Germany is renowned for Autobahns without speed limit and fast cars. Most people living outside Germany cannot imagine driving at unrestricted speed, but have seen photos of massive pile-ups. There is a touch of myth in both.
First of all, Germany does not have the highest level of highway fatalities in Europe. Despite the number of spectacular crashes, the statistics prove Germans to be better-than-average drivers. This has something to do with strict driver education requirements, (fabled) German discipline, good roads, and safe cars. It is also aided by the truth behind the other semi-myth.
It is true that large stretches of the Autobahn network do not have a speed limit. As with every aspect of German life, everything is permitted that is not specifically not allowed. (There are a lot of rules regulating human behavior.) Back to the Autobahns: many stretches do have speed limits, but there are enough kilometers to allow fun, speed, and recklessness.
In reality, there are three speeds on German Autobahns: ridiculously fast, standard traffic, and parked.
I have owned Porsches, Mercedes, and BMWs. This is not bragging, because these are standard cars in this country. Most taxis are Mercedes, and BMWs are rather middle class. That said, all are very fast. My preferred driving speed on the Autobahn is 180 kilometers per hour (about 112 miles per hour for fans of an English king's foot), which I found safe and swift enough. The biggest danger was other drivers, who had no comprehension of speed. A fast car on a good road was often a pleasure to drive, but it has become an increasingly rare pleasure.
The most common speed on Autobahns is 100 kilometers per hour (about 60), because of the increasing amount of cars on the road. Heavy, bumper-to-bumper traffic often moves at this speed. One is happy to be moving, but it can be frustrating on a highway without a speed limit. The days of open roads and cheap gas are long gone. German industrial prosperity has put automobiles into too many hands, but makes driving speeds similar to those of most countries.
The third speed, common during rush hour and vacation times, is required when traffic increases to fill the highways or there has been an accident. The Autobahn turns into a long, linear parking lot. Traffic jams have been known to extend up to 75 kilometers and take hours to dissipate. This is beyond frustrating, especially for anyone captured in a Porsche. News footage or photographs show people standing beside their cars staring at a packed Autobahn, surely dreaming of a different speed.
Autobahn driving in Germany is a case of "hope for the best and expect the worst"...
In light of my forthcoming ordeal, I feel compelled to write about marriage customs in Germany.
As in all countries, people chose to marry for a variety of reasons and pick a time that suits them. The main wedding seasons in this country are May/June, which seems to have something to do with romance/tradition/women's illusions, and late December, which is driven by the desire to save taxes (grooms hold out until the last minute).
The traditional practice is to become officially engaged (if contraception has worked properly) with the exchange of rings and a formal announcement to the world. A date for the wedding is selected, many months or years in the future, and the battle begins.
Shortly before the weddings (there are two steps, which I will explain), there is something called Polterabend. There is no translation, and I am not familiar with a similar practice in any civilized country. Friends and acquaintances show up and expect to be fed and watered (with alcohol, of course); in return, they bring old plates, dishes, and glasses, which are smashed on the doorstep and walkway. In other words, they create a mess that must be cleaned up. It's supposed to bring luck, but it mostly brings work and expense. This is a chance for people not invited to the actual wedding ceremony to take revenge...and get free food.
The first of two wedding ceremonies is the official government bit. The couple must go to city hall with their witnesses and take the vows in front of a civil servant. This is as unromantic as it sounds. When I did it, I felt like I was visiting the dentist, since the waiting room was thusly furnished. People can redo this bit in a church, but it has no official meaning other than adding expense and guaranteeing entrance to heaven.
The second ceremony (with or without church hocus pocus) is the more traditional bit, as shown in Father of the Bride and other wedding movies. This is the bit that costs a lot of money, because there must be an expensive dress, a lavish venue, enough food and drink to impress relatives and jaded friends, a photographer, too many flowers, a band, etc.
The above explains why I had urged my daughter to fly to Las Vegas, buy the cheapest wedding package, and send me a post card...
Germany does not move holidays to create long weekends, as some countries practice. Each one falls on whatever day of the week the calendar dictates. Most holidays have a religious origin, even if few attend church these days. Six of the ten holidays recognized in all states (Catholic states celebrate one or two more) fall in the second quarter of the year, making that a time of less productivity. Holidays that fall during the week are called “worker friendly”, while those on the weekend are known as “employer friendly”. Employees particularly enjoy a holiday that falls on a Thursday or Tuesday, because one day of vacation (“bridge day”) lets them enjoy four days off work.
Yesterday was May 1, Tag der Arbeit (Day of Work, which is a misnomer, because only the police enjoy riot duty and earn overtime pay), which was “employer friendly” this year. It is one of the few non-religious holidays and is marked by union demonstrations and fiery political speeches. Of course, the United States has a different day for laborers, because it would be impossible to celebrate a holiday so closely connected with communism. Although this day should be about work, the Soviet Union always managed to turn it into a celebration of military “might” with their traditional May Day parade through Red Square. In Germany, the only militancy is displayed by demonstrators against atomic weaponry and, now, atomic energy. Union officials and left-leaning politicians have also been known to deliver volatile speeches, but have little effect on the status quo. Most people just enjoy the day off, although yesterday’s holiday was wasted on a Sunday!
This will be another irregular feature, in which I will attempt to reveal and/or explain how Germany differs from the rest of the world. Some ways may be good, some may be questionable.
Today’s topic is about Home Ownership, inspired by a recent newspaper article about IKEA’s failed attempt to sell pre-fad, “flatpack” houses in this country. As smart as the Swedes have been with furniture and accessories, they failed to understand the housing market. Cheap wooden housing might work in Scandinavia, but not in a land of solidity. And, in a recent report by the leading consumer test institute, the company known for cheap was criticized for overpricing the houses and underperforming of the ever-critical environmental standards. They got everything wrong. If these were boats, they’d be dead in the water.
What’s the big deal? It’s only a house. Look at dwellings in other countries. In the United States, people change house like they change clothes, cars, or spouses. People move all the time, within the same town or across country. Roots are shallow or non-existent.
Germans dwell at the other end of the housing spectrum: hardly anyone changes address. Houses or apartments are passed down from generation to generation like a hereditary title. More people rent than own a house, because of the limited amount of real estate in this crowded country. Even in rural areas, land is sold by the square meter (little more than a square yard, for anyone unfamiliar with the sensible metric system and who continues to rely on the shoe size of a former English king). Farmers become rich overnight, if their land is re-zoned to permit building.
Buying a house is a life-changing experience for any German. Despite constant advertising by building societies and banks about the ease of switching from renting to owning, people fret for years over the decision. Once made, they continue to fret and the house becomes an all-consuming experience, as well as endless source of pride (and expense). Because of such attitudes, houses are solidly built; they are made to last. Building standards are exact and stringent. One rarely sees a wooden house: it surely belongs to a foreigner. A German would be embarrassed and feel the need to rationalize such a rash choice to anyone and everyone. And given the price of housing, no one wants to pay one cent more than necessary. Every aspect of building, buying, and maintaining are calculated and re-calculate each year.
How could anyone live in an IKEA house? It would be too embarrassing. Not only would one be branded as a fool for buying such a house, one would be a laughing stock for paying too much. Flatpack furniture might be acceptable, because it rests behind closed doors. But a house: everyone would know...
This is one marketing disaster that will be difficult, if not impossible, to correct.
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.