31 May 2012

Impressions of Germany

I recently had a chance to spend some time in Germany.  I found the place and people to be fascinating.  What follows are some observations I made during my 10 days on the Rhine.

This was to be my first trip to Germany and naturally I had developed varied expectations due to the prevalence of stories I'd heard about the dominant European power.  As an American, I suppose the best place to start is with the autobahn, the German highway system.  Yes, all those "rumors" are true, their highways really do not have an official speed limit, but that's only part of the story.  First of all, as to be expected, the driver must always be in full control of the car.  Driving recklessly is looked upon as a major transgression and can land you in jail.  Also, there are points, such as in construction zones, where speed cameras force everyone to slow down.  Otherwise, the onus is on the driver to make prudent decisions on the road. German highways have either two or three lanes.  The left-most lane is exclusively for the purpose of passing other cars.  Meanwhile, trucks and semis are restricted to the right-most lane.  This system creates a vehicle hierarchy on the road. 

Now, it may seem like this lack of speed limit opens the floodgates for everyone to drive 100mph.  In fairness, some do.  However, gasoline is very expensive in Germany, and Europe in general.  When tallied up, it comes to something like $10/gallon.  To avoid high fuel costs, most commuters end up traveling somewhere between 75 - 90 mph.  The lack of speed limit isn't as crucial to their efficient highway system as the aforementioned lane hierarchy.  All vehicles know their place, and everyone honors his obligations.  Traffic jams certainly are prevalent, but they're not as debilitating as in many US cities.

I can't have a discussion on Germany without mentioning beer.  Beer is an integral part of daily living.  Glasses and steins are served up at lunch, in the afternoon, after work, and, of course, in the evening.  Every city/region has a dedicated brew that serves as the official local beverage.  In Düsseldorf, Altbier, or literally 'Old Beer,' is the local staple.  It is a dark, easy-to-drink, pre-lager that is smoother than British pale ales.  In Germany, ordering beer by name brands is relatively uncommon.  Instead, thirsty customers order the beer style, and the bartender brings you the bar's sole selection of that style.  Instead of offering a massive selection of every name-brand of beer, bars distinguish themselves from each other by having a single special selection of Weisbier (Wheat Beer) or Pils. So next time you're in Germany and are sitting in a bar, don't ask for a Beck's, instead, ask for a Pils.

Business brought me to Germany, specifically, the manufacturing industry.  German efficiency in manufacturing is legendary. Indeed, the entire country pulsates with palpable efficiency and community.  For instance, a purchased ticket for any sporting event, concert, or other major civic event automatically grants you free access to all public transportation for that day.  It's a way of encouraging safety and easy-access, while simultaneously promoting a sense of community.  Getting back to manufacturing, I had a chance to tour a major manufacturing facility and saw firsthand the meaning of efficiency.  It seemed like every square inch of the facility was in use.  Machinery extended to every nook and cranny, into every corner, so that the only open spaces in the entire plant belonged to the walk-ways where the employees scurried back and forth.  Germany has perfected the adage:  "Don't work harder, work smarter."

Finally, a word on the German people, themselves.  Germans are certainly a prideful bunch but are keenly sensitive to the limits of that pride, due to their awful history.  For the most part, they are reserved, serious, polite, and businesslike.  Almost everyone under the age of 40 speaks English with deliberate Oxford tones.  They exhibit none of the snobbishness or air of superiority that is sometimes seen in France, and they respect Americans.  The country is extraordinarily clean and orderly.  For my entire ten day stay, I think I may have seen one or two pieces of litter.  All the taxicabs are Mercedes-Benzes and although expensive to get into one, the fares become relatively cheap after that.  What surprised me was the amount of graffiti.  It seemed like every structure that was publicly owned was covered in spray-painted scribble.  This was the singular example of disorderliness I saw on my trip.

Overall, Germany is a country populated by a highly educated and cultivated society who value order, cleanliness, respect, and community.  In music, art, and fashion, they clearly look to the United States while remaining proudly independent as the economic leader of Europe.