Many people questioned me about going to Germany being that it would be the first time in Europe. Germany, I often find is misunderstood, an enigma and rarely do people take the time to see past, well its past. Initially, my trip took me there for a Polyglot Gathering that I ended up skipping out on because Berlin hooked me on the first day. Despite the rough start, it seemed like I learned something new each day and I was reminded of how Americanized I was even when minding my p's and q's.
I've traveled outside of the U.S. before so I didn't feel the need to have people bend backward for me. I realize, I am a guest in their country; however, it is customary to at least learn a few key phrases to communicate and customs so you don't look like an idiot abroad. Also, it is useless to complain about how things are done differently in Germany or anywhere else for that matter. After all, isn't that the reason you booked the trip in the first place? Berlin is a lively town, and while you'll find most Berliners ready with beer at hand, it doesn't give you or anyone the green light to ‘act a fool'. All I could do was roll my eyes when people were climbing up the pillars at the Holocaust Memorial. I mean all that for a fucking selfie? Have some respect, mate! Yet, I did the one thing I was not supposed to do. The one thing that I read time and time again in blogs, and expressed vividly in interviews NOT TO DO and how could I?!
Talk about Nazi Germany and Communism.
Now it wasn't that I just went into it without any regard towards the person sitting across from me. Oh no. Even I know that would be a jerk move. Nonetheless, even addressing Hitler and Nazism implicitly will draw stares. I wanted to go into a fetal position, but not before eating my napkin. I, simply stated that I made a keen observation while riding the Bahn. It seemed to me anyway, that the older generation looked at the younger generation with disdain. The example I gave was of a young couple kissing on the train. Aside from being too much PDA for my liking, I just turned my head and decided to look out the window. Before doing so, I looked around and saw several elders staring but not in disgust per se. It almost appeared as if they were longing to turn back time, the ability to relive those moments freely as the young couple. Now you're probably saying, “That's a bit of a reach there, Elizabeth.” No doubt, but if you felt the vibe in that train car, you would probably deduce the same thing. It also wasn't the only instance where I saw this. People watching can teach you so much. Grab a bench and take notes. Body language and the tiniest of nuances can say more than enough.
I then explained that I gathered how Germans (at least in Berlin) were domineering, yet friendly, assertive, but also timid. Perhaps it was the ever presence of authority in the form of police and if you didn't see them, you definitely heard the sirens. Later in our conversation, he would say, “I'm not sure. It's like they sense danger and appear out of nowhere!” Despite that, Berliners were also carefree like children at the playground or teenagers at a mall with unlimited funds. Even I was surprised to see open bottles at the park, on the train, and as I walked on rugged streets. My first instinct as an American was, “OMG!! You're going to get arrested!!” At the same time, I found order. People weren't even pushing others to get into the Bahn. Is this real life?!
What about the women I saw at the bar who didn't appear to move despite being part of a lively conversation. Don't expect Germans to talk with their hands. This is one I had to learn quickly because I swear I'm Italian and well here they find all that flailing about insulting. My curiosity knows no bounds and this time the boundary hit me right smack in the face. I noticed how active in politics the Germans everyone seemed to be, more than just hurling memes or buzz words, they actually had a clue of what was going on in the world. While enjoying currywurst in Friedrichshain, the television was splattered with news about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz's presidential bid coming to an end. Normally I would expect people to ignore the drivel, but this time it had the place buzzing. Everywhere I went people were not just talking about U.S. politics, but they were quite informed about other issues regarding their own country and neighbors. Protests do happen as the Germans will not tolerate anything that they feel could possibly disrupt their way of life. I'll let you do some research on why the Reichstag was a significant piece in the reunification of Germany. On its frieze, it reads Dem Deutsche Volke, which means “To The German People”.
I was sitting in front of a young Egyptian man at Volksbar and then said this:
“So it all makes sense to me now. Because of their past with you know who (tapped index finger underneath my nose a few times to convey the message that I was poorly drawing a toothbrush mustache) this is why people are keeping tabs on the government and on any person whom might exhibit those type of tendencies. I can see why people want to be out and about, why this city doesn't seem to sleep. It's a joie de vivre, something that eluded them for so long. They know what it's like not to have freedom, so they enjoy it to the fullest!”
Before I could utter another word he explained that I had just stepped into a huge faux pas. The mere thought, to imply or make a gesture suggesting such a thing was frowned upon and most Berliners would take offense. He later went to explain that although my observations were correct, “we” don't necessarily address them. Considering that everywhere you look in Berlin is a reminder of the past and the resiliency of the German people, yes it's basically stating the obvious. Even though he wasn't of German descent, he too learned quickly when he assimilated into the country, which he now calls his forever home that certain things are just better left unsaid. Despite the vitality Berlin exudes as demonstrated by its people and culture, they are also reticent about their affairs.
