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It’s common knowledge, or at least it should be, that when you move to another country there are bound to be many, many differences in culture, customs and traditions. But sometimes, you just don’t know HOW big the differences are until you’ve been there long enough to make a huge a** list of all the differences between home and your adopted home country. But you know what they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, or I guess as the Germans say, “Other lands, other customs” (Andere Länder, andere Sitten).
Moving to Germany? PIN IT FOR LATER!!
Suuuure, you’re not likely to find Butterfingers, and Reese’s are hard to come by in Germany (I know, it’s a cryin’ shame!), but you can find other generalized American candies like Snickers and KitKat to cheer you up. Or perhaps you can’t find all those fabulous (and odd) flavors of chapstick.
Some differences will be obvious, like stores being closed on Sundays while others will take time to notice and will eventually sneak up on you, for example, when it takes you a few months to realize you don’t have a garbage disposal! (How can they live without this!!) Some might even get under your skin, like having to bag your own groceries while simultaneously paying for your groceries and not holding up the line. (Good luck with that one!!)
So, what are the things you won’t find here?
We’ll start with the previously mentioned and rate them on a scale of 1-5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on how often you can find the following, ranging from 1. NEVER 2. Almost Never 3. Sometimes, but hardly ever 4. On Special Occasions 5. Occasionally, depending on your location.
5. Occasionally, depending on your location ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Using Loud Appliances
Want to mow your lawn on a Sunday? Forget it. Need to blow dry your hair or wash your clothes after 8pm? Don’t even try. Have friends over and laughing too loudly or playing some music? Better hush them up! Germany is a country run on rules and regulations and breaking one could: 1. Cause you to be fined for noise intolerance or 2. Earn you a knock at the door by a grumpy neighbor enforcing the law. Depending on where you live, either the apartment building or your local community, you’ll need to learn how not to disturb the peace.
- Using Credit Cards
If you’re accustomed to whipping out your credit card and paying for things with a swipe of your card, even if its only $5, you might as well cut it up when you get to Germany. Cash is King in Germany and and unlike the US, Canada, the UK or even Sweden, Germans are hesitant to swipe the card when there is no monthly balance on the account. Typically, the larger the city, the more likely you’ll be able to pay with your cards, however, you should always ask “Nehmen Sie Kredit Karte?” (Do you take credit cards?) Many restaurants and shops don’t accept it because they claim it costs too much money to have the machine and service, while others are just simply stuck in the past. Sometimes, it honestly seems that by not accepting credit cards, some businesses are just hurting themselves and may loose customers who won’t come back.
- Special Appliances like Dryers and Dishwashers
Are hard to come by and if you move into an apartment that has one or both, consider yourself lucky. That or you’ve moved into a relatively newer apartment, but older ones from the 80s are less likely to have the room for either. These are loud, unnecessary machines that use a lot of water when you could simply hand wash your dishes yourself or hang dry your clothes on a rack. However, the bigger the apartment/house the more likely you’ll have the room for one or both. Especially if you live out of the city center.
4. Only on Special Occasions ⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Stores Open on Sundays
Before even moving to Germany, you might as well get used to EVERYTHING except restaurants, bars and cafes being closed on Sundays. Germany has some of the strictest laws in Europe about businesses being open on a Sunday as it’s considered a “day of rest” and everyone is entitled to it. If you want to go shopping on a Sunday, you’ll be hard pressed and may have to resort to a train station market or a gas station. Only during the Christmas Advent season and the occasional special Sundays will you find stores open on a Sunday but are limited to a few times a year, possibly a maximum of 4 times a year, and this is completely optional.
- Semi-Trucks Driving on Sundays
Germany’s day of rest also applies to truck drivers. Sundays are a day for truck drivers to pull over and get some much needed rest, freeing up the freeways for those who want to go on a leisurely Sunday drive. Unless the truck has special permission or is carrying perishable goods, a trucker can hit the roads on Sunday. Road trips no longer seem tedious and you’ve got nothing but open roads ahead of you. Traffic? Nope. Put the peddle to the medal!
