[Retro Post] Stuff That Makes Americans Go “Bwuh?!”

Editor’s Note: What follows is a post which was completely written in April of 2014.  For some reason, it languished in my drafts folder for the next twenty months until I just noticed it now.  I probably didn’t feel like it was finished, and I assumed I’d come back to it later.   It’s possible that some of these observations found their way into other posts, but I wanted to post this entirely in its original form anyway.  This is a snapshot of my mindset roughly halfway through my time living in Germany.  Here we go!


After more than two years in Germany, it’s easy for me to forget just how much I’ve adapted to life in Germany.  These things are all normal facts of every day life for me, but I never experienced them in the United States.

Unexploded bombs are a regular occurrence. Several times a year, I see news articles about how U-Bahn service in this city or that city had to be suspended because a crew of workmen found another unexploded bomb left over from World War II.   Typically, they either contain it or do a controlled detonation to dispose of the ordinance and then life goes on as normal.  This happens so often in Germany that nobody thinks it’s unusual.  I think it’s amazing though.

You don’t have to try the door handle of a toilet stall to know if it’s occupied.  The stall doors here have color markers built into the latch similar to what you see on airplanes that go red when the stall is occupied and are either green or white when it’s free.  It’s a tiny, simple thing, but it’s absolutely genius and I will desparately miss it when I get back to the States.

Almost everyone brings their own canvas bags to go grocery shopping.  Canvas bags are a crunch-granola thing in the United States-  most grocery shopping in the US involves leaving the store with a slew of plastic or paper bags.  Here, the stores sell the canvas bags at the register and actively encourage you to bring your own.  Additionally, there are no grocery baggers here-  when you ring up your groceries at the cashier, you have to turn around and put it all in the bag yourself.  I love the idea of canvas bags, but I’m really looking forward to having a bagger again-  I always feel like I’m in a panicked rush to bag all of my food before the next person’s groceries are slid down the ramp by the psychotically fast cashier.  Grocery shopping should not be that stressful!

Ice cream is perfectly normal almost every day, even in January.  It’s slightly harder to find ice cream in the winter-  many of the Eis stores close up shop for the winter or change to other products (like crepes!).  There’s always a few places to get ice cream though, even in the dead of winter, and Germans love their ice cream so much that I’ve seen a man eating ice cream at -18C.  That’s right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Walking in the bicycle lane makes me uneasy.  The sanctity of the bike lane is very important here, because bikes are used much more commonly than in most places I’ve been to in the United States.  Most people will ring the bell on their bikes to alert you that you’re in the way, but not everyone is that nice.  Some will just run you down.   Incidentally, bicycle bells are standard equipment on most new bikes here, for exactly this reason.   I’ve gotten so used to this aspect of life here that if I walk in the bicycle lane, I feel skittish.

Late night television commercials border on pornography.  Short and annoyingly repetitive commercials appear on broadcast television for various phone sex lines.  This doesn’t happen on every channel, but it’s always on at least one channel after 11PM.  I would include a YouTube example, but the little jingles can be annoyingly catchy and I’m not cruel enough to earworm anybody with that today.

Is there anything about where you live that non-locals would find surprising?

Don’t Make Me Sick

For my second full week back in the United States, I got to experience the joy and delight of having a cold.  I’ve been meaning to write a post about healthcare in Germany for ages, and being sick for the past week is a perfect lead in to the topic.  Being sick in the United States is a very different experience than being sick in Germany.

“Sick Days” are a very American concept.

While I was employed at our German office, I had German health-care and I followed the local rules for being sick.    In the German office, if you are sick, you go to the doctor on the very first day, and the doctor will give you a slip of paper that basically says don’t go back to work for however many days they specify.  There’s no “sick time” in the German office-  my benefits there included a generous count of vacation days, but the concept of “sick time” just isn’t used.  If you’re sick, you’re sick.  German employment laws are fiercely protective of the worker, and a company can’t easily fire someone while they’re out sick.  So, sick people stay home from the office in Germany, and rarely come in to get their colleagues sick.  That’s a very American behavior.

