An American in Heidelberg


From Florida, U.S.A to Heidelberg, Germany

Moving from Florida to Heidelberg for a summer can be summarized in one word: surreal. When I first touched down in Frankfurt, I was instantly met with the gorgeous scene of lush mountains piercing the sky, and surrounding the city in a fine line of natural beauty. During the summertime, I noticed almost immediately that every German was taking the time to soak up the sun daily. I worked in the city May to July when the sun didn’t set until 10, and most locals didn’t think to call it a day until then. Everybody was biking, or jogging, or hiking, or tanning on the Neckar---- and it was such a welcoming sight I couldn’t help but feel entranced. Over my time there, I heard horror stories about the harsh winters, so it is no surprise that there are celebrations of sunshine, but the atmosphere surrounding the day was just too pleasant to pass up. Public transportation is fantastic in Germany---- punctual and expertly safe, but a high number of locals still utilize more outdoorsy means of getting around, especially in the summer. Bike racks are nearly always full, and where you can walk to; you will. Even in Florida, I had never experienced such a desire to spend the day in nature.

Enjoy your pas times in castle gardens!

Another distinct difference between life on one side of the Northern Atlantic and the other is the pas times. One particular memory I hold dear is a co-worker of mine asking if I wanted to have a casual drink after work one day. I said yes, because German beer is as good as is publicized and half an hour later we were pulling up to the Heidelberg castle gardens. Drinking an open container is enough to blow my American mind, but drinking publicly in a castle sounds like the beginnings of a new age rom com. But we weren’t the only ones! Since castles are quite commonplace in Europe, and for the most part they are public it makes sense that on a nice summer day you just chill in the open ruins of history. Surely this is not universal (especially in castles still functioning as a hotel or restaurant) but it is interesting that something so fascinating to a foreigner is just a backyard park to the locals.

Learning German in the local countryside

Upon my first arrival into Germany, I was nervously clutching a German to English dictionary and using the wrong preposition for almost every sentence I used. While the latter is still half true, an interesting fact about Heidelberg is that the vast majority speaks near fluent English. A large portion is even trilingual, or more! Through I’m sure what was a thick American accent, waiters and cashiers would immediately switch over to English during most exchanges with me. This obviously made things easier in the moment, but teach a man to fish, right? My German, despite being in Germany was stagnant. I took two semesters of college level German and still the most common phrase I used was “langsam, bitte”, which was usually followed by the inevitable switch to English. Smaller, traditional towns definitely provide more of a challenge as English is not widely used. Most weekends I would board the train, and find myself in a small German countryside which provided the perfect climate to continuously practice my diction. Going back to the city was nice because I could often ask for a translation and learn through repetition, but small towns provided a nice way to either sink or swim. The best advice I could give is to keep responding in German and eventually it’ll start coming naturally.

Smooth blend of Germans and foreigners in Heidelberg

Unlike most big city residents, most Heidelberg natives do quite a lot of what the tourists do. If you are looking for a bustling city center, Bismarkplatz is the main shopping center directly on the Neckar. Heidelberg is one of the few cities I would recommend not using the hop-on hop-off bus system for, as the Bismarkplatz is best traveled on foot. For big events such as the Fifa World Cup, the Tour De France, and so on the University of Heidelberg cafeteria situated in the center of the Bismarkplatz projects a watch party event on the grass that is definitely worth stopping by. They serve alcohol, snacks and a fun easygoing vibe that makes celebrating whatever win is happening exciting. Another golden staple mark of Heidelberg is the Neckarwiese, which acts as some hybrid between a beach and a park. Long strips of grass on either side of the Neckar are dotted with Germans & foreigners alike having picnics, tanning, playing games, chatting, etc. One night in June, there was a couchsurfing meet-up that included a sunset barbeque on this vista and I could not recommend more highly watching the way a setting sun reflects on the water.

Cultural differences between Florida and Heidelberg; U.S.A. and Germany

A small, seemingly insignificant cultural difference arises when you first walk into a shop. In the United States where customer service is regarded as the pinnacle of quality, it is customary for the person working to initiate the exchange. However, in Germany it is the responsibility of the customer to announce their presence. Everybody is friendly regardless but a nice “abend” or “hallo” goes a long way. Another note on German shopping etiquette is that the job of the host or waiter is not to seat you. Typically, when one arrives at a restaurant or bar it is more of ‘see an open seat, take it’ then ‘please see the host for seating’. Germans are a very straight-forward people, so if there is ever any confusion do not hesitate to ask! These small shifts in culture were not detrimental in any fashion, but picking up one them after a few encounters made me feel like I was growing accustomed to my surroundings.

An incredible balance between history and modern culture

Traditional Lebkuchen, gingerbread

All in all German city life is an incredible balance of decades upon decades of history and the embracing of modern culture----- and Heidelberg is the perfect illustration.

Written by Kayla from U.S.A.