16 December, 2011

Christmas Markets

I love being in Germany for the Christmas season. One of the highlights of this season is the proliferation of Christmas markets. Nearly every town has a market around the town-square. Sometimes they're only open for a week or one weekend, sometimes for the entire month of December until the day before Christmas Eve. Around here it's called a Weihnachtsmarkt, but to the East in Bavaria, they call them Christkindlmarkt or Christkindlesmarkt. At such a market, you'll usually see a number of booths selling assorted hand-made goods like candles, knitted winter-wear or soap.

Christmas markets are not just a place to get some Christmas shopping done. There are also grill-huts where you can get various types of Bratwurst or Schupfnudeln mit Sauerkraut, not to mention, Glühwein, which spiced red or white wine served hot. Interspersed among these booths are nut-roasting trailers. Those are my favorite because they always smell really good! They roast all kinds of nuts and coat them in a thick layer of pure sugar. They also usually sell ginger-bread hearts with little notes written in icing.

People will often make an evening of it: chat over a sausage and Glühwein then browse through the various stands and maybe even go for a round of ice skating.

There's also usually a nativity scene somewhere at the market. Reutlingen even has a couple of live sheep! Here's a short video I made at the Reutlingen market just last week. This band-stand is in the middle of the market. Before this group, there was a brass ensemble that played some traditional Christmas hymns.

I know there's a large Christmas market in Chicago, but I think in general, we're missing out on this in America. I think that's mostly because Germany (most of Europe, really) is a very pedestrian-friendly society. It's a lot easier to set up a walk-through, outdoor market when there's a large part of town dedicated to pedestrian traffic. This is the case in pretty much every German town I've been in. Towns around here that were founded in the middle ages (or earlier) are laid-out a lot differently than towns in the US that were first settled in the 1800s.

Browse online the rest of my pictures from Christmas markets here.

15 December, 2011

Little Differences - Part 2

This post is part two of a series in which I am explaining little things that make life in Germany different than in the US. I'm trying to stick to physical differences rather than cultural differences because culture is rather difficult to take a photo of and put it in a blog.

Toilet flushing mechanisms
Toilet flush buttons
This took a couple of tests before the significance of the two buttons truly sank in. It's pretty self explanatory: press the big button for #2s or the small button for #1s. This is one of the standard designs that I've seen all over Germany. Also, you'll notice that the tank is concealed in the wall; also something you don't see in the States.

Traffic light cycles

Watch the above video so you'll know what I'm talking about. The traffic lights in Germany when cycling from red to green include a momentary glimmer of amber. Besides that, it's the exact same set of three lights you'd see in the States arranged in the same order even: red on top, green on bottom. But that one slight difference is enough to remind me that I'm still in Germany. I have a hunch that the momentary "warning" before turning green is so that you can put your car in gear. Which brings me to my next point...

Manual vs. Automatic transmission
Unfortunately, I'd have to take a lot of pictures in order to prove this personally, but I can safely say that the majority of cars I've seen and been in here in Germany have been manual transmission. Even most of the charter buses I've been in were stick-shift. In fact, driving an automatic is almost looked down on. This works well for me because I love driving stick-shift and I wish more people in the States would share my opinion, but when I'm in Germany that's not an issue. I did just a quick search on www.autoscout24.de which has a listing of 930,000 used cars of which 708,000 are manual transmission. That's 76.13% according to Wolfram|Alpha!

Sorting the trash
From left to right: plastic, garbage, glass recepticles
This is one little thing that is often frustrating for Americans when they first come to Germany. Some of us might be accustomed to separating recyclables at home, but not in every single building and residence! Germans are very serious about separating garbage. I heard, if you put something in the recycling which doesn't belong in the recycling, you could get fined. The rule that always works for me: when in doubt, Restmüll.

Exit signs
A standard exit sign
Okay, sorry, this one isn't very interesting, but it's worth noting. This is what exit signs look like here. It's a lot more universal than our exit signs.

I'm going to stretch my self-declared criteria of physical differences for this next point. I might be getting a little into language differences, but I'll let you be the judge of that.

