All countries have their own cultures, lifestyle, ways and habits and one of the interesting things about travelling is being exposed to other ways of doing things, and other ways of thinking. Coming across these differences is referred to as culture shock, although sometimes “shocks” is a strong word and they are rather just “surprises”. I’ve been in Germany a while now so I don’t notice these things so much any more, but these are some of the things that surprised me when I first arrived. I started this post a while ago and never finished it, but coming back from holidays at home I noticed some of the things again so I thought I’d finish it.
Cash not card
It’s amazing the amount of restaurants that do not let you pay by card here. In South Africa you can pay by card even in a small restaurant in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Here if you walk down a street in central Berlin there are more places that don’t take card than those that do. Sometimes this is a problem as there’s also not exactly ATMs jumping out at you on every street.
I am used to the double traffic lights of South Africa. If you stop at a traffic light and you’re the first in the queue, it’s still easy to see the traffic lights at the other side of the intersection. It took me a while to get used to the fact that the second row of traffic lights does not exist here in Germany. If you’re in the front of the bike lane this sometimes means craning your head up to see if the light has changed. In reverse, my husband was initially confused where to stop because of the double traffic lights in South Africa. Now we are both used to both.
There are regional differences in the traffic lights. In Hamburg and some other places, there are two red man traffic lights and only one green one. I wasn’t sure why in the beginning, but I think it might be for people who are red/green colour blind. If anyone knows the reason, let me know! If you’re in Berlin, look out for the little hats on the Ampelmännchen (traffic light men), they’re cute!
The right hand traffic rule
Here you yield to cars/bikes on the right. There are no 4-way stops like in South Africa. For the uninitiated, a 4-way stop is where each street has a stop street and people go in the order they arrived. I prefer this because sometimes you have to sit for ages if there’s lots of traffic on the right. My (Czech) husband still can’t get used to 4-way stops, he likes the right hand rule.
In academic settings here, people rap on the bench or desk top instead of applauding. At the end of the first seminar I attended in a German lecture theatre, I got a fright when everyone started knocking with their fists on the tabletop instead of applauding. I wondered if they disagreed with the speaker and were staging a protest, but when everything then proceeded as normal I realized that that this is just what they do instead of clapping. It seems to be only in the academic world; if you go to the theatre or ballet people of course applaud (perhaps because there is no bench top to rap on!)
But speaking about applause: the number of rounds of applause after ballet or other shows also surprised me. The people would come forward one by one and get applause, then all together, and then when they went off stage I thought it was over. But then they would all come back and do the whole thing all over again, one by one and then as a group. By the end you are really tired of clapping!
They also shout something different here than “encore”, which I still haven’t figured out!
I have some water issues here, mostly because I’ve always been a big water drinker. The first issue for me was that the water is hard, which I was not used to. It has a lot of chalk in it (calcium carbonate). They even sell special cleaners here to get rid of chalk, since it starts coating the sinks and bathtub after a while. The tap water here is perfectly safe and clean, but it doesn’t taste that good to me. After a while I got used to drinking it, but now that I’ve been away for a while I have to get used to it again.
The second issue for me was sparkling water. Some meetings I was at in Germany and Austria only offered sparkling water, often in two varieties: more bubbly and less bubbly. For me sparkling water doesn’t taste like water or quench my thirst, so I’m always looking for the normal/still water. On the other hand, if you mix fruit juice with the sparkling water it tastes ok, and luckily you can normally find a bottle of apple juice around, so that you can create your own Apfelschorle.
My third water issue is that in restaurants here (and in Belgium, when we were there), they often refuse to give you tap water to drink, even though the tap water is perfectly drinkable, and even if you ask for it alongside another drink such as wine or right at the end of the meal. I find this annoying because surely by then they’ve made enough profit off you, and often when you are eating you need water because the food is salty or sweet, and it seems wrong to pay a fortune for a tiny little bottle of imported mineral water (which is also not ecological, think of all the bottles, or the water flying across the world). If local, cheaper mineral water is offered that’s at least be a bit better. I would even be happy to pay a reasonable price for the tap water (and use of a glass). Mostly they just say no, they only sell mineral water, and other times they give you a tiny glass not much bigger than a shot glass. There are exceptions: at some coffee shops they give you water with you coffee, and restaurants serving brunch often offer water in a jug somewhere too. In SA if you ask for water they even often ask if you would like ice or lemon with it, or bring you a jug, so the water culture is quite different. Of course, now that there’s a drought in Cape Town, water is also not offered so freely there.
Naked mixed sex saunas and naked communal showers at swimming pools. At swimming pools, before going swimming you are supposed to take a shower and you’re normally supposed to do this naked in a communal shower room (single sex) which feels uncomfortable when you’re not used to it. I don’t mind if other people want to go nude, but I don’t really want to be nude myself. Another level up is the saunas, where you also have to go naked and which are mixed sex. This is the case in quite a few European countries. Thus I generally avoid saunas.
Around lakes, you also often see people going nude (FKK) or topless. I was very surprised once when a friend introduced me to a female friend next to the lake, and I had to shake her hand hello while she was totally naked from the top down. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just not used to it.
