Spot the Difference: Regions of Germany

Spot the Difference: Regions of Germany

When people look at the UK from the outside, it is easy to forget exactly what they are seeing. This is perhaps caused by the fact that the UK has different names that are not abundantly clear to outside observers. What the names United Kingdom and Great Britain denote are crystal clear to residents of the UK, here in Germany I spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the differences between the two. The problem is compounded by the fact that in German, the four nations that make up the United Kingdom (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England) are simply referred to as England.


Scotland’s recent independence referendum temporarily saw some more nuanced understanding of the regional differences in the UK, but very quickly people fell back into old habits. Even the news alternates between calling the UK, England or Großbritannian, when it actually should be calling it the United Kingdom. It should not surprise people that the Scottish and the Welsh react quite negatively if they are described as English or their regions as England. The differences in each area are noticeable, from regional holidays to national foods to accent and language.

However, if I were to travel to London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, the superficial similarities would probably outweigh the more obscure cultural differences. Wales would obviously stand out due there being multilingual signposts (Welsh and English) and London is vastly larger than all the others. Yet, the tourist experience of sightseeing hotspots, shopping and nightlife would certainly emphasise the many similarities of the the UK; for every cultural difference, there are commonalities such as overpriced cocktails, served in mason jars, prepared by bar men with carefully manicured beards, in bars playing ear splitting R&B. For each unique regional experience, there are identical high streets, frequented by shoppers quaffing expensive lattes.


Since the tourist experience is how we generally understand the world, unless we have the luxury of spending extended periods in other countries, it is not really surprising that the Germans would continue to refer to the UK as England. This does not of course reduce the level of annoyance my Irish and Scottish friends experience anytime someone asks them if they are “English too”. Even though this is clearly an epic faux pas, they manage to grit their teeth and explain the difference.

It is odd that the Germans would ignore such clear regional difference when they consider their own regional differences so integral to their identity. If I went to Hamburg in September, for instance,  wearing Lederhosen and asking about beer festivals, I would be deeply disappointed, and if I were to ask a resident of the Franken region what it is like to be Bavarian, I would be quickly and curtly informed that in no way is Franken a part of Bavaria, even if google maps says it is. Germany is not only a country of states, it is a country of states within states.


It is even a country of cities within cities. A great example of the level of perceived regional difference comes with Nürnberg and Fürth, two separate cities that are divided only by a train station and an easily crossed road. The Stadtgrenze or city border is a stop along the local Ubahn system. Without the stop and some signs dotted around, people from outside either city would have no idea they had crossed into a separate location. If you ever wish to experience what a wild animal attack is like, simply refer to Nürnberg and Fürth as one city within ear shot of a resident from either. It can get ugly, fast.

It might seem obvious that Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are culturally different, but it is not always clear that Germany, with its federal state system, shares this distinction. Unlike the separate parts of the UK though, travelling to different parts of Germany is less like entering a distinct region, than it is like entering an alternate universe version of the part of Germany you have just left. Everything essentially looks the same, but look closer and the differences are plain to see.


I recently spent a weekend in Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, the state just to the left of Bavaria. It mostly looked the same on the drive into the city, but quickly my wife noticed the signs that tell you which speed to go were reacting to the levels of traffic, something that was just slightly different. Once in the city proper, we found that supermarkets were open way past the usual 20.00 you would find in Nürnberg. As we looked for somewhere to drink, we found more smoking bars than non-smoking bars, which was a very clear departure from back home.

German regions have more than just these superficial differences. Never expect to find the same beer in all states, expect to find a regional variation on the theme. It is rare that Germans recommend beer from other areas, rather than their local brew.  Bakery chains also vary state to state, with regional versions, which is not too difficult to navigate as the quality generally stays the same. However, the names of the products might be different. Take the humble bread roll, here it is a Weckla, but it could also be a Brötchen, a Semmel or a Schrippe depending on where you are in Germany. Even native Germans might not actually know all the regional differences until they arrive in a particular area.


Language and dialect play a part in the differences, as do well worn regional stereotypes. Frankonians are people of few words, who are not entirely welcoming of outsiders. Schwabians are careful with their money and will spend a good ten minutes scouring any bill they receive for possible errors. People in Munich are ignorant and overly ostentatious, while people in Berlin are friendly but a little weird.

With each state maintaining state legislature, it is not surprising that rules differ. It is also not surprising, given the history of Germany, that there might be cultural and dialectic differences too. The fact that many of these differences are still quite prominent is mostly due to the age of Germany. Although the German states are as old as many European nations, Germany as a unified country has only existed since 1871 and in this regard is still a fairly young country, Perhaps these differences will become less pronounced over time, but I would not bet my house on it. The little differences seem to be what Germans enjoy about their regions. The little grenzes around Germany might be invisible, but to the locals they are as tangible as the beer and as obvious as a smoke filled pub.

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