Eating and food are so intertwined with culture. German food is one thing, but how they eat is also a good way of seeing how society functions.
Mandi is an American native of Seattle who lived in New York city as well. Add living in some of the biggest cities in Germany, Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin, and she really knows her city life. She has been living in Germany with her German sweetheart since 2008. She offers this entry in the Life in Germany series about the Mensa and the lunchtime habits of her German coworkers. I never ate at the Mensa when I was as student or worked in a place with a canteen, so this was really interesting to read for me as well.
Pretty much my entire professional life in the U.S., I either packed my lunch or picked something up at a deli and ate at my desk. Most of the time this involved some version of a sandwich, veggies, and a sweet. Only rarely did I use my lunch hour as an actual break from work and seek out a hot meal somewhere with colleagues.
Cultural Differences at Mealtime
This all changed once I arrived in Germany. Unlike back at home, lunch is the main hot meal of the day in Germany, and dinner is typically bread with cheese or meat — hence the word Abendbrot, literally meaning “evening bread”. This threw me for a loop when I first arrived and would ask mein Schatz what we should have for dinner. Somehow his answer of Brot didn’t really seem sufficient from my American perspective!
But as I became familiar with the phenomenon of Kantinen/Mensen (cafeterias) in Germany, I began to see how it was possible to maintain this rather traditional (from my perspective) understanding of daily meals. Many large companies and universities provide a cafeteria for their employees and/or students to eat a reasonably priced hot meal for lunch. As I’ve always been associated with a university during my time in Germany, I’ve had a chance to see this concept in action both in Hamburg and Bremen.
Enter the Mensa
The Mensa (the university version of a cafeteria), is not just a place for students, but for all university employees and professors too. My undergrad university in the U.S. had a cafeteria of course, but it catered only to students living on campus and I only rarely saw a professor or any of the staff eating there. When I worked on my Masters degree in New York, we definitely did not have a cafeteria (unless you count the one associated with the hospital, which was not recommended as a decent food source) — instead we were limited to the bodegas in the neighborhood.
But these days, I spend almost every lunch break in the Mensa with my fellow colleagues and friends. The process usually begins around 11:45 am or so when someone sends a message over our intranet system asking “Lust auf Mensa um 12.30?” (i.e., “Wanna go to the cafeteria at 12:30?”). At the appointed time, everyone who’s around begins to slowly gather at our central meeting point, knocking on each other’s office doors along the way.
We typically have a choice of two different main meals — usually s traditional German dish with meat — a vegetarian meal, a salad bar, a wok bar, and a selection of casseroles, soups, desserts, and other side dishes. (You can check out this Week’s offerings online, if you’re curious.) Even after four years in Germany, my body still would rather fall asleep after a big, heavy lunch — so to avoid that, I usually end up with a salad or the veggie meal. Depending on what you select, the typical meal costs anywhere from 2 to 4 Euros. Not too shabby, really.
Once I’ve got my lunch, I search for my colleagues at “our spot” in the cafeteria. We eat, discuss our work, plan our weekends, and basically relax. Eating and running is frowned upon, and anyone who must immediately leave after finishing their meal (instead of sitting and chatting with others), is usually terribly apologetic and slightly embarrassed. Eventually, we (very) slowly make our way back to our offices, sometimes stopping along the way to pick up a coffee.
All in all, from start to finish, this process often takes one complete hour. Sometimes my American Protestant work ethic gets the best of me and I eat at my desk to be more “productive.” But I try not to make it a frequent habit. Over time, I have come to see the value in sitting down for a real meal and taking a real break from work. Even though this hour is “lost” working time, it makes me more productive in the long run and helps me avoid the typical afternoon slump I would so often experience in the U.S. I also appreciate the opportunity it provides to socialize with my colleagues, because once we’re back in our offices, doors are typically closed and everyone is concentrated and working hard.
I’ve come to the conclusion that cafeterias represent a lot more in German life than just a place to eat. For me they also symbolize the priority of maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and that is just one of the many reasons why I love living in Deutschland.