26 February 2022
My colleague Else had just asked me a puzzling question:
“Where are you going on vacation?”
Huh? Where did she get that from? I wasn’t going on vacation. Who told her I was?
It was like someone asking you what your dog’s name is – when you don’t even have a dog.
But I had only been in Germany for about six months and hadn’t yet learned about their highly developed vacation culture.
You see, all Germans take vacations. Every year. Without fail. So my colleague had naturally assumed that I was going on vacation, too.
This is one of the best open secrets of Europe – apart from universal health insurance, that is. Europeans get four to six weeks of paid vacation. Germans are convinced they would die if they didn’t get the opportunity to relax and recharge their batteries.
The language of leisure
There is even a whole set of vocabulary words unique to this vacation culture. Words that are not easily translated, because many Americans just don’t get much time off.
Ich brauche Erholung – Code for “Boy do I need a vacation!” but it sounds better. It implies that the speaker has done a lot of hard work that they have to “recuperate” from. They deserve this time off.
Fernweh – This denotes a longing for going somewhere – anywhere! – far away. Contrast this with the fact that most Americans barely manage to make it home for Thanksgiving. And I’m willing to bet that there’s more longing for that to be over than for a repeat performance.
Brückentag – “Bridge day” for when a bank holiday falls on a Thursday. It’s practically an invitation to take the Friday off, too, and make a four-day weekend out of it.
Not only do Germans cleverly take advantage of these bridge days, they study the entire calendar year to strategically plan all of their vacation days. This way they can maximize their time out of the office by combining time off with bank holidays.
If major holidays such as Christmas or Easter happen to fall on weekends, people will bemoan the fact that it’s an “employee-unfriendly year.”
Here, there, everywhere
Lunch conversations in the cafeteria at a German company can sound like an ongoing game of one-up-manship. But it’s not. They simply travel nonstop to all corners of the globe. This is perfectly normal behavior.
Here’s a sample of such a conversation:
“We’re going to Thailand this year.”
“Oh, nice! We love Thailand. You going to Phuket?”
“Naah, we went there last year. We want to try something new this time.”
The American listening thinks: Thailand? Where’s that? I think it’s in Asia.
Or this one:
“We just came back from our safari in South Africa.”
“Nice! Did you go to Kruger National Park, too? And did you visit a winery? I love South African wine.”
“Yes. I took 20,000 pictures. I even got one of a lion sitting on top of our jeep!”
The American thinks: South Africa. I think that’s where Nelson Mandela lives. Is he still alive, actually?
“We just got back from Sardinia!”
The American thinks: “Isn’t that a fish?”
Former East Germans – the ones old enough to have known East Germany as adults – have a special relationship to travel. They spent their early years not being able to go anywhere except for so-called “socialist brother countries” meaning Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the former Soviet Union. My friend Anke from Dresden describes seeing airplanes lined up on the tarmac at the Frankfurt international airport for the first time.
“Just imagine!” she thought. “All you have to do is get on one of those planes and you can go anywhere in the world.”
But since that moment, she has more than made up for lost time.
If I ever have any questions about any of the national parks in my country, I just have to ask Anke – she has been to all of them. She has also ridden a motorcycle across Vietnam, gone snorkeling in Bali, climbed mountains in Laos and crisscrosses Europe with her camper on a regular basis. Including Sardinia (you remember – that fish place).
Back in the U.S. of A.
It’s not like Americans don’t go on vacation at all. They do, but since the country is so big they don’t have to leave it. There’s Daytona Beach, Disneyland, Disneyworld, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone – and even Dollywood. And yes, that’s an amusement park in Tennessee co-owned and named after Dolly Parton.
The very adventurous vacationers go to Niagara Falls. This is particularly titillating because you get to go to another country when you cross the Canadian border – but only if you visit the falls on the Canadian side. Out West, at the other end of the country, Americans can also have the thrill of going abroad by driving across the Mexican border.
Europeans laugh at the recreations of European cities in Las Vegas or Disneyworld. But Americans like them because chances are they’ll never make it to the real thing. Most people only get two weeks’ vacation and psychologically, Europe is just too far away. Although in terms of travel time, it is faster to get to Europe from North America than vice versa. That’s because when you fly from North America to Europe, you’ve got the jet stream behind the plane giving it an extra push. But when you fly in the other direction from Europe to North America, you’re flying into the jet stream so it takes about one hour longer.
Traveling is nice; emigrating isn’t bad, either
This penchant for travel runs deep in Germans’ blood. But they can’t help it. It’s programmed into the geography. Germany is sandwiched in between nine other countries, making it easy and tempting to go elsewhere, something which they have done with aplomb throughout history.
German craftsmen have historically been valued all over Europe. It seems the “Made in Germany” imprint was prestigious before there even was a Germany. Catherine the Great of Russia, who launched her royal career as a German princess, invited skilled workers from back home to settle in Russia. They later became known as the Volga Germans.
In present-day Romania, Germans were resettled in the 18th century to repopulate areas decimated by the Habsburg wars with the Ottoman Turks. They brought their skills as craftsmen with them, too, and are known today as Banat Swabians.
It is only fitting that the most famous painting of Wolfgang von Goethe, the country’s most celebrated writer, portrays him not in Germany, but in Italy. For he spent two years traveling there from 1786-88 and wrote a book about his experiences called Italian Journey.
Of course he did. He was German.
Photo: Goethe in the Roman Campagna, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1786. Public domain.