Comparing Germany and France and…

There was a time when I thought certain practices and cultural quirks were uniquely German (or Austrian or Swiss), but as I traveled around Europe more and more, I realized that some “German” things are actually European things. The fear of a draft or breeze, for instance, or tense and aggressive driving, and other cultural traits that differ from those in North America.

And yet there are also some interesting differences among the people in the various European countries. I was just in France for about a week. (And mostly without internet access in a remote area, which explains why this blog is a day late.) My wife and I drove across much of Germany, but as soon as we crossed the German-Belgian border (which is barely marked, by the way) I noticed a difference in driving styles on the autobahn (or whatever the Belgians call it). Since, unlike in Germany, there is a speed limit on freeways (130 km/h, or 80 mph) in Belgium (and most European countries), you don’t have to worry about someone suddenly coming out of nowhere in the left lane, doing literally 100 mph (161 km/h) as they zoom past you like you were standing still. In Germany you really need to look twice before venturing into the fast lane!

But I will save the topic of driving styles for a different blog in the future. There are many other differences, such as the use of credit cards and checks in Germany and France.

Although credit card use in Germany has increased over the last decade or so, most Germans still prefer cash or the EC bank card to pay for goods and services. (Personal checks, just like those in the US, are common in France, but unheard of in Germany. It is very difficult, if not next to impossible, to cash a personal check in Germany – from France or the US.) In France it’s rarely a problem to pay with Visa or Master Card in restaurants, grocery stores, shops and even at a weekly open-air market. In Germany you should always check to see if credit cards are accepted! They are the exception, not the rule.

Even the German railway (DB) did not not begin accepting credit card payments until 1992. I remember having to go to Strasbourg in France, near the German border, in order to buy round trip rail tickets from Germany to Paris with a credit card before 1992. Today even the conductors (Zugbegleiter) on DB trains have a portable credit card machine to accept payment. I was also able to use a credit card to pay for gasoline on the autobahn (at the cashier inside; I saw no pay-at-the-pump credit card machines). But credit card acceptance is much greater in France than in Germany.

One reason could be the German mindset and the German word for debt. The German noun “Schuld” means debt, but it also means guilt. Especially since the horrible hyperinflation of the 1920s, Germans have long been reluctant to incur any debt, even for things that Americans barely think twice about. The ongoing mortgage crisis in the US, Britain, Ireland and Spain did not and could not happen in Germany. (Only about 40 percent of Germans own their own home, compared to over 60 percent in the US, Spain and the UK.) But many German banks were hurt by the mortgage crisis indirectly, through international loans and derivatives.

And now we come to the delicate subject of urination. One does not have to spend much time in Germany before discovering that it is the land of “pay to pee.” On our trip to France and back (a total of four days by car), my wife and I together probably laid out about $8.00 just for “Pinkeln” (the German word for going wee-wee) — all of it in Germany. In France we did not have to pay a single euro cent for bathroom breaks. The only place in Germany you can escape the “pay to pee” rule is at airports. Even in train stations and department stores you have to pay to answer nature’s call. I have been in bars or restaurants in Germany that even charged paying customers to use the “WC” (the facilities). Luckily, this is still rare.

On the autobahn and in train stations, this “pay to pee” business (and it is a business) often happens at a turnstile that requires you to deposit 70 euro cents (87 US cents), or a euro at train stations, to enter. On the autobahn, you get a ticket that is also worth a 50-euro-cents credit in the restaurant or for other purchases. In most other cases, you leave a “tip” of 50 euro cents (62 US cents) with the attendant (usually an older lady, but sometimes a man), who supposedly keeps the toilets clean. This can rankle when the facilities aren’t really that clean. In fact, I have refused to pay at toilets that were especially unpleasant. On the other hand, one must marvel at the waterless (and odorless) urinals found in Germany (supposedly invented by a German).

This “pay to pee” phenomenon is part of the European attitude that customers must pay for products or services – products or services that are considered part of the price of doing business in the USA. No US company would dare charge customers 17 cents a minute to call them, but German and other European companies do just that. Although they do exist, free 800-numbers are still rare in Germany, and most businesses charge for calls to get repairs or even to just make inquiries. It has only been in recent years that restaurants in Germany no longer charge extra for the bread they put on the table in a basket. Customers used to pay for each slice of bread they consumed. It is a big cultural difference that makes Americans think calling a business should not cost anything, while Germans accept a charge of 14 euro cents a minute to do so (as do the French).

Okay, those were some of my comparisons. Do you have others? I’d love to have you leave a comment if you do.

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