Shopping Barefoot in Germany and Other Cultural Faux Pas

January 2, 2013

I recently met a South African woman living in Germany with her family, let's call her Sue. We got to talking about expat life and I asked her what it felt like moving from South Africa to Germany, a topic of particular interest to me because in a way Noisette and I went the reverse route (if you discount our 19-year layover in the United States, that is).

She didn't have to think long to come up with an anecdote that perfectly well summarized the kind of adjustment she had to go through.

It was early days, she said, during summer, a rare hot day in fact, when she quickly had to run out for groceries for a last minute item, and she was barefoot.

This is not something you'd waste a second thought on here in South Africa. A place where kids are regularly seen wandering the school grounds, decked out in their neatly pressed uniform complete with blazer and tie, but barefoot. Where entire cross country races are run without shoes. Remember Zola Budd?

I definitely confess to having roamed the aisles of Woolies barefoot, on days when putting on shoes seemed like an outsize effort. Shoes upstairs, me already halfway to the garage - definitely too much of a detour just for shoes when all you need is a liter of milk. It's enough trouble to remember my purse.

I'd be barefoot even more often if it weren't for the black soot you invariably collect on the soles of your feet here in Joburg (which doesn't seem to bother my kids, as I recently got to witness when the packers moved their upstairs desk and a series of perfect black footprints came to light on the wall under it).

The wall under the kids' desk - the perfect place to wipe  your bare feet

I'm sure there is no black soot to be collected when walking barefoot in Germany, a place where the sidewalks are swept and scrubbed regularly. Especially Southern Germany, home to "Kehrwoche" (literally Sweeping Week, referring to the rotation of cleaning duties in multi-family homes - but that is a topic for a blog post all of its own).

In any case, Sue found herself in the grocery store, barefoot, and apparently all hell broke loose. She said she felt like some kind of leper. She might as well have walked in naked for all the commotion she stirred. People came up to her, pointing at her feet, gesticulating wildly and letting loose a stream of rapid-fire German, most of which she didn't understand, thankfully.

But the gist of the message was clear: Bare feet are NOT cool!

Come to think of it, I've probably been to Woolies both barefoot AND in my pajama pants.

I'm not even sure if there was a store rule against bare feet. Much like some restaurants in the U.S. will post signs that you won't be served without shoes or shirts. In Germany, it could well just have been a matter of misplaced "concern" for your health that prompted people to butt in and dispense unsolicited (and unwanted) advice. Years ago, when Zax was a baby and I pushed his stroller through a wintry Tubingen when visiting my parents, no less than three elderly ladies, and one man, stopped me in my tracks and accosted me over the lack of bedding to keep him warm. His jacket, hat, and shoes didn't seem to satisfy them. What was needed, they informed me, was one of those stroller inserts you often see in Germany, covering the child completely sort of like a sleeping bag and only leaving room for the nose to poke out. I assured them Zax was fine and fled, malevolent stares following me all around town.

I can only imagine how that would have gone had I not understood a word of German.

The irony is that these same women, swaddling their babies to the hilt in layers of down lest they are touched by a chilly breeze, then proceed to park their strollers, babies and all, in front of the grocery store while they conclude their business, with not a worry in the world about their safety.

I suppose this is logical - after all, taking the baby with them would expose it to the cold air, if briefly - but it is also highly illegal in other countries like Australia and the USA. You can be put in jail for abandoning your child like that.

Whereas I'm quite sure you could be carrying a baby through a Kansas blizzard in their pajamas without anybody giving you a second glance.

Unless, of course, it wore nothing at all, no matter what season. Nakedness is not something easily tolerated in the country more or less founded by Puritans, even if the culprits are too little to talk. And even if it's just the missing bikini top in a five year old girl that causes great consternation.

Whereas in most of Europe, on the other hand, bikini tops are often optional, no matter your age.

So long as the weather is warm enough, apparently. And so long as you wear shoes while going topless.

Cultural differences. It's good to be aware of them.

But perhaps Germans have a particular preoccupation with feet? Because Sue wasn't done yet. She was going through airport security one day, she said, and was led to a cubby for further screening, shoes in hand.

The woman took one look at her feet and glanced up.

"You've got your socks on inside out," she remarked, with more than a hint of disapproval.

By this time Sue's German had gotten much better.

"I know," she said.

Clearly, this didn't satisfy the woman.

"Well, you have time to change them around while you are waiting for your bags to be scanned," she prompted, with what I honestly believe must have been genuine concern for Sue's well-being.

"No thank you, I like them this way," said Sue, moving on and leaving in her wake an utterly bewildered German, their sense of world order profoundly shaken.


What kind of cultural faux pas have you committed in a foreign country? Please do share!

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