Germany: A World Turned Upside Down
In life there are certain universal truths that a person can rely on; up is the opposite of down, the sky is blue and no one has ever gone out for only “a couple of drinks”. These facts help us understand the world and make predictions about what is likely to occur in the future. They give us stability. Without them we would be faced with the chaos of ever changing sky colours and moderate alcohol consumption, a world that we can all agree would be terrifying. By the age of 27, I felt I could rely on the basic truths of the universe and then I decided to move to Germany. One moment things were clear and predictable, the next moment I was scrabbling around in the darkness, hoping that someone would at least try and explain what was going on. No one ever did.
Instead, I was left to work out the new rules by myself, rules which not only come into conflict with my universal truths, but actively seek them out and beat them senseless. I am through the looking glass. Here is what I have learned.
On Mondays I do the weekly shopping, while my wife goes to yoga. I might claim it is because I am a modern, thoughtful gentleman, but it was because my wife kept trying to go shopping on Fridays, or worse, Saturdays. I had to save my weekend. Now Mondays find me looking at packets of lentils and trying to decipher the shopping list my wife gave me. Sometimes things are clear; yoghurt for instance, is the same word in English and German. Then there are other times, such as when my wife sends me to the butchers with a list written in Swabian German. I order products, butcher laughs at my “funny accent”, I die inside and then we have sausages for dinner. This has happened so many times now, that I think my wife is doing it on purpose. So, imagine my reaction when I saw “Blau Zwiebel” written in my wife’s obscenely neat handwriting halfway down the shopping list. Onions are not blue, that much is clear to me. They can be white, they can be red, but they are never blue…Unless you live in Germany. Red, to our Teutonic cousins, is actually blue. Blue onions and blue cabbage. I asked someone at work about it, they laughed when I asked why Germans called red onions, blue. “I know, it’s ridiculous” they said, “Everyone knows they’re purple”.
As a child, my brother and I would frequently ask our mother if we could watch TV in the bath. At least once a week we would demand to watch it and once a week my mother would explain in patient tones that we could not have electrical items in the bathroom because we might electrocute ourselves. There wasn’t even a socket to plug a TV into. Although electrical lights were permitted, they were switched on and off with a pull cord switch. We were unconvinced, but we remained un-electrocuted. Then I come to Germany and what do I find? Not only are there normal light switches in the bathrooms, but they all have multiple plug sockets too. I wondered for years whether this was some kind of Darwinian thinning of the heard idea, anyone dumb enough to electrocute themselves probably deserves it. No. Just a normal, everyday German thing. Want to plug in a radio? Maybe the laptop? Perhaps you just want to use a hair dryer. Feel free, no one will stop you, even in a country where they have rules about rules about rules. Apparently, electrocution is only a British problem.
Straws and glasses
In 1994, a 79 year old woman from Albuquerque successfully sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee on herself and suffering severe burns. What this shows is that hot beverages can be dangerous. It is therefore imperative that hot liquids should not be placed in inappropriate containers, ones that might conduct heat for instance. Equally important would be to not drink hot beverages too quickly, which could cause internal burns. All of this is fairly obvious, unless you happen to live in Germany. Order a Latte Macchiato here and some lunatic will put it in a glass, as if testing the borders of reality. “Sure” they say “glass is a bad receptacle for hot liquids, but that sounds like fake news to me”. Then, to further goad the very fabric of our understanding, they hand you a straw with which to drink your already dangerously prepared refreshment. “Go ahead” they insist “drink this incredibly hot liquid through a straw, I’m sure you won’t burn your mouth”. Ordering coffee here is like playing Russian Roulette with an automatic weapon, there is no way you leave unscathed and the severing staff know it. Should you order your Latte in a normal cup, they will look at you as if you have grown two heads. Even then, they still give you a straw. Serving staff in Germany are clearly sadists.
Teen beer drinkers
Much of my teenage life was spent huddled in groups outside corner shops, imploring older people to buy alcohol. Once procured, we would hurry off to a nearby underpass and drink as quickly as possible, in mortal fear that someone might catch us and tell our parents. Alcohol is forbidden to those under-18 in the UK, but in Germany from 16 onwards you can drink beer and wine in pubs. While my friends and I hid ourselves in underpasses like feral animals, drinking litre bottles of cider in less than an hour, our German counterparts were dry and warm, sitting in a pub chatting politely. How can Germany expect to develop the requisite survival skills needed for adulthood, if they insist on making things so easy for teenagers? How will they ever learn how to pretend they are sober? Where will they learn how to get vomit out of a pair of trainers without waking up their parents? These skills are being neglected, I bet they don’t even know how to make cheese on toast in total darkness!
Traffic Lights are for Losers
Traffic lights are serious business. They prevent a multitude of road accidents and daily save lives, so removing them from the equation would only lead to disaster, right? Well of course, unless it’s Sunday and you want to cause absolute chaos. Whether to save electricity or because of a fondness for dystopian fiction such as The Purge and Battle Royal, German cities will routinely turn off traffic lights during off-peak hours and watch madness ensue. Instead of the usual Red, yellow, green axis, drivers are greeted by a flashing yellow light that is supposed to indicate right before left, but actually indicates the beginning of The Hunger Games. In most places Sunday drivers are people in their dotage, taking the old MG out for a spin. In Germany, Sunday drivers look like extras from Mad Max, all flared nostrils and fire spewing electric guitars.
Blue is red, I charge my phone in the toilet and traffic lights no longer ensure safety. Germany is many things, but if you are looking for logic you best head to Switzerland.