In last week’s post, I took you back to my first days in Germany. Today, we expand to talk about life and culture, and the nuances other travel sources will not tell you. It is a closer look at the country and a helpful guide to get acclimated.
Besides the gorgeous architecture and magnificent castles, visitors come to Germany and think it’s only about beer, sausages, Oktoberfest and Christmas markets. However, after 5 years of living here, I have learned that while having a deeply-rooted history, this country has many beautiful traditions and hidden corners to discover.
Almost all medium to large cities have an Altstadt (old city), which is the medieval part of the original town that is sometimes divided by ancient fort walls. It is almost always the most picturesque part of the city and cars are usually prohibited. The cobblestone streets are filled with trams, bustling crowds, German gothic and Renaissance (along with many other style) buildings and a unique blend of the old and new.
Although it may seem every Altstadt is somewhat similar, it is worth checking out because there are always hidden gems in every city to discover. Erfurt’s hidden treasure is officially the Old Jewish Synagogue (Europe’s oldest and full intact synagogue), but this city of 200,000 people is also Martin Luther’s spiritual home. Yes, the man who sparked the Reformation. He earned his Masters in philosophy at the university and was ordained as a priest at the famous Erfurt Cathedral. In the middle of the town, there is a huge statue that honors him.
For local transportation, there are street trams, subways and buses. Contrary to my (and probably your) perspective of public transportation in the U.S., it is usually clean, orderly and quick. There is no urine smell or crazy people trying to fight you. The trains drop you off right in front of your favorite café or store and are very reasonable.
Contrary to my preconceived views of the landscape before I arrived, Germany has a breathtaking countryside and since the cities are a bit spread out (except for the western region by Essen, Düsseldorf and Dortmund), you get plenty of time to take in the sights. I always love traveling to far away places in different seasons with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany train system). Sometimes there is a complete whiteout of snow and other times it is green and lush, and you can see the vibrant purple color of the lavender or yellow of the mustard growing in the distance. You can get lost in your thoughts gazing out the window at the rolling hills.
Traveling to and from large cities by car is fairly easy with the Autobahn (freeway) and is a-freakin’-mazing when you can blast some Drake or Katy Perry while driving 200 kmh (120mph)! Make sure to go over the laws of the road before you start the engine. Occasionally you see, and thankfully hear, a Lamborghini or Ferrari actually racing along at over 300 kmh (186 mph)!
Germany has amazing cities, all with different personalities, but my favorite is Berlin. It is an international city with plethora of languages being spoken on every corner. There is diversity of ethnicities and there are always events for everyone taking place throughout the city. Berlin is the second most populated city in the European Union with 3.5 million inhabitants. Luckily, you can use the tram system, like Paris, to travel pretty much anywhere. It has also a ton of natural, organic and vegan cafés and restaurants. My go-to places are Apple Food in the in the botanical garden and Not Seidel Cafe. It just represents the open, positive, forward-thinking vibe of this thriving urban city.
You can also visit parts of the Berlin Wall at various points in the city or the 1-mile-long East Side Gallery. It is beautiful to see the artwork on such a historically meaningful part of the city.
The ultimate experience is visiting the 8 Christmas markets spread throughout the city. I have been to and been tipsy at all of them, but Charlottenburg is my favorite, followed by Alexanderplatz and the Gendarmenmarkt. Have some Glühwein, grab a potato pancake and walk to all of them!
In the pictures, below, you can see:
– Berlin Cathedral on the Spree River
– Funny cafe name with a double meaning name (don’t think the owners thought that one through)
– Brandenburg Gate
– Berlin TV Tower (BTV)
– Dinner in the BTV
– View of the streets from the BTV
– Sunset view from the BTV
– View looking up to the BTV on a foggy December night
– Proud moment by the U.S. Embassy
– Victory Column
– Jewish Memorial
– Sony Center Christmas Light Show at Potsdamer Platz
– Giraffe Made of Legos Outside the Sony Center (it’s hard to find things bigger than my 6′ 4″ boyfriend)
– Berlin sign on the Kurfürstendamm (also where my family had the biggest department store in Berlin back in the day)
Moving on to some fun stuff! Drinking is a huge part of the German culture and tradition. I mean, Germany only makes some of the best beer in the world! The rumors (and the movie Beerfest) is true – Germans can drink! Chuggin’ down an Erdinger Weizen, a Beck’s Pilsner or a Gaffel Kölsch (Cologne) to the tunes of Schlager music is almost considered to be a religion. Some people go to beer houses more than they actually going to church!
What is schlager music do you ask? I explain it in my Oktoberfest blog, but Schlager music is actually older than American rock music. It gained more popularity, however, after World War 2, when Europeans began opposing our culture-changing music. The video below shows a popular artist – Mickie Krause – of this folk genre. I must admit, Schlager music is not on my iPhone playlist, but I’m the first to jump up and down while enjoying a tall beer at city festivals. At these festivals, there is an abundant, almost overwhelming, smell of pretzels and fried foods of goodness. Drunk people can be spotted having the time of their lives singing along to the music and stumbling over their feet. These are things you just can’t miss!
