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!

englishman abroad

The difference between Brits and Germans

Women can’t drive, men can’t multitask, Americans love their guns and the French are cowardly. Stereotypes are fun. They make jokes easy, and enrich life if not taken too seriously. They provide a cultural shorthand that facilitates communication. If we say that someone is ‘posh’ the stereotype is a monocle-wearing, mansion-inhabiting, caviar-eating aristocrat. If we say that someone is ‘a white van man’ (this is a very British stereotype) we presume that they read ‘The Sun’, work a manual job and smoke. Obviously, most of us know that a white van is not a reliable indicator of tobacco consumption, monocles don’t equate to social class, and there’s probably a man out there somewhere who can multitask. Maybe the Bermuda Triangle or Area 51.

However, not everyone has met a German before and I’d to clear up two stereotypes that exist about the dear Krauts.

  1. Germans speak an impossibly difficult language

It’s true that German has a couple more cases than in English, specifically the Dative and Genitive. But talking about time in German is much simpler than in English. The Germans tend to use the present perfect to talk about every past event. For example: ‘I have eaten’. Only very rarely do you hear ‘I ate’.

English constructions like: ‘I have been eating’, ‘I had eaten’ or ‘I had been eating’ confuse Germans greatly and are a nightmare to teach.

And let me lay another myth to rest: Germans do not have impossibly long words. Rather, they have compound words; here’s an example: Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung. I know it looks long but bear with me, it means ‘Certificate of employment disability’.

Now look at this: Certificateofemploymentdisability. A compound word is simply several words stuck together. We don’t do it in English very often, but you can’t really call four different words a new word just by removing the spaces, surely!!

  1. Germans are rude

From stealing all the sun loungers on package holidays to telling people bluntly that their food is terrible, the Germans have a reputation for rudeness. Is this reputation deserved? First, let’s have a look at this classic advert from the early 90s

Those tricky Germans trying to snatch the sun loungers! But let’s be fair, they were up first! The early bird catches the worm! It’s a little silly to feel entitled to something you turned up late to, isn’t it? Germans tend to value productivity and get up early accordingly.

Secondly there’s the abruptness. Germans are honest and direct, it’s a cultural thing that they expect straightforwardness in most areas. The British are subtler and more ironic, we are less honest when you think about it. Here are some British phrases and their real meanings:

  1. ‘Well, it’s an interesting idea…’        – your idea is impractical and I don’t like it
  2. ‘This isn’t your best work’                 – this work is terrible!
  3. ‘Isn’t the weather awful?’                 – silence makes me feel uncomfortable…

In Germany, this is madness; it’s better to be honest for points one and two. As for point three, let me put it this way: many Germans genuinely think that the British are obsessed with the weather. Silence is not a stigma.

I’ll probably make another post like this one in the future because there’s so much to talk about. If you have an idea then leave a comment!