Tuesday, May 25, 2010

German Culture 101

Phil's company, Areva, has done a great job helping us as we get settled here in Germany. They have helped us set up language courses as well as provided us with a two day cultural training. This week the wives of the delegates had their course (they separate us since the experience is so different for the haus fraus). I found the course very interesting and walked away with a lot of usefull information. Part of the reason that I enjoyed the course was because it was taught by a psychology professor who is now traveling around Germany training delegates. We ended up learning a lot about ourselves and our preconceived ideas and hang ups before we even arrived in Germany. This really helped to identify why we reacted to different situations in certain ways.

For those of you interested, here are a few things that we learned.

1. Germans are coconuts, Americans are peaches.
Meaning...Germans have a hard shell but are soft on the inside. It takes a while to get past that first layer but once past it is easy to foster a deep friendship. It is was then described that Americans have a soft flesh but hard core. It is easy to expand of become friends until a certain point. Germans at first glance seem distant but once the shell is cracked longerterm and reliable relationships can be established. Americans at first glance appear superficial (to the Germans) because they are open to many people but there is a great distinction between politeness and deep relationships at the core.

2. Celebrating your birthday
In Germany when it is your birthday you must be the one to bring in cakes and drinks for everyone on your floor at work. It is thought of as rude to forego this practice. The idea is that everyone comes to you to get a piece of cake and wishes you happy birthday at that point. If you suggest that several of you go out to dinner to celebrate your birthday it is assumed that you will be picking up the bill. Phil's birthday is next week so I have already started planning on what cakes I will be making for the office.

3.Germans do not praise normal acheivements
Phil and I experienced this first hand when we were playing ultimate frisbee with several German students. We had each complemented several of the players on our team for making great plays and noticed that when we did they would snicker. When we asked them about this they stated, "Americans always compliment every little thing." Germans will only compliment you when you have done something extrordinary, otherwise it means nothing to them. Normal achievements are not to be praised because normal is not what we should be striving for. We discussed how this is true in the work place in Germany. In America work reviews are often given using the sandwich approach (start with praise, add negative comments or constructive criticism, end with praise). In Germany the reviews are there to point out what you need to work on and are straight to the point. Most Germans are not worried about hurting your feelings and will therefore not worry about sugar coating what they really want to say. I kept thinking that although this straight forward way of dealing with people is somewhat refreshing (I know how you really feel), it would not go over well in the southern United States.

Finally we had a group activity that I would like to share because I found it very interesting. We were told that we were going to be read a story about several characters and that our job was to rank them from least moral to most moral. Knowing that Phil had taken the class the week before I was eager to get home and find out how he had ranked each character.
Here is the story....
Rosi is a girl of about 21 years of age. She is engaged to George but there is one problem that prevents them from getting married. There is a big river filled with alligators separating them. Rosi spends weeks trying to figure out how she can cross the river safely to be with George. One day she remembered Siegfrid, a friend of hers, who is the only boat owner in the region. This is the only solution that she can come up with to get to George. When Rosi asked Siegfried to take her across the river he told her that he would under one condition, that she spend a night with him. Shocked about this offer Rosi consults Frederick and tells him the entire story. Frederick replied by saying, "I understand what you are saying but it is YOUR problem not mine." Rosi decides to go back to Siegfried and spends the night with him. The next morning Siegfried helped Rosi cross the river.
Her reunion with George is wonderful and they excitedly prepare for the big day. The night before the wedding Rosi feels forced to tell George how she managed to cross the river to be with him. After hearing this story George replied by saying, " I wouldn't marry you even if you were the last woman on earth." Rosi is so upset and tells the story to Daniel who listens to her and says,"Well, Rosi, I don't love you but I would marry you."
The Characters are Rosi, George, Siegfried, Daniel and Frederick.

After reading the story we were asked to each stand up in front of the class and talk about why we placed each character in their particular position.

What made this activity so interesting was that I was in a room with four other women from four different parts of the world. Each one of us had a different order all based on different perspectives. Here is what came up...
- One woman brought up the point that in her culture spending the night did not mean sleeping with someone. She had Siegfried as the most moral since she assumed that he wanted her to spend time with his family before leaving the area.
- Another woman said that Daniel would be the most moral since he was willing to marry a woman that would have been considered "damaged" by society even though he did not love her.
- Another stated that Frederick was the most moral because he refused to get involved in other peoples affairs.

We all found this activity helpful as we try to understand where different cultures are coming from and how to see things from other perspectives.

