The One Exception to the German Punctuality Rule

Have you ever heard about German punctuality? You surely have. Swiss people may have the best watches, but it´s the Germans who are recognized worldwide for always being extremely on time.

As a newcomer, one of the first things you’ll get told by anyone who tries helping you blending in is to get yourself a planner, a large wall calendar or at least  to master how to use your smartphone’s notes function. Here paper and pen still hold a special place, and almost everyone still has handwriting that puts your ordinary scribbles to shame. Seriously, you will feel less cool while taking notes at a meeting or handing a napkin with your number to someone.) But why would you need all this? Simple, because Germans plan ahead, the serious kind of ahead. It is completely normal to make an appointment three weeks in advance to go to the movies with someone. If that doesn’t come as enough of a shock to you, I recently attended a culture-related seminar where I found out, on average, Germans’ furthest scheduled social event (this is confirmed and written down in the planner) goes as far ahead as 150 days. Meanwhile, the rest of us don´t even know what we will have for dinner tonight.

Of course all this is just “average”, “common”, “normal” and all those nice terms that work great when we are trying to forget diversity exists, that pretty much every individual is as complex as the universe and that, more often than not, it is the exception what makes the rule. Speaking of which, there is this thing in Germany that epitomizes the greatest exception to the German punctuality legend: Deutsche Bahn (DB).

Complaining and making dark jokes about the Deutsche Bahn, the Berlin based biggest rail operator in Europe, is a national pastime. Given the fact that the most popular ways to directly go from one of the many small cities and towns (of which Germany has plenty of) to another, are by car, by bus or by train; it is no surprise that every year, DB transports around two billion passengers.

The size and appearance of a city’s central station (Hauptbahnhof) says a lot about the place. This is the station in Hannover. PHOTO: LauraV.

The first times you get to ride a train will be exciting, so I sincerely hope you make your debut in a big station from a big city, full of shops and restaurants, where the normal, odd opening hours do not apply; there are at least two stories and a lot of crisscrossing stairs crowned by high ceilings and sometimes quite cool advertising everywhere. If you come from a country, like I do, where the closest references to a passenger’s train are the Harry Potter movies, your first encounters with the Deutsche Bahn will be quite a thrill. For more on this check the post Train Travel in Germany.

It will take more than one trip for you to unravel the way the stations are built, the direction in which you’re supposed to take the stairs, when it is OK for you to take the elevator or where to find the information offices (and when it’s appropriate for you to approach them). The first times you buy a ticket you will even want to do it in person, after a little while, you will get out of your way to get your tickets as easily as possible and the initial excitement will turn into fear of going into bankruptcy. Long story short, the list of things to do and to learn to travel with the DB like a pro is quite long and you still have to take into account the details that will appear once you find yourself actually riding the train.

Hamburg’s train station may not the biggest or the coolest, but it’s good enough to start with. PHOTO: LauraV.

So far it sounds exciting and interesting. Why then is complaining about it such a thing? Well, first, because unless you get lucky, most of the tickets you will have to buy will be pretty pricey; so the first thing Germans like to whine about is how expensive it is to go from A to B and they get a kick out of making price comparisons, who got it cheaper? Who paid the most? How much has the price increased since the last time you traveled the same route? And then comes the core and holy grail of all complaints about DB: its unbelievable and sometimes offensive lack of punctuality. With Deutsche Bahn, to depart and arrive on time is the celebrated exception rather than the rule. At any rate, whatever you do and no matter how many times DB’s tardiness has gotten you into trouble, the wisest recommendation is to find yourself each and every time at the right platform at the right time because it’s the traveler whom adjusts to DB and not the other way around.

The good news? It works as a great ice breaker! Next time you are struggling to start a conversation with your new German acquaintances simply say something negative about your latest experience with the Deutsche Bahn and a chorus of sympathy will fill the room. It never fails.