#1 Smoking is Still Prevalent
It strikes me every time I land in Germany and walk through the Frankfurt Airport to get my suitcase: More people smoke in Germany than in the United States. There are even smoking lounges along the gates in the Frankfurt Airport. Basically a glass-enclosed room full of smokers with an automatic door, that closes as soon as someone enters or leaves. The odd thing is that I can never smell the smoke when passing by a smoking lounge. They must have powerful suction systems in there. However, once you step out of the airport into a public space, you will either have to get used to the smoking around you or walk a few feet away from the person that is smoking. If you want to partake in the outdoor cafe atmosphere, know going into the experience that the chances of someone lighting up a cigarette nearby are very high.
#2 Drinking in Public is A-OK!
Once you reach the age of 16, you are allowed to consume beer and wine, and at 18 or older you can drink any distilled spirit you like - even in public. Meet your friends at a park and bring a six-pack to share, no paper bag required. Cozy beer gardens are filled with people on warm summer days, enjoying a cool beer and good foods with friends or family. No one in Germany thinks twice when seeing someone in a pedestrian area with a bottle of beer.
#3 Cash is King
Germans have a debit and a credit card in their wallet, but most transactions in Germany are still done in cash. The EHI trading institute reports, that more than half of the transactions in Germany are still paid for in cash - 51.3% to be exact. The next closest transaction type would be the debit card (Girocard) with 24.6% usage (source).
To find the reasons why cash is still king in Germany we have to travel into the past. Germany was hit twice by a dramatic monetary depreciation. The first one happened during the hyperinflation of 1923 in the Weimar Republic and the next one after WWII, during the monetary reform and introduction of the German “Mark” currency in 1948. At the exchange rate of 10 Reichsmark to 1 German Mark, approximately 90% of the savings were devalued overnight. These two historic event have burned themselves deeply into the minds of the German people and subsequently shaken confidence in the state, banks and “new” electronic payment systems. Have a little patience while waiting at the check-out register, when a German in front of you rummages through their wallet in order to find the perfect coin change for their cash transaction.
#4 Coffee and Cake Tradition
Denise and I had been married for several years before she realized that Kaffee und Kuchen was a German tradition. She simply thought my family had a serious coffee and cake habit, one of many reasons why she loves my family.
Kaffee & Kuchen is a casual get-together in the afternoon, usually around 3:30pm, either at a coffee house or in a private home. It's as simple as it sounds, everyone eats cake, and most drink coffee or tea. Kaffee und Kuchen is also referred to as a Zwis for Kaffee und Kuchen to happen is Sunday. Most Germans are off work, sleep long, have a late breakfast and read the newspaper. After a stroll through a park or the city, in the afternoon it is time for Kaffee und Kuchen. Germans will also have coffee and cake for someone’s birthday or other family celebration.
The abundance of bakeries and cafes in German cities offer many varieties of cake for people who do not want to bake and prefer to pick up a cake to share with the rest of the group. There isn’t one specific kind of cake for Kaffee und Kuchen, it can range from an elaborate decorated cake made by a bakery to a simple grocery store-bought sponge cake topped with seasonal fruit like strawberries or cherries. As a child I always looked forward to Kaffee und Kuchen, even though I never liked coffee. The different varieties of cake were right up my alley, and I would eat as much cake as I could in record time. It was a great treat for me. I was always worried one of my favorite cakes (plum pictured above or strawberry, followed by cheesecake with tangerine pieces) would be gone before I'd had a piece.
#5 No Shopping on Sundays
Every Sunday almost all stores are closed, including grocery stores, which essentially forces you to relax and kick back, and maybe have kaffee und kuchen with family or friends. The great thing about this is, that most Germans actually do get time off on a Sunday so that families can have time together or meet for a walk in the park. There are exceptions with occasional “Shopping Sundays” when stores are legally allowed to open, which vary from city to city.
If you need to get groceries on a Sunday in Germany, you have two options: Visit a gas station nearby to browse their limited selection or find a supermarket in an airport or train station, with a greater selection and (usually) higher price tags.
