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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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.

Berlin in a Day

Most of the things you will hear about Berlin are probably true. “Arm, aber sexy” – “Poor, but sexy” (the slightly shortened quote from former mayor Klaus Wowereit). I’d say sometimes poor, sometimes sexy. A big city, a wide city, a city with a feeling of space. Contrasts meet, world-famous landmarks stand with new construction sites towering behind them. Single S- and U-Bahn subway stops sometimes being as big as a central train station. The immediately recognizable Plattenbau, popping up between streets, or filling entire districts. And, of course, the ubiquitious, uniquely local Currywurst. I think the sight of another commuter contentedly munching on the latter was what cemented my feeling that I was, indeed, once again visiting the German capital. As he carefully and methodically speared the sausage pieces on a tiny wooden pick and dipped them in the curry sauce, I thought once again that this snack alone was already a prime example of the melting pot of experiences that Berlin is.

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“Do you like it?” is a question which is always a little difficult for me to answer about Berlin, because the word that I primarily associate with the city is interesting, and also because I have only been to several districts so far on short trips. But together these glimpses gradually come together to form an impression of a place which is an epitome of being distinctively eclectic. “Berlin is so diverse” is what you will hear from a lot of people.

One day in Berlin needs a plan, and the plan included the classic stops, many of which are an excellent starting point for getting a feel for the city’s character, not to mention its exciting, arresting history.

The morning began with a trip on the S-Bahn from the district of Charlottenburg to the Ostbahnhof station, a day ticket in hand for the zones A and B, covering the city transportation range. The train moved completely above ground, already an opportunity for some passing views of massively graffitied walls, the aforementioned Plattenbau and modern, gleaming shopping centers. Sometimes the train passed so close to a building that occupants could have reached out of their windows and shaken our hands, if we were moving slower. Once at the Ostbahnhof, I looked at the exit signs and picked one solely based on intuition, relying on memories from an earlier trip to steer me once I was outside. And they did (who needs Google Maps). If you walk out of the station and see the bridge with the S-Bahn track in the distance to your right, you just need to head in that direction. Some 15 minutes later you emerge among a mix of concrete, bricks and the enormous front facade of the Ostbahnhof. And ahead of you stretches the East Side Gallery.

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I actually learned about this significant item on any Berlin tourist’s list fairly recently from a friend, and I’m glad I did. The 1,316 meter long expanse of history is perfect for enthusiastic snapping and a long, satisfying walk. The biggest open air art gallery in the world spans like a bridge between the Ostbahnhof and the impressive Oberbaumbrücke at the end of the stroll. It’s also free. The landmarked gallery had wire fences blocking several works of art this weekend. Unfortunately, despite firm warnings, paintings in the gallery still get scribbled on and sprayed. Nethertheless, the eye-catching creations on the remains of the Berlin wall from 118 artists are a magnet for anyone visiting the city, pulling you in to an atmosphere that is both heavily reminiscent and ringing with the present.

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Back to the Ostbahnhof, snapping some more pictures along the way, and in to the train to Alexanderplatz, ganz klassisch. Everything else that’s firstly famous about Berlin is centered around that massive transportation knot. The TV tower is a convenient focus point for reassurance if you need to retrace steps, and basically, wherever you walk, you will end up where you want to be. My main interest this time was finding an opportunity to both explore something and hopefully get a view of the city from way up high, and I got to do just that. Actually, there are several good ways to do this on or near Alexanderplatz, so take your pick. One of them is the Berliner Dom, or the Berlin Cathedral.

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The cathedral is stately, gorgeous, very large and slightly unexpected (even if you know about it) after a morning spent at the East Side Gallery. It’s also a kind of relief – I have a weakness for cathedral architecture, and my hankering is intensified by the fact that Hamburg, unfortunately, doesn’t have one. The Berliner Dom can be satisfyingly viewed from all sides, after which one does want to go in. This weekend it was surprisingly uncrowded, with a conveniently placed ticket machine speeding up the process of getting inside. Initial scepticism about the admission price was quickly wiped out. I spent an hour climbing everywhere I could, and had I not needed some fresh air to digest the multitude of impressions, I would have probably stayed in there longer. Inside, the cathedral is magnificent, beautifully kept and restored, with the domed ceiling immediately claiming one’s attention.

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The cathedral was completed in 1905, but later suffered colossal damage during the Second World War. The main hall was opened for mass again in the mid nineties. A good amount of staircases lead upward from the entry level through the rest of the cathedral. Everything is sensibly labeled to ensure correct exploration procedures, though this doesn’t stop me from gravitating towards KEIN ZUTRITT and hearing a polite, “Nein” from staff. Note – when you find yourself on a landing by two signs, one saying Crypt, and the other pointing up, go up first. The crypt contains some 90 coffins and is, of course, also very interesting (though sad and at times scary). But the (technically) only way out of it leads towards an exit, which leads outside and thus eliminates you entering the cathedral again. I just quietly scampered back up the way I came.

One of the most exciting parts of the journey inside the Dom starts further up, with signs eagerly announcing the walk to the dome. They also constantly warn about the trip being physically taxing. Broader staircases give way to narrow metal ones which spiral underneath low ceilings and alternate with horizontal stretches of wooded floor along the inside of the dome. Excitement mounts, and just when you wonder how much longer this will go on, 270 steps later you emerge outside, with one of the most breathtaking views of Berlin you could hope for. Everything comes together, melding with the impressions from the cathedral, and the TV tower in the distance once again confirms that uniquely local feeling of past and present always existing side by side. One with an unseen, but intense energy, the other in-your-face and urgent.

These romantic musings were brought to a halt when confronted with the practicalities of going back downstairs. To put it as bluntly as I can, visitors of a more corpulent stature might find themselves in a difficult position (pun unavoidable), as in more than one place along the dome the space between wall and railing is only slightly wider than the average ruler. What would happen, I wondered randomly, slightly horrified at the image in my head, if someone got stuck? Yes, the Berlin Cathedral definitely leaves a lasting impression.

Tumbling back outside in to the sunlight was slightly strange, but then again, that too felt natural, as it all seemed part and parcel of the experience. The sight of the Brandenburger Tor at the end of the tour fittingly capped off this one day of rambling around Berlin, as I bought a typical postcard and slipped again in to the S-Bahn.

 

Rausschmeißen

“Ich schmeiße dich hier raus, wenn’s OK ist”, said the colleague giving me a lift from work. I remember being stunned at the combination of the seemingly aggressive verb with her normal, polite tone of voice. Cue small German lesson afterwards. Rausschmeißen does indeed mean to throw someone out etc. “Wir haben ihn rausgeschmissen” is what you might hear from a friend about a raucous guest at a party. There’s also the noun, Rausschmeißer, which means bouncer. And I was recently having coffee with a friend shortly before the café‘s closing time. The music suddenly got significantly louder. She laughed and said, “Das ist die Rausschmeißer-Musik”.

My colleague, of course, was using the word colloquially (or umgangssprachlich auf Deutsch) and simply meant to ask me if it was OK to let me out at a certain subway stop. However, to be on the safe side, if I get a lift now, I use the neutral “Ich kann schon hier aussteigen” instead of “Du kannst mich GERNE hier raussschmeißen.”