FAQ from Americans about Germany

As the last of the jetlag wears off from a busy couple of weeks in the states, I find myself reflecting on the interesting array of questions Americans had about life in Germany. (p.s. Next post: Oktoberfest)

Weekends in the park: Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel
Weekends in the park: Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel

What are the biggest differences between Germany and the U.S.?

I would say that there are many differences but they’re relatively small. The pace of life is probably the most noticeable one. While people work hard in Germany and take work very seriously, I think they still place more emphasis on family and free time than Americans do. A simple example of this is that everything is closed on Sunday except for a few family-oriented things (namely restaurants and museums). That means no shopping and no errands (grocery stores, hardware stores, laundromats, banks, pharmacies, doctor’s offices, etc. are all closed).

Also, many laws here make the U.S. look very strict. There seems to be a big emphasis in Europe on freedom with responsibility. For example, you can drink in public – or in the car for that matter, technically the driver included – and drive as fast as you want on many parts of the Autobahn. However, the blood alcohol limit is still .08 (and even less if an accident occurs) and if you’re over the limit or in an accident while over the recommended speed (130 kph or about 80 mph), the consequences are steep.

Achtung: Squirrels! One of my favorite road signs
Achtung: Squirrels! One of my favorite road signs

Speaking of driving, what side of the road do people there drive on?

While many traffic and right-of-way laws are different, people still drive on the right-hand side as in the U.S. Only England and Ireland drive on the left, in Europe anyway.

How’s the food?

Lecker!/Delicious! There are typically a lot of pork dishes (Schnitzel, Bratwurst, etc.) and potatoes. My favorite food is Bratkartoffeln, a side dish of fried potato slices. White wine and a red wine variety called Spätburgunder (a German Pinot Noir) are also popular in the Rhein area.

Vineyards on the Rhein in Kaub
Vineyards on the Rhein in Kaub

What are the people like?

I would say the people are friendly but initially more distant than many Americans. Although coming from the U.S. East Coast, I think this is very normal. The culture, like most cultures outside of the U.S., is also more formal with titles and formal forms of “you” being the norm with strangers. And it’s a culture that values punctuality and rules, but also enjoys festivals and fun. (Best examples of the latter: Christmas Markets, New Year’s Eve, and Fasching.)

And do most Germans speak English?

Yes, to varying degrees. English is a common language in the EU, so most Germans begin learning it in elementary or middle school. This wasn’t always the case, however, but in general most people (and particularly most young people) speak English well, especially in areas with many tourists or international businesses.

What is there to do on the weekends/for fun?

Hiking, biking, and picnicking are the best things to do in the Rheinland region. One of my favorite hikes so far is the Rheinsteig. Cafés (where you can hang out as long as you want), bars, and Diskos are popular meeting places. And festivals go on in cities and small towns year-round for every holiday, season, and seasonal food you can think of.

Do people play bocce in Germany?

Good question, since we played on an awesome team in the U.S.! I’ve seen some people playing bocce in parks, but more common seems to be another lawn game called Kubb. I don’t know the rules exactly, but it involves throwing wooden pegs on a grass playing field.

What’s your favorite place?

Mainz is my favorite city in Germany, probably because I’ve spent the most time and now have a lot of memories here. Outside of Germany, my favorite country so far is Belgium for its delicious food and beer and dreamlike scenery. It’s only a few hours away so I’ve been there four times on various weekends. (For more about Belgium, see Saturday Afternoon in Belgium and Much More Than Just Waffles.)

Chagall window in Mainz's St. Stephan's Church
Chagall window in Mainz’s St. Stephan’s Church

What does traveling to other countries in the EU involve?

Traveling in the European Union is like traveling from one state to another in the U.S. There’s no border checkpoint, just a sign on the highway welcoming you to the next country. Usually no one checks your passport even when you fly from one EU country to another, although of course it’s always important to have internationally recognized ID.

Regional Pringles
Regional Pringles

What about money?

Germany and most of the EU use the Euro which is currently worth about $1.30. Some countries still use their own currency such as the UK which uses the pound and Switzerland which uses the Swiss Franc. When we go to Romania in a few weeks, we’ll have to exchange our Euros for Leu (the Romanian word for their currency translates to “lion”).

What about the time difference from Germany to America?

For most of the year, the time is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Daylight savings begins a few weeks later and ends a few weeks earlier in Germany, altering the difference a little. Because Germany is further north, it also has more extreme changes in sunlight throughout the year. And if you’re interested in flying here, a direct flight from the east coast is about 7-8 eight hours long.

What do you miss most from the U.S.?

Without a doubt, obviously family and friends. Beyond that, I often miss customer service. As much as I love how people put family and themselves before work and business (i.e. a desire to make money), the downside is that this often translates into the worst customer service imaginable.

And although I very much enjoy the food here, I do sometimes miss margaritas, Latin American and Tex-Mex food, seafood (though this is more prevalent in northern Germany), and French fries with vinegar and Old Bay (it’s a Maryland thing).

