The week before Christmas, Alex and I took a Urlaub to Norwich, Großbritanien. I studied in Norwich for a semester in spring 2014, and Alex fell in love with the city after he visited me. Ever since then, he has been determined for us to return.
When I went to the U.K. for the first time, I was prepared to experience some Kulturschock. Some people tried to encourage me by pointing out that people in Norwich speak the same language, but I still experienced a plethora of cultural differences. Going back one-and-a-half years later, I encountered Kulturschock again, this time pulling from living in Germany as well as in the U.S.
When I had studied abroad in Norwich, the most (and perhaps only) frustrating thing about the culture was in fact, the language. Do English and American people speak the same language? To some degree, yes… until you get to British words and phrases like “boot” (trunk), “toilet” or "loo" (bathroom), “to have in or take away?” (for here or to go?), “pudding” (???). Oh, and don’t forget spelling (favourite, colour, realise, specialise, just to name a few). I was also told that the people in East Anglia have some of the thickest accents, hence I often had trouble understanding other people even when words were the same. For instance, I had a misunderstanding with a store clerk who didn’t comprehend the word oregano (he pronounced it or-ee-GAH-no rather than uh-RAY-guh-no…).
Returning to England, even after over a year without the pesky accents and vocabulary, I was confident that I would quickly pick back up on the language. After 4.5 months in Germany, I was eager to speak English without fail everywhere I went. I quickly realized, however, that my thinking was naïve. I could not understand half the people I talked to. For example, an employee at the movie theatre asked to see my cinema ticket. Accustomed to the term “movie ticket” and taken off-guard by very fast, thick speech, I had to ask three times for the employee to repeat her request before catching the word “ticket”. Whether ordering food or checking out (pronunciations of 80 and 18 sound the same), I was having a lot more trouble with the English than I had anticipated. At least in Germany, I can apologize and say, "Entshuldigung, mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut. Können Sie bitte langsamer sprechen?" A lack of fluency can’t bail me out in England!
It is coming knowledge that cars drive on the left in England, so that is no source of shock. However, Alex and I were taken aback by the heavy traffic. Despite Köln being the fourth-largest city in Germany with an urban population of more than 1 million and population density of about 2,600/km2, traffic doesn’t seem to be all that heavy. Sure, main streets are often full of cars, but traffic in Köln seems to move rather quickly and smoothly. On the other hand, Norwich, the fourth-largest city in the U.K., has a comparatively small population of around 200,000 but higher population density of about 3,400/km2. The traffic, however, is so much heavier than that in Köln. Driving in Norwich just seems more hectic, with confusing road patterns, overflowing parking garages that cause lines that disrupt traffic, and a greater quantity of buses (whereas much of Köln is serviced by the U-bahn). Nevertheless, I never cease to be surprised by British (and German) drivers giving the right away to pedestrians in crosswalks, even if they are a meter from stepping into the street.
Ins Kino gehen
Alex and I went to see Star Wars during our trip, and buying refreshments for the showing was a complete mess. First off, unlike in the States (or at least PA), you can not only buy alcohol at the movie theatre but take it into the movie with you. Wanting to make sure he could enjoy his beer with the film, Alex asked the cashier whether he could take it with him. We got a look that clearly said the employee thought we were stupid. It was also at this time that the cashier needed to see our “cinema tickets”, a request I needed to hear three times before realizing she wanted our movie tickets. Alex and I also got nachos and popcorn, which was even more of a fiasco; the cashier must have thought I was deaf, stupid, or both. Every theatre I’ve gone to in the States offers a very limited menu, and any add-ons (except for butter) are typically extra. So when I had the choice of cheese, salsa, and jalapeños, I picked one. The cashier looked at me dumbfounded and asked if that was it. Blushing, I said I hadn’t realized that you could pick more than one and opted for everything but the jalapeños. Accustomed to one type of popcorn in the States, I was again confused when the cashier asked me which of three flavors (said so quickly I only caught the word “salt”) we wanted. Misunderstanding her question of “Do you want X, Y, or salt?” for “Do you want salt?” (X and Y were said so quickly my mind excluded them), I answered, “yes.” More strange looks, and the cashier gave up and picked one (sweet?) for us. After entering the movie, the refreshment side of things got much easier. A notice during the previews asked patrons to please leave their trash at their seats, another big difference from U.S. theatres where you have to struggle to stuff popcorn containers and soft drink cups into overflowing receptacles.
There are plenty of differences between American, German, and English eating experiences, most notably those of frühstück and eating at restaurants.