Moral of the story and life lesson: Start with a clean slate. Erase your misconceptions and perceptions about a country, its culture, and people. Watch what the locals do and repeat. Berlin is jam-packed with memorials and historical sites, just shut up and enjoy them and by that I mean pay respect to them and the people who live there.
What to expect?
As stated in a previous blog post, my survival and language skills were put to the test the moment I landed in Berlin. Although people were friendly and generally helpful, learning key phrases made the interaction easier for everyone. It also shows that you are mindful and respectful, that you took the time to learn their language. Want to make someone smile? Talk to them in their native language. Works every time. Even my broken German received nods of approval. When all failed I resorted to French, and when that didn't work I'd use signs. Anyway, I could communicate before using English.
One impression that has remained with me since leaving Germany has been how punctual, direct, and efficient this country can be with a few exceptions. In the States, I have always detested transit systems (exception: Seattle) so anytime I have to take public transportation, a part of me dies. I'm not being melodramatic, it's just the way it is. However, in Germany, I felt as if having an automobile would be a waste of money and completely pointless. I love you, Deutsche Bahn!! I'm not saying that their trains were never late, what I am saying is that after utilizing their system for a week, I could set my watch to them and they never failed. I don't recall that EVER happening on SF Bay Area's BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) System. There's even a site dedicated to all of the fun experiences you'll have while riding BART (NSFW). Aside from the trains being on time, they were CLEAN! They will get you anywhere you need to go and there's a handy app for that! #YASSS!
Customer service: You won't get mistreated, but don't expect anyone to kiss your ass either. You'd be surprised how far a “Bitte” and “Danke” will get you. Back to the first thing I said: learn some key phrases. Oh, and learn your currency denominations. A coin purse comes in handy here because after one day I felt like I was carrying around 2kg of weight in euros alone. Those little trays at the counter, USE THEM! Whatever you do (learn from me, please!) do not hand the cashier or counterperson coins or I'm warning you to prepare yourself for the “I don't care bear death” stare.
This one is easy to follow, yet many people fail to follow it! Have some common sense. The Germans are excellent at making you feel stupid. No seriously, they abhor stupidity. Here are some examples:
Assume a seat on the train (ICE or any other intercity train) is yours because it is empty.
I learned this the hard way on my way back to Berlin from Wolfsburg when the train attendant gave me a seat, which she thought was empty. Five minutes later I see a little German boy look at me like I had stolen candy from him. I look down and see a mini backpack that I could only assume was his. Before I could get up, he had gotten his mother and both were in front of me. Then, the little boy proceeded to scold me in a squeaky German voice, while his mother stood behind him staring me down. Yeah, all I could say was Verzeihung which translates to ‘forgiveness' and go find another seat. Next time, I'll just pay the additional fee for a seat reservation and avoid this type of interaction altogether.
Here are things we take for granted: a beverage cup filled to the brim and ice. I ordered coffee at Le Crobag, which are found at every bahnhof and are the equivalent of Starbucks if Starbucks had a better selection of sandwiches and pastries. I wanted something cold and opted for an iced caramel macchiato. I thought I had ordered a medium (or err large in Germany), but what I received was a cup that wasn't filled all the way. Instead, it looked as if someone had sampled my coffee before handing it to me. I didn't complain. I smiled, said thank you, and I was on my way.
Next day on my out from Wedding, I stopped by a food stall at Seestraße station where I would get my daily dose of tabbouleh salad and a sandwich. I asked for an iced latte and was told they didn't have ice, while a young lady pointed at the steaming wand on the espresso machine. I tried several places with the same response. When I finally just waved the white flag and took ANY coffee available, I saw that the cup contents fell about a centimeter and half short. Later in Amsterdam, an older gentleman told me that it was all the EU's fault and that damn good for nothing euro. Oooook.
Go to the supermarket on Sunday, surprise it's closed!
I'll keep this one short. Basically, I was told by my roomie for the week that during certain national holidays and on Sundays most supermarkets are closed. In other words, stock up or plan to go out to eat at restaurants for your meals, but also assume many will close early if they are open at all. Coming from the States where there's always something open, I had to adjust quickly. Luckily, many bahnhofs have food courts (not like the ones at the mall, this food is good!) and you can take something with you before catching your train. Don't starve, plan ahead.
Bonus! If you end up buying take out, understand that this food is meant to be eaten like now. The AirBnb I rented for the week did not have a microwave. In fact, forget that they exist.
Oh, Germany! I love you even more now that I have discovered and enjoyed your lush green forests, tasty edibles, and lust for life! Berlin is full of contradictions, Potsdam is as gorgeous as pictures make it out to be, and Wolfsburg is a must for any VW enthusiast. I'm still not done with this part of Deutschland though. Still, thanks to Anthony Bourdain's: Parts Unknown, I think I'll be paying Cologne and Düsseldorf a visit the next time I head out there.