit cards'?
There's no elevator? But our room is on the third floor!
Wait. We have to pay for water
OMG, Frau Schwabi! I think we accidentally clicked on a porn channel! We didn't mean to! Are we going to be charged for that?  ("It was probably just a late night commercial. Don't worry about it.")
Wow - gas is only 1.59!  ("That's Euros per liter. Which converts to $8.21 per gallon.")
A stairway without a railing? That would never fly in the U.S.!
So apparently most of the things you tell us about in class [about the way things are in Germany] are true! 
Are Germans thirsty all the time? Their coffee cups are tiny, there are no drinking fountains for refilling our water bottles, and you have to pay for water
We're walking to the train station? How far is that?  ("Twenty minutes at most.")  Isn't there a bus?
Can someone tell me how this bullshit shower works?!?  Oops. Hi, Frau Schwabi.  (I had just come to the girls' room for curfew-check on one of my student trips as a very frustrated student was coming out of the bathroom in her bathrobe.)
Sam? SAM! Why can't he hear me?  ("Because our walls are made of concrete.")
Frau Schwabi, on my first day at my host family's house, I fell down the stairs. All the way down. And it was a spiral staircase." 
How old is this church?  ("It was built in the 13th century.")  Are you kidding? 
I can't believe how hot it was. And my host family didn't even have air conditioning! 
Patients have to walk up two flights of stairs to get to their physical therapy appointments? How do they manage that?  ("Carefully.")
Frau Schwabi, now I know why you love this country so much!  

 Just for fun, here's a recent conversation between one of my German students (7th grade) and me:

    Me: "What do you want to learn about next?"
    Student: "How about the Middle Ages?!"
    Me: "We can't really learn about that in relation to the U.S. because there were no Middle Ages in the States."
    Student: "What do you mean, 'no Middle Ages in the States'?"
    Me: "The United States is only about 240 years old."
    Student: "No way."
    Me: "I'm serious. No knights, no castles, no beheadings."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Germans Traveling to the U.S.

I have written some advice for American travelers coming to Germany, and since some friends of ours are going to spend part of the summer traveling through the U.S., I started thinking about what glitches Germans could face because of different cultural norms. Some of this may be common knowledge, but a reminder can't hurt and it's always good to try to avoid awkward situations.

What might Germans find strange or unexpected while visiting the United States? (Remember I'm from Smalltown, Wisconsin and did my best to avoid the big cities, so some of my points may not apply to places like New York City or downtown Los Angeles.)


  1. How friendly and helpful most people are. If you look lost or confused, it's likely a perfect stranger will stop and ask if you need help.

  2. Public restrooms (WCs) are found all over - in shopping malls, gas stations, parks, large stores, libraries, etc.) - and there is no charge to use them. It's not called the "WC", however. That term/abbreviation is not used in the U.S..

  3. Americans are uncomfortable with the word "toilet" and don't use it. The sign for a public WC will say "restroom," "Ladies' room," "Men's room," or (less commonly) "Lavatory", or simply show an obvious pictogram. In Americans' homes it is called the bathroom even when there is no bathtub in it.

  4. Most things are cheaper in the U.S. - dining out, drinks, clothing (especially jeans!), gasoline, energy/electricity...

  5. American flags fly everywhere and you'll see them on t-shirts and jackets, as stickers stuck to cars and windows, and flying on poles at private residences and on lampposts in the streets of cities and towns. Nationalism and patriotism are big in the U.S..

  6. The typical dress in the summer = t-shirts or tank tops, shorts, flip-flops and baseball caps*.
    Typical in the winter = jeans, sweatshirts, boots, and baseball caps.
    Men/boys do not wear capris or fashionable scarves.
    *baseball caps are a guy thing.

  7. The price you see on a menu or on signs and tags in a store is always less than you will actually pay. Local and/or state sales tax is added at the time you pay, and can be up to 9.75% (though it's usually 5-7%).

  8. It is unusual for people to pay with cash these days for anything costing more than $10, though you're perfectly able to do so. Even at McDonald's, where your bill might be only $5.28, you can pay with VISA or Mastercard.

  9. Americans appreciate, and in fact require, plenty of personal space. Keep about an arm's length distance from strangers wherever possible and try to avoid brushing against or bumping into people.

  10. Most buildings, homes, stores, businesses, and vehicles are kept very cold in the summer (by air conditioning). No matter how hot and humid it is outside, if you plan to be inside anywhere during the day, I recommend bringing a sweater or sweatshirt along.


  1. If you order water in a restaurant it will be full of ice cubes, flat (uncarbonated), and free.

  2. Most restaurants offer free refills of most non-alcoholic drinks (soda, lemonade, iced tea), including coffee!  In most fast food places you fill and re-fill your own drinks from a machine.

  3. No matter what you order to eat, you will likely be faced with many choices: what side dish you would like, what kind of dressing you want on your salad, how you want your meat or eggs cooked, which kind of bread you'd like for toast (though it's all basically Toastbrot), and if you would like anything additional (ketchup, mayonnaise, butter, sour cream...)

