Being “Normal”

Tonight I had dinner with a friend who has been living here in Germany for about as long as I have. We first met virtually through a Facebook post of a mutual friend and discovered we were both in Heidelberg. The commonalities continued when we talked on the phone for the first time. She was pregnant with twins and basically immobile, so we had time to chat. She had spent her high school years in my home town, went to the rival high school, attended the same university I did at the same time, and studied at the same university in England at the same time as my best friend. She also had a German husband and her son was close to Olivia’s age. Whenever we meet up, which due to our busy lives is not as often as I would like, it feels a bit like I found someone who “gets” me.

After years and years abroad you tend to forget what it is like to talk to someone with the same or similar background to you, not only in the sense of being American, but also speaking to someone who grew up around the same time and has the same pop cultural references, for example. K. gets the jokes about Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock. She knows what a Trapper Keeper is. These may seem like small things, but no matter how long you live in a particular country, you will never have that same history with the people who grew up there. 

That leads to part of our discussion for the evening. We both have kids in school here. Many of us have written about the trials and tribulations of having your kids in German schools in our posts. Of course there are many things that are great about German schools. But it feels like every week something comes up that makes me feel like a foreigner all over again. K. and I often share (bitch about) these things when we meet up. We both are married to German men, and they seem to be quite similar in their approach to life. But back to the school situation. We were talking about school activities and the need to do things “right,” i.e., to have the right equipment or bring the right thing or do what is expected. This cultural subtext is always complicated. No matter how hard you try, you can always do it wrong. Your kid might have the wrong shoes, or the wrong pen, or the wrong lunch, or the wrong clothes for a particular activity. Whatever you thought was the perfect approach to a particular event or situation, you could be just wrong. And believe me, someone will tell you about it.

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Having the right outfit is important

Let me preface this by telling you that many of the kids in Heidelberg and surroundings are not German. I would say about half of Livi’s class are foreigners of one kind or another. K. was telling me about her experience at an Advent baking event that she volunteered for at school. She said she tries to volunteer for events where the rules are clear. It is always good to know what is expected of you. The parents (moms) who were helping were told by the teacher to bring cookie dough to the baking event. When one mother asked the teacher what kind was expected, she said “normaler Teig” — can you imagine how that can be misinterpreted? What’s your version of normal cookie dough? K. got it right (she brought the kind that you can cut cookies out of). But two tables of the bunch had dough for Vanille Kipferl. Oops! Been there. She and I have had lots of discussions about being the annoying mom who asks the teacher a million questions to make sure you know what you should bring/do/tell your kid.

Now the world isn’t ending if you bring the wrong thing, especially when it comes to cookie dough. And there are no real lessons to be learned here. You, too, can be the annoying parent who asks a million questions. I know that I had a discussion or two with our Hort when I got reprimanded for not sending in a backpack for the vacation times. Apparently that is Standard. I politely told the Erzieher that standard is relative. My idea of what is great is going to be different than the average German’s. Over the years we’ve been told off for our kids’ choice of shoes (not having feste Schuhe for a field trip), their choice of clothing (Emma was always “boiling hot” and didn’t want to wear long pants when it was 20°. One Erzieherin told me in a very bossy voice that I would not be able to work if my child got sick from wearing shorts when it was only 20° out), their writing utensils (math must be done in fountain pen), and their lunches (peanut butter and jelly is unhealthy; didn’t you know that?).

Maybe there is a lesson. Don’t take it personally. Either stick to your guns or don’t. Follow the cultural rules you can live with and skip the rest. Just develop an awareness of the world around you. At this point, I feel like I’ve got in under control. That is, until the next school event.

3 thoughts on “Being “Normal”

  1. Sarah, its always fascinating to read your blog. I have few German friends, and even though i always prepare myself before my planned meeting or phone call with them , its always kind a rude awakening when you hear those sharp comments about things, we Americans need to either ignore or be polite about. My question is that how do you decipher in your interactions, (regardless of the context) whether a feedback from German is plainly, “matter of fact, abide by rules” or “self righteousness” or dare i say “discriminatory”. Do you ever try to share your reasoning and make a case about something. Haven’t heard much about “German flexibility”.

    • I think it is not easy to decipher the interactions without experience. I know I still take things personally that I probably shouldn’t. And I am trying in my old 🙂 age to give people the benefit of the doubt. Disrimination is another topic altogether. Can you give me an example? I really get pissed off by comments that I perceive as being derogatory to women, but I am a white woman who speaks German, so I can not immediately be identified as American. But hey, I don’t look like your average German either. What bothers me the most are two things: general unfriendliness and wariness about strangers and “belehren” — that is, people making those comments to teach me a lesson, or schooling someone. That drives me insane. I am perfectly willing to have a discussion about comments with people, especially if they are friends (and Germans are open to that). So call people out on those kind of comments if you aren’t sure. I would really say, “Hey, I don’t know how to take that. Am I just being American or were you judging/being rude…” Am I too far out on the limb here?

  2. Spot on with your observations and interpretation. I must confess, my interactions in Germany have been primarily as a tourist. Did i mention that i am asian american, so that always makes me stand out. I noticed that in East Germany (Lipzig) i had more people staring at me in supermarket, restaurant than Berlin and Munich. Its interesting that on one hand Germans like to be very private i.e. in social media, in their neighborhood but they don’t seem to have much care for other people’s private space whether thats public transportation, restaurants etc. Amazing how it can work both ways.Same thing with communication, they emphasize a hell of a lot on “politeness” use of Bitte etc but the actual content of speech is very direct. A good customer service that we take for granted in US is considered superficial in germany. Don’t get me wrong, i love the most attributes of Germany i.e. discipline, hard work, quality etc. but what bothers me a lot is indifference to even considering “alternates” “other solutions” or “inflexibility”.

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