What Two Years of Living with the Germans has Taught Me.

I have been living with the Germans for two years today. And I haven’t killed myself yet! In fact, I have learnt a lot from these lovely lot. Like…

English: high heels

The most un-German shoes ever. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Sexy doesn’t have to mean heels, mini-skirts and cleavage.

The only women you’ll see in Germany combining all of the above are the hookers. German women dress very conservatively and practically. Think rucksacks instead of handbags, terribly comfortable walking shoes for all occasions and Wolfskin jackets instead of stylish macs.  It is as if they are always anticipating the next hike.  I was by no means a terribly slutty dresser when I came to Germany, but my favourite FMBs have definitely not seen the light of day since I’ve been here. While I miss London’s vibe of fashion, individuality and style, I have learnt that flaunting it isn’t always the best look. Go Germans!

Germans' idea of going wild

To Get Out and Enjoy Nature

Germans love going for a hike or bike ride in the countryside on their days off. The roads around here are full of cyclists – including entire families – on weekends and holidays. Us Brits on the other hand prefer to spend our days off with our heads in the toilet nursing off our hangovers. We also spend far too much time in shopping centres or watching television in our free time compared to the Germans. This is evident from how quiet high streets are in Bavaria on Saturdays compared to those in Britain. Many shops close at 1pm on Saturdays – even just before Christmas – while in Britain high streets are heaving on a Saturday. Go Deutsch. Go to the woods instead!

Make Things Instead of Buying Them

These Bavarians are a crafty lot. Since arriving I have received hand-made woolly hats, a drawer full of hand-knitted woolly socks, hand-made greeting cards, home-made cakes, and a hand-crafted and painted one-metre stork (a gift put up outside our home after I gave birth here). While us Brits rush out and buy everything ready-made, the Bavarians try and make it themselves. They do a lot of home improvements themselves too instead of hiring the experts. My Bavarian boyfriend can’t understand why we have huge shops in England selling just greeting cards. “You English are crazy about buying cards. Just make them,” he says. Genau!

To Support Young People and Families. So they can buy more beer.

Young people in Germany are supported once they leave school, both by the system and their families. Many go into paid apprenticeship training or to university for free (sometimes for decades rather than three years). Many live at home for as long as they possibly can too. In England, it’s just not cool or acceptable to still be living at home in your twenties, despite the soaring cost of living.  Most people I know in Germany in their twenties are still living at home. It’s not uncommon for older people with children to still be living with parents here too, to help them save for their own homes. There is no stigma attached to that. New mothers are assisted to stay at home by the state and society does not look down them.

That Britain Is Still Great

The Brits moan a lot. They say there are too many immigrants, gas prices are too high, the weather is miserable and the health service is failing. But it wasn’t until I left England that I realised what a fantastic place it is too. We have an education system that helps the disadvantaged. We have a society that is generally very open and tolerant of others regardless of their race and sexuality. We have a health system available for all including free contraception and many other benefits you would have to pay extra for in other countries (in Germany you have to pay for contraception on top of your health insurance. A coil would cost you in excess of 200 Euros). There is a society, charity or support group for virtually anything.  We have a world-class media with high-quality journalists, TV and Film makers. We have charity shops. And the British weather isn’t that bad once you’ve experienced Germany’s. We also know how to get into the spirit of things (hello London Olympics). And most importantly, we have Digestive biscuits.

Top Twelve Reasons I Love Living in Germany

Like many people who live abroad, I often think about moving back home. But then I remind myself what it is I like about living in Germany, and life isn’t so bad after all. Every wobbly expat should keep one of these lists to get them through the ‘sod it, I’m out of here!’ times. Here are twelve great things about living in Bavaria.

The EidseeClean living: The air that we breathe feels so clean in Bavaria some nights I don’t even feel the need to wash my face. Okay, so I’m a lazy cow at times, but still. The air is REALLY clean here! I can see the difference in my skin when I go back to England. The tap water doesn’t taste of chemicals either. In fact, the tap water in Munich comes direct from the mountains.  No need for mineral water here. If you fancy a detox, come to Bavaria!

Bavarian health food/medicineCheap beer: So maybe a detox isn’t such a great idea after all. Beer is very cheap in Bavaria, and there are over 4,000 brands to choose from.  My Bavarian neighbour starts drinking beer at about 10am. He also looks about 60 when he’s probably only 30, but at least he’s happy. Munich’s Oktoberfest is a great way to pay homage to Bavarian beer. Don’t miss it.

