Back in the days when I was a pupil, I spent some weeks as an exchange student in Cambridge, like many other German kids who stay in host families around the world to broaden their horizon and sharpen their language skills. I remember the time in England fondly, but also with quite a bit of amusement. Living with an English working class family taught me a lot about myself and my German lifestyle. The differences were at times astonishing.
“Hello, I am Mrs Basser, and this is my microwave” is not the usual thing German hosts will say to you upon arrival. To be fair, it’s also not what you would expect in a typical English house, nevertheless it was my first introduction to my host family. The microwave played an important role in the everyday life of the Basser family, and while the food warmed up in it were mainly ready-made TV dinners, the family was very keen on spending mealtimes together, and this was a lovely chance to train my English. I learned a tough lesson: My English language skills from school enabled me to discuss the British monarchy, but asking for a fork was quite tricky.
Tea time, dinner or supper, however you call it, won’t be in the afternoon. It will be in the evening, in some families as late as 8pm. Dinner often isn’t warm, it might be bread based, while lunch usually is a bigger meal, and always cooked. Breakfast can be quite sweet, with jam and rolls. Occasionally you will be invited for “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) in the afternoon around 4pm, which is a sweet snack. Don’t be put off by the word “coffee”, you may ask for tea as well. Socialising at mealtime is as big a deal in Germany as it was in the Basser family in Cambridge.
To fit right in, take care to follow the lead of the people around you. It’s common in Germany to not sit down on the table before the others do, and before you dig in, wait for everybody to arrive at the table, sit down and wish each other a healthy appetite (“Guten Appetit”). It’s considered rude to start eating before this ritual has happened.
Making friends around the globe: The perks of modern living
The world has changed since my first time in England. The planet seems to grow closer together and that gives many more chances to visit new places as a house guest. Websites like Couchsurfing or AirBnB connect people around the globe and create direct contact. Traveling as an exchange student has become very commonplace. Your chances of an overnight stay in Germany grow, even if Brexit might reduce this development a little.
If you are invited, don’t worry to take the offer. When Germans say “You’re welcome”, they mean it. On the other hand, the term “Fühl dich ganz wie zu Hause” (feel like being at home) shouldn’t be taken literally. As an overnight guest, respect privacy and show appreciation for the effort that your hosts are making.
You can start on the right footing by bringing a little gift when you arrive. This can be a box of chocolate, a bottle of wine or simply some flowers – or even better: Something that’s typical for the region you come from. Unlike in England, the gift will very likely be opened right away when you hand it over, to be shown around and praised.
If your hosts have kids, it’s great to bring a little something for them as well. A nice gesture would be to take your hosts out for a meal and pay the bill, although this might be slightly over the top for an AirBnB arrangement where you actually pay for your stay anyway.
Just like in Britain, it’s considered good taste to ask before you help yourself to the content of the fridge, the coffee maker, toothpaste, shampoo, telephone or internet. If you need something, just ask. Most of the time you will be offered all kinds of support – a towel, for example, or slippers. The latter is important, because in most German families it’s common to take off your shoes when entering the house.
Visiting the bathroom places you in the middle of a cultural minefield. While in England the discussion between male and female flatmates usually covers the question whether or not the toilet seat is up or down, Germany is far ahead in terms of gender equality. Sitting down while peeing is considered good manners for men as well as women. Less “collateral damage” and better aiming are among the reasons for this demand, and you will find signs asking you to sit down in many toilets across the nation. My good friend Gundhild pairs this with a toilet seat made of sharp NATO wire and an assortment of books and magazines next to the loo. To clarify: The barbwire is embedded in a plastic seat and won’t leave you scarred for life, but the message shows the vigor in which the “Sitzpinkler” (seated peeing) discussion is being pursued in the country.
If you see a window wiper in the shower, use it to dry the shower wall after yourself. If you have long hair, take care to leave none of it in the drain. Not that this is very different from English customs, but Germans can be as obsessive about it as they are about punctuality: Being late causes irritation, but also being too early can be considered rude, as the preparations for your visit might not have finished properly. The focus is on the word “properly”. Doing things the right way is important for Germans. (And yes, that is a stereotype. It doesn’t matter much to me, for example, but better be safe than sorry.)
This mindset can be a bit of a hurdle when it comes to conversation. Most Germans know at least some English, most younger people have learned it in school. Unlike Scandinavians, who naturally switch to English even within an ongoing conversation if they notice a non-native speaker joining the group, Germans might take a bit longer – making mistakes is frowned upon. Don’t take it personal, and if you make an effort to learn a bit of German, you will make the process much easier for everybody.
In general: Watch the lifestyle of your hosts and try to adapt, as you would do in any other country on the planet. To leave with a great impression, don’t forget to say thank you – and tell right away if anything broke. It is a good idea to offer your help when you see that there’s work in the kitchen or in the garden, and it’s great if on the day of your departure you undress your bed and leave the bedsheets in the laundry basket, or at least on a pile next to the bed.
The most important bit is to enjoy your visit, though. Happy traveling!