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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Discover Northern Germany: Husum

Husum is a beautiful historic town in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein worth checking out if you want to discover Northern Germany. Lovely walks along streets lined with old brick houses typical of the area and everything being reachable on foot make for easy planning while you’re there.

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Cold winds blow in January from the North Sea nearby, brilliant sunshine might be expected and there are lots of places to stop by for a cup of tea – popular beverage here. The traditional Brauhaus Husum in the Neustadt street is a recommended stop if you’re interested in the local beer culture, and there’s even a proudly sold local brand of mineral water, Unser Gutes Husumer.

The local castle is a good place to start if you want to get a town history fix and the park around it fills with crocuses in the springtime. Even now in this cold winter weather tiny ones are sprouting up from the earth. The Schlosscafe, located right in the castle courtyard, serves tasty (and cheap) dishes, as well as delicious, generously sliced cake. It’s a good way to finish the visit to the castle (which follows a route noble guests were expected to take in the olden days – you might get a guide from the stern lady at the entrance and don’t even think of saying no). I didn’t know Czar Peter the Great visited Husum during the Great Northern War (dim memories of history lessons in school), or that the town used to belong to Denmark. Many signs in the castle and other places are written both in German and Danish.

Husum is also the birthplace of Theodor Storm, an important influencer of the country’s 19th century literary scene and connected to the development of realism in German literature. After walking through all the rooms of his house, which has stayed largely unchanged since his death, through two world wars and despite other owners, it’s amusing to find out that Storm collected and penned ghost stories (Spukgeschichten), which had been unpublished for a long time before being discovered. The receptionist tells me about children huddling around a fireplace in kitchens during dark evenings, while that cold wind raged outside in streets that weren’t yet lit the same as nowadays. They would tell each other these stories, both drawing from what they had heard elsewhere and making things up as they went along. This certainly creates quite an image in my head!

Just like in Hamburg, people say Moin in Husum. Another gem in Northern Germany.

Lüneburg Day 2

It does all start with breakfast. A breakfast makes or breaks a hotel stay for me, and as long as I made the effort to save for this trip, I’d like my favourite meal of the day to justify it. And did it ever!

I came downstairs to see a small, but well-stocked breakfast space – always a winning point for me, with sensible food placement and convenient containers. Various hams, cheese, fruit, bread, scrambled eggs, fried mushrooms, bowls filled with vegetable salads, smoked salmon and other fish, home-made jam and two types of peanut butter to choose from – I was in breakfast paradise. The walls of the restaurant are also decorated with older illustrations of Lüneburg, always a nice touch when you see something local. I was so full that I had to pass on sampling any local dishes at lunchtime. Waste not.

I started my sightseeing with a visit to the local Water Tower, which you can see from a lot of points in the town. It’s open every day and a non-discounted ticket is still very cheap, 4,50 euros. A great tip if you are undecided about visiting museums during a shorter trip. A lift takes you up to the 6th floor, where you climp a few more flights of stairs on your way to the observation platform with its stunning view of the well-preserved red-tiled roofs and old brick houses of Lüneburg. You might be asked not to visit the second floor, where weddings sometimes take place. Going back down, I’d recommend checking out the exhibitions on site, such as the many facts on water supply history, in Lüneburg and beyond (did you know that boiling water for hygienic reasons became common ONLY in the second half of the 19th century?), and also the Japanese artefacts on display, honoring the partnership between Lüneburg and Naruto.

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The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around Lüneburg’s pretty streets, stepping in to shops and enjoying the easy distances between everything. If this place is already so picturesque, seeing it in other seasons will definitely be exciting too.

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Exploring Lüneburg: Day 1

Lüneburg is a gem of a town in Northern Germany and perfect for a weekend getaway. It’s small, easily accessible, quaint, extremely historical and simply pretty.

