A Guide to Being Emotionally Prepared for Quirks, Oddities and Unpleasant Things Found in Germany

The following is an essay I wrote so that Regine doesn’t take away my scholarship money. If you are going to Germany, you may find it helpful, and if you are already in Germany, you may find it incredibly silly. The WordPress formatting is being fucking stupid, and I don’t feel like fixing it up, so you’ll just have to deal with not having breaks in between every paragraph. Anyway…

Statement of Purpose

My goal in writing this sort of guide is to mentally prepare you for the more quirky, unusual, or unpleasant aspects of Germany in the hopes that it will ease your transition. I observed that the people who had the greatest difficulty were those who came with a lot of preconceived notions about what being abroad would be like. I was relatively open-minded, and I believe this is why I didn’t really suffer any homesickness. Sure, I’m eager to get back home, and was disappointed to learn that nobody from home would be visiting me, but the most serious issue I’ve had during my time here is developing an unnatural lust for Royal Red Robin burgers. I have yet to find a really good burger in Germany, and I miss that heart attack-on-a-plate dearly. Seriously, Google it; it’s got a fried egg on it.  Absolutely gorgeous.

Anyway, I sincerely hope that you will find the mental vomit on the following pages useful in some capacity. If you have any questions at all, please please please feel free to e-mail me whenever at jnhale@gmail.com

Congrats, good luck, and chin up.

Being Homesick

Now every case is different, but during my time spent abroad, I’ve made a few observations that seem to apply across the board. The simplest way to create a raging case of unbearable homesickness is to have absurdly out-of-proportion expectations for your trip abroad. Germany is a place, just like any other; just like your home, even. There are good things, and there are bad things. Funny moments, infuriating ones. There are sweet old ladies, and there are soccer assholes- I mean, hooligans… Those darn hooligans!

What I’m getting at is that Germany is not a magical wonderland of Awesome. Beer does not rain down upon massive pretzel orgies. They are not holding dance parties in lederhosen upon streets paved with schnitzel, jamming out to Kraftwerk. There are things that you are going to love, no doubt, but there are also things you are going to hate. The setting of realistic goals and expectations is the key to remaining emotionally stable and generally cheerful.

Jet Lag

Jet lag is problematic, and everyone reacts differently, but I would suggest a one to two-hour power-nap as soon as you get into your room (if that is even possible- my nap was interrupted by an angry Hausmeister and for some of the others in my group, their rooms were not quite ready yet). Otherwise you run the risk of falling asleep in strange places, as I did. This is not fun or safe. I’m inclined to think that the method of staying up as long as possible in order to get on the German schedule is mostly shenanigans. Trust me, once you’ve been up and active for that long (because let’s face it: you ain’t gonna sleep on that plane) a one or two-hour nap is not going to throw you off. In the following days, you should try to get to bed earlier than you normally would to give yourself a chance at a full night’s sleep. I would also give siesta-style napping a chance. As long as you don’t overdo your naps (no more than 30 or 40 minutes in the middle of the day) then these naps can be your friend. Following these tips, you can expect day one to be absolute hell, day two to be unpleasant, and day three should be alright. If you’re still feeling it after a week, then you are doing something silly.

Toilets

I don’t know if you were already aware of this, but the toilets are different. Allow me to learn you on toilets for a moment: there are three basic types seen throughout the western world which we will refer to as “German,” “French,” and “American.” You are probably most familiar with the American-style toilet; this is a large, elliptical bowl filled about halfway or more with water. You do your business, plop plop, then you push down the little handle, and then it flushes with great force, in an amusing swirl. If your toilet is anything like mine, you then spend the next ten minutes jiggling the handle trying to get the water to stop running. Then, you’ve got your German and French-style toilets which are smaller, more rounded bowls with only a small amount of water at the bottom. The difference is in the hole placement. French people apparently do not wish to view their poo, so the hole is at the back. Poo falls in, never to be seen again. German-style toilets have the hole at the front, and then the infamous “poop shelf.” Poo rests on a flat, slanted section at the back so that you may examine it for worms and whatnot. Then, you push down on a large switch against the wall and everything is rinsed down the hole, sans swirl. European toilets seem to be plagued with suspicious yellow and brown stains. This is relatively normal, and does not indicate the presence of diseases or any creatures planning to leap out and attack your ass. Do not fear your toilet.

Light Switches and Outlets

Light switches and plugs are different. This isn’t really a big deal, but I found that it made me weirdly uncomfortable. I suppose the only real drawback here is that they have a tendency to place power outlets in silly places, like next to a light switch by the front door. Honestly, what the hell would you be plugging in over there? It confounds me. Also, the light switch isn’t a little switch you flick with your finger, but rather a flat panel you press on.

