Sunday, October 18, 2009

German Customs

Having married into a Bremen family in Germany some time ago, I have become accustomed to and have had to learn about many German customs which are quite different from the Texas world I grew up in as a teenager.  Today I would like to give a few samples of these customs.  In the future I might try to find examples of cultural issues from Texas that might surprise my German friends, but one things at a time right now!
Shaking hands!  One knows from watching Japanese movies that the normal greeting between two Japanese (at least if they are in the same social class) is a respectful bow.  In Western Culture, we shake hands, but the Germans take it to a somewhat higher level, it seems to me.  When I was a young married man living in my parents-in-law's home for a few weeks on a visit, I would dutifully shake hands with my father-in-law when we saw each other for the first time at the breakfast table, and then again when we were off to bed after an evening of conversation and red or white wine.
If there was a larger dinner party with family and friends, as pictured in the beautiful Christmas dinner shown in the picture as prepared by my daughter-in-law a couple of years ago with the Christmas tree full of real candles, a genuine and wonderful German custom, then the rules for saying good-bye at the end of the evening (for a young man in the early days, now an older man in these days), was to seek out the eldes lady of the evening, shake hands with her, and then the eldest gentleman, and shake hands and say good-bye to him, and then so forth, until you have shaken hands with the youngest child in the room.  No exceptions!  It actually works, and is a very nice ritual. At the beginning of a meal, no one eats until the host or hostess say in a very polite but distinct voice: "Guten Appetit".  In American society, either there is a family blessing for families so inclined (a nice gesture in a family setting), or when the hostess takes the first bite.  I prefer the German system (the French and other European societies have similar customs ("bon apetite" in French, for instance).

If there is a large social gathering (like 700 men all in Tuxedos at the Eiswette in Bremen), then at the beginning of the evening, one mingles around and formally says good evening to many that one knows, and is introduced to a good many that one doesn't know.  Always with a warm handshake and a good meeting of the eyes. As one wanders around the room, inevitably one comes across a colleague with whom one has already shaken hands and then the following happens: I reach out my hand (either forgetting we have already shaken hands, or not minding to do it again).  The German colleague reaches towards my hand, recognizes that we have already shaken hands, and then withdraws his hand very quickly before the hands can touch, as if he had almost touched a hot iron, and he says with a warm smile, "Wir haben schon!" (We already have! [shaken hands]). 

A final note on a German custom at social dinner parties in Bremen.  Normally the men wear coat and ties, and some couples may not know others at the dinner party (this is an occasion for them to meet new people; over the years we met many new people this way having been invited to a number of very fine dinner parties). At the beginning of the evening when all guests have arrived (usually quite punctually!), the host (or hostess) will have poured champagne for everyone, and everyone is still standing, and there is a small welcoming speech, at which the host introduces everyone to all present with a little background info for those meeting each other for the first time,  This is done very graciously, and then the group is invited to sit down, either with place cards, or with the host and hostess explaining where everyone should sit. After an initial toast and a hearty "Guten Appetit", the dinner begins, and usually a lively conversation has ensued.  We were present at many such dinners and then for several years, as a thanks to our being welcomed so warmly in Bremen, we hosted about 6 such dinner parties ourselves, with 10-12 people at each dinner party.  A Bremen ritual which never failed was that the man sitting to the left of my wife Rena (who was  the hostess) would stand up, button his coat, move behind his chair and give a speech.  This was after the main course and before the desert, without fail.  The speech was sometimes five minutes long, was fundamentally a thank you speech on behalf of all the guests directed very warmly towards the hosts.  The person sitting to the left of  Rena learned of this seating only as the dinner party had been seated as a whole, and that meant (according to the unwritten custom) that he was to give such a speech, and it never failed.  Absolutely amazing.  And as one acquaintance told us (she was the wife of a banker from Cologne who had been at many such dinner parties): "In Bremen if there are more than six at the dinner party the man must stand up, but with six or less he can remain seated..." 

Around the world we have many different customs which may often seem strange to others, but it can be charming and very informative to try to understand as much as one can when one is living in a land foreign to one's own.  And with that, I'll say dear friends, "Gute Nacht".

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