4 Quirky German Discoveries

I know, I know. Quirky and German are not words usually seen side-by-side. But as I spend more time here, small details and differences take on great importance. I have designated them as “German Quirks.”

German Radio

Jokes about David Hasselhoff aside, I thought Germany would have an interesting music scene. And I’m sure it does…but not over the airwaves. A quick scan up and down the dial during weekday drive-time revealed the following random playlist:

What Are You Waiting for: Nickleback

Abracadabra: The Steve Miller Band

When Smokey Sings: ABC

Budapest: George Ezra

Total Eclipse of the Heart: Bonnie Tyler

Geronimo: Shepard (A song I have heard AT LEAST once a day since I’ve been here. Seriously. I think it’s a Bavarian anthem or something.)

Walk of Life: Dire Straits

The Days: Avicii

She’s Like the Wind: Eric Carmen

Jesus He Knows Me: Genesis

Red, Red Wine: UB40

Forget You: C Lo Green

So basically every drive in the car triggers a weird middle school/high school flashback sprinkled with just enough current stuff to keep me from thinking I’ve accidentally entered a hole in the space-time continuum. Also, notice what’s missing? German artists singing German songs! I’d say 95% of the music on the radio is American/British. Which is familiar and fine, but not the cultural immersion I hoped for. Thankfully I have streaming radio and some good playlists made by cool friends.

Decorator Toilet Seats

Perhaps it’s the all that industrial grey tile. Perhaps it’s some sort of Freudian complex. But Germany seems to think that the best place for self-expression and visual meditation is the lid of the toilet. When we were looking for a place to live, every house–and every bathroom in every house–had a decorated toilet lid. Beach scenes, cityscapes, God help me inspirational messages are all common.

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A sample of the selection available at the local hardware store. The one on the lower right is my favorite–because apparently I have the humor of a 12 year old. “Departures” Hee Hee!

Windows

Open, closed, how quirky can it be? But here in Germany there are, of course, many unspoken rules for proper window usage. In most homes and businesses there is a metal outer shade that needs to be ritually opened and closed each day. Each night, it is lowered (and since it is made from sheets of interlocking metal, your neighbors will hear the exact time you do it and know that you are in for the night) giving your home the look of hurricane protection from the outside and a war-time bunker on the inside. Then each morning, the outer shade is raised (alerting the neighbors that you are now awake). While new construction has motorized this function, in homes more than 10 years old, the mechanism for all this raising and lowering is a canvas strap connected to a pulley system inside your wall. So every window has its own strap. Meaning your wall is striped with straps. They kind of remind me of those old-fashioned cloth towel dispensers in public restrooms, but without the ability to take them out for cleaning. It also means painting your walls gets an extra challenge, but that’s not my problem. Yay for renting!

The metal shade on every German window does feature the option for pinholes of light when closed. You know, to make the place more homey. And to accent the charming pull strap to the right.

The metal shade on every German window does feature the option for pinholes of light when closed. You know, to make the place more homey. And to accent the charming pull strap to the right.

Recycling

Oh how I miss the lazy American ways of single-sort recycling! Even Germans admit their method can be confusing. On the plus side, this country is fantastic at recycling. Almost everything can be recycled in some way. But on the minus side, I have EIGHT areas under my sink for waste. Let’s count: There is a bin for paper, a bin for compost, a bin for recyclable packaging (which can only go in special yellow bags provided by the city), a bin for “garbage”, an area for glass bottles, an area for cans, an area for plastic drink bottles and an area for refundable-deposit bottles. There is another layer to this, and that’s the pick-up schedule. Paper and recyclable packaging are picked up once a month and compost and “garbage” are picked up twice a month. Glass bottles and cans need to be taken to public bins by the consumer (but not on Sundays! That’s illegal!) and refundable drink bottles can sometimes only be returned to their exact store of purchase–but sometimes you can take them to other stores. It depends on…something. I haven’t cracked the code on that one yet.

Recycling is complicated in Germany. Luckily, I have this very easy-to-understand cheat sheet. Oy.

Recycling is complicated in Germany. Luckily, I have this very easy-to-understand cheat sheet. Oy.

I’m sure as we are here longer, some quirks will become second nature and new ones will reveal themselves. What quirks have you discovered as you’ve traveled?

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Never on a Sunday

You can live in the most exotic, exciting place in the world, but eventually, you have to do your laundry.

One of the wonderful things about taking an extended vacation is that you leave vacation-mode and eventually just start living normal life, but in a foreign place. After a while, our rotation of clothes couldn’t bear one more wearing, so it was time for laundry. Our bed & breakfast owner graciously allowed us to use her washer and dryer during our stay and she gave me a short tutorial when we arrived.

