Sunday, August 18, 2013

Eight Things I Learned In Bavaria

Please please explain to me what this sign means. No playing soccer in the street next to your house with cars around?
Every time I travel outside the United States, I end up realizing that the rest of the world is not like it is at home. Not that I really ever forget that being an immigrant to this country myself but the history, culture, food and behaviors abroad can vary wildly from my sheltered little life close to the capital of one of the biggest and most prosperous nations on Earth.

In many ways I guess it's not just an international phenomenon. The same could be said for traveling in the United States itself; they don't do things in Texas or Boston or South Dakota like they do in Washington, D.C. And all of that is a good thing. Why bother traveling if everything were the same the world over?

Having said all that, I always travel with the particular biases I carry from the place where I live. No matter how savvy I think I am, I always learn something about or from the places I go. Some of the things I learn help me get around and will benefit me on future trips; some are refreshing; and some are just plain baffling or downright amusing. Here are eight things I learned in Bavaria.

1. Carry Cash
The United States is without question a credit driven nation. How else would most people in this country have all the great and glorious stuff they have without the power of credit card debt. On the contrary, cash is definitely king in Bavaria. The opportunities to pay with credit over there are few and far between. You have to carry cash pretty much wherever you go!

The best part of this cash first society for me is the waiters and waitresses in beer gardens and restaurants. When you pay, your cash is not taken to the register to make change. Each server carries a massive wallet full of all variety of Euros and Cents and makes change, seemingly for whatever sum you lay out, right at the table. It's thrilling and amazing. ATMs are plentiful. Hit one as soon as you land and you'll be OK.

Wild boar sausages over potatoes in Salzburg. Lots and lots of sausages. Yummy!
2. Where's The Bacon?
For all the pork I ate in Germany and Austria (mostly in sausage form), I didn't eat a single solitary piece of bacon. And it wasn't by choice because let's face it, no way would I actually voluntarily opt out of eating bacon. I mean, who would? And it's not like we didn't look either. Our last hotel had an incredible breakfast buffet with cereal, eggs, croissants, jam, yogurt, ham, salami, herring (yes, herring), cheese and pretty much everything else you could want for the first meal of the day except, that's right you guessed it, bacon.

Now this would be just unthinkable in the United States but, again, that's why we travel. I guess I can exist for nine days without bacon if I can get the incredible sausages they have over in Bavaria. Just for nine days though.

3. Google Translate Really Works
While I was planning our trip to Bavaria at nights, on weekends and the occasional lunchtime at work, I found a lot of websites (particularly in Germany) that did not offer English translations which I found annoying for a while until I turned to Google Translate. This tool is absolutely amazing. Other than a few words here and there, I found it to be mostly foolproof.

And it really helped with non-English menus (ran into one of those here and there) to determine what exactly we were ordering before something showed up in front of us. I wanted to make damn sure we didn't end up with cow's brains like Brenda and Donna when they went to Paris on Beverly Hills 90210 so I used it religiously in those situations. It's always fascinating to consider what sort of vocabulary I come back with from foreign speaking countries. My Finnish vocabulary from my trip in 2000 consists of hei (hello) and kittos (thank you). Thanks to Google Translate, I know how to say whipped cream (schlagobers) and trout (forellen) in German but I have no idea how to say please.

4. Advance Planning Pays Off
I'm a big believer in advance planning. If there's one thing I've never been accused of, it's not putting enough thought into a trip in advance. I usually know what's important to see; exactly how to get everywhere I need to go; and when museums and other attractions are open and not open.

Having said that, there were some situations in Bavaria where I would have benefited from planning at home before landing in Germany. The train schedules and ticket options are a lot clearer on the Deutsche Bahn website than they are on the ticket machines in the stations. We bought tickets to Hohenschwangau before we got to Germany and saved a ton of money; by contrast, misunderstanding the ticket machines cost us about 30 extra Euros each to get to Salzburg and back.

I also wish we had dug into the bus websites a little more to know that day passes are available which can save a lot of money and time. Fortune favors the prepared mind!

5. Germans Love Long Words
If there's one thing that astonished us about the German language, it was the length of the words. Some words seem to be nouns appended by adjective after adjective which end up in multi-multi syllabic nightmares. I ordered one meal called fleischpflanzerlschmaus which somehow means beef croquette with mushroom sauce and cheese spaetzle. Delicious by the way!

I think the longest words we found on our trip were 27 letters long. The word above (one of the 27 letter words we found) means tax advice firm, although Google Translate doesn't know that (I said "mostly foolproof"). The upside of long words is sentences with few words. I guess it doesn't help if you can't pronounce the words though.

6. Bus Drivers Make Change
The first couple of days of our trip to Bavaria were spent hoarding Cents and Euros so we would have exact change for all the bus rides we needed to take. We religiously paid with large bills for small transactions so we could accumulate massive pocketfuls of change. When buses approached, we swapped and pooled money so we would each have the exact fare and wouldn't overspend. That's the way Metro works in D.C. Why would we think anything different?

Eventually a few days into the trip we got to a situation where we just didn't have the right change and were forced to plop way more than the fare down in the tray in front of the bus driver, feeling foolish that we were overpaying for a bus ride and we hadn't managed to successfully manage our group coin pot. Then something amazing happened: he made change for our bills and it changed our world. Apparently we learned nothing from the number 1 above. Can't see Metro adopting this. Thank God for SmarTrip.

House next to a tree this way? Anybody got any better meanings for this?
7. I Don't Understand German Street Signs
I love signs. Advertisements, wayfinding signs, neon signs, whatever. You name a type of sign and odds are I love it. One of my favorite types of signs are street signs. They are absolutely essential to the driver and pedestrian alike. I find it amazing the kinds of messages that can be conveyed using pictograms and a few words or no words at all.

European signs are often very different from signs in the United States and sometimes take a bit of time to understand their exact meaning. The sign at the top of this post makes no sense unless you understand there's a version of the sign without the red line through it. I believe it's telling you when you can and cannot let your kids play in the street. Despite my best deductive reasoning, there were a few signs in Bavaria that I just didn't get. I can't for the life of me figure out what the sign above means, which we found near a bus stop in Salzburg. The only meaning I can ascribe is that there's a tree next to a building to the left. I cannot figure out why I would care. Can anyone help me out here?

8. Schedules Work
If there's one stereotype of the German and Austrian people that I had before heading overseas this summer, it's that things would run on schedule. Our travel plans on some days in fact counted on it. We worked out day trips where trains or buses leaving early or late would have been major inconveniences. One day, we had to take eight buses to get from place to place.

And do they ever. I think just about every train or bus we waited for came at the appointed time (except of course when I was trying to recover my iPad and depending on a bus to get me back to the hotel for checkout time - hitchhiking works in Germany, although that's not a lesson I'm willing to post as learned). If I'm waiting for a Metro bus in D.C., I know I just have to wait until it decides to get there. It could be early or late or buses 20 minutes apart may arrive five minutes after each other. But Bavarian transportation is clearly different. I spent a lot of time on the Regionalverker Oberbayern website before leaving the United States looking for bus schedules to shore up our plans and it definitely paid off huge. The website, by the way, is not in English. See number 3 above for help.

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