How Germany has changed me
Although the chasm between American and German culture is not as wide as, say, the chasm between American and Chinese culture, there are still many areas where it's clear that Germans just operate a little differently from us Americans. And, inevitably, after spending so much time in Germany, some of my habits have begun to change to mirror the German way of life, for better or worse. Here are a just a few of the ways that living in Germany has changed me.
1) The thrill of using coins
As I've written about before, using coins as part of everyday exchanges is far more common in Europe since there are more coin denominations and they have higher values (for heaven's sake, you can buy a beer with a 2 Euro coin!). That has taken some getting used to, although now it's fairly normalized for me. But, taking it one step further, many Germans make a strong effort to provide exact change whenever possible, or at the least to provide enough change to only get a bill back, rather than a bill plus change (i.e., if you need to pay 5.20, you will give the cashier a 10-euro note plus 20 cents so that you only get a 5-euro note back). Often, cashiers (especially at smaller places like bakeries) will even ask you if you have some smaller coins on you to make it easier for them to give you your change back -- if the total is 3.02 and you pay with a 5 Euro note, it's common to receive a response of "Haben Sie vielleicht 2 Cent?" so they can avoid giving you 98 cents in change.
At first, I found paying with coins to be an immensely stressful experience given that I had a hard time distinguishing between 1- and 2-cent coins or 10- and 20-cent coins, and I felt stupid standing at the counter fumbling through my change. But now that I've become more comfortable with Euro coins, the prospect of getting rid of a bunch of my change on a transaction at the grocery store is downright thrilling. I love being able to tell the cashier "Warte, ich habe bestimmt noch 12 Cent..." and proudly rid myself of these pesky coins that had been weighing down my wallet.
Unfortunately, this habit has followed me back to the U.S. I say unfortunately because, as most Americans already know, we absolutely loathe change and will do anything in our power to avoid using it. Moreover, anyone who does try to pay with exact change in the grocery store checkout line will be subjected to death by a thousand glares from everyone around that person, including the cashier. The other problem is that tax is usually not automatically included in prices in the U.S., so you have to wait until your purchase has been rung up to begin sifting through your change, whereas prices in Germany always already include tax.
This was an issue for me the last time I was in the U.S. I had forgotten this fact at a fast food restaurant and had proudly calculated my total before approaching the cash register, clutching the exact number of coins needed to pay for my meal. I began to hand over my fistful of coins, only to splutter when the price the cashier rattled off was different from what I had calculated. I stared at him stupidly, until I realized my mistake of forgetting to factor taxes in. Thanks a lot, Germany.
2) Grocery shopping, German style
Overall, grocery stores in Germany are not wildly different from the U.S. But, my shopping habits have definitely changed from how I used to shop in America. I never go shopping without bringing a backpack or reusable shopping bag with me. This is the default shopping mode in Germany, because you always have to pay extra for the store's bags, which is wasteful in multiple ways. Additionally, I tend to buy in much smaller quantities here in Germany and thus often make multiple trips to the grocery store in a given week.
There are two reasons for this. First, since I (like many Germans in larger cities) rely on public transportation to get around, everything I buy I have to be able to lug back home myself. Thus, the more I buy, the heavier my bags will be, and the unhappier I will be standing on a packed Strassenbahn trying to get home. Second, you always have to bag your own groceries in Germany. The fact that that we actually have people at grocery stores in the U.S. whose job it is to bag people's groceries strikes many Germans as extremely odd and unnecessary, and it even makes them uncomfortable when they experience it in the U.S. So if I buy more stuff, that means I have to work harder to get everything packed away and clear the checkout area so the other customers can move in and take care of their own shopping. Given these two factors, I buy fewer groceries at once in Germany and instead end up making more shopping trips in a given week.
I've definitely taken these shopping habits back with me to the U.S. I feel terribly guilty when I don't bring my own bags to the store, and I feel stupidly helpless when I watch someone bag my groceries knowing that I was just as capable of doing that myself. Germany has made me a much more independent grocery shopper, and the customer service that abounds in American grocery stores can be a bit overwhelming for me now.
3) No clothes, no problems
American society is extremely prudish. Nudity is almost never shown on television (and those channels that can show it seem to relish it a bit too much at times -- see HBO's Game of Thrones), and for many adults, exposing a child to depictions of sex or nudity seems to be far worse than exposing them to depictions of violence, much to European's confusion.
But for most of Germany, the idea of nudity is a complete non-issue. Although full-frontal male nudity is still not nearly as common as depictions of female nudity, it's not at all out of the ordinary to see naked people on the television, in newspapers or magazines, or on billboards. At home, many Germans are similarly unconcerned with the idea of being naked in front of their family members, including children; anecdotally, in my experience young Germans living together in shared apartments also often have very relaxed attitudes toward seeing each other in various stages of undress in the apartment. Additionally, Germany has long had a vibrant nudist culture, known as Freikörperkultur or FKK for short. Although FKK activities are not as popular among German youths today, it's still not unheard of to see a local pool hosting an FKK swimming night, or to see naked sunbathers in large German parks in the summer (something Munich's Englischer Garten is well known for in summer, for example).
