Katherine Price shares her tips on what you should know before visiting Germany – including accidental law-breaking and forgetting your preconceptions
Germans usually drink fizzy water. If you ask for a glass of water from a German, you will almost always get a glass of fizzy water, not tap water. In fact, if you ask for tap water in a restaurant, despite the tap water being drinkable in Germany, you will get a strange look, if not an absolute refusal, it's simply not part of the culture.
When buying bottles of water, if you don't want to have to stand at the shelves shaking each bottle, or have an unpleasant surprise on your first sip, look out for what the bottles say. Mit Kohlensäure means it's fizzy, ohne Kohlensäure usually means it isn't, as does still. Don't be fooled by natural, and, if in a restaurant, ask for Leitungswasser, which is tap water (if they'll give it to you).
It's fairly widely known that it is an offence to cross the road in Germany if the traffic light is red. If caught once by a polizei then it's about a €40 on-the-spot fine. A second time and it's a criminal offence. And it's not just the polizei that have a problem with it, but passers-by will also loudly voice their disapproval, too!
Similarly, schwarzfahren, travelling without a valid ticket on the underground, trams or trains will also cost you dearly if caught, and if you have no form of identification on you, you may even be threatened with arrest. Don't make either of these mistakes twice.
Germans do have a reputation for being very direct – which can be mistaken for rudeness – but don't be offended. Germans will not mince their words when they speak or use excessive, unnecessary politeness, no more than is respectful. Don't confuse directness with rudeness, Germans will say what they think; you will always know where you stand. If coffee is suggested, or even an invitation into their homes extended, then they really mean it. It's not simply a politeness like it can be in some countries.
While it can be hard to break into the small, intimate friendship circles, once you're invited into their homes and their lives, you may as well be considered part of the family. You have made a friend for life, and will always be welcome back.
The German stereotype is of course that of dirndl and lederhosen-attired citizens swigging litres of beer in huge beer halls, but that's not all Germany is. Eastern cities such as Berlin and Dresden have a creative cool all their own in the new, emerging areas of the cities, while the old buildings and cobbled streets of cities like Heidelberg and Freiburg have a charming, historical fascination to them. No two German cities are alike, and even Bavaria will surprise you.
You may even think you know German, but every region has its own dialect and words. The Berlin dialect, influenced by Eastern Europe and Dutch, has morphed the simplest words like 'ich' into 'ick' and 'gut' into 'jut'. If conversing with the older generation, watch out for Plattdeutsch, which is incredibly difficult to understand, even for native German speakers. Saxony and Swabian are also notorious.
Germans have a rather different approach to applauding. In a lecture or speech, or any public address where the attendees are sat at desks, the way to applaud and show your approval is to rap your knuckles on the desk in front of you. It takes a bit of getting used to (and then a bit of re-adjustment to not do it afterwards!).
For a play or musical performance, clapping is fine. In fact, keep clapping. You're going to be at it for a long time. Even if the performance wasn't particularly outstanding, an average of four to six encores is normal. For a particularly renowned musician, expect approximately 12 or 13. Make sure you account for this in your plans if you have dinner reservations after a concert.