The Magazine

Ich Bin Ein Slacker

The demise of the German work ethic.

Aug 12, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 46 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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Breakfast in Berlin is brilliant. My favorite place to go is the Mokkabar, a cafe in Kreuzberg, the district where violent lefties used to blow up cars and that the city's Turks have always called home. Today, Kreuzberg, at least the neighborhood of the Mokkabar, has calmed down. It's lively, gentrified, charming, and true Multikulti, as the Germans say. I used to think European breakfasts were always those underwhelming little plates with a couple of pieces of hundred-grain bread and a vastly under-boiled egg.

Not so in Berlin. Here you get plates--platters, really--stacked with salmon, fresh cheeses, assorted meats, scrambled eggs, a variety of fruit, warm croissants, bagels, and pancakes if you like. Everyone drinks the Berliner Milchkaffee, a delicious cafe au lait, served in a bright and colorful oversized coffee cup nearly the size of a small beer stein. There are plenty of freshly squeezed juices. Take your pick.

There's only one catch: The service at the Mokkabar, like nearly that at every restaurant and bar in the city, is, well, miserable. This is not the French waiter syndrome. True, there's plenty of anti-Americanism to go around among Euro-Gaullist elites. But the average Berliner, unlike the Parisian, for example, feels relaxed and actually likes the Americans. I haven't yet encountered an ordinary burgher drooling with rage over the death penalty in America or our skepticism about the International Criminal Court. No, this has nothing to do with Americans or other foreigners for that matter.

It turns out millions of Germans are suffering every day, too. I used to think we Americans had our problems. We do. But then I learned a secret: Bad service in Germany is about a system (this is the country of Hegel, after all, and everything in Germany is a system).

Once upon a time, Germans had a world-class work ethic. But as the economy prospered and the welfare state grew over the years, it gave way to a world-class German leisure ethic. Germans spend quite a bit of time on this. The German daily S ddeutsche Zeitung recently published four pages on "the Science of Vacation." A lead article discussed "The Problems of Relaxation: A Phenomenology of a Distorted Perception." In another piece, a professor from the University of Marburg speculated that certain vacations could result in a decrease in IQ of about three-quarters of a point. Having fun has become serious business in Germany.

It's no wonder. Germans have a 38-hour work week, five to six weeks' vacation annually, plus Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ash Wednesday, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost, All Saints' Day, Labor Day, National Unity Day, and a good handful of other holidays, depending on what state you live in. Germans also get a bonus in the summer called Urlaubsgeld--vacation money. It's easy to see how managing free time can get stressful. For some Germans, their adrenaline flows more talking about being elected vice president of the tennis club than being promoted to vice president of their business.

Back to the Mokkabar. Once upon a time Germans also had their equivalent to the "customer is always right" ("Der Kunde ist K nig," they used to say, or, "the customer is king"). Today, though, the employee has become emperor in the "social-market economy," which means when it comes to service, if you are on the customer's side of things you usually lose. In a restaurant like my Mokkabar, for instance, it's easy to sit endlessly waiting for even a menu, while the waitresses chain-smoke and sip espresso at the bar.

Employees in Germany enjoy generous mandated breaks and, for some, even a Pinkelpause (literally, a "peeing break," to which the worker has a legal right since the normal breaks are generally not considered to be enough). Match this up with a strong sense of superiority in the relationship, and it all spells trouble if you want to boldly ask something like, "What's the soup of the day?"

Everyone has his sad customer stories. Last week, I took a blazer to an alterations shop in a busy downtown area near Friedrichstrasse first thing in the morning. I could not find a needle and thread at home and needed a simple button sewn back on. This was Wednesday morning and the young woman on the other side informed me that I could pick up the jacket next Tuesday. When I asked if there was not some kind of express service--I needed the jacket that night--she scowled. This, it seems, was the express service.