One beloved German activity that I have come to appreciate is going to the sauna -- sitting in steam rooms or swimming in heated pools full of salt water or resting your feet in a basin of hot water. It's something many Germans do with family and friends -- and it's something you always do naked. In fact, most saunas have rules against wearing any kind of clothing into the saunas, viewing it as unhygienic. I suppose if you were feeling shy, you could at least keep your towel wrapped around you... but you'd be the only person doing this.
The first time I went to a German sauna, I was very nervous and self-conscious. As an American, it was stressful enough for me to be briefly naked in swimming pool changing rooms. The thought of walking around a bunch of strangers completely naked or laying around a sauna room was more than a little stressful. But, I told myself it was a good cultural experience, and really, what was so scary about it? Did I really think people would point and laugh, or that people would really pay me any more mind than they were to the dozens of other naked people around them?
And of course, no one paid me any mind. There was nothing special or distinct about me. I was just another body, neither something to be ashamed of nor something to be in awe of. And in the end, I found my first sauna experience to be frankly quite liberating and comforting, to be able to walk around without clothes and without any fear of judgment or censure. In the U.S., we treat nakedness as something to be feared or ashamed of, something that can never been taken out of a sexual context. Indeed, I'm sure some of my American friends will read this post and think I'm totally weird for even talking about my experiences of being naked here.
But in Germany, families go the sauna together, giving their children a chance to see the spectrum of human forms and, hopefully, to realize how natural and normal this variation is and that nudity is not inherently sexual. Sure, it can be a little awkward when people start making small talk in the sauna room, and you suddenly realize you're chatting with someone old enough to be your father, but ultimately I think Germans have a much healthier and more positive attitude toward nudity than Americans do, and I will happily say that this is a mindset I have adapted and embraced.
4) A lack of fear
My normal route back to my apartment from the inner city is to take a Strassenbahn to a stop across the street from my apartment building. To get from the stop to my building, I cut through a parking lot and then a small park until I reach the street. From there, I dart across a few lanes of traffic and arrive at my front door.
When I first started taking this route, I was a little wary of cutting through the park. After dark, it's very poorly lit. Although my walk through it is brief (three minutes, tops), in theory it could be a good place for someone to try and mug people late at night or attempt other criminal activity. This was an observation I made the very first time I took this shortcut, and I asked my roommate about it. Is it safe to walk through the park at night, I asked. Has anything ever happened to you?
He seemed both amused and confused by the question -- amused that I would think this area to be so unsafe, and confused that I would even need to ask. Granted, he is much bigger than me so he certainly experiences walks like this in a different way, but the answer was still clear -- yes, it's a perfectly safe route to take, and no, he has never heard of anyone being approached or otherwise running into trouble in this area.
Germany is certainly not a crime-free bastion of peacefulness, but it's undeniable that it is far safer than many parts of the U.S., particularly the places that I have lived in (i.e. Milwaukee). In particular, it's an undeniable fact that we have a massive problem with guns in the U.S. that is nearly nonexistent in Germany. I have almost never felt unsafe here, and the few times that has happened it was something that could have happened anywhere (e.g. being yelled at by a mentally ill person). I have absolutely no fear of someone threatening me with a gun here in Germany, something I sadly cannot say of the U.S.
I don't want to act as though I spend my time in the U.S. constantly looking over my shoulder fearfully, because that's absolutely not true. There have also been fairly few situations where I can say I genuinely felt threatened while back in the states, and I am fortunate to have never been the victim of a crime. Still, I know there are places I am supposed to avoid, and I feel a responsibility not to make "dumb" choices, like cutting through a dark park alone at night, because then whatever harm befalls me would be perceived as my fault. In Germany, I find I have to make those calculations far, far less often. Nobody would think I'm stupid for taking the route I do to get home, and if something were to happen, people would likely be shocked and horrified at how out-of-character it seems -- rather than telling me I should have known better.
And so, I have become a much more trusting person in Germany. Not to a point where I feel I am putting myself in a position to be taken advantage of or worse, but to a point that if I am walking home at 2 a.m., I am not completely on edge and constantly surveying my surroundings.
5) Finally, yes, I do usually wait for the light to turn green before I cross the street.
It doesn't matter if you live in Fulda or Berlin, Germans just don't like to cross the street before they're supposed to. As they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so you'll find me waiting patiently at street corners with the other Germans, rolling an eye at the impatient tourists darting out into traffic within sight of impressionable young children's eyes. They ought to be ashamed of themselves!