Monday, February 17, 2014

Berlin - Where They Do Things Differently

Just before the beginning of the Winter Olympics there was a barrage of tweets from journalists arriving in Sochi about the conditions they'd encountered including unfinished hotel rooms and toxic water supplies. Most of the complaints directed at the Russian's preparations for the games seemed justified, but one in particular caught my attention because while many might think it was a problem specific to Sochi, it is not unusual to see this in other countries too – the request that you do not flush toilet paper down the toilet, but rather place it in the bin provided.

The first time I came across this sign while travelling in Europe, I have to say it made me cringe. It doesn't seem particularly hygienic, not to mention that some poor person has to empty the bins, but I guess it’s because the water pressure is so low that putting any tissue in the toilet is likely to cause a blockage. For Americans, in particular, used to high water pressure, instructions like this may seem distasteful but, as they say, when in Rome……

Travel is supposed to broaden the mind and it’s always worth being aware that things you take for granted in your country may not be the same elsewhere. This was brought home to me on my recent trip to Berlin when I made the following unexpected discoveries:

           1. You have to pay to use public bathrooms. Even in some bars there would be someone sitting outside the bathroom entrance to collect the 0,50 euro fee. So never go out without some small change.

            2. Shops are only allowed to open for four Sundays a year – which could be rather a shock to anyone who likes to spend their Sunday at the mall - so make you sure you get your shopping in on Saturday – especially food. Personally, this is one rule I’d like to see brought back elsewhere – do we really need to be able to shop seven days a week? Don’t retail workers deserve to have Sundays off too?

           3. Jay-walking is illegal. Yes, I know it’s technically illegal elsewhere, but it’s actually enforced in Berlin to such an extent that you can be standing at a crossroad with not a car in sight and there will be a group of people waiting patiently for the light to change so they can cross! Decide to flout this rule in front of others (but with no police in sight) and you will be looked at as if you have just committed some grievous crime.

            4. Graffiti – it’s everywhere: on the remains of the Wall, apartment buildings, stations, doors and even cars and vans. Some of it is the work of artists, but much seems to be the work of anyone with a spray paint can. Unlike in other European cities, little effort seems to be made to remove the latter and you can actually take a tour of the best graffiti sites!    

           5. Cash rules! Don’t assume you can use your credit/debit card everywhere – lots of shops and restaurants don’t accept them. Maybe this is why Germans seems to have fared better economically during the recession – less credit means less personal debt to deal with if times turn tough, especially given that the majority of people in Germany rent their homes rather than buy so also don’t have large mortgages to deal with.

With globalization an ever-increasing trend it’s easy to assume that one city’s customs will be much like another. After all, nowadays, it seems like there is a McDonalds on every corner wherever you go so, apart from the language, how different can they be? However, the joy of travel is not only to see the sights, but also to learn at least a little about the way other people live.  And if some of those ways don’t match your expectations? Well, that should just give you a better appreciation for what you have at home. 

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