Cashiers process your things at warp speed which is a challenge when you have to pack your own bags. Before you think I’m just a spoilt South African, I don’t have a problem with packing my own bags (in fact I had a university job in a shop in the weekends, so I packed other people’s bags too) but the cashiers in Germany throw your things through the till at such a speed that sometimes it’s a challenge to open the bags, get them all packed and get your money out to pay at the same time, especially since if the price is for example 10,17 they will often ask for 17 cents so that they can give you round change. It’s always a race and I feel satisfied when I win. Actually it’s usually a draw now. Tip: giving them fruit or vegetables to weigh slows them down! And if you pay by card you can throw the last items in the bag while the machine is processing your card.
They also don’t ask if you want a bag, so you have to remember to pick one up before you get to the cashier, otherwise you’ll be way behind in the cashier/customer race.
The tipping system is different here. The waiters and waitresses apparently get proper salaries unlike in some countries where they rely on tips (e.g. in SA we tip at least 10 percent and I’ve heard in the US it’s even more). Because the salaries of the restaurant staff are already decent, in Germany when you pay the bill you usually just round up to the nearest euro when you are paying, and more recently people add on another euro (per person). I actually like this system better as with the 10% tipping system there’s always some people who can’t do maths and you end up paying their tip so that the waitron is not short-changed. German friends have said it’s good to follow this system because once people start tipping in unnecessarily big amounts then everyone will expect a big tip and the people are already getting paid. However when you come from a place where you’re used to tipping, you do sometimes feel bad leaving a small tip. But it’s actually better if the restaurant pays a decent salary. I also like the Italian system, where a 10% service charge is automatically added and you don’t have to worry about paying extra. On the other hand, some people say that without the tipping system, service can be worse because there’s no motivation.
Restaurants here are also perfectly fine with everyone paying for their meals separately, which is nice, as in SA some restaurants don’t like it (though I noticed it’s more common now). However many restaurants in Germany only take cash, not card, as I mentioned earlier, and this feels archaic!
Still on the restaurant theme, another thing that surprised me when I first arrived is the fact that in most restaurants when you arrive you just walk in and sit down. Since in SA we usually wait for someone to come greet us and ask for how many people we’d like a table, in the beginning I just stood there wondering when someone was going to come and greet me. I am sure they wondered why I was just standing there like an idiot! The culture shock works the other way around too though, because when my Czech husband first arrived at a restaurant in South Africa he just walked in and sat down at a table and made himself at home, which I’m sure surprised the staff!
Since space can be limited, another common thing is for people to share tables. So if you are two people sitting at a four person table, don’t be surprised when two more people come and ask sit down next to you (and it’s not normal to say no!), or the restaurant staff leads them there.
Papers and post
Papers are so much more important here. Often official things cannot be sent my email, you have to send it by post. As most people work with electronic documents these days, this means that at work I often have to send things both electronically and by post. Keeping all your papers is important here, because often someone asks you for them later.
I had to get health insurance before starting my job in Germany. I applied online and never heard anything. I emailed to ask if they’d got it and never heard back anything. When I told this to our admin lady at work, she phoned the company and they told her that they weren’t allowed to email the information and they had sent me a letter by post – to the address I would be living at in Germany, even though I wasn’t living there yet.
When I opened a bank account the lady told me I should go to a machine and print my statements every month or they would charge me to print them and send them. I never printed them of course, and I’ve stopped getting them by post too for some reason, which is fine with me because you can read your statements online. However, due to privacy laws in Germany, the banks don’t store your electronic records for long, so once they’re gone, if you don’t have the papers you can’t look back at them. The banks even send you your new cards by post, which doesn’t seem very secure, but so far it’s worked ok.
Another interesting thing is that if you order something online and you’re not home to receive it, the delivery man often leaves it with a neighbour. Sometimes the neighbour is not actually your neighbour, but someone over the road or a shop around the corner or around several corners. Luckily we have an nice elderly neighbour upstairs who is at home most of the time and happily receives parcels for most of our building. He likes to chat to people when they come and collect them, so I think the parcel delivery system is good for his social life.
In my first weekend in Berlin, my cousin took me along to brunch at somebody’s house, and I was surprised when we went in and it turned out we had to take off our shoes. Taking off shoes before walking around the house is the norm here. The idea is of course to keep the floors clean, especially in winter when you might track in mud, water or gravel. But…I did not expect it, and I had a small hole in my sock! In South Africa I usually had my shoes off inside anyway (in winter I’d put on slippers and in summer go barefoot), but we don’t usually take shoes off when going to someone else’s house. As an Italian friend said, it does feel a bit strange if you’re dressed up for a dinner party but then wandering around in your socks or Hausschuhe (house shoes).
We still have hot tap, cold tap system in South Africa. So the one-tap system took me by surprise in the beginning, but actually I prefer it now, although I’m not sure if it affects the water quality since cold water tastes better than hot (I can’t tell because the water tastes different here anyway). However on our travels sometimes the hot or cold side is different and there’ve been other complicated tap systems in showers that have flummoxed me – it’s also amazing how many ways there are to flush a toilet.
Travelling by bike
The bike lanes here are good, and as a result biking around is much more popular than it is at home. This is something I like, and I now ride to and from work, in all kinds of weather. Public transport is too crowded during rush hour, so I prefer to take the bike. But now and then when the weather is bad or I’m tired I sometimes wish I could hop in a car and drive home.
What are your culture shocks?
These are all the things that come to mind right now, but I’m sure there are others! What culture shocks have you experienced when visiting another country?