It’s been four months since we arrived in Munich, and while we haven’t really gotten to know many Germans well, we’ve gotten to know a few things about Germans — the good, the bad and the puzzling.
Beth was delighted to find that, while there are more bureaucratic rules in Germany – you have to register your address, for example — there are actually fewer restrictions on personal behavior. For example, you can swim anywhere you want in any lake, without a lifeguard yelling at you to stay within the swimming buoys — and there are three lakes just a 25-minute bike ride from our apartment.
People who own dogs don’t have to put them on a leash, and they generally don’t if the dog is well-behaved.
At festivals, people who want a beer don’t have to stay penned into a beer-drinking area, and they don’t have to drink out of plastic for fear they’ll drop a glass. Germans always drink their beer out of glasses, and they walk anywhere they want with them. (They pay a deposit on the glass, which they get back when they return it.)
How does all this personal liberty work? Germans police each other — if you infringe on other people, they will yell at you: If your dog lunges at another dog, if you jaywalk while a child is present, if you step into a bicycle lane without looking or if you are driving a car and fail to yield to a bicyclist.
Luckily, Germans generally take criticism graciously. On a train to Schliersee for a hike in the mountains (photos below), Torsten asked a group of rowdy men in their 20s to turn down their music — which they did, and then they complimented his T-shirt.
We’ve made one major transgression, letting the smoke from our grill waft into the balcony of our upstairs neighbor. And boy, did she let us know about it!
Munich is a densely packed city. You have to be considerate of your neighbors.
Germans aren’t perfect, though. After nearly 20 years away, Torsten had idealized them: Unlike Americans, Germans never look at their cell phones while driving, they know how to park, they’re excellent drivers . . . yes, most of them, but not all. His bubble really burst when he saw a German driver texting! (Who knows, maybe it was an American.)
There’s a lot we love about the culture. Germans don’t refrigerate their buildings in summer — very few have air-conditioning anyway — so you don’t have to tote a sweater everywhere you go. At festivals, they don’t mark up the food and beer to whatever the market will bear.
There’s no toxic cultural divide, as there is in the United States, and no distinction between classes (that we have noticed, anyway). Everyone rides bikes, no matter how much money they have, simply because that’s more convenient than driving a car (or more specifically, parking a car).
Everyone cares about the environment, no matter what their political affiliation is (all buses bear a large “Climate Protector” sign).
Everyone loves nature, and no one is labeled a “tree-hugger” because of it.
And there’s no blue-collar vs. white-collar culture. We finally got the furniture we ordered, and the delivery guy had a canoe strapped to the top of his van. Why? He was about to go on vacation in Norway, where he planned to paddle, mountain bike and hike.
We were fascinated. It would be rare in the United States for a delivery guy to be doing those so-called liberal-elite things (if he even had paid vacation time).
There’s a national election here in September, but the only way you can tell is by photos of candidates on street corners. There are no TV ads yet (they’re allowed only in the month before the election, in limited numbers), no condemnations of other parties, just picnics hosted by the politicians — come and meet us in person!
Of course, there are a few things we don’t like about Germany. We already knew that Germany has no drinking fountains and very few public toilets — and when they do, you often have to pay to use them.
We can live with that. Our biggest beef? Smoking. Germany is a hyper-health-conscious country that has banned GMO food and many preservatives and pesticides still commonly used in the United States, and people frown on any kind of chemical — the garden center wouldn’t even sell Beth weed killer and gave her a lecture about it.
And yet 21 percent of people still smoke, as opposed to 13 percent in the United States, despite high taxes and large “Smoking is deadly” notices plastered on cigarette packages and ads. Many young people smoke — that’s especially hard for us to understand.
And lots of Germans don’t wear bicycle helmets, which we also think is crazy.
The only other big difference is kind of amusing: Germans have no qualms about being naked. On Beth’s birthday, we went to Feldmochinger Lake, and since she could swim anywhere, she swam down the shore, planning to get out on the opposite end and walk back on the bike path.
Which she did … except the spot where she climbed out was in the middle of the area for FKK, or “free body culture” … otherwise known as the nudist beach. There were maybe 100 naked people of all ages, but in her swimming suit, she was the one who stuck out. It’s also not uncommon for people to unself-consciously change into their swimsuits in public, and while riding our bikes along the Isar River last weekend, we saw a naked guy in a raft with his two children — they were probably naked, too.
Other than that, Germans are a lot like the people Beth grew up with in Iowa and both she and Torsten knew in Minnesota — which is to say, German-Americans. In fact, Beth was more aware of being in a foreign country in New Zealand, where people look noticeably English or Scottish, than she is in Germany, where so many people look exactly like the people with whom she grew up.
Perhaps we’ve both come home?
Photos above: Toting flowers home from the garden center past sunflower fields; my German class, with Claudia taking the photo and our teacher, Jelena, over her shoulder; a craft-beer festival at Giesinger Brauerei; watching rafters float by our picnic spot during a bike ride along the Isar River.