So on Sunday morning I put the first load in and we headed out for a day of exploring. When we returned in the early evening, I stopped in the laundry room before going up to our flat. I moved the clothes into the dryer and tried to remember which buttons were the right ones. Eventually I deciphered enough to program one cycle, hit the “start” button and left.

When I came back down an hour later, I saw that the dryer was off, but the timer was paused at about 45 minutes. “Must have hit the wrong button,” I thought. Perhaps I used a delayed start cycle? I hit the “start” button again and went back upstairs.

I returned in 45 minutes to see that the dryer had paused again, this time at the 23 minute mark. “I am really bad at this,” I thought. “How is this not working?” Restarted it one more time and then went to bed.

The next morning, I met our innkeeper in the hallway. “I restarted the dryer for you this morning. I paused it last night because of the noise.”

Oops.

I didn’t realize the seriousness of “day of rest” in Switzerland. In the U.S., Sunday is catch-up day for me. Errands, lawn work, laundry, cleaning and getting everything organized for the week ahead. In Switzerland and many other parts of Europe, Sunday is for worship, bike rides and family meals. Running appliances like washers and vacuums is frowned upon and in many communities using your lawn mower, washing your car, dropping off your recycling and even hanging your laundry outside on the line on Sunday is actually illegal.

And almost everything is also closed on Sunday, including drug stores, grocery stores, many restaurants–basically it’s impossible to buy things.

So armed with this new knowledge, we tried to plan our week so we could be Swiss on Sundays and enjoy family time together without any thought to chores. Not so easy, but a worthwhile practice we may try to adopt at home.

To market, to market….

Market day in Solothurn Switzerland

The market in Solothurn, Switzerland is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Twice a week seems typical in Europe of towns of this size, with larger cities having open-air markets every day and small villages having a few stands pop up once a week.

Each booth, cart, wagon, card table and stall seems to specialize in only one or two items: Berries, olives, breads, fish, flowers, vegetables, cheese…we tried to do as much of our grocery shopping here as we could.

Cherries for sale at the Solothurn market

We were there during cherry season. Hurray!

We even found a few things that we would not be able to enjoy at home. One farmer’s booth featured raw, unpasteurized whole milk. Raw milk is illegal where we live, and though there is a lively black market for it, I had never tried it. It did taste different. Not better of worse, but there is certainly a distinction.

Farm-fresh milk in Solothurn

Shhhh don’t tell anyone. This raw milk is illegal in much of the U.S. Milk is often sold unrefrigerated in Europe, so the farmer sternly us to told us to keep this milk cold and drink it within a few days. No problem there!

The market was a great slice of local life and helped us get into the rhythm of the town. Everyone in the area seems to be shopping–tattooed couples pushing strollers, old men in crisply ironed shirts, groups of friends carrying baskets of produce while balancing a coffee–the streets were bustling and we were happy to blend in for a change.

Mushrooms at the Solothurn market

The fungus among us. Mushrooms of all types and flavors.

Mystery vegetable at the market

So I assume “peperoni” refers to the shape? I think this is a parsnip. Or a radish. Or maybe a turnip….

 

 

The everyday exotic: McDonald’s

“Come into this McDonald’s quick,” said Ken. Huh? I understand the menu is different in other countries, but we don’t eat at McDonald’s at home, so what do I care about a McDonald’s in Switzerland? Then I saw the McCafe section of the restaurant. Ohhhh.

McCafe desserts in Switzerland

Macarons? Cakes and tarts? IN A MCDONALD’S?

Leather chairs, soft lighting, coffee in real cups, desserts that were galaxies away from the “apple pie” in a box that I remember.

McCafe coffee and pastries

Not a bad spot to pull out the old laptop….

I learned that the McCafe shops are quite popular, and I can see why. It looked like a fancier version of Starbucks. Goes against all that I know about food and eating in the States, but for a cup of java in Olten, Switzerland, it would certainly do.

orchids in McDonald's in Switzerland

Orchids next to the cash register were a nice touch….

Road food in Europe: leave the Corn Nuts and Red Vines behind

It was a 4+ hour drive from our weekend in Germany back to Switzerland. At some point we were going to need food, bathrooms and a coffee. I had planned on just making do with the many highway rest stops along the autobahn and some snacks I had in my bag, but fate intervened.

We pulled in at a gas station that had adjacent restaurants. There was a Burger King, some sort of buffet, and a coffee bar. But this was very different than the truck stops in the U.S.

German gas station dessert buffet

Forget the Twinkies and day-old donuts. These were just some of the choices at the gas station dessert buffet.

We sat in a cozy corner with leather chairs and a gas fireplace (I’m guessing we were in the “coffee shop” area?) Ken had ordered a meal from the buffet for us to share. Good thing. This plate of sausages and spaetzle was enormous. Two adults and a toddler could not finish it.

