Thursday, May 19, 2011

Learning the facts of life (again)

When you spend some time in a new country, you sometimes find yourself relearning the facts of life. No, not those facts of life, but I mean the little social conventions which if observed smooth daily interactions and which if ignored (perhaps because you didn't know) cause small frictions.

I've been to Germany before, many times, but never for quite this long. When the office offered me a month's worth of work here, after checking the weather charts I grabbed it. As I settled in, I began noticing (or was reminded of) some of these little facts of life. So in case you are ever visiting Germany here is my list so far:
  • Always close the door! In Germany (but for that matter in most places other than the US?) all doors don't automatically shut behind you. Or that is they do, because if you find a door closed then after you pass through you must reclose it. Simple enough. But I realize how used we are in the US to doors automatically shutting behind you. One tends to forget. No worries, your kind hosts will remind you!
  • To stay or take away? In the US many places automatically serve you in paper cups. But in Germany, when they ask you "to stay or take away?" they really mean it, for two reasons. First, to stay and to go may have different prices (again, the same as many countries other than the US), and second because of recycling. If you're staying in, often even at a sidewalk cart, they will serve you in ceramic or glass and with real cutlery, so everything can be washed and reused.
  • Stick to your lane! Most streets have designated lanes for bicycles. Pedestrians straying into these zones will be offered as much mercy as a pigeon wandering across the I-95. An important subtlety, as I've discovered, is that when bicycle lanes are on the street rather than the sidewalk they often go in the opposite direction of car flow. So you really must look both ways before crossing.
  • May I take your coat? It is considered impolite to sit in your coat in indoor situations (restaurants, concert halls, offices). Someone will offer to take your coat, and you give it to them.
  • Recycle. Every situation seems to have its own recycling code, but you must follow it strictly. At the office, it's plastic / glass and metal / other waste. At home, for some reason it is glass, paper, and everything else. In the park, it's mostly just one trash receptacle.
  • Related to this, bring your own bags to the grocery store. You will not be offered bags. If you are disorganized enough to shop without them (ahem), then you can buy bags, but since you are buying them as you check out you need to guess in advance exactly how many you will need.
  • Water is a human right. Offices in Germany all provide bottled water to their staff (I'm told, but haven't been able to confirm that it is required by law). Lightly or heavily carbonated, your choice.
  • The correct serving size for a beer is 1L. I was in the park with a few friends, and asked for a small beer (really, I'm a wine person). "That's for children," the bartender snorted in somehow a friendly way, and served me 1L instead.  (But wait, park, beer, wine? Yes, you read correctly. Beer is apparently also a human right, which you have the right to access in the park. For that matter, in Austria I have seen construction workers having it for breakfast.)
  • Tipping and restaurant bills. Again, like many countries other than the US, they will ask whether you want to pay together or separately. And as such, it is quite normal, even when dining with a friend that everyone gets their own bill, rather than trying pay your share. However, you do have to remember what you had, because when your bill is being prepared, you tell the waiter what you had. After you know  the amount, you add around 10 percent, try to figure out the nearest whole number to that amount, and then ask for the amount of change you need back, leaving the tip implied. Very classy, if you can pull off the math.
  • The hidden code of jay walking. Here I'm still figuring it out. Germans are famous for always waiting for the crossing light, and by and large this is true. But there are some occasions where I will people crossing if there is no one coming. I wish I could figure out the hidden code. It has something to do with the size of the street, but there's more that I haven't figured out.
If I think of more, I'll post them in the comments. The weather has turned fine the last day or so. I'm hoping to finish early and head out to enjoy it! Hope there's a hint of summer where you are.



Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Getting back on my feet (after being swept off them!)

Well it wasn't that kind of sweeping (i.e., not the flutter-of-the-heart variety), but more sweeping the floor in an empty apartment one minute, standing on my soon-to-be balcony in New York the next day, to boarding a flight to Europe and arriving to find that my bag with two months' of clothes is lost (you read correctly -- not delayed, lost).

But I should backtrack. My original plan was to start looking for a New York apartment after returning from my European sojourn. I was touring some apartments with an agent just as a way to introduce myself to her for when I really need her in July. But she offered to show me some apartments, so I agreed. The first three were exactly what I was expecting: depressing! But I was expecting that, so I used them as a way to explain what I was looking for, and even mentioned that I might come back to New York for a few days just to view apartments. But then she mentioned something that had just become available and took me over to see it. And there it was! Apartment love at first sight: south facing, a second western exposure, an actual bedroom (recall, my Boston place was a quasi-loft my New York place a studio -- no real bedrooms), and a small balcony where I can watch the sunset (and breathe New York's wonderful pollution). I said yes on the spot. And there, by a TKO in the first round, the twelve-round apartment search was over. Even better, the lease doesn't have to start for another two months... just when I get back.

I was on this high that I landed in Europe, imagining all the wonderful ways I would spend my summer, now that I knew what I was going back to. So happy was I that I didn't notice that almost everyone had left with their suitcases and I was still waiting. I was in such a good mood that I cheerfully filed my delayed baggage claim, expecting that it would be delivered in the afternoon. That was last week. Now they have unofficially declared it lost (officially they have to wait three weeks). Fortunately, I wasn't traveling with anything I really love, but when I started to add what it would cost to buy enough clothes for the next two months, I began to feel a little wobbly.

In the end,  I replaced about half the things, enough to get me through two months, albeit in a little less style than I would liked. You might imagine (as I sort of did) some kind of glorious shopping spree. Instead it was more like having blood drawn, one pint at a time. No matter, I've digested it, and am ready to move on with my summer.

Hope you are feeling summer in the air wherever you are -- I am!


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