It’s the “Little Things,” Part 3

One of the things I really like about Germany (and that I’ll no doubt mention in my upcoming “I heart Deutschland!” post) is how green it is. Practically everywhere you go, you can find refuse receptacles divided into paper, plastic and garbage, giving you the option to recycle your newspaper instead of condemning it to a dump. We even have a “bio,” or composting container for the house where we can put coffee grinds, vegetable scraps, etc. that is emptied every week. This country is taking leaps towards making planet Earth happier, and I think that’s great.

So here’s what I don’t get, and I think it’s the no. 1 thing that bugging me about Germany right now: people don’t tend to drink tap water here, and they really think that you shouldn’t be, either.

Despite that fact that tap water in Germany is apparently considered “excellent” (http://www.thelocal.de/lifestyle/20100728-28789.html), many Germans don’t drink from the tap, even at home. Bottled water has, as of 2003, surpassed Germany’s per-capita consumption of beer . One might argue that this is a healthy trend of drinking less beer and more water, but I see the following problems with drinking such large quantities of bottled water: 1. it’s not very environmentally friendly and 2. it’s freakin’ expensive!

Still, I get it. Bottled water tends to taste better than the water that comes straight out of the tap here in Germany. I admit, I’ve struggled to adapt to how the water tastes in Würzburg as the water back in Edinburgh was absolutely superb – honestly, it was better than most bottled waters on the market. And there’s a lot of limescale here which is annoying the *%&$ out of me as it builds up on everything from the taps to the kettle (and I don’t even want to think about what it’s doing to our washing machine right now.) It also ruins a perfectly good cup of tea:

See the limescale "skin" on top? Yum....

But trust me, it could be worse. Growing up in rural Indiana, we had well water. As a kid, I didn’t particularly like drinking water but I also didn’t know that water could taste, well, good. The well water we had – while perfectly safe and healthy – always tasted and smelled slightly of rotten eggs. Nothing like a little sulphur smell to quench (or quell) your thirst!

Still, a Britta filter system goes a long way, in Germany or in Indiana, in helping water taste better. Not long after we moved here, the Mr. and I went out and bought a Britta. I won’t lie and say the water now tastes every bit as good as what you’d get from the bottle, but it is a big improvement both in terms of taste and I think even limescale reduction as my cup of tea seems to suffer less “skin” on top:

Limescale reduced!

Some limescale is still present, however, and no doubt bottled water would take care of the problem and lend itself to a more “perfect” cup of tea.  So…like I said….I get it. I do. Germany is a wealthy nation with a population that can afford “premium” water, so if that’s the choice that’s made, who am I to judge? I sometimes buy premium things when cheaper, more environmentally friendly options exist. I guess I’m making a similar choice when I go for the exotic fruit flown in from some far-flung region of the globe rather than the local apples, for example. So even if it’s not the best choice (environmentally or for the wallet), I can somehow understand and accept if Germans really want their bottled water instead of tap. But the biggest problem, and what does get my goat, is the reluctance to serve tap water in restaurants. Because then it’s not my choice to do something that’s more environmentally damaging; it’s forced on me.

Asking for tap water in a German restaurant is an embarrassing, nerve-wracking experience that probably won’t be met with an accommodating smile from your server. The social convention is that you order (and pay for, of course) still or sparkling bottled water – never tap. We’ve only asked for it (and only for me)  a couple of times since moving to Würzburg. I’ve heard in some cities waiters will flatly refuse to bring you a glass, and thankfully we haven’t encountered that yet, but asking for it so unpleasant that most of the time we simply cave and buy a bottle.

Still, there have been occasions when I’ve stubbornly asked for a glass out of principle. I mean, it’s water, for crying out loud! We all need to drink it, and if I’m already buying food, well, come on….The last time I made the Mr. ask was when we were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in town. It had been a very, very hot day and I was dying for a glass of water. We had already spent quite a bit of money that day on food, drink, etc. and I didn’t want to pay for a bottle, so I had the Mr. politely ask for a glass. The waiter seemed surprised, but did eventually bring it. It was about the size of a shot glass. Two sips later, my thirst wasn’t really quenched. I was desperate for more, but there was no way in hell I was asking for another glass. Just before we left, I went to the bathroom and quickly filled my water bottle from the tap when no one was around. I guess that would have been even more embarrassing had I been caught.