Amazing nature: Germany feels like one massive forest. This is where Forest Not sunbathing weather thenBoy claimed to have been brought up, remember? There are probably another thousand ‘Forest Boys’ living in Germany that no one knows about. The nature here is really beautiful, with lots of rolling green hills (the greenest green I’ve ever seen right now after all the snow and rain we’ve had), snow-capped mountains and emerald lakes.  Deer and storks are just some of the wildlife I see when I walk near our home.  Amazing.

Smack bang in the middle of Europe: France, Italy, Austria, Eastern Europe, or down to Slovenia and Croatia…all can be reached on the same day by car from Bavaria.  If you live here, you literally have the whole of Europe at your feet. This is great news for a travel ho like me. The Germans think nothing of popping down to Italy for a short break. Or driving to Austria to stay in a fancy hotel for the night. Bloody brilliant, like

Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporati...

Even women work in Bavaria! (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

No recession doom and gloom: Bavarians don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘recession’. Unlike when I go home to England, the crippling financial crisis has barely caused a ripple here. Germany has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU. Our local newspaper is full of job advertisements each week. Public services are not suffering from huge cutbacks. People feel secure, even if they are not earning very much. It will be interesting to see if that continues.

Mountain stops to admire its reflection in lakeThe mountains: Not only do they look great, the Bavarian Alps provide plenty of opportunities for a day-trip or more. In the winter months there is of course, skiing and snowboarding, plus sledging tracks, climbing and lots of other things mentalists do on ice. In the summer you can hike on them, or run around in a dress pretending to be Maria from the Sound of Music. Ace.

English: photograph of King Ludwig II of Bavaria

Great Mo! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

King Ludwig: This is the fairy-tale guy who brought us Germany’s most popular tourist attraction, the Neuschwanstein Castle. The late king also called a number of other majestic Bavarian palaces home, all of which are remarkable to visit. But Ludwig was more than just king of the castles. He was possibly the most interesting German who ever lived. Secretive, eccentric and mad (according to some), he was sadly and mysteriously  found dead in 1886 after being declared ‘unfit to rule’. I’m kind of fascinated by him.

Cat Burglar

Photo credit: Feral Indeed!

Safe as houses: Bavaria has the lowest crime rate in Germany. The police must be really bored here. Unlike where I’m from in England, the local newspaper isn’t full of stories concerning burglaries, muggings and rapes. Which is nice! It’s so safe here that when I couldn’t find our front door key recently, I propped the door open with a mat and went out for the afternoon with no worries at all.  Here’s what a Bavarian burglar would look like if they existed:

Bavarian fashionistasFriendly people: Because they are drunk on beer most of the time, Bavarians are extremely friendly and hospitable people (except in Nuremberg). Despite being a dirty foreigner with terrible German language skills, I have been welcomed into our tiny community with open arms. Unlike when I lived in London, I know all of my neighbours, and I could count on them if I ever set the flat on fire etc.  When our son was born, three of them brought presents even though we didn’t know them that well at the time. Wunderbar!

The bread: German bread is so dense you could knock someone out with a loaf on the first wallop. And there are so many different types of bread here you never know what you’re going to get on a visit to the bakery ( of which there are two per every one person in Bavaria). We must have about 20 different types of breads at our local bakery, from round loaves made with potatoes (yes, potatoes!) to long sticks made with seeds and spelt. Delish.

Nice traditional towns: Colourful, historic, and with cute, traditional shops. This is what a typical high street in Bavaria looks like. In England most of our high streets have faced ruin thanks to the likes of huge supermarkets like Tesco and online shops. Not in Bavaria.  Here you can still find toy shops selling real wooden toys nestled among butchers, bakers, and clothing boutiques. Twee.

Good education / health systems: You know you’re becoming old and boring when ‘good schools and hospitals’ become an essential reason for living somewhere above ‘hot men and free condoms’. But it’s re-assuring to know that if the worst was to happen here in Bavaria and we ended up in hospital, we are probably less likely to die, catch gangrene or contract MRSA than if we were in an English one. The education system in Bavaria is highly rated too, even though school kids finish their day well by 1.30pm. With those hours, no wonder every German I meet is studying to be a teacher.

Life’s Simple Travellers: The Storks of Bavaria

Not much happens in the little Bavarian village I live in called Raisting.  Well, the library at the local school opens on Monday and Thursday evenings. And the Doner Kebab man comes and parks his little van here on Thursdays too. So I would say that Thursday is definitely the busiest day in Raisting (population about 12). But what little Raisting lacks in people power it definitely makes up for in terms of animals.

When I take my baby son for a walk around the village the monotony of pounding the same streets time and time again (there aren’t many of them you see) is broken up by the various animals we see. There are the horses, the black fluffy ‘moo’ cows, regular black and white ‘moo’ cows, chickens and lots of different types of birds that little Max loves to see and watch me try to impersonate. Back in my hometown in Essex in England we really don’t have much wildlife (apart from the drunk animals you get on Southend High Street every night) so this is all a novelty for us.

