Don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of Germans with beautiful smiles. What I’m talking about is the social niceties we’re used to in the States when it comes to smiling or (gasp) even talking to strangers.
A German friend once told me he rode the Ubahn (subway) in Hamburg at the same time every day with a lot of the same people. He saw those same people every day for 4 years and not once did any of them ever acknowledge one another.
When I first moved to Dresden, I only knew a few phrases in German and happily practiced them whenever I could. In line at the bank, I casually turned to the person next to me, smiled and said, “Wie geht es Ihnen?” (How are you?) The woman turned to me and looked utterly confused. I wasn’t sure if I had perhaps said it wrong, so I frantically looked through my phrasebook, confirming that I had, in fact, asked her how she was and had not somehow inadvertently offended her horribly. After a full look up and down, her response was, “I don’t know you.”
I understand that this could be part of the German honesty that I so admire. It was true that I didn’t know her, and the idea that such a personal question has become rhetorical in American society is a bit sad since we never actually expect an honest answer in return. In the morning, before I’ve had my second cup of coffee, I appreciate being able to ignore anyone in my warpath. But most of the time, a casual nod to a stranger on the street really never hurt anyone.
2. Pay by credit card
So, Germans have credit cards. I’m just not sure where exactly they use them. Almost nowhere in Germany accepts credit cards and the ones that do only accept “EC Karte” which are these German cards with little chips in them. I got stuck a multitude of times trying to use my American cards in Germany even though I had double checked that they accepted Visa or American Express.
In the U.S., we’re used to using our debit cards for everything from major purchases to $3.55 lattés at Starbucks. Get on this, Deutschland.
3. Free tap water
The first few times I ordered water in Germany, I was immediately brought a bottle of sparkling water. I like a good glass of Perrier every now and then, but ordering water to me always meant tap water unless otherwise specified. I learned the word for “tap water” in German and anxiously anticipated a glorious glass of ice-cold free water the next time I went out to eat. The response I received was, “we don’t sell that here.”
Well of course you don’t sell tap water. It’s free… right? Nope, not in German restaurants. And the ones that will give you tap water will do so rather unwillingly and the waiter will give you a look like you just took potential money away from the 10 mouths he has to feed at home.
Also, ice. I never understood why Germans were so averse to ice. I love me a nice, refreshing class of ice cold, free water.
4. Public bathrooms where you don’t have to pay
Talking about paying, the first time I used a public bathroom in Germany was at the McDonald’s in the Berlin train station. When I came out a man came in and handed me a towel. “Um… danke?” I said to him and scurried out of the women’s restroom as quickly as possible. When I went back to the bathroom later after too many refills of my diet coke (fun fact: the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is the only place in Germany you can go back for refills), the man was still standing outside, but that time he gave me a look that could have killed.
“You’re creeping outside the ladies’ room and you’re giving ME the dirty look?” I thought.
Turns out he was there on purpose. For his job… of handing unsuspecting ladies paper towels. Ok, to clean the restroom occasionally too. Hence the little plate of change I later saw next to him. I later found out that this is common in Germany. Technically you’re not obligated to pay, but the peer pressure from the attendants is so high that I would practically get an anxiety attack every time I went to a public restroom and had no spare change. Literally, the threat of peeing my pants was less scary of a thought than their stare-downs.
I understand that it’s employment and it helps keep things clean, but aren’t public bathrooms supposed to be, ya know… public?
5. I couldn’t come up with a legitimate #5
Cause let’s face it… Germans have their sh*t together.
Runners-up included: Moving out of the way for people who are walking in your path in lieu of bulldozing them down, gasoline prices, not having to hike to the one Lidl at the train station that’s open on a Sunday, and optimism.