englishman abroad, the German way

Things you didn’t know about German New Year’s Eve

Today is New Year’s Eve, and in the English-speaking world the Americans have their ball drop in Time Square, the Australians are launching 14 tonnes of fireworks in Melbourne alone, and Britain? Britain has Alan Carr… oh well.

But what’s going on here in Germany?

  1. German’s don’t have New Year’s Eve

Rather, they have Silvester. Saint Silvester was actually an old pope who was made a saint and gives his name to this day. You could go to church to mark the feast of Saint Sylvester if you’re so inclined, but most people just get drunk in the evening like the rest of the world.

  1. Playing with toxic material is encouraged

Every country has their quaint little traditions, don’t they? Bleigießen (lead pouring) is the German tradition of divining the future and risking lead poisoning. Small lead ingots are available for purchase from all good retailers along with a steel spoon. You heat up the ingot on the spoon until it melts, pour it into water and interpret the shape of the molten metal to determine your fortune in the coming year. On the plus side, molten lead is fun for kids! On the downside, molten lead is toxic and fun for kids!

I will, of course, be doing it tonight with family and friends. We’ll be testing a real lead version as well as a newer, safer wax version.

  1. The same procedure as every year

Apart from the church and the pagan divination, what else is a staple of German New Year’s Eve? If you answered, “I don’t know, something else suitably eclectic and mismatched?” you’d be right!

In Germany, they’ve been watching a piece of British comedy called ‘Dinner for One’ since the 60s. Dinner for One is entirely in English with English actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden (ask your grandma, she might know). In which Butler James becomes increasingly inebriated in his attempts to placate a demented old bag who’s invited her long-dead friends to dinner.

It’s actually pretty funny, but practically unknown in the UK. Here it is:

englishman abroad, the German way

Things I never expected from Germany

At first glance, globalization has made many European cities indistinguishable from each other: the same McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Aldis pop up on many European high streets. True, the signs in Germany are populated with unfeasibly long and complicated-looking words, but they still tend to point to the same sort of infrastructure: multi-storey car parks are full of the same brands found elsewhere, office buildings are filled with the same harried-looking people using the same computers, cinemas are showing the same blockbuster movies as the rest of the world.

But there are differences here in Germany, differences that go beyond the cars driving on the other side, the PC keyboards looking different and the movies being dubbed. There are some real, every day, walking-down-the-street differences, for example:

  1. Brothels seem to be everywhere. In the UK, they’re hidden away down a back street, pretending to be a ‘massage parlour’, clinging to a thin veneer of deniability. Here in Germany they’re right on the high street and labelled as such. They’re legitimate, legal, local businesses: they pay taxes. They advertise through employment agencies and in women’s magazines. They’re commonplace. Perhaps it makes sense for Germans to have such things out in the open because…
  2. Germans are very direct people. I come from a country in which bad news is sugar-coated and understated. Did you just ruin that important presentation in front of all the important bigwigs at work? “That wasn’t your best work,” is what you might hear. Have you fallen behind on the rent? Are you about to be evicted? “I have a slight housing problem,” is what you might say. Here in Germany? No. What you see is what you get! “Your presentation was shit” (it’s not such a bad word here), “I’m broke”. In Germany, just about everyone is Simon Cowell. Perhaps all this straightforwardness is really for the best, because…
  3. Local businesses thrive here. Britain has a problem: small businesses are disappearing from the high street. Why go to the local grocer, the local hardware store and the local butcher when you can get everything at once in the local supermarket for less? Here in Germany the supermarkets aren’t the huge, sprawling superstores they often are in the UK. Aldi, Netto, and the like focus on their core business: selling food. They seldom sell anything else and if they do, it’s a special promotion that lasts about a week. Gardening supplies are bought at the local garden centre, hardware at the local hardware store, computers at the computer shop. True, I don’t think it will last: the big chains are creeping in, but the lack of diversification in German shops is a welcome sight to me. The shop assistants know what they’re talking about. They’re competent. They’re specialised. They’re straightforward. I’ve never had that from TESCO.
  4. The rules are the rules. The stereotypical German loves rules. So does the typical German. I caught a lift with a colleague the other day when a policeman flashed him with a portable speed trap. His response? “Ah yes, that’s how it happens. You’re chatting away and you don’t pay attention, then you speed”. That was it! No effing and blinding! No winding the window down and telling the policeman to catch some REAL criminals!

I once saw a similar situation with a traffic warden: I was walking down a back street and saw the traffic warden slapping stickers on cars. Behind him, a middle-aged woman was sprinting up the road in his direction.

“Wait! WAIT!” she practically screamed, red with consternation.

The warden turned and waited, nervously fingering his radio.

She closed the distance quickly and, bent double, panted:

“You idiot! You missed one!”

To my mounting surprise she led him back down the road and to the offending car, it had overstayed its ticket by three minutes. The warden thanked the woman. I’d never seen anyone help a traffic warden before.

Only in Germany!