In the US office, however, the rules are different.  I came back to the US with a very finite amount of sick time, so I was only able to stay out of work for the first day of my cold.  On the second day, I schlepped myself into the office with my bag of cold medicine, tissues, and so forth.  Nobody wants to see you in the office when you’re sick, but if you have no available sick time, you must go or risk a disciplinary action.

Socialized medicine is actually pretty nice.

When the Affordable Care Act first started to gear up in the US, I remember seeing this comic in one of the local newspapers.  I saved it back then because I knew I’d be writing about this at some point:

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My personal experience with socialized medicine doesn’t at all fit the negative talking points of the FOX News narrative.    I found the entire system to be uncomplicated and reasonable.   While I was in Germany, I had Techniker Krankenkasse, a large and ordinary public health insurance which was arranged with the assistance of my employer.  Private insurance is available in Germany, of course-  you just have to be willing to pay more.  I never found it to be necessary.

Because this insurance is subsidized by the government, my tax rate was higher and I saw less of my paycheck.  However, I went to the doctor several times in Germany without ever paying a cent.  One of those visits included a very small procedure which even required after-care, and there was no additional cost.   When I needed antibiotics, I paid only five Euros.    The same doctor visits here in the US would be $20 or $35 per visit, and the generic antibiotic wouldn’t be less than $10.   The higher tax rate in Germany was worth it, if only for the convenience of not having to pay anything to the doctor’s office.

The actual visit to the Doctor’s office.

I only went to one doctor in my time there, so I don’t have a frame of reference to tell you if my experiences are common.  My doctor’s office was a nice, naturally lit affair with pleasant decor.  The starkest part of the office was the waiting room, a square room with a table in the center and magazines to read-  in other words, it’s just like every doctor’s waiting room you’ve ever seen.

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Whenever somebody arrives to the waiting room, everyone already waiting says hello.  Germans aren’t typically this inclined to greet people they don’t know, so I assume this is one of those cultural expectations that I just have to accept.

The checkup room is a big airy space.  And this is the part of writing the post where I realize that my meager count of doctor experiences in Germany leaves me with very little to talk about in this post.  Let’s move past this admittedly lovely checkup room, to talk about drugs.

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Pharmaceuticals auf Deutsch.

One of the things that was difficult to get used to when I arrived in Germany was that you can’t get drugs in the grocery store.  In the US, you can get aspirin or Tylenol in Publix.  In a shop like Walgreens, you can get a can of coke, develop your film, buy a toy, and still fill your prescription.  In Germany, everything is separated-  food in the grocery store, drugs in the Apotheke.

Pharmaceuticals are more or less the same everywhere in the world, but the packaging is different.  Germany doesn’t use those amber plastic pill vials that are so ubiquitous in the United States; most drugs are distributed in flat packs like the one pictured below.

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Where an American pharmacy would print a label with specific instructions on how to take your medicine, a German pharmacist will just write the instructions on the box.  See the handwritten 1-0-1 above?  That means take one in the morning, none at lunchtime, and one at night.   When they hand you the pills, they go over it verbally just once, and in my case, the pharmacist reminded me to be sure to finish the prescription.

Beyond that, things are more or less the same.    The individual pain killers are all available in Germany, just under different names.  Tylenol is Paracetamol, for example.  Vicks products are sold as Wicks.  Aspirin is still called Aspirin, though- Bayer is a German company, after all.  The only drug that I was never able to find a German analog of is Sudafed.  Any time someone visited from the United States, I had them bring me some 12-Hour Sudafed- that stuff is worth its weight in gold to me.

Being able to go to a Publix at 9pm here to get two more types of cold medicine, including one that will theoretically knock me out:  That experience is priceless, and it made me realize that if I have to be sick, I’d rather do it here, even though it’s significantly more expensive.

Have you ever visited a doctor outside of your home country?

