Our recent month-long trip to Germany and the upcoming World Cup U.S.-German soccer game gave me the idea of comparing a few notes, things I chuckle about every time we visit the old country. There are the obvious differences like brats versus burgers. But that’s not what I’m talking about though the sheer number of bratwurst choices, we counted 47 varieties at the grocery store, is mind-boggling.
Before I delve into some of the weird disparities of these two countries—after all I’m an expert, having lived in both for more than 25 years—I’d like to point out that what I’m about to share is based on generalities. No offense to my friends and readers on either side of the Atlantic.
The Need to Be Polite
Americans are typically polite, at least when in public. If you’re even close to bumping into someone at the grocery store, you always express how sorry you are. Excuse me, sorry, you make your way through the produce section, carefully maneuvering your cart past fellow shoppers. In Germany, people waltz straight into you without uttering a word or sneak in front of you in the cashier line, no matter that you’ve waited patiently for the last 15 minutes.
The Question of Trustworthiness
Maybe the reason to distrust is rooted in living through the Indian Wars and the Wild West, when lying and cheating was common place. No matter what the reason, when we reserve a room or a car we must always pay first. At least guarantee payment with our credit card. Not so in Germany. There you can still book a two-week vacation on your word alone. Once your host confirms your stay, all you have to do is show up. I guess, so far, customers do show up or people would be more careful.
Where is My Water
You’ll not find a restaurant in the U.S. that doesn’t serve you free (albeit often unfiltered) water with your meal. A person on a budget can save a couple of bucks this way. Either way, we can stay hydrated. Drinks in Germany are neither free nor cheap. Serving tap water is unknown. Rather one orders mineral water which is served in tiny glasses and even tinier bottles. Though we love mineral water, we always order the “large” bottle, about 25 ounces, which sets us back five Euros. For Americans used to 64-ounce cups from the gas station this can get expensive. On the upside beer is typically more reasonable than water and served in large glasses. Who needs water anyway?
And the Ice?
Most of the time I don’t care for ice in my drink. In fact, the obsession with ice is a bit over the top as water and soft drinks contain more ice cubes than liquid. In the summer, I admit, it’s nice to sip a cold drink with ice. The cubes melt and we still get to enjoy a drink to refresh our insides. Ice cubes are not part of the German menu. Even when it’s 90 degrees outside, a restaurant doesn’t serve ice in its drinks. We suffered a bit this year when the temperature was unseasonably hot at 85 degrees and no ice could be found in my father’s house. On the other hand he freely shared Magnums, his favorite ice cream.
Driving in the States has its advantages. It’s a lot less stressful. Streets and parking spots are wide, speeds are slow—though sometimes too slow especially when traveling through Kansas. Maybe because streets are broad and straight, Americans don’t drive well. In Germany you’ve got to be on your toes. On the Autobahn speeds are in places unlimited. Beamers and Mercedes race past at 150 miles per hour. City streets, no wider than a car-and-a-half, wind around in corkscrew fashion. You only find a parking spot if you’ve clocked a hundred hours of parallel parking. Which makes Germans the better drivers. Why? Because they have to.
I could go on, of course. Maybe after we’ve won the soccer game. Which leaves the largest challenge: Who am I going to root for?
This week my short story BITTERSWEET was published by The Write Place At the Write Time, a literary magazine. Like BLACK MARKET, published in April 2014, this story tells the struggles of three kids/youths during and after WWII from the perspective of civilian Germans. As mentioned in the byline I began interviewing my parents about their childhood in 2002. Out of these talks and recordings grew a novel-in-stories, spanning fourteen years of harrowing adventure, but also a love story.
Kids like my parents, born in the late 1920s and early 1930s, were tossed into the most evil war of history without a choice. Without a chance to escape. They had to endure a harrowing time of threats, starvation and emotional hardship. Yet, they persevered. Little triumphs carried them. What we’d consider unbearable today was for them a fact of life. Imagine eating grass soup because your kitchen is bare. Imagine walking a mile to fetch a bucket of water because your faucet delivers no water. Imagine waking in the middle of the night to the screech of sirens and the whine of carpet bombs and then running, running to the bunker to wait… trembling whether the bombs will hit you.
As the last of the war children die off—my father Guenter is 85 years old—it appears that we may be ready to learn more about this mostly ignored viewpoint of Germany’s civilians.