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We relocated as a family to Germany in June 2005. We chose a Wohnung (apartment) in a Dorf (village) close to Frankfurt as our home. Our second child was on her way and I was visibly pregnant. The initial months of settling down and adjusting to Deutschland were remarkable in many ways. There were moments of bewilderment and discomfort that tested our ability to adjust to a new environment. And then there were moments of surprise, gratitude and celebrations that rewarded our efforts. Moments, which in an Expat’s parlance would be culture shock. But really, they were all just memorable moments. Below is a compilation of some such distinct instances in our first year in Germany.
They don’t speak English but listen to English music
Whether it was a waiter at the local pizzeria, a cashier at the supermarket or a taxi driver, the reaction to spoken English words was usually a brisk sideways movement of the head, from left to right and right to left, followed by a brief ‘kein English’. But surprisingly they listened to English music in the supermarkets, in the hair salons, at the cafes and in the taxis. The local radio channels played English music interspersed with the radio jockey’s wise cracks and headlines in German. The kiosks in the neighborhood didn’t stock a single English language newspaper or magazine but they blared top songs from the billboard charts, all day long. For a country so deeply entrenched in its native language, I was puzzled why they didn’t let home grown music dominate mass media.
Don’t just take your garbage out but sort it too
Like kindergarten kids who do colour sorting, stacking and matching activities, we sort, grade, group and match everyday garbage with their coloured destination bins. The yellow, blue, black and brown Mülltonnen (dustbins) that stand outside every home is a testimony to the sorting that is stipulated. Blue for paper, yellow for non- paper products packaging, black for residual waste and brown for foodwaste. It doesn’t stop with these four colour bins, it goes much further. Plastic bottles with the recycle symbol go back to the supermarket, glass bottles and containers are again colour sorted in bins that are placed in the neighborhood.
When you are done with these you have batteries (in a box next to the recycle machine at the supermarket), old clothes and shoes to tackle separately. Then you have a special pick-up-from-doorstep appointment for items that don’t fall in any of these categories. The truck that collects electronic items is different from the one that picks up old furniture. I remember standing in front of four large dustbins placed outside our apartment block (terribly missing my household helper in India and Singapore, who would regularly take our trash out twice daily) and applying the detailed and lengthy instructions the Hausmeister (Janitor) had shared with me in his telegraphic English. I had many tense moments, even flipping coins to decide if an envelope with a thin sheet of plastic film in the address section should go into the yellow or the blue bin (apparently the paper had to be separated from the plastic and put in two separate bins – who knew?!). After a few months I was ready to update my newly acquired skill – Mülltrennung (garbage sorting) in my life’s resume.
Your Gynae doesn’t deliver your baby
The gynaecologist who sees you safely through the nine months of pregnancy is apparently not the doctor who would be present when you are in labour! This was hard for me to comprehend especially since there was so much emphasis on doc-patient rapport in the culture I came from. There is such a seamless system of information sharing between the Artzt Praxis (Doc’s Practice) and the Krankenhaus (hospital), I was told, that there was nothing to worry about it. I don’t doubt the competence of the doctors but the thought of being handled by a stranger while battling acute labour pain didn’t have a calming effect on me. This country makes a distinction between doctors who have a Practice (Praxis) and those who work in hospitals. Expecting mums just have to to deal with it.
Children are not to be seen or heard after 8 p.m
In some cultures it is okay for kids to be seen but not heard after dinner time. Where I originally come from, it is alright for children to be seen, heard and even throw a tantrum in the middle of the night. However in Germany, parents who take their young kids out in the evening after 8 p.m are given the ‘are you a lunatic?’ look. If you are seen lugging a child or pushing a stroller late in the evening, you are an irresponsible parent. Nothing else. Period. Who else but the imprudent would not give their kids a comfortable bed to rest at bedtime? The verdict is pretty clear: if you don’t have anyone at home to watch the kids or can’t arrange a babysitter, then don’t come out.
By citizen policing I don’t mean that everyone dons a uniform, carries a baton and walks around looking to handcuff criminals, felons and wrongdoers. I mean a general attitude drilled into the citizens from their toddler days – an attitude and approach to be responsible for the safety and cleanliness of their immediate environment, wherever they might be. Whether it is a loud party in the neighborhood, a misuse of public property or reckless driving that could threaten human lives and cars (cars, especially!), the locals stop, take the time to tell off non-adherents or even call the Ordungsamt (local enforcement agency) to report wrong doers and non-conformists. I suspect every citizen has the Ordungsamt on their speed dial list! This is one aspect of Germany that I have come to respect and love. I wish citizens of India would don that attitude – to spot, spotlight and reprimand small-time lawbreakers who are insensitive and cause a public nuisance – instead of brushing it aside with a ‘not my business’ approach.
Which type of water, please?
In Asia (I speak for India and Singapore), at restaurants, we order water or a drink plus water alongside food. In Germany, the waiter or waitress subjects you to a four part quiz before you make your way to ordering food. What would you like to drink? In addition to bottled water, locals also drink something called Tafelwasser, which is typically water mixed with some minerals or herbs or some salts to subdue thirst. So once you make a choice and say bottled water, then comes the next level of customization: what type of water? (still or carbonated). How much water? (500 ml or a liter)…How many glasses? The waiters assume nothing. I mean, if we as a family of four are ordering a one litre bottle of water, a waiter in Asia would assume that four glasses are to be brought along with it. However, here in Germany, the thoroughness in information gathering and the multitude of personal choices is evident when dining out.
