When you set down roots in a foreign country it’s always a good idea to do like the Romans–try to fit in. We make a habit over here of trying to meld into the German countryside.
This week the husband and I were hanging our geranium boxes off the front of our house (no flower boxes is a dead giveaway that you’re an outsider) when a car pulled up. The driver unrolled his window and congenially started speaking German like we were old friends. It took us a moment to realize he needed directions. Despite our severely limited grasp of the language we managed to help him out.
It was kind of exhilarating.
For those of you planning to hop the pond this summer to experience a little European high life, here are a few things to avoid doing if you’d rather not publicize to the world that you’re an innocent abroad.
If you’re going to eat out there are a number of things that will have the staff rolling their eyes at your oddities. First, plan to purchase your water and don’t waste time asking for ice (or refills). I actually had one restauranteur ask if I’d like him to “warm” my Coke Light since it had been sitting in the refrigerator and was unfortunately chilled. Also in Germany it’s impolite to overtip, and you can always tell who the Americans are because they will sit at their tables for hours waiting for the server to bring the check.
Don’t expect free anything, especially wifi. Nothing says entitled American like counting on the Germans to “give” their stuff away, it doesn’t happen. On the flip side, if you’re buying at a bazar or festival you should never pay full price, they expect you to ask for a deal. I was in the American store on base the other day and had to laugh when a German lady asked the guy at the register if he would please knock off ten dollars. “Why?” he said. She got slightly huffy and glared at him. “Well…because…let me speak to your manager.”
“I am the manager,” he said.
“Oh.” She went ahead and paid the required amount. I found the entire episode highly entertaining until I realized that most of the time, I’m the German lady looking like the idiot while trying to navigate a foreign economy.
If you bring a book that has German phrases in it and a native asks if you speak German, do not say yes. Germans will routinely deny any ability to speak English then go on to have a nearly perfect English conversation with you. If they say they speak, “A little bit…” it means they’re ready to discuss philosophy.
Another dead giveaway is our obsession with close parking spaces. Europeans walk. They walk across parking lots and fields and towns and villages and just about anything else that has an even partially marked path. You can always tell the American moms in our village because we drive down to pick our kids up from the bus stop. The German kids? They walk.
Americans tend to smile a lot, another outsider reveal. I can’t decide if the German’s don’t smile publicly because of their attitudes or their teeth (we personally think they’re wonderful and love our neighbors, even if they aren’t quick with their initial grins) but you can always tell an American by their straight white smile. This is something I refuse to give up. Let them think me daft but I’m not hiding my smile from anyone.
We expect those visiting America to embrace our culture, and nothing says respect like personal awareness when the situation is reversed. Part of having a cultural experience is paying attention to what’s going on in the country you’re visiting.
Lastly, nothing says American like white socks. Germans count on it.