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German Vacation Habits (April 1, 2004)

A journalist notes that the German quest for the perfect vacation experience often ends in severe disappointment. Unrealistic expectations, he argues, have given rise to a culture of complaining, which finds ample and eloquent expression in the huge number of complaints filed with mass tourist organizations. The author finds it ironic that, for many Germans, the quest to expand their horizons through travel invariably leads to situations that reveal their true narrow mindedness. His wide-ranging article ends with a discussion of tourism in the new Eastern federal states.

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How the Germans Vacation

“Vacationing” is a very German verb. We take pains to broaden our horizons, go to court over cockroaches. And we think: tourists, they’re always those other people.

Hundreds of thousands of German vacationers sit in front of their computers after the holidays to vent. The verbosely recorded grievances read like so: “For reasons of age – I am 61, my wife 59 – we took ground-level apartment no. 234. Since the house was occupied solely by Germans, we often left the balcony door open at night. On the morning of the third day, I was awakened – along with many neighbors – by the shrill cries of my wife: a large German shepherd had jumped over the balcony railing and started licking my wife’s legs as she slept. She was not only paralyzed for minutes on end, but was so shocked, that the entire vacation became literally all about the dog. Since you are responsible for the safety of your guests, I will begin by demanding a refund of at least half of my wife’s travel expenses on account of this experience.”

Apart from Christmas, no other days of the year are subject to such pressure of expectations as vacation. It is quite possible to slide into a crisis or fall into a depression during one’s vacation time. What is psychologically difficult to resolve is quickly projected onto the external circumstances. If a cockroach scurries through the bathroom or a gecko hangs head down from the ceiling in the hotel, we end up in court months later. The smallest annoyances lead to large grievances. You can’t imagine what goes on in the legal departments of large German tourist organizations. Travel employees have become complaint managers, for the citizens of Germany have worked hard for the title “world champions of complaining.”

Germany was the first country in Europe that enshrined the right to travel in the Civil Code. The intent was to create concrete criteria for lawsuits and to make judicial discretion less of a factor in individual civil disputes. To that end, the jurist Otto Tempel created the so-called Frankfurt Table. It painstakingly lists what percentage of travel expenses can be demanded back for what sort of deficiency. Bugs get you between 10 and 50 percent; cockroaches, however, only count if there are more than ten.

No other nation of people insists on the perfect vacation experience as much as the Germans, and hardly any other nation uses the word vacation as a verb: vacationing! The person who vacations is not twiddling his thumbs; linguistics shows that vacation [Urlaub] in no way means the same as holidays [Ferien], that is to say, a day off or a public holiday. You start the active vacation by packing the Frankfurt Table into the suitcase (some add the cockroaches right then and there) in order to look for shortcomings instead of beautiful things at the destination. The German culture of complaint is spurred on by the tabloid press. With clockwork regularity, they publish the Frankfurt Table shortly before the beginning of the travel season, like some basic right to a discount. What they do not publish is the fact that only a fraction of all complaints yield the hoped-for success.

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