The French and German Way of Life

Germany is where I live and France is where I go regularly. True, I don’t know all of Germany, I know a certain part of Northern Germany best, and there is still so much to discover. I don’t know all of France either, as I mostly travel in one particular direction when I do go, though I have been to a few different cities. But in the last decade, through this combination, I have been fortunate to experience for myself parts of the French and German way of life. And for me one of the most telling bases of comparison for the two is the impression I’ve gotten from both nations in their approach to managing time.

I think those last two words, the choice of them, is already indicative enough of the strength of the German influence on me, which joyfully melds with my own character set-up. It seems Germans see time as something to be treasured, respected, a luxury to strive for, a tool to plan with, a sought-after component of leisure, an opportunity not to be wasted. For there is nothing more frustrating than time that is wasted. The French, meanwhile, always seem to be sure that whatever happens, there will be more time, becase la vie est belle and so is France, and why don’t you sit down, have a glass of wine and some cheese while you wait, you uptight German person.

In my French class we recently started a new lesson built around the subject of le train. Much was said while we collected the vocabulary we already knew. Our teacher explained the one marked difference between the German Deutsche Bahn and the French SNCF. Punctuality? Non. Plus, plenty of people in Germany complain about Deutsche Bahn. Non, it is le ticket! If you have your German train ticket, your platform is printed on it, and usually c’est vrai! Meanwhile, in a French gare you have to go stare at some information screens to find out where you board your train. It is not unusual to not have these details even 15 minuts before departure (being German). This was precisely my first experience taking the train from Paris-Est station to Strasbourg and the memory still makes me snort like an impatient horse.

I had to ask my teacher one burning question. Are the French relaxed about this fact and all Oui, c’est ça, or are there actually people in the country who are irritated by this? My teacher shrugged with that characteristically elegant, but nonchalant air, her eyebrows going up and her lips puckering in sync with the movement of her shoulders. Certain circumstances allow you to get a refund for your train ticket, she said. But what about your destination, the plan to be somewhere at a certain time, I sputtered. Another shrug.

I was recounting this story to a German friend, after we had made lunch plans, which we neatly laid down like we always do, despite knowing each other for ten years. We had included the possibility of being SPONTANEOUS in deciding where to go if it rained, because we planned to walk. But in case we didn’t get to, we were prepared!

Being a middle child, maybe this is what it’s about for me, a constant melding and co-existence of the stable and the new, the tried and tested injected with occasional joie de vivre, the satisfaction and gratitude of something working our as planned (or better) against arriving somewhere two hours later, but your favourite cafe is still open, and you get dessert on the house because your group is friendly and happy about seeing each other.

I know that the French and German way of life will both stay as they are. I know that I will continue feeling as if a bus or a subway train arriving on time as per my prior checking online is a present just for me. I know that (sometimes) it’s OK to stop thinking about time as such and live in the moment. And occasionally I will prepare dinner as a three-course meal. After that I will memorize the platform number printed on my train ticket AND check it on the information screen in the station.

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Magnolia Trees in the Rain

I touch the tip of my shoe to the surface of the puddle from yesterday’s rain and watch the rings on the water spread petals from the cherry tree nearby. And that sums up spring in the lovely city of Hamburg. It blooms, it rains, it blooms some more and it rains again. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Good Friday is upon us with its much awaited time for rest and some peace, so I pull a Lizzy Bennet and go scampering about the city(side). Actually, I’m starting small. There’s a stack of real paper maps, yes, lying around at home. I’ve collected them during various outings because they were free and looked nice, which in my opinion are two of the best reasons to take something with you.

I’m always game for a walk around town and I’m also curious about testing my map-reading ability anew. Also, my phone chose to die right before I went outside, so no Google Map insurance this time.

Off down Grindelallee I go, the Hamburg University campus behind me, and the intersection between Bezirksamt Eimsbüttel, Hallerstraße and Beim Schlump ahead. On any other day this street is teeming with cyclists, students, locals, shops are open, bakeries are working fast and the buses 4 and 5 speed past every five minutes. Today’s quiet is an interesting contrast to the usual noise and bustle, and I let it sink in as the map successfully leads me to my next turn, on to Hallerstraße. It’s a very legible map, with little illustrations and a list of places to stop at on the back.

Hallerstraße is a charming residential street, rhododendrons and cherry trees on front lawns adding to its beauty. I stop to read a sign in front of the first building in the gallery below – it says the house was built in the Neo-Renaissance style and the “generous apartments” cater to fine tastes. I’m sure.

