Fenster, Rauchen, Tür: German windows, smoking and doors

In which I sing the praises of German windows, am puzzled by smoking in Europe, and scoff at German doors.


German windows are fantastic. I’m seriously considering getting some for my abode when I grow up and become not-broke, just so I can show them off to visitors. They open at the top: the verb to describe the action is kippen, to tilt. Like so:

I know, it blows the mind. (If that was interesting, have a look at these various contemporary styles of European windows – the 3D renders have occlusion shadows! Hover over a window on that website to see how it opens.)

From the existence of a window position specifically for letting in air from outside, you can tell that Germans have a bit of a thing for ventilation and fresh air. In green spaces, people comment on how good the air is and how you’ll never get that in the cities – and check out this lengthy German Wikipedia article on ventilation.

This puzzles the heck out of me because Germany has one of Europe’s higher smoking rates, which has been causing me lots of misery. (I hate smoke.)

In general, Europeans smoke much more than what I’m used to, and the phenomenon seems more loosely linked to socioeconomic class and far less stigmatized. Look at the numbers: In the US 18% of the population smokes (2014 figure) and in Singapore only 14.3% of the population does (2010 figure). Compare this to, as of 2011 for male smokers: 22% in the UK, 30% in Denmark, 31% in Switzerland, 35% in Germany, 39% in France, 46% (!) in Austria. Germany also has cigarette vending machines everywhere, one per 133 inhabitants; every two blocks or so in Mannheim you can see an ugly metal box affixed to the wall with ZIGARETTEN stencilled on its side. Now, in China the smoking rate is 47%, and in Indonesia it is a whopping 67% – but that’s something you sort of expect. I can’t say I entirely understand it in Europe. These people recycle obsessively, they eat organic food, they work out – they breathe smoke as if it were air. I don’t get it.


Now German doors are not quite as fantastic as their windows, except for their rather clever soundproofing, which, when present, involves a partially recessed frame, and is the reason hotels here are impossibly quiet even when full of guests. But for some reason all the doors I’ve run into in Germany in everyday life are usability nightmares. Take this one near the neighborhood supermarket, which had me stumped and lurking in a corner furtively waiting for someone else to show me the correct way to escape:

Confusing German door


Look at those large curved handlebars, invitingly calling your name! Do you push? Do you pull? Both wrong. You use the little door handle on the inside. What?

My aikido dojo here offers another horrific example of German door-engineering, so convoluted I can’t even find a photo of a similar one on the internet. It involves a metal plate that sticks out slightly from the door proper, and a handle underneath it that seemingly serves no purpose, as to open the door you must pull the plate. Yes, you pull the metal plate.

Only slightly more stupid than the ‘pull’ plate in this unfortunate set. (source)

For all the smoke and weird doors, though, I am sad to be leaving this country – this continent, really – in a few weeks. I’ve settled in quite well in my apartment, and I’ll miss cooking. For now I am making the most of it: tomorrow I will buy a whole chicken (hopefully my landlady’s rubbish knives are up to the task of chopping it up) and attempt to make chicken rice, that most wonderful of Singaporean dishes.

1. For further reading, Don Norman writes about doors quite a bit in The Design of Everyday Things.

2. While checking noun genders for the title of the post, I finally realized that Tor and Tür are actually not just different forms of the same word. An elementary mistake, but one unobtrustive enough that I’d never bothered to look it up. Wikipedia says:

Eine Tür, vor allem ober- und mitteldeutsch Türe, auch Tor für größere Exemplare, ist eine Einrichtung zum Schließen einer Öffnung in einer Wand, in einer Mauer, in einem Durchgang oder in einem Einstieg.

So a Tor is a large Tür – a large door. There doesn’t seem to be an exact definition, but often Tore (pl.) are more like gates – large, somewhat grand, two doors if there are any – for instance, das Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate. And of course, in football, a Tor is a goal.

Germans and their pedestrian crossings

Nearly every English-speaking German expat writes, with much glee, about how Germans will patiently wait 15 minutes for the walk signal to come on even if there have been no cars on the road for the past hour.

Note: I’m posting out of chronological order, because if I don’t, this blog will not be updated until climate change kills us all.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nearly every English-speaking German expat writes, with much glee, about how Germans will patiently wait 15 minutes for the walk signal to come on even if there have been no cars on the road for the past hour, and about how the easiest way to upset a German pedestrian’s travel plans is to tell them to take a route that does not involve clearly delineated road crossings, maybe throw in a war joke about how the Allies should have set up zebra crossings and red men. I suspect this is a Germany blogger initiation ritual of some kind; I’ll update you if I receive a membership card in the mail a few weeks after publishing this post.

Despite this, I have found in my 2.5 weeks here so far that the “Germans never jaywalk” stereotype is nowhere as extreme as most make it out to be. It’s been a little disappointing, to be honest, as I was looking forward to finally feeling comfortable about waiting for the walk signal to come on surrounded by my non-jaywalking brethren. Being at university has diluted it a great deal, but it still pleases my law-abiding Singaporean heart to only cross the road when the green man comes on.

Among the few other places in this country I’ve been to, the truth of the stereotype fluctuates quite drastically with how dense and urban the area is. It makes sense, I suppose – you should be the most careful in places where you think you’re the least likely to get hit by a car. Hence, mostly deserted suburban street in Mainz: traffic signals are the word of God. Quiet downtown Berlin: most people wait if there are cars in sight, but some do cross the road if it seems empty. Busy downtown Berlin: more jaywalkers than – I would say Elm Street*, but I don’t think anything in the Western world surpasses that, so let’s just say those parts of Berlin have lots of jaywalkers.

Central downtown Mannheim is the same as the last, although I think the jaywalkers here do not do it out of spite for rules, nor for convenience, really. I don’t even know if it counts as jaywalking if you have no other way of crossing the road: the urban planners in this city at some point thought to themselves “pah, who will ever need to cross Kurpfalzstrasse (for instance)? Anyone can get all they require in their half of the Quadrate!”. The section of Kurpfalzstrasse that I cross daily is just so blatantly unfriendly to foot traffic, with odd turns for traffic and several foot-snagging tram tracks laid on the already-uneven cobblestone (and no road crossings of course), that they couldn’t have been thinking anything else. More about Mannheim’s sometimes bizarre city layout later.

I think, though, that Germany bloggers shouldn’t make fun of traffic-light obedience so mercilessly. You do see flickers of irritation and self-doubt on people’s faces when they stand waiting by a road that has but one car in the far distance, happily and harmlessly trundling on at 5km/h…towards the collision that can only be averted if the pedestrians do not so much as take one foot off the sidewalk. They fiddle with shopping bags. There are anxious glances to the car and back to the traffic lights. People standing across each other on either side of the crossing avoid each other’s gazes, both knowing they seem a little foolish, and that in no way would their lives be endangered if they crossed the road, but yet…something compels them to remain waiting. Should I go or should I stay? Imagine having to enter this world of inner strife several times a day, every day. Have some sympathy.


*Actually, the section of Elm Street in New Haven that runs between two sides of the Yale campus must surely be one of the most jaywalked roads in North America, or at least New England.

Related reading: The Red Dictator: Crossing the Strasse