a week in Hamburg, Germany

Posted on: June 27th, 2016

P.S. I’ll upload some photos when we’re somewhere other than the Frankfurt airport.

What a week anywhere makes you feel, so we’ve heard, is that you’re an expert on that place. So that makes us experts on Germany in general because it’s been exactly one week since we landed. We’ll share with you the ups and downs of our experience here.

First, for the ups:

* Germans, you sure do know how to make bread, beer, and bratwurst (sausages). Thank you for sharing those skills with the world.

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* Cute little cafés.

* Chocolate.

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* 17 euro prescription eye glasses! Can you believe it?? This is a crazy price – one we’d never find in Canada. Derek and I both benefitted from this deal, ordering both glasses and sunglasses. It was a civilized experience, of course… we could drink real coffee and hot chocolate in real mugs as we were served by a real optometrist (and, of course, Derek’s eye exam was free!). Derek’s glasses were ready the next day, and after 5 days, the rest were done.

* There is a freedom of play here that we don’t yet have in Canada. I spent a day with a forest school in Hamburg, and the kids were playing in the mud by the river for a good hour and a half. And by playing I don’t mean mucking around in rubber boots. They were bare foot, rolling, crawling, dragging themselves like snakes and seals, through the very mucky, muddy mud. It was in their hair, all over their clothes, and they looked absolutely delighted. And this was right beside the Elbe River, where humongous ships go by every so often. With 3 to 5 year olds. 17 of them. With 2 adults. With no life jackets or floaty things. This would be crazy in Canadian terms (liability concerns and what-not), but the Germans just roll with it. “This is what it means to be a child,” the one leader said.

We also visited a place called Bauspielplatz, a place where you could sign out tools and start working on hammering and sawing and adding to a never-ending fort kingdom that children had built. It is an amazing place, and kids can just be dropped off there by their parents to spend hours creating and working together.

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* Transportation. Trains. Free bikes (for a 1/2 hour ride or less). Subways. Buses. In a city that was destroyed in WW2, and deals with multiple bridges, canals, and rivers… they have a phenomenally well organized transit system. And they always run on time.

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* Soccer. We were here during Eurocup, and got to experience the fervour and excitement of cheering for Germany. Kids play soccer outside a lot too. And wear lots of soccer jerseys.

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And now, for the very few, but humourous in hindsight, downs:

* Germans love rules. Lots of rules. Very specific rules. On seemingly every aspect of life.

* Germans love to scold, or correct, people when they fall outside of this long list of unwritten rules. My family (brother, sister-in-law) who have lived here for two years had told many stories about scoldings, but I wondered whether they were exaggerating just ein bischen (a little bit). I visited them for almost a week last year, and didn’t experience one scolding. My sister-in-law had blogged about these adult-to-adult scoldings, and I found myself, in typical Canadian fashion, feeling a little sorry for those Germans who were being written about. But this week, it was different. I came to realize that Germans can take a good scolding, just as they can give them. It’s no big deal to them – there’s no emotion or shame attached tot it for them – it’s just part of regular, everyday life.

Here are three vignettes that illustrate this interesting German phenomenon of scolding.

Biking in Hamburg: It was a beautiful morning, biking through Hamburg, on our shiny red DB city bikes. We were staying on the specified red brick bike path, winding our way past canals, bridges, and the harbour. We had started our bike journey with one bike each, but when we deposited our bikes at one spot, then tried to sign them out at another, they wouldn’t allow our card to sign out enough bikes. So we improvised. On two of our bikes, we put two people – one biking, and one riding on the metal “seat” behind the bike. We had a few interesting looks along the way (I was riding on the back of Derek’s bike, and Zoe was on the back of Jon’s), but no scoldings. When we arrived at the next bike drop-off spot, we just happened to run into a DB worker. It turned out that he didn’t like our improvising. He told us “Das ist nicht gut.” “No??” I said. “Nein,” said he. He went on to tell Jon in German that it was not allowed – forbidden, in fact (another word that the Germans seem to like), and something about the screws on the bike, and something about the bike breaking. So that was the end of that fun.

Taking the train to Mölln: Jon reserved us 1st class tickets on the train to Mölln, which were 2 euros more than regular tickets, but ensured that we’d be able to seat our two families together for the journey. We walked up to the 2nd floor of the train, opened the door, and quietly exclaimed our amazement at the wonderful options for seating. It took us a few minutes to decide where to sit – there were just so many options, and so much to think about – best view vs. facing the direction of the train. In those few ecstatic minutes, a German woman curtly spoke to Melissa, asking her if all of us were going to sit in the area near her. Then she got up, said we were being too loud and that she needed things to be quieter, and moved to another seat. Melissa checked to see if we were in the quiet zone (there is such a thing on their trains), and we weren’t. This little incident rolled off Jon and Melissa like water off a goose, but for me, it stuck like chewing gum. “It’s just Germans,” they said, “This is quite normal.” But any chance I got, I looked up at that woman and gave a little glare, and one time even rolled my eyes. I wanted her to know that I wasn’t pleased that she had bursted our little bubble. And we weren’t even being noisy!

In a restaurant in Hamburg: When we had returned from Mölln by train (I know… 2 scolding stories in one day… amazing!), we wanted to eat in a restaurant where we could watch the Germany-Slovakia EuroCup soccer game before heading home. We ordered things like wiener schnitzel, labskaus, and fresh fish and fries. A yummy meal, but we cheaped out on the 5 euro still water (as opposed to “classic” water, which is fizzy water), thinking we’d have drinks when we got home. Partway through the meal, though, Eden got thirsty. We told her that we would wait until after eating. But then Jon told her not to worry – and gave her a sip from his water bottle. On came the glares from our waitress, who then proceeded to wag her index finger back and forth at Eden, staring her down. She then told Jon that “it’s not allowed” – probably forbidden – to drink water from outside the restaurant. Simeon said, “Warum?” (why?) but that went ignored. We left shortly thereafter, and drank our fill of tap water on the street outside the restaurant.

Here’s the thing about these scoldings: I am a people pleaser, and I’m a pretty good rule follower, generally. Especially if I’m in new places – I like to be culturally sensitive. But these seemingly little things: like being a little excited when we boarded the train, and taking a sip of water from a water bottle… don’t seem to be the types of things I’d be scolding if given the chance. Let’s look at the bigger picture, nein?

Plus, I’m Canadian. I had “I am far too Canadian” by Spirit of the West running through my head as I pondered these public scoldings and how they irked me. One of my highest priorities (in public, anyway) is harmony. I totally understand the whole saving face cultures of the middle east and Asia, and wonder how these people would experience a German scolding.

Anyway, Germans… at the very least, you’ve made me think. About when to be direct and how to be direct. About what deserves a good scolding and what doesn’t. So thank you for that. And for all of the ups that we experienced – danke, danke, danke (Jon, Melissa, and Simeon, a lot of the credit goes to you for showing us all of these ups!… thank you!!)!!

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