Some American car makers like to describe their newest model as “Autobahn tested.”
This somewhat inept classification is supposed to convey that the automobile in question runs well under stress caused by excessive speed. Because that is what “Autobahn” stands for in the public perception: Speed.
But what is the Autobahn?
Let's start with the syntax. The word “Auto” means car, the word “Bahn” road or course. The term was made up by someone in Germany during the 1930s, when the first motorways were built, supposedly to accommodate car travel throughout the nation. In fact the makers of that road system were thinking more along the lines of tanks and troop transporters for the upcoming world war.
After the war, the Autobahn was eventually used for cars and regular trucks only. Since then it has been growing in size and length at a steady pace. Today, much of the Autobahn is 3 lanes wide in each direction and bordered by guard rails on both sides. The road is built in a way that supports and often encourages high speed driving. The major thoroughfares have no speed limit and that is exactly how people interpret the situation. Someone accustomed to driving at a leisurely 70 miles an hour may very well be overtaken by a vehicle traveling at more than twice that speed.
If you don't like driving this fast, you may want to stay in the right lane. And if you have to pass, make sure you check your rearview mirror first. That Porsche behind you looks far away now, but in five seconds it will be only inches away from your bumper, flashing its lights and honking its horn. Germans are very impatient when it comes to slow pokes on the road.
But don't panic, they won't ram into you. They love their cars way too much, and by law, whoever drives into someone else from behind pays the bill.
Unless you like it dull, dark and cold, you would be well advised to stay out of Germany between November and April. During those months the German climate originates mostly in the North Atlantic, where it is very ghastly indeed. Days are short, nights long and people slightly miffed. Quite understandably so. Thick clouds are wafting very close to the ground and the sun seems to be on vacation, somewhere in Southern Italy.
This is also the time of year when many Germans flee their homeland in search of more pleasant weather. The Spanish Island of Mallorca is a major magnet, so are the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
Those who cannot afford to go or prefer to save their money for the summer, can be found in saunas, indoor swimming parks and other localities with a good heating system and lots of artificial light. Pubs are also quite popular around this time of year.
Usually around mid May, spring, which should have arrived two months prior, finally trudges around the corner, a little drowsy still, but in good spirit, and the warm season sets in. As it does the behavior of people changes. Suddenly, there is an easiness in the air and a glow on every face. The proverbial stiff German can't help but smile as this new energy pervades the country. This keeps building up until the high summer when temperatures soar to 95 degrees and Germans find something new to complain about. The heat, this time.
Summer in Germany is truly remarkable because it transforms the entire nation. A city that looked naked, gray and alien in the winter now boasts the lush green of trees and grass, millions of colorful flowers, outdoor cafes, singing birds, and a whole new flair. If only it could be like that all year round. The German mentality may be a lot different.
But no, it won't stay nice. It never does. The clouds come, with them the rain and the wind and there you have it. Until next year.
It may sound like an old two-stroke engine to you, but it is a language. In fact, if you are an English speaker, you may be surprised to learn that your native tongue has its roots in Germany. Northwest Germany to be exact.
In the fifth century AD, a tribe called the Angles set foot on English soil, shooed away the celtic speaking inhabitants and thus laid the foundation to modern English. Even today, the accent used by people in the part of Germany that was once home to the Angles, resembles English spoken in southern Britain.
German is perceived by most foreigners as a difficult language to learn. There are a lot of sounds that are hard to emulate and that seem to have their origin deep down in your throat. Others may be mistaken as a wild animal's uttering just before attacking you from behind and sinking its teeth into your neck.
Then there are the umlauts. Umlauts have those funny dots on top of them, such as “ä”, “ö” and “ü”. They are very important, however, and learning to pronounce them is vital if you want to speak German fluently, and not be laughed at too much.
Generally, though, it can be said that Germans are very proud of their language and supportive of anyone who endeavors to learn it.
If you have absolutely no desire to do that, you may be relieved to know that English will get you almost anything and anywhere in Germany. Just slow your pace a little and give it a shot.
Everything is a matter of perspective. A fire tends to become warmer the closer you get to it. And so it is with the Germans. As a person unfamiliar with the German people, and if confronted with them for the first time, you may feel somewhat, well, uncomfortable. Please don't follow your instinct and get back on that plane. There is so much more to these distant folks.
However aloof the average Germans may seem, give them some time to get used to you. To them you are yet another person in the traffic jam, another body breathing their air, another mouth to feed and another addition to their bench press existence. They don't mean anything by it. Let it slide off your back and smile.
The smile is what gets them. Promise!
You see, Germans are so busy staying sane and protecting their property in a world that is dominated by pressure, expectations and taxes, they wouldn't be able to survive if they let loose. Germany hosts eighty-six million people on a stretch of land less than half the size of Texas. That makes for some extra stress. Try that in Texas and watch the population shrink. Fortunately, guns are illegal in Germany and that makes all the difference.
Now that you have flashed a smile at your first German, get ready for some serious shape shifting. Invariably, there will be a look of confusion on the face of the specimen. After all, why would a stranger smile? Smile again and you will have broken the ice. The wave of sympathy rolling towards you now will be overwhelming.
If you are of the opposite sex: Beware! Smiling for no reason could easily be misinterpreted by an emotionally deprived German. So throttle back, if necessary. If you are of the same gender: Beware anyway! You never know. Germany is very liberal in that respect.
Once the initial contact is made, Germans open up like an exotic flower. They become conversational, incredibly friendly and very interested in you. They will invite you for a drink or a meal and to meet other Germans.
You have just won a friend for life.
The old cliché has it, that physique and appearance of all Germans follow a certain guideline.
This is not true. When hair is concerned, Germany has it all: brunettes, red heads, the jet blacks, and yes, a healthy share or blondes. Blondes usually have blue eyes and some of them are tall. That's it. All other types can be described as being mixtures of the above and as diverse at it gets.
It is important to note that Germany sits right in the center of Europe and is surrounded by nine other countries. So even if it once was predominantly Nordic, it would have changed quickly. In southern Germany, for example, there has been an influx of Italians, particularly during the Roman Empire. Hence, some Mediterranean complexion was added to the gene pool. Many other influences contributed from all directions, and so, today, the German population is quite colorful indeed.
By the way, the tall blondes all came from Sweden. That's what they say, anyway.
What word best describes German Cuisine?
When it comes to stimulating your taste buds, German Food certainly makes a lasting impression. This is not to say that German Food is very spicy, such as Indian Food or Mexican. It can be, but the secret of German cooking simply lies in using the ingredients necessary for creating a savory meal. Real butter for example, onions, garlic, lots of meat and vegetables, love of preparation and, most important of all: Time. Different flavors and seasonings need time to combine, merge and permeate.
Therefore, you will find it challenging to locate a German Fast Food joint. There is no such thing. Whatever you order in a traditional German restaurant is made from scratch with the exception of ingredients that need to be prepared days in advance, such as marinated meat, vegetable stock and the like. And even that only serves one purpose: Enriching the taste.
Does that mean you have to wait longer for your food?
Yes, and that is precisely where German Beer comes into play.
|Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.|