1. Idle chit chat
During my first days of work in Germany, I made sure to be super friendly to all of my coworkers. Whenever anyone passed me in the hallway, I would grin maniacally, wave, and yelp, “Hi! How’s your day going?” The responses ranged from bemused looks to a total lack of reply. Confused but not discouraged, I continued trying to work my charms on my new friends.
One morning, I passed Roger, the department’s statistician. I laser-beamed him with my eyes and yelled out my usual “How are you?!” He paused for a moment, staring at me bewilderedly and scratching his fluffy, mad-professor hairdo.
“Do you really want to know?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Uh, yes,” I stammered, unsure of what to make of this.
Twenty minutes later, he was still going strong on a breathless diatribe about how the students’ inferior grasp of basic stats and unbearably messy datasets were contributing to his ever-increasing workload.
Eventually sensing my discomfort, Roger paused and gave me a blank look. “Well you asked,” he muttered, rolling his eyes before continuing down the hall to his office.
2. Thin skin
Germans don’t like small talk, and they don’t like bullshit. Idle comments and feel-good messages have no place here. German flirting is particularly brutal; “Your big nose looks good on your face” is about the best compliment you can expect to get in Germany.
3. Fear of nudity
Especially in the former East, Freikörperkultur, or free body culture, is an important part of German identity. Decades of oppression led to a particular appreciation for the experience of freedom and nudity without a direct relationship to sexuality.
This can sometimes be difficult for Americans to buy, particularly when your coworkers casually invite you to the office’s nude sauna or suggest a naked swim in a nearby lake. Adjusting to this culture without getting weird took some grit, finesse, and more than a few awkward encounters.
4. Expectation of safety above all
The pervasive fear of litigation that infuses most public activities in the United States is virtually nonexistent in Germany. Germans take a much more casual, reasonable approach to public safety. On a hike in Sächsische Schweiz, a beautiful, mountainous region of Saxony, I once commented on the lack of guardrails and warning signs surrounding the steepest cliffs. “Only an idiot would fail to realize that a steep cliff is dangerous,” my German co-worker stated matter-of-factly.
A few months later, after a particularly brutal snowstorm, I remember seeing an older gentleman faceplant on the ice while waiting for the tram. He stood up, casually wiped the trickle of blood from his forehead, and resumed his position on the platform without so much as grimacing.
I love this attitude.
Every year, a local artist would put on a crazy party called “Bimbotown” in one of the warehouses in the Spinnereistrasse neighborhood of Leipzig. The party was crawling with machines that this artist made — giant metallic worms slithering across the ceiling, bar stools that would eject their occupants at the push of a button from across the warehouse, couches that caved in and dumped you into a secret room, beds that could be driven around the party and through the walls. It was an incredible event that would have never been allowed to happen in the US because of all the safety violations — someone could hit their head, fall off a bed, get whacked in the eye. And it was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. . . . .
Things don’t start to feel real until you drag your two empty suitcases into your bedroom and start to pack for your semester abroad. That’s when you realize your life for the next six months will have to weigh less than you do, in fact less than a small child.
There was a morning in late May, just a couple of weeks before I would have to re-pack those suitcases, when the heat of Seville woke me up earlier than usual. Even with the window wide open, as soon as the sun rises there’s no escaping the heat of this ancient Spanish port city. I sat up in bed listening to the sounds of the apartment building waking up, shades rattling open and mothers moving in kitchens. I thought about leaving this city, whether I was ready. Though it was hard to sleep with the noise from the neighbors and the street below, I was grateful for this, to wake up organically with the beginnings of other people’s days.
My six months in Spain were the most exciting, frightening, enlightening months of my life. I learned so much about another culture: what other people value, what makes them get out of bed, what makes them stay up so late. I learned what it’s like to live with a family I’m not related to, and how to explore a country with strangers who would become close friends. I learned how to read a city with my feet, walking through streets so narrow that the sidewalks, where they existed, were no wider than a foot.
There are terrifying moments, like when you walk into your apartment to find the place burglarized. But there are also the magical ones, like discovering, at 3 a.m., a tiny flamenco bar filled with both neighborhood regulars and those passing through. Where the guitarist plays your favorite song and the man as large as a tuba suddenly begins to sing in a stunning and melancholic voice. Being asked to dance. . . . .”