Cracking a Cultural Code

Unwritten rules distinguish Germany from the US. TRAVEL: WEST GERMANY

THE time-worn joke among West German politicians, when asked what they like best about Bonn, is to answer alternately, ``the subway to Cologne,'' ``the train to Munich,'' or ``the Autobahn to anyplace else.'' Long called the Bundesdorf (federal village), the tiny West German capital rarely gets much respect. But as small and only slightly urban as Bonn is - it was intended only as an interim capital, after all - it serves as a microcosm of West German life. It's also filled with lessons about what Germans and Americans think they know about each other.

Both Germans and Americans are tempted to believe that they know each other pretty well. After all, the world's largest youth exchange program, in the form of thousands of young United States soldiers, has been taking place here for more than 40 years. West Germany, for its part, has assimilated much of the States' popular culture, making it easily the most Americanized country in Europe.

Indeed, what one sees first after stepping out of the small but nicely restored Bonn train station are the familiar golden arches. It is one of three McDonald's restaurants in just the downtown pedestrian shopping area. Nearby is a Ha"agen Dazs ice cream shop. A few blocks away is a Pizza Hut. Teenagers sport ersatz American high school letter jackets. Movie theaters advertise dubbed versions of Hollywood films.

Intense shoppers Alongside the familiar names are half-timbered buildings, people in long loden coats, and cobblestone streets. There are many subtler differences.

Shopping is a good case in point. The goods for sale in department stores here are not much different from those found in the States. Likewise with groceries. Why, then, do German shoppers wear such determined expressions when plying the aisles with their shopping carts? Contrary to outmoded stereotypes, it is not because they lack a sense of humor. What they lack is enough time to get their shopping done. Shop doors are locked at 6:30 on weeknights and 2 p.m. on Saturday. Once a month, Saturday shopping is extended until 6 p.m., and since last October stores may stay open another two hours on Thursday nights.

In order to get everything purchased before closing time, a certain abridgment of interpersonal etiquette seems to be required. This unwritten code of the stores can be even more baffling to foreigners than some rules of German grammar. For example, many people think nothing of jumping ahead in waiting lines, but to leave a shop without saying a cheerful Auf wiedersehen to the store clerks is considered rude.

Rules of behavior, once made plain, are easy enough to adapt to: One answers the telephone by barking one's surname into the receiver instead of saying ``hello.'' But the attitudes behind such mores are harder to discern. And so Americans misunderstand German formality, and Germans misread American informality.

It is not unusual for Germans to use the American equivalent of ``Mr.'' and ``Mrs.'' - in some cases for years - when talking to each other. Stranger still, to Americans, is that such behavior is not meant to be standoffish.

On the other hand, an often-heard criticism from Germans is that they find Americans oberfl"achlich - superficial. They see the informality and easy friendliness in the US as insincere. (Their attitude is similar to the way some New Englanders view Californians: How could people so laid back be taken seriously?)

Those Germans forthright enough to tell Americans how superficial they are usually feel compelled to make other observations as well. ``You Americans have no history,'' they assert, ``and you don't know geography, either.'' Any expatriate who objects is quickly and gleefully given a long recitation of US statistics.

Few question the need for US schools to do better at teaching history and geography, but perhaps they aren't the only schools having such difficulty. Ask Europeans - not just Germans - about American historical events other than the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, and chances are they aren't altogether familiar with them. Likewise with geography: Long ago I gave up explaining where my former hometown was.

East German expertise

The major exception to this rule are the East Germans. ``Of course I know where Boston is,'' said one recent arrival in a West German resettlement camp. ``It's south of Maine, in New England, right?'' How did he know? Whenever he or his family saw pictures of any place interesting in a magazine or on West German TV, they looked it up in an atlas. Many of their travel-starved neighbors did the same. As a result, not only are East Germans very likely to know where Boston is (or even Frankfort, Ky.), but they can also probably quote population figures and the cities' average annual rainfall.

As for Bonn's average annual rainfall, you don't have to be a statistician to to know that it's high. Every night the TV news displays an elaborate weather map. Nearly every night a chubby little rain cloud sits above Bonn.

Damp weather notwithstanding, Bonners, and Germans in general, tend to spend much of their leisure time outdoors.

Sunday, with no stores allowed open, is a de facto ``family day.'' By far the most popular activity is going for a walk. In Bonn, families put on their best clothes, clasp their hands behind their backs, and stroll solemnly together beside the Rhine.

In the US, a long, tree-lined riverside promenade such as Bonn's, with its pleasing views of nearby hills - the Siebengebirge - would be a huffing, puffing mecca for aerobic achievers. But strangely, very few joggers pad the pathways here.

Where are the runners? This puzzle occupied me for months, but I should have known. Here, there's a place for everything: One walks by the river, and one runs in the forest. The Kottenforst southwest of downtown has miles of dirt trails with a flat ``low impact'' surface. There, runners are found in abundance.

But of all the modes of transportation here, perhaps the most well-known to Americans is the Autobahn. Perhaps every graduate of a high school driver's ed course has fantasized about zipping along at 100 m.p.h. on the no-speed-limit highways here. The sad fact is, reality does not live up to expectations. The highways are generally two lanes wide and crowded. Moments of unlimited speed are frequently interspersed with long waits in crawling traffic jams.

And no matter how fast your car can go, somebody else's can go faster. With uncanny regularity, that faster car will zoom up out of nowhere to within several centimeters of your rear bumper and insistently flash its headlights just as you're halfway past a slow-moving truck. At such moments, visitors to Germany are convinced, in more ways than one, that they will never fit in.

I had to go to London to realize how much German attitudes had rubbed off on me. There, I was surprised to find myself worried and agitated when a bus was 15 minutes late. In the States I'd waited far longer for buses without so much as a shrug. How easy it is to get used to a country where a five-minute train delay warrants a special loudspeaker announcement.

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