cultural observations

Some bad, mostly good, and a post in which I try to catch-up, but fail

I knew this would happen inevitably, that I would have a lot to post during the beginning of my stay here, but since classes have picked up swing (we’re halfway through the Vorlesungszeit [labeled as such because there’s also a Vorlesungsfreie period that’s still technically part of the semester during which students don’t attend class and frantically finish term papers]) I am kept a lot more busy. I’ve also got more things going on outside of classes, so I’m sufficiently kept out of my room off the interwebs, which is probably a good thing.

Basically, there’s too many small things that have happened to note (and still keep your interest), but I have noticed on a larger scale that the more I’m here, the more I’m learning about people, not just Germans in particular. Coming to a new place means meeting new people, experiencing new things. It doesn’t matter whether it’s foreign or not. I think that When U.S. Americans move to another city, or even a new block, it’s also a “foreign” location that needs to be explored, and one’s place in it also needs to be found. The primary difference to another country is that culture and customs are expected to be different from what one already knows and there’s so much more to learn.

As far as saying that I’m learning more about people, let me explain. Basically, I have had many good and a few bad experiences here. For some reason, I attribute the good experiences to human nature, general good of people, and the bad experiences to being particularly German. that is, when something negative happens to me, I attribute it to being a victim of German atttitude rather than that just being part of the person’s nature.

I need to remind myself that all people are capable of being nice or mean, regardless of nationality…but still, I can’t help but wonder if being a little ornery is a northern German trait.

On the other hand, I recently had the pleasure of working at a charity bazaar put on by the German-American Women’s Club of Hamburg. This event was hosted to help raise money for various charity organizations, primarily those helping children. I met many very nice German men and women who had some kind of ties with the U.S., whether through school, work, and/or love. They were excited to meet me and the other U.S. student, and pleased when they found a willing audience for their experiences. But what struck me was how generous these ladies at the bazaar were. Never mind the fact that they put together many similar kinds of events to help raise money for the student exchange programs, meaning they work hard so that the other U.S. student and I have an inexpensive place to stay, a bicycle… Never mind the fact that they invite us to seasonal get-togethers and gift us generously, expecting nothing in return. What really amazed me what how they thanked us, sincerely, for helping out at the bazaar. It was a sacrifice of our time and efforts, true (selling raffle tickets can be exhausting ;)), but it was only a small way to repay what they do for us. And still, we were the ones who were thanked and gifted with antiques and wine bottles that had been donated for the event. I think the point is, we will never be able to repay the generosity of these ladies. Are all Germans extremely generous? Who knows, But these ladies are.

The Fourth of July in the middle of November

The Fourth of July in the middle of November


Good ole homemade German specialties

Yet, despite positive things one can say, there’s also the negative things. For example, Germans can be really rude about line waiting or insecurity.  I was surprised today when I hurried into a local bakery to buy lunch for later (a very German thing to do), by the encounter I had with an older lady. It could have been a very different encounter with anyone else, but with her it was a bit, well, not positive.

Basically, I was in a hurry because I wanted to catch the S-Bahn to get to class on time. I didn’t want to cut anyone in line though, and I was also anxious to see everything that there was to offer behind the mile long display case. Sweet pastries were on one end and belegte Brote (sandwich rolls) were on the other. The problem was, the sandwiches were on the opposite end of where the lines were, and it’s never really clear, when there are three people behind the counter, if it’s a line that needs to be formed, or three. At any rate, this lady had just ordered and paid and I was standing by her to see what it was I wanted to do next. She turned to go, and I didn’t know what it was she wanted to do next, so there was this awkward dance thing where she moved slightly right and I moved slightly right to eventually get out of her way… at any rate, to make a long story short, the end of our exchange was “Da bildet sich die Schlange und da steht man sich an. So macht man das in Deutschland…” I felt demoralized in that instant, and all I could say was “ja, dann, entschuldigung.”

But looking back at it now, I realize that I shouldn’t take being treated like an imbecile personally. I think, for some people it goes along with the attitude that the youth have no manners. This attitude varies from person to person and I think I’ve experienced in in the U.S. before. It’s just that here I feel like people are generally more impatient and OCD about lines waiting for food or to pay for their food at the grocery store… so maybe the Germans are just always hungry?

I guess the bottom line is, I’m learning to look beyond my first impressions of Germans and make distinctions based on the individual circumstances. I am entering more intimate interactions with Germans that teach me more about them, and them also more about me. That is, I am helping the Germans I meet to make new observations about U.S. Americans and help distinguish what it means to be “American” for them too.

For example, there’s the idea that Americans are really nice. I know people find me nice, and in general, on first-time, interpersonal basis, I have found that Germans respond well to my partially, through my father, southern upbringing. Yet, I’ve seen how Germans think this niceness is superficial, and I have to spend some time convincing them otherwise. I find myself struggling in my second or third encounters with new people I meet, as if I’m an aspirin, sugar coated, but bitter as time goes on. I know I’m just as nice the second time as the first, and I know I am sincere in wanting these acquaintances to find it pleasant to be around me and want to undertake more things with me (hey, I’m a foreigner in a foreign country, I get lonely!), and if I find them nice, I’ll tell them so. But the Germans need a little more time for acquaintanceship to turn into friendship.

