The Californians all answered pretty much the same thing: "NOBODY SMILES HERE." That's not quite true, obviously. As we looked around the restaurant, people were smiling and laughing just as loud as us. What we meant is that, when walking down the street, nobody will smile or even nod at people passing by. It doesn't mean that people aren't friendly, as my experiences have been the exact opposite- I find that I am able to ask anybody on the street for help if I need it, and they'll stop and point me in the right direction.
What interested me more, though, was the reaction of the three non-Americans, after we explained what we meant. Every single one of them had a look of disbelief on their face. They could not understand the concept of smiling at complete strangers.
"So, wait, you just smile at EVERYBODY? What if it's a busy street with lots of people, do you have to smile at every person you pass?"
"I knew Americans were known for smiling more than the normal person, but that seems just ridiculous to me!"
"So if you smile on the street to people you don't know, how do you greet friends?"
The whole conversation got me to really start comparing and contrasting life in Berlin and life in California. Of course, I had noticed some differences before the conversation. It's impossible not to. But it opened my critical eye.
You can get plastic bags here, but almost everybody brings their own reusable bag. If you do need to get a bag, you have to pay for it. It's a small amount, 15 cents for a small bag, and anywhere from 25-60 cents for larger bags, but it does mean an extra cost if you aren't prepared. You have to buy the bags as part of your purchase, but bag your groceries (yes, your own groceries) after you pay, so it becomes a real estimation game.
The carts are also locked together, and the way to get one is to slip on a euro coin. The coin pushes the key out of the next cart in line, and the cart is available to use. When you're done, the key from another cart will push the euro back out to you.
Personally, I prefer the German bag system over the California system. As far as I know, the rule is still that you can get paper or plastic bags for no fee, but some places will give a slight discount of a couple cents if you bring in reusable bags. A couple of cities are considering banning plastic bags all together, which isn't terribly helpful either. I generally bring my own bags when I go shopping anyways, not to help the environment, but because I find it easier, but sometimes you just need to use a plastic bag. The cart payment system is also nice, because then there aren't carts that take up parking spaces or hit and dent the cars in the parking lot.
On the Bus and Subway:
People are pretty much silent. Even if you're traveling with somebody, you hardly talk at all, and when you do, you talk very softly. Nobody is yelling into their cell phones, either. It makes it very easy to figure out who the loud, obnoxious Americans are.
Preference: It's really a toss-up. I love the fact that I don't have to listen to the person next to me shouting their personal story into the phone, but it sure makes me feel awkward sitting with friends and either not being able to talk to them or being stared at when we are talking.
Apartments and Privacy:
I write this section with a bit of caution, as I'm sure it's going to cause my parents to worry more than they already have. (I promise, I'll have a place, I'm not at the point of desperation yet!)
So I'm searching for apartments to live in starting in September (if anybody happens to have references, let me know!), so I have noticed a ton of differences. Mind you, when I was living in Davis, I only really looked at one apartment, and had already figured out two of the three people I would be living with, so my experiences are not totally complete. However...
The "simplest" thing to do is to find a WG, which is basically just subletting a place for a given amount of time. Many rooms come furnished, thanks to prior tenants that moved and couldn't take their furniture with them.
The tricky thing is, when searching through ads, there are a lot of requirements that I sometimes can't seem to fill, even if I find them silly. They say, "Please, nobody under the age of 20/25/30/fill-in-the-blank." It's extremely frustrating when they ask for nobody under the age of 20, since I'm still 19. I realize they don't want immature people, and students do tend to start university classes when they're a bit older here, and I'm on the young side in California as it is. But I have seriously been rejected from apartments for the fact that I'm not 20 yet, even though I've already lived on my own for 2 years.
Other times, the ads will only offer the room for a couple of months, one month, or for as little as a week. People will actually try to rent out their room for a week in order to try to save some money! It's very frustrating to be reading an ad for a place that I actually like, and at the end it will say, "Available from 15.8-22.8."
On the other hand, it's extremely rare for people to share their rooms, even when they are starving students. In California, it's almost considered a luxury to have a college apartment in which you don't share your room. I've only seen about 2 ads here that have said the room would be shared.
Preference: California, by far. That may be the fact that I actually know people in California that I would share an apartment with. However, I am looking forward to having my own room, considering my roommate issues from the past two years.
When you greet somebody in German, often they will ask you, "Wie geht's?" (informal) or, "Wie geht es Ihnen?" (formal). This roughly translates to, "How's it going?" The difference between in America and in Germany is the response to this question. Germans will give a real response, so for example: "You will not believe how tired I am. I had to stay up late last night to finish my homework, which I realize I could have done earlier and actually gone to bed at a reasonable time, but my mom called me and wanted to talk, so we were talking for an hour or so. It turns out my brother has a new crush, and my mom was saying how she doesn't like this new girl, but it's his decision, she's not going to control his life or anything. But I still had to spend an hour listening to her criticize this girl..." It goes on forever. If you just give an, "I'm fine, thanks," it means you don't want to talk to that person right then.
Preference: The jury is still out on this one. It does mean I have to be more careful with who I ask, "How's it going?" to. Friends back home will sometimes ramble on, and that's okay, but casual acquaintances generally won't give their life story.
I've got one more week in my student dorms, a few weeks of traveling, and then I start actually living in the "real Berlin." I'm sure once I move away from all the other foreigners, I'll be posting up several other differences.