Old Bay from my visit to Baltimore, Maryland!
Old Bay from my visit to Baltimore, Maryland!
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Much More than Just Waffles

One of many Belgian chocolate/candy shops
One of many Belgian chocolate/candy shops

Most countries have invisible borders. A sign, sure. And sometimes a river or mountain range or some other physical boundary. Crossing into Belgium from Germany, however, seems to involve passing through a thick white curtain of fog. Last weekend this was, of course, no exception.

Once through the fog, being in Belgium is like walking through a dream. Rich delicious chocolates, world-famous beers, fresh mussels, Belgian waffles, and the birthplace of “French” fries. It seems to me that Belgians must be the happiest people in the world.

It’s been a busy month, but I can’t let it go by without sharing at least a few highlights of two fascinating cities that James and I visited with our friend Justin while he was here on vacation:

Possibly the most interesting experience in this country is traveling an hour northwest from Bruxelles (aka Brussels) to Brugge (aka Bruges) and learning that the common language has changed from French to Dutch.

Tin Tin mural. Belgium is the birthplace of Tin Tin and the Smurfs, among other cartoons
Tin Tin. Belgium is the home of Tin Tin, the Smurfs, and other cartoon characters

Brussels

In short: Capital city of both Belgium and the European Union

2014 Flower Carpet
2014 Flower Carpet

Most impressive sight: The Flower Carpet consists of over 1,800 square meters of begonias in the main square (Grand Place) displayed every two years. It’s an absolutely incredible site, particularly when viewed from above. We opted for a view from the Brussels City Museum balcony so we could learn more about the city’s history along the way.

Manneken-Pis
Manneken-Pis
A few of the many costumes on display
A few of many costumes on display

Also don’t miss: Manneken-Pis. Actually, I guess you could skip this tiny but absurdly famous attraction which is exactly what it sounds like: a bronze statue of a brash boy peeing in a fountain. But do make sure to see the exhibit on the top floor of the Brussels City Museum dedicated to this little imp. He has an extensive international wardrobe that you can see modeled on replicas – everything from Elvis and cosmonauts to samurais and sombreros. We saw the little guy on a rainy day so he wasn’t dressed, but usually he dons a custom-made costume to show off for visitors.

 

Bruges

In short: Quaint city of canals and UNESCO World Heritage site (the entire city center)

Brugge city overview
Bruges city overview
One of many canals
One of many canals
Swans on a canal at night
Swans on a canal at night

Most impressive sight: The city itself. With its small town feel, narrow stone-paved streets, sprawling town squares, and historic churches, Bruges is an enchanting city to explore. The canals that wind their way around and through the center of town, and the small bridges that cross them, are well worth seeing both by day and at night.

Near the market areas of town, you can see older women with white caps hand-crafting lace. This traditional art involves a complicated system of threads attached to many thin wooden knobs that the women cross over one another in a specific pattern.

Madonna of Bruges
Madonna of Bruges

Also don’t miss: Madonna of Bruges, a sculpture by Michelangelo in the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk). Haphazardly converted in part to a museum, the church boasts this masterpiece as the highlight of its art collection.

Tip: On a tour of the De Halve Maan brewery, a wry tour guide advised visitors to limit themselves to one Belgian beer per day due to their high alcohol contents. “I know what you’re thinking: ‘What does this old lady know about what I can handle?’ But trust me.”

Saturday Afternoon in Belgium

IMG_1498Back in the U.S., a 2 ¾ hour drive northwest of home might land me in the area of Deep Creek Lake.  From the hotel in Germany the same length trip found me, James, Steve, and a few other friends in a Belgian abbey this afternoon.  There were no frills about entering a new EU country – just a sign on the Autobahn like the signs used to mark the entry point to a new U.S. state.  When we rode into Belgium we were almost immediately greeted by a thick fog.  It was only in specific areas though, so as we drove out of it the rest of the drive consisted of sunshine, blue skies, and farm country dotted with cows.  Val-Dieu Abbey is located in the town of Aubel, Belgium, near both German and Dutch borders.  The primary language there is French, although most of the signs and products in and around the abbey were written in French, Dutch, and German (but not English).

Large and stately, 17th century Val-Dieu Abbey towered over us and a church bell clanged noon as we arrived.  The abbey brewery reopened about fifteen years ago, retaining the monks’ tradition of brewing delicious Belgian beer.  We had lunch at Le Moulin de Val-Dieu, a restaurant across from the abbey inside of a mill.  Our table was next to some of the mill gears (in motion) closer to the door than the fireplace, which made for a chilly visit.  The cozy setting, tasty French-style food and abbey-brewed beer, of course, made this well worthwhile.  I probably hadn’t had to speak French since the 6th grade, but I got by at lunch with “Bonjour” and “Merci.”IMG_1499IMG_1501IMG_1506

Afterwards we toured the inside of the abbey church with its vaulted ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows.  By the time we took a walk in the garden behind the abbey, the fog had drifted there and gave the appearance of the place a muted and dream-like quality.  Before leaving, I enjoyed a hot chocolate and bought some Belgian waffles to bring back to Mainz.  The waffles taste more like sugar cookies than anything else, but have that fluffy waffle texture.  Looking forward to many more international day trips in the weekends ahead!   IMG_1513 IMG_1512