Okay, so I have to be a little more patient.

In response to the recent queries I’ve had about whether I have finally “arrived” in Hamburg, yes, I believe I have.

Here’s photos to prove it (?):

Fehrnsehturm in the fog

Fernsehturm in the fog

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Leaves falling in Hamburg, something I'm not used to at all

Leaves falling in Hamburg, something I’m not used to at all


Last week, Halloween. This week, St. Martin’s Day!

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Oh no, I’m a horrible photographer, I know. I just wanted to get an image of the different lights all together as the people were walking.

I am currently attending a DaF (German as a Foreign Language) class that uses as its content discussions of what is typically German (typisch Deutsch). At one point during the second class meeting, my professor asked the class what aspects of life we consider to be part of culture, and my answer was “Feste und Feiertagen [festivities and holidays].” My professor didn’t add this to the list on the board because he considered my answer to belong to “traditions.” But for me, festivities and holidays of a nation belong to traditions just as much as food does, and food got written down, so I am respectfully annoyed at Mr. Prof. Dr.

But that aside, I recognize the holidays and festivities of a nation as helping to define the culture of that nation since culture includes shared values and beliefs, and the holidays and festivities of a nation celebrate those values and beliefs. Often, these beliefs are religiously connected. In many nations in the world, the religions are more homogeneous than in the US, so these holiday seasons seem even more festive in places like, for example, Germany. However, this is a bit complicated in the U.S. that tries to be inclusive for all the different people and beliefs living within its borders. Yet, an entire nation having the 4th of July off, for example, is a collective experience that praegts the collective attitude of what that day represents. This is of course again a bit complicated when one considers Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday that has been celebrated since the U.S. Civil War as a way to bring divided people together. However, it is tainted by it’s colonial origins… and it’s a day of mourning for a few groups in the U.S. while celebrated by many others.

I’m not here to talk about Thanksgiving though, since I’m in Germany and won’t be celebrating that holiday with my family this year (sad face).

But I did get to participate in a traditional German holiday (albeit celebrated a few days early, since it involves little children who shouldn’t be up too late on a school night).

Most people know what St. Nicholas day is, celebrated on the 6th of December,since St. Nick is known world-wide for his charity and for being the precursor to the modern day Santa Claus. In Germany, a lesser known charitable saint is celebrated in early November by a reenactment and a procession with homemade lanterns.

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St. Martin’s Tag.

These images are from the St. Martinszug that I was invited to witness (and be part of!). The Martinszug is one of several rites to celebrate the Saint’s work, which were explained to me in a skit put on by several classmates of the girl whose parents invited me to the Zug. I had the girl on my shoulders for most of the skit, so I couldn’t really follow it, but I think the main idea was that he was charitable.

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St. Martin’s Day is on November 11th. Mostly celebrated in Old Bavaria and Austria (and apparently also in Hamburg), it is the memorial day of St. Martin of Tours. He is remembered in Central Europe by numerous rites including the the Martinszug, the St. Martin’s goose dinner, and Martin singing.

In the celebration put on by the Grundschule (elementary school) my friend’s daughter attends, there was the singing, the Zug (with a rider in a large white cape on a live horse, a torch procession and many small children with lanterns), and the goose dinner that consisted of large goose shaped cookies that were cut in half to ensure that there were enough for all the kids. The girl (who also had me hold her lantern a few times throughout the evening) ate her cookie half before I could get a photo- so sorry, no photo of half goose cookie.

But I did get a lot of photos of the beautiful lanterns, some bought, most homemade, and I had my first cup of Gluhwein (delicious warm, spiced wine). I also froze my butt off since it was in the low 30s and I still have my Florida mentality…

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What was Hello Kitty doing here? The highlight of my evening, maybe.

It was a pleasure to be part of! And now I feel like I’ve gotten a good dose of authentic German culture (sans Hello Kitty lantern… though, if we want to get into a discussion of culture, culture changes so…wait, I wanted to end this post, not start that discussion).


Cultural Observation of the Day #2: Holes

By holes, I mean specifically the holes found on the side of papers in Germany. Also, I should probably have tried to save one cultural observation for tomorrow, to get a sort of routine started, but I was thinking about the spices yesterday and the holes in paper today… plus, I’m sure I’ll notice something else to comment on soon.

One would think that office supplies around world are the same; at least, I think the U.S. supplies are pretty darn good and practical for anyone and I’ve made it through my BA with what the U.S. has to offer. I am especially thinking of the way there’s wide-ruled and college-ruled paper, and how I felt accredited, somehow, when I used college-ruled paper while in college. My writing was always neatly equally measured in height. Then I came to Germany and discovered that everyone writes on graph paper–not just the engineers, but the literature students too. Apparently, the Germans like their writing to be neatly ordered in height and width.

