I moved to Germany right after high school. Now, after 13 years in an on-and-off relationship with this beautiful country, I have finally sat down to reflect on how it has shaped me.
I always find it hard to talk about culture without making some generalizations. I have tried to refer to my own experience and I hope don’t offend anyone with my (very subjective!) observations. Let’s dive in!
Being direct is a good thing
Germans are perceived as being cold. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. Admittedly, it might take a while for them to consider you their friend, but once it happens, it’ll be for life! This is because they take friendship seriously, so it takes some time for them to warm up to people. Another quality I adore (which can also be misinterpreted as coldness) is how refreshingly honest they are, no matter how uncomfortable the truth might be.
Me: “Hey, are you gonna come to my birthday tonight?”
My German friend: “No sorry, I’m tired.”
Whaaaat? My Argentinian friends would tell me they are sick, that their dog ate their report and now they have to stay up all night rewriting it or maybe that they have diarrhea, but NEVER tell me flat-out that they are “just” tired. With time, I have come to appreciate this honesty. If Germans show they like you, you can be certain they do, they are not being diplomatic. If they don’t, well, at least you’ll know you have to move on and make some other friends!
Since I’ve been living here, I haven’t technically become more punctual but I HAVE become more and more creative at finding excuses for being late - this public admission might play against me, though.
In terms of punctuality, Germans and German transportation are excellent compared to where I come from. I know many Germans don’t think highly of their train or bus systems and covet Swiss trains that have departure punctuality down to the second, but the fact that there are timetables for urban buses still amazes me.
“How do they manage with all the traffic being sometimes so unpredictable and all?”
The old me thought this couldn’t be achieved. I only got how they manage after one cold, dark December morning. I saw the bus and sprinted to catch it. As I was a step from it I thought I had made it, only to have the bus driver shut the door in my face and start the bus while looking at me shamelessly in the eyes with a high sense of commitment to his oh, so precious timetable.
My dress style has changed quite drastically since I moved here, probably also because of my age, but there are some differences I’d like to point out. If you are planning to wear that cross necklace your mom gave you on your last birthday, the rosary you got from your grandma, be prepared for some serious staring. Germans will find it very unusual. While in Argentina, jewelry with Christian motifs is trendy and nothing necessarily religious, in Germany, you’ll catch people’s attention. Even for religious people, it’s not common to publicly display their faith. Another excellent way to get some extra attention is by painting your nails in creative ways, the brighter the better. Although this might be changing nowadays, back in 2005 when I came here with a large box of nail polishing utensils, I discovered that my German friends were much more relaxed and not so much into their looks as my Argentinian gals. In this sense, I really enjoy the freedom that I feel in the liberal and open-minded Berlin, where I can paint my nails in rainbow colors or stop shaving my legs without being judged. Even though there is still a lot to fight for, Germany is pretty far ahead when it comes to feminism. My experience here as a woman, however subjective and privileged, has been one of great freedom and high sense of safety.
After years of living here, I have developed a voice inside my head that keeps telling me that “this is wasting my time”. More than 4 people in front of me at the check-out counter or a 2 minute delay on the tram make me have serious doubts about the future of humanity altogether. This is because 95% of the time, there are no lines or long waiting times and the transport is so punctual (remember that bus driver!). The cashiers at Aldi and Lidl are so fast, you’ll get an adrenaline rush every time you have to pack your things while juggling your change back into your pocket. After 13 years here, shopping for groceries is still a slightly stressful experience. By the time you have packed your things, the cheese and eggs belonging to the next customer are already physically pushing you away from the till. Where I’m from, the cashiers will sometimes chat and laugh with their coworkers while they proudly, sometimes even rudely, ask you to wait. Some other times, the line might move at a snail’s pace because they’re typing in a 35-digit barcode with one finger because the scanner didn’t recognize a box of cereal.
Since moving here, I have noticed myself finding new ways to optimize my time and be more productive. Germans don’t work very long hours and they are pretty far up in the list of public holidays and vacation days. According to OECD rankings, Germany is in position 38 with 1,288 hours worked per worker per year, that’s only a little over half of what people in the US and China work, with 2,428 and 2,392 hours respectively (statistics from 2006).
And yet Germans seem to get a lot done. So now that I have this obsession with productivity, I listen to the news while I work out, I reply to emails during my 15min commute and clean the house while catching up with my mom on the phone. This is still amateurish compared to some of my German friends, though. Allow me to quote some ideas I have heard from them lately: “I want to buy a second dishwasher, one for clean, the other for dirty dishes, so I don’t waste time putting plates back in the cabinets” or “I love watching trailers. Let’s face it, it’s a much more efficient way to watch a movie”.
Mastering cold water
After having survived brain-freezing a couple of times, I don’t fear cold water anymore! In summer, Germans love going to a lake. And what do you do at the lake? Get a nice tan? No! You swim, it doesn’t matter if the water is too cold! Germany has an outstanding Olympic swimming tradition, and you can really see why. Speaking of great traditions that you can do next to the lakes, here’s another one: barbecueing!
Back home, barbecues were serious business for dads with lots of fire and chorizo experience. Germans grill little sausages, cheese, vegetables, and even tomatoes! As an Argentinian, this lack of ceremony and the apparent disrespect towards beef bothered me a little at first, but I’ve grown to love how Germans pack their little “grill” and arrange a vegan grillparty with friends without making such a big preparation fuss.
Oh Sonne mio!
My parents just moved to this new house in Brazil, where the sun shines all year long and my mom goes: “We need to buy thick, blackout curtains for the living room. Otherwise, the sun is going to damage the furniture”. I guess she is right, but the Germanized version of me rejects the idea of wasting the sun. Why would you do such a thing?
One of the most fabulous things about the long dark winter is the summer. It’s only after craving the sun and its warmth for months that you really get to appreciate its beauty. It’s only when you know that in a couple of months the summer will be over, that you seize the day and never stay at home!
There are so many things you can do in Germany in the summer, so many incredible events like the “Karneval der Kulturen” around June in Berlin or fantastic wine festivals in the south and southwest. When the sun finally comes out and the days grow longer, you wonder where all those people that suddenly fill the streets came from as you remember those lonely winter mornings when it was just you and two others on the subway and you started asking yourself if you’d mixed up the days and you were going to work on a Sunday. Seriously, where do all those people hide during winter? Do they just leave their homes in the summer and get everything delivered to them in winter? Come in winter if you want to appreciate the beauty of summer and feel like you’ve earned it.
If you’re thinking about moving to Germany for a while, be sure to take full advantage of the opportunity to be pushed to learn German that this represents. Besides being a fascinating language, it opens a lot of doors both in Germany and abroad! For benefits such as free university education, access to jobs commanding higher salaries, or simply to be able to understand a wealth of language related memes and the culture that the German language comes with, it’s worth the effort. I did it, and I’m happy I did. I wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t come to this country. I miss some things about my country, but, although it changed my Latina habits, coming here was the best decision of my life.