German gas station dinner

So. Much. Food. But pretty darn tasty!

We also enjoyed some great coffee, served with little almond cookies on the side. It felt very refined considering we were in the shadow of dozens of parked semis and a few tour buses of elderly tourists.

German gas station coffee

A cup of coffee and we were ready to get back on the road.

To really cap off the experience, there were the restrooms. Accessible through a turnstile after paying a small fee, the bathrooms were sparkling clean and it’s no wonder. They have robotics! It took me a few tries to figure out the cleaning vs. flushing thing, but it was so entertaining it hardly mattered. I was so surprised, I forgot to take a picture or a video, but luckily other people have found it equally fascinating.

Bring on the Bratwurst! The neighborhood festival

The lovely and generous Eva, who runs the bed and breakfast where we are staying, invited us to a small festival at her church in Zuchwil, just down the road.

Zuchwil, Switzerland church festival

Though small, the congregation put on a great spread.

There was a buffet table with awesome sausages, potato salad and sides for a donation of a few Swiss Francs. We had to wait for the grill to finish, but it was well worth it.

dinner in Zuchwil, Switzerland

Hurry up grill! Bring on those bratwursts!

There was also a tent with, what I think were cocktails, and tables set up with bake-sale goodies. It was hard to pick, but we landed on two chocolate-and-hazelnut cupcakes that did not disappoint.

Swiss bake sale table in Zuchwil

You can’t make a bad choice at the bake sale table–and you don’t need to speak German. Just point and hand over your money.

Unfortunately, we missed Eva’s performance in the early evening when she and a group were singing gospel songs, but we did make it there in time for this. Not your standard church music program, but it made my night.

The everyday exotic: a stop at IKEA

After a rainy day doing inside things, we jumped on the train for a change of pace…but ended up somewhere very familiar: IKEA. Lame place to spend time during a European vacation. Maybe, but we had a pretty good time for reasons that are not available in the American IKEA.

IKEA chairs in Switzerland

The familiar “wall of chairs” greeted us as we took the escalator upstairs.

We thought it would also be an opportunity to pick us a few small items for the flat: toys, washcloths (not common in Europe) and maybe some things from the grocery. We figured while we were there, E could play and burn some energy and we could have an inexpensive dinner as well.

IKEA children's department

Setting up for a proper IKEA picnic.

It seems many families had the same idea. E spent about 30 minutes just playing with the pretend kitchens and workbenches. Other kids also drifted in, and soon there was a full-blown toddler pretend picnic, with E pouring everyone many cups of coffee and other kids making sandwiches.

While all that was happening, Ken had wandered away in search of other items. I knew something unusual had happened when he returned 20 minutes later SMILING. This man, (and usually me, for that matter) never has a smile while at IKEA. What was going on? Then I saw it: in his hand, was a beer. “I stopped at the snack bar, ” he told me excitedly. “They had a deal. I got two hot dogs and this beer for 4 Swiss Francs!”

IKEA beer

Now THIS could improve the shopping experience.

IKEA has beer? “They have wine too,” he told me, “in the restaurant.” We headed over to see this wonderment of civilized living and found a restaurant full of relaxed parents, happy children and organic food.

IKEA restaurant

Beer? Wine? Energy drinks? Everything a person needs to make it through a trip to IKEA.

So yes, we didn’t really immerse ourselves in Swiss culture this day. But while we were shopping, the rain stopped. We had a tasty, inexpensive meal, and in typical Swiss fashion, we did find ourselves next to a farm field and grazing cows–even next to an IKEA.

 

Packing list for European travel

I’m a big believer in minimal packing when possible. Lugging suitcases and tripping over piles of clothes and shoes in a small space is not my idea of a good time. But we will be in Switzerland for four weeks. The weather is a bit unpredictable and the climate changes with the elevation.

So my plan is to streamline when I can, but not have to do laundry more than once a week. Here’s my packing list:
1 skirt (can double as swimsuit cover up)
3 pairs of pants (one converts to Capri length)
1 pair yoga pants (for sleeping)
3 short sleeve t shirts
1 button down shirt
2 long sleeve shirts
2 cardigans
3 tank tops (use one for sleeping)
1 hoodie
1 running skirt
1 pair ballet flats
1 pair trail shoes
1 pair sneakers
A weeks worth of socks and underwear
1 infinity scarf

That’s it! I doubt I’ll use the running skirt for running (though I’d like to) but if there are any hot and steamy days, I can wear them in place of shorts. I have a mix of cotton and technical fabrics and everything is in a neutral color so they can all be thrown in the wash together and I can endlessly mix and match.

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