More practical advice would be to buy power adapters for all the electronics you plan to take with you (probably not as many devices as you would think). First, make sure that the devices are rated to handle 100-240V and 50-60Hz (if your laptop has that black “brick” on the cord, then I promise you it will be fine). Also make sure that if the plug on your device has a third, grounding pin, you get a grounded adapter, unless you like getting electrocuted. That’s all you really need to know- pretty simple stuff. Here’s some pictures for ya:

Ungrounded plug adapter. I bought this in a cheap set from Target.

Grounded plug adapter. Slightly more expensive, but it beats being electrocuted if you have a plug with three pins on it.

Your typical light switch/power outlet unit.

Bedding

Germans also have a different way of making the bed. When you get to your room, you will most likely receive: a pillow, a large duvet-style blanket, a pillowcase, a flat bed sheet with which to cover your mattress, and a duvet cover. The pillowcase, sheet and cover will probably be made out of a coarse, white fabric. It’s not cozy, but it gets the job done. You can always buy some nicer bed linens later on.

The duvet is tricky. Consider this a test of your cognitive abilities. You are terribly jet-lagged, and now the Germans are testing you. It may be foreign to you, but it’s trivially easy for them. Your anger will help you make this bed. You must use the dark side of the Force if you wish to sleep comfortably. First of all, you will notice that the duvet cover is like a big sack- a couple sheets sewn together like a sleeping bag. Your objective is to fit the fluffy blanket into the sack. It’s easier with two people, but can certainly be accomplished by one. The best method is to make sure that the orientation of the blanket matches the orientation of the cover. Then proceed to stuff the first two corners of the blanket into the sack. Put your fingers on the corners of the duvet cover, and grab at the corresponding corners of the blanket inside and pull them into place. This should draw the blanket further into the cover, like an anaconda eating a tapir. Stuff the other two corners in and pull them into place. Tug on the corners until the blanket seems to have fallen into place. Here’s a diagram of this maneuver:

Good job, your personal D-Day is over and the beachhead has been established. You are ready to make the rest of the bed.

Simply toss the remaining bedsheet over your funky and curiously blood-stained mattress. Tucking it in may help prevent it from slipping around as you sleep on it. Throw the newly-assembled duvet over the top. Put the pillow in the pillowcase, and you are now ready to sleep like a champ.

Homeless People

In keeping with the theme of Germany not being a wonderland of Awesome, I’d like to talk about the homeless for a bit. There are two main types: the legless and the punks. We’re not sure about this epidemic of leglessness across Germany, but in my mind I’ve begun to attribute it to tram accidents. It seems reasonable to me that with the German habit of bolting after the most recent tram, at least a small percentage of them must at some point trip over one of the Bächle, fall onto the tracks and- BAM. Mangled legs. As a disclaimer though, my  version of events is most likely wildly inaccurate and insensitive. If you’d like to avoid feeling guilty, I would suggest an occasional donation to this group.

The second variety of homeless are the punk drifters. These are groups of scuzzy-looking punks (think leather, chains, jackboots, and maybe the occasional kilt). They always have a pack of dogs, and one of them (one of the punks, not the dogs) will probably be urinating on a nearby building. Personally, I’m not a big fan. They’re like human graffiti to me. Innocuous, but unsightly and annoying.

Being Polite

This is quite simple. All you really need to do is smile and say “hi.” Smile and say “hi” to people you pass going in and out of your building. When you walk into a store, look for the person at the counter, make eye contact, smile and say something like “Hallo,” “Guten Tag,” or “Morgen” if it’s morning. When you are checking out or leaving, smile and say something like “Tschuß!,“ “Ciao!,” or “Schönen Tag (or Abend) noch!” (depending on whether or not it is during the day (Tag) or the evening (Abend). That’s pretty much it. Some other things a cashier might say to you include “Möchten Sie eine Tütte?“ (Do you want a bag?) or as I learned it: “Blah blah blah Tütte?“ They may also ask for exact change. I don’t really know the exact words for this situation, as it is a tale told mainly in gestures. I hand cashier money, cashier stares forlornly at the money in hand, looks up, mumbles something in a rising pitch indicating a question. I pretend to fumble through the change in my wallet, then I raise my shoulders and make a distressed face. The cashier accepts the money I have given him/her and gives me my change. Life goes on.

