Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Living in Germany: The good, the bad and the weird

Cyclists in Bonn get their own little traffic lights. How cute is that?

There are many things about living in Germany that strike me as weird or wonderful. Here are a few of them.

Naked swimming
Public swimming pools in Bonn are pretty much like public swimming pools in the rest of the world. Except that public swimming pools in Bonn have naked days. The first Sunday of every month is known as Adam and Eve day and wearing a swimsuit is not an option. Go nude or go home.

Panic shopping on Saturday evening
Nothing is open in Bonn on Sunday. All of the shops and all of the supermarkets shut down on Saturday evening and don't open again until Monday morning. So every Saturday evening, just before the stores close, a mad rush of people charge into the supermarkets to stock up on food and drinks for the rest of the weekend. Most supermarkets only have three check-out counters so the lines are long and the aisles are crowded and if you don't get there early enough all of the fresh stuff is long gone by 7 p.m.

White asparagus. What's the point?
White asparagus is mysteriously popular in Germany. When it's in season, grocery stores, restaurants and markets are bursting at the seams with white asparagus. Green asparagus is nowhere to be found. I have no idea why white asparagus is so popular and green asparagus so elusive. White asparagus doesn't taste as good as green asparagus and it's less nutritious (white asparagus is grown under thick mulch. Deprived of sunlight, it can't produce chlorophyll, which is why it is white not green).

Padded coffee
Just like white asparagus, coffee pads are mysteriously popular in Germany. Germans class up their coffee by putting in into a pad and selling a machine whose sole purpose is to brew said pad. I had never heard of coffee pads until I moved to Germany. My apartment came with a coffee-pad machine and my German landlord (a huge, raving fan of coffee pads) taught me how to use it, telling me I'd never go back to freshly ground coffee again. Coffee pads aren't as delicious as fresh coffee but they get the job done quickly and the coffee isn't as bad as you'd think it would be.

Brewing up some coffee pads in my funky coffee-pad machine

Waiting for the little green man
Jaywalking is verboten. People wait for the lights to change, even in the middle of the night with no cars around for miles. If you must jaywalk, make sure there is no one watching you. Otherwise, prepare to get a nasty look or publicly scolded in German. Which, based on personal experience, is way scarier than getting yelled at in English.

Clarity-frei street signs
I don't understand this sign. What does "frei" mean? Does it mean you can bike freely down this street even though it's a one-way street? Or does it mean this street is free of bikes because it's a one-way street? Adding to my confusion is the fact that I got scolded (twice) by a police officer for riding my bike the wrong way down a one-way street. The street in question wasn't marked with a bike-frei sign, which I had originally interpreted to mean no biking (like lactose-frei milk, I assumed the "frei" in bike frei meant "without"). So I figured cyclists were free to ride down any street without a bike-frei sign. But now that I've gotten into trouble with the law for riding freely down a street without a bike-frei sign, I'm having second thoughts. Now I'm starting to think bike frei means to bike freely in any direction. But I'm still not sure. Feel "frei" to clarify in the comments section.

Free of bikes or bike freely? Your guess is as good as mine

Cheese overload
I am officially sick of cheese. I don't want to eat it. I don't want to smell it. I don't want to see it. Even writing about it is making me feel queasy. Eating out in Germany usually means ordering something baked with cheese, covered with cheese, sprinkled with cheese or carved out of cheese. What's with all the cheese? (The bread, on the other hand remains melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I will never get sick of German bread.)

Tap water is taboo
I have never seen so many people guzzle so much sparkling water in my life. Forget beer. Sparking water and Apfelschorle are what everyone really drinks here. If you order water at a restaurant, the waiter will ask if you want sparkling or flat. Flat water does not mean tap water, it means bottled water that isn't bubbly. Don't even bother asking for tap water. No one drinks it, no one orders it and the waiter will probably fight you on it. It's not worth the hassle.

The multi-person beer-drinking bicycle-riding machine
I don't know what the German word is for this contraption. Let's just call it the multi-person beer-drinking bicycle-riding machine. These things are all over the road in Dusseldorf and Berlin. As far as I can tell, a driver (presumably sober but who knows?) steers the thing through traffic while everyone else drinks beer and pedals. It's just like drinking at a bar but with way more people checking you out. (It's illegal for me to ride my bike the wrong way down a one-way street but it's legal for these guys to block traffic with their giant, boozy, 10-seater bicycle?)

Calorie-neutral drinking

Telling time the old-fashioned way
I live across the street from a church that rings its bells four times an hour. They ring on the hour and they ring at a quarter past. They ring on the half-hour mark and again at a quarter to. Sometimes all the bells ring at once in a loud, clanging frenzy for several minutes straight. This happens absurdly early on Sunday morning and carries on most of the afternoon. Is all of this bell ringing really necessary? What's the point? Especially the time-telling function. Is there anyone out there who actually relies on church bells to know what time it is?