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Consulting the map, I turn left on to Rothenbaumchaussee and make a mental note of numerous pretty side streets to explore in the future. I pass elegant villas and new-looking apartment buildings, as well as the occasional purposeful parents shepherding their energetic offspring in to a car, most likely on the way to an Easter dinner with the grandparents. The headquarters of NDR (Northern German Broadcasting) are also located in the Rothenbaumchaussee.

After walking straight on for a few more minutes, I reach Klosterstern, and though I can get on the subway from there, I choose to walk some more, turning on to Jungfrauenthal. Other street names in addition to this one are indicative of the area’s earlier ties to religion and the church: Innocentiastraße, St. Benedictstraße. It’s raining a little and the air smells wonderful in these cosy streets lined with trees, more (I’m assuming also Neo-Renaissance) apartment buildings and plenty of bikes chained up in front of every door.

Isestraße is next, and when I reach the Hoheluftbrücke station, instead of continuing to where I started the walk, I turn on to Schlankreye, then Gustav-Falke-Straße. Brick buildings typical of Northern Germany line these streets, and I conclude my exploration with the discovery of two schools, one of which turns out to have a charming courtyard. All I can say is, if my high school had looked like this…

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I feel as if I have only scratched the suface of my surroundings, because I have all these questions: why were the buildings built the way they were? What used to be there before? Did any famous people live here? What was it like to walk around here 50, 100 years ago? My romantic imagination enjoys the remaining sense of mystery.

The nicest surprise during this walk, though, have been the many magnolia trees.

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Becoming German: My First Packstation

Ever since I started to shop online, which actually did happen when I moved to Germany (late, but happy bloomer), I have become my own post office. There are so many stories I can tell about recovering packages delivered while I was at work.

Going to the real post office (and you are lucky if you have one nearby) after getting the nice notification in your mailbox is, of course, a conventional route that doesn’t make for a particularly spectacular story, unless your nice friends patiently listen to you chanting “I picked up my package!” like a five-year-old or you relate amusing things you heard while waiting in line.

Then there’s the neighbors, who you don’t want to inconvenience, but you also sometimes sign for their packages and it’s just a part of modern life. There are also the shops downstairs where the staff might be nice enough to hold on to your boxes. There might be an office that reacts slightly grumpily when you finally do manage to come by, so you feel a little guilty since they have signed for your stuff multiple times and leave them a box of chocolates. And there’s the notification about your package being dropped off at a place you never go to and you have to find out how to get there. Time is running out, your package will soon be sent back and the opening hours aren’t too accommodating either. All in the name of consumerism and not wanting to enter an actual shop after getting almost addicted to all the psychological comforts online shopping offers.

It was time to get organized, I thought one morning, or even more organized – because make no mistake, I was a freaking good post office. But I did not want to be dependent on so many different receiving channels anymore. So after asking around and doing some diligent reading in German, I signed up for the so-called Packstation, already fantasizing about the changes this would bring to my life.

As with most things nowadays, you have to get an online account first – cue additional emails to customer service about not getting the confirmation email and therefore not being able to proceed with my enthusiastic readiness to conform, despite encouraging reminders from the service that I had “only one step left” to complete. This step was indeed finally completed. After that I had to physically go to the post office. And after that I was waiting for an envelope in the mail. Just when I was starting to wonder, it arrived, containing a shiny new gold-coloured plastic card. With new numbers on it that I had to identify.

After my first initial nervous excitement was over, I realized one very important thing – I had no clue how to use a Packstation or what it looked like, despite the instructions included with my envelope. This information was, of course, easy to research, and it was also comforting to confirm that there were other people before me who had googled “Wie nutze ich eine Packstation”.

With shaking fingers I placed my first ever order to be delivered to this new hiding place. The package arrived. I breathed out. And then I jumped again when I got a text message saying “Your package has been at the Packstation for TWO DAYS.” OK, I’m going. I successfully located the Packstation – two yellow walls of identical cells row upon row and a slot in the middle of one where I was to swipe my magic golden card. The touchscreen in front of me was very friendly and very clear. My only moment of panic came when I heard a click and a distinct sound of something opening behind me. Just as I thought I was afraid to turn around and search for fear this would CHANGE EVERYTHING IN FRONT OF ME FOREVER, the screen told me “The box is located behind you.” I turned around and saw one little door ajar. The sun was shining, there was almost no one around and it was all like something out of Chronicles of Narnia or Labyrinth.

I’m a fan now.