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A German holiday

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How was the trip?

Glad you asked! Here is the short version of our answer:

Fun, but short. The Germans were nice and direct people. Trip was eye opening in many respects. A great trip, would definitely consider visiting again in the future.

For a longer version of the experience, please read on.

Setting the stage

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Donna and I took a vacation in Germany this month. Neither one of us had ever visited the country before, but we knew it was rich with history, culture and tradition. If anything, visiting Germany was high on our “bucket list” of things to do.

We mulled over several alternatives — Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Switzerland, France and Spain — but settled on Germany for several reasons. The Southeast Asian countries were more relaxing, “sit by the beach” affairs. They were comfortable but unexciting spots. Japan and Korea boasted vibrant, metropolitan cities, but they just weren’t exotic enough or distant enough for Chinese visitors. Some of the other EU countries were objectively “prettier” than Germany, but Donna had been to a number of them and we wanted this trip to be a collectively fresh experience. While going to Germany would require more research and “work” than a laissez-faire vacation, we felt the investment was worth it.

With only one week to spend in Germany, the itinerary came down to the following cities: Berlin, Weimar, Prague, and Munich. We would focus on the eastern part of Germany, as Berlin and Munich were two of the best cities to visit. Prague was a lovely city, and fairly close to Berlin, so it became an obvious choice for us. The plan was to fly into Berlin, rent a car, and then have a week-long road trip. 

Note: I want to give a special shout-out to my friends Peter, Frank and Chris for the invaluable tips on Germany. The trip could not have been nearly as enjoyable without your suggestions. Thank you. 

Something else weighed on my mind, and catapulted my desire to visit Germany. I was a keen student of twentieth century European history in high school and wanted to see Germany with my own eyes. The twentieth century was full of change for the Germans, to say the least. The epic disappointments and disillusionment of the First World War ultimately led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. From that point on, many atrocities were committed in the name of progress and ideology. Germany was defeated in the Second World War, but it carries its national guilt and atonement to the present day. It’s a shadow that, like Japan, continues to impact the way people perceive the country, both within and without. (Unlike Japan, Germany manages to acknowledge its past, which is a topic for another day.)

Important events happened in this country which continue to impact the world today. Although younger generations have largely moved on, and Germany has transformed into a prosperous, modern-day democracy, it can be mind-blowing to think about everything that’s happened in less than a hundred years. I write this not to dwell on the negativity of the past, but to show an appreciation for the very ground I stood on during the German trip. Everything we saw — from the ruins of the Berlin Wall to the parliament buildings of Munich — carried significant historical ramifications. We came, we saw, we experienced.

Of course, I cannot speak of Germany and its rich culture without sounding a bit condescending. I simply don’t have enough exposure to the German way of life to pass value judgements. These impressions are formulated in the abstract, and largely in the recesses of my own brain. I hope you’ll forgive some of the snap judgements in this post. More importantly, I hope to hear your responses.

Instead of a day-by-day account of the trip, I will outline a few key observations during the trip.

The German people

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We found German people to be generally friendly, helpful and easy-going. They are quick to make a joke or smile at us, very much unlike the stereotypes I had heard about. When they see tourists like us who are wandering around and probably lost, they are quick to step in and provide help. Germans also seem to have a wider perspective of the world than most Americans I’ve encountered. They have a sense of understanding what goes on beyond their own country’s borders — probably a necessity, given the interlocking nations of the EU.

In our experience, we found Germans to be direct and principled. For example, one of the things we’re used to doing in China and the United States is to “try on” footwear barefoot (no socks). In Germany, you need to wear socks and there are disposable socks in most department stores for this purpose. The first time we tried on shoes barefoot, a woman nearby pointed the rules out to us. The tone of the instruction, in this case as well as others, suggests that the Germans have a very clear view of what is right and wrong.

Trying on shoes without a sock is wrong — if you do it, I will tell you.

If you bought this ticket and you lost your receipt, then you lost it and there is nothing I can do. There are no excuses.

You should not go with option A if option B is available — to go with option A is a complete waste of time.

I can definitely see how a sense of order is good in most cases. I, for one, would love to live in a society that places more emphasis on directness and requires less inference of others’ intentions. In corner cases, however, I have to wonder: how do Germans manage ambiguity? They seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong, which can be a double-edged sword depending on the particular situation.

Language

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In Berlin and Munich, everyone our age speaks English, with varying degrees of fluency. This is very helpful when it comes to communication. Every once in a while, with an older person, it would be more difficult to communicate, but it was never a big issue.