How to write dates and syntax of mailing addresses
These are two things that are very easy to get wrong if you assume that the way we do it in the States is the universal standard. I don't know why the Germans do this differently, but they do. In Germany, dates are written DAY.MONTH.YEAR, no exceptions. This is very confusing if you're used to writing Month/Day/Year and can cause some major problems if you are trying to express any date during the first 12 days of any month. I've gotten in the habit of writing out at least an abreviation of the month as often as possible e.g. "15 Dec. 2011". That way I know that my meaning will be clear whether my audience is German or American. Also in Germany, you write the house number after the street name and the zip-code in front of the town. For example, the mailing address of the International Office would be written like this:

Reutlingen International Office
Alteburgstr. 150
72762 Reutlingen

Whereas the International Office at Valpo is:

Office of International Programs
1509 Chapel Drive
Valparaiso, IN 46383
The numbers are in the exact opposite position as we write them in the States! I'm pretty sure your letter would still arrive if you wrote it out the wrong way around, but it would probably be a little delayed.

First floor = Second floor
Button panel in the elevator in my dorm
If you ever find yourself in a German elevator (bzw. einem amerikanischen Aufzug für meine deutsche Leser), you might want to think twice before you mash those buttons. See, in Germany, the first floor of a building - that is, the lowest level with a door to the outside - is called the Erdgeschoss or "ground" floor. Then floors above the ground floor, die Obergeschosse, are numbered starting at 1. So, if you enter a building by the front door and go up one flight of steps, you're now on the "first floor" (for you linguists out there it makes a little more sense if you say it in German, "erstes Obergeschoss" which literally means "first upper floor"). In America, we skip this small technicality and number the ground floor - the first floor you would find yourself in if you entered by the front door - 1. Therefore, if you're at the top of a multi-story building in Germany, you would have to press "E", rather than "1", to get to the bottom. Otherwise you'll feel exceedingly silly waiting for the elevator doors to open and close on the second floor - which is actually the first floor. Again, to avoid confusion, I usually end up describing the floor I live on as the ground floor because that should also be understandable by Americans and I don't have to worry about getting the numbers confused in my head.

Keys go spiky side down
The lock to my room
Talk about mundane details! But it's different, right? In the States I'm pretty sure all locks are installed such that the spiky side of the key is on top when properly inserted. This difference will probably make you feel dumb the first couple of times you go to unlock a room when you come to Germany, but I guarantee you'll get the hang of it pretty quick.
So, there you have it! A few more things that make life in Germany just slightly different than life in the States; not better or worse, just different. I hope you've enjoyed reading. I may come back to this theme later if I think of enough little differences.

14 December, 2011

Little Differences - Part 1

Germany and The United States of America are similar on many levels. They are both developed, modern, western societies where the freedoms of speech and religion are highly valued. There are some differences in the way the two Governments are structured and how they function, but in the end, they are both democratic. I'd say quality of living is about the same, at least compared to what I'm accustomed to. However, there are lots of little things that remind me every day that I'm not in America. These little things are not life-changers, but they are peculiarities that I would like to bring to the attention of my American friends. Disclaimer: I've spent almost all of my time in Germany in the southern part of the country, so some things that I find normal may be specific to this region. I'm not claiming to be an expert on all of Germany.

I've decided to split this list into multiple parts because I keep thinking of things to include. I will do my best to accompany every item with a picture or a video even. The links below the pictures will take you to the respective picture on my PicasaWeb Album where you can zoom in and examine every last detail.

Light switches and Outlets
Light switch and outlet with Sharpie for scale
The light switches are all rocker switches. I find this very convenient because it's a rather large target and it's easy to simply give it a whack to turn it off. I'm not sure I entirely understand the outlets, however. I can't see any way to make a polarized plug with such an arrangement because the holes for the terminals are the same size. The recessed sockets are also hard to clean and tend to collect dust.

Hole punches
Hole-punch with Sharpie for scale
Now, this one is brilliant in so many ways! This is a picture of the most basic hole-punch that you might find in Germany. Some of them have sliding guides that help you align the sheet, but that's not really necessary. If you look closely right in the middle of the two punches and just above where the paper would slide in, there's a little mark in the plastic. The idea is, you crease one sheet of paper by folding it in half (hamburger style) and then you line the crease up with that mark. This way, if you always use the standard A4 sheets of paper, the holes will always line up with each other. Another perk of the two-hole design is that you can fit both holes on the edge of a half sheet of paper, so it's a lot easier to put smaller-format documents in a binder alongside full sheets. One less hole also means one less dimension that needs to be controlled while manufacturing the hole-punch, so there should be much less variability between hole-punches from various companies.

DIN A4 Binder - Exterior

The binders compliment the brilliance of the hole-punches well. Some key things to notice about the exterior of the binder are: metal protecting high-wear locations, hole on the spine to facilitate removal from shelf, slots on cover so that it can close all the way. Germans take their binders seriously.
DIN A4 Binder - Interior
The inside is also worth noting. The rings are not stupid and round, the locking mechanism is well-built, and that piece spanning the two ring-posts snaps down on top of the papers to keep everything from flopping around when the binder is closed. Binders are a very small part of life, but they are so completely different than ours in the US even though they serve the same basic purpose of holding documents together. Amazing, right?

Volumes written on drinking vessels
Volumes on drinking vessels
This is a difference that you might not notice at first. I'm pretty sure it's some sort of law that you have to have a marking of volume on any beverage you sell in Germany. The three vessels pictured have examples of these markings. Whenever I order a drink in America I felt like I was getting ripped off because there's no way to tell how much you've been given. If the mark is on the glass, at least you know when you're being swindled.

I know, right? Something so simple, so straight forward, you might ask: how can it be so different? You'd be surprised at how fundamentally different windows in Germany are as compared with those in the States. First of all, they don't use screens here. I don't know if it's because bugs aren't a problem or they think it's a waste of time to put in screens, whatever, I've never seen them here. Second, they put the blinds on the outside of the window. Crazy, right? I actually like it better that way because you drastically reduce the amount of surface area capable of holding dust in a room when you take out the blinds. Also, blinds on the outside can prevent a little bit of rain from getting in. Third, windows here don't follow the two-pane, slide-the-bottom-up model that we're used to. No, they do this crazy thing where the window can either tip into the room from the top:
Window - Tipped open
 ...or swing into the room like a door:
Window - Swung open
Both of these functions are controlled with the same single handle you can see on the left side of the window.  (In these pictures you can also see my outside-the-window blinds.) This design has it's pros and cons. In the tipped position, rain can't get in unless it's accompanied by heavy wind. When you swing it open, you're opening the entire window, not just the bottom half like with US windows. However, either way, you need free space inside in order to open the window. With the sliding model, this is not an issue. Again, they're still windows, but they're just different enough to make an impact.

13 December, 2011

Car factory visits

Professor Veit, as a service to the students in his Wirtschaftsdeutsch lecture, organizes frequent trips to car manufacturing facilities throughout the semester. I've had the opportunity to go along on a few of these trips, partly as Veit's assistant to help with logistics and partly as an engineer interested in how cars are built. Thus far, including trips during my previous visits to Germany, I've been to the following facilities:

  • Daimler, Rastatt - production of the Mercedes A and B classes
  • AUDI, Neckarsulm (twice) - final production of the A4, A6, A8 classes and a couple others
  • Daimler Motorenwerk, Stuttgart Unterturkheim - Final assembly of Mercedes engines
  • Daimler, Sindelfingen - Final production of Mercedes C, E, and S classes
  • VW, Dresden - Final production of the Phaeton class
  • BMW, Munich - Production of 3, 4, and maybe 5 series
  • MAN, Munich - Final production of 2-4 axle trucks
  • Opel, Rüsselsheim - Production of Astra and Insignia models

Opel was the furthest away from Reutlingen with a 5 hour bus ride, but other than that, all of these factories are within a 3-4 hour drive away.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t possibly write down all of my impressions from every single one of these trips, so I'll just pick out a few things that I think are worth observing.

