The thing with stereotypes is that they usually exist for a reason. But when it comes to the Germans, never have we been so surprised by a country’s inability to fit their national stereotype.
One tends to run into Germans while hiking. They generally look healthy, super organised and well prepared, while we tend to have decided on a whim to do the same hike, wearing thongs and forgetting to bring water. Alas, we were not to find many efficient, organised and/or healthy Germans in Germany. Below are some of the many ways in which the Germans failed to match our expectations.
In Germany, beer is actually cheaper than water. There also appears to be no barrier to openly drinking it in public. Groups of presumably unemployed men congregate in town squares and get their drunk on. It’s not just beer either, little bottles of spirits are available everywhere at very low cost, and generally end up as litter on all streets.
The low prices on alcohol put it firmly in reach of the poor and destitute. Myles saw one guy in front of me in line at a convenience store loading up on miniature alcohol bottles who was wearing shopping bags instead of shoes (a triumph of improvisation and that can-do spirit if nothing else).
The lax attitude to public order and liberal attitude to drinking means that most public areas in Germany smell quite strongly of urine. This is not a pleasant smell, and results in everyone having to listen to Myles regularly say, in his best Borat voice ‘your country, how you say, smells like urine to me’.
Of course the upside of this is that alcohol is cheap. And who wants to drink water on a holiday anyway?
While when you go overseas to developing countries you expect cigarettes to be much cheaper than in Australia, you don’t expect them to be so cheap in a highly developed first world welfare state like Germany. However, like alcohol, cigarettes in Germany are also very cheap by Australian standards (just under $8 a pack). Consequently, they have a high smoking rate (about 25% for those playing at home, but much higher for people in their 20s and 30s).
Germany could probably add ten to twenty years to their average life expectancy if they increased taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. If they cut back on the pork consumption as well they would probably all live to 150.
The upside of Germany’s love of pork and pork by-products is that the McRib is a permanent menu item at McDonald’s. In Australia I think it was only around for a short period in the late 1980s and for two halcyon weeks during the 2012 Olympics*. Subway also has a rib sandwich, though it wasn’t anywhere near as good.
While our previous posts have made mention of the inefficient airports and airlines, trains were not as well organised as we expected either.
We expected an excellent modern train network, and to some extent this was what we found, with clean, fast trains regularly travelling wherever you might need to go.
The intercity and regional trains especially work really well. It’s simple to buy tickets, some trains even have a panel above each seat stating where you’re going, which makes it much easier to identify your seats or if a seat is free.
The local trains however, were very confusing. We like to think we are reasonably skilled and experienced in navigating public transport systems in various cities around the world, but we struggled to get our heads around the system in Germany.
Say you want to do something really simple, like get from the Ostbahnhof (East Station) to the Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). The map tells you to use either the orange line or the purple line. However, there are completely different and unrelated orange and purple lines on both the s-bahn (city trains) and the u-bahn (underground trains), so you need to look at the map carefully to work out which one you need. You then work out that you need either the S5, the S7, or the S75. You then need to work out which direction on that line you need to go in and find the corresponding platform. Compared with other cities it is very complicated for new users especially if you are trying to do it in a hurry or if you need to change lines. It was often a case of picking the platform you think it might be and hoping for the best.
The other thing is that the regional and local trains pretty much operate on the honesty system. There are no turnstiles to go through on entry or exit, and in our many train and tram journeys not once was our ticket checked. Each time our ticket wasn’t checked we felt as through we had been ripped off, since what was the point of paying? However, we continued to pay each and every time just in case.
The main benefit of Germany’s local transport systems is their group ticket option. These tickets allow for a group of 5 people to travel on one ticket which offer considerable savings. It was as through the a ticket had been specifically designed to meet our needs.
Perhaps taking inspiration from the fact the country was divided in two for many decades, for some reason every double bed in Germany comes with two separate single bed covers. These covers are simply folded in half and placed on either side of the bed. Not only does this make it very hard to snuggle, you also have to make your own bed before you can sleep. The upside I suppose is that if you lose the cover in the night, you only have yourself to blame and can’t get mad at your sleeping partner for stealing the doona off you.
While it might preserve marital harmony in some respects, I’m sure the system of couples not sharing a doona also plays a major role in explaining Germany’s below replacement birth rates. If the Government wanted to increase the birth rate it would probably be more effective to just decree that double beds had to have double doonas, rather than introducing expensive policy measures like paid parental leave or free childcare.
* Myles is literally obsessed with the McRib. He has made sure we check in every McDonald’s we have ever walked past to see if they might sell the McRib, they never do.