The Benefits of Looking Like a Complete Idiot

Generally whenever I go outside, I manage to constantly look like a complete idiot. It’s very humbling. I have embraced, and even begun to enjoy my status as a useless person in German society. Here’s how you can too.

First of all, laugh. It’s funny. You are not Captain Kirk; you will not demand instant respect within this alien culture (although, come to think of it, he did get his ass beat once by a group of kids. See? I guess nobody is immune). Look on the bright side: when you look stupid, you instantly boost the confidence of everyone around you.

Humiliated by small children: no one is immune to looking foolish.

Second, by looking stupid all the time, you are becoming comfortable in this role of failure. Think about it- you start to see that it’s not so bad. By taking the sting out of failure, you cease to fear it. Fear of failure is arguably one of the most useless and paralyzing fears out there, so you can ultimately look at this as building character.

Bringing Books and Films in English

So I may have gone a little bit overboard in carting to Germany about 50 DVDs as well as my collection of Star Trek DVDs  (the Complete Original Series, mind you) but that’s just because I really, really love movies. So, no need to take that many, but I do suggest you take a couple of your favorites along, just in case you find yourself bored some evening. I would also plan on buying a few of those movies in Germany- dubbed in German. It’s interesting, and good practice.

I would also bring a book or two- or better yet some sort of e-reader like a Kindle or a Nook. If you’re a fanatical reader and can’t part with your books, that may be a worthy investment. I need not remind you that books are quite heavy.

Taking Your Studies Into Your Own Hands

A lot of the German classes you take probably won’t help you get that much better at German. I’m not saying you won’t learn anything, or that these classes don’t have their merits, but they’re simply not that intense. It’s important to keep up with your own studies on the side. Keep listening to German radio and podcasts, watching German movies and TV shows, reading book in German. Actively study vocabulary (I suggest a program called Anki. It’s a flashcard program that uses spaced repetition to help you learn. It’s also free.) Actively study grammar and do grammar drills. The best part about learning this way is that as soon as you learn a new word or grammar construction, you can go out and test drive it immediately. Every word you learn brings you that much closer to understanding the world outside your room. This can be a powerful motivator.

German “Humor”

Nonexistent. Monty Python was once asked to produce two television specials in German, for a German audience. The way they tell it, the Germans approached them with this offer, basically conceding “We don’t have a sense of humor, but we understand that you do.” I cannot imagine Germans being able to understand the humor of Monty Python. Don’t expect them to pick up on any word play or subtlety. They probably won’t understand Jon Stewart. They mostly go for cheap slapstick. If you want a taste of modern German comedy, check out the shockingly unfunny Der Schuh des Manitu and you’ll see what I mean. It makes Mel Brooks look like Shakespeare.

The German word for "lumberjack" is "Holzfäller."

So I Guess You’re Hungry (Part 1 – The Grocery Store)

If only I had learned how to cook before I left. Your quality of life suffers a bit if you can’t cook, so I would learn how to make just a few simple dishes before you leave. That way, you can pool your knowledge with your travel companions and do quite a few group dinners.

I’m not clear on all the different supermarket chains in Germany, but I mostly go to Edeka, and occasionally Kaufland. The experience is quite different from shopping in the US. First of all, bring your own bags. Some places will sell you bags at the register (they’re really cheap) but some places won’t. To be on the safe side, find a bag ahead of time to bring with you to the store. Once you arrive, you will find that if you want to use a carriage, you have to put down a euro deposit (as a general rule, you are going to have to put a deposit down on anything and everything you want to use in Germany). All the carriages are chained up outside, with  locking mechanisms on the handles. You put your euro into the slot, and the device unlocks the carriage.

Entering the store, you will find that you must go through this automated gate that swings open upon sensing your approach. This has the effect of herding the shopper through the store in a single direction. The first section is probably produce. German produce can be good sometimes, but on the whole I found it really disappointing. Specifically I would avoid strawberries. They’re small, sad, sour and have a tendency to mold over within 24 hours of purchase. Half the stuff on the racks shouldn’t even be there most of the time. In any rational society, they would toss that stuff in the bin. Sprouting onions on the shelf? Half-rotten carrots? Come on, Germans, seriously? If you do decide that it is a good day to buy produce, make sure you weigh it and tag it there. There will be a very easy-to-use machine for this purpose nearby. If you don’t weigh it before you get up to the register, they will ask you to go back and do it. Save yourself the trouble and do it right away.

The rest of the the supermarket is usually similar to its American counterpart, except miniaturized. That was always one thing that struck me about America after I got here- everything is huge in comparison.

