Shara Tibken Nine things Americans don’t know about Germany
I can still remember the first time I visited Germany. I was in college 14 years ago and decided to check out Munich for a long weekend during a semester abroad. The city was snowy, cold and beautiful, but the beer halls like the Hofbräuhaus were cozy and inviting.
Hamburg – Munich largely fit the picture of what I thought Germany was like: trachten, beer and oompah music. Little did I – or many other Americans – realize that the rest of Germany was very different. It was quite a shock arriving into Berlin about a decade later and finding craft beers and more doner stands than pretzels. Parts of Germany may be the images of the movies, but many are not. And there are tons of things Americans don’t really know about the country. Here are some of them.
Germany isn’t all lederhosen, pretzels and beerThe image we see in the media, TV shows and movies of Germany is typically of blond, rosy-cheeked Germans dressed in dirndl and lederhosen, with a pretzel in one hand and a beer in the other. During Apple CEO Tim Cook’s visit to Germany last month, the most-liked photo he posted on Twitter from that trip was an image of the reserved executive wielding a stein of beer.
If you’re visiting Bavaria, you’ll see plenty of people wearing traditional clothing, especially on special occasions like weddings. Some, particularly elderly men and women, wear lederhosen and dirndl daily. I’ve visited Alp towns, like Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where everyone in a restaurant is wearing traditional clothing, not for some special reason but because it’s what they wear everyday. And during Oktoberfest in Munich, it seems like the entire city is wearing dirndl and lederhosen – though a lot of those people are drunken tourists who buy cheap clothing by the train station. But go to Berlin, Hamburg or basically anywhere else, and it’s a rarity to see trachten.
Oktoberfest isn’t actually in OctoberSpeaking of Oktoberfest, it’s not actually entirely in October. It actually starts in September before ending in early October. Who knew? Not most Americans, that’s for sure. While only a minority of Americans boast a German heritage, many of us have gone to an Oktoberfest celebration at least once in our lives. (Who doesn’t like an excuse to drink beer?) Oktoberfest parties will be held across the US in the fall, but the majority of them take place in October. My office in San Francisco holds a big Oktoberfest celebration every year in, you guessed it, the middle of October – long after the real Oktoberfest has ended. No one knows any different.
There are plenty of other things Americans don’t know about Oktoberfest – like being able to reserve tables, families actually attend and it’s not all drunken debauchery.
Nothing is open on SundayIn the US, Sunday is typically the day where you run errands, get groceries, do a little shopping. Or at least, that’s what I do. Not in Germany.
It was a real shock, my first couple of visits, to find out that almost everything was closed on Sundays. I’m sure I’m not the only visitor who planned to buy some gorgeous leather boots I’d been eyeing for days, only to find the shop was closed my last day there, a Sunday. That’s true heartbreak.
Most places don’t take credit cardsI was so confident before visiting Germany, assuming I’d be able to use my credit card for everything. It doesn’t charge any international fees, so I figured I’d save lots of money by not paying hefty ATM fees. Wrong! The only places that consistently accept credit cards are clothing and grocery stores. Almost no restaurants in the major cities and small German towns I’ve visited accept Mastercard or Visa. And you might as well leave your American Express or Discover Card at home.
The new test: whether my Apple Card will work anywhere. I’m not feeling particularly hopeful.
The trains do not run on timeTo Americans, Germans have a reputation for precision. We naturally assume that trains run on time, everything works perfectly and you’ll never be late to anything. HAHA! Nope! This seems to be an open secret among Germans, that the trains are not quite as dependable as foreigners assume.
We’re not talking Italy-level issues with delays or cancellations, but we’re also not close to the reliability of the Swiss transportation network. I found this out the hard way two years ago. I took a train to Baden-Baden from Munich in the middle of August with no issues and decided to visit Strasbourg, France, during one of my days in the region. The problems started when I tried to book a return train to Baden-Baden using the DB Navigator app.
I couldn’t understand why every train I booked kept getting canceled. No one could tell me what was going on. I finally made it back to Baden-Baden, only to find hundreds – maybe thousands – of people crowding the train platform, and all remaining trains for that day were canceled. I had no idea what happened.
I was supposed to head to Heidelberg the next day, but it turned out that Baden-Baden was essentially cut off from the rest of Germany because the Rastatt Tunnel collapsed. Instead of my scheduled journey of slightly over an hour, I had to catch several local buses and trains for a trip that ended up taking over four hours. Deutsche Bahn did refund my initial train tickets (how nice of them!), but that journey to Heidelberg was beyond painful.
Even with those problems, German public transportation and the train network is far better than most places in the US.
Cyclists ride on the sidewalkThis is amazing if you’re on a bike but slightly terrifying if you’re a newly arrived tourist. I almost got wiped out by a cyclist when I was standing on the sidewalk, gawking at a building my first day in Berlin. I didn’t even see the bicycle coming and had no idea the bike paths weren’t alongside car traffic like they are in the US.
In the US, you’re not allowed to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk. I have a friend who got a ticket and had to go to traffic school for riding her bike on a Brooklyn, New York, sidewalk. Even though the German bike paths are a different color or different type of pavement than the walking paths, it takes awhile to figure out which is which. I wonder if some tourists even notice at all or just assume everything is a sidewalk.
AC, light switches and windowsAir conditioning is rare in Germany, largely because it never used to get hot enough long enough to need it. Now, heat waves are becoming more common, and it’s inevitable that Americans will be visiting during some of those. It’s a shock to arrive to hot temperatures only to find your hotel doesn’t have air conditioning. In the US, air conditioning is the norm in most places.
Then there are German light switches. They flip in the opposite direction of the US (there, you flip the button up to turn on lights, down to turn them off). I don’t know why, but this perplexes me every time I go to turn on a light. Did Germany – and all of Europe – just decide to do the opposite of the US?
Windows are different in Germany, too. And I love them. In Germany, you can turn the handle to open a window like a door or to crack it open at the top. I love this so much, and I can’t really explain why. In the US, windows typically slide up or down or to the side to open.
Eggs don’t need to be refrigeratedHow? Why? How? You really don’t have to refrigerate them? Are you sure you can just leave them on the counter? Even though I *know* that they’re safe to eat, I still can’t help but put mine in the refrigerator immediately after I buy them. It makes me too nervous.
When it comes to the eggs themselves, there are sometimes surprises – like chicken poop and feathers. That is not something you see in the US, unless you live on a farm. I actually did grow up on a farm in Iowa, and my youngest brother raised chickens for awhile. I’ve seen eggs in their natural state, but most Americans have not. And even though they were fresh from the chicken coop, my family still refrigerated those eggs!
Water often isn’t free – And bathrooms may not be, eitherWhen you sit down at a restaurant in the US, you’re immediately brought a glass of tap water with lots of ice. You get as many refills as you want, and it doesn’t cost a cent. It’s a big shock to Americans traveling in Europe the first time they’re charged for water. And forget about ice! Even if it’s 100 degrees out, you’ll rarely find ice cubes for your drinks in Germany.
You can get tap water for free in Germany, but Americans don't really know how to ask for it. Most of the time we end up with a pricey bottle of mineral water. In the US, 99% of the time, you’re served still water. Sparkling water has become more popular now, but most Americans don’t know to ask for still or mineral water when in Germany.
Then there are the bathrooms. Bathrooms in the US are free, and there are never attendants you need to tip unless you’re in a nightclub. I still distinctly remember the first time I paid a euro to use a toilet. It was a sad night. I would have rather saved that money for ice cream.