3. Sometimes, but hardly ever
- Grocery Baggers
North Americans are accustomed to a smooth, leisurely experience while checking out at a grocery store, maybe even a little banter back and forth with the cashier and possibly ask if you found everything you needed.
If you’re a new expat to Germany, NOTHING, I mean nothing can prepare you in the art of self-bagging your groceries as quickly as possible. Not only are you expected to bag your own goods, but do it simultaneously while trying to pay with either an EC card or cash and not holding up the line like a complete and utter newbie! Speaking of bagging, bags aren’t free so you’ll be required to either buy some while checking out, or bring your own and manage to sufficiently stuff everything in the bag (or backpack or whatever means available to you) without smashing your eggs. You won’t find baggers to help you separate your cold goods and your boxed goods and be handed your groceries with a smile and “Thank you for shopping at …”. Holding up the line will surely earn you a few huffs & puffs from impatient shoppers and the cashier with an outstretched hand.
- The only store I have ever found which actually employs baggers are Edeka and usually they expect a tip! (Gasp!)
- Liquor Stores
Unlike the US, you won’t find (gargantuan) liquor stores in Germany filled to the max of every brand of vodka, whiskey, beer, wine and more. Nope. Here, the only place you can buy your alcohol is at the grocery store and even then, the selection is very small and usually consists of 90% German beers and 9% wine and schnapps with only about 1% foreign alcohol. Forgot to buy your beer before store closing hours before Sunday? Well, then you’re S-O-L and will have to wait till the next business day or run to a gas station. There are no late night liquor shops selling alcohol until 2am. Perhaps you can find a small shop selling some alcohol, but this is usually geared towards clubbers and party peeps.
- Getting ID’d for Alcohol & Cigarettes
In the last few years, this has become a hot topic in Germany about whether or not to enforc the law about checking ID’d before purchase of cigarettes and alcohol. At 16, teens are legally allowed to drink & buy beer and wine but only at 18 years old are they allowed to buy hard liquor or cigarettes. Yet, I have actually never seen anyone in the last 5 years ID any of the young teens to double check they are of age before purchase. In the last 5 years, I have been ID’d once at the grocery store but never in a restaurant unlike in the US. No matter if you’re 18, 21 or 50, you’re ID’d no matter how much grey hair you have, because one can never be too sure of someone’s age and the last thing you want is to loose your business or liquor license for selling to under age minors. Now I don’t have to be embarrassed by my age every time I whip out my ID, although it would make me feel young again!
- Ice cubes in Cold Drinks
While many beverages are served cold nowadays, there is still a misconception about Germany that drinks are served room temperature and that finding a soft drink that actually comes with ice cubes is almost next to impossible. You’ll never find ice cubes in your drinks at a restaurant, however, if you go to a McDonald’s or any other American fast food joint, you’ll be given some, but not much ice in your drink. And sometimes, you have to specify that you would like Eiswürfel in your drink. And let’s talk about German beer. It IS served cold, but not ice cold like in the states. No mountains turning blue here!
- Free Public Toilets
Prepare to hold on to your spare change! 99% of the time, you will always have to pay .30-.50 cents to use a public restroom usually to a staff member whose jobs it is to maintain the cleanliness of the restroom. If the toilet is free, you’ll be expected to buy something in the establishment in return for using their toilets. However, that doesn’t mean free public toilets aren’t out there. Over time, you’ll learn which establishments you can sneak into and use the bathroom without paying a penny, and if you visit a McDonald’s or other American fast food chain, you’ll almost always find free public toilets, especially when out of the city center. In the city center, they’ll ask you to show proof that you are a paying customer there, and often you’ll find a bathroom code on your receipt. You can also find free public restrooms in town and along the autobahn, but these are rarely adequate or clean. Better learn to pop a squat!
- Drive-Through Services
Used to driving through Starbucks to get your coffee, then going over to the bank to get money out before going to Walgreens to pick up your prescription, all without getting out of the car? Say goodbye to those lazy days! You won’t find many places that offer drive thrus other than fast food joints out of the city center. You’ll have to park at each place or even walk to each location, so you might want to save your comfy sweat pants for a day when you don’t plan to leave the house. However, on occasion, you may find a drive through bakery, but generally, these aren’t the most delicious.
