The German people are wonderfully friendly and warm. I was surprised by how happy to help, how friendly and how welcoming they were.
My inability to speak German was never really an issue. When ordering a beer or asking for help, I'd begin with a friendly "Hallo! Sprechen Sie Englisch?" More often than not, I'd get a warmly delivered reply, "Of course." Sometimes, the reply was more of a "A little". Yet every reply was delivered in a welcoming way. My lack of knowledge of German was not seen as something for which I was to be derided.
Germans are quiet. Even when a restaurant or bar was packed, the conversations at each table were quiet. It was an effort for my loud American self to adjust.
The Germans are an outdoor people. They seem to really enjoy outdoor activities of all sorts: biking, hiking, swimming and more.
As for linguistics, umlauts are of great importance. Do not book a hotel in Munster, Germany, if you wish to stay in Münster, Germany. In due course, you will come to find out that they are not the same place.
June in Germany is a sun-lovers heaven. It's starts getting light about 4:00 am and does not get dark-dark until 11:00 pm or so. I ate dinner at outdoor restaurants at 8:30 pm in perfect sunlight. It was wonderful.
The two cities that I visited, Düsseldorf and Münster, were both heavily bombed during World Word II. Following the war, the Germans in both cities (and perhaps elsewhere too), rebuilt the old sections of their cities (Aldstadt) as they were before the bombing (albeit often replacing original buildings were facades of their former buildings). I was grateful for that approach as it returned some of the character of Europe that I wanted to see as a visiting American.
Walking through cities that trace their history back to the 1200s and to churches that reach back to 800 AD is deeply moving. The connection to the past is palpable and gripping.
Food, Drink, Chocolate and Ice Cream
Any trip that includes Swiss, German and Belgian chocolate in notable quantities is likely to be an enjoyable trip.
If you're a meat lover, Germany is your country. My first meal in Germany (dinner, after a full day of international travel), was a variety of bacon. Later in the trip, I enjoyed a delicious sausage called a Westphalia Rosary (it's my new favorite prayer). It was a simple bratwurst, but it was by far the best sausage I've ever had.
I was in Germany during the hottest heat wave on record. Apparently, Germans cope with heat by eating delicious ice cream at just about every hour of the day. I ate such ice cream twice a day, every day, while on vacation. That was wonderful. (My two flavors of choice were Nutella and Roche, a combination of chocolate ice cream and Ferrero Roche chocolates.)
While I only ever drank 2 or 3 beers in any given sitting, I never drank a bad beer in Germany or Belgium. (I didn't have a chance to grab a beer in Holland.) Quality beers of all sorts: alt, weiss, lager and pilsner. The quality of the beer is reason enough to consider moving my family to Germany.
It's a common practice in German restaurants and cafes to simply walk in and sit down at whatever table is available. That felt rude to me given our practices in the US. By the end of the week though, I had adjusted well enough. I imagine this will cause me problems when I seat myself at some diner in America this week.
Driving the German Roads
German roads are so well maintained and so clean. No potholes. No rubbish strewn along the highways. Even the cities I visited (Düsseldorf and Münster) were impeccably clean.
The concept of a speed limit like "whatever is reasonable" seems to makes sense after driving in Germany for a week. Drivers didn't seem to have a need to show off how fast they could drive, because everyone was driving fast.
I loved the adherence to the rule of "pass in the left lane; drive in the right lane." This made highway travel feel safely predictable, i.e., no boy racers screaming up in the right lane to overtake with a really cool, Fast and Furious style lane sweep.
The rental car had cameras in the front and rear, and on both sides. It also had sensors to warn when I was too close to a major object. This made parking in tight spots and narrow roads very easy.
Europe as an entity, its geographic size and the proximity of its nations astonished me. Yes, I know that with the European Union, it's possible to drive from one country to the next without border control. Yet, the experience of driving from Germany, through the Netherlands to spend the afternoon in Belgium, before making the opposite journey home in the same afternoon was mind-blowing. It was no different than going from PA through NJ, to NY and back, albeit with less traffic, less graffiti, fewer pot holes and more scenes of rural beauty.
While listening to German radio as I drove, an occasional traffic update notice would pop onto the dashboard, asking me if I wanted to override the radio program with the travel update. After listening to the first travel update, I realized it was a waste of time. The updates were, understandably, delivered in German. I skipped the remaining updates.
I rented a Nissan SUV. The car had a GPS/map built into the dashboard. The coolest feature was that the GPS posted the speed limit of the road I was on to the dashboard, between the speedometer and tachometer. Most impressively, the updates about changes to the speed limit were pin-point accurate: As soon as I came level to a 70 kpm speed limit sign, the Nissan's dashboard instantly displayed the updated limit.
Downloading and installing the Google Translate app with the German dictionary was a big help. The app itself allowed me to use the camera to hover over words in German while the app instantly translated the words to English (with enough accuracy for me to either completely understand or at least get the gist of meaning.)
Stopping into the Bang & Olefsen shop in Münster was well worth the short visit. In a nutshell (and I imagine the marketing people at B&O would not approve of this characterization), B&O are taking the wifi sound system concept that Sonos perfected (or nearly perfected) and have turned it into an art. Beautiful speakers. Crystal clear sound. Very cool. Frighteningly expensive.
Having to pay more for internet access on my phone was a blessing: I spent less time on Twitter and more time enjoying the many moments of travel.
Having a quality camera in the phone was great for those "right now" shots.
I was also glad that I brought my bigger digital SLR camera. I'm eager to pop that camera card into the computer to see how those shots turned out.
The wireless Bose noise cancelling headphones delivered all the promise they were rumored to hold. The inflight music, movies and podcasts were so easy to hear and enjoy. The airplane noise was reduced to a quiet whisper. I even wore the headphones while sleeping – with no music or sound streaming.
I watched more sports on television than I expected. In relaxing in the hotel room, winding down at the end of an evening, I found that the sports shows were the only programs I could follow. I didn't understand a lick of the commentary, but I could follow the games and matches easily enough.
I brought my 10 oz. Yeti on the trip. It's best use case for visiting a country where ice machines are not on every hotel floor was on the long haul flights. I didn't worry about spilling my drink as all. The kind flight attendant was impressed as I asked her to pour the small bottle of wine into the Yeti.
For the trip, I bought a purse. It was a great decision. It was so easy to throw credit cards, cash, passports and other important travel documents into a single place. It was mentally reassuring – everything key to getting around, and ultimately, to getting home, was in my purse. During the course of my travel, I increasingly lamented the gender stereotypes that inhibited me from realizing this sooner in my life. (Related: Why have car makers not come up with a handy storage solution for the driver's purse? Placing it on the floorboard of the front passenger seat, or on the backseat were both less than ideal solutions.)
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Liam Dempsey is a marketing and design consultant. Through his business, LBDesign, he works with businesses and non-profits in the US, UK, and beyond. He loves pizza, craft beers, and time with family and good friends.