Ampelmännchen

(This little post was written months ago, but I never got around to using it.  I’ve been hip-deep in getting moved over to Florida, so it seemed like now would be a good time to post it.  -Steven, 5 October)

One of my favorite things about visiting Eastern Germany is seeing the Ampelmännchen, or “Little traffic light men.”  This happy little fellow is left over from the former German Democratic Republic, so any city that was part of East Germany before German reunification in 1990 is likely to have these little guys on their walk signals.

The Ampelmännchen were designed by a German traffic psychologist named Karl Peglau in 1961.   Peglau wanted to create a traffic light that would be both cute and appealing to children, yet easily accessible and understandable for elderly Germans.  Also, I didn’t know before writing this post that “traffic psychologist” was a career option.

The Ampelmann is so popular that some cities in Western Germany have adopted the symbols, and an entire souvenir industry has sprung up around them.   There’s even a store in Berlin where you can buy all manner of Ampelmann swag- t-shirts, hats, buttons, keychains, deck chairs, earrings, and more.

These particular Ampelmännchen were spotted while I was in Dresden.

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Do you own any Ampelmann swag?  What do you suppose the green Ampelmann is carrying in front of him, a baguette?

Repatriation Day

Bayern

Today is the day that I leave Germany. I’m not leaving forever, because I have friends here. After today, though, I won’t be a resident of Deutschland. I’m heading back to Florida.  My plane out of Frankfurt is actually scheduled to depart at the exact minute this post is scheduled to go up.

While this is a travel day for me, I thought it might be fun to give my friends an idea of what my Floridian  life will be like, geographically speaking, courtesty of http://overlapmaps.com/.  I’ve noticed that Europeans who have never been to the United States seldom have any real idea of just how expansive the US really is.  Americans who haven’t traveled here are similarly bereft of clue when it comes to scale, which is part of what makes these maps so much fun.

Here’s an example to illustrate that point.  This conversation actually happened between me and a colleague back in the US:

Colleague:  Hey, can you go to the data center to look at this server?
Me: The data center is in Frankfurt.  That’s three hours away.  I might be able to get there by tomorrow, if I leave now, go home, pack a bag, and manage to catch the next train out.
Colleague:  …so that’s a no, then?

First up in our map fun:  South Florida, overlayed onto the region of Bavaria I currently live in.   While these distances are not exact, I can say that Munich roughly overlays where Miami is, and Regensburg roughly overlays where I will be living.

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These next two are just fun:  Germany overlaid onto Florida, and Florida overlaid onto Germany.

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…and just for giggles, the United States overlayed across all of Europe.  The US is a big place.  I lived in the US for my entire life before 2011, and I still haven’t seen nearly as much of it as I have seen of Europe.   I’ve gotta get on that.

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Which is bigger?  Your home town, or the place you live now?

I didn’t know that was German!

There are a number of companies that I’ve known my entire life, without realizing that it started here and not in the US.   I knew that BMW, Mercedes, and Audi were all German companies.   I was clear that Bayer (the pharmaceutical company) was from Germany.  But there are a bunch of European names that surprised me.

Red Bull is an Austrian company.  The tiny Smart car was a joint venture between Swatch and Mercedes.  There are two that really surprised me, though.

Adidas and Puma:    Adolph “Adi” Dassler and his brother, Rudolf “Rudi” Dassler founded Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) in the 1920s.   They split in 1947, and Rudolf created a competing shoe company, called Ruda at first, and later renamed to Puma.  In 1949, Adi renamed his company to Adidas.

I spent my high school years thinking that the name Adidas was an acronym for “All day I dream about sports,” but it’s really named for the founder.  Adi Dassler.  As a result, I’ve always mispronounced the name.  I was pronouncing this ah-deed-ahs, but that’s wrong.  The emphasis  is on the first and third syllables, not the middle syllable:  Ah-dee-das. 

Haribo, the company that made the first Gummibärchen, or Gummy Bears, is from Bonn, Germany.  I thought Haribo was a Japanese company, but it was founded in 1920 by Hans Riegel, Sr.   The name of the company is a portmanteau:   Hans Riegel, Bonn.

Are there any companies with origins that have surprised you?