So why this reluctance to serve from the tap? Well, firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there are economic reasons. Restaurants make a heck of a lot of money off of bottled drinks, and obviously bottled water is a big seller here in Germany. No one in the hospitality industry wants that to change. Secondly, you do pay for water by usage here, so technically that glass of water isn’t “free.” Still, if the restaurant simply tacked on a few additional cents somewhere else in the menu, that would undoubtedly cover any extra costs of giving everyone a jug of tap water. Economic reasons alone don’t justify why no one wants tap water, however. As best as I can understand it, apart from the thinking that bottled water tastes better, it seems to have become almost something of a class issue here in Germany. You don’t drink tap water if you are wealthy enough to do otherwise. Asking for tap water has the appearance of being “cheap.” But I think it’s a sad way of thinking for a country that prides itself on being so green and socially aware. There are a heck of a lot of people in other parts of the world that would gladly accept a glass of clean and safe German tap water.

So here’s my request, dear German restaurant industry: Please don’t make your customers feel guilty, or cheap, just because they’d prefer to drink something more environmentally friendly from the tap. Thanks in advance. (P.S. In the meantime, I’m going to work on caring less what you think and ask for it anyway.)

Update: The Mr. and I had lunch yesterday in our favorite restaurant. We ordered a glass of wine for me and a large Radler (mix of beer and lemon-lime soda) for the Mr. True to my promise, I had the Mr. ask for a glass of tap water to accompany my wine. The waitress responded (very politely, I’ll give her credit) that they had small or large still water (to buy, of course. She didn’t actually say it, but the understood implication was there.) I knew it had to happen sooner or later, I just wish it hadn’t been at my favorite restaurant…sigh.

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About bittenbythebug

I love travel and have always been fascinated by other cultures. Back in 2004, I began my life as an expat in Edinburgh, Scotland. Fast forward 5 1/2 amazing years later to 2010 and the new chapter in my expat adventure: Würzburg, Germany.
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7 Responses to It’s the “Little Things,” Part 3

  1. Lindsey says:

    I totally agree! I actually get really frustrated with all of the bottled water consumed here in Florida. To be fair, it’s freakin’ hot out and it’s actually quite important to stay hydrated. That’s why I bought a small Nalgene bottle that I refill and take with me everywhere. And, thankfully, you can order free tap water anywhere and no one bats an eye (God bless America!).

    It does seem like an entrenched cultural thing in Germany that’s inconsistent with their otherwise environmentally-friendly ethos. But I can understand your reluctance to challenge the status quo. I guess I’d just try to be consistent with my own personal habits – and be evangelical about it with the locals!

    • I’ve also taken to carrying a water bottle with me, Lindsey. It makes a lot of sense when we’re out walking around (as we’d usually end up buying something if I didn’t carry any), and now I’m thinking I just always need to have it with me when we eat out, too. I can just nip to the loo when I need a sip! Strange as it may be, I guess no one would know except me =)

  2. Sarah1976 says:

    I hear you on the Kalk thing – it’s nasty and a pain to deal with until you get used to it. We’re Brita filterers and we buy bottles infrequently and usually refill them for sipping while out.

    You see a lot of water in plastic bottles at the grocery store, but I think for home consumption, most Germans buy crates of bottled water in glass bottles with hefty deposits from the Getränkemarkt. You can tell just by looking that those bottles have been frequently returned and refilled, so it doesn’t strike me as all that environmentally negligent. I find the deposit system is so ingrained here that you rarely see abandoned bottles.

    • The bottle return system here is brilliant, and I totally agree that it helps makes the consumption of so much bottled water more environmentally friendly. Still, all that water being shipped to the store had to be transported in some way that undoubtedly used fossil fuel…and each bottle has to be cleaned, too, using even more energy. However, as I said above, I’m no angel either when I’m eating a mango or papaya that wasn’t grown in Germany. But I am trying to make more of a conscious effort to think about it each time I buy something that isn’t grown locally or at least in Germany. And unfortunately mangoes don’t flow out the tap! I don’t know…I just can’t wrap my head around spending so much money on bottled water when what comes from the tap is often very good or easily improved with a Britta.

  3. fenella says:

    I totally concur with your frustration!! You should stick with it!

    I’ve never had a problem asking for it here in the UK, except at the Canny Man in Morningside. This place, a glorified pub, serves caviar on the menu! And they refused to give me water, so i made do without and have never been back again. In hindsight I wish I’d stood my ground and insisted on it. But then, it was the morning where I’d stayed up all night reading the last Harry Potter book which had come out the night before. So I wasn’t all there.

    Anyway, I’ve consulted a colleague and he says the phrase for “environmentally friendly” is umveltvertraglich (the a oomloud). So you should learn the word/phrase and use it to shame these restauranteurs!!

    • Oooh, that would be a useful phrase to know! I think my German will have be much improved before I have the guts to use it, however =)

      (Mia’s on my lap right now and is purring hello…)

  4. Pingback: I Heart Deutschland! | The Grass is Always Grüner

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