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Day 1 was arrival and settling in day, so there are no detailed notes on sights and snacks as of yet, but there will be. I caught the quicker train among the regular ones leaving from Hamburg every hour, and before I knew it I was exiting Lüneburg station, small but busy, and almost automatically walking towards the town center. Memories from day trips in previous years come back and I’m excited to spend more time here. You can’t get lost in Lüneburg, which is comforting to remember even when I do my trademark loop while looking for my hotel.

Zum Roten Tore is comfortable and cosy. The immediate change of pace from big city to small town is made more obvious by the fact that I get a traditional room key with a heavy key ring and that when you people-watch you get an occasional relaxed hello.  I came prepared from Hamburg, which means I took an umbrella with me, but I’m touched to discover a large white one in my room.

It’s already early evening, so after a snack I walk around, familiarizing myself with the streets and landmarks I’d like to explore later. It’s January and not raining, one cool shop follows the other and I can’t get enough of the gingerbreadness Lüneburg first impressed me with all those years ago. Not a tall building in sight and people are actually walking slower. The weekend is upon us, shoppers take leisurely advantage of winter sale season and increasing numbers of laughing teenagers gather in groups on Am Sande, the main square. It looks like various pub crawls are about to start and I move away to walk along the surrounding streets made up of brick houses with sometimes slanted windows and walls.

One of Germany’s most famous soap operas, Rote Rosen, is filmed here, and the broshure I just read tells me I might run in to some of the actors if I’m lucky. I just checked out some clips on YouTube to polish up and find myself being drawn in…

 

Germany: Random Useful Facts

Maybe all of this is only true for the North, which I’ve had the most experience with, but it might serve you well elsewhere in the land of Goethe, Mercedes and the Oktoberfest (NOT representative of the whole country), so here goes with some random useful facts about Germany.

Plans of action are appreciated. If there isn’t one, it’s a handy skill to be able to come up with one on the spot. This is particularly true for a night out with a group you might not know too well or organizing events with friends that involve being out and about. Things you can do to polish this skill and feel prepared regardless of decisions to be made at a moment’s notice: check transportation routes in advance, save map search results in your phone, buddy up with another reliable person, make a LIST. I feel joy simply typing this. Not to give anything away about myself, but you get the idea.

Don’t be fooled when you’re getting together with someone, say on a weekend, and they suggest being “spontaneous” or “spontan” in German. Spontan also entails a plan. First of all, you’re agreeing to proceed this way, and you need to know the translation: someone will need to text or call the other person to ask what’s going on for today and therefore make a plan. It’s unavoidable.

It’s a sure bet that almost every packaged item you buy in Germany either has detailed instructions about opening said packaged item, or a (sometimes cunningly hidden) HIER ÖFFNEN (open here) icon printed on it. Keep looking for it and don’t give up. Opening per procedure is often less messy and more satisfying than trying to tear off a layer of covering on your own. Following HIER ÖFFNEN will change your life and earn approving glances from those you happened to invite to brunch and help avoid frowns from locals.

This is true for many countries, but politeness is greatly admired in Germany and saying someone is “unfreundlich” doesn’t just mean unfriendly or rude, it carries a ton of disapprovement behind it. I think it’s also characteristic of the northern German character. One might not say outright that someone sucked on certain levels or express anger. But unfreundlich is both reserved and layered with subtext at the same time. There’s a range of German phrases, both long and short, that immediately convey consideration and good manners when spoken.

Daydreaming while standing in line is not necessarily frowned upon, but you will get a louder “Hallo” from staff. Saying you were lost in thought (one of the first phrases I learned when I moved and proceeded to use often, again, not to give away too much) with an apologetic smile diffuses this situation of potential minor time wasting.

These useful facts about Germany are as random as the situations life sometimes puts us in, so you’re covered.

How to Do Düsseldorf in One Weekend

Düsseldorf routinely pops up in various lists and rankings of European cities to visit, and with good reason. It’s convenient to reach both from Europe and elsewhere, not so large that you feel overwhelmed at choosing what to see and do during a weekend getaway, but by no means lacking in cultural delights and delicious food experiences. Read on!