My favourite Raisting wildlife however has to be the storks, who return year after year to this little part of Bavaria to their nests. The White Storks are believed to be as faithful to their nests as they are to their mates, hence their return to the same spot here each spring. In Raisting we have a number of purpose-built platforms on the top of high poles that the birds use to build their nests, and it’s great to see so many of these long-legged creatures rambling wild around the village in the summer. I once cycled through a field and noticed a good 30 of them just hanging out, catching mice or whatever it is storks do in fields. Typically I didn’t have my camera on me but I’ll always treasure the memory. There’s something really special about seeing an animal in the wild, and not cooped up in some crappy ‘wild’ life centre.

The birds also melt my heart as they remind me of when my son was born on April 2 2012. As I waited for his birth the storks had arrived in the village and were flying high above as I waddled around with my huge bump hanging out of my leggings. Of course, the legend goes that storks bring babies, and I thought it was too cute that I was waiting for mine just as they arrived here in Europe all the way from Africa.

Storks are strong in German folklore, with their nests believed to bring good luck and protection against fires. You will also see many wooden stork decorations in front gardens to announce that a child has been born to the family that lives there. When I arrived here all fat and pregnant I thought this was the best tradition ever. In Essex this cutesy stuff just doesn’t happen. Mainly because people aren’t that thoughtful, and also because the storks would be stolen or urinated on if left outside at night.

A wooden stork in Raisting

Anyway, when I realised that other women were returning home from hospital with their babies to these wonderful giant wooden birds in their garden, I decided I had to have one too. Forget the baby. I WANTED A STORK. And most men should know that it always pays to listen to the really hormonal, emotional woman who has just given birth and won’t let them forget that they did so for the rest of their lives. I made it clear to Markus that his life wouldn’t be worth living if I came home and there was NO stork. If I was going to squeeze his baby out of my vagina, I WANTED A STORK. And crap loads of chocolate.

Despite my extreme subtlety, he got the message. And this is what greeted little Max and I, Mariah Carey, when we first arrived home.

The stork was hand-crafted and painted by our friends (Bavarians are really good at making things). It’s holding an Australian flag as its sack because Max was conceived there (in the country, not in the sack). It’s by far one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. I’m tearing up now just thinking about it, but that’s because I’m a mum and we cry at everything, including things like manky-looking pigeons that can’t walk properly.

The storks are yet to return this year, although two did stay in Raisting this winter, according to the local newspaper (yes, this does make headlines here). I saw one of them poking around someone’s garden in the snow last week. These travellers migrate to Africa from central and eastern Europe, but have to go all the way via Turkey and Egypt to the east or Gibraltar in the west because the air thermals they depend on don’t form over water. They must bloody hate the Med. But then at least they don’t have to fly over Malta, as the Maltese like to shoot birds for fun, and then they would be dead. And that would be a terrible blow to little Raisting (pun intended).

Many people who are keen travellers often find it hard to stay in one place for too long. As another travel blogger said to me recently, life can seem to be a tug of war between nesting and nomadic. Therefore I salute you, oh pretty storks. You seem to have the perfect mix in life. Nesting in Europe for the summer, then buggering off before it gets too cold for a fantastic journey south into Africa.

Without the barriers in life that hold us humans back, they make it look so simple.

Why Germans get Naked

Saturday afternoon. Prime time for family swimming back home in Britain. So I assumed it would be the same in Germany. With heavy snow outside and most other establishments closed, my German partner and I decided to take our baby son Max for his first dip in a swimming pool. What a lovely family occasion, I thought! We packed our swimming gear and drove to a small pool in a town not too far away called Peissenberg.

Twenty minutes later and there we were in the baby pool, surrounded by lots of naked German folk. Men proudly strode around with all their bits on show, while women sat on sun loungers having a good old chat over one another’s bosoms. Poor little Max didn’t know where to look! “Didn’t you know it was naked day?” I hissed at Markus. “It didn’t mention anything about it when I looked on their website!” he defended himself. “It’s Saturday afternoon!” I exclaimed. “Where are all the other families?” Besides Max, there was only one other child at the pools. She was aged about 7 and wore a swimming costume. She sat on the edge of the pool while a naked middle-aged man who she didn’t appear to know stood alongside her, waiting to dive in. A sight you definitely wouldn’t see in England. I remembered when I was about eight and my grandfather was almost thrown out of a swimming pool’s spectator area there for filming us diving with his video camera. “You might be a pervert,” staff told him. How different things were in Germany – over 20 years on. Having just had a baby, and more so for being shy and British, there was no way I was going to shed my bikini. But we were definitely the odd ones out for not going nude, and it seemed we were offending those there for wearing swimwear.