#6 Toilet Design and How to Flush
The shelf toilet, known in Germany as Flachspüler (flat flusher) has a ledge where the American design, Tiefspüler (deep flusher) has standing water. The shelf toilet will prominently present your #1 or #2 before you flush them, which will take some getting used to when you first encounter this toilet style. Denise thought at first the toilets were clogged since there was no standing water. There’s a YouTube video for everything, and this is the first one I found while trying to explain the difference. Not only do you get to see the toilet, but also a German sausage that gets flushed to illustrate the process.
Over the years I had the pleasure of using both systems and can give you the advantages and disadvantages of the shelf toilet for your trip to Germany.
• Energy costs in Germany are much higher than in the United States, which includes the cost of water. Therefore, the shelf toilets were designed to use much less water than their American counterparts - hence the shelf.
• Your butt will not get wet, since there is little to no water sitting on the shelf
• If you are sick, you can look at your prized matter before flushing it or even take a stool sample for your doctor. Not that you will need this often, but it is an advantage, even though a strange one.
• Your business will definitely stink up the room, which is why a lot of German bathrooms have a bottle of air freshener near the toilet or at least a window nearby that you can open.
• With a #2 being flushed off the ledge, it might leave skid marks and you might have to flush a second time (so much for the aspect of saving water). If the skid marks are still around after the second flush, look for a toilet brush nearby and get to work.
If you are still reading, you might be pleased to hear, that German households are merging more and more to the American toilet design, which has become more efficient over the past decades and uses less water with every flush. Nevertheless, there are still two more oddities you might encounter in a modern German restroom, which are two buttons on a wall and no visible toilet tank.
How To Flush a German Toilet
Modern bathrooms in Germany have concealed flush, or wall-hung toilets, where you have the tank and water pipes in a wall enclosure hidden from plain view. This works especially well for small bathrooms, saving space by having a smaller toilet that does not protrude into the room as much as a floor-mounted traditional toilet. Furthermore, cleaning under the toilet is much easier and the hidden tank gives the bathroom a clean, organized look.
Right above the concealed flush toilets you will find two buttons, usually a small one and a large one. The “dual-flush capability” goes back to the idea of saving water, where you push the small button for your #1 business with only half of the water in the tank being used and the larger button for your #2 business with all of the water in the tank being used.
#7 Punctuality is Expected
There is no translation from German to English for the phrase ‘fashionably late.’ In Germany, or when meeting someone German, you are simply late. Germans tend to be very punctual, and also expect this virtue from others. Basically, don’t be more than a few minutes early and don’t be more than a few minutes late. In my family you get 15 minutes of Karenzzeit, which translates to grace period. If I have to wait 15 minutes or longer past the scheduled time and I do not hear from you, I will most likely leave. So if for some reason you find yourself late to an appointment or a get-together, call to let the person know that you are running late and when you’ll be there.
The exception would be casual parties at a friends house. The more guests there are invited, the wider the window of time is within which it is still appropriate to show up. If the invitation reads that the party starts at 8pm, there are always people that do not show up until later that night. If you happen to be very early for a get-together, take a stroll through the neighborhood or a nearby park. Nobody wants to show up too early and catch the host while they are trying to get the last items for the party together or take a shower before the big night. This will also give you some extra time to get something to bring for the host.
#8 Gift Giving
When you are invited to a private house or home in Germany, be it for a fancy dinner or for casual afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen, it's a always a good idea to bring a small gift for the host or hostess. The easiest are flowers with an odd number of buds, as an even number is said to bring bad luck. Also, take any plastic covering or wrapping off the flowers before arriving. When selecting flowers, try to avoid red roses, which symbolize love, or lilies and carnations, which are common for German funerals. If you do not want to bring flowers, candy or wine is also appropriate. Basically, do not show up empty handed and expect them to cater to you.
Germans can be weird when it comes to greetings. We alter our greetings depending on how well we know the other person. If you are being introduced to a person for the first time, expect a handshake. Make sure your hand is dry, look them in the eyes and have a firm handshake. Don’t break their hand, but also do not just lay your hand onto theirs. Germans like firm handshakes. When joining a group, it is very common for a person to shake hands with every single individual.
Once you know the person better (and you are in a non-business setting), Germans will take the greeting up a notch and replace the handshake with kissing on the cheeks, one on the left and one on the right. This is often shocking for Americans, who anticipate that it's going to be a hug exchange and end up with a kiss on the cheek, but then upon releasing Americans anticipate the greeting is over, only to be pulled in for a second round on the other side. If you end up in Switzerland, three cheek kisses are customary. Yesterday it was handshakes. Today its cheek kisses.