Checkout usually involves being herded along again. You can usually use a card here, but have cash to be on the safe side. This part is tricky, because you’ll find that you have to bag your own groceries, while simultaneously trying to be polite, make eye contact, do the “Hallo” ritual, and figure out how to pay using silly euro coins (preferably using exact change) while some old bat waits behind you with her single can of cat food, impatiently jingling a handful of change. It really is an art. You will get better with it as time goes on, but expect to drop everything on the floor the first couple attempts.

Lastly, if your diet sucks like mine, you may want to invest in a multivitamin or something similar to keep you alive. You can probably find that sort of thing at an Apotheker, but before trying that, I would check out a convenience store chain called Schlecker. Schlecker also carries good stuff like cleaning products, first-aid kits, basic toiletries, teas, homeopathic remedies, candy, and diapers (if that’s your thing). It’s about as close as you can get to a CVS. Quite handy.

So I Guess You’re Hungry (Part 2 – Eating Out)

To be quite honest, the one thing I dislike about Germany more than anything else are the restaurants. I swear I will never again get irritated with the overly-friendly American-style service that pokes its face into your meal every ten minutes to make sure everything is alright. At least they acknowledge you.

When eating out at a restaurant in Germany, you start off by seating yourself. A waiter should notice you and saunter over shortly to give you the menu if it’s not already on the table. Ordering is a simple process, and the food generally arrives in short order. German restaurants often seem unable to produce all the meals at the same time, but this is not an issue most of the time. Everything’s going fine at the point. You have enjoyed your hot, tasty meal. A waiter will promptly come and clear the dishes. But let’s say now you want to get another drink or order a dessert, and it didn’t occur to you before the dishes had been cleared. Or, let’s say you just want to pay your bill and get on with your life. You will notice at this point that your waiter has vanished. Gone. Drawn up into some cavity like a creature on a coral reef. Absolutely verschwunden. About an hour later, when the server reappears, you will find yourself doing the Macarena in your seat trying to get their attention. It will take a few tries, but eventually they will notice. Expect dinner to take a while. You don’t want to be in a hurry at a German restaurant.

When you want to pay, the magic word is “bezahlen.” You can put it more politely, but I just like to belt out the one word.

“BEZAHLEN.”

Tip: have cash on you. Most places don’t take cards. Also, have change (not hard; there’s 8 coins. You’ll probably have a whole treasure chest full of change). It is polite to tip, but tipping generally consists of rounding your bill up to the next whole euro, or just tacking an extra euro on. I am told that servers in Germany are paid better than their American counterparts, so they do not rely on tips. This is why your service is generally going to range between mediocre and straight-up poor. So, Germans are not really into service, and yet we Americans are total whores. Why can’t we achieve a happy medium?

If you want to pay together, the word is “zusammen” and if you want to pay separately, the password is “getrennt.” You will pay your server directly- leaving money on the table seems to be in poor taste.

Water is also a somewhat complex subject. There are lots of options. Bottled and carbonated? Bottled and not carbonated? Fancy mineral water? It’s all going to cost you. My suggestion is to go with the free tap water, which is called “Leitungswasser.”

If you want to grab some cheaper food, I would recommend kebab joints and Italian restaurants. These are usually your cheapest options, and pretty tasty. Try not to overdo the kebab, as it has ridiculous amounts of sodium and who knows what else in there. I will grant you that kebab is insanely delicious food of the gods, but just try to practice a little bit of self-restraint.

Drinking Age

Nobody cares. Germans don’t care. Your friends don’t care. It’s no longer interesting after Day 1.

Germans as Vultures of Culture

You will find that most of German pop culture is actually just reappropriated American culture. Sometimes it’s the real deal, often it’s a cheap knock-off something familiar back home. Most of the movies in the theaters are American films dubbed into German (occasionally you will find one marked “Originalfassung” which indicates that it is in the original English). Most of the music on the radio is American music. Most of the shows on television are American shows (yes, they get Jersey Shore over here. This is our cultural legacy). At times I have found this habit to be kind of pathetic, at other times amusing. Sometimes I just like to count all the New York Yankees hats. On the bright side, at least you will find some things familiar about Germany.

