People say that travel broadens your horizons. I think they mean that observing different cultures expands our sense of what is possible and possibly good, that we had not known about before.
Some things that people do in other countries don’t seem desirable. Driving on the left side of the street, as they do in England and many former English colonies, is crazy. Driving like crazy, as they do in Italy, is also crazy. Other things can be confusing: “football” is mainly played with a round ball which can’t be touched by the hand, except in a few countries like the US. But we can learn many valuable things from foreign travel, as I have discovered again by observing what is different on a trip to Germany.
Coffee is different. Coffee in Germany, and in most of Europe, is a drink to be savored, not gulped. A cup of coffee in a restaurant is prepared individually and actually served in a cup, not a mug or a giant container. The coffee is strong, more like espresso. A refill? Pay for another cup.
Eating in Germany more generally is different from eating in the US. Germans spend about as much as Americans on eating out, but what they eat is not comparable. Americans eat more fast food than anyone else, mainly from giant chains which serve simple familiar foods. The low significance of food quality in American eating is clear from a burger taste test, which put McDonald’s dead last among 21 fast food chains. Germans favor individually owned local restaurants, whether for fast food or sit-down meals. In my neighborhood in Berlin, there are dozens of restaurants serving every variety of international cuisine, but no chain except Einstein Kaffee, which has 12 coffee shops in the city.
A visit to Einstein, or to any other restaurant, is slower than in the US. Servers do not appear right away and they don’t expect you to eat, drink, and leave. Tables are expected to turn over only once every couple of hours. Americans are likely to get impatient for service in a German restaurant, while Germans would feel hurried in America.
Driving is different here. Economics is crucial: gas costs over $5.50 per gallon in Germany, while prices are below $2.50 in the US. Americans use more than 5 times as much gasoline per person as Germans. That difference is partly explained by smaller vehicles, but more by different daily driving habits. Public transportation networks are much thicker in Europe, covering not just big cities but connecting every community. The commuting traffic jams which plague every American city during rush hours are rare in Germany.
Eating habits also affect driving habits. I can’t remember the last time I did food shopping in America on foot. We all drive to the grocery story, as we drive to do nearly all of our shopping. Food shopping is done in giant chain stores surrounded by expanses of parking.
In Germany, much more food is purchased at specialty shops, like bakeries, which dot the landscape. Food shopping is a daily chore, so the packages can more easily be carried the shorter distance home. Much more fresh food is purchased, which requires more frequent trips to the store.
Those are just a few examples of cultural differences that affect daily life. In our globalized world, these national variations are being erased. Tiny European autos now appear on American streets. People in Berlin carry containers of coffee on the street, while Americans have shifted away from instant coffee to more expensive and better tasting individually brewed cups. German stores are open longer than they used to be, some even on Sundays, but the 24/7 buying culture of America is still far away.
These differences have developed over many years and are particularly suited to each country’s economy, landscape, traditions, and social structures. Some are habits for which there is no better explanation than “That’s the way we do things here.” None of them prove that any country is greater than another.
There is no reason to abandon the bottomless cup of Joe at uniquely American diners or to make fun of Germans for obsessively obeying pedestrian crossing signals. Experiencing a different culture can broaden the horizon of the possible without necessarily altering familiar behavior. You learn that what you take for granted as one of life’s rules may just be local peculiarity.
And you can still enjoy those social traits which span the globe. People everywhere seem to share an excitement about sports. Although we were certainly among a minority who watched the Super Bowl here in Berlin after midnight, the German TV announcers shouted just as loud as any American commentator when the Patriots completed their amazing comeback.
So let’s celebrate both our similarities and our differences.
BerlinPublished in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 7, 2017