21 November, 2013

Differences, Part II

As promised, I'm shifting gears from my recent event-type posts to a more theme-oriented post. I've already written a post about some of the differences between the United States and Germany (you can read that one here), but there are many other little and not-so-little things that I continue to notice daily that I want to share. So without further ado, here are some of the differences that remind me that I'm in a different country:

Different Power Outlets/Plugs

I had seen European power outlets before when I was in Spain, but it was hard to get used to them again when I got here. Like most American electrical plugs, European ones have two prongs, but the prongs are round rather than flat and are slightly farther apart. There is also never a third prong like in some American plugs, so the outlets themselves by default only have two holes rather than three. Here's what they look like:

The first picture is just the outlet, and the second picture, while doing a poor job of showing the outlet, includes a power cord unplugged so you can see the end. Another difference, as you can see in the first picture, is the outlets are deeper, which often makes it harder to plug and unplug things but also makes things less likely to get yanked out of the socket if you trip over the cord.

Different Light Switches

On a related note, the light switches are also different. Not much explanation is required here, since they, nearly universally, look something like this:

This one is in the "off" position, and to turn it on you push on the bottom of the button.

Where Are the Top Sheets For My Bed??

Germany seems to have a shortage of top sheets. Bottom sheets are ubiquitous, but after that the blanket options seem to jump immediately to heavy comforter, something that seems highly illogical to me. This is the one type of blanket that was provided to me by my host family:

As you can see, not a top sheet in sight, nor any other lighter blanket. This leaves me with limited options. Up until now I had to choose between using the blanket and being hot all night, or not using it and being cold. Now it's gotten cold enough that this blanket is pretty much exactly what I need, but earlier in the fall when it was still warm at night I ended up taking my extra comforter cover, without the comforter inside, and using that as a light blanket. I have, of course, a limited sample size from which to make generalizations about blanket usage, but I've talked to another au pair and she had the same complaint about the comforter-only system and the lack of top sheets. Maxim also uses only a comforter.

Road Lines and Construction Zones

The lines on the roads here were a source of confusion for me at first. If you're not used to the system and you're not paying close enough attention, you may end up driving somewhere you aren't supposed to. In the United States, at least on major roads, the lines dividing the lanes traveling in the same direction and the lines dividing different directions of travel are different colors: white for the same direction and yellow for different directions. This makes a lot of sense; a clear distinction between which lines you can cross and which you can't is important. Here, however, all the lines on the roads are white, except when you're driving in a construction zone.

Construction zones are a different beast. Here you really have to pay attention, because even if a lane or part of a lane is closed and causes the traffic to shift from the normally established route, the old lines remain on the road just as they were and new yellow lines are added to show the new traffic pattern. No effort is made to conceal or remove the original white lines. In America, every effort is made to make the roads idiot-proof, such as removing the original lines when new ones are added. Here you're just expected not to be an idiot.

Traffic Lights

Obviously the lights are the same red, yellow and green as in America, but there are a few little differences. Firstly, most of the time the lights are only placed next to the lane and are not suspended above the intersection. There are exceptions to this, of course, but suspended traffic lights are much less common here. They also have this somewhat quirky yellow-before-green part of the light cycle. Right before the light turns green, while the red light is still illuminated, the yellow light comes on briefly to warn you that the green light is coming. It's only for a second, but you end up seeing two colors at once for a second.

Two lights at the same time? Who would have imagined! I have a theory about this: having a little bit of warning for the green light gives you a chance to shift into gear (since most cars here are manual that extra second can be helpful).

There are also sometimes separate lights for bikes! Yay for being bike friendly! Sometimes the bike lights are completely separate lights and sometimes, when the bike path and the sidewalk share space, the bike symbol is included in the walk signal.

Driver's Licenses and ID Cards

In America, if you have a driver's license (and let's face it, most people do) that is all the valid government-issued ID you need. Not here. The driver's license gives you permission to do just that: drive. It doesn't prove anything else except your ability of operate a motor vehicle and it doesn't act as your official identification. German ID cards are separate and more official/secure than licenses. I guess this just shows how much more central driving is to the way of life in America, where the public transportation leaves a lot to be desired.

Cell Phones

A word of warning to Americans with a cell phone: YOU'RE GETTING RIPPED OFF! Cell phone service is much cheaper in Germany and, in my experience, of about the same quality as in the United States. As far as I'm aware, the cheapest cell phone plan you can get in the United States that includes some form of calling, texting, and data is about $35 per month, and that's not even close to how much you will pay for unlimited everything. Compare that to my bill: I get 300 "units" (a unit is either a minute of calling or a text) and 300 MB of data per month (which is more than I need) for 8 euros. Yes, eight, single digit. Granted, my plan (which isn't a contract but just month-by-month) is the absolute cheapest I've found and it isn't with the best network available, but I still get all the service I need and I'm not going broke because of it. Oh and by the way, that's 8 euros per month for an iPhone.

Customer Service

Customer service in Germany, and throughout Europe, is not what you would call overly friendly. In America, cashiers, baristas and waitstaff almost always give you a friendly greeting, ask how you are, ask politely what you need, and all with a smile (usually). Not so here. The most you'll get as a greeting is a "Hallo," and while usually this is friendly enough, it is not followed by the usual American small talk. During the transaction they ask the necessary questions, such as "Together or separate?" when it comes time to pay at a restaurant or "do you want your receipt?" at the supermarket, and then when you leave you'll get a "Tschüss" ("Bye," pronounced "chooss"). The waitstaff don't come over three times during your meal to ask how everything is, and when you want to pay for your food it's your job to make that happen, not theirs. The cashiers at the supermarket don't ask if you want paper or plastic, because they don't bag your groceries. If you want bags you have to ask for them, and then (I think) you have to pay for them.

While this alternative approach to customer service is a major difference and often quite noticeable, it's honestly been a relief for me. I can't imagine how confused I would have been when I first arrived here if I had been bombarded with the usual American customer service banter, but in German. Still being a novice German speaker, it's nice not to have to worry that the cashier or waiter will start saying something I don't understand or expect me to say much more than the bare minimum.


Both the physical appearance of the money and the way money is used are different here. I'll start with the physical:

Euros come in different coin and bill denominations than dollars. Coins are as follows: 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, 1 euro and 2 euros. The fronts of the coins are the same in every country that uses the euro, and the backs vary by which country they were minted in. Regardless of the country of origin, any of them can be spent in any country that accepts the euro.

The bills come in 5 euros, 10 euros, 20 euros, 50 euros, 100 euros, 200 euros and 500 euros. Notice that there is no 1 euro bill, just a coin. Also unlike dollars, each bill is a different size, with the 5 being the smallest and the 500 the largest, and each is a different color.

The largest bill I've ever held in my hand is a 50, so I'm not sure how big the 100, 200 and 500 are exactly. To give you an idea of the size, I'd say the closest to the size of a dollar bill is the 10 (although dollar bills are a longer rectangle than euros).

In terms of how money is used, cash is used far more often here than credit or debit cards. I've never once paid at a restaurant with a card, and I suspect that most don't even accept cards at all. The waiter or waitress simply comes to your table with a wallet when you are ready to pay and makes the change for you right there. While in the United States I almost always paid with a debit card, but here I've tried to get in the habit of always having cash with me and just using that. I simply don't want to assume that every place I go will take cards. I think the use of debit and credit cards is more common in Germany than in Spain, but it still isn't to the same degree as in America.

Now that I've grown accustomed to these differences, they are often a comfort. They remind me that I am where I want to be, and I continue to appreciate that every day.

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