American breakfast ranges from cereal and bagels and breads to eggs prepared in a variety of ways and pancakes and assorted hot meats. In Germany, breakfast generally consists of bread or rolls, Joghurt, fruit, and deli meats. English breakfast is a mix between the two. While Alex and I didn’t consume an English breakfast on this trip, we saw plenty of advertisements for breads, yogurt, fruit, black pudding (which is disgusting in my humble opinion), hot sausages, and eggs. English breakfasts also boast cooked mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, and baked beans (for the toast, of course).
In the U.S., waiters at restaurants are (overly) friendly, working to get more than a 15% tip. In Europe, tip isn’t expected, and sometimes patrons have to chase down waiters if they want to give something extra. Often, the tip is whatever amount of change rounds the bill up to the next whole Euro or Pound, and tipping over 10% (5% is rather standard) is considered flashy. At American sit-down restaurants, you typically wait for the host or hostess (and you never have to wait more than a minute to talk to someone, unless you experience “bad service”) to seat you. Your waiter or waitress then comes over, chats with you about absolutely nothing, takes your drink order, and returns to take your food order. Throughout the meal, they check in about fifty times to make sure that you are extremely satisfied with your experience.
The European restaurant experience is much different, and it even differs among countries. Unless you visit an up-scale restaurant, patrons often find their own tables, and you can forget about being put on a waiting list; no table available means no service unless you come back later and are lucky. In Germany, menus are already on the table, and by the time the waiter comes to check in (sometimes after you’ve been there for 15 minutes or so), you better have your drink and food orders ready. Otherwise, you might have to wait half-an-hour until you talk to someone at the restaurant again. If business is slow, your waiter might come in to check on you, but quite often you will only see your waiter three times: when ordering, when receiving your food, and when paying. You also have to flag down your waiter to pay; regardless of the number of tables they have, they generally make the same amount of money so they aren’t trying to herd you out to free up real estate.
In the U.K., the restaurant situation is about halfway between the American one and that of the Germans. You seat yourself, and---if at a pub especially---you place your order at the bar. Quite often (unless you head out to a more up-scale joint), you pay immediately after placing your order. The person who brings you your food may check up on you a couple of times before you leave, but again this depends on the busyness of the restaurant. After experiencing restaurants in several different countries, the procedures get a little fuzzy.
Customer service takes on completely different meanings in different places. In the U.S., the customer is always right, and service always comes with a smile (unless you go to the DMV). Shopping bags are always free, and most people working in customer service will go out of their way to help you, unless they don’t mind a scolding from their manager.
In Germany, customer service rarely comes with a smile, and when it does, rest assured it is genuine. Employees come before the customer; I’ve even witnessed a customer get yelled at by a cashier who was tired of being heckled. Another time, a cashier threw up her hands in frustration at my poor German. (To anyone who says, "They should learn our language," about non-English speakers in the U.S., please give them the benefit of the doubt that they are trying. Learning a new language as an adult is extremely difficult, and this experience was discouraging.) At the grocery store, shopping bags cost anywhere from 10 to 20 cents, depending on quality; at most other establishments, bags are free. While employees aren’t unhelpful, they often don’t go beyond giving you just enough information to figure out the answers to your questions on your own.
Customer service in the U.K. is much friendlier than Germany, and you can get away with telling a cashier about your day (whereas saying anything beyond "Schön Tag" is... well... either creepy or an invasion of privacy. On the other hand, any shopping bag, whether it be at the grocery store or at a clothing outlet costs 5 pence apiece. The customer isn’t always right in the U.K., but they aren’t always wrong either.
A huge difference between the U.S. and Germany is that in Germany,Sonntags fall just short of sacred. In order to protect the interests of employees, most grocery stores and shops are closed (by law). Restaurants and bakeries can be open, as can travel-related establishments, but storefronts are generally dark on Sundays. When visiting the U.K., I was shocked to see stores open on Sundays, forgetting that they have shorter opening hours (usually between four and six hours) on Sundays rather than no opening hours. Walking through a busy shopping district rather than a desolate one on Sunday was almost unnerving.
At the end of the trip, I was surprised by just how much Kulturschock I could have between countries in Europe. If anything, the experience in England (even though I’ve been there before), was more unsettling than moving to Germany. At least when I moved to Germany, I expected the language, the restaurant scene, the shopping, just about everything to be at least somewhat different. But as I became comfortable, I expected the German lifestyle to be representative of a European one, so I was unprepared for the cultural differences when going to the U.K.
All in all, it was great returning to the U.K., and it was easy to see why Alex fell in love with Norwich in 2014:
All photographs courtesy of Alexander Sauers.