16 February, 2015

This Post Comes to You in Three Parts (AKA, Three More Differences!)

The last time I did a "differences" post I said I was starting to get tired of them. But even after a year and a half I still find myself wanting to comment on differences I see between Germany and the United States, and this time I have three particular areas that I would like to dig into. (Anyone notice the subtle Vlogbrothers reference in the title?)


I had never consciously noticed the difference between American and European coffee until I was back in the United States around Christmas. I guess I should have taken it as a hint that my coffee consumption always increases when I'm in Europe, but there were always reasons for that. In Spain, I would go for coffee because a friend wanted to go or because we were working on something together and needed the free wifi that the cafe provided. During my time in Karlsruhe, I found that coffee was a pleasant afternoon social drink that gave me the energy and mental acuity to speak German more easily. All in all, in Germany I tend to drink coffee 1-4 times a week (recently almost every day) and in America not at all.

And then I realized why. I drank coffee again in America over Christmas and it was, to put it bluntly, terrible. American coffee is horribly bitter and doesn't have nearly as much flavor as European coffee. No wonder Starbucks became so popular with their sugary drinks: they actually made their coffee taste good!

European coffee is in fact a different beverage than American coffee. When Europeans drink coffee, they usually drink espresso or espresso-based drinks like a cappuccino or a macchiato, or coffee that closely resembles espresso except that it's watered down. It is slightly thicker and has a slightly lighter, more opaque color than American coffee. It is usually prepared with a fancy machine which, as far as I know, puts pressurized water through the (often freshly ground) coffee beans. American coffee, on the other hand, is made with machines or low-tech filters that simply use gravity to get the water through the beans (AKA drip coffee or filter coffee). American coffee is much more watery, consumed in larger quantities with less milk (or cream), and seems to contain more caffeine than European coffee. Probably as a result of the higher caffeine content, American coffee often makes me feel nauseous and/or anxious for several hours after I drink it.

To be fair, both European espresso and American drip coffee exist in both places, but the frequency with which they are consumed and which one the average person means when they say "coffee" varies. One can certainly drink an espresso in America, but that is not the common expectation when ordering a hot, caffeinated beverage made from coffee beans. Conversely, I have had drip coffee in Germany and it was just as bitter and nausea-inducing as American coffee. (Although I should point out that this coffee was from Starbucks and may not count as European at all.) It may also have something to do with the quality or type of coffee, since I've had espresso/coffee made in a nice European-style machine that still made me anxious and nauseated. In any case, I find the quality and taste of European coffee to be consistently better, which leads me to drink coffee in Germany much more often than in the United States.


German houses are built like bomb shelters. The outer and inner walls are made from concrete or thick house-building bricks and can be up to several feet thick. American houses in comparison seem like drafty wooden huts made out of popsicle sticks (I mean, wooden beams). And American houses really are drafty in comparison; the impermeability of German walls is the infuriating excuse for constantly opening all the windows in all conceivable weather, a phenomenon which I already complained about in a previous post. (Seriously, go read that post. I still stand by everything I wrote.)

The German and American approaches to building houses could not be more different: Germans put money, time and energy into building something that will last perhaps for centuries, and Americans focus on speed and affordability. It's almost beyond belief to many Germans that Americans continue to build houses the way they do, especially in areas with hurricanes or tornadoes where houses are routinely flattened by the forces of nature. In addition to better withstanding severe storms, German houses are more eco-friendly. The thick walls and high-quality windows keep even the smallest drafts out, which reduces the amount of fuel needed to heat the space. (Why they then insist on letting all the heat out again by opening all the windows in mid-winter is beyond me, but I digress.) I definitely noticed the draftiness of American houses when I was back in the United States, especially at night when the heat wasn't on.

The differences continue to the inside layout as well. American houses are usually designed with a fairly open floor plan, with the kitchen, dining room and living room often being housed in the same large room. The bathrooms, bedrooms and sometimes entry areas are separated from the other spaces by doors, but these doors are usually left open unless someone wants privacy. In German houses, there are doors separating EVERYTHING. Almost all rooms, including living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, office, entry area and hallways are all separated from each other by doors and these doors are usually kept closed by default. This often means that only living spaces are heated; the hallways, entryways and other non-essential spaces remain closed off and therefore cold. The kitchen especially is purposely separated from the other rooms and the door is always kept closed when someone is cooking. Germans seem very concerned about the smell of cooking food permeating the rest of the house, while in America this is usually viewed as a pleasant, homey smell.