  4. Waiters interrupt your meal at sit-down restaurants to ask how everything is and if you want anything else (free refills, for instance) about every 5-10 minutes. They are not being rude - Americans expect this kind of service when they dine out.

  5. The tip is not included on your bill. An additional 18-20% tip is recommended, and you may leave the tip on the table. Do not leave coins smaller than quarters (25 cents). It is not necessary to include the cost of drinks in the 18-20% tip; you can figure it just on the food.  If you pay with a credit card, there is always a line on the receipt you sign where you can write in the tip and add that to your bill.

  6. You may be surprised by unnaturally colored and flavored food and drinks: Pink lemonade, bright blue sweet drink ("blue raspberry"), yellow soda (Mt. Dew), and bright red or pink sweet n' sour sauce in Chinese restaurants are several examples. Americans like to sweeten their iced tea, water, and coffee with flavors like various fruits (cold drinks) or chocolate, vanilla, nuts, or fruit (coffee). Most drinks are much sweeter in the U.S., so prepare for a sugar-shock if you order flavored water, tea, or lemonade.
  7. These are flavored mixed drinks (Whiskeyschorle-supersüß).
    I don't recommend them despite the price ($1.00/€0,74 each).

  8. Food is generally sweeter as well (yogurt, cereal, applesauce, baked goods), and deep-fried food is very common and popular. In Wisconsin we even deep fry balls of cheese (cheese curds), and they're delicious!

  9. Most pubs, bars, bar-restaurants, and hotel bars have a "Happy Hour" from around 17:00 to 20:00. During Happy Hour drinks are especially cheap - often you pay for one beer or vodka gimlet and get two.

Beach & Swim Culture

  1. Guys: do NOT wear Speedos at a beach or pool (or anywhere else) unless you are a professional competitive swimmer at a competition. Swim trunks (Badehosen) for guys should reach or almost reach the knees and look like shorts.

  2. Your toddlers/children must never be naked in public, including at beaches, pools, in fountains, play areas, or in private yards. In the U.S., nudity = pornography and/or perversion.

  3. Keep your swim suits on in saunas.

  4. Women are not allowed to go topless on beaches - or anywhere in public or where they could be seen by non-family members (such as patios, balconies, and back yards).

  5. Do not change into or out of swim suits except in a locker room, changing room (Umkleidekabine), or bathroom.


In case you plan to rent a car...

  1. Road rules are pretty relaxed compared to in Germany.

  2. It's best to pass on the left on the freeway (Autobahn), but it's not illegal to pass on the right and many people do it.

  3. You don't need to worry about the "Rechts vor Links" rule because most of our intersections have stop signs, yield signs, or traffic lights. It's "First come, first served" at 4-way stop intersections: whoever arrives first at the intersection goes first.

  4. The stop signs in large parking lots are serious; yes you do need to stop at each one.

  5. "Right on Red": At an intersection with a traffic light, if you are turning right and there is no one coming from the left, you may proceed after stopping even if your light is red - unless you see a sign saying "NO TURN ON RED."

  6. Few people actually drive the speed limit. It is generally accepted to drive up to 9 mph over the speed limit on highways and freeways and up to 5 mph faster in towns. That doesn't mean you should, just that it's unlikely a policeman will stop you for doing so. In parts of Illinois (between O'Hare airport and the Wisconsin border, for instance), the speed limit is 55 or 65 mph, but if you "go with the speed of traffic" you'll find yourself driving about 85 mph - which is still only 137 km/h. Just remember that neither the cars sold in the U.S. nor the roads were designed for the speeds allowed on the Autobahn in Germany.

  7. If you see flashy lights (ambulence, fire truck, police car), pull over. If they are behind you in your lane or in front of you in the oncoming lane - PULL OVER. Stop until the vehicle has passed you. Martin would like to add that if you do not do this, your American wife will panic and start shouting at you. On the highway or freeway, just pull into the furthest right lane until the vehicle has passed. 

  8. You will see police cars all over, just watching traffic, waiting for violators - in towns and cities, parked on the sides of highways and freeways, in parks and waysides, and on bridges and exit ramps and on ramps. They might be taking a coffee & donut break, and they might be waiting to find someone to pull over for a violation.

  9. On the freeway if you see someone stopped on the shoulder (emergency vehicles, a broken-down car, etc.), merge into the left lane if you can safely do so to allow extra space. If you cannot merge, slow down.

  10. Helmets are not required for motorcycle drivers over age 18 (at least in Wisconsin). Many motorcyclists wear shorts, t-shirts or tank tops, and sandals when riding.

  11. Pedestrians do not stick to crosswalks and do not adhere to red crossing lights. They cross streets and roads whenever and wherever they want to. It is still illegal to hit them with your car, motorcycle, or bike.

Remember, these differences in cultural norms are not weird or dumb. They are just different. Andere Länder, andere Sitten.  Different strokes for different folks!