12 January, 2016

German Rules That I Don't Understand

Living in a new country inevitably comes along with learning some new rules. Some of them make sense: the rules for sorting trash and recycling, although different than what I was used to back home, enable the different recyclable and non-recyclable materials to be processed more quickly. Many of the rules are even exactly the same, such as stop at a red light, cross at the crosswalk, etc. But there are a few rules I've come across during my time in Germany that I just can't wrap my head around. When I was first confronted with these rules, I didn't understand why they exist or what purpose they serve.

Maxim, as a real live German, had some explanations for some of these when I complained to him about them, which I will include as well. But explanation or no, they still bug me.

In no particular order, here they are:

1. Why do I have to lock up my bag and coat?

The university library has a rule that you can't bring bags, backpacks or coats into the library. Instead, you have to lock your bag and coat in a locker by the library entrance, and if you have books or other items you would like to bring in with you, you have to transfer them to one of the red plastic shopping baskets provided (or carry them). If you need everything that you brought in your own bag, tough luck. You will still have to needlessly transfer the entire contents of your bag into one of the baskets (which incidentally are heavier and much more clumsy to carry around than your average bag or backpack). And if you get cold while studying, too bad, your coat stays outside where it belongs.

This is the most annoying rule that I have to deal with in my current day-to-day life, and it's so annoying it makes me not want to ever go to the library. It's not so bad if I know I'm going to be there for a while, but if I'm there just to quickly pick up a book it's almost infuriating. The last time I went to the library to get a book, I'm pretty sure I spent more time forcing my backpack and coat into a locker and hauling them out again than I did actually retrieving the book.

Explanation: According to Maxim, this rule probably dates back to the time before the library had an electronic system for ensuring that students didn't take books without checking them out. Today, though, the library has sensors by the entrance that beep loudly if a book passes through without being checked out, so this rule is absolutely useless. No one bothered to change the rule to keep up with the times, so here it stays, much to my annoyance. (Maxim wanted me to point out that this is a peculiarity of my university and this is not the norm in every German library.)

2. Why are there hours for the recycling bins?

My building doesn't have its own recycling bins for glass or paper, so when I need to dispose of these items I have to walk to the public bins in the parking lot next door. The first time I passed by these bins I noticed this sign:

Translation: "Times for use: 7:00am-7:00pm, not on Sundays or holidays. Thank you very much!" Why exactly? I could understand it if they said not to put anything in the bins in the dark, because then maybe people might put things in the wrong bins. But even that is a stretch because the bins look entirely different for different materials, and the parking lot is well lit. I could also understand it if there was a building or employees involved, but they are literally just recycling bins that require no protection or supervision. Are they trying to prevent drunken recycling? Reduce recycling-related crime? I just don't see how the time of day that something is chucked into a bin has anything to do with anything.

Explanation: This rule is in place to prevent excess noise when people might be sleeping or on that most holy day, Sunday, when it's basically a crime to make any sort of noise. Tossing glass bottles on top of a bunch of other glass bottles does make some noise, so I admit this rule makes sense in the case of glass, but I still don't understand why it applies to paper (or to the entire day on Sunday).

3. Why can't I make noise on Sunday?

This is an extension of the previous rule. I get that it's rude to make a ton of noise when people are likely to be sleeping (i.e., in the middle of the night), but on Sunday? What's so special about Sunday that I have to tiptoe around? Saturday is also a day off for most people so what makes Sunday so different? Despite my inability to understand the reasoning, this rule is alive and well and manifests itself in various ways. This means, for example, that it is highly frowned upon to mow your lawn on a Sunday, and your neighbors may give you the stink eye or tell you off (quietly, of course) if you do it.

Explanation: Sunday is supposed to be a day to rest and take it easy.

(Okay, I'm on board with the sentiment, but what if Sunday is the only time you have to mow your lawn? What then? Your neighbors are unlikely to be much more sympathetic to your lawn being untidy than to you mowing it on Sunday. To me Sunday is a time to do the stuff you haven't had time to do the rest of the week, so this seems like a ridiculous expectation. Rant over.)

