A Tramp Abroad: Observations of a Former Expat and Frequent Traveler in German-speaking Europe

As I find myself rediscovering many aspects of daily life in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, I can’t help but think of Mark Twain, who wrote so masterfully about his travels in Germany and Europe in A Tramp Abroad (1880, translated into German as “Bummel durch Europa,” including his essay on “The Awful German Language”). As I was zooming along the autobahn in my leased Peugeot the other day, the same thoughts entered my mind that occur to me when I motor across the vast deserts of the American West: How did people do this before there were cars, trains, planes, and the Internet?

Mark Twain’s mode of travel was certainly much slower, giving him a lot of time to contemplate the culture and sights he was experiencing. Mr. Clemens wrote with paper and pen. I’m writing on my laptop. He exaggerated and invented things at times. I may also exaggerate for effect, but I’ll try not to invent. Like me, Twain in A Tramp Abroad is no longer seeing Europe for the first time. “[A Tramp Abroad] has not the fresh frolicsomeness of the Innocents Abroad; it is Europe revisited, and seen through eyes saddened by much experience of tables d’hôte, old masters, and traveling Americans…” – William Dean Howells in The Atlantic.

That said, here are some of my own observations and rediscoveries, colored by long experience.

  • Bicycles. In Germany and much of Europe das Fahrrad is a daily mode of transportation. From grandmothers to little kids, you’ll see people pedaling to the market, to work, to the park, or just out for a tour. Almost everyone owns a bicycle and uses it often, both for pleasure and for basic transport. As a mere pedestrian, one learns quickly to stay out of the bike lane in Germany. Even in tiny Burghausen, Bavaria (pop. 18,000) I almost got run down by a bicycle rider while walking in the downtown shopping area. In more hectic Berlin the bike riders often come out of nowhere, like a Porsche passing you on the autobahn. German towns and cities are laid out with bikes in mind. They have bike lanes and bike paths. A car is only needed for bigger shopping expeditions. Most American communities are built with cars in mind; bike riders (and pedestrians) are usually an afterthought.
Munich bike

Munich, like most German towns and cities, is a very bike-friendly place.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

  • Renewable energy. When you drive across the German landscape, it becomes strikingly apparent that Germany is much more serious about renewable energy than the United States and many other nations. Wind turbines are everywhere. So are solar arrays – in a country that has far fewer sunny days than most of the US, and certainly fewer than in Nevada, where I live. Yes, you’ll see wind turbines and solar arrays from time to time in the US, but not nearly as often as in Germany. What’s wrong with this picture? Currently Germany has achieved a level of about 30 percent renewable energy production, and it is striving to increase the rate of renewable energy production – the so-called Energiewende. (Austria is a renewable world leader, with 62 percent, mostly from hydroelectric.) A recent news article announced that on Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 2:00 pm, renewables supplied nearly all of Germany’s domestic electricity demand at that time. In stark contrast, the US now gets a measly 4.1 percent of its power from wind energy. In 2015 solar (voltaic and thermal) accounted for just under 5 percent of electrical power generation in the USA, most of that from voltaic panels. Geothermal, found mostly in the western US, now contributes only a negligible 0.31 percent of American electricity production. Not counting hydroelectric (an endangered power source with increasing drought), the USA is still below 10 percent in renewable power generation. Wind and solar energy in the United States remains a largely untapped source of electricity, while Germany advances in renewables versus fossil fuels.
  • Toilets and the disabled. First of all, Europeans sensibly avoid euphemisms like “restroom.” You ask “Wo ist die Toilette?” and go there. Sometimes you will see “WC” (for “water closet”) on signs. But Germany and Austria are very often the land of “pay to pee.” Other than in a restaurant or at the airport, it is rare to find a toilet where you don’t have to either tip an attendant or insert a coin (usually 50 euro cents) to use the facility. But another common barrier is the fact that often in a restaurant or cafe, you have to go up or down a staircase to get to the toilets. If you have any disability that prevents you from climbing up or down stair steps, or makes it difficult, then German/Austrian restaurants are not the place to be. Elevators are also more rare than in the US and, despite improvements, Germany and Austria in general are not the most barrier-free places for the disabled, or even for moms pushing a baby carriage.
WC and stairs

The sign says it all: You have to go down the stairs to get to the toilets.
PHOTO: Cheryl Flippo

  • Driving style. I just wrote about my recent autobahn experiences, but I’d like to add a few comments on the German style of driving versus the American style. We can start with gradual versus sudden. German drivers in my experience tend to do things quickly and with little warning. When they pass you, they zip back into your lane with what seems like only centimeters to spare. They barely slow down when approaching a red traffic light, then brake hard just before the light. I’m not complaining. I’m merely pointing out facts that drivers from North America need to know. It’s the GERMAN WAY and you’re not going to change it, so just get used to it. The car that just passed you and cut in front is not doing it to piss you off. Drivers do that all the time. It’s the GERMAN WAY. – There is something that does irritate me: German drivers who don’t know what a lane marker means. These characters seem to be rather casual about staying in their lane, and that’s a problem in a place where the lane is often narrow and the speeds very high. I’m getting used to it, but lane violators still get on my nerves.
  • Music on the radio. One of the many things I like about Germany is the musical selection on the radio. Turn on your car or home radio in Germany and you’ll hear mostly international (English-language) songs with some German now and then, but with a variety and range that includes everything from Sinatra to Lady Gaga, jazz to folk music. Radio in the US is usually a station that broadcasts only a certain genre of music – with little variety. This station has country, that one the latest pop hits, the other ’80s or ’70s music, another classic, or big band. In Germany you’re likely to hear all of those from the same station in the span of an hour. And if you prefer, there are also German Sender offering traditional German music, be it Schlager or Volksmusik. Yes, there are some German radio stations that broadcast mostly classical or German music, but those are the exceptions. Of course, today you can even listen to music from your smart phone, but I like getting that mix of news and music found on a typical German radio station. News on the radio? Rarely heard in America any more.

Mark Twain or anyone else living in his time could never have imagined any of the items mentioned above. If you really think about it, we are spoiled rotten. We take a lot for granted in this modern world, but there are still many differences between the American way and the German way, even if fewer than when Samuel Clemens was a tramp abroad.


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