If in doubt, let the German make the first move and be prepared for both. Nothing is worse than leaning in for a cheek kiss and running into their hand that is out for a formal handshake.
#10 Eye Contact During Toasts
When you toast and clink glasses in Germany, say Zum Wohl (good health) or Prost (cheers) before drinking. Also, make sure to look the person you are toasting into his or her eyes. Otherwise both of you will have seven years of poor intimacy, if you know what I mean. Guten Appetit is said before eating and means enjoy your meal. Wait until everyone has their meal in front of them before you start and respond to the host’s Guten Appetit by repeating the same greeting or answering, Danke, ebenfalls (Thanks, you too).
#11 It's Rude to Order Tap Water at a Restaurant
In the U.S., you order water and without further instruction you’ll get a glass at least 1/4 full of ice, and then water either straight out of the tap, perhaps through a filter first, or not. Over the years I’ve learned different U.S. cities’ water tastes different. But, no matter the city, water is free, and it's the same water that comes out of the sink that you wash the dishes with, the same water that you shower in.
It's safe to say most Germans prefer water with some form of carbonation. If you order water, you’re going to be immediately questioned how much gas, or how bubbly would you like your water. I definitely suggest that you try it, but it is a very different water experience. No matter the amount of gas, Denise can’t bring herself to take more than a sip.
Why Is Tap Water Inconceivable in a German Restaurant?
This culture shock for Americans is a complicated tradition. I assure you that German tap water is perfectly, absolutely safe. We’re talking German engineering and plumbing here. It's safe, and likely better for you if you’re concerned how long the water has been sitting in plastic. So, could it be the verbiage itself? In English, the word ‘tap’ is related to several other positive things such as beer and soda that is ‘on tap’. In German, the word for tap water is Leitungswasser, which literally means pipe water. I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t want that either. They need a better word! But, it's maybe not all in a name. Restaurant owners bank on their guests ordering drinks where they can make a higher profit margin. When you order tap water, it appears as though you’re a horrible penny-pincher, and the restaurant will be lucky to break even with your order.
If You Feel the Same About Bubbly Water, Here’s What I Do
Denise has learned to be weary of even no-gas water, as often the added minerals tastes equally as bad to her very Americanized water palate. However, she’s had good luck with the French bottled water brands Vittel and Volvic. We’ve gotten in the habit of ordering Vittel outright in restaurants, that way if they don’t have it the server will usually tell you what the alternatives are, giving the opportunity to switch to soda if you have to. Otherwise, if you order just still water you may end up with one of the mineral water brands that have the mineral taste.
While exploring cities, I pack my S’well water bottle in the morning, filled with refrigerated tap water. The bottle keeps water cold for 24 hours and I use my S’well bottle all year at home, too. In Florida I can leave the bottle in the car, where the temperatures get to be over a hundred degrees inside on a hot day, and when I get back, even while the exterior of the bottle is hot, the water is still refrigerator cold. Before I discovered S’well, we were going through plastic bottles like crazy, and then carrying the empty ones around all day in order to get our pfand returned.
#12 Germans are Experts at Recycling
To promote recycling, in 2003 the ever-clever, thrifty Germans implemented a container deposit legislation, also known as Pfand [pronounced pf‿ant]. If you buy a single-use container in form of a can of soda or a water in a plastic bottle, you will pay a €0.25 deposit, which will be refunded when you bring the container back to a supermarket or shop.
When you throw that bottle away, you're also throwing away your €0.25. The deposit legislation does not cover containers for juice, milk-products, wine, spirits, or liqueurs. Look for the black and white symbol of the bottle and can with the arrow, see the image above for an example.
Cashing in Your Containers
In smaller shops, visit the clerk at the counter to return your bottle and collect your deposit. Careful though, small shops only accept the bottles of vendors and sizes of bottles which are carried at that shop. When returning at large-chain shops look for reverse vending machines that print a receipt. The receipt can be exchanged for cash or used against a purchase.
So the next time you see someone toting a collection of empty plastic bottles in their book bag you’ll know they don’t have a hoarding problem, they just want their deposit back!
Are we missing anything? Did something else surprise you on your first trip to Germany? Let us know in the comments below, or by email.
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