4. Why can't I go inside the office even though it's open?

The university, as one might expect, has a variety of services available to students and offices for accessing those services. The employees who work in these offices work completely normal office hours (probably 8-4 or 9-5), but in some of the offices, including the one I've had to deal with the most, students are only allowed to come to the office for assistance during very specific hours. When Maxim first told me about this phenomenon at his university a few years ago, I laughed at how ridiculous the people in that office must be and didn't think much of it, but now that I have to deal with it myself, it's really not funny at all.

The hours are so restrictive that it literally defies logic: the registrar's office of my university only allows students to come in on Tuesdays for three hours and Thursdays for six hours. WHY??? The employees are there all day, why can't I just go in? How can they possibly expect to help all the students who need it in those limited hours? I once went to the registrar's office on a Wednesday, and I wasn't allowed inside the office. The student sitting at the reception desk outside spent 10 minutes passing messages back and forth between me and the woman I actually wanted to talk to before she finally came out and talked to me herself. Thinking about that encounter still makes me mad.

Explanation: the reason behind this one is obvious: the university is critically understaffed. I'm torn about this. On one hand, it's aggravating beyond belief that the services at the university are so appallingly understaffed, but on the other hand I know that the relative lack of paid employees helps keep the cost of education low. But really, one more employee to help out the students, even just part-time, would make a huge difference.

The last one is less about the existence of a rule and more about the absence of one, but I'm including it anyway...

BONUS ROUND: Why are Germans incapable of standing in line correctly?

There seem to be no established rules for queuing up except survival of the fittest. When waiting in line for anything, such as at a fast food restaurant, movie theater, bookstore, really anywhere, people in Germany never actually form an orderly line. They form a pack and have absolutely no concern for who they might be cutting off to secure their place in the herd. This is exacerbated when there is more than one line/cash register open. Instead of making a line for each cash register or making a single line and going in an orderly fashion to the next available register, the survival-of-the-fittest mentality prevails and it's a mad dash to get to the next available register before everyone else. I noticed this tendency in Spain, too, so I think this might be a general European trend rather than specifically a German one.

Whatever the case may be, for an American like me this is extremely frustrating. Americans, known for superficial friendliness, typically form orderly lines and maintain an awareness of when it's their turn. If Americans know someone got in line before them, they will (usually) wait patiently for that person to go first and will even offer their place to someone else if there is confusion about whose turn it is. Germans seem not to understand the concept of a "turn" and simply barge ahead as soon as they have an opportunity. I've even found myself starting to do this too. Here, if you're not on the defensive you might just wait forever.

Explanation: none.

In some ways Germany remains to this day a land of mystery for me. Litte details that every German takes for granted, like these rules, are simply baffling to me. I'm glad I at least have my German to explain the rules to me so I'm not completely baffled anymore, but even with the explanations I still can't help feeling a bit bewildered. I guess I will have to accept two things: this is how Germans do things, and I am not about to change it.

I'll end with a question for other expats: Are there rules in your new home country that just baffle you? I'd love to hear about them!


  1. Locking bags and coats is quite normal in Australia at big libraries-its to stop your stuff being stolen and you stealing anything and concealing it.

    I still dont get the sunday no noise thing, we often do a quick vacuum on sunday afternoons as its a good time to clean with nothing being open!

    1. I like having the lockers there as an option, but the requirement just gets to me. Especially with the added security on the books now it just seems like overkill.

  2. Huh, I have never seen hours on the recycling bins before. That's a new one! I get the restrictions as far as normal "quiet time" rules go, but I do NOT understand why it's okay for them to bring the trucks around and empty those same bins at 5:50am on Mondays. Makes a hell of a lot more noise than a bottle or two, and does not fall within quiet hours. That's for damn sure. ;)

    1. That's so frustrating! And it certainly does not follow the quiet hours rule. I'm not sure if they do that here. I live far enough away from the bins that I wouldn't hear it even if they did.