These are some things you may not know about this lovely, and somewhat strange, country where I live. This is a land where:
1. Fresh air coming in through a window or door is toxic
Many of us might welcome a breeze in a hot, non-airconditioned office, but no, here in Germany, a draught can lead to unhealth. You will hear “es zieht” (literally “it pulls”), which means all windows must be buttoned down and that dangerously fresh air must be kept where it belongs – outside. Fresh air is also lethal when combined with wetness! If, for instance, you are at the pool on a very hot day, it is essential to be completely dry – dry clothes, dry hair, dry body parts – before leaving for home. If you aren’t, you never know one of those terribly dangerous breezes might combine with your own wetness to track you down and if not actually kill you then knock you into your sick bed for days.
2. “Thanks” means “no”
Confusing, no? Let me tell you how! If you are at the bakery, and the person behind the counter asks you if you would like your bread sliced, make sure you say “Bitte” (please) or “Ja”. If you go the (perhaps overly) polite Anglo-American route of saying “thanks”, your bread will be handed to you, nicely wrapped, but whole.
3. Bare feet bad, shoes good
It may be 35 degrees and a heatwave outside but being barefoot leaves you open to a multitude of unnamed dangers. We moved back to Germany in the hot, hot summer of 2003 and one evening took our two little girls for a walk in their respective prams. It was about 37 in the shade and their feet were at no point going to touch the ground, but our friends looked upon us in shock, saying “What? No shoes?”. Also, in the winter, if you are home, it is essential to always have clad feet, despite a heated house. If you don’t, you welcoming in pneumonia, at best.
4. People of all ages suffer from bad circulation
“Kreislauf” or the failure thereof may not actually kill you, but it may force you to call in sick and spend a few days lurking on the sofa, watching DVDs. It is not something only old people get, but is a lovely umbrella term that covers all sorts of problems: need for a mental health day, a hangover, avoiding that work deadline. What in England would be called pulling a sickie, is here a medically acceptable self-diagnosis.
5. If you want to pull a sickie, have used Kreislauf once too often, turn to that great source of sick notes: your doctor
I discovered that, when my job was boring me to tears (often) I could go to my GP, mention tiredness, headache, perhaps mutter “Stress” and my GP would give me a sick note for three days. Fabulous! I injured my left wrist falling off my bike once (I am right-handed) and got two weeks off work. I spent that time on the sofa watching Wimbledon, nursing my debilitating sprain.
6. People say exactly what they think
This I have come to find refreshing, but it has taken a LOT of getting used to. No need for that Anglo-American overly polite white-lie telling that oils the social wheel, no, you will be asked if you are pregnant when you’re still not showing, you will be told that your children are not warmly dressed enough, the weeds in your garden will be mentioned, in the street you will be asked why one of your children screamed all night. Daisy’s first summer here was a difficult one for her: it was hot, she was nearly two, she wouldn’t sleep and she screamed a lot. One of my neighbours gave me a child-raising book (as if I didn’t have enough of them), saying it would help me work out what I could do to help Daisy (as if I wasn’t already trying).
7. Tats and tans are the summer accessory of choice (winter too)
I have mentioned these before, but still can’t come to terms with them. All I want to say is that the best way to accessorize your orange tan is with butt antlers: it’s apparently the only way to go.
8. The hot lunch rules
I’ve gone native on this one. It suits me to cook a hot meal for my kids at lunch, so that in the evening, when I’m devoid of energy, I can slap a yogurt or a bowl of cereal down in front of them. However, the weirdness comes in that the whole society is predicated on the home-cooked lunch (work canteens provide the same for the poor deprived souls who can’t get home for their meal), and in our town, most shops close down for the two-hour period in which lunch must be cooked, served and eaten. It’s one of those unwritten rules on which Germany is based, without which the fabric of society would be rent.
9. Rules are rules
Speaking of rules, there are lots here. It’s evidence of how “eingedeutscht” I have become that I no longer find any of these really strange: no washing cars or mowing lawns on Sundays; no playing at playgrounds between the hours of 1300 and 1500; no shopping on Sundays; no disturbing the neighbours after 2100; no barking dogs (dogs here are strangely silent) especially after 2100 or between 1300 and 1500 or before 0900. Friends of ours arrived here with three unruly barking South African dogs. They were soon getting letters, from the relevant town officials, asking them to keep their dogs silent during the quiet hours, and preferably always. They wrote back to say they had informed the dogs. Now they live in the country and their dogs bark when and how they please.
10. Work and play are separated
Another weirdness I’ve grown used to. Back in SA, you had to be best friends with someone and preferably had got drunk together the night before, before you could ask them to do something for you at work. Here the opposite is true: you barely even need to know their names, and you certainly don’t care about the health of their children or their elderly parents. When visitors are in town for work, it is always the ex-pats who make the effort to take them out and show them around; the Germans tend to melt into the shadows at 6pm. Work is work, play is play, and the twain should never meet.