An influential teacher of mine once said “Ask a fish about water and they would respond: Water? What’s Water?” They’re immersed in it, so it’s impossible to perceive. It’s only when you separate the fish from water that they gain the perspective needed to provide a useful response.
Whenever I travel internationally, I think back to this lesson and every time I visit a new culture, I learn a little bit more about my own.
Last week I was lucky enough to visit Frankfurt and Hamburg in Germany. Overall it was a very good trip. I learned a lot both professionally and personally and got to meet a lot of interesting people.
Here are the top five things I learned about German culture:
1) Driving Fast
At prices as high as €1.71 per liter (that’s almost $8.50 per gallon), gasoline costs much more in Germany than in the US. This makes you think that maybe they’d be a bit more conservative about driving their cars at high speeds. Quite the contrary – in Germany the highways are long and straight and people drive very fast. The fastest I traveled in a taxicab was about 180 km/hr (just above 110 miles/hr) – but even at those high speeds there were cars passing us like we were standing still. The whole thing made me a little uneasy, but part of me fantasized about flying down the highway in a BMW or Porsche.
2) Waiting to Cross the Street
In an almost absurd twist on their loose standards for automobile operation, they have extremely strict punishments for jaywalking (you lose your drivers license). On several occasions I noticed crowds of 15 people or more waiting patiently to cross the street with no cars in sight.
3) Fried Food
It’s possible that choosing the wrong restaurants biased my opinion here, but from what I could tell Germany has very little access to (or little interest in) fresh fruits and vegetables. They did, however, have very good fried food (the wiener schnitzel was delicious) and extremely good fresh fish in Hamburg – which is a fishing port.
Germans are known for their beer and I was very excited to try all the different varieties while I was there. I was somewhat disappointed to find that most restaurants and bars only had one or two kinds of beer. At one restaurant in Hamburg a waiter asked me if I would like a beer. Expecting to hear a list of at least 100 options, I asked the waiter what kind of beer they had. The waiter answered curtly, “We have Becks.” That’s what I had; it was delicious.
5) Old People
The entire trip in Germany I noticed that there were very few young people around. I later referenced Wikipedia to validate my instinct (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_median_age). Germany is the fourth oldest country in the world!
Returning to the water.
Looking back on the trip, the most important lesson came to me on the first night on the walk home from dinner. About one block from the hotel in Frankfurt, a somewhat shabbily dressed Caucasian male in his early 30’s stopped me on the street. In articulate English (with a light German accent) he asked if I had a second to help him. I stopped and turned to him fully expecting him to ask me for directions. I was mentally preparing my response – “I’m sorry, I’m just here visi…” when I realized that this somewhat well dressed man was soliciting me for money. He was homeless – set up outside the hotel soliciting the guests. I stood there in shock for a second just looking at him – he was the best looking homeless man I’ve ever seen. After I apologized that I couldn’t help him and walked into the hotel, I had another thought – we’d been walking around the city all day and this was the first homeless person we’d seen.
On my trip I observed a culture that does a good job taking care of their sick and their poor. It made me wish that we did a better job caring for the less fortunate here at home.