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.

xo

bb

9 comments:

Style, She Wrote said...

Water is a right -- a basic human right! Yet it's amazing how many million of people do not have access to it. xo style, she wrote

shopgirl said...

Hey Sweetie! Love reading your travel stories and your job truly takes you everywhere! I'd love to know what you do.

Some of the rules regarding restaurants are the same in Italy, except for the recycling and the garbage. It's a mess here, they don't care. There are different prices for everything in the service industry. Gotta pay attention! There's even different prices for tourists, but they don't advertize it .-).

xoxo

Bombay Beauty said...

SSW - Indeed - water is precious - something we tend to forget in the US.

Shopgirl - I always suspected tipping worked the same way in Italy - glad to know I was right!

xo

bb

howler said...

here's a crass stereotypical joke i heard the other day "should the germans revolt, they'll line up to buy tickets"

fwiw, i've always had a blast whenever i visit.

Kavery said...

Wish water was a right for everyone in India too. It's pretty brave and exciting being in Germany for a month. I do recall seeing litres of beer being quaffed everywhere.

If Jane said...

made me think of life in general in europe...(sigh) i miss is!

Bombay Beauty said...

howlerji - indeed, very orderly even in disorder (as the autobahn shows!)

kavery - indeed, i'm amazed by how much liquid germans can drink, whether water or beer!

jane - indeed, such a difference of pace!

xo

bb

WendyB said...

Love the idea of beer for children ;-)

sight said...

I love this post, I always think part of the fun of going to other countries is discovering the cultural differences in every day life.
My own rule with jay walking is only do it when it's safe, so motorways, never, but side streets always!

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