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so much for order. My notes have never been properly orderly.

Had I been more economically enterprising as a youth, I would have imported these notebooks into the States for my Algebra-Calculus classmates. I could have made three dollar profit and still sold the notebooks for less than in the U.S.

As one can see from the picture, the holes are differently numbered and spaced than in the U.S; this particular notebook has four holes in the pages. Sometimes there are two, but usually four.

I bought two of these notebooks during the first week of classes and have been storing all my papers in the notebooks (one for Russian language, one for everything else) for four weeks now. Needless to say, there’s a limit to the practicality of that process. I decided I needed to start storing the papers in a more, shall we say “dignified” (for the paper, I mean) way.

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I tried to take a picture which includes the binder (Ordner), the dividers with their holes (practical in that they can work in any binder in the world), and the TWO-hole-puncher (not three hole, ahem).

Because of the logistics presented by the paper, it would have been silly to try to put them in in my U.S. binder from Office Depot. Instead, I rode by Staples (yep, they’re here too, though surprisingly German-fied by the Advent Calendars scattered all over the store) and picked up a binder (called Ordner since the function is organizing more than binding), some dividers, and a hole-puncher. I wanted to get the fancy brand name one, but my sense and budget told me the Staples version was fine. Good thing that the German staplers are the same as in the U.S., so it was easy to buy replacement staples (at Staples).

Now because of my new binder, I have the imponderable joy of organizing my notes and reading material and putting them on my shelf at the end of the day. Maybe, it’ll be so delightful that I get another binder for my thesis notes!

Now, aren’t you happy you learned something about the differences in school supplies?

Cultural Observation of the Day: Spices

Generally, I can find all the spices I would usually find in the US: fennel, cloves, parsley, basil, rosemary, etc. However, one spice (or rather, spice mixture) that I did not think I would find was pumpkin spice. U.S. Americans at the beginning of fall cannot stop talking about their use/consumption of pumpkin spice. People talk about pumpkin pie, pumpkin spice oatmeal, pumpkin spice pancakes, and of course the drink so famous it has its own acronym: the PSL (seriously, I don’t even drink and I know what that is. Don’t make me spell it out for you). It’s uniquely, typically U.S. American, right?

But guess what? (go on, guess… it’s not that hard 😉 )

photo not mine! There exists a spice mixture of clove, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice… and it’s called Spekulatius Gewuerz-Mischung. The spekulatius cookie, commonly eaten around Christmas-time in Germany, is basically a pumpkin spice cookie with an imprint that can be very elaborate. The cookies are good! But the spice is delightful in many of the ways one uses pumpkin spice in the US. I enjoy it lately in the morning in my oatmeal.

So there you have it! Guess people around the world can agree on what tastes good.

Halloween in Germany

it’s a Hamburger pumpkin (not in Hamburg, though). Get it? 😉

Wir spuken heut vor Deinem Haus

und machen viel Geschrei

Gibst Du uns Süßigkeiten raus,

dann ist es schnell vorbei!

A few years ago (maybe more than a few, but definitely less than ten), Halloween made it to Germany. I could be cynical and say that like for McDonalds, commercialism can set cultural trends. I could also say that, of course Halloween is successful in Germany, because any opportunity to decorate and have fun will be driven by the market.

Stores here were filled with Halloween themed decorations and food. I was able to buy Halloween (pumpkin) soup, nibble on Halloween Munch, sip Halloween beer and look at the dozens of different kinds of Halloween candles and plastic pumpkins on sale. It was bizarre to see the things I associate with October in the U.S. with German labels and Euro pricetags.

However, after seeing Halloween take place this Friday, it’s clear that is has been accepted here.  While it may have had U.S. commercial origins (like many U.S. trends in Germany), it will slowly become German. I mean, clearly it is compatible with public transportation use.

Bender in der U-Bahn

Foto von

I was surprised to learn that the Germans have their own rhymes for the children to say when they go from door to door. I can’t even remember if U.S. kids still say things like “Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.” But the German children, dressed up in the same classical witch, grim-reaper, scary costumes, had to earn their candy here. And in regards to the costumes, I noticed that they were more traditional. I felt like Halloween in Germany is therefore a little more closely tied with the original intention of the holiday. I wonder if it has to do with the fact that the 31. of October is also Reformation Day.

Maybe that’s why the “tricks” are rather mild. The worst “Streiks” I saw was shaving cream on the handles to mail boxes.

Another difference I noticed here is that children went from shop to shop and into restaurants, and the Kiosk cashiers or bartenders were actually prepared with candy to give to the children.

I enjoyed being able to see something traditionally U.S. here… it made me feel a little homesick. I myself didn’t take part in the festivities (Halloween on a Friday was a good excuse to party), but I had my Halloween towel hanging out all week. Counts for something, right?

And as last proof that the Germans do Halloween like the U.S. Americans, consider this pumpkin leftover from the holiday. Nov. 2nd and still out!

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At least this isn’t South Florida. there the pumpkins are lucky when they make it to the 31st.