No matter how far away you go for vacation, it's hard not to keep track of the similarities and differences of the cultures that you encounter along the way. Here are a few notes I kept during my visit to the motherland.
1. Germans like drinking beer, but they do not have the same kind of craft obsession that Milwaukeeans do.
I was expecting the American love of craft beer to be a more universal obsession. I always had it in my head that Europe had a more sophisticated taste, while we were lazily fine with our watered down, factory-line brews. But it turns out the diversity of beer in Germany is reminiscent of America in the early 90s.
You basically had the choice between dark, light, and Heineken. There was some slight variation beyond that, but a lot of it was a far cry from, say the Milwaukee Beer Bistro, Palm Tavern, Sugar Maple, Nessun Dorma or the Riverwest Filling Station or any of our nominees for Best Beer List in 2014 and 2015.
One unique twist: "Altbierbowle," (which translates to "old beer punch") is beer infused with fruit (or maybe vice versa), which is served with a spoon. It looked questionable, but I gave it a try. I have to say, I feel like we aren't doing our German heritage any service by NOT having this drink available in the city.
2. Germans can drink in public and they're obsessed with our brown paper bags.
In most places in America it's illegal to walk around in public with open containers of alcohol so the natural byproduct of that is the brown paper bag. Put a beer in there and who's to say what's behind that kraft paper curtain. It could be anything!
But this small detail is something I hadn't really thought about until I walked and talked (and drank) with Germans as they showed me around town. It was brought up on three separate occasions, and their confusion was all similar.
"But people don't drink soda from a brown paper bag," they would argue. The inference of what's in the bag is automatic.
"No, but the point is, you can't prove it's alcohol, so the police can't stop you."
I was also introduced to the Kohltour which involves you and your friends, a wagon full of ice and beer, a head of kale, and usually a boombox. You can figure out where it goes from there.
3. The public transit is amazing.
Imagine going to a city you don't recognize that speaks a language you mostly don't understand, being handed a map of the buses, trains, and streetcars and told to figure out where to go.
By Milwaukee transportation standards, this is a daunting task, but in Germany, it's incredibly easy.
We bought one ticket ON the bus, that was good for the whole week AND good for all forms of transit. Hopping on any type of transport didn't require me to show my ticket, so everything moved very quickly. The transfers were announced at every stop and the maps were very easy to read. The physical stops were very obvious and they counted down the time left before the next streetcar. On top of this, most waits were under 9 minutes.
Even though the streets were incredibly clean, traffic flowed efficiently, and nobody was honking at anybody, there was never a time when I wished I had a car. The public transit was 100% effortless.
And to add to the streetcar argument, I used it far more often than I used the buses. Being able to see the tracks sounds like a really dumb security blanket, but I admit to wrapping myself up in it the whole time I was there.
4. Graffiti is a texture, not a crime.
Well, okay, it actually is a crime, an apparently it's an uphill battle that the Berlin is choosing to fight, but there's no arguing that it's a part of modern German life. For my money, it provides a very unique texture to the city. The graffiti in Berlin is not a symbol of crime and disrespect. It's everywhere. It's a symbol of ... people.
If the city was completely stripped of this texture of tags, they'd get back some plain communist block housing which, in itself, has a nice pattern, I suppose. But these ever present squiggles, swoops and blotches of color are a reminder that it's the people who make the city, not the architecture.
Milwaukeeans, and Americans, have a very negative association with graffiti, and even legal graffiti-flavored murals. Anything that is painted on a wall must adhere to the lowest common taste, and anything more radical than that is essentially inviting "an element." But stamping out graffiti also stamps out voices, which makes for less happy, less healthy communities.
5. Milwaukeeans have German pride, but Germans have never heard of Milwaukee.
We have a pretty solid German history here in Milwaukee, but our legacy seems to be lost on the mother country. Nobody I talked to was familiar with Schlitz or Pabst, and even Miller sometimes caused some eye squints.
Part of me is not surprised. While German ancestry makes up about 38% of our history, white Milwaukeeans seem to celebrate their significantly lower Irish heritage (about 10%) with a lot more gusto. St. Patrick's Day and Irish Fest are always huge draws around the city, but it was only last year that we decided to try our hand at a much larger Oktoberfest.
Some blame colder weather on our lack of love for Oktober fest, but lets be honest, March weather is just as unreliable as October weather (it's just that St. Patrick's Day comes at a more hopeful time of the year).
While in Berlin I did meet another person who was amazed that Aaron Rodgers could play so well in our climate ("It really makes him a true hero, then."), but they were obviously a tourist just like me.
Germans were mostly obsessed with New York (obviously) and Miami (questionably). Milwaukee, however, was not even on the map.
6. Germans will speak your language ... sometimes better than you.
Germans speak English, which makes transitioning into life in a new country quite easy. Even when you speak German to them, they will speak English back to you (which is kind of a problem when you're trying to practice listening). They will apologize for their "terrible English" even though they have a 90% English comprehension rate and your German comprehension is hovering closer to 3%.
It also opened my eyes to how difficult it is to learn a new language. After studying German for two years I thought I'd be good to go, but it's easy to delude yourself until you're dropped into the middle of it.
It's apparent that if we want to be better stewards of the world, Americans should make a bigger effort to be as friendly to other travelers. What's wrong with getting an earlier start teaching Spanish (with 405 million speakers) or Mandarin (with 955 million speakers – 3 times as many English)? English will always be first in America, just as German is always first in Germany (they dub every single one of our TV shows and movies); but being more language-inclusive can't hurt.
That being said, I did stay with a family who lived their whole lives only 10 minutes away from France, but could not speak any French; so maybe our own neighborly attitudes are not so different.
Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.
In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.
Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.