Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bielefeld, Germany: Part I

My first impression of Germany: It is not nearly as warm as it was supposed to be. The internet weather forecast assured me I would finally encounter appropriate springtime temperatures that had, thus far, been lacking in Cornwall. But, no, it is a windy 10 degrees and intermittently raining, and at night it is expected to get down almost to freezing. The short skirts and short-sleeved tops I packed will be a bit chilly, I think, but at least I had the foresight to put both a cardigan and an umbrella in my suitcase.

The trip from the airport to our final destination in Bielefeld is surprisingly easy, though the train ticket machine at the airport has an overwhelming number of options. However, it also appears smart enough to hold an advanced degree, and ushers us through the ticket-buying process just like a real human would have. Fancy. The trains really are as punctual as everyone says—literally punctual enough to set your watch by, which both my husband and I do after we realize that the (British) flight attendant had rounded up when telling us the local time, and therefore had set us four minutes fast. In the terminal where we switch from the train to the underground, we have a bit of a snigger over the ticket machine, the writing on which includes the word “fahrt” (it means “journey,” which is not nearly so funny in English). Later, in the city, we will also giggle over “Sparkasse” (a bank), yet another demonstration of our sophistication:

(My friend, another Caitlin, newly weighed down with Euros from the "geldautomat"--the ATM)

From the very start, the ethnic diversity of Germany surprises me. In the airport, we pass a Muslim prayer room, which I don’t remember seeing in any other airport I’ve been in (I’m sure they are there, but are simply less obvious). There are many women in headscarves and skin tones from all over the rainbow. The restaurants closest to our hotel are Italian (run by actual Italian immigrants, which is handy because my husband orders for us in Italian and bypasses the awkwardness of not speaking German), Tex-Mex (with surprisingly good guacamole), and Argentinian, and throughout the rest of the nearby square, it is easier to find “ethnic” cuisine than traditional German cuisine (unless you count candy and ice cream, which are everywhere). It takes quite a bit of time and effort to see someone with the stereotypical “Aryan” blonde-haired, blue-eyed look.

What I do see is a whole lot of people who look like me, in terms of facial structure. With my short stature, I must be a couple inches below the average female height here, and there are many women who would tower over me even without heels. In fact, there are many women here who are taller than my husband by several inches, which explains why there are so many good German high jumpers in international competitions. In any case, I do see the strong facial lines, squarish jaw, and prominent nose that have been handed down from my father’s German ancestors. The fashion here is in some ways similar to that in the UK, but also surprisingly different in key ways. For one thing, there is (mercifully) less of an emphasis on the retro 80’s trends, and more of an emphasis on more classic, sophisticated pieces (but, of course, the trends I see in Falmouth are often driven by the younger college/surf crowd). Here, as in Britain, there are boots galore, but most German women wear at least an inch-high heel, whereas British women frequently wear flat boots for everyday purposes. This discrepancy is particularly odd given the height difference between these two populations. Germans of both sexes wear glasses that I can only describe as “strong”—square or rectangular lenses with very obvious, chunky frames. This is the anti-Sarah Palin choice of optics. Many people, particularly women, choose quite bright colours for their frames, such as red and purple and lime green. In America, this is a look I might expect to find on quirky artsy or academic types, but here it is practically ubiquitous.

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