- Being Fined for Public Intoxication or Public Indecency
It’s rare to see people peeing in public or passing out at the train stations in the US, although it does happen. But here in Germany, it’s a daily, even hourly occurrence. I know this is overgeneralizing all Germans, as not all Germans do this, but it is such a common occurrence, it’s seriously a big problem.
Some Germans unfortunately learn at a young age they can just pee where they please, even if it’s at the bushes of a train station or on a beautiful mountain with gorgeous views. I’ve even seen women pop a squat in broad daylight in a busy walking path and a man taking a poo in a bush all within 10 feet of a local police station and yet, no one cared to report it but looked in disgust. If they are caught, the fine could be between 35 € to a couple of hundred but it certainly wouldn’t even break the bank to encourage them not to do it again.
Same goes with being drunk in public. Drinking and carrying an open bottle of alcohol in public is completely normal here. Unfortunately, those who really abuse this privilege hang out in places like the bus or train stations, closest to a grocery store where they can sit and drink. During months where there are beer festivals, it’s not completely uncommon to find someone passed out, spread eagle in the middle of a train station. The police or hospital personnel will come, administer the patient before taking him to the hospital to sleep it off without the slightest fine.
2. Almost Never ⭐⭐
- Air Conditioning
You might as well say goodbye to the comfort of having air conditioning in Germany. It rarely gets hot enough to actually have one, and when it does, it’s only for a short time. Say hellllloo to a having a traditional fan on high or going for an afternoon drive just to cool off in your car with AC. However, you can find (Klimaanlage) often in shopping centers, large companies or movie theaters, but on so low it hardly makes a difference. You’ll won’t find air conditioning doing any good whatsoever while in a packed movie theater or even a bus so hot people are fanning themselves with whatever means possible. You may even find yourself in a friend’s car who still refuses to turn on the air conditioning because Germans are fickle about becoming too cold. However, you can find it in office buildings and there’s of course, the office battle over being too cold/too hot.
- Open Windows & Fresh Air
Like with air conditioning, Germans are deathly afraid of opening the windows to allow a cool breeze of fresh air to come in and take away that warm, muggy, smell in a room. Germans absolutely dread the cool breeze on the back of their necks and often retort “Es gibt ein Zug!” or “Es zieht!” (There’s a breeze!) They would rather sit in a stifling hot room, even on a hot, hot day than to have fresh air blowing on them for fear of catching a cold.
- Highway Patrol
You’ll never see state police patrolling the autobahn quite so heavily as they do in the states. Here, there is no fear that a police officer will pull you over along the side of the autobahn. No, here they are more conspicuous and drive around in average looking cars using speed cameras to catch you in the act. But they still won’t pull you over, but instead that speeding ticket will come in the mail but it won’t quite break the bank as compared to the States.
- Salad Dressings at Restaurants
Ranch? Blue Cheese? Italian? Caeser? Nope, nope and nope. You won’t find those here nor will you be offered any dressing options with your salad. You’ll get the house salad which may either come very sweet or very sour while other times it may just be a liquidy white yogurt dressing often will dill. You may also find your salad covered in a balsamic vinaigrette, but that’s it! However, if you go to a restaurant even remotely “American” you may be able to find a Caeser Salad, but they still won’t know what Ranch is. Obviously, if you go to a grocery store, it’s possible to find “American Dressing” and other salad dressing flavors, but you’ll never be served these flavors at a restaurant.
- Engagement Rings & Party
While it might be common in the US to have a two-piece ring to be melded together after the wedding ceremony or to receive the entire ring upon the proposal, Germans don’t exchange rings until they say ‘I Do’. However, sometimes, couples may buy a simple silver ring as the engagement ring and replace it with a gold band on the wedding day. Nor are the rings bling, blingy. There is no engagement ring and an engagement party to celebrate the future of two families becoming one like in the States. Newly engaged couples will be congratulated but not much more beyond that. There will be no shower of gifts and parties on the Bride-to-Be with all of the pomp and ceremony.
