I don’t know about you, but I’ve always liked the expression embracing a new culture. It sounds peaceful and reassuring, and when I was planning to move to Germany I used to think of myself as a Pocahontas in reverse – ready to absorb this new teutonic world with open arms and an open mind.
I soon realized, however, that if Pocahontas had known about McDonald’s, guns, stuffed turkeys and Zooey Deschanel, she would probably have spared us the songs and filed a couple of complaints. I also realized that there are times you don’t feel like you’re embracing another culture so much as you feel handcuffed to it.
Everybody tells me that Berlin is not representative of Germany, but there are things — little annoying habits that I’ve picked up during my expat life in Berlin — that look 100% Deutsch to me. I’m pretty sure you’d pick them up too if you got to live in this beautiful city long enough.
1. Leaving bottles on the street
A photo posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Feb 4, 2016 at 6:12am PST
My Italian upbringing turned me into a strict recycling machine, and the thought of somebody leaving trash on the sidewalk used to horrify me.
In Germany, however, empty bottles are not trash: they’re cash. You go to the supermarket with your empties, a machine sucks them up and returns cash. For one empty bottle you can get up to 25 cents, which you can then use to shop. An informal micro-economy has developed around the disposal and swift collection of empty receptacles: You lay the bottle on the ground, turn for a second to your friend who’s trying to decide if the fourth club of the night should be Berghain or Watergate and zac (onomatopoeic Italian sound) the bottle is gone.
You kind-of-sort-of-like give to the poor and you also avoid storing another empty at your place. I mean, the fact that I’m just a couple of Club Mates away from buying myself a car makes me proud, but I can barely see the entrance of my apartment anymore and, at this point, my only hope is that the crew of Hoarding: Buried Alive finds me before it’s too late.
2. Sitting while peeing
A photo posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Feb 8, 2016 at 4:25am PST
I’ll never forget my first day in Berlin. My new roommate, a seemingly cheerful, easy-going guy, took me aside and told me that we needed to talk. The most severe expression adorned his face. The tone of his voice became serious. I thought he was going to tell me that he had three months left to live and that I was supposed to tell his parents because he hadn’t yet had the courage, and that I should organize the funeral, and find a decent selection of music that sounded like a compromise between what was on his iPod and what the occasion required. Instead all he said was that I should really sit down while I pee. I recognize that this is not a ridiculous thing to ask, but the solemnity he used to make his demand proved this was a very important point for him and, I guess, for German people in general. So I did it. I did it when I lived with him and with whomever came after, always resisting the temptation to take a piss while standing, ’cause OMG what if they hear me? What if they can hear the difference in the jet stream and file a police report? I’m pretty sure German males will one day lose their ability to piss and stand, just like whales lost their legs.
3. Sleeping on the floor
A photo posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Feb 10, 2016 at 2:20am PST
I had no idea there could be people sleeping on random mattresses lying on the floor in western European countries. In fact, I thought such people only existed in Charles Dickens’ novels. Of course I understand that there are some people who can’t afford a full-fledged bed, but what about the others? Why would you choose to sleep on a mattress on the floor? Some say it’s great for your back, while others, I guess, do it as an attempt at “hippyness”. I did it because it just started to look normal after a while. The only thing I know for sure is that if my very Italian mother knew that her son slept for more than one year so close to mites, dust and all those other floor things, she’d have a heart attack.
4. Griping about public transportation
A photo posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Feb 5, 2016 at 2:17am PST
Public transportation sucks in Italy. I used to be very disappointed about this, but after years of delays, breakdowns, unreliable timetables and lame excuses, I reached some sort of zen resignation. German transport, on the other hand, is pretty awesome. Clean, not too smelly, and usually on time. So on time that a minor delay of a bus can drive people literally nuts. I used to make fun of this, but after two years I have to admit that I have become part of it. Whenever the train is late I go through a physical, emotional and psychological transformation.
- 1 min late: I notice that something is off and check my watch.
- 2 mins late: I start repeatedly tapping the floor with my foot.
- 3 mins late: I can’t focus on my newspaper/smartphone anymore, and I can’t help thinking that my time is being wasted.
- 4 mins late: I mentally sue BVG (the Berlin company managing public transportation) and go through the whole trial in my head, from the first formal complaint till the day of the verdict, which is obviously in my favor.
- 5 mins late: That’s it. I lose it. I start listening to the faint German voice in my head telling me to KILL KILL KILL, and I prepare myself for a bit of the old ultra-violence.
5. Wax your face ON, wax your face OFF
A photo posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Feb 6, 2016 at 1:10am PST
As you probably know, Italians are famous for their gestures. This peculiar trait not only makes us unbeatable charade players, but also gives us the ability to understand the meaning of every gesture, every nervous tic, and every frown of whomever we’re speaking to. Or so I thought. Germans have this weird, unreadable gesture; a mix of waving to oneself and the wax on, wax off scene from The Karate Kid, applied to their own faces. The first time I saw it, my list of possible interpretations went something like this:
- Go put a mask on.
- I so need a face scrub now.
- Let me read my palm for a sec. I’m sure the answer is there.
Well, the answer was… none of the above. It transpired that this weird hand movement in front of their face means “You’re crazy” or “He’s crazy”. It still looks pretty illogical to me, but I use it quite often now.
6. Carrying Cash
A photo posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Feb 9, 2016 at 2:11am PST
Being part of a highly evolved society has disadvantages — not being allowed to go to work in your pajamas or cry in the U-Bahn after reading that One Direction are going to split up, just to name two. Among the advantages, on the other hand, are things like freedom of speech and human rights, and the fact that currencies and banks have simplified our lives in unimaginable ways.
As much as barter seems attractive — I can see the convenience of going to the mall without carrying around gold ingots or cows — it strikes me as a pillar of civilized society that you can purchase anything with rectangular plastic cards that fit in your pocket and can be used anywhere in the world. Well, anywhere except Germany.
German credit and debit cards are issued by banks mainly as collector’s items. When you try to use them in cafés, bars and small stores, they have the same value as Pokemon cards (although they’re not as cute) and are often rejected.
Bottom line: in Germany you need to carry cash. At first it’s going to be disturbing, but you’ll get used to it and you’ll be able to pay for a meal by leaving a wad of cash on the table without feeling like a drug dealer on his lunch break. I promise.
7. Faking Warmth
A photo posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Feb 7, 2016 at 1:12am PST
Drenched in my Italian naivety, I used to think of temperature as a good metric to establish whether the day was hot or cold, and I would then behave accordingly. In Germany, it’s a wholly different, absurd story, and there are essentially two rules that will tell you exactly which temperature you’re supposed to perceive and how to behave.
Rule #1: If it’s sunny, it’s warm
Is there anything better than waking up and finding a stunning, beautiful morning outside your window in which the sun shines bright and the sky is clear? The only logical thing to do, clearly, is to put on shorts and a t-shirt and jump out into the sunlight. It doesn’t really matter that it’s mid-January, the road is frozen and your skin is rapidly turning blue. Because it’s sunny, and therefore warm.
Rule #2: If it’s summer, it’s warm
June 21st, Germany. A typhoon is tearing the city apart, causing multiple floods. Nevertheless, having each and every office window open looks like the only conceivable option to your German co-workers. Water enters the room like in that Titanic scene where Leonardo di Caprio is handcuffed to a pole and almost drowns. But it is fine. Because it’s summer, and therefore warm.