Fill in your own bags at the supermarket – at a rapid speed that too
Speak of German automation and people tend to think of automated control systems and processes used in industries. I say, go to a supermarket in the peak hours and observe the cashiers and shoppers check-out items in the shopping basket. The cashier swipes the bar codes of every item at a breakneck speed,often piling scanned items into a huge mountain on the other side of the cashier belt. The shoppers are no less skilled. In turn they pack every item from the mountain of scanned items into their shopping basket at a speed that is best described as ‘streamlined’ and ‘robotic’. Scanning the bar codes of items andpushing them to the other end of the belt was even okay, but the part played by the shoppers, who not just cleared the cashier belt of their bought items, but also sort them per size, weight and product type into their take home baskets or supermarket trolleys, was incredible. In Asia, in most cases we have a checkout assistant who would pack the scanned items into carry-home bags, while the shopper pays the cashier. In the absence of such a designated person, the cashier helps you to a fair extent. But no such support in Germany. They rely on pre-programmed automation at the human level to avoid Stau (jam) and ensure efficiency at the supermarkets. This common everyday situation was for me an evident example of German automation! Exceptions in speed are made only for senior citizens.
‘We should arrange a playdate for our children’ said the polite German mum at the bilingual kindergarten where we had enrolled our daughter. ‘Sure, maybe we could even….’, I said, thinking of a way to arrange a playtime, like we did in India or Singapore – immediate, spontaneous afternoon playtimes for young kids. But the mother swiftly pulled out a small palm sized note book, placed her reading glasses on the bridge of her nose and started flipping her notebook’s pages. ‘would Thursdays be good for you?’. I agreed. Then after some more page flipping and scrutinizing she suggested a date and time that was almost 4 weeks away. I was aghast. I looked down at the two 5 years olds eagerly looking up at their mothers so they could frolic together after school and this mum suggests a time, one month away! I mean, does playtime, which is so important for young kids, have to be so far sighted and far planned? My first reaction was a cynical smile and raised eyebrows. I was tempted to tell her that I was not even sure I’d be alive that far into the future. But apparently, that is the way of life here. Everything is calendar planned and controlled. You might be in a mood for a walk in the park on a good weather day, but the plan you laid out to have little Clara come home to play with your child and her barbie doll house takes priority over impulse leisure activities.
Nudity is a common thing
A tall young chappie at the fancy neighborhood gym took me around the mammoth fitness studio, as a sort of a welcome tour arranged for new members to get familiar with the state-of-the-art fitness facilities. We meandered through neatly laid out cardio machines, weight trainers and water dispensers interspersed with colour coordinated coffee tables and lounge chairs. Then came the colossal swimming pool and a small swanky spa next to it. The friendly English speaking chappie prefixed every feature of the gym with common adjectives like beautiful, huge, big, attractive and continued to walk me around at an unhurried pace. He flung open a giant door and then lauded the four themed saunas they had in house. ‘Finnish….Aroma …and…’, he opened a wooden door in front of us. A group of German men and women of different ages (and sizes!) dripping with sweat looked up at me. The chappie waved his hands at them as if to say hello and they all looked at him and waved back at me – looking exhausted in the heat of the sauna, but polite nevertheless. They didn’t say a word or bat an eyelid about being interrupted by a fully clothed Indian woman who was obviously stunned and amused at the same time. The collective hand waving of a group of uncovered, bare-it-all Germans was a sight and impression that I will carry to the grave. This moment of culture shock, above all others, was simply the most natural and unpretentious moment. In the following months we were treated to sights such as 5 year old Max running around naked in the garden and climbing trees like Tarzan, while we parents sat around coffee and cake. We saw men and women walking comfortably sans-attire in the swim baths and changing rooms. We had read a lot about German attitude to nudity, but it was mindboggling to see how comfortable they were about it.
‘Ach, so’ is an utterance, we heard everywhere. Be it people talking to each other in the neighbourhood, the snappy lady taking orders at the bakery, the farmer who brought organic food to the doorstep or the paediatrician vaccinating our daughter. They uttered this phrase in different ways. Sometimes, ‘Aaaaaaaah zo’. Sometimes, ‘Ah Zzo’. Sometimes, ‘Achhhhh zo’ and so on. I was intrigued. I even assumed that the locals peppered their conversations with foul words. Maybe it was a casual way of chit-chatting…
or some strange way of life that I was yet to embrace. I didn’t know then. Later, this puzzle was solved by our German tutor. That was a ‘ha-ha’ moment. And oh, now I see it. It has been a decade since we moved to Deutshcland. We were very apprehensive at first, but looking back we have lived well and met loads of nice people. We have travelled every corner of Europe using Germany as our base. We have made friends for life, neighbours who lend us a helping hand, co-workers who have cheered us on and many more everyday people who have, amused us and tested us, too. But overall we have had a memorable and comfortable stay so far. No matter where the future takes us, we will always continue to cheer this country and its people with all our hearts.Guest Author is Uma Muthuraaman.