As we had paid to use the sauna I decided to pop in quickly. Bikini and all! I had it to myself until an older gentleman joined me. He was completely starker’s of course. We had a conversation which mainly involved me trying very hard not to look at his penis. “Ah!” he said, when I explained that I was English. He may as well have shouted “so that’s why you’re the only ones wearing clothes!” By that time I was ready to leave. Others joining us were giving me dirty looks for daring to wear anything in the sauna. To make matters worse I had committed a massive German faux pas by forgetting to bring a towel to sit on. Then I washed my feet in some sinks that I’m sure were actually for people’s faces. We left pretty quickly and haven’t been back since.

Besides the pool there have also been naked people discreetly sunbathing down at our local lake in the summer. Germans also seem to be obsessed with changing out of their swimwear the moment it gets wet. So expect to see lots of bare bottoms and other bits being flashed during clothing changes on the lakes. Then many other swimming pools have sauna areas where wearing swimwear is strictly forbidden. We obviously escaped lightly down at Peissenberg. Going naked in Germany does seem to be more popular among older people. So maybe this is a cultural difference that could soon die out.

I remember once in London I was in a gym’s mixed sauna when a man who had dared to go naked was chased out by another in trunks shouting “you bloody pervert!” I wonder if that poor guy was a bemused German. I think that helps to explain the difference between the British and the Germans when it comes to being naked in public. In Britain it’s seen as perverse. Sexual. We associate being naked with sex. We giggle about it like little kids. In Germany, they don’t. You’re naked because you were born that way. And it’s no big deal. At all! People do it. And it means nothing to them whatsoever. The Germans I have seen naked also seem completely happy with their bodies, no matter how ageing and overweight they are. They appear to have a better appreciation of nature, whereas the British wouldn’t dare to bare unless their bodies were magazine ‘perfect’. “Don’t they go naked in British saunas?” my Bavarian father-in-law asked me recently. “Only in sex saunas,” I replied. “No!” he said. “Here it is for freedom!” he added, raising his arms in the air like a flying bird.

I have also noticed that people in Germany are less paranoid about paedophiles than parents are in Britain. I’m not saying it is completely safe here, but we do feel a lot safer here in general.

What does surprise me is, why are many Germans happy to bare their bodies when many are also so shy about revealing their personalities? “Germans are generally very private people who don’t like others to know anything about them,” my German teacher once told me. I guess that’s another issue for another post. Please do enlighten me if you know the answer!

And although I haven’t quite worked up the courage to go naked just yet, I am warming up to the idea. Even if just for a very nervous British laugh.

UPDATE: I did it. Read all about it here.

Really Bavaria?

I almost choked on my big fat German wiener when I saw these photographs in the local Bavarian newspaper. Apologies for their quality. If you look closely you’ll see images of children – some with their faces ‘blackened’ – to make them look like Jesus’ Three Kings for Three Kings Day on January 6.  I hasten to add these were taken this year in 2013, not sometime in the 1930s.

For a country so desperate to escape its Nazi past, Germany really surprises me sometimes. Maybe I’m too uptight and British. Maybe the fact that this just wouldn’t happen in Britain today says that society there has become too politically correct. Or maybe living in Bavaria has made me lose touch with reality.  “They’re just trying to represent the Three Kings better,” a local explained to me. Personally, I don’t think they need to smear children’s faces in black paint to do so. Before I moved to Germany a year ago I wrote a list of what my expectations of this country and its people were. “Highly-intelligent, forward-thinking society” was on it. But when I see this proudly splashed across the local news I really do wonder.

Having spent a few days thinking over the pictures I have come to the conclusion that those responsible are not intentionally racist. I’m sure the children and the adults behind their supervision would be horrified to think they could cause offence. The problem is, there are very few black people in Bavaria outside of Munich. I guess if there were more black children here then church groups celebrating Three Kings Day wouldn’t be able to get away with doing something so ignorant. The people would hold them accountable.  Why am I getting so worked out about it? Well, I’m in the process of deciding whether Germany is a good place to bring up my son, now aged nine months. He was born here, and I figured that Germany would be a better place for him than England. If it was just me, I probably wouldn’t ponder these issues so much. What do you think? Are these pictures racist, offensive or just harmless fun? Does Bavaria need to move with the times more? I would be REALLY interested to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment!

On a lighter note, I did have a good laugh at how badly these youngsters were made up. Poor things.