Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Excuse me ... or not

Ok…so I love my new country of residence, but I really need to vent one complaint. To sum it up, let me quote every elementary school teacher I’ve ever had: “No pushing! Tommy, say ‘excuse me!’”

All right, that’s two complaints. But it seems people in Germany have few qualms about bumping into – or downright stepping on one another, without so much as an Entschuldigung (excuse me).

You see it in the trains, busses, shopping centers, streets, Christmas markets (where people in white winter coats are carrying two mugs of Gl├╝hwein…AHEM) – everywhere. Thomas says the “pushing thing” is just a big city problem, like in any country. But I’ve seen this behavior, albeit on a lesser scale, in smaller German towns we’ve visited as well.

Sure they look politely packed in here. But that's because they're standing still.
I guess it’s all just a cultural difference. We Americans in the U.S. probably excuse ourselves way more than necessary. We say it if we pass three feet in front of someone in the grocery store aisle, something many Germans find comical. God forbid if we block a stranger’s view of the Pop-Tart selection for three seconds.

And of course, (and I have to credit Thomas for this observation), the quantity of excuse me’s in the U.S. seems to correlate with the climate. In Arizona, where it’s nice and warm, people tend to be more friendly, and even overly-polite at times. But in Wisconsin during the cold-as-crap winter, people’s personal space bubbles (and respect for others’) tend to shrink. When it’s -20° C, each word seems to decrease your body temperature. So apologia is reserved for more sever social transgressions, like perhaps coming within 1.5 feet of stepping on someone’s toes in the heat pack aisle of Farm and Fleet.  Perhaps this upward temperature/politeness trend will occur in Munich as well (I’ve only been here since November 2010). We'll see...

Maybe we just have bigger “personal space bubbles” in the U.S., and we get wigged out at the thought of violating someone else’s. But even still, I have to say that’s one thing I miss in the U.S. At least my local dry-cleaner gets a little extra business.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ringing in the New Year with a bang – literally

Nothing says Happy New Year in Germany like getting together to go drinking on the streets while lighting thousands of bottle rockets and other over-the-counter fireworks.

Getting a "light"

While we have this tradition in the United States (except drinking on the street as that's illegal in most cities), it in no way compares to what I’ve experienced in Germany. Both in a small town outside Stuttgart and in the heart of Munich, people pour outside, explosives in hand, ready to release their inner pyromaniac.

Lighting bottle rockets in the heart of the city
One possible reason for this "explosive" difference is that many U.S. cities don’t allow private fireworks for safety and fire reasons. (Note: most U.S. homes and small buildings are made from wood, not concert as they are in Germany.) Cities will often have an organized, professional fireworks display instead. And for most people, this is more appealing to watch than driving out to the boonies to light a couple of bottle rockets into a corn field.

But here, the flashes of light, loud BOOMs, screams of slightly-to-heavily intoxicated partiers and people running from fireworks lit too close for comfort, gives New Year’s Eve in Germany a dramatic, yet somewhat surreal atmosphere.

In fact, even as we ascended the stairs out of the U-Bahn station at Marienplatz, a few trigger-happy merrymakers couldn’t help lighting up a few. The combination of smoke, noise and light could have made for a perfect scene in a war movie. Here's a video I took just as we emerged:

Legend tells us we do to this because it was thought fire and noise would scare away malevolent spirits or demons. Maybe. Or maybe people just like blowing stuff up.

In any case, while it may or may not scare away petulant poltergeists, it does discourage people from wearing highly flammable, synthetic clothing. And as I did get stung slightly on the face from a stray ember, I realized it was for the best that I forgot to wear one of my brightly colored wigs that night...

Here's a short snippet of the night's "finale:"

 ...And the celebration's aftermath. It takes a few days for the city to recover.

The aftermath