What Makes Germany Special to Me- And Why I Keep Going Back!
People sometimes ask, “what makes Germany special” or “why do I love so much about Germany”, the obvious answer is family. But it’s more than that. It’s those little things that people in Germany take for granted that we just don’t have here in the US. Some of what I miss is intangible, and difficult to describe. Smells are important…like the cool smell of my Oma’s Cellar on a warm summer day, or the furniture polish that my Aunts all use. The COLORS, like how GREEN Germany is (for a California kid, seeing that much green was always a huge delight), red tile roofs, and the flower boxes loaded with colorful geraniums. Is it the pace of life? I can still feel the joy of sitting in the garden with family and friends after a long Sunday walk. Or maybe it’s how bread and cake are essentials, and not verboten!
I tried to put a list together of things I love about Germany. The list is far from complete… I keep remembering other things…. And the list is in no particular order, I just put it down the way it dribbled out of my memory banks.
What Makes Germany Special to Me
Ok, this is the first, obvious and easy answer. I grew up in the US with my parents and my sister, and the whole rest of the family was a million miles away. Time with them was so precious… and I still think about them every day. Luckily the world has shrunk, so phone calls and visits are not so difficult. Is there anything better than showing up on my Aunt’s doorstep and having her say “you are just in time for coffee”?
Yes, French Fry forks. These little wonders come with your order of Pommes (mit oder ohne) and keep your hands grease free while indulging in a favorite snack. What a neat invention. Colorful miniature forks! Some look like actual forks that have been shrunk to doll size (as a child, I would actually put them in with my doll things). Others seem more like those wooden ice cream spoons that we got as kids, only they have a v removed to spear the fries. What I don’t care for (and I know this is highly controversial) is mayo with my Pommes.
No Thanks! Give me salt… maybe ketchup or curry ketchup, but otherwise, I’ll take my pommes ohne, thanks. (And I will keep the forks for my doll house)
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the suburban sprawl outside of Los Angeles where one city blends in with the next (an endless stream of mini-malls anchored by Target, Office Max and Olive Garden), that it really makes sense to me that German towns are divided not just by an imaginary line on a map, but by a stretch of green. Whether it’s a small wood, or grassy area. It’s obvious that one town ends here–> <– the other start here—><–. Plus they have those yellow signs with the name of the town you are leaving crossed out… just to reinforce it.
Sidewalks. Yes, yes, I know we have sidewalks in the US, but I’m talking about Sidewalks created from interlocking bricks or stones. Ours are just boring flat poured concrete. (Often with a footprint or bike tire print in a corner where someone wanted to “just test to see if it’s solid yet” …it isn’t). Brick sidewalks and walkways just look prettier. They make you want to walk on them (Could be why nobody walks in LA?). The different patterns and colors of stone or brick are beautiful and cobbles give the area a feeling of timelessness, and I feel like I could be walking on the same stones that people have walked over for hundreds of years. I guess what I really love is that something so practical and useful and mundane is made special.
Ice Cream Parlors. Again, yes, we have Ice Cream in America, BUT Eis in Germany is a true EVENT. A beautiful glass goblet filled with flavorful balls of Italian Ice Cream, then topped with fresh sauces made from fruit or chocolate, unsweetened whipped cream, and a waffle cookie. With seats inside and out, Eisdiele are perfect for whiling away a sunny afternoon with friends. And for kids? Bowls of Spaghetti Eis! (That looks like real spaghetti, but is actually Vanilla with fresh strawberry sauce and white chocolate sprinkles). Or Biene Maja!( A bowl of ice cream served in the shape of a bee with waffle cookie wings.)
And if all you want is a simple cone, you can get a Kugel (or two) zum mitnehmen (to go)… And the flavors! Malaga (rum raisin) Raspberry (that actually TASTES like raspberries!) and the richest chocolate you can imagine.
Speaking of whiling away an afternoon… how about a Konditorei… go in, order a slice of Torte and a Kännchen of Kaffee…. and watch the world walk by. Perhaps, what I actually miss is having a place to sit and enjoy a coffee and a treat with a friend, and not be surrounded by people on a phone or computer.
