Saturday, 25 May 2013

Germany - first impressions

It's been about three months since I've been living in Germany, so it might be a little late for a "first impressions" post. Time has certainly has flown but anyway, let's start this shit up...

So by the way, I've been living and working in Hildesheim, Lower Saxony which is a smallish town near Hannover. One advantage of a smaller town is that both the serenity of the outskirts as well as the excitement of the city are both within a 15 minute bus ride of each other. Car exhibitions, flea markets and pubs are just as easily accessible as a hike through the forest.

It's a pretty awesome change being able to hear the wind through the trees and birds chirping outside the window and stuff. I haven't read the book yet but i feel (just a little) like I'm Henry David Thoreau in Walden. :)


Pretty much one of the first things I noticed after arriving in Germany was how nice everyone generally is. For instance you'll be standing at the bus stop or passing someone on the street and they'll generally wish you a cheery 'Hallo'. At the supermarkets or at restaurants and things the service people are generally quite happy and conversational, it takes some getting used to. Also service people in general tend to be quite young here and seem to be waiting tables or tending bar to generate income for something else. Perhaps school tuition or even just extra pocket money.

This age and "motivation" factor has some interesting side effects, like that they are very honest and open about their place of work. So for example, a friend was telling me he was at a store and they didn't have the specific brand of what he was looking for. So when he asked the cashier where else he might look, she directed him to another store even though it is a direct competitor! And all of this is considered pretty unremarkable here whereas other establishments might very well fire the cashier for "driving away business"

Speaking of culture more generally, it's also quite amazing to me how much of Germany has permeated into pop-culture all over the world. Right from pre-school the very word 'Kindergarten' is a German word that literally translates to 'Garden for Children'. Grimm's fairy tales as well are basically Germanic folktales that have been watered down over time to make them more palatable for a younger audience. You can check out a summary of some of the original (more gruesome) versions here.

Even depictions of Gingerbread houses then are very Germanic looking...

House-spotting in South-Germany

And the list just goes on and on.


Even linguistically there's so much cross pollination that it almost goes unnoticed. Words like 'Kitsch' and 'Foosball' or even 'Gesundheit' are so commonly used that they sometimes don't even register as being German. There's apparently lots of other German words that are directly used in English, forget the ones that are derived from German. You can check out some of them here.

I also had the opportunity to attend a German language course recently and it was quite a fascinating experience. It seems to me that learning even a little bit of a foreign language gives you direct insight into the collective psyche of a whole people and culture. For instance, German as a language has a comparatively small number of words compared to languages like English. Perhaps the German reputation for straight talk springs from this since even when they speak English, they don't bother with very niche words while making a point.

Plus learning a language can be quite good fun because of all the little gems that you stumble across. For example nouns in German all have a very strict gender which is expressed by their prefixes. So 'der' for masculine, 'die' (pronounced 'dee') for feminine and 'das' for neuter. Which then makes it quite amusing to note that sausages in general have a feminine prefix whereas things like Donuts have a masculine prefix. (Note : No one said these gems were particularly sophisticated)

Public Amenities

Another thing that's extremely striking is how well organized and comprehensive all the public utilities are. For example public transport just continues to leave me speechless. In the time I've been here I've seen the bus service disrupted just once, and that too because of sudden snowfall. Even if a bus is delayed or doesn't run at a particular time that's the exception, not something to be expected.

Equally impressive is how connected the bus system is to the train system in the sense that if you have a train leaving at a particular time there's very likely a bus that will take you to the station with five minutes to spare. So in a sense these separate systems don't leave you to work out how they fit together. As further proof, there's an app that provides you with live bus schedules. I could give the bus stop outside my house as the start point and the hostel in the other city as the destination and the system gives you all the intermediate bus and train stops to get to the station, take your train and then reach your room.

Even interacting with government offices is made so painless. When I first arrived, there is a registration form that needs filling out and by force of habit I expected it to take about half a day. But after arriving at the Rathaus (Town Hall) it was a five minute wait for a 15 minute procedure (that included the guy welcoming me to Hildesheim and handing me a welcome kit that contained a map, a schedule of upcoming city events and a coupon for the public swimming pool) and I was out of there! Honestly it's stuff like that that constituted the biggest culture shock.

Another thing that took the longest while to get over is the fact that drinking water is immediately drinkable. I mean, I love India and all but one does not simply drink water straight out of the tap!

Boromir knows what I'm talking about...

Perhaps stuff like this could just be attributed to the climate and the engineering pressure it puts on everyone. Like if it's snowing for half the year then you'd better be damn sure everything's well engineered because if it isn't then you're screwed son. But still, it is pretty impressive. Like how do you get water to flow over an entire country and have it be pure enough to drink! I'm still not completely over it actually, come to think of it...

Living and Working

For a large percentage of people around the world, one's day job constitutes a large portion of the day. But in Germany atleast, 'work-life' balance is considered extremely important and people don't generally work weekends or long hours. Most awesomely, insane hours aren't worn as badges of honour in the workplace. Instead they're recognized as being regrettable and temporary inconveniences because there was something that happened that nobody foresaw.

Generally speaking, Germany seems a primary example of what is possible in a country that is just plain prosperous. From an individual's perspective, time moves a lot slower and things aren't always running at break-neck pace. While crossing the street (at a zebra crossing, of course) drivers actually stop to let you pass. If you ask for directions people don't just point you in the right direction, they also tell you that it's a helluva long walk and that you might as well wait for the next bus (true story).

People also seem to wait longer before making large commitments to start a family or even to settle into stable jobs and maybe they'll travel or do whatever for a bit until then. Even their extra-career pursuits are also a lot deeper, I guess because there's more time to do things like build remote-control airplanes or cycle or hike or get pilot's licenses or garden or bake or whatever. There's also a lot more public art around like street performers and guitarists and things, even graffiti is more developed as an art form. Random stuff like the picture below are fairly common...

Picture courtesy

Then from a societal / governmental perspective, having a prosperous nation at your disposal means that you have space to actually take care of people. So quality standards can be imposed on products more thoroughly, and consumer rights can be upheld more honestly. Police staff and ambulances services can be more well funded. Even crime rates themselves are less of a problem; at clothing stores they don't make you leave your bags at the door. Not to say that shoplifting never happens but I guess it's just not as much of a problem.

Roads are also better maintained, with cyclists getting their own lanes or even their own roads in some places. And as if that wasn't enough, the sign posts for pedestrian signals actually have handles where a cyclist can hold on till the light turns green. I mean, that's insaaannee! o.0

Relections on India

All of this might seem like I'm hating on India but that's not it at all. If anything, I feel like exposure to the way that other people live their lives has deepened my understanding of my own roots and background. At the same time there's also tremendous insight to be had into the real meaning of phrases like 'development' and 'quality of life'.

For example people generally say that overpopulation is India's primary problem but larger cities like Stuttgart or Nuremberg can be quite crowded without any breakdown in public systems. And people also say that maybe government administration is easier in Germany because perhaps the people are more homogeneous. But that's not true either; German culture shows a tremendous amount of variation between North and South and then again between the Eastern and Western parts of Germany. And even port cities like Hamburg are generally quite safe
even with the confluence of cultures there.

As far as India goes, I haven't the slightest clue about how one might go about tackling some the issues we're currently wrestling with. I hope to write more about this at some point but for now I feel like I've gotten a new perspective on stories that end with "...and there was prosperity throughout the land and peace reigned for a hundred years" and jazz like that.