The separateness of all the spaces in German houses can feel a bit disconcerting and isolating to me, and at times messes with my instincts about what a closed door means. A perfect example is the bathroom. To me, when a bathroom door is closed it means someone is probably in there and if I want to enter I knock first to make sure it's not already occupied. A closed bathroom door in Germany just means the door is closed, and the expectation is that if someone is in there they will lock the door. I've discovered that most Germans do not knock before entering a bathroom because they don't assume that a closed door means the bathroom is occupied. They assume that if someone is in there the door will be locked and just won't open when they try to go in. I still stick to my habit of knocking on the closed bathroom door, even though I feel like a bit of a doofus for doing so.


This may seem like a strange topic to write about, but I've found that there are some key differences between the games (card games, board games, etc) that Germans vs. Americans play. American games are almost always about being the fastest or having the most cards/money/property/territory at the end of the game. While there is often strategy involved, the end goal is usually some form of having the most of something or doing something more quickly than everyone else. With German games, the goal of the game is often more complicated, and having the most of something or being the fastest isn't always the point.

A perfect example is the card game Wizard. Players each play one card into the middle and the person with the highest card wins the hand. But the goal isn't to win the most hands, which would be the American way of approaching the game; each player has to guess at the beginning of the game how many hands he or she will win, and if you win more or fewer hands than what you guessed you lose points. In this case, it's possible to get more points for winning one hand than another person gets for winning three, IF you guessed your number of winning hands correctly at the beginning and the other person didn't. But wait, the complications aren't over yet! To further complicate things, one color from the deck (there are four colors, much like the suits in a regular deck of cards) is chosen at the beginning of the game to be the "trump" color, and anyone who plays that color wins the hand, even if someone has played a higher card in another color.

It's been more difficult than I expected to get used to the different type of strategy involved in German games. It requires changing the entire way that I view competition and winning. I have to switch my brain from the American-style domination approach to a more nuanced, strategic mode. In essence, I have to redefine what is means to win, which is harder than it sounds (or maybe exactly as hard as it sounds). Most German games leave me feeling slightly off-balance, like I haven't fully grasped what is expected of me. Needless to say, this makes it difficult for me to enjoy playing, and I don't usually win, which does not improve matters.

Oh, one more thing: there are a surprising number of German card games that use only certain cards from a normal deck. I have played games that use only 7s through Kings plus the Aces and another that uses only 10s through Kings plus Aces. I think this is just ridiculous and makes for very boring card games that end too quickly. The 10-through-King game also puts the cards in a different order, something like Jack, Queen, King, 10, Ace. Nonsense!

It's obvious, given the fact that I'm still writing "differences" posts a year and a half after my arrival in Germany, that the differences continue to stand out even now. And as I've been noticing lately, I still haven't accepted the fact that there are some differences between the United States and Germany that I will just have to get used to. I have had a very hard time getting used to certain everyday differences, specifically the window-opening obsession and the heavy, dark window blinds, and an even harder time letting go of the fact that I am not going to change anything about how these things happen. If I ever have my own apartment (which is my main goal in life at the moment) I can always return to my usual habits of having the windows how I want them, but as soon as I go to someone else's house or Maxim lives with me again, I will have to defer to the common German standard once more.

Maybe this is one of the next challenges ahead of me. I can't live in this country being constantly on edge and defensive about the things I don't like, no matter how much they bug me. I'll just have to decide which things are worth arguing about, and if my arguments fail, accept the things that I'm never going to succeed in changing. For someone who can be as stubborn as I can be, this will certainly be a challenge.


  1. Thank you- finally someone who gets the coffee thing! I drank so much coffee in Germany because it's so much better and much more social, where as here it is so much worse and more of a quick, to-go thing :)

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who notices this! I've been having cravings for coffee during the time I've been home visiting the U.S., but I realized it not actually the coffee that I'm craving, it's the particular type of coffee drink (cappuccino) that I normally have in Germany combined with the social, sit-down-and-relax atmosphere that drinking coffee in Germany goes along with. I have actually (surprisingly!) had a few tasty cappuccinos in the U.S. in the past few weeks, and that makes it even harder for me to understand why Americans don't recognize and take advantage of the joy that is good espresso.