I have actually written a lengthy blog post about how much I long for German windows, and how easy they are to keep clean, but it’s much more than just the window, it’s the whole set up. Open, close, kippe…. that’s just the start! Imagine, having a window that you can keep clean without risk your neck on a ladder? Plus the windows all seem to have a nice wide Fensterbank made from marble, perfect for placing your potted plants and ornaments without causing marring to the paint.
Fensterrolladen (German Windows 1B)
These Rolladen aren’t the delicious beef roll ups that Oma makes for Sunday meals (those are Rouladen)… no, these are wood or metal shades that roll up and down over the window. I always knew when Oma was ready to end the day, because I’d hear the sound of the Rollos coming down. She’d pull the strap next to the window, then the slats would clatter down into place, tight at the bottom, and a little loose at the top for air. Rolladen kept the house safe (Oma had a crazy fear of Gypsies), and made the rooms DARK enough to sleep. So dark, in fact, that I could probably sleep the whole next day away if it weren’t for Oma’s 6 AM vacuuming…
Geraniums in Window Boxes
In the summertime, German windows are a riot of color from all of the Geraniums in the Window boxes. Green leaves, red or pink flowers. All of the houses seem to have someone with a green thumb who can make those geraniums grow like crazy! Even the windows up high… The look is stunning!
Is there anything more annoying than wanting to give your nose a good blow… and all you have are flimsy little tissues? Tempos are designed to hold up to the biggest loudest blows! (In fact, they are so strong, you could probably scrub the floor with them!) But despite their strength, they are also soft enough for the littlest baby noses. Added bonus… they come in these little packets that fit perfectly in your purse or pocket. OR you can get a great visor attachment for your car, and always have them on hand.
Even my parents who STILL use REAL Handkerchiefs (washed, ironed and folded away weekly) keep them around.
I’ve never slept better in my life than I did under the thick Feather Beds in my Oma’s house. Warm and cozy… like being in a nest. And those GIANT square pillows? (why aren’t those universal???) NRW could still be cold in the summertime, so Oma would leave them on for this California girl. And those times we were there in Fall or Winter? They were heaven!
Sales Tax & Tips
When you buy something for 10 Euros in Germany, all you pay is 10 Euros. No trying to figure out the tax rate for that particular county. And tips? The cost of the meal will pay for the waiter’s salary, so you don’t have to set aside another 15% or 20% over the cost of dinner. A small tip of change is appreciated. So do leave something.
Waiters as Cashiers
OK, another goofy thing… I love that waiters will add up the bill in front of you, and them make change out of the wallet they carry around. They used to have to do it all with pen and paper, then in their head, but now they all have little portable devices (which can charge your credit card in front of you… no sending off your credit to the mysterious back room). Thankfully, the wallets are still there.
Bicycles for All
Getting from point A to point B on a bicycle is no big deal in Germany. Mother’s take kids to school, folks do their shopping, or visit bars; people manage in all weather. You see all ages riding bikes from the littlest kids on Trettbikes (Balance Bikes) to Omas on their Step through Bikes with a shopping basket strapped on the back (and many are electric now!). Gasoline is expensive, parking can be a pain, and fresh air is good for you. Bike paths, bike lights and bike lockup areas make it easy to avoid being hit, or having your bike stolen. I also see loads of them at Festivals. The drinking and driving laws are especially strict in Germany, so biking is safer if you plan to have a few beers (although biking drunk can still get you into trouble). Besides, if everyone in town is there, where the heck do you plan to park?
At home, bikes are more of a “club” thing. You seldom see adults on bicycles unless they also have on skin tight pants, a colorful nylon shirt, a helmet and funky shoes. Seriously, if I just need some milk from the store, I don’t want to have to put on a costume, and I don’t want to have to pull out the car! While the bicycle culture is improving a bit here, it still has a very long way to go.
Pfand Coins and REAL Glass
This is the one that gets me the most eye-rolls from friends who claim there is nothing wrong with drinking from a paper cup with a plastic lid. WRONG. It feels like I’m using a child’s sippy-cup to drink my coffee. BLEH. You can’t blow on it, you can’t smell it, and it tastes funny (like paper, plastic, and a bit like the wooden stir stick). Give me a real cup and saucer any time.