Thirty-one flavours of yogurt
Germany has more flavours of yogurt than ice cream. They have the usual flavours, like blueberry, strawberry and mixed berry. But they also have funky flavours, like pear chunks and chocolate flakes, mixed grains, coconut and figs. If you can think of a flavour, there's a yogurt for that.

Huge pillows
Why are the pillows so big? Germans don't have extra-big heads so why do they need extra-big pillows that take up one-third of the bed? These aren't decorative pillows. These are the pillows you're supposed to lay your head on when you go to sleep.

A Canadian-sized pillow on top of a German-sized pillow

Doners: not just a snack after binge drinking
There are doner shops everywhere in Germany. In Canada, I've only seen people eating doners on the street at 3 a.m. after stumbling out of a bar. Here, people eat them for lunch and dinner while sober.

Sidewalk rage is the new road rage
It's not easy being a pedestrian in Bonn. Especially when the sidewalks are overrun with cars. The roads are narrow and the sidewalks are wide, which probably explains why it is perfectly legal for drivers to park their cars all over the sidewalk. This is great for drivers but not so great for the pedestrians and cyclists who have to maneuver around these monstrosities. Cars and sidewalks go together like alcohol and rollercoasters.

Kind of like plaque constricting the flow of blood through an artery

Doors that lock automatically
Here's a lesson I learned the hard way: apartment doors lock automatically when you close them. I'm not talking about the front door of the building but the door to each individual apartment (like a hotel room). This is something the landlord doesn't tell you. Why would he? Everybody knows the doors lock automatically. Except for those of us who come from countries where the doors only lock if you put the key in the hole and turn the deadbolt yourself. Anyway, I found out the door locked automatically when I closed it with my keys still inside the apartment. It was bad enough that I locked myself out, it was even worse that it happened on a long weekend when my landlord was on vacation in the south of France. (It took a few hours but I managed to reach my landlord, who then coerced an intern to go to his office, get his spare key and drive out to my apartment and unlock the door. I have been paranoid about locking myself out ever since.)

Trains that run on time? Not in Germany
Contrary to popular belief, trains in Germany do not run on time all the time. They run on time maybe half the time. The other half of the time, the trains are delayed anywhere from five to 45 minutes (or cancelled altogether). I'm not sure why Germany has a reputation for fast and efficient public transit. I have taken the bus three times in Bonn. The first time the bus driver screamed at me after I didn't pay my fare properly. The second time the bus was 15 minutes late. The third time the bus was one hour late. There has not, and never will be, a fourth time.

Vibrator vending machines
Vending machines that sell tampons and condoms in public washrooms are par for the course. But in Germany, the washroom vending machines go one step further by adding vibrators to the menu. I wonder what they sell in the men's room?

Everything you need for a fun night out


emilydavila said...

Great post! I was just complaining to a German friend about cheese overload and she did not understand. I also find it hard to understand why water is so limited when the food is so salty.

Toronto Mike said...

I spent some time in Berlin earlier this year and you're totally on point with the bottled water thing.

You don't order tap water... you're going to get a big glass bottle of water, either sparkling or flat, and you're going to pay for it.

Eva said...

I had to laugh really hard at your post. Some comments I recognize, being Dutch! First of all the coffee pads. About 10 years ago, Philips (Dutch electronics producer) teamed up with Douwe Egberts (Dutch coffee producer) to make a machine that could easily make one or two cups of coffee. I've detested the coffee made with pads ever since. When you earn enough money, you don't get the Senseo (which is how the coffee pad machine and pads are called), but you get Nespresso. More expensive, better coffee, very bad for the environment. But Senseo has been very popular and has been sold in over 40 countries.
It's very common to have a one way street which is only one way for cars and both ways for bikes. So Bike Frei, means you can ride your bike into the one way street. If it doesn't have that sign, you can get a ticket for jayriding. (is that an English word?)
I also know that Germans are not only known for cheese eating but also for meat eating. I guess all the vegetarian dishes have cheese in them. ;)
We also have the beer cycles and they are very annoying. They usually come with a blasting stereo and I've always wondered if it was legal to ride them since it's illegal to cycle drunk.
Not serving tap water is ridiculous because the German (and Dutch) tap water is the best water in the world. Serving bottled water is bad for the environment and totally unnecessary.
However, your pictures of your morning commute were jalous making :)

Anonymous said...

All of these are great! I would add the bizarre German practice of eating hamburgers with a knife and fork. And allowing dogs into restaurants. And sausages that are too small for the bun and...and..and...

...and I'll never figure out the white asparagus!

But it's a great place to live ;)


Christian said...

It was fun to read this post being German and realizing that some things we are doing are really weird. But I can tell, that it wouldn't be hard to write a similar post about strange habits of Americans.

Sarah M. said...

Emily: Yes! Salty food. Forgot about that too. Sometimes I'm tempted to order something and ask them not to put salt or cheese in it. But I'm not sure how that would go over.

