Stereotypes of Germany such as beer, sausage, fast cars, and on-time trains are common. While these are true to a very large extent, there are many things that are so typically German and yet either not associated with the culture or not really known at all. Despite the plethora of meat dishes everywhere, bread is at least as important to the culture, maybe more. Technology and cities are well known in Germany, but the culture is also very bound up in nature and natural things. And while Italy and France are the summer destinations of note in Europe, Germans are consummate sun worshipers able to bask in a tiny patch of light even in the middle of winter.
Ask someone outside of Germany what food they associate with the country, sausage or schnitzel are most likely to come out of their mouth. Sure there are sausages specific to each town and region but the variety of bread is at least as much or more than the sausage. Bakeries are on nearly every corner here. There are often chains that have a central baker and send deliveries to dozen smaller counter shops across the town. They open early and are full most of the day. A normal bakery will have 3-4 fairly busy workers as well. They are also one of the few places that are open on a Sunday. This tells you how important bread is to the culture.
Linguistically this is pretty obvious as well. There is the concept of the standard roll. Each area of Germany has a different name for their local preferred style of bread roll. “Semmel” is a word I associate heavily with Hamburg(edit: as I have been informed by several people, Semmel is not from Hamburg. I have no clue why I have that association.) and “Weckle” as something from the south. Both of these can refer to the near ubiquitous “Brötchen”, which literally just means ‘little bread’. Different names for essentially the same object. A normal brötchen where I live is about the size of a fist and is crusty and hard on the outside and soft on the inside. It has a single cut across the top. This kind of thing is known by any traveler that has eaten a continental breakfast in Germany. Everything from jelly to nutella to meat and cheese can be put inside of one for breakfast. And these are just the standard rolls. Kaiserweckle are flatter and round with a spiral of cuts. Ciabattabrötchen resemble the Italian bread. And it goes on.
Sandwiches as mostly bread here. As my wife Ali has noticed, a sandwich (‘belegtes brötchen’, or literally ‘occupied little bread’) is mostly the roll with a slice of ham or cheese and maybe a piece of lettuce. The bread is the thing and usually the point. This is a contrast to the American sandwich which uses bread just mainly to keep your fingers out of the mustard. Slices are thin and the piles of sliced meat are high and topped with cheese.
Listen to German expats talk, those that have left Germany, and they complain mostly that they can’t get good bread anywhere. The American bread is too light and full of air as opposed to the solid German types. And with a bakery chain on every corner here each with its own particular recipes of bread, there is pretty much no chance that anywhere else will match the selection. Although not usually a part of the standard set of ideas about Germany, bread is something that is definitely an integral part of the culture.
Love of Nature
Germans are known for their technology and engineering prowess. The autobahns stretch across the landscape and trains speed between modernly rebuilt metropolises. This is the highly industrial vision of Germany. The accent and reputation is used to sell all manner of such things in American television. What is perhaps less known is the integration with nature that the German culture has.
I heard it said once that no one here cared about separating trash and having bottle deposits until it was publicized that not doing so would hurt the forests. Then everything started changing. Eco and saving the environment is now deep into the modern technical culture as well.
As you are speeding along on your high speed train, take a look out the window. Cities and towns are fairly compact and have very definite borders. It is normal for a high rise apartment building to be over the fence from a field that stretches off to the green hills. Agriculture and local farmland is still important to places, especially around Freiburg where the link to nature and the forest is even higher than perhaps elsewhere. The zoning laws help keep the farms and cities from mixing or crowding the other out. The side of effect of this is to keep population densities in the cities high enough for public transport and bike riding to remain viable. The last time I was home, my parents were showing me all of the new construction where there used to be just trees. So no more forest, just parking lots. I can’t even imagine that happening here. At least not without a protest.
Fresh air is something that is seemingly required in all times of the year. There is an obsession to having the outside and inside mixed. I see this as another sign of the linkage to nature that is subtle but common. Due to the density of buildings, gardens are rare. Balconies are loved and adorned with flower boxes. The space alongside trains where no one would want to live is usually converted into garden plots for purchase. Weekends, especially Sunday’s when no store is open, is prime time to go up into the forest and hike or sit outside by the lake. Yes, even in the winter if it is sunny.
Think of the sunny spots in Europe. Italy, Spain, Greece and the south of France probably come to mind. There is a good reason for that. There is tons of sun there especially in the summer. Germany is not known for its sun. Freiburg is well known in Germany as the sunniest place in the country. This is statistical measure you understand of hours of sunlight per year. Ok, I haven’t lived anywhere else in Germany for more than a few months, but I would not compare the sunniness we have here with Italy.
Winters are cold and windy and can be dark and dreary in Germany. This means that any sunlight is precious. You see this in the summer and it isn’t so noticeable. Yeah, it is nice out so people are out enjoying being outside (see Love of Nature above). It seems normal to be out when it is actually warm out. A lot of travelers, especially students, only see this time of year while they are backpacking through. When it starts getting cooler and darker is when it gets far more noticeable. On a cool windy fall day at a temperature that would make an Italian run for their coat, you will often see Germans in short sleeves sitting outside at cafes. It gets really noticeable as the shadows creep down. The tables in the shade are abandoned and only those in the sun have people. This remains true in the depths of winter, just add a fleece wrap to keep the chill off. Sunlight is still to be savored.