Also available: Segment on the Heidelberg Christmas Market
Are you coming to Germany for an extended stay, perhaps for purposes other than tourism? Want to know how to get around, shop, eat, recreate, etc., so you don't feel like a total rank outsider? That's what this chapter is about -- an accumulation of four years of positive living experience in Europe to help visitors or those moving overseas to acclimate. Hopefully, this was help you not to feel like a fish-out-of-water when you arrive. Indeed, understanding some of the basics will offer you some greater options for enjoying your European experience far more.
This chapter uses Heidelberg, my current home city, as examples.
First, getting around. Heidelbergers love their cars, but they still make great use of public transportation. This is because in several parts of the city, parking is both expensive and a pain in the butt. Heidelberg's network is a combination of streetcars and busses, with the streetcars being the backbone of the network leading to the Bismarckplatz at the entrance to the Hauptstrasse.
Tickets for the busses and streetcars work as follows: Machines called fahrausweise are located at the major stops. One can purchase a one-way ticket for a couple Euro, and the ticket is good for any combination of busses and streetcars along a single direction for 90 minutes. Each bus or streetcar has a time-stamping machine, and you must punch your ticket when you enter at the beginning of your journey ("validation").
The machines also dispense other forms of tickets (group rates, day passes, and other types of tickets), and types of tickets available vary city to city. Your best bet is get a guide from the tourist information bureau where you are visiting. If you expect to use public transportation a lot, you may consider buying a monthly pass.
Germans also love their bicycles, and bicycle use in Heidelberg is heavy because of the student population. By law, bicycles are a vehicle, and are entitled to use on the roads, unless directed to ride on bicycle trails. These trails are marked with a blue sign with white bicycle marked on it. As an alternative to a car, you might consider renting a bike and relying on public transportation for your other travels.
Germans also use the train a lot, and Heidelberg is a major train stop. For more on train use, check out my Taking the Train 101 series.
If you will drive around, you'll find that parking works in two ways. Indoor parking garages are prevalent in downtown Heidelberg, outdoor lots further out. The indoor garage works the same as an American garage except that you pay the fare in a machine before you get in your car to leave, and you feel the spent ticket to the gate at the exit, rather than pay a garage custodian. When you have paid the ticket, you have 30 minutes to depart (normally, some vary). The payment machines are normally at the walking entrance to the garage.
Outdoor lots use machines also. You feed coins for the time you expect to be there, and then place the ticket on your dashboard. Many lots are free on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, while others only permit a maximum length of time (hochzeitsgebauer). There is a second form of outdoor lot that allows you free parking if you have a parking clock. The clock works as follows, you set the dial to the time you arrived and you are permitted free parking for a set period of time. The parking lot, however, must be marked as allowing use of the clock, not all do.
Meanwhile, driving in Germany is very different. The street signs are based on the international system, which goes by a completely different set of rules. But the good news is that Germans are very courteous drivers and they follow the rules diligently. The drivers in Heidelberg are used to dealing with Americans unfamiliar with the system. Best thing to do is read up on the different signs and their use before renting a car here.
Once you've gotten where you are going, you might be hungry? Well, have no fear, Heidelberg is loaded with places to eat. Of course, the way business is done in restaurants is a little different here than in the states.
For instance, in Germany the tradition is to seat yourself -- there is no stuffy maitre d' waiting for you at the door. If you find an unreserved table, it is yours. The one thing you must watch for, however, is if the place has a table marked "stammtisch". Such tables are strictly reserved for regulars.
A German tradition you might pleasing is the fact that you will not be hounded by over-cheerful waitresses wearing hundreds of buttons pushing bad specials on you or asking every fifteen minutes if everything's all right. Quite the opposite, they will leave you alone until you want something. Many German restaurants operate with limited staff, and they don't rush things (and they don't rush you out of a place either).
Most places in Heidelberg, and in many other tourist-oriented cities, have English menus available. But be careful when asking for the "menu"! "Menu" has a specific meaning in European restaurants -- that of the daily multi-course special! Ask for a "carte" instead.
Finally, tipping. Waitresses love Americans because Americans tip 15%, but in Germany waitresses don't make their living on tips. The German tradition is to merely round up to the nearly even Euro (if the bill is 13, give 14 or something like that), and never leave the money on the table. Always give the tip directly to the waitress!
On the other hand, if you go grocery shopping instead, you'll find a couple things different from the American experience. First, tax is always included, so what you see is exact what you pay. (You will see a category on the bill labelled "NETTO" which is the amount minus the 16% value-added tax, in case you are curious.) Second, you bag your own -- there are no baggers. Normally, Germans bring their own bags or baskets, I use a canvas bag. If you need a bag, you often have to pay extra, normally 10 Euro cent per bag. Third, if you are in a market, you are not permitted to touch the produce. If you do, you will pay for it! So, be careful what you do with your hands!
Once you've visited all the tourist traps, you might want to check out some other activities. You will notice that the Germans are outdoor-oriented despite the sometimes inhospitable weather. On Sundays, it is very common to see the Germans out for a walk, particularly in the woods. Many of the towns surrounding Heidelberg have walking trails cut into their forests, marked with signs. It is common to see German families out for a walk after church, for example.
Germans also love their museums, and nearly every town has one. Heidelberg's rich history means it has several, and it offers a City Card that lets you get into the museums, get free access to public transportation, and other bennies for a low price.
If you are going to be in town for a while, get a local community calendar (or even a regional one) because if there is one thing Heidelberg has a lot of, its festivals. Each town or borough in the area has one for each season -- a Christmas market, a spring festival, summer festival, and harvest festival. I also noted that the various towns have them staggered so they each fall on different weekends. Convenient, and very smart.
Supporting the festivals is a good thing, because they are the primary fund raisers for many community activities -- from sports clubs to art houses and theaters to nature clubs to boy scouts/girl scouts and equivalents. The food is usually very good and cheap, plus you'll have kiddie rides, outdoor concerts, and other activities depending on the season. It's a fun time, and a great way to mingle with the locals.
You can see that living in Germany is pretty simple, and fun. The environment is mostly hassle free, you just have to learn to do some things a little differently. But don't worry if you get it wrong -- the reputation Germans have of being tough and grumpy is not the case, they are accustomed to having "dumb Americans" around and many will be friendly and helpful. So never worry!
Also available: Segment on the Heidelberg Christmas Market
Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001, 2003 Tom Galvin