Moving to a foreign country is normal nowadays. But a change of environment can lead to a type of helplessness, a ‘culture shock’, brought on by small deviations from what one considers the norm. So when I moved back to Bremen from the US, the cultural differences caused me to find myself in the midst of a very intimidating but, ultimately, eye-opening situation.
Before I begin this cynical journal, I would like to tell the readers that living in Bremen is great. I love walking along the Weser on a beautiful spring day, I love the chaos of the central station after midnight and I love my university. It is important to say that there are curious and strange things about any place on this wonderful planet. Germany and, specifically, Bremen, is not an oddity by any means. That being said, let us delve into the ‘Kultur der Bremer’.
Panic at the Grocery Store
The first time I experienced the ultimate realization that I was, in fact, no longer protected by Old Glory, I was at the grocery store after arriving in Bremen. Standing in line at Penny, after staring at my phone for a second, which is not considered rude in the US but will get a German literally pushing you towards the front of the line, there was this moment of complete confusion. Not only wasn’t there anyone standing next to me, smiling, asking me if I wanted plastic of paper but the lady in line behind me was shrugging at the cashier as I waited for someone to bag my groceries. After what felt like an eternity of agonizing cluelessness, I finally realized that there was no such thing as a grocery-bagger. So I laughed. That, however, was as much a bad idea as it was not bagging my groceries at the speed of light. I was met with extreme impatience in the form of a cringed forehead and rolling eyes. “Sie müssen sich jetzt aber mal ein bisschen beeilen.” Having finally come back to my senses after being electrified by the fact that I was, indeed, in another country, with different structures and habits, I ran out of the store in a panic.
The grocery store ordeal actually turned out to be a real life and death problem when I realized that Germans use pretty much any excuse to get out of work. We have holidays in the US too but we don’t just shut down all the businesses and go on a drunken ‘Bollerwagen’ tour. Come on. Needless to say, I was without food for a while until I realized that there was hope. ‘Rossmann’ at the central station. I ran over to this beautiful oasis of life and stood in awe of the beautiful shining lights exuding from the top of the stairs. Basking in the glorious realization that I did not have to live on soy sauce and curry-ketchup for another day, I walked in. Blinded by the beauty of stocked shelves full of cosmetics and other non-edibles, I did not realize that there was just about one lonely bag of chips in the food aisle. Even the protein bars were gone. Who gets desperate enough to eat protein bars? There was just about nothing left to be eaten. Through my peripherals I spotted a man who had his eyes set on the bag of chips. And in a survival-panic I ran over, grabbed the bag and selfishly made my way out of the store after paying the ridiculous price of 3€ for a small bag of chips.
My Best Friend Google Maps and the Aspirin Mafia
Next problem: Finding my way home. Whenever I was close to the central station I knew that I was somewhere within the vicinity of the apartment I had one day dropped my suitcases off at. I did not have GPS at the time, so I was left fending for myself. I must say this one thing: Navigating in Bremen is pretty much impossible! This is not uncommon for the US but the place I lived was nicely arranged like a compass. 805 South 250 East. That was an actual address. Compasses are pretty much useless in Bremen, though. So I asked a nice lady for help. She said, “Sure, all you have to do is go down the street, take a right, then a left by the red garbage can, then head up the road until you see a dog peeing on a post. After that you have to turn the post. A portal will come up and once you enter it…” Well, something like that. So I guess I should use this for a shout-out to my best friend Google Maps, which has led me to so many places, most of the time making sure I would not have to take a train back home from Poland at night.
The first few months after arriving in Bremen I experienced several other small culture shocks here and there. For example, the impossible task of getting medicine. In the US, you buy your Aspirin in huge bottles of approximately 800 pills inside of the grocery store. The appropriateness of that aside, I was looking for exactly that. When I got to the grocery store and asked them for the medicine aisle, the lady stocking shelves looked at me as if she had just seen a ghost. “Wir verkaufen keine Medizin!” What? – I mean I knew that Germans were stricter on the use of pharmaceuticals but…? I had totally forgotten that Germans have these intricate places called ‘Apotheken’, where they stack all the medicine, including the stuff you can buy in stores in the US. So I took a walk over to the next pharmacy to pick up my much needed Aspirin, but the lady working there would not just hand me the stuff. “Nur zweimal am Tag! Nicht länger benutzen!” She ended up listing all of the negative side effects which were waiting for me if I even considered taking this insanely dangerous drug for longer than a week. I was pretty sure that I was going to be yelled at and thrown in jail if I ever came back to this place. I felt like I had just bought ketamine from a really desperate veterinarian who just needed the cash.
The Air Conditioning Craze and Channelling Kafka
And can I just put this question in the room: Why don’t Germans believe in the disbursement of cool air? Exotic devices like air conditioning systems are hard to come by. I first noticed this on my birthday in August, when I decided to go to the ‘Viertel’ to blow some money. It was one of those hardly-bearable humid days where all smell lingers and accumulates to become a monster sphere of stink that locks its phage-like claws into every fiber of your being. The ride from ‘Domsheide’, which entails no more than 3 minutes, chosen as an alternative to walking primarily based on the belief that there would be air-conditioning on the tram, seemed like an eternity. The sweat was dripping from my face as if I had just ran a 5-day marathon. People were incredibly uncomfortable, all of us with a sudden, heightened awareness that we were, in fact, no more than biological creatures. Humanity in full bloom. Exposed. Connected, however, by the ultimate wish for freedom from the tram of hell.
Now let’s move on: Die Bremer. One night, walking past the central station at around 11 p.m., I noticed some screaming, which, naturally, made me concerned for my fellow human being. As I could not locate the source, a nice punk-rocker approached me and told me that I should not worry. “Er schreit hier nachts immer rum!” Somewhat relieved that I did not have to call an ambulance, I walked on, pondering on what had happened. People in the US would not have tolerated a screaming man in the middle of the night. The cops would have been there within minutes, forcefully removing him from this public place and dumping him in the drunk tank, regardless of whether or not he was drunk. Public offices are very different as well. Bremen is a bureaucratic nightmare. Can we all please admit that Kafka was right about everything? And, furthermore, contrary to my expectations, I have to say this: People in Bremen are not easily impressed. I honestly thought I could get by with my cool accent and oozing American culture. But no! ‘Die Bremer sind nicht beeindruckt!’ Bremen being as multicultural as it is, you have to walk around on stilts, juggling snow globes if you want a Bremer to be impressed by you. Nobody cares. So you might as well just stop trying.
Needless to say and coming back to my little introductory apology in the beginning, Bremen is, in fact, quite shocking at first glance. However, people here are incredibly genuine. People will tell you the truth, regardless of how much it hurts. And more than anything, they will be kind and helpful, even if they reject your way of being. In this way Bremen has taught me to trust people, to open myself up and to embrace the crankiness, but to never, ever apologize for who I am. So thank you, Bremen!