Being abroad can be a nerve-racking adventure in which even the most common daily routines become a hilarious challenge. Take washing your hands for instance. British sinks are the place where dragon fire meets penguin tears. They have two taps: the hot one will scald your hands, whereas the cold one will shatter them into frozen pieces. So, why do British sinks have separate taps for hot and cold water? Foreigners around the world have asked themselves that question for decades.
Back in the day when our grandparents were toddlers, houses didn’t have hot running water, just cold water that came from a main supply. Later on, hot water systems were added separately to each building for safety and health reasons.
British plumbers were concerned about the pressure difference between cold and warm water. The first came from a main supply with a much higher pressure than the latter, which was stored in a tank inside each house and relied on gravity. In case of an imbalance of pressures, one stream could force its way into the other and pose a number of problems.
There were also health risks involved. Old tanks were made of galvanized steel, which corrodes easily; and they didn’t usually have a proper lid, which made the tank an AquaLand for errant birds, distracted insects and sweaty rodents in need of a swim. Squatting fauna aside, hot water sitting in an attic tank was not considered safe to drink, for it created the optimal conditions for bacteria like legionella to proliferate and wreak havoc on human stomachs. So, what did the Brits do? They came up with regulations to keep them separate and prevent the hot water contaminating the cold water supply.
You might be thinking: “Sure, but that was YEEEARS ago. Why haven’t they switched to mixer taps yet?” – Well, in a word: tradition. Whereas continental Europe reinvented its water supply system after the war, Britain rebuilt its houses clinging onto the separate taps tradition. Chances are that mixer taps will take over in the future, but in the meantime, have fun flapping your hands between the two taps when washing them.
A few weeks ago I was in a drugstore and the lady clerk promptly barked at me when I asked for soap. Customer service in Europe is not exactly winning gold, especially in Germany, where people’s skills and willingness to help – let alone enthusiasm – are pretty much foreign concepts. Whether you are on the phone with your internet provider or addressing an employee in the supermarket, you may be treated like an inconvenient nuisance, rather than the reason why they have a job. On the other hand, the startling over-friendliness found in customer service in the United States can be a bit daunting to outsiders. What if we met somewhere in the middle?
My partner had an accident back in the US and he was given an ambulance ride to the hospital, which his insurance wouldn’t cover, leaving him with a $1000 bill that I believe still haunts him. I guess universal healthcare is not so universal after all.
I’m starting to believe that German bureaucrats belong to some sort of cult – the paperwork cult. Its members hide in plain sight, spend hours in their filing fortresses, feed on officially approved certificates and have mental Bescheinigasms1 every time they use their seal to stamp a document.
Truth be told, dealing with paperwork in Germany seems pretty straight-forward, at least compared to other countries. However, the system has a catch: the daunting amount of documents, forms and certificates necessary to accomplish any task, which makes any bureaucratic procedure a highly intimidating and time-consuming experience. At times I even think that the system is so convoluted so that you give up halfway through the process. Oh, and don’t get me started on the Amtsprache2.
I wonder if Germans have ever thought about simplifying their system. If they were to, it would go like this:
1 Compound word coined by yours truly, made of Bescheinigung (certificate) + orgasm.
2 It’s the language that bureaucrats use, full of legalese and highly unintelligible for the majority of (even native) speakers.
The only certainty about summer in Northern Europe: you shall never leave the house without an umbrella.