And while you are at it, pass me the wine in a glass, the beer in a glass or Krug, and serve me my food on a plate with real silverware. I love that even at Festivals with hundreds of people, food and drink are served on with real plates and cups. No flimsy paper plates and fragile plastic forks. (For those of you who think I’m contradicting myself….. I do love little Pommes Forks after all….Keep in mind that Pommes Forks are just used for spearing, not for proper eating. ) (and, btw, this is my list…make your own) I am happy as can be to hand over a Euro Pfand to get a real glass… and when I turn it back in, TA DA… coin comes back.
(Along those lines… grocery carts in Germany have coin slots too. Want to prevent people from wandering all over town with your grocery cart? Give them their money back when they put the cart away. You Aldi shoppers know what I’m talking about. )
Now you think I’m really nuts, there are loads of playground in the US…. yes, but they are all so darn SAFE, that they forget the fun. Kids don’t need to be wrapped in cotton. My daughter LOVED the playground jumpers, and managed to not hurt herself, even though the jumpers don’t have WALLS. You just jump. If you fall off, you go “bump”, and get back on. High climbing structures, digging tools, swings that go high and wild… it’s a marvelous place to be a child. Kids learn their limits when they can stretch out without help.
I contrast that with a local park in my community. A child got their helmet stuck on the climbing structure (mom made him wear a helmet in case he fell)… well…. mom sued the city, the city pulled out the structure… and now the playground is empty.
Castles are pretty darn cool, and in Germany they are EVERYWHERE. The famous ones get descended upon by busloads of tourists, and find themselves on travel posters or souvenir plates. My favorites are the small castles. the everyday marvels that are just THERE. Beautiful old fortified buildings that look like something out of Story Books. Some have grounds open for walking, others even have cafes… you can’t just visit and NOT have a piece of Apfelkuchen! They are as much a part of the German Landscape as the green hills and trees.
Maybe I like smaller Wasserbergen because my father spent part of his childhood living at one (his father was the groundskeeper for Schloss Buldern after the War), and when we were kids we’d ride bikes all over the grounds. (Just ignore the No Trespassing signs).
There are no Castles in California. The closest we have to Royalty are tours of the Stars Homes (you can get a map for $12.00 on almost any corner in Hollywood; guaranteed to show you the gates of houses that may or may not belong to Brad Pitt or William Shatner.)
German Bread and Fresh Brötchen
Granted, thanks to artisan bakers and foreign travel, Americans are now offered more and better breads than ever before. However, the stores are still overwhelmingly filled with processed factory produced bread. And finding a good broetchen (never mind one with pumpkin seeds…) is a bit like finding a unicorn. Is it the air? The water? The flour? Or is it just that the German culture demands good bread… while here, bread is just something to keep your sandwich together? Who knows…
German bread is available online… and while it’s a bit more complex ordering bread than it is popping in to your neighborhood baker… it’s worth the effort.
Tangible, intangible? All I know is that if I walk down the street in my Oma’s town, everyone I pass says “Tag!” (short for Guten Tag). Here, people seem flustered if I say “good morning” as I pass them on my walk. Sharing tables in a restaurant or Bier Garten. Standing up for elderly people to give them a seat. Knowing who is next in line without forming an actual line. (Although, to be fair, that politeness is balanced with German directness… and that, can sometimes be difficult to take)
Whenever I greet someone, we shake hands, look each other in the eye and say “hello”. When you visit, you bring flowers or a bottle. And when you leave…you shake hands (or hug) and say goodbye. (Although, with Covid, I think we are supposed to bump elbows or touch toes now?)
And for me, the good byes are the hardest part.
The List Goes On…
The smell of Bakeries. Festivals like a Wine Fest, Sport Woche or Schützenfest. The Vine Stake Fences that surround every garden. The million different Gummi Candies and Chocolates. Magazine stores filled with magazines about EVERYTHING! How about the way the evening news covers what is going on in the rest of the world? And the fact that TV shows aren’t constantly interrupted by commercials.
I could go on…
But this doesn’t mean I love America any less. I guess being German-American like being a parent; you love both countries, for different reasons, but each as much as the other.
So, how does your list compare to mine. What do you miss? what things tug at your heart?