Mike: Totally. My trick is that I bring my own water in my purse or bag and just drink that. I don't put it on the table but I sip it here and there. I can't stand the idea of paying for bottled water when the tap water is free, clean and delicious.

Eva: Thank you for all of the insight! That's fantastic. I use the Senso. Will have to take a look at the Nesspresso machine. And thank you for the clarification on the bikes. Since I got stopped by police for riding on a one-way without the bike frei sign, I'm starting to think you're right about that. Confusing.

Brent: I've never noticed the hamburger thing but the huge sausages in small buns seems strange. Why not make bigger buns or smaller sausages?

Christian: Oh, yes. Many many strange things in Canada too! Try living in Vancouver. It's much stranger than living in Bonn. But I support and endorse weirdness. It makes life more interesting :)


Katherine Correia said...

haha! so accurate, reminds me of my short but traumatic time in Germany! I used to think that Germany hired the best PR agency in the world to give it it's "efficient" reputation. Also, I wonder how Europeans procreate. Big square pillows and single beds pushed together!

Rob Cottingham said...

On New Year's Eve, you'll discover my favourite weird thing about Germany: everyone sets off fireworks for Silvester. There's a rising crescendo and at midnight, it's either glorious or (if you're phobic or desperate for sleep) hellish.

Sarah M. said...

Katherine: Yes, the single beds pushed together! I forgot about that one. So true. And nobody does "efficient" like Japan. It's the only country that can lay claim to it.

Rob: This will be my first new year's here. It will be interesting to see the fireworks. That will be a new experience....


Anonymous said...

That was quite entertaining to read for me as I am German.

You already got the right answer regarding the bike riding question in a comment above.

Regarding the asparagus. I disagree - white asparagus is delicious and at least in Bavaria there is no shortage of the green variety.

The tap water thinky is totally logical from a business perspective. Most restaurants , bars make money primarily by selling beverages and many people prefer water to anything else - so why serve it for free?! Usually you get a glass of tap water if you ask for it, though. But granted, it is not popular to do that.

Sarah M. said...

Nice to have the German perspective! Still don't think I can be convinced about white asparagus though.

The tap water thing...I guess it's just common to get it free everywhere else so why not here? I've tried asking for a glass of tap water here and my experience has taught me that it's not worth the hassle.

I should have also mentioned how much I love that almost all the homes here have automatic blinds on the outside of windows that you can use to make your apartment dark and private. Love it.


deusinator said...

First of all: Im from Germany and live in Mülheim an der Ruhr, about 80 km away from Bonn

1) If there are Naked swimming-Days depends on the swimming pool you go to. I have seen a lot of them that dont have these days. Its probably a relic from east germany where nudism had a much more important role in every day life

3) I dont know about white aspargus either, but I know that its prefered over green one in france as well - might be a continental thing

4) Padded coffee might be so popular because the pads dont leave that much waste. Also, as you wrote, the coffee isnt that much worse.

5) It depends. Nobody will wait for the light to turn green if there are no cars around in the evening/night, also students quite often just ignore it if the road is free. You should take your time though so that there would be no need to Jaywalk anyways....

6) the "Piggy Bank"-Sign alone signals that its the exit of a one way, and since you as biker are part of the traffic as well you have to use the one way in the right direction. HOWEVER: The added "Fahrräder frei"-sign signals that you are allowed to use the one way the wrong direction as well if you are on a bike.

7) I dont know, I rarely get offered additional cheese. Those who like cheese will try to get some more but its not a must. Cheese as lunch or breakfast is quite popular though.

8) Of course you can try to order tap water. If you get it though depends on the restaurant you are in, since theywant to make money as well...

9) The "Bierfahrrad" is usually used for bachelors parties (right term?), and since Bonn is a nice city there might be some more people celebreating it there than in the other cities around. And sicne they are concidered bikes and the driver has to stay sober its legal for them to be driven on the streets

10) The bells usually ring because of a wedding or - on sunday morning - to signal the church service (?). Where I live the bells usually dont ring that often, might be because the south of NRW is more religious than the north

11) I dont know... The demand justifies the supply?

12) The bigger the more comfortable they are

13) Germany probably is the döner-country, so you can eat them whenever you want

14) If the sidewalk is extra-large than its legal to park there is there is at least a gap of 1,2 meters left between car and wall. Since there is only a distance of 90 cm left the car wouldnt be allowed to park there

15) They lock automatically so a burglar cant enter your house when you forgot to lock it yourself or when you are not in reach of your door because you are upstairs or so (my guess)

16) One of the most known things about the Deutsche Bahn is that they dont always arrive when they should. Most of the trains actually are on time +/- 5 minutes or so. However if the delay really is that big then there usually is a legitimate reason. Same goes for Trams/Busses, eventhough in those cases their condition depends on where you live. The Bus driver screaming at you shouldnt have happened. Maybe he expected you to already know how to get a ticket or he thought that you wanted to pay less than you actually had to pay to get to your destination. Those cases are very rare though.

17) If you magnage to sell them, why not?