The other Lake Zurich

On May 13th a small group of us traveled to Zurich, Switzerland. One of the reasons that we decided to go to Zurich was because Barb (the wife of another delegate from Charlotte) had a cousin that had invited us to visit and explore the area. We found a cheap hotel nearby and took off toward the mountains. I was personally excited about the trip because of all that I had read about the beautiful Lake Zurich. I grew up in a small town outside of Chicago called Lake Zurich and was excited to see if there were any similarities.

The 3.5 hour drive from Erlangen to Zurich was absolutely beautiful. Even though the weather was overcast you could still see several snow capped mountains on both sides of the autobahn. As we entered into Zurich we drove straight to Barb's cousin's house to say hello. Her cousin's name was Alex and he has lived in Switzerland for the past 15 years with his wife (who did not speak any English but was incredible kind). We were immediatly offered snacks and sat down to get to know our guide for the next three days. Alex used to be a chef (in fact in 1965 he was the head chef at the Rainbow room in NYC) and immediatley wanted to map out what we were going to eat for each meal. We all agreed that as long as we were able to try fondue and a little bit of Swiss chocolate, we were open to anything else. Alex did not waste any time. As soon as we had discussed food we grabbed our coats and headed to the train station to get our first tour of Zurich before the sun set.

The next morning Alex drove us to a few beautiful spots just outside of Zurich so that we could get a good view of the Alps. As we were driving we came across a team of grass skiers. Aparently the Swiss do not stop skiing just because there is no snow on the ground. We were all very impressed by these young kids that were flying down the mountain so we decided to introduce ourselves. I also snapped several pictures.

After driving a little bit further we came across a luge park. We all took turns jumping in little wooden buckets and shooting down the side of a mountain. We had a great time even though it was a little scary in the rain. I am still trying to track down who has the pictures from that activity. We kept saying to each other, " who gets the chance to ride a luge down the Swiss Alps? We do!" We all feel really blessed to be able to experience all of this.

The next day we started to see the sun creep out behind the clouds and thought it would be a good day to take the ferry around Lake Zurich. It was beautiful!

After the ferry ride we continued to walk around Zurich and made a very important stop at a major Swiss chocolate factory...Lindt. As we walked up to the building the sweet smell of chocolate poured out of the front door onto the street. Now this is experiencing Switzerland. We all went to the shop and bought freshly packaged Lindt chocolate for family in the States. We were told that most of what we bought could be not bought in the States. I am not sure how true that was but we bought it.....literaly. Here is a picture of the front of the factory.....

I tried to get the entire building in the picture but could not have backed up any further. I literally had my heals in Lake Zurich.

We had a wonderful time in Switzerland and were grateful for Barb's cousin Alex for showing us around and giving us a little history lesson along the way. We all decided that we will be back next year and will plan on returning in August when the weather is warmer. Luckily next week we will be in Garda, Italy where the weather forcast calls for 80' and lots of sun.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

May Day

Last Saturday was May 1st. I do not remember this day being a big deal in America but here in Germany it is a day of celebration. Every town, small and large, hosts a festival from sun up to sun down. The idea is that all families are suppose to spend the day outside together and "Tanz in den Mai!" ("Dance into May!"). May 1st is also celebrated my the presenting of the Maypole. Most towns have at least one may pole near the center of town. These poles are beautiful and are covered with large streams of multi colored ribbons. The tradition is that if a boy likes a girl he shows her this by going out the night before May 1st and cutting down a small tree in the forest. He then removes all of the branches, ties ribbons to the top and delivers it to her by placing it in her garden. During Leap year it is the responsibility of the female to place the Maypole in the yard of the male that she is interested in. It was a lot of fun to walk around Erlangen and other surrounding towns looking at all of the beautiful Maypoles.

The night before May Day we heard a lot about a festival that was taking place on top of a mountain about 30 minutes away. We decided to travel up the mountain on Saturday to experience our first May Day festival. After a morning of shopping the local flea markets (which would put most flea markets in the US to shame) we jumped on a train and headed to Forcheim. Once in Forcheim we met up with a few other friends and decided to tackle that mountain. We were not sufficiently warned for what we were about to face. Since this was a family festival we were under the impression that the hike up would be a leisurely one, this was not the case. It took us a little over an hour to huff and puff it up the side of the mountain, and we were moving pretty quickly. Once we made it to the top it was all worth it. The entire top of the mountain was covered with May poles, games, rides for kids and food vendors. People were spread out on blankets all over the mountain enjoying the gorgeous views and incredible smells. We had a wonderful time!

A view from the top: