I recently took advantage of a group of English friends spending a UK Bank Holiday weekend in Munich to return to the country I called home for two and a half years many moons ago. In fact, I lived in four separate places during that period: Kiel in the North, Regensburg and Ingolstadt in the South, and Düsseldorf in Germany’s heartland.
My flight to Munich was with Lufthansa, the first time I’d had the pleasure, and a pleasure it was too. But aside from the general impression made by the airline, my first culture shock of coming into close contact with German culture again was the boarding process. There I was, watching the other passengers board and anticipating the usual commotion and nervousness that greets me when I fly one of the low cost airlines between Barcelona and the UK, only to find German passengers politely helping each other find room for cases in overhead bins. What? This is unheard of on any flight I’ve been on for I don’t know how long. When one of the last passengers was struggling to find room for his case, quite calmly I should add, others around him offered to make space by moving theirs to make best use of the space available. Notably, the flight attendant was not even required in this process, she watched on as they amiably moved all the cases around to fit everything almost millimetrically, smiles all round. The usual tension involved in this stressful social situation simply wasn’t there. I was impressed.
After arriving in Munich and meeting up with a couple of friends, we headed to a kneipe for lunch. We opted for a traditional atmosphere and food, Rule no. 1 when visiting another country surely. So we found a very typical looking establishment near our hotel and headed inside. As expected and hoped for, we were met with the traditional greeting of “Servus!” from the serving staff, as well as a genuine smile of welcome. What was interesting from the cultural perspective was that when we sat down, the people at the surrounding tables also greeted us with the same utterance and attitude, in what felt like a very heartfelt reaction to our arrival. I have to say it’s not something I’ve become accustomed to here or anywhere else for that matter. But the most remarkable thing about it was that it was repeated time and again during my four days in the Bavarian capital, in what I can only describe as a very positive manifestation of community spirit, even with people who don’t live there.
The final occurrence that made a strong cultural impression on me came on the Sunday afternoon, strolling into town. As I walked past a corner café terrace where the sunlight invited passers-by to sit for a spell and enjoy some refreshments, a young couple were standing in deliberation, as all the tables were taken. The one on the end was only occupied by one middle-aged woman, and as I walked past, the couple turned to her and asked if she would mind if they sat at her table with her. Now Germans, and perhaps Bavarians even more so, are well known for sharing tables, often huge ones in beer halls, but to ask if you can share someone’s table in the sunshine seemed the height of audacity, and it’s hard to imagine many people doing it in today’s anonymous big cities. However, the woman acquiesced with a chirpy “Of course!” in a Bavarian accent.
I was happy to leave Germany all those years ago, as it felt like I’d had enough of the apparent inflexible and often cold perfection I’d been immersed in. This visit felt very different.