We watched Luc Besson’s new movie “Lucy” at the Berlin IMAX theater, in the original English language with no subtitles. I am not sure if the audience got all of it — but I am sure they understood at least 80% of it, based on the audience feedback to movie dialogue.

It does make me wonder if Germany is big on promoting itself as an “English capable” country (compared to France, for example). On the one hand, you can watch an English language movie in Berlin with no German language assistance. On the other hand, you go to a smaller city like Weimar and shopkeepers don’t speak English. I suppose it depends on the region and level of education that the Germans receive.

Note: I am not attempting to label the English language as some kind of “de facto” language that every person in the world must learn to speak. I am simply making observations from my own point of view, since I can’t speak German and English is the only conceivable way I can communicate with the German people.

Getting stuff done takes forever

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Perhaps Donna and I have been in Beijing for too long, but we found everyday activities in Germany excruciatingly slow and painful. Whether it’s going through checkout, checking into a hotel, renting a car, lining up for coffee, waiting to order at a restaurant, waiting for the bill, or going through customs — everything is slow. It’s not that the Germans botch up anything listed above, or make mistakes in their paperwork. Rather, they can be too meticulous, down to the last detail. Even on vacation, we felt impatient because we were stuck in queues all the time.

The Berlin Starbucks was the slowest Starbucks I have ever encountered in terms of service. There were a dozen people in front of us and it took us at least 30 minutes to order. For fun, I counted how long it took to process a order and the customer right in front of us took 5 minutes. That’s 5 minutes total to say the order, repeat it (in German), fish for some loose change, barista processes order, barista makes small talk, writes the order and customer’s name on cup, the works. The baristas there made small talk with customers without having any type of awareness that traffic was high.

For a store with this kind of traffic, there were three baristas manning the counters. No problem right? Only problem is that somehow, they only have one barista taking the orders. It makes sense to have one barista make the drinks, but they could have still had the third barista take orders instead of merely writing orders on a cup. It was the complete opposite of the efficiency I witnessed daily at any Beijing Starbucks location.

Prior to the German trip, Taipei held the “honor” of slowest Starbucks location, but this take the cake.

I had a definite feeling that if the visitors in any given queue were to double, the service would grind to a complete halt.

The lining up made me question how efficient German society was, as a whole. If it takes this long to get a cup of coffee, how long does it take for a major decision to get made, or for a road to get built? This was like the anti-China in terms of efficiency.

Driving on the ‘bahn

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As we drove, we couldn’t help but notice that the Germans are very disciplined drivers. They observe all the rules of the road. There are no obvious short-cuts taken, which fits their general demeanour and black-and-white view of the world. Something is either right or it is wrong — and the driving reflects that. Hardly anyone tried to beat a yellow light.

I was pleasantly surprised on a number of occasions to see drivers yield to me merging into a lane, well before I signalled my intentions. There’s a definite order to the road which is good.

Having said that, there’s quite a bit of passive-aggressive driving on the highway. As we drove in the fast lane, faster cars would tail us extremely aggressively until we could get out of the way. They would do this silently, without honking, which I found interesting.

Later, a friend told us that using the car horn in Germany was a fine-able offence under ordinary conditions. So that does explain why the roads are so quiet, at least when compared to North America or China.

As a whole, I much prefer the German way of driving. There is less road rage and less craziness going on.

Magic: The Gathering in Germany

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Well, you didn’t think I could write this piece without mentioning my favorite game in the world, did you?

I met up with Julian Knab in Munich. In Berlin, I met with Peter Raab and Carsten Kotter. They are all accomplished Magic players, particularly in the eternal formats. And extremely friendly Germans, to boot!

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I could not sit down with Julian for a game. On my last day in Berlin, however, I had time to play a number of games with Peter and Carsten. It was truly an educational process and an honor to play them both. I learned a lot from our brief play-testing sessions, and they gave me a lot of good advice. I made more mis-plays than usual, due to only having 3 hours of sleep, but it was a good time nonetheless.

Although Magic is merely a hobby of mine, it is very cool to have now played Magic in 5 countries: Canada, United States, Netherlands, China and Germany. Next stop this year is United States, followed by Japan next year. It will be a lot of fun to meet up with old friends again.

The rest

Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words…so here’s 5000 more words.

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On being Chinese, but not.

This is my story. It is not a fun story. Rather, it is a factual and cruel story with a chance at redemption towards the end. I hope you enjoy it.

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I wrote a few words on the great new show “Silicon Valley.” Here’s why you should check it out, even if you’re not in the tech scene.

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A love letter to the beautiful and talented Amy Adams, spiritual successor to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy.

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Wanted to have a little fun and dabble in fiction.