Public restrooms in Pike Place Market in Seattle.
I returned from my most recent visit to Germany a while ago but the things that I noticed this time are still sticking in my mind.
As some of you might know I am always keen to notice differences in the United States compared to Germany. This time in Germany it rather stood out to me what I missed from the United States. So here is my reverse culture shock-ish bother list for Germany:
To explain the photo I posted along with this text I will start of with perhaps the most annoying item: German cities barely, if at all, offer free public restrooms. Even as a native knowing my way around it is hard to find them. Universities might be one place, if you are familiar with them (Leipzig). Bigger department store chains might be another, again, if you know about them (Berlin). But the rule of thumb is, there are none. You either pay or contract a UTI from holding it back. Paying is the healthier option. The argument goes, you get a nice, clean environment; without money they would be dirty and destroyed. If needed, such “public for pay” restrooms can be found in train stations. Once you find them, psychologically prepare for the price for entering this precious little place (literally called like that in German, Örtchen): 1€ or $1.35 (as of today) on average. But don’t expect the cleaning person to be overly friendly, money doesn’t overcome average German grumpiness necessarily. Outside cities, this might also happen if you drive along the public Autobahn. Even if it is the only rest area nearby, if it’s a fancy looking gas station and restaurant, it’s highly likely their restrooms are only accessible when you have the right coins ready.
Hence, the photo above with its huge inviting mosaic and gender-progressive message — placed in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. How often have I yearned for the ubiquitous restrooms common in the United States, in National Parks, any larger eating places, even small supermarkets, along highways, and in train stations. Restaurants (perhaps New York City might be an exception here) usually let you use their facilities if you ask politely.
Perhaps this is all connected to not serving another fundamental human need: drinking water. In my counting there is exactly one water fountain in all of Germany: in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Berlin, across from the U.S. Embassy. A small elegant water fountain provides fresh, freely flowing water for no charge. (The entire museum is free of charge and I can highly recommend visiting it as well as the memorial.) Not only are there no water fountains, but you also won’t be greeted with a free glass of water at any restaurant. No. You have to order the water and ALWAYS pay for it. Try asking for tap water only — same reaction. You have to order it properly and pay for it. The reasons they give vary, either for health or, more obvious, business reasons. Oh, and don’t forget to extra order your ice cubes. They are also missing unless you ask and pay. Oh, and be aware if you want to avoid being served the standard bubbly carbonated water fizzing up your nose from the inside, order stilles Wasser, literally meaning quiet water. An alternative is to keep your refillable water bottle nearby and make use of the precious restrooms you come across, as most city water is okay to drink, and after all you pay there already anyway.
Just as hard to find are free wi-fi connections OR those bought for a cup o’ joe (well, cocoa in my case.) Even universities don’t offer guest internet access just so by wandering around campus. Cafés and restaurants are also unlikely to offer you access along with food (except for the famously geek attracting Sankt Oberholz in the center of Berlin). After looking around Leipzig for some hours checking for the German equivalent of the friendly standard “Free Wi-Fi” labels on shop windows in the United States, I gave up and — oh the irony — landed in a Starbucks (remember, Seattle, founding place of Starbucks)! For a hot beverage I could finally check my e-mail in a corner extra set up for laptops. I asked a few friends about this. Because apart from the tendency of many Germans to not be tied to the internet 24/7 compared to U.S. users, what holds back shop owners to make wi-fi part of their sales pitch? I learn that German laws suggest if something happens on their connection because of a customer, shop owners would get into trouble, i.e. no internet, no risk. Hmpf.
What on the contrary to missing restrooms, water, and wi-fi is plentiful and easy to encounter is cigarette smoke. Perhaps the comparatively stricter U.S. policies in this regard have further sharpened my non-smoking sensibilities. But this time I developed a headache being trapped in an inner court yard full of smokers. They did go outside as smoking was verboten inside, fair enough, yet it made it hard for me to soak up fresh air after also being stuck inside. Well, I know, I can hear the voices, it was a particular spot and a particularly big crowd as I attended a conference. But beyond, my impression was that on average more people smoke in Germany. And while all the smokers I know are very rule-abiding and polite before lighting up, the rules are handled rather lax and vary. The once intended strict law to prevent smoking in and around eateries and public places has literally — excuse the cheap pun — gone up in smoke.
This relaxed attitude toward smoking in Germany derives from still seeing smoking as a kind of savoir vivre like enjoyment with no social stigma attached in contrast to an often implied lower social status or weakness in the United States. Yet, more rigid hierarchies persist in other corners of German society. Perhaps above all these occasional material annoyances, I missed a certain freedom to think and freely approach and chat up people. It is hard to describe this lofty mental liberty but I know other “Germanican space wanderers” like me experience this similarly. I missed the small talk, the sense that everyone can talk to everyone. Instead, authorities of all kinds exude their power. Be it the temporary power of a person at a cash register or the trickier situations of German Ph.D. students when it comes to earning their living at the bottom of the hierarchy in academia. Somehow everyone has their place, those who stick out are viewed suspiciously. Meaning also that when I arrive for the first days, my U.S. standard mood of positive enthusiasm hits an outward rather hard wall of what Americans might interpret as German grumpiness. But as the saying goes the harder the shell, the softer the core. So I have to reverse my U.S. mode of soft approachable public outside and hard private inner core as it is often falsely interpreted as superficiality by Germans when they meet U.S. Americans or those who soaked up their demeanor.
Thinking about this all, it struck me that all these phenomena have to do with the idea of public and private. Funny, that a country which prides itself on a social market economy and provides so many social services to its citizens (if not necessarily to those of other status living there), public spaces don’t offer free water, toilets, wi-fi, and non-smoking public areas are often still an afterthought. Whereas another Western country built on a stronger emphasis on individual achievement and a pioneer spirit of private autonomy freely gives water, restrooms, wi-fi, and has strict non-smoking areas in public spaces to consider everyone. Perhaps because it offers less social services, health care and higher public education just for steep prices. Similarly, Germany as a supposedly more social society nevertheless is hard to crack for everyone who is considered non-German. Try even as a legal immigrant in Germany or having grown up there all your life (with perhaps one parent having immigrated, let alone both) to say: I am German. It most likely won’t be accepted by many. Meanwhile, I can’t count how many times people in the United States have asked me when I will become a U.S. citizen, wholeheartedly welcoming me and assuming I would want to become one, why not?
The solution, and no doubt privilege, is to enjoy the perks in each place. And to embrace the refreshing muddle in my mind each time when I perform the delicate act of crossing borders, cultures, and restroom thresholds.
PS: Here is a short summary of the theory behind what it means to cross cultures in terms of intercultural adaptation and competence, by Nicolas Bowman, Assistant Professor of Communication STudies at West Virginia University: http://wvuspice2012.blogspot.com/
Update Monday, October 21, 2013
It just so happens that Germany’s public national radio DRadio just published an entire report dedicated to the lack of public toilets in Germany! Perhaps they read my post for inspiration? Alas, the report is in German only, it was posted on October 21, 2013. (URLP: http://www.dradiowissen.de/toilette-kein-lokus-nirgends.40.de.html?dram:article_id=265335)