1. NEVER, EVER!! ⭐
- Free Refills
Don’t expect to be continuously served unlimited soft drinks, coffee or water while you enjoy your meal at a restaurant. There is no buy one, get as many refills as you want for free unlike in the US or Canada. You’ll have to pay for each glass, which will surely help you to cut back on your caffeine intake.
And you definitely will NEVER receive a free glass of water and you’ll have to specify if you want plain water (stilles Wasser) or water with gas (Wasser mit Kohlensäure). You can attempt to ask for tap water (Leitungswasser), but you’ll rarely be given a glass. If you do, you may get it in the size of a shot glass as a side to a coffee which you’re forced to order if you want it.
- Additional Sales Tax
Unlike in America, in Germany you will pay the exact price on the price tag. None of this $9.99 + tax which you never know how much it will be depending on the city or state that you’re in. The tax or VAT is always already included in the price that you pay and you won’t be taken by surprise at the register by the increase in price which many Germans discover upon their first visit to the US.
- Church Marriages
While church weddings are quite common and popular in the US, here in Germany, they are more for ceremony. You must register your marriage at the Standesamt (Registry Office), but you can get married at the City Hall or anywhere where there is a room dedicated to weddings which is always conducted by a city clerk. Being married outside for example, at a park or the beach by a friend or family member with a license to marry is absolutely forbidden. You can however do this as a personal ceremony and many people tend to have two weddings; the official and the personal.
- Non-Smoking Zones Outside
While it is different from state to state, smoking in doors is forbidden, especially in states like Bavaria and Baden-Württemburg. However, it is not illegal to smoke outdoors and you certainly won’t find a non-smoking section at a biergarten or restaurant with outdoor seating and this can be rather annoying especially if you’re pregnant or simply hate the smell of smoke. There’s nothing stopping someone from sitting down at the table next to you and lighting up. Despite so many people despising cigarette smoke being blown their way, there seems to be little interest in changing this and I have been known to move tables or politely ask someone not to smoke. While they are entitled to smoke wherever they please, I am equally entitled to healthy, fresh air!
- Window Screens
Quite possibly my biggest pet peeve are the amount of bugs, bees and flies that make it into my house during warmer months when I have the windows open. While this year there was hardly any mosquitoes, they can be quite pesky given a wet and rainy spring. You’ll almost NEVER find any apartment or house with fitted window screens and if you do, they were added as a luxury item. My husband and I have bought cheap Fliegennetz and tapped them to all of our windows as I believe in having fresh air at all times and despise bugs. You can often find these near gardening section of Kaufland, REAL or Baumarkt for a few euros otherwise you might want to invest in bug spray or mosquito repellent.
- Over-the-Counter Medicine
Have a headache but no Tylenol or Advil? Have the common cold but need NyQuil? You can’t just simply run to the nearest grocery store to pick some up. Here in Germany, you’ll need to find the nearest Apotheke (Pharmacy) to get some, and while you’re there, spend 5 minutes being told how to use what you already know how to use before they even hand over the goods. Germany is very strict about handing out medicine and while Germans all seem to be incredibly knowledgeable about medicines, it’s probably more from the fact that they’re all a bunch of germaphobes.
Wake up sick on a Sunday or public holiday? You’ll have to research online first which Apotheke is open as they all take turns being open on a Sunday, despite the fact that you’re dying of a fever or can’t breathe through your nose. The annoying thing is, is that German Tylenol or Advil is never ever as strong as the American version, so you might as well bring over a big Costco bottle when you move. And don’t bother having mom and dad mail you some, as the Zoll (Customs) will take it.
- Garbage Disposals
Are illegal in Germany! What!? Nope, I’m not kidding. And actually, this is a European wide regulated object and hasn’t been allowed in Germany since the 50s. It isn’t impossible to get one, although it could cause problems later down the road.
The disposal of waste is the responsibility of the individual and is thoroughly sorted before being thrown out. Trash is divided into biodegradable and non-biodegradable trash which is then divided into plastic, paper, metal and glass. It may dawn on you after a few days of living here, that there is no way to wash down and destroy and bits of food lingering in your sink and that there is a small filter over the drain which keeps a majority of food from going into the sewer system. People who don’t separate their biodegradable food often wash