While being relocated in a new country, I believe it is my duty as a new comer to get acquainted with the local customs and traditions, and as a citizen of the world to satisfy my thirst for general knowledge and culture. Not even a full year has passed since I was relocated to Germany and I have already learned a lot about some the weirdest traditions this country has to offer. This text presents the ten Germany traditions you have never heard of as a regular tourist passing through the region for a few days would normally not have the chance to be exposed to them.
1. Knocking on Tables
Knock, knock! Who's there? In Germany, it is a custom to knock on a table rather than clapping at the end of a presentation in front of a large audience. I have to admit, it did surprise me the first time it happened as I was always used to see professors do this to order silence in a class. And yet, now it is rather used as a cheerful habit. The origin for that custom is purely academic, although it is now spreaded through any situation involving a presenter and a crowd. I've witnessed it many times, even at the office.
There are over 900 registered spa in Germany. Needless to say that Germans seem to take their spa culture very seriously. Throughout German history, thermal springs have been frequented by all classes of the population. Regardless of the social status, if there is one element in life that reduces all human being to a common denominator, it is the fact that we all look the same whilst naked. Germans seem to be completely in sync with this philosophy as it is highly frowned upon to enjoy a day at the spa without embracing the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) naturalist philosophy. Many Europeans, and particularly Germans, find it incredibly joyful to experience relaxing activities nude.
Germans love rules. But, what they enjoy even more than rules is to correct the ones who do not comply to them. As an example, the Montrealer I am once find himself jay-walking in the middle of Nuremberg at 3:00 in the morning. The city was dead! No cars, no bicycles, nothing! And yet, a lady standing next to me at the red light could not help but to yell at me because I was breaking the law. Another example could be when I once found myself in Munich on the way to the Allianz Arena for a FC Bayern München football game. My friend Phil was here on business and we have arranged to go watch a game during his stay. On game day, we have decided to get to the stadium using public transportation. As we were riding the stairway to the U-Bahn deck, a lady just decided to push me in the back as an indication that it goes against the socially accepted rules to stand on the left handside of the stairway. She did not excuse herself, tap me on the shoulder or even try to catch my attention in any way. She just deliberately decided to punch me hard on the back for me to move away for her benefit.
Any person who is no stranger to the German character knows how they can be direct while talking to you. For them, talking is all about efficiency. It is a mathematical fact that the shortest path between two points is and will always be the direct line. Therefore, there is no possible small talk while discussing with a German. No fluff, no embellishment, no unnecessary words in a conversation. I can make my peace with that although being Canadian makes it extremely difficult to understand as we are at the opposite of the spectrum with our legendary politeness. Where I find it extremely difficult is when I am asked to change my natural behavior and shutdown my courteous habits as it is being seemed as fake or even suspicious. I understand that local customs might be very different from one country to another, but I find it extremely odd in today's society that someone can't make an effort to understand that people from different countries might act in a slightly different way based on their very own experience of life on the other side of the globe. I mean, are Germans so narrowminded that they omit the existent of other cultues?
5. Separate Mattresses
This custom might sound contradictory considering the German people is so comfortable with nudity. Nevertheless, I think you will be very much surprised (and at the same time, not so much) to learn that German beds are constructed in a way that a queen size bed is composed of a queen size frame with two single mattresses on top of it. This means that a typical German couple sleep in the same bed, but on totally separate mattresses with their own set of linen and drapes. When I first saw this German bed in my relocation apartment, the first thought that has come to my mind was: "How do they have sex?". As it turns out, an extensive conversation with my relocation agent had me learn that sleeping on separate mattresses is more efficient and better for a good night sleep! Boy was I "surprised" by this answer! When it comes to the sexual act, Germans apparently only cross the midline formed by the crack between the two mattresses when time is right to engage on such an extracurricular activity. Outside of these hours, each member holds on to his respective turf. In other words, the rule is: if your mattress tilts to towards the inner part of the bed where the crack is located, it means it's "sexy time" (as Borat would say)!
6. The Christmas Pickle
As I was visiting Munich with two friends from Montreal, one of them mentioned that his neighbor gave him a clear mission to bring back a Christmas Pickle from Germany. What is a Christmas Pickle, you will ask? Well, it's an ornament used on the Christmas Tree. I would not believe him and even asked to double check with his neighbor to see if that is what she really meant. Indeed, the request was accurate at the first formulation. This tradition is probably one of the weirdest modern Christmas customs. Therefore, I have tried to trace its origin. As it turns out, the Christmas Pickle is a very old German tradition. It is the last ornament to be hung on the Christmas Tree. Once the ornament was finally hung, a game would start where the children would have to find the pickle in the tree. The first child to find the pickle got an extra present. If you don't believe me, just google "Pickle Germany" and see yourself what images will come out! But the German obsession with pickles does not stop here! I found out while once preparing my Sunday morning brunch (two pouched eggs on english muffin topped with smoked salmon, slices of tomatoes and shredded gouda) when one of my roommates said it looked delicious, but it would be perfect if I added a pickle on top of it! How horrified was I when he suggested to bonify my creation with such a vulgar produce! Then, I found out that Germans truly shove pickles on anything, as long as it is edible.
7. Father's Day
In Germany, Father's Day takes place only a few days before Mother's Day, which is respectively on May 5 and the secomd Sunday of the month of May. The Father's Day I am acustomed to goes pretty much on the down low and is not necessarily celebrated. Moreover, in the very few cases where it is indeed celebrated, the celebration in question consists of offering a tacky tie the father can shame himself by wearing it at work and a generic wishcard bought at the dollar store. It remains nonetheless an occasion for family members to gather together and perhaps enjoy a nice barbecue in the backyard. In Germany, the experience is totally different! Here fathers gather together far away from any family member and get shitfaced all day long! I already knew that Germans usually take any occasion in life to get drunk, but spending Father's Day amongst fathers so they can drink their tears sounds a bit sad to me. It's almost as if they never chose to accept their fatherhood mandate and need this day to get through the rest of the year. I sincerely hope I'm wrong!
8. Academic Fencing (Akademisches Fechten or Mensur)
Fencing is a traditional practice present in several European countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Estonia) that consists of sword slashing between two male members of different fraternities. Modern academic fencing is neither a duel nor a sport. It is a traditional way of training and educating character and personality without having neither a winner nor a loser. In contrast to sport fencing, the participants stand their ground at a fixed distance. They fence at arm's length and stand more or less in one place, while attempting to hit the unprotected areas of their opponent's face and head. Flinching or dodging is not allowed, the goal being less to avoid injury than to endure it stoically. In other words, you slash your fraternity rival in the face and pray to be the one who gets the least visible wounds at the end of the duel.
9. Wishing "Happy Birthday” on the Dot
Germans only wish a happy birthday on the actual birth date. Giving your best wishes to someone even one minute too early is highly frowned upon. People will actually get offended and even mad at you for doing so as they believe it will bring them bad luck forever. Germans strongly believe that wishing someone a happy birthday early could mean they won't have one, or more precisely, that they'll die. As they say: "Du sollst den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben", which translates into "You shouldn’t praise the day before the night."
10. Bringing One's Own Cake
Who brings the cake, then? This very last tradition was a big surprise to me as I was celebrating my 29th anniversary. This was my first birthday on German ground. I was only three months in and realized that here the birthday celebrant is the one responsible for bringing his own cake at the office. On top of it, I was also commuting to the office with my road bike. Could you imagine me shoving my birthday cake into my commuting backpack in order to bring it to work? I sure don't! Luckily, one of my colleagues anticipated my lack of knowledge related to this tradition and brought a cake on my behalf. I think it's fair to say she saved the day!