Last week I traveled to Berlin, Germany for a 5-day work trip. It was my first visit to Europe and as such I had the idea to make notes on my observations. As I look over the notes on my iPhone it is mainly a list of cultural differences between the United States and Germany, but as the conference included interaction with co-workers and customers from European nations outside of Germany, I do have some reflections on more broad-reaching cultural differences.
The most noteworthy was a heightened sense of global awareness amongst the Germans and the conference attendees. Most everyone I encountered on my travels: in airports, restaurants, hotels and on the street could speak and understand English at a functional level. It’s been suggested to me before that English is the global language, so to speak, but to have this theory proven was eye-opening. What was more interesting and upon looking inward, embarrassing, was the fact that several people I met with with spoke as many as 6 languages fluently. It was on Day 3 that I made a promise to myself that I would commit to studying a second and hopefully third language upon returning home.
The first night out we ate at a small restaurant in a village that was walking distance from our hotel. The service was exceedingly slow. One small cultural difference I noted was that being greeted and offered water upon arrival for a meal was not customary in Germany. We felt slightly disrespected to be left to ourselves without so much as a welcome for such a long time (about 30 minutes). Back to my real point, which was that the menu was in German (more on that later). We were able to recognize Pizza, Cordon Bleu and Weiner Schnitzel and 6 out of 7 orders consisted of these meals. I tried something a little less recognizable but not wildly adventurous.
I’ve always felt a little uneasy figuring out payment/dividing the check when dining with a group of people I don’t know well. Since very few of us had exchanged currency yet, I suggested that we confirm acceptance of our credit cards upon arrival but was quelled by the group. Of course, when the check arrived and a co-worker offered their company Visa card to make things “simple,” we were informed that they only accepted Euros and European Credit (EC). We just narrowly pooled enough Euros to pay the check – luckily the service was poor and the expectation of gratuity isn’t quite what it is in the US. We still felt a little bad for the relatively small tip.
On our first full day in Germany we were afforded some time to adjust to the time change and do a little sightseeing. My company included me on this trip to shoot video so I set out with two companions. We took a taxi (not a cab) to the city center. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in early-October. Seventy-seven degrees without a cloud in the blue sky. Downtown Berlin was bustling. It was swiftly revealed to me that unless clearly marked by a crosswalk, pedestrians do not have the right of way. I managed to avoid any seriously close calls, but a taxi driver next to our car gave a large group of tourists a good scare following a red light.
We shot video of the Brandenburg Gate, Alexanderplatz Needle, the Museum of Germany History and a 1-kilometer remnant of the Berlin Wall. I took note of the Mercedes-Benz taxi cabs with leather interior and the wide-ranging and highly visible graffiti art on our taxi rides. One more note on driving in Germany–before a light changes from Red to Green (a jarring transition in the US) there is a yellow indicator light (genius!). It really seemed to keep the traffic flowing and seemed like an obvious convention. In the US we have a yellow light on the other side of the transition, why not from Green to Red?
In the city center we had more success in using our American credit cards. Furthermore, we found menus translated in up to 5 languages (Germany, English, French, Spanish and Russian). I attributed this to the fact that these areas were tourism hot spots. I found German beer to be good but unspectacular (disclaimer: I drink good American beer). I had it in my mind to be aware of examples of the superior German engineering we hear about growing up in America, the examples didn’t jump out at me. The German people seemed to be friendly. Several times I stopped a stranger and asked them to explain significance of monuments I was shooting or for the closest place to catch a taxi. My inquiries were met with decency almost 100% of the time. This was my first trip to Europe. Had it been up to me, Berlin wouldn’t have cracked my top-5 list of destinations. In retrospect, I’m glad the decision was out of my hands. My first trip to Europe is behind me. I learned a bit about German culture, quite a bit more about my own company and the great people we have across the globe and the most about myself. I hope to travel to Europe several times during the next 30 years of my life and upon returning I hope to communicate in more than my native tongue.