The automobile industry is one of the exceptional industries in Germany where the level of customer service is better than in the States. If you order a new Mercedes, AUDI, BMW, or a similar high-end German car, the manufacturer will offer you the choice of picking it up at a dealer or to go to the factory where it was made, receive a tour of the factory and get a personal introduction to the car from a trained technician. They'll even pay for your transportation and hotel room. At the customer service center, there is usually a special area set aside specifically for the purpose of introducing people to their new car. This seems to me like a great way to keep customers.

The degree of automation in car production is baffling. Practically the entire chassis and frame of the car is built from the ground up entirely by robots. You know the clips you always see in car commercials with a bunch of robotic arms welding like crazy while partially assembled cars move slowly down a conveyor? Yeah, it's just like that in real life.

In contrast, the trucks at MAN, München are assembled almost entirely by hand. I thought of two reasons: they were only producing 120 trucks per day, so robots would not be cost effective and the parts that they install on trucks are simply too big for robots. The robotic arms would have to be massive in order to manipulate truck axles and engines. So, almost every task on the MAN production floor required a ceiling-mounted, manually-controlled crane and sometimes 2-3 workers.

I could go on forever about everything I've seen in car factories, but I'll end this post here. If you want more details, then get on Skype and give me a call!

12 December, 2011

Driving on the Autobahn

One of the more exciting tasks I've had as intern in the International Office was to drive two guest professors along with my boss Baldur Veit from Reutlingen to Heidelberg. One day Herr Veit asked me if I had a driver's license and if I could drive stick-shift. Luckily, my Illinois driver's license is valid in Germany and, thanks to my parents affinity to manual transmission, I learned how to drive with a stick shift from the very beginning. He asked me because a couple of guest professors from Kettering University in Flint, Michigan were going to be on campus and he thought he might need me to drive them to the airport or something. So, in the meantime I did some research on traffic laws in Germany. I had noticed in my travels in other peoples' cars that the road signs here are slightly different and I didn't want to be caught by surprise or break any rules in ignorance.

Then one day Herr Veit finally told me the plan. We were to pick up the professors at their hotel in Reutlingen, drive to Heidelberg (ca. 3 hours), leave the professors at their hotel in Frankfurt because they were flying home the next morning, and then return ourselves to Reutlingen.

All in all the trip was a great success. I didn't get us in any accidents and, as far as I know, I didn't break any traffic laws. We drove one of the school's cars: a Mercedes B class. It was a very smooth ride and I was able to quickly adjust to the clutch. A lot of people have asked me in the past if you really can drive as fast as you want to on the German Autobahn. I can now knowledgeably answer yes, but not everywhere. On most of the Autobahn there is a loosely enforced speed limit of 120kmh, but when you see a sign like the one below, it means there is no speed limit until further notice. There were a couple such areas on our route. I think I missed the sign the first couple of times, it being so inconspicuous. But on the way home I saw it and noticed that immediately afterwards, we were passed by a number of Porsches. I only went a maximum of 140kmh. I mean, my boss was in the car, so I didn't want to go too crazy.

End speed limit sign

That was also my first time driving in a car with an integrated navigation system. It was really cool because the turn-by-turn instructions were spoken over the car speakers and the distance-to-next-turn was displayed along with an arrow on a small LCD between the speedometer and tachometer. Another design feature that I appreciated was on the external rear-view mirrors, a section of the mirror furthest from the driver was more convex. This effectively eliminated any blind spots you'd otherwise suffer from with a standard mirror. I've seen these types of mirrors on a bunch of cars here and I hope that it gets adopted in the States.  

For more info on how to drive in Germany, see "Brian's Guide to Getting Around Germany"

11 December, 2011

Slight restructuring

Dear friends,

First, I would like to apologize for neglecting to update my blog. Truly, a lot has been happening here in Germany, but I think just because it doesn't seem as much like an adventure as the first time I studied abroad, I'm not as motivated to record my experiences. Which brings me to my second point and the namesake of this post: I'm going to slightly re-structure  my blog, moving away from my former style of long chronicles, and instead writing about one activity or event per post. This will hopefully make it easier for me to keep you all up to date because I won't have to worry about cramming a description of everything that I've done into one post. It should also make it easier for you, my readers, by splitting the content into smaller, more manageable sections.

So, in the next week or to, you can expect to see a number of new blog posts with very focused and concise content.