Working and People
Now that we’ve discussed the surface a bit, let’s talk about daily life – the most influential part of your entire living experience in Germany. The following statements and reiterations are purely observation and based on my 5-year experience. I do not speak for all expats, nor do I want to put labels or stereotypes on the people living here. There are good and bad, ethical and immoral and hard working and lazy ones in every country.
At home and here people let me know negative obstacles or outcomes I might face when chasing my goals, instead of staying positive and finding solutions. People told me I could not be involved in business because I am a woman, I am too small to be a professional soccer player, I could not earn my MBA from the U.S. while living here and that I would never be fully accepted because I am American. While the last may be true out of ignorance, the narrow-minded opinions of others never fazed me.
I also want to point out most, if not all, of my social circle is comprised of people in the soccer community. My teammates (including those on my boyfriend’s teams) are some of the funniest, nicest, caring, positive and wonderful people I have met. If you are reading this hoping for a career here in Germany, your teammates will probably be your best friends forever and might not represent the local demographic I am about to discuss.
I had an interview last night for a study on professional athletes abroad. I never thought about how contrasting the people here are compared to Californians until we actually discussed it. In the states, things are high-paced and people are super busy, but when there is down time, I feel we really indulge, relax and enjoy late-night dinners at Café Gratitude or weekend trips to Cambria. I can speak for California that we are positive, laid-back and creative, but have an extremely productive culture. Here, things are done more according to guidelines and people do not veer too far away from the pack.
Germany is known for it’s scientists, mathematicians and inventors and, more recently, being the strongest wind energy powerhouse in Europe. This country is and was full of scientific and technological advances; however, there is a definitive line between people who are creators and those who are users. Creators are more openminded, full of ideas, more positive and willing to push the boundaries to achieve something greater. Many other are users and roll with the current. They do not question inefficient processes or customs that have been done for years and seem to actually go against improving to modern conveniences.
Everyone is a bit blunt and stern because everyone else that way – the circle never ends. It’s almost like some kids grow up with a sausage in one hand, a beer in the other and a sailor’s mouth that can cuss you out after being 4 years old. However harsh the personalities of some may be, this cultural aspect has taught me to express my inner introvert and to stand up for myself.
This leads to another difference – the older crowd loves to constantly point out mistakes you make and tell you how to run your life – and I’m talking about complete strangers. They are rude and downright mean, but, like the German saying goes, they simply live with their “elbows out.”
Get it? Neither did I, until I realized that having your “elbows out” basically means defending yourself (even with serious sarcasm) and having a strong backbone. Think along the lines of the ”Throw ‘Dem Bows” song by Ludacris. Sarcasm is not light here. People enjoy insulting you, only to promise it was only a joke after they see you getting agitated. Just “Woosah” like Martin Lawrence and relax.
I wanted to keep this section light, shorter and not too crazy, but it is just too funny and absurd here sometimes. I remember I was in the grocery store and I gave the man in front of me 2 feet of space for privacy during his payment. Part of grocery store etiquette, right? I started pondering about why the poster on the wall in front of me with a baby holding a sausage had the saying “only the best meat for your baby.” This could be an entirely other article, but I’ll leave it for now.
I was dazing away when I felt a good shove on my behind with a shopping cart. I figured it was some old person who accidentally pushed his cart. No problem – no biggie. Then, about 20 seconds later I felt the same thing. I looked back and gave him a glare with my eyebrow, which I guess did not do very much because it happened a third time! After 3 years in Germany, my language skills were good enough to let people know not to mess with me.
I proceeded to say “Können Sie bitte aufpassen? Dass war das dritte Mal!” (Can you please watch out? That was the third time!). Then, to my utter amazement and his rudeness, he sternly and a bit loudly said, “Well, you can move up a few meters then!” This behavior is totally not a shocker considering people bolt to the newly opened cashier lines irrespective of those who have been already waiting in line. I sarcastically commented, “Wo soll ich hingehen? Hinter sein Arsch?” (Where should I go? Behind his ass?). He replied, “Young people have no respect.”
“The best way out is always through.” Robert Frost
Reflecting back on my time here, I’ve grown not only as a soccer player, but especially as a person. Traveling on trains to new cities gave me freedom, trying to make people laugh in another language gave me confidence and finding my own balance in life as an independent woman gave me strength and courage. I’ve learned to fight for what you want – regardless of how crazy your dreams may seem. I have learned to stick to your guns and follow your morals, irrespective of how many fish are swimming in the other direction.
A lot of things have gone right the past 5 years, but a few have not. I do not think I would be the person who I wanted to become if I did not go through the uncomfortable, positive, bad and crazy experiences here in Europe. The more I was out of comfort zone, the more I learned about my strengths, weaknesses, passions and dislikes. That is truly the best way to test your character, personality and guts!
When you arrive, stay open to new experiences, people, culture and cuisine. It will be a whirlwind and will take you to places you have figuratively and literally have never been before. Enjoy it, cherish it and learn from it.
Stay tuned for Germany (Part 3) – When in Germany, a reference list for surviving your first 30 days! What were your experiences in other countries? Anything out of this world?