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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American Mental Vacationing

Once again, Happy 4th!
Once again, Happy 4th!

Because this weekend was a break from traveling, and in celebration of the recent 4th of July, today I look back on the U.S. from Germany to think about travel.

I’ve been thinking a lot about recommendations I would give to anyone visiting the United States. The country is so big and diverse that, really, where you’d want to visit is a matter of personal taste.

Other Americans I’ve met in Germany are from all different parts of the country, so what each person considers a must-see or must-do is completely different. People who like nature or grew up in the country recommend national parks. People who like culture or grew up in the northeast suggest New York City.

Times Square in New York City
Times Square in New York City

Most of the Germans I’ve met who have traveled to the U.S. went to Miami and/or Las Vegas. You probably can’t find a climate or culture gap much wider than that. California is a popular destination too, and I haven’t even traveled there. Many are also fascinated by the south or the old west, probably for the same reason that Americans find Lederhosen and cuckoo clocks appealing. They’re just different from what we have.

Old downtown Las Vegas
Old downtown Las Vegas
Alligator in a Louisiana bayou
Alligator in a Louisiana bayou

Personally, I recommend Washington, D.C. for most visitors regardless of their interests. It is, after all, the capital, not to mention home to more than a dozen excellent and free Smithsonian museums. A few of my tips for international (or American) travelers? Visit the National Museum of the American Indian, tour the national monuments at night, and see the Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring if you can. And do yourself a favor and take the Metro to get around. It’s the simplest major subway system I’ve found anywhere in the world so far.

What’s your favorite American city and what do you recommend visitors see or do?

D.C. Capitol in the background
D.C. Capitol in the background
Park benches in D.C.
Park benches in D.C.

TGIF Chronicles: A Day Off Here and There

"German-American Friendship Festival - 4th of July:  Big Fireworks" Other than this fest, today is just an ordinary day.
Other than this fest, today is just an ordinary day. “German-American Friendship Festival – 4th of July: Big Fireworks”

Happy 4th of July! As I spent the start of American Independence Day in school for the first time ever, I’ve been thinking today of all my family and friends watching parades and having cookouts back home. I might even see fireworks here tonight too after the Germany-France game.

July 4th may be a holiday in the U.S., but here there is an entirely different calendar of days off. I look forward to next year when I’ll know when the banks and grocery stores will be closed before I drive to them.

Most of the German days off are Christian or specifically Catholic religious holidays. Easter is a four-day affair, including Good Friday and Easter Monday. But it doesn’t stop there. Many traditionally Catholic states including those in our area celebrate the Ascension, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi in the summer. Somewhere in between Easter and its follow-up holidays is May Day (May 1), or German Labor Day. The reunification of Germany is celebrated on October 3 – Germany Unity Day.

Then we return to religious holidays on November 1, when All Saints’ Day is observed in this area as well.  Christmas is a long season here in which most people have a week or two of vacation. The main gift-giving celebration is on December 24, Christmas Eve. Christmas Day and the day after, St. Stephen’s Day, are both official days off.

p.s. If it seems like there are a lot of days off in Germany, remember the U.S. also has Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, and so on. Not to mention a range of religious holidays celebrated by a diverse population. We just don’t celebrate each of them with a fair or festival in each town. (Schade! Too bad!)

What is your favorite holiday or tradition?