The inevitable question arises, “If you were abused by German bakers, why did you keep going back?” While that is a fair question, it is a question asked by someone who has not been to a German bakery. German bakeries have very good pastries. While I was staying in Hamburg I found two friendly bakeries close to the our exchange home: there was a Dat Backhus and a small family run bakery within walking distance. So each morning I would get up, walk to one of the bakeries and order/point at a few of the pastries and then bring them back to the house for my family.
I discovered something interesting on these hunting/gathering journeys, Germans are very helpful when other Germans are not around. Now I don’t want to suggest something akin to a “Don’t be nice to tourists” campaign, but when I was in the bakeries by myself, and there were no other people waiting for service, the bakers took the time to explain to me a few of the things I was doing wrong. The first faux pas was the whole counting thing. If you want one Berliner then signal one with your thumb. Using your forefinger is apparently confusing to Germans who might think you are ordering two of something when using your pointer finger.
At first I was a bit skeptical but after viewing several pictures of my favorite German celebrity, Dirk Nowitzki, I did notice that he does use the thumb when signaling that he just dropped a three-ball from beyond the arc. When an American basketball player gives the three-ball signal they inevitably use their first three fingers. So if Dirk, who has spent a fair number of years living in the US, still cannot break himself of the habit of using his thumb to count three-balls, the whole using your thumb to count as one must be pretty ingrained in the German people.
The next mistake I was making was getting in line before I was ready to order. Americans get in line to save a spot before ordering and may not even know what they want to eat before getting in line. If you would like to experience the German level of frustration go to a McDonalds drive through in the US. How it takes five minutes to order at a McDonalds is a mystery to me. It isn’t like the guy taking your order is going through the wine list or telling you about the specials, it is McDonalds! It is the same stupid menu almost everywhere you go in the world. It isn’t like you are going to pull up to a drive through menu and suddenly be confronted with a choice between carved turkey breast and alder smoked salmon.
My final mistake isn’t one that the bakers explained to me but one I discovered on my own. In the US we have regional differences, but for the most part we have a shared expectation of what is socially acceptable. In Europe these shared expectations are wildly different from country to country. I assumed that France and Germany would be very similar except for the language. When I looked at a map my brain said, “Look how close it is. I should learn how to say two German words so I can survive in Germany.” But once I was in Germany I realized that I was totally unprepared for the cultural differences, or what Ruby Payne would call the “unwritten rules” of the culture. These hidden rules are really at the core of how we view the world. Now prepare yourself for some wide generalizations. I think the German people are very friendly and helpful, but their priority or primary mode of thinking is task oriented. They want to get stuff done. They do not dilly-dally. They get joy from accomplishing tasks and they want everybody following the same rules they have to follow. If you try to do something different Germans are not afraid to let you know. Try walking on a bike path in Germany (the bike paths in Berlin and Hamburg are on the sidewalk and colored red.) If you are walking along and step into the bike path and there is a biker nearby Germans don’t politely ring a bell or say, “On your right.” No they give you the business. Shouting at someone in Germany is not personal or emotional, it is efficient. When Germans are out for a walk, they are walking, don’t try to say, “Hi” or smile, they are walking don’t bother them. Stay out of the damn bike paths unless you are on a bike and for God’s sake, if you step into a bakery know what you want. It is Germany, people have things to do. Tourists should be aware that the unwritten slogan for Germany is, “Welcome to Germany! Now get out of the way!”