What We, Americans, Can Learn from the Germans

Anytime I take a European adventure, I find myself standing in some city center, realizing just how American I am: I love my beverages cold, the accessibility my car gives me to go anywhere at any time I want, my very large and excess Queen sized bed, all the face lotions and different types of hair products I must use for my daily beauty routines. And, upon my return, I’m always wishing I were back in the European way of life. On this most recent trip, I journeyed to Germany and Austria, and since being home a week, I’m missing a few of these customs that I wish we, as Americans, could live by:

To be punctual: When the train is scheduled to leave at 11:32, it leaves at 11:32:00. When the ski bus says it leaves at 4:30, it leaves AT 4:30 (not 4:31 or 4:32). In Germany, if you are late, the world continues without you, and you figure out how to make modifications to your schedule (instead of the world modifying for you).

Somewhere down the line, as Americans, we’ve lost this sense of punctuality. Like all of our other issues, this probably stems from our sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness. For some people, we like to make other people wait on us–it makes us feel powerful and important. However, for the majority of us, we probably do not do this on purpose–it is just not built into our American schemas that we should consider how our actions impact others–how holding up the ski bus for 3 extra minutes to wait for our tardy husband could cost someone else their train ride home, how being ten minutes late to our doctor’s appointment will throw off the whole schedule, how texting at a stoplight and consequently missing the light cycle may make someone else late for work.

(To be fair, I think there are some American companies who are trying to train us to be more punctual–Kaiser, for example, recommends that you arrive to your appointment ten minutes early, and if you are late, they require you to reschedule it. United Airlines will close the gate 15 minutes before your scheduled departure time to ensure the plane arrives on schedule).

To be less wasteful: The other day, I went to Chick Fil A and ordered a large fry and a drink. As I walked to the trash can to throw the remnants away (to hide the evidence of my addiction, before my family saw what I had done), I took inventory on the amount of waste my one small order incurred: a handful of unused napkins, a couple plastic ketchup containers, a large cardboard container that once held the fries, a Styrofoam cup, and a paper bag with the Chick Fil A logo on it that was all too big for the contents it once hold–all of this waste for a snack that probably took me ten minutes to devour. As I walked to the trashcan, I couldn’t help but think about how much waste we, as Americans, create on a daily basis because these are our eating habits.

At the Christmas Markets in Innsbruck, our beverages came from a ceramic mug rather than a cheap, plastic cup. In the hotels, we drank from glass bottles that were then sent back to the factory. For our lift tickets, we received plastic cards. And, for all of these things, a 1-2 Euro deposit was offered for a return. I was amazed at how clean the streets in Innsbruck were after New Years’ because there really was no trash to line the streets–after the Rockies’ Opening Day last April, I remember walking down the streets of Denver and having to kick away discarded beer bottles and plastic plates. How much cleaner would our streets be if we, too, adopted this notion of reuse and recycle? (I once worked at a golf course, and always felt so guilty throwing away large amount of aluminum cans at the end of my shift. When I asked the boss why we couldn’t recycle, his response was, “Well, it would cost us $50 a month to get a recycling truck out here”. Right, because in America, we like our money, and $50 a month would cut into our profits).

To be aware of our impact on others: I was never surprised to notice a pack of individuals, taking up the whole sidewalk, walking in the middle of the parking lots so the cars had to slowly crawl behind them, taking up multiple seats on the public transportation, stopping in the middle of the hallway to pull out a map–only to walk by and hear their American accents. Before walking into a building, I noticed the Germans wiping their feet outside as to not track in excess dirt. The interiors and exteriors were very clean; people actually used the trash receptacles provided. When loading into theaters or beer halls, people will sit down right next to you, to make space for other people.

This consideration of others must also be bred into the German parenting style. I was honestly amazed at how well behaved the German children were. On the trains, the children sat quietly and actually got along with their siblings. When walking outside, the children stayed close to their parents–it wasn’t until we returned to U.S soil that we started hearing children scream and cry and throw tantrums in the airport).

Efficiency and Order: Flying in and out of the Munich airport was a breeze; the whole process of checking baggage, going through customs, finding your gate was so easy. In all of our hotels, we must place our key inside a switch in order to turn on the lights, and some of the hallways were on movement censors, so the lights were off when no one needed them. In some of the less busy train stations, the escalators stopped running until a patron needed to use it (and some of the escalators were multi directional that just required a little hop on the landing pad). Everything has a purpose; there is no extra detail or decoration that serves a strictly aesthetic appeal. The hotel rooms are staffed with exactly what you need–and no less: a pillow, a sleeping-bag sized comforter, and a twin size mattress. There is no refrigerator that fits Costco sized pallets of eggs; you purchase exactly what you will eat and drink and that will fit in the space allocated. When you order off a menu, you order the amount you plan to eat (there is no “leftover” box you ask to take home).

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”: My dad’s parents were Dutch, and every Saturday morning, my Oma would kick the kids out, lock the front door, and tell them not to come back until dinner time (of course, in today’s day and age, this would not be acceptable). Partially I think because of the population density and the reliance on public transportation (and probably the tourists who have those strict itineraries that cannot deviate from The Plan), so much of European society takes place outside; in the snow, the rain, the wind–people are still outside, walking, socializing, having a cup of coffee under the cafe awning. And, people seem to wear very practical clothing to accommodate for this lifestyle–you don’t see too many leggings or high heels on the streets, but rather umbrellas, nice leather shoes, thick denim pants, so that, as the Germans say, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”.

To be direct: During our stay in Munich, we took a bus tour in which there were some obnoxious (obviously American) children running around the top level; the bus driver came on the intercom twice and asked the children to please “sit down to avoid any unnecessary risks”, and of course the children didn’t listen. Then, the driver finally got on the intercom and said, “I guess those two children do not have a mother or father on this bus”.  In our sue-happy, media-grabbing culture, we must always be politically correct. So, when the driver of the bus gives us direct orders to “sit down” and “shut up”, we are taken off guard. To some people, directness may seem impolite and hurtful; we are used to always dancing around a subject as to not “hurt anyone’s feelings”.

This also happens in the restaurants as well. On our first night in Innsbruck, after a long day of traveling, we walked into a restaurant, and stood there for about 15 minutes, waiting for someone to tell us where to sit. We quickly learned that the custom at the restaurant is to, rather than wait for someone to cater to you, to flag over your waiter and tell them you are ready to sit down, you are ready to order, you are ready for your check.

(Also, big shout out to Michael who navigated our entire trip because, an an American, I only know how to navigate with my GPS–when they say, “It’s just up the street five minutes”, I need a little more information, such as which direction, how many blocks, do I need to turn anywhere, what kind of landmarks will I cross, are there going to be any potentially sketchy places I’ll pass by, etc).

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