Gute Zeiten / Schlechte Zeiten

October 30, 2007

In honor of my one-month anniversary of being in Osnabrueck, I’ve compiled a list of “Anmerkungen,” or things I’ve noticed since living here. As with any place, there are pros and cons. Here are some of the things I appreciate / am frustrated by in Germany.

The German word for pillow is Kopfkissen, which literally translates into head cushion. Plus it’s got the word kiss in it. Sounds nice, right? It’s not. Kopfkissens are down squares, about 1.5 x 1.5 feet, that, as far as I can tell, perform none of the usual functions of pillows. As soon as my head hits it, the feathers puff out to the sides, and my head sinks down to the level of the sheets. I’ve tried folding it, but it just squirts out the other side like a baloon. The best I can do is bunch it up and smash it (and myself) into the corner, where the walls prevent it from escaping. But that only lasts so long. Sometimes I just give up and use my sweatshirt instead.

I am very lucky to have a neighbor that is generous/foolish enough to have a wireless internet connection that is not password-protected. But once I’m outside of the house, it is hard to find restaurants and cafes with internet connections. This seems to be true in Berlin as well as Osnabrueck. If a restaurant does have internet, you generally have to pay for it. I guess I’ve just been spoiled coming from Columbia, Mo, where the whole downtown has free wireless internet. I’m actually surprised that free wireless isn’t more popular in Germany, especially since Germans are always talking about equal access to education and information. The universities are practically free. The internet should be too.

I know that a stereotypes exists of the punctual German, who always arrives 5 minutes ahead of any appointment. Germany is said to be a land where the trains all run on time and people are never late. Not so, I say! My professors are almost always late. And I mean really late, more than the 15 minute “akademische viertel” given to professors to start class. They usually come in about 25 minutes after the class is scheduled to begin. If they come at all. For one of my classes, the professor hasn’t showed up two weeks in a row. At least the second time, he sent a “vertreter,” a grad student to represent him and tell us that he wasn’t coming. He was “erkaeltet,”– had a cold. Which brings me to my next point.

Leicht Erkaeltet
This is something that I’ve noticed over all of my stays in Germany. People call in sick at the slightest sign of illness. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this in the last two weeks, “Die Person die Sie suchen ist nicht da wegen Erkaeltung.” The person you are looking for is not here. They have a cold. For example, when I got to Osnabrueck, my roommate, who is a teacher, had a sore throat and didn’t got to work for almost two weeks. I can’t imagine that happening in the U.S., where you practically have to be half-dead to take a day off. You’re supposed to tough it out. That’s been my experience. I can’t decide which is better, it just strikes me as different here. I think it’s good that the German work culture treats people like human beings and gives them the time they need to recuperate. Plus, it prevents a person from infecting all of their coworkers. But it also seems that it is very easy to take advantage of.

It is one of life’s finer pleasures, to go to the bakery, which is never more than a block away, to pick up fresh rolls for breakfast. The one on my block is even open on Sundays.
German Bread

movie theaters
In Germany, at least in Osnabrueck, you have to pick your seats when you buy your tickets. With no further instructions, most people just say “in the middle.” The result is usually an empty theater, except for about 15 people who are all sitting on top of each other in the middle row. The movie theaters are generally cleaner than in the states (no sticky floors), and you can bring beer with you into the theater. No open container laws here, which is refreshing.

customer service
I don’t know how to say this in German. Probably because the concept doesn’t exist here. You can go into a store and ask an innocent question such as, “Excuse me, sir, do you sell swim caps here?” And the salesman will look at you like you just interrupted his nap and insulted his mother. If you’re lucky, you may get an answer as he walks away from you. “Second floor.” I’m usually left standing there dumbfounded and wondering what just happened.

Don’t get me wrong, people are generally nice. Some even go out of their way to help you. But every now and then, the rudeness of a random stranger catches me off guard. For example, when I boarded the train to Osnabrueck with all of my luggage for an entire year, I had trouble lifting my suitcase onto the luggage rack. A group of people were standing behind me, impatiently watching me struggle with my bag. “Could someone please help me lift this?” I asked politely, not wanting to hold up the line. “NEIN! Ich bin nicht bei der Bahn! (No, I don’t work here!)” snapped the closest woman as she lifted her head to look down at me through her bifocals, like she was completely offended by the question. I could see a vein starting to swell in her neck as her gold glasses chain swayed back and forth. “Ok, a simple no would have sufficed, ” I thought.

The worst is when you encounter these people at an information desk of some kind, when it actually IS their job to help you. When I had trouble logging onto the wireless internet at the university library, I foolishly went to the help desk. “You probably got a letter from the University about that, I suggest you re-read it,” said the librarian as she called the next person in line.

“I have that letter right here and I still don’t understand,” I said, not stepping aside. “Can you help me, or tell me where to go for help?”

“I am here to help with the library, not the internet,” she answered, folding her arms.

“But this is a HELP desk,” I argued in vain. “And I am trying to use the internet IN THE LIBRARY.”

She silently cocked her head and pursed her lips, like a threatened seagull wondering which of my eyes to peck out first. We stared at each other for what felt like five minutes, then I just gave up and left.

Unfortunately, this is not the only such experience I, or the other international students, have had here. It happens at the bank, the cafeteria, the grocery store, always when you’re not expecting it. I am not trying to say all Germans are rude. Not at all. It’s just that the rude ones are really rude, which makes them stand out, and unfortunately, perpetuates the stereotype.

To be fair, I have also met a number of wonderfully kind people. A young German guy did step up and help me with my suitcase on the train. When I got off, he offered to lift it back down– I didn’t even have to ask! And I eventually did find someone who happily helped me get on the internet in the library. The way he explained it, it was quite easy. Other people have taken time to show me how to get somewhere (probably because they think I can’t understand the directions), but, still, it’s nice.


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