Don’t know about you, but I’ve always liked the expression embracing a new culture. It sounds peaceful and reassuring, and when I planned to come to Germany I used to think of myself as a Pocahontas in reverse ready to absorb and confront with open mind and arms this new teutonic world.
I soon realized, though, that if Pocahonts had known about McDonald’s, guns, stuffed turkeys and Zoey Deschanell, she would have probably spared us some songs and filed a couple of complaints. I also realized that there’s times in which you don’t feel as you’re embracing another culture as much as you’re handcuffed to it.
Everybody tells me that Berlin is not representative of Germany, but there’s things, little annoying habits, that I picked up along the way during my expat life in Berlin and they look 100% Deutsch to me. I’m pretty sure you’ll pick them up too if you get to live long enough in this beautiful city.
1) Leaving bottles on the street
My education turned me into a strict recycling machine and the thought of somebody leaving his trash on the sidewalk used to horrify me.
In Germany empty bottles are not trash: they’re money. You go to the supermarket with your empties, a machine sucks them up and returns cash; for an empty bottle they give you up to 60 cents, which you can then reuse to shop.
It’s not very difficult to understand that leaving an empty bottle on the public soil of a relatively poor city is like anonimously delivering donuts to a fat camp. You lay the bottle on the ground, turn one second to your friend who’s trying to decide if the fourth club of the night should be Berghain or Watergate and zac – onomatopoeic italian sound – the bottle is gone.
You kind-of-sort-of-like give to the poor and you also avoid storing another empty at your place.
I mean, the fact that I’m just a couple of Club Mate away from buying myself a car makes me proud, but I can barely see the entrance of my apartment anymore and at this point my only hope is that the crew of Hoarding: buried alive finds me before it’s too late.
2) Sitting while peeing
I’ll never forget my first day in Berlin. My new flatmate, a seemingly cheerful and easy going guy, took me apart and told me that we needed to talk. The most severe expression was lying on his face and the tone of his voice got serious. I thought he was going to tell me that he had three months left to live and that I was supposed to tell his parents cause he hadn’t had the courage yet and organize the funeral finding a decent selection of music that sounded like a compromise between what was on his iPod and what the occasion required. Instead all he said was
You need to sit down while you pee.
As a penis bearer I recognize that this is not a ridiculous thing to ask but the solemnity he used to make his demand made very clear how this was a very important point for him and, my guess, for german people in general. So I did it. I did it with him and with whoever came after, always resisting to the temptation of taking a piss while standing , ’cause OMG WHAT IF THEY HEAR ME? What if they can hear the difference in the jet and file a report to the police? I’m pretty sure one day german males will lose their ability to piss-and-stand, just like whales lost their legs.
3) Sleeping on the floor
I had no idea there could be people sleeping on random mattresses lying on the floor in western european countries. In fact, I thought such people only existed in Charles Dickens’ novels. But really: of course I understand the persons who can’t afford a full fledged bed, but what about the others? Why would you CHOOSE to sleep on a mattress on the floor? Some say it’s super good for your back, others do it as an attempt of hippyiness, I guess, and I did it because after a while it just started to look normal. The only thing I know for sure is that if my very italian mum would know that her son slept for more than one year so close to acari, dust and all those floor-things she’d have an heart attack.
4) Griping about public transportation
In Italy public transportation sucks. I used to be very disappointed about it but at the same time after years of delays, breakdowns, unreliable timetables and lame excuses, I reached some sort of zen resignation.
German transports, on the other hand, are pretty awesome. Clean, not too smelly and usually on time. So on time that a minor delay of a bus, for example, can literally drive people nuts. I used to make fun of this in the beginning, but after two years I have to admit that I became part of it. Whenever the train is late I go through a physical, emotional and phychological transformation.
1 min late: I notice that something is off and check my clock
2 mins late: I start repeatedly tapping on the floor with my foot
3 mins late: I can’t focus on my newspaper/smartphone anymore and I can’t help thinking that they’re wasting my time
4 mins late: I mentally sue BVG (the company managing public transports ) and go through the whole process in my head from the first formal complaint till the day of the verdict of the jury, which is obviously in my favour.
5 mins late: That’s it. I lose it. I start listening to the faint german voice in my head telling me to KILL KILL KILL and I’m ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.
5) Wax your face ON, Wax your face OFF
As you probably know, italians are famous for their gestuality. This peculiar trait not only makes us unbeatable charade players but also gives us the ability to understand the meaning of every gesture, every nervous tic, every frown of the person we’re speaking with.
Or so I thought.
German have this weird unreadable gesture, a mix of self-waving and the Wax On/Wax Off scene from The Karate Kid applied to their own faces, that I had big problems to understand. The first time I saw it, my list of possible interpretations was:
– Go put a mask on
– I so need a face scrub now
– Let me palm read myself for a sec, I’m sure the answer is there
Well, none of the above. It turned out that weird hand movement in front of their faces means “You’re nuts” or “He’s nuts”. It still looks pretty illogical to me but I’m using it quite often now.