Saturday, May 22, 2010

Germany, round two (Hospitality Nationality)

        German Hospitality…round two.
Based on two recent trips—one to Aachen, Koln, and Munster and one to Bavaria--I reflect upon some similarities and some differences in “German” hospitality practices.

In both regions, I noticed that urban dwellers are far more rule-oriented than country dwellers. Just try to return a defective rental car after driving it only 3 km from the Munich airport and not wanting to withstand the usual return process and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t even think about crossing a deserted street in Dusseldorf if the light indicates not to walk. There’s no negotiating and no individualism. And no one seems to mind. You walk into the modern art museum in Munich, pay your fee, and inquire about a “plan.” Then, you’re sent all the way across a wide lobby to the information desk. Why, you ask, can’t the ticket taker give you a plan? Because that’s what the information desk worker does. And so on. As an American, this attention to and complacency with regimen is both baffling and irritating. But I don’t think that Germans intend that at all. In fact, following the rules seems to be a great equalizer. Their Ten Commandments mentality—with more prohibitions than prescriptions—applies to everyone. Foreign and native, rich and poor, old and young. Everybody is expected to follow the rules. Outside of the big cities, however, I didn’t find this to be the case. There, hospitality relied on more personal interaction. As such, this was rather hit and miss. Upon reflection, there’s something to be said for codes unless you want to rely on the goodness of human nature, which I don’t.

In both regions, we were delighted with eating “family style.” Although both my husband and I prefer only our own company when eating out, we often enjoy eating family style in a pub (although not on cruise ships). You see, there’s no pressure in German beer houses to adopt a new best friend for the duration of your meal. You talk to someone else at your table, or you don’t. Either way, your pig’s knuckle with come succulently prepared with a big knife impaled in its crisp skin. Either way, your beer glass will enjoy eternal refills. But if it suits you—or the others at your table—to converse occasionally, all the better. At a very local beer house in Munich, we were seated at a long table with a placard that read, “Walter, Ulli, and friend.” Mid-way through our meal, the gentleman next to me introduced himself as “Ulli” and identified “Walter” and “friend” seated around him. To say that Ulli is a regular is understating his commitment to the establishment. He is a daily customer and a paragon of hospitality, regaling us with his drinking stories but respecting our privacy when our dinner arrived. He reminds me of all those Great Books in which travelers are welcomed to foreign tables and entertained with stories but not badgered with questions.

In the northern region, people were friendlier. They were more curious about why I was traveling to their area. They were more tolerant with my language limitations. They seemed much happier, more content. But perhaps, this is not a regional distinction but an economic one. That is, perhaps, it’s because Munster is not so much a tourist city as are the Bavarian countryside towns and Munich. Ironically, the less touristy places afforded the higher the level of hospitality.

Go to Germany...
...for the food.  I don’t know why German cuisine isn’t raved about. It’s delicious and hearty!
...for the scenery. The Bavarian Alps,as just one example, are gorgeous—even in the cold rain.
...for the culture. You’ll improve your sense of history, art, and religion.
...for the people.  They may not be "howdy" friendly, but they are a generous and gracious folk.
Go to Germany...for their brand of hospitality.

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"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf