So, the truth is, Germany is not exactly what you would call “extremely different” from America. I don’t know what I was expecting really, but the only countries outside the U.S. I had visited before coming here were Mexico and Honduras (and Canada and Jamaica for, like, five hours each). So the biggest culture shock for me coming to Germany has been…how the culture is not all that shocking. There’s no immediately noticeable difference between here and America. Except, of course, sparkling water. There’s only sparkling water. Oh, and people speak German.
People go to work, come home, watch TV. There’s rush hour. Shopping and movie watching are favorite pastimes, and David Hasselhoff—contrary to popular belief—is no more famous in Germany than he is in America. I mean, come on, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in German is “Superkalifragilistikexpialigetisch.” Everything is mostly similar, with tiny differences.
However, in just two weeks, I find those differences endlessly fascinating. The best way I can describe it is this: Germany is essentially a combination of a possible-not-so-distant American future and 1987. Some quick examples:
In the Year 2000…Dunkin Donuts will come out with the new “Koelner,” a donut with banana frosting and some kind of berry-related filling. It will not taste good, but it will look nice. Most will say, “Jumping the shark runs on Dunkin” or something like that.
(So, this observation should by accompanied by a picture of me eating the Koelner, which looks like a Boston Cream, but with yellow frosting on top and a smiley face drawn on it. But we can’t get that picture off the cell phone right now, so instead, enjoy this link to an extensive news report from three years ago in which Germany discovers Dunkin Donuts for the first time!)
Germany has been named “the world’s first major renewable energy economy,” with the possibility of switching entirely to renewable energy by 2030 and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. So, on top of pushing donut-invention to new extremes, they also recycle everything, make wide use of wind, solar, and biomass energies, and use an impressively small amount of water in their toilets. Trains are a popular, albeit expensive, way of traveling all across the country. Talk shows are impressively in-depth and literary. Children’s books are written with a much more impressive vocabulary level than their American counterparts. Crazy donuts aside, we would be lucky to have a future as bright as Germany’s present.
On the other side of the coin, remember about twenty years ago when cigarette dispensers were everywhere and you could smoke anywhere you wanted? That’s how Germany rolls right now. Also, remember Iron Maiden? I kind of don’t. I mainly know them as a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. However, they are currently rocking out in the #1 spot in Germany’s music charts! Wireless internet is a rare treat, cell phones are rarely seen or heard in public, so one is not constantly plugged in. It makes me wonder if the Matrix was as popular and meaningful in Germany as in America. Also, there are festivals every weekend!
I attended Wilkingerfest my first weekend here (I’ll let you guess at the translation), and it had the excitement and kind of normal boringness that similar things have in America, only this was better attended. Movie theaters are mostly closed during the day, and when the sun is out kids still go out and play and make their own fun. It’s refreshingly retro.
But there’s another side to this “past as present” thing that Germany has going, that I don’t know if we’ve ever had. There is a profound respect for tradition and custom. You do not get up from the table before EVERYONE is done eating (even if some people show up really late and you have had to go to the bathroom for a few hours). You take time out of your day to sit and have coffee and visit, and this can be a planned time, or it can happen at the drop of a hat, and either way is fine with everyone.
Shops close at a reasonable hour, the whole shopping district looking like a ghost town by 7:00p.m. And restaurants are pretty much the only businesses open on Sunday. Theater audiences sit quietly and excitedly, undistracted, and clap when they are supposed to. There is a strong undercurrent of “this is the way we are” that seems to help a very modern people manage the ebb and flow of 21st Century life. It’s something that young, impetuous, “I’ll do it my own way” America doesn’t have, and, perhaps, can’t have.
It will take a long time to really learn what all this really looks like, especially from a religious perspective. It’s possible that none of this really means more to Germans than 24 hour gas stations, Jersey Shore, and Sunday sales at Target mean to me. But as far as first impressions go: I love the slow-paced, rooted nature of German life. BUT it is not easy to do. There are long periods of silence at parties, and this is seen as both normal and good; but it makes me very nervous. When there’s a lot of waiting around, I’m always the first one to ask about a plan, “What’s going to happen next?” Trying to flow with this deep current is envigorating, but it takes a lot of my energy and attention to not fight against it. The natural pace of life in Germany requires a lot of intentionality and discipline for me. And it can be exhausting. Which is odd, because it’s something that I have always loved about my time in Mexico, and earlier this year in Honduras; that slower pace, a relaxed way of living and loving that exists outside of my normal, 24/7, digital world. I think the difference here is that Germany is not removed from such a culture…it balances it. Or, at least, it attempts to. Which means that, for the first time, I am encouraged to make the same attempt on a daily basis. And it’s wonderful. And exhausting.