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Miscellaneous About Germany

Here is information about Germany you will not get elsewhere.

 To the first time visitor to Germany, there are a few oddities that you may want to know about in advance. Among the many oddities, here are a few heads up on windows and doors, toilets, electricity, table manners, beds, streetcars, tickets, telephones, cell phones, smart phones, and phone cards, and even a thing called Schrebergärten. Not that Germans are odd, but I could write a book about their oddities. Oh sure, I have one or two oddities myself. I like to point out the oddities of others, for example.

Not that knowing all this stuff will make your trip any more enjoyable, it will not. However, at least you will not be quite so surprised.

Windows, Doors, etc.: Windows can be confusing for first-time visitors. They have handles and they will open either by tipping inward from the bottom or by swinging inward from the side. Fortunately, there seem to be only two main types of window systems. But since Germans have been inventing things since the Neanderthal Man, you may encounter one of the several rarer types too. So, as a rule of thumb, twist the handle all the way up to tip it, halfway to swing it and down to lock it closed. (Also, another good rule of thumb is to keep your thumb out of the way when you mess with the windows.) If you are working with slightly older windows, you will notice a foot-long lever in one bottom corner of the window. That type of window will tilt out if the lever is pointed up, or open into the room if the lever is parallel with the bottom of the window.

You are not done yet. Many windows also have rollups or Jalousien. These are plastic shutters that roll down from outside the window. This is both for security and for privacy. It works by pulling a cord or strap along side of the opening. Some Jalousien are operated by an electric switch but most are manual. If you do not let them all the way down, they will allow some light through small holes between the slats. If you let them down so that the slats stack tightly on top of one another, you have created a darkroom. If the building is really old, there could be working shutters on the outside of the window. To operate these windows, open them, lean out, unhook the shutter (there are a few different schemes here too), draw them closed, and latch them. Simple? Yes, for a mechanical engineer who has German genes.

Doors are easier but the locks are a marvel. I don’t know if locks were invented in Germany but they were certainly taken to an art form. There are as many different locking systems as there are types of beer. In one hotel in Berlin, we were given a key that had a skeleton on both ends. The keyhole in the lock was perpendicular to the floor (this is unusual). To unlock the door, you inserted the key in the slot part of the keyhole and twisted it vertical . Now you can open the door. So far, it sounds pretty normal -- but you can't pull your key back out. The next step is to push the key completely through the hole to the other side of the door, close the door (after putting your body on the other side too), twist the key to the horizontal slot position and extract the key. Without closing and locking the door, you can't retrieve the key. An almost fool proof way of keeping doors closed and locked at all times. People who try to invent foolproof things should interview me first - they will come to realize that it may be impossible.

Toilets: An important thing to know about toilets in Europe is that some of them cost money. Not like the pay toilets in America, although those exist too, but in some restrooms, you will find a person sitting at a table with a dish on it. However, most but not all restaurants have toilets for their customers. If you are not a customer, you should not ask to use their facilities - the exception would be if you are in an emergency. If there is an attendant, you are expected to put about €0.40 +/- in the dish or on the tray. Most of these attendants do not speak English and some may not even speak German. In some cases, the attendant is a woman sitting at a table and is in full view of the stalls and/or urinals. This is a cultural thing you have to get used to. In fact, many times the public has much more view into the restrooms than Americans are used to. But, if you have to go, go. Nobody will hold it against you, I hope.

Another thing about public facilities is that the architecture of the toilet itself is probably different than you are used to. In many places in Europe there is a flat porcelain appliance with a hole in it and some slightly raised places for your feet. Squat, do your thing, flush, and if necessary use the toilet brush and then flush again. One of our American friends was put off my a toilet that flushed to a drain in the front of the basin instead of underneath the water like in the States. When I told him that that type of toilet is quite common in Germany, he was surprised. "Why would anyone want to see what one just deposited in the toilet?" he asked. There are several answers but I will not elaborate here. In the men's room, there are a few places where the urinal is simply a tiled wall with a gutter at the base of the wall. Another version of that kind of thing is simply a raised gutter about thigh height. Some of which are fitted with a valve on a water pipe that should be turned on momentarily to flush the thing others are more primitive - if that is possible.

