Misconceptions run rampant when the primary channel of introduction to Germany is Hollywood. After living in Deutschland for two years, I have come to realize that some of my initial American impressions are both completely wrong and downright laughable. Some of the items are minor and embarrassing – yes, my German friends will laugh when they read this list. For the rest, I feel that Americans will agree, as I can’t possibly be alone in some of this incorrect thinking. For your reading pleasure, here is what I thought I knew:
10. The Autobahn is one magical road, which twists and turns through the mountains, with daring views of cities below. It is filled with red Porsches and black Aston Martins, and my Toyota would get mowed over by people driving at ludicrous speeds.
Reality: Not to disappoint, but the Autobahn is essentially the German interstate system. Although one could technically drive as fast as he or she desires, there are, in fact, stretches with speed limits. The overall recommended speed for the Autobahn is 130 km/hour, which equates to about 80 mph - a speed I’ve achieved many times in the States. On a few occasions, I’ve been passed quickly (only on the left) by a sexy sports car, but usually it’s just a VW station wagon zooming by.
9. All Germans love meat, and frequently dine on wurst, potatoes and beer.
Reality: Although most restaurants offer this type of fare (which is absolutely delicious), I’ve gotten to know the other side of the culinary coin. To my surprise, the majority of my female German friends are either vegetarian or vegan. If this shocks you as well, you’ll be interested to know that Veganz GmbH, the first vegan supermarket chain in Europe, is based in – you guessed it – Germany.
8. Speaking of drinking, when it comes to alcohol in Germany, it’s beer all the way.
Reality: This, actually, wasn’t far off. The beer here is absolutely amazing and I have tried many, many varieties. I have liked every single libation from a Hefeweizen, to a Dunkel to a Pilsner. A perk is the ability to purchase beer in more than just a six-pack by hitting up a bulk store like Trinkgut, and purchasing it by the case of 20 (equivalent to 30 U.S. beers in ounces). What’s better is that when finished, you return your empty bottles in the case and receive a Pfand (refund) that can go toward your next beverage purchase. Enough about beer though, can we talk about Riesling, Spätburgunder and Federweißer? That’s right, my initial impression completely neglected the fact that Germany produces some stellar wine. Luckily for me, I am right here in the Rheingau region, a top area for growth and production of many delicious varieties.
7. All Germans own traditional garb, to include a dirndl for women or lederhosen for men.
Reality: Boy, was I misinformed! This is common in only one of Germany’s 16 states, Bavaria. It is the largest state in the country, yet is the most rustic, traditional region. For some reason, it is the top-of-mind representation of Germany for Americans. I live in the state of Hessen and close to Rheinland-Pfalz, and few, if any of my German friends own dirndls or lederhosen. What I consider odd, is that most of them have never been to Oktoberfest (or, as one of my German friends calls it, a “Bauernfest,”- fest for farmers). Although Germany is only the size of Montana, there are definitely regional differences here. I proudly admit that I own a dirndl because dressing up in a costume, drinking beer, singing songs and going on carnival rides is a win in my book!
6. Everyone is named Hans, Fritz, Heidi or Gretchen.
Reality: I have met exactly zero people with those names. My friends range anywhere from atypical names (for America), like Franziska, Karola, Mareike and Wido to those commonly used back home, such as Philip, Tim and Simon. Strangely enough, every Dachshund I met in the States was either named Heidi or Gretchen…apparently their owners didn’t get the memo.
5. Germans love rules, regulations and always follow protocol.
Reality: Overall, this is pretty accurate. Germany is not a country of jaywalkers. Drivers only pass on the left. People are usually on time. The underground in Köln operates on an honor system. Yes, there are hefty fines if you can’t produce a ticket when asked, but you won’t find the same entrance and exit turnstiles that you would in the London Tube or the Paris Metro. With that being said, the one place I consistently witness chaos is when Germans should line up and wait. That’s right, Germans seem to prefer to cluster and make their way to the front without standing in a proper British-style queue. I can offer no explanation for this phenomenon, but have learned to just nose my way through to the front, like a true German.
4. Anyone in uniform (particularly Polizei) is scary.
Reality: Thank you, Hollywood, for this crazy misconception. I remember my first encounter with Germans in uniform. I was on an evening train to Bavaria from Austria and my husband and I had an entire car to ourselves. We were drinking train beers, eating paprika chips, and enjoying the ride until two men in uniform approached us. They said something we didn’t understand, so I quickly produced our tickets for validation. The men smiled and said in a heavy accent, “No, vee are zee German National Police. Passports please.” For some reason, my husband and I froze as the two men examined our passports and spoke to each other in German. They were perfectly nice and professional, but darn you, Indiana Jones, for this goofy moment. Speaking of being approachable, did I mention that the lady cops are gorgeous over here? I don’t know if it’s because crime is less rampant in these parts, but they always have on pretty makeup, painted nails and long hair. I have had zero complaints, since I started living here, with anyone in uniform and am happy I’ve moved past this naïve and irrational thought.
3. I’d have to speak and understand a lot of German to get by.
Reality: I don’t get to speak as much German as I’d like. I’ve studied online with Duolingo.com, used books and asked my German friends for pointers. Most nationals have studied English in school for years and although they say that they speak just a little, they are pretty proficient. I always approach a situation speaking German, but oftentimes, after detecting my accent (or when I get stuck), they switch to English. The only exceptions I’ve found are senior citizens or people in rural areas, which aren’t heavily frequented by English speakers, so their language is a bit rusty. Because of the availability of English, my German will, sadly, never be fluent.
2. Germans love children. In fact, this is where the word kindergarten comes from!
Reality: I was right! From the start, new mothers can receive a three-year maternity leave with subsidies. From there, children enjoy kinder-specific foods, drinks, toys, furniture, playgrounds and more. What is fascinating is that with this “kinder supportive” environment, Germany has a negative birth rate. This probably explains all the advice we receive from elderly German women (mostly telling us that our children aren’t bundled up enough), because they don’t have grandchildren of their own to dote on. The only time I’ve seen Germans less-than-excited about the younger set is while eating dinner out. I believe there is an unwritten rule that the evening restaurant experience is reserved only for adults. I get it. The last thing you want to experience on date night is being seated next to the table with the cranky kids. Aside from that, Germany and children make an amazing combination.
1. Germans have a cold, stern exterior.
Reality: Sure, customer service is not over-the-top, but that is because Germans are not superficial. They will speak the truth and may come across as blunt or direct. I’ve even asked my friends not to spare my feelings and to please “be German” with me, as I find it very refreshing. For example, if you ask how their day is going and it’s not so great, they’ll tell you it’s lousy – no need to fake it. If they invite you to their house or suggest you meet for a coffee, they mean it – it’s not simply a pleasantry like it can be in America. I’ve also discovered that Germans give the longest goodbyes, full of hugs, watching you leave and waving, just like family would do. My conclusion is that when you’ve made a friend with a German, you’ve made a friend for life.
I love everything I've discovered about this beautiful country and look forward to learning and experiencing as much as I possibly can.