My first trip to Germany was on a turboprop plane with Icelandic Airlines. Our layover to refuel was in Reykjavik, Iceland. The noise of the engines remained in my ears for a couple of days after I landed in Germany. I had just completed my fall semester of my junior year at the University of Colorado in Boulder when I accepted the offer our parents gave all of us: to study abroad. My arrival was at the end of January 1964 and Heidelberg was foggy and cold. The winter had no snow there because it was situated in a valley near the Neckar River.
Having studied German for 2 1/2 years prior to arrival, I had the basics to get by in Germany. In addition to High German, I encountered multiple dialects of the language on the streets of the city. It took me all of six months to gain an understanding of the dialects, but I found Germans very open to speaking slowly and in High German once they knew I was a foreigner. Another student from the flight and I went into a restaurant in Heidelberg during my first week there, and I wondered why everyone sat at tables wearing costumes much like we did for Halloween, but it was early February. My first holiday there was Fasching which we knew as Mardi Gras in this country. Later I discovered that this holiday began in November and lasted until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Germany is steeped in traditions and holiday celebrations, some of which were adopted in the United States such as the Christmas tree and Easter bunny. Meals and meal times in Germany were different from what I did at home in the U.S. The main meal was the middle of the day, and eating out in restaurants was not as expensive in Germany. The pace of life was different in Germany, and people were out in nature daily with long walks after meals. In the afternoon, they had coffee which meant usually coffee and cake since dessert isn’t normally served after the main meal. After several attempts of waiting to be seated, I noticed others walking into restaurants and finding their own seats. When it was a busy time of day, we could sit at a table with complete strangers after asking if the seats were available.
Americans don’t usually understand the concept of Gemütlichkeit which is roughly translated as easy-going nature or an atmosphere of comfort, peace and acceptance. Part of this atmosphere is asking for the menu if you intend to eat or simply ordering a drink or coffee if you want something to drink. Moreover, when you want something, you call the waiter over and order. It is quite acceptable to sit and talk with friends or to sit and read the newspaper or book for several hours if you so choose. No one will bother you or ask you if you want anything else and then just put the check down on the table. I learned that you ask for and receive the check when you want. The rushed pace of dining out which most Americans encounter does not take place here. Also, if you desire water at the table in Germany, you have to order that as well. The concept of ice cubes in any beverages is not the norm in Germany. If you want ice cubes, you need to ask but don’t expect a large amount. You will probably get just two in a glass.
After some time, I appreciated this unrushed feeling when I entered a German restaurant. Most Germans visiting the U.S. are shocked at restaurant prices and the rushed service. I recall stopping on a trip out West at a gas station with a mini-supermarket inside. There was an obvious German couple explaining to the teen behind the counter that they wanted a Coke without any ice and wanted the glass filled up. The poor teen tried to explain he had to put a certain amount of ice in each cup and then put the Coke in. I left before finding out how it all ended. By our standards, most Germans drink cooled beverages which to us might seem room temperature. Having grown accustomed to this temperature, I had to adjust once I returned to the U.S. after three years.
In my German classes I had learned a bit about the Oktoberfest which really needs no translation into English since many place in the U.S. also celebrate the festival. I was amazed at the size and scope of the festival and mesmerized by all the native costumes from Germany and German-speaking countries. The German people are very friendly and will invite complete strangers to join them at their long tables in the beer tents. Huge spits with roast pigs and oxen plus Bratwurst were abundant. My favorite thing to eat as a student was the big salted pretzel which had a crisp crust and soft inside. German cheese cake was also different from anything I had had at home. It was made from Quark or curd cheese unlike the cream cheese most Americans use. The texture of cheese cake in Germany is different and much lighter in texture.
When invited to have a meal or coffee at the home of a German, I remembered to bring flowers which are much lower in price than ours at the florist. And it was not proper to simply hand the flowers wrapped in paper to the host or hostess. No. Before ringing the doorbell, quickly removed the paper and hold it behind your back as you present the flowers and say hello. They will take the paper from you and get a vase immediately. I learned very quickly in Germany that people shake hands when greeting and taking leave of one another. Everyone. Young as well as old. A handshake, smile, making eye contact and hello – simple and beautiful gestures.