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What Do You Notice the Most About Germans? Or: The Freedom of the Individual

German class on Friday morning. Or should I say ‘German as foreign language’ class because this is what it really is. A harder version of German 101. German literature is a different class and, thank heavens, a little more challenging than the rest. Finally some proper literature. Lenz, Zweig, Goethe and not some sort of children’s nonsense like I used to have in local school.

Well, so there we are, most of us with our eyes stuck to the clock that hangs right near the blackboard (yes, forget everything you know about smart boards. We have the good old blackboards that are actually green. With chalk and stuff). That’s the worst place to put a clock. Right behind the teacher. But then I wonder if it would be worse if students would constantly turn around if the thing was at the end of the room.

Grammar was on the schedule that day so we were sitting there, looking at a sheet of recycled paper that asked us to form sentences about what we noticed the most about the local people here aka Germans.  Ten minutes later we were asked to read our answers out loud.

“People drink lots of coffee”, someone said because we were not supposed to say that it is actually beer that people drink here the most. That would have been too inappropriate for class.

“People go on demonstrations a lot.”

“People are very quiet on the trains”, said a Columbian classmate of mine, putting a look of surprise on the professor’s face.

“People strike here a lot.”

Yup, strikes. Strikes are actually very common here and they are normal, too. A couple of hours before class while I was getting on campus by bus, I talked to my Russian classmate Tanya. I assume that we were complaining about what long ways we had until we reached campus in the district of Lankwitz. This is where I told her about strikes.

“Just wait until April or so, when the public transport here gets on a strike. This is gonna be a fun way to get here then.”

She asked me why it was such a normal thing here for workers to go on a strike on a regular basis, and with a smile that was somewhat made up of irony and sarcasm at the same time I said: “Democracy, Tanyusha, it is all about the ‘democracy’ we have here. Welcome to Germany.”

It’s true. Germany sees herself as quite democratic and for those of you who are willing to get into an argument about that, starting to search for the exact definition of democracy and trying to see whether it fits our political believes and practices here, let us just say that in Germany people have lots of freedoms some of which seem strange to bystanders like my friend Tanya.

Let’s look at the strikes for example. In Germany pretty much everyone goes on a strike. Doctors, pilots, flight attendants. janitors who won’t let anyone enter the school as a sign of protest and even students. Yes, high school students went on a strike a few years ago because of the final exams. Guess something did not suit them about them and in this country, no matter who you are, if something doesn’t suit you, you shall stand up for it.

I remember when I was younger and attending German school, I had an ethics teacher who was something between a Goth and a Punk. She wore torn, skinny jeans, her clothes were mostly black or had some strange patterns and she had an asymmetrical hair cut her hair being black with green or blue or pink extensions in them. Doesn’t look like a professional pedagogue, some of you may say but it was allowed to dress that way in school and in my memory we respected her quite a lot even despite such a dress up. Speaking of dress ups, the high school graduation classes in Berlin organize a so-called ‘motto week’. Students come up with a motto for each day of the week and dress every day according to the motto. Well, this year one of the motto’s was ‘prostitutes and souteneurs’ followed by themes like childhood heroes. Yes, exactly. You read it right. According to the photos I got to see, they actually did this. Girls dressed up as prostitutes and guys as pimps, went to school that way and it was totally fine because of freedom of expression and stuff and then, it was just a motto by some innocent high school students.  Whether bystanders were comfortable with staring at girls dressed like prostitutes while on the bus or anywhere else in public? Who cares, eh?!

So, dear international students and other expats, the next time certain behavior of the locals here confuses you and you wonder why that is, the answer is most likely democracy, or for the argumentative ones among you, the freedom of the individual.


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