16 June, 2014

Another Round of Random Differences

Even after all this time in Germany (I just passed the nine month mark about a week ago), I still notice and occasionally write down some of the little differences between Germany and the homeland, good ol' US of A. I have an ever-growing list of these little differences accumulating in the Notes app on my iPhone, so I think it's time for some "spring cleaning."

1. Paper Sizes


In the US, the standard paper size, known as letter size, is 8.5 x 11 inches. Where this size came from no one really knows. In Germany and the rest of Europe, and probably other places in the world as well, the standard paper size is known as "A4" and is 210mm x 297mm (8.27 x 11.69 inches). These measurements seem arbitrary at first glance, but they actually make a lot of sense when you take them in the context of the rest of the paper sizing scale. Two A4 pieces of paper side by side with their long edges together make an A3 piece of paper, two A3s make an A2, two A2s make an A1, and two A1s make an A0, which is 1 square meter in area. This scale is very useful because the next paper size down is made by simply cutting the current sheet in half, and the size up is made by sticking two of the current size sheets together. For a more in-depth (and unabashedly biased) explanation of European versus American paper sizes, check out this video.

What this size difference means for the average paper user is that the A4 sheet is slightly narrower and slightly longer than the American letter size, as you can see in the above image. When switching from one paper size to the other the new paper size looks a little funny, but after a while you get used to it. The only time I notice the size difference now is when I print something that is meant for American letter size on an A4 piece of paper. The contents will fit on the paper just fine, but the top and bottom margins will be slightly too large.

2. Sock Colors


Pop quiz: What color should socks be? You know, the average, normal, everyday color of socks? If you're American I bet you said white, and if you're German I bet you said black. I have quizzed numerous people about this and there is a very clear American-German split on this topic.

Before I came to Germany, I didn't even question the fact that socks are supposed to be white. That's the normal, average, boring color that you can expect socks to be. If you go into a clothing store, you should find mountains of white socks, with a few crazy colors mixed in and maybe a few black pairs for those who want to match their socks with their black shoes (or some other such nonsense). Then I came to Germany, and EVERYONE wears black socks. Black is the standard color, and people who wear white socks on a regular basis are looked at funny. (White socks, for some reason, are associated with sports and athletic sneakers.) This is such a well-accepted fact in Germany that one of the practice texts in my German textbook involved a woman complaining about how weird a coworker of hers was, and one of her stated reasons for deeming him strange was the fact that he wore white socks. So while the vast majority of my socks are white, my entire host family probably has three pairs of white socks among the four of them and the rest are black (I know this because sometimes I pair their clean socks if I have nothing else to do).

I still stand firmly by the belief that socks should be white and continue to wear my white socks without shame. One advantage of this is that my socks never get mixed up with those of my host family, or with Maxim's.

3. The Proper Way to Eat


In the US, the clearly dominant piece of silverware is the fork. Americans use forks as the multi-purpose cutting, stabbing and scooping utensil for most foods, except for things like soup and yogurt which require using a spoon. Knives are typically relegated to specific tasks such as buttering bread or cutting steak. In contrast, the proper way to eat a meal in Germany requires using both the fork and knife simultaneously, even if your entree doesn't require much cutting. While the fork retains it's status as the stabbing and scooping utensil which carries food to the mouth, the knife plays the crucial role of assisting the food onto the fork, and of course cutting food when necessary. Instead of fruitlessly chasing the last few noodles around the plate with a fork, Germans wisely use the knife to guide the food toward the fork. This is done not just for the last few bites but throughout the entire meal.

This system makes sense, but wait, there's a twist. The knife is typically held in the right hand, while the fork is held in the LEFT HAND! (What is this madness?!)

The logic is, the knife should be in the stronger hand because it is used for cutting, but clearly undermining this logic is the fact that this rule is supposed to apply to people regardless of whether they are right- or left-handed. While I have adopted the use of the knife during my months in Germany, I continue to hold my fork in my right (dominant) hand and use the knife with my left. I've tried to switch hands without much success. It's a similar feeling to trying to write with my left hand: it just feels wrong.

4. Grocery Bags


Similar to what some states in the US are attempting to mandate in recent years, grocery stores in Germany charge customers for plastic grocery bags in an attempt to cut down on plastic waste. It works. I think I've only bought a plastic grocery bag once, or maybe not even that, and most of the people I see at the grocery store don't take the plastic bags either. People either buy a small enough amount of stuff that they don't need a bag or they bring their own reusable bags.

This is definitely a drastic difference from most supermarkets in the US, where they put about 5 items in each bag and often needlessly double-bag "heavy" items.

The more eco-friendly approach to grocery shopping reflects the generally higher level of environmental awareness in Germany. Many more types of materials are recycled here, including all plastics, paper and glass. The bottle deposits for glass and some plastic bottles are also higher (15-25 cents in Germany, versus 5-10 cents in the US), providing much more encouragement for people to return them. In the US, the types of materials that are accepted for recycling vary dramatically by state, and many states don't even have bottle deposits at all.

5. Public bathrooms


Some of the nicest public bathrooms I've ever seen are in German cafes and restaurants. This is a contrast from the typical American public bathroom stalls, which look like this:

(Photo: pixabay.com)

In the American version, the "walls" between the stalls are flimsy and have sizable gaps above, below and sometimes on either side of the door. In Germany, it is much more likely to see public bathrooms with real walls between each stall and real doors that cover the entire stall from view. I'm sure this has something to do with the fact that America values doing things quickly and cheaply whereas Germany values doing things well the first time and having to fix things less often.

There are many more differences that I could comment on, but I will leave it at this for now.

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