Being Alone

The first thing you will realize once you sign up for classes is that there aren’t a whole lot of them. You may only have classes a couple days a week for a couple hours. That’s a lot of down time. Also, unless you are truly a social butterfly, there will come times when there is nothing to do, and no one to hang out with. You should be mentally prepared for this, so that you do not go out and strangle puppies in frustration. Have some books handy, have some movies, or find something to watch on the Internet (South Park, for example, streams every episode for free in both German and English). Get a hobby. Write, or draw, or knit socks or something. Go outside and take a walk. Drown your pain in chocolate. Whatever does the trick. But again, I would urge you to look on the bright side here- character-building and all that jazz. Learning to be alone with yourself for an extended period of time can be a valuable skill, and can yield interesting results. If a few days with nothing to do seems like torture, imagine Buddhist monks who go on retreats; that’s six months without seeing another human being. Surely you can hack it for a weekend.

Traveling

I traveled around Germany for about a week with one of my friends and took away from the experience one lesson: I don’t like traveling. I also have a friend here who has been traveling more often than not and loves it. So, the feeling about travel varies from person to person. If I could impress on you one thing, it would be only to travel if you really want to. Don’t just travel because you feel like you should be traveling, or because you want to impress people back home. Planning out big trips is stressful enough. If you don’t really want to be going in the first place, you’re going to be miserable.

Traveling around is also useful for learning about your friends. I don’t think you really know someone until you know how they behave under stress. If you’re traveling long-term with a small number of people, don’t be surprised if you hate them by the end of your trip. A few weeks apart after your trip should heal any strained friendships, but keep that in mind.

I Hate Soccer

Soccer is like the second most boring sport after golf. I suppose that’s all I have against the sport itself: it’s boring. But the real reason I hate soccer is because it turns people into lunatics. During the regular season, one has to put up with drunk Germans spilling off of trams late at night, screaming and singing. They piss everywhere. It’s the sort of behavior you wouldn’t even tolerate in a dog. With the first German victory in the World Cup, it seemed like every driver on the road was just laying on his horn. The incessant honking continued late into the night. Everyone in my building was screaming and making noise. I don’t have anything constructive to say here. I just hate soccer.

Befriending Germans

I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to befriend Germans. I have made one German friend, which, as far as I know, is one more than anyone else has. Unless they’re interested in becoming tandem partners, I don’t think they’re super psyched about having German practiced on them. My friend mostly wants to practice his English, which I don’t have a problem with. What I’m getting at here is don’t expect to have a lot of German pals. You will probably have far more luck befriending other international students, who can be really interesting and friendly people. Talking to other international students is also a good way to practice your German, as many of them can’t speak much English anyway.

Being American

I am constantly disturbed by two very distinct attitudes Americans tend to adopt about themselves. The first is the attitude I most often encountered at home in the States. That is that America is the greatest nation on the planet, and anyone who denies this is a communist/terrorist/Nazi/heathen/whatever. This is absolutely silly when taking into consideration our generally crappy educational system, and healthcare system, our obesity, our über-religious wackjobs, the state of Florida, Jersey Shore, etc. Let’s just be honest; we are not quite that awesome.

The other attitude I encounter is the opposite one, and I usually see it in American students who are studying abroad. They are convinced that we are just greedy, evil, terrible people and are quick to disassociate themselves from the rest of the population. These are the types who want to be perceived as being incredibly worldly, free-spirited travelers, and talented linguists. They are quick to try and fit in with the Germans, in the hopes that they will be assimilated into some European culture, forever shedding their shameful, icky American identities. This is equally silly. Being abroad has really highlighted for me all the good qualities Americans possess, like creativity, individuality, ingenuity, flexibility, tenacity, curiosity, objectivity, and a particular gift for building logical systems as a result of having to integrate so many different immigrant populations. Try not to take your personal freedoms for granted. Germany, for example, does not support freedom of speech, and frankly, it’s a concept they don’t seem to understand.

The rest of the world seems to perceive us in this way- liking certain aspects of our culture, and disliking others. I have yet to encounter any sort of resistance or discrimination from others, and no one has professed their love for the United States. If you put yourself down and expect to be hated, then you will open yourself up to hatred. In my opinion, it’s best to simply be honest and objective about it.

Misc. Tips

Learn Celsius. Learn 24-hour time. After you arrive, seek out Internet as soon as possible. Get enough sleep. Get enough to eat every day. Expose yourself to sunlight. Decorate your room with bright colors. Wash regularly. Don’t eat too much kebab. Only pet the dog if the owner isn’t looking. Don’t get caught jaywalking. Don’t obsess over getting photos of everything. Avoid buying expensive rail passes unless you know what you’re doing. Get your student ID stamped with the semester dates so that you can take advantage of student prices at places like museums. Be open-minded. Don’t panic. Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated.
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One Response to A Guide to Being Emotionally Prepared for Quirks, Oddities and Unpleasant Things Found in Germany

  1. cclass07 says:

    bravo, mein Schatz

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