As of writing this, I've officially been in Germany for 85 days. In this time I've had my fair share of culture shocks, differences I've noticed between the U.S. and Germany, and revelations. Below is a list of my top nine 'impressions' of Germany, covering everything from school differences to paying to use a public bathroom...
1. Everything is Little
From washing machines to cars to serving sizes, everything in Germany seems small to me. When I arrived to language camp my roommates and I were the first to do our laundry, and when we were shown a washing machine that was probably less than half the size of a regular American washing machine, all three of us were shocked. I remember all of us looking at each other, knowing that the machine would not fit all three of our laundry in it, let alone one singular load.
It took me longer to notice that the cars were smaller, and that there seemed to be no truck-like cars either. It makes sense since a lot of streets are narrow and small, so they can't fit these giant vehicles Americans are used to having, but seeing one-person cars or just regular cars but smaller in size - it trips me up sometimes...
The only differences in portion sizes I've seen are in drinks. When I go to a restaurant I'm served a meal rivaling an American meal size, but the drinks are always small, usually .02 liter or barely more, and there are no free refills. Even at McDonalds, the serving size for milkshakes is different, with there only being two options, big and small. The big size is an American medium, probably smaller.
2. Food is Healthier
After my first visit to the NP at language camp, I began to notice a difference in the taste of certain foods. Although, I'd say it's half and half on whether someone can notice a difference in taste or not, because some people didn't taste the differences I could taste.
When it comes to pop, I noticed Coke Cola tastes similar but it doesn't have the usual kick when you drink it, but when I tried Dr. Pepper here, it couldn't have tasted so drastically different from American Dr. Pepper. It almost tasted flat. And when it comes to Pringles or Haribo, they just don't seem as sweet as in America, and tend to taste better. I think this is because Germany doesn't use near as many artificial colors in their food and uses less preservatives (which is why I can taste a difference even in fruit), and that's why food here seems to taste better.
Also, Germans tend to prefer fresh food, going to the store once a week to serve actual meals, not usually pre-made meals or microwavable meals. They prefer not to freeze meat so that it's more fresh, and go to the bakery for fresh bread (which is amazing by the way). There also isn't as much fast food, with there being only three options; KFC, McDonalds and Burger King, and they're pretty expensive compared to America.
3. Canceled Classes and No Set Classrooms
When a teacher is sick or is gone for an appointment/meeting, there is no substitute, the class is just canceled and you can go home. A lot of times students use this time to go to a grocery store to get snacks because, at my school, there is no lunch break. In the beginning of September, canceled classes were great because I got to go into the city and explore (and get ice cream), but after a week like this one, where I had nine canceled classes and spent most of my time at home, it can get frustrating sometimes. Especially if you find out your class is canceled right when you show up for that class...
Another thing is that teachers don't have their own rooms. Similar to how you show up to a certain room for a certain class, teachers show up to a certain room for a specific class. Teachers don't seem to specialize in one thing, like science or history, and instead teach multiple subjects. For example, my English teacher is in room 301 to teach English, but goes to room 404 to teach chemistry. She teaches advanced English to 17 year-olds but also Chemistry for seventh graders - this really seems 'weird' to me, because it's so different from the United States.
4. Public Transportation and Bikes
I've never ridden on a bus until I came to Germany, and using public transportation in Kansas is rarely a good decision, because it's not practical. In the U.S. we just drive our cars places, especially teens, but in Germany, public transportation is everywhere and is super useful. I can take the tram for 45 minutes and go from Krefeld to Düsseldorf for 15 Euro. Although Germans don't think too high of the Deutsche Bahn because of late trains, it is so useful and effecient compared to the U.S.
When I need to get around town, I usually just ride my bike. I ride seven minutes to school and five minutes to my dance studio. If I wanted to go to the city I just take a ten minute bike ride. Everything is conveniently placed compared to Topeka. When winter comes and I won't be able to ride my bike because of the weather and cold, I can just take the tram. Germans don't think much of this, but it's so monumental - it's insane!
Make sure to always keep at least one Euro on you in case you have to go, because bathrooms at the Deutsche Bahn and in most public spaces other than restaurants, charge you to use the bathrooms.
Also, at my school, as well as some other CBYX-ers schools, the bathroom stalls have no toilet paper in them, you have to take paper from the towel dispenser and then go into the stall to do your business. This is not the same at every school, but it's how mine is. (Side note: you do not need to pay for the bathroom at school)
Even now, if I can keep from it, I avoid using the school bathroom and refuse to pay for a public toilet, because I can't grasp my mind around it.
6. German Food
German food has taken some getting used to. I would say my host family doesn't make much traditional 'German' food, because my host mom is Danish and my host dad is half German, half Chinese, so we eat a lot of seafood and Chinese food. But, when we do have German food, I've noticed things like potatoes, corn or green beans, and even other foods typically lack salt, pepper or butter, which takes some getting used to for my American taste buds. I made a dinner with corn, mashed potatoes, mac'n'cheese and chicken for my host family one day, and while I was making it, comparing it to the same mashed potatoes and corn that my host family has made previously, I noticed it was those three ingredients that were missing, and that's why it seemed to taste different, like it was lacking flavor.
7. German's English
No matter what Germans tell me, that their English is bad, I haven't meet a German who has had bad English. It's pretty European to learn English, along with Latin or French, so it makes it easy to conversate with them. Even if they say their English is bad, it is not the equivalent of what an American learning German would call their German bad.
But, I've noticed many Germans try to speak English to me, even if I am speaking German to them. Usually if they speak English, I'll continue to respond and ask questions in German so I improve. Most Germans want to practice their English, since they don't have many opportunities, so they want to practice, but I don't think they understand how much harder it is for us to practice our German. Germans learning English are so close to the UK, but Americans learning German are so far away from Germany.
8. Improving My German
In the three months that I've been here there have been maybe two times that I thought to myself, "Wow, I'm improving!" I talked with other people about this but you never feel like you're improving language wise, but you are! There are little words that I say, like 'aber' or 'mit' or 'und', which are little but they sneak into my vocabulary when I speak English. And my host family has said my German has improved - things are connecting faster and my loading screen is shortening, as well as I'm able to talk more with people.
Even though I am slowly improving, that still doesn't discourage me from taking extra German classes through the Goethe Institute, because I don't feel challenged enough in school, and because so many of my classes are canceled, I'm not getting a lot of chances to experience German learning. I will say, I am going to talk to my German teacher, a class where we're reading a book and I can't do much to participate in it, if I can work on learning German grammar/structure in class so I can be doing something German related while still participating in some way. Frankly, you just have to reach out and try to keep learning, don't get discouraged and keep going!
9. Putting Yourself Out There
I don't know what I was thinking, but I really, like really, had to put myself out there to make friends or start speaking with people in German. I had to be the outgoing one, and often had to suggest doing things together. And when it comes to talking to people and making friends, I had to ask them questions. It took a while for people to really talk to me, with them not really talking with me until after my English class where I had to introduce myself. Sometimes people get excited that there is an exchange student there, so they really want to ask questions and get to know them, but that wasn't my case. It took me about a month to find friends, and even then, two months in, I've finally asked two people over, for a school project, and made pretty good friends with an exchange student from Brazil. I'm still trying to reach out and talk to people, it is slow but it's improving.
I'm still realizing new things that are different between the U.S. and Germany, and have been talking with fellow CBYX-ers about new German things I find, but I'm excited to learn more! Even though I find certain things 'weird' or different, I just remind myself it's a different culture, and try to embrace it (except for the bathrooms).
I hope this put into perspective the things I'm experiencing on my exchange year, and things you might experience too if you join the program. Until then, bis später!