Key Facts

One of the top ten most populous cities in Germany and the capital of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The famous Rhine river runs through the city also famous for its carnival celebrations in early spring, which pairs suitably with the fact that several established Altbier brands (such as Füchschen, Uerige and Schlüssel) typical to Düsseldorf and the region around it proudly distinguish the city further. Düsseldorf is also home to a large Japanese community. Last but not least, football fans the world over will definitely have something to say about Fortuna Düsseldorf.

Get There

By train – Deutsche Bahn offers many options and it’s a pleasant ride, especially for us northerners any time we venture further down from the peak of the country (pun points for me, as lovely Hamburg is as flat (plattes Land) a city as can be). There’s some nice green scenery to admire on the way and even several hours pass quickly. Düsseldorf Cental Station is busy, but well-planned, and the Presse + Buch shop is definitely worth a visit if you’re also departing by train. One thing to keep in mind during the summer in particular is that you will most likely encounter numerous groups of tipsy or near-intoxicated young men arriving for stag dos/ bachelor party weekends. Most of them are friendly and happy, but still best viewed from a distance.

By plane – Düsseldorf international Airport is a popular transportation hub and very nice to walk around. Airlines flying to and from include Lufthansa, Air Berlin and Eurowings. It’s well-connected to the city center, as well as the Düsseldorf Central Station, and the journey by S-Bahn train doesn’t take long.

Stay

Düsseldorf is an internationally popular city with a busy event program year round, as well as a thriving business center. There is no shortage of hotels to choose from based on budget and preferences. Another option is, of course, Airbnb, which was my experience this time and which I thoroughly enjoyed. One example of a good area to stay in, especially if you want to walk a lot to points of interest, is the Friedrichstadt district. Tip: check the trade fair calendar before planning your trip. Messe Düsseldorf is one of the largest exhibition venues in Germany, and accommodation may predictably get snapped up fast around and during events.

Walk

To Düsseldorf’s Rheinturm TV tower and explore the surrounding park, watching fellow weekenders doing yoga on the lawn.

To the arresting and Instagram-worthy Neuer Zollhof in the Düsseldorf harbor, with buildings designed by Frank O. Gehry.

To the green, sprawling and lovely Volksgarten park, and run between these clocks in an installation by Klaus Rinke. Alice in Wonderland/ White Rabbit vibes? Yeah, me too. On a weekend morning it’s an oasis of tranquility with many beautiful trees, bridges, shaded corners…and birds of all kinds! Generally a regular sight all over Düsseldorf. Step carefully.

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Visit

Of the many museums Düsseldorf has to offer, I visited the NRW Forum, well-known for its exhibitions of modern art. A particular point of excitement which is still relevant as I type this was a virtual reality exhibition with several stations titled Unreal, which had me finding my footing again after an immersive half hour in my massive headset. On the way out I walked through the Myth Tour de France exhibition, which was unexpectedly graphic and made me aware of my naive ignorance around the event. The exhibition was, of course, timed around this year’s start of the Tour de France in Düsseldorf at the end of June- beginning of July.

Eat

Time to sit down for a bite! Walking back from the harbor in the general direction of the city center around noon, in good weather you can take your pic of lovely places with tables set outside overlooking the river, and thankfully reasonably priced menus. Again, in the summertime the aforementioned groups of dudes celebrating their groom buddy are omnipresent, so take care to sit at a distance in order to be able to chat and relax amid the beer-fueled table pounding in the background.

I happened on a street lined with Japanese shops and restaurants by accident and it immediately made me nostalgic for Tokyo. In the evening my weary, but happy feet carried me to Hyuga in Klosterstraße, where I indulged in some delicious sushi.

You might hear from some that Düsseldorf is considered stuck-up. Don’t believe it and see for yourself.

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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