This German adventure has been the longest stint of my (Andrew’s) corporeal existence spent outside the familiar confines of Alabama. I’ve taken trips all over the eastern half of the good old USA, but never for this duration and never abroad. Besides the obvious differences of language and culture, I’ve noticed a few things that have repeatedly made me shake my head in wonder.
First, and most obvious, is the difference in attitudes towards snow. Last January, when I was taking an education class for interim, school closed for three days when it snowed in Birmingham. The city virtually ground to a halt as it clumsily puzzled through unburying itself from perhaps two inches of snow. Here in my three weeks so far in Dresden, it’s snowed at least three times – and no one batted an eyelid. I think maybe a few pedestrians opened their umbrellas, or perhaps put on pairs of gloves, but life in the city center was utterly unimpeded. Public transportation continued to run on time, and not a single class in the Goethe Institut was cancelled. I like to joke about how hot Alabama’s climate is, but this experience has made me think that I might need to step up the hyperbole.
Second is the tea. I haven’t yet found a single glass of sweet iced tea. The south-Alabamian’s taste in tea is singular: the word “tea” unerringly connotes “pre-sweetened iced black pekoe tea.” In most of the rest of the world, Dresden included, “tea” is a mass noun akin to “sandwich” – you can’t simply ask for one without being asked to specify what you actually want. I can’t really complain, I suppose, since the difference is positive: the German food culture is enhanced by the variety.
Lastly, and most personally jarring, is the difference between behavior in public. In the South, everyone is friendly at all times in public. I don’t intend to impute a certain saintliness and general love of people, but it is certainly a facet of our culture that people smile and greet each other, even if strangers. I can smile at someone shopping next to me in the grocery store, or ask a cashier how their day is going, and it’s perfectly acceptable and in fact expected. This is not so in Germany: I can count on one hand the number of people who have smiled back at me in public (I, of course, smile at everyone). During our first week here, I tried several times to greet shopkeepers with a meaningless but polite, “How are you today?” I soon stopped because the only replies were confusion and incredulous looks. In Germany, I was later told, one simply doesn’t ask such questions to a stranger; Germans treat them as serious inquiries rather than politeness and ask them only to personal friends. t don’t ascribe this to any national unfriendliness in the German character, but rather a sharper distinction between “friend” and “stranger.” With their friends, Germans can be as friendly as anyone else on Earth, but the studiously but civilly ignore someone to whom they have not yet been introduced.
Though I’ll certainly be sad when it comes time to pack my bag and leave this foreign land, I’ll jump for joy when someone finally replies with a smile and a pleasant, “Fine, how are you?”