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Electricity: Electricity is not only higher voltage but it also has a different frequency. 250 volts and 50 cycles are typical in Europe while in North America we normally use only 110 volts and always have 60 cycles. One may need a transformer but other electric appliances work just fine, like an electric razor or a hair dryer. Only if you purchased you electric appliance years ago will it not be suitable for the higher voltage but pay attention to the labels of your appliance and look for the 110/250 indication. Some have small switches to make them work correctly. Clocks and electronic equipment probably will run slow. Some laptop computers, like the one I am using to write this, operate on both systems but check with the manufacturer first. If you have really good eyes and an electrical engineering degree, you may be able to decipher the engineering lingo on the power cord. As a last resort, read the owner’s destruction manual.

Table Manners: People not used to American manners may still judge American's to be impolite in Europe because the European table manners are quite different. Europeans typically keep both hands on the table. (Sorry, elbows are impolite everywhere; and knees are very impolite.) They never put their hands in their laps except to grab the napkin there. They eat with the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. The fork may be turned upside down (from our American perspective) to acquire a bite off the plate and placed in your mouth still in the upside down position. You may even use your knife to add other bits to the top of the upside down fork with the first bite still attached to the tines. Of course, you can turn the fork over and use it in the right side up position too. But don't put your hands in your lap - if you want to rest, rest your hand on the edge of the table. Folks wonder what in the world you are doing with the hand they cannot see if you have it on your lap. Don’t tell them either.

If you are not finished but want to set your knife and or fork down, say to rest during an especially good meal of Rouladen, set them down with the handles pointing to the left and right of the plate (4 o’clock and 8 o’clock for example). Lastly, when finished, place both knife and fork together on the plate with the handles parallel and pointing to the right (3 o’clock or so, but it varies). Knife and fork together signals that you are finished. The wait staff, your host, or hostess, may take your plate then but typically, they will not do so until every one at the table has their knife and fork together.

In a private home, the big hot meal is usually at noon. The evening meal is frequently bread and cold cuts called Kaltteller or Brotteller. The normal process is to display the Wursts or meats, the salads, and the cheeses on separate plates - sometimes on a wooden board, then provide a basket of breads. Most Americans from the Mid-West (like me, for example) see this as an invitation to create a Dagwood sandwich. Wrong! Its impolite I discovered. Simply take one type of Wurst (or cheese) and put it on the bread. You are creating an open faced sandwich. Then cut it into bite sized pieces one bite at a time with your knife and fork. The best advice is to watch the locals and eat like they do. I have learned that this type of food is tasty and I look forward to Abentessen (the evening meal) with relish. (Hmm ... poor choice of adjectives - relish is something for Bratwurst.)

Beds: Some people warm immediately to the German beds. Pun intended. Typically, they are single beds, or at least single bed mattresses next to one another in a double bed frame. In hotels, the linen may be stark white although colors are becoming more popular. The sheets sometimes even feel as though they have been starched but that comes from ironing them while they are still damp from the washing. And, the wonderful thing is the feather comforters with duvet covers instead of blankets and bedspreads. During hot weather, you may find a lightweight quilt encased in a duvet cover. It may take some getting used to but it is a luxurious way of sleeping.

Streetcars and Tickets: You may not ride a streetcar or Strassenbahn without a ticket. If you do, you may get away with it because they don’t check every car every stop. But, if you are checked and have no ticket, you have not only committed a crime of petty theft, you have violated a system that is based upon trust. They will not look upon the transgression kindly. You will certainly have to pay a fine of about €40 and you may be taken to the local constabulary to do so. Not fun, I imagine.

Buying Strassenbahn tickets may be a challenge. You can find them in almost every major Bahnhof, but you may have to ask for the location of the sales office. If you are not near a Bahnhof, you might have to find a ticket agency. They can be located some major department stores or in a government office but the easiest place is usually a news and tobacco kiosk. As a last resort, you can buy a ticket from the driver or if there is an automat inside the street car, you can buy one there. The downside to last second purchases is the cost may be 30 to 50% more. Every region has its own ticket system and the tickets from one system or area are not useful in another region. Consider purchasing several tickets (say five or ten). I don’t think you can return any unused tickets though.

When you get on the streetcar, simply slip the ticket into a machine that stamps the ticket with the date, time, and direction of travel. The streetcars and buses are normally interlinked. A ticket on one is good on the other until your have reached your destination and/or until you change directions (as in case you passed up your destination by mistake). You’ll need a second ticket for the trip back if you change directions of travel. This system is sometimes applicable to certain types of commuter trains too, by the way.

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Telephones: Telephones in Germany work about the same as in other western nations. Some public phones take coins, others do not. See below. If you are calling internationally, begin with the International access, then the country code, then the area code, and finally the phone number. If you are not, simply begin with the area code. That sounds simple right. Why do I even bother to mention it? Because, when you look at an international telephone number that begins with a country code, the area code does not have a leading zero. But if you are dialing within Germany, you need that leading zero of the area code. So for instance, if you are calling from the USA the telephone number for someone in Germany is 011-49-561-555-5555 but that same number from inside Germany is simply 0561-555-5555. (Do not call the number, we made it up. Duh.)

Another issue can be confusing to people from countries that always have the identical number of digits of phone numbers. In the USA, we have three digit area codes and seven digit phone numbers. Not so in Germany. While most area codes are three digits, if you do not count the leading zero, some are only two digits. The phone numbers themselves can have any number of digits. It depends on when a person signed up for service; the later, the more digits.

Cell phone: Want to have a cell phone for Germany (or any European Country)? Just buy one when you get to whatever country. Think "burner phone" like on TV. Go to a drug store or electronics store, or maybe even a newspaper kiosk and ask for an inexpensive cell phone (in German, the word is Handy). In 2016 in Germany, we saw them in a drug store for €19.99 for a phone, charging cable, and €10 of talk time. It was good for all German phone networks and talk time cost €0.09/minute. That is a typical price and we have not seen any cheaper deals regardless of what store.

Smart phone: Want to use your smart phone? Bring it along. Go into any electronic store like Media Markt, a chain store or "big box store" with locations throughout Europe. They will sell you a SIM card for whatever country you are in. We purchase a special price for €10.00 for 4 weeks including 200 minutes of free talk, text, and 500MB of high-speed Internet use. The drawback is you will have a different phone number. If you want to extend it, you can. We stay in Germany for 12 weeks so we were able to extend the use and keep the phone number for €30.00 but had to give up using the Internet on that phone for the last 8 weeks. When in Italy in 2016, we spoke to another traveler who purchased an Italian SIM card for €30.00 with unlimited talk, text, and Internet for 1 month.

Phone Cards: Here you are in for a treat. At airports, train stations (Bahnhöfe), post offices, etc. you can purchase phone cards. About half of the telephone booths will only take phone cards, they will not take coins. Of the remaining half 2/3rd only take coins, not phone cards. The remaining third will take both types of payment. It may not matter much in the future because the number of public pay phones is rapidly diminishing due to the increase use of cell phones or as the Germans call them, "ein Handy" or plural "Handies" (a Denglish word?). In the last few years, pre-paid phone cards have become popular for cell phone users. This card is called a "Fon card." It is distinguished from the type of pre-paid card that one uses to insert into a public telephone which, by contrast, is called a "Fon card." Get it? I don't! With all the words in Deutsch, English and Denglish, why can't they come up with some different names? The lesson to be learned, is to carefully specify which type of card you want. In German, you could say, "Öffentliche Telefon Karte, nicht für Handies." That is you could - if you know how to pronounce the umlauts. For a short course on umlauts, see Words and Phrases.

Schrebergärten: You may notice many areas in Germany that have been divided into small patches where people raise vegetables and flowers. These garden patches are called Schrebergärten or sometimes klein Gärten. The word is plural; singular is Schrebergarten without the umlaut over the 'a.' I know, it is a difficult language. These mini-farms were the brainchild of Herr Doctor Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber, a general practitioner medical doctor in Leipzig in the late 19th Century. Dr. Schreber was interested in children's health and through articles he wrote on child psychology he promoted outdoor exercise and activities for children - such as gardening. An acquaintance founded the Schreber Association, a gardening club for children. The gardens they created came to be called Schrebergärten. The club took root and grew to many thousands of followers. Unfortunately, during the 1930's it, like all clubs for youth at the time, was absorbed into the Hitler Youth, which was disbanded when Hitler left the scene. Nevertheless, Dr. Schreber's main legacy is with us today. In Berlin alone, there are over 83,000 individual gardens in more than 10,000 garden communities or Schrebergärten. Today, these Schrebergärten are as much recreational property for city dwellers as they are necessary gardens. It gives you a chance to leave your high-rise condominium and get in touch with your agrarian beginnings. Good stress therapy in a modern society. I have seen Schrebergärten that are so built up with garden houses, lawn ornaments, patios, and water features that I know that the main purpose is not to garden but to relax and entertain friends. A note about the good Dr. Schreber: Some believe that he is linked inextricably to a form of child rearing that might be characterized today as child abuse. Abused children can grow up to be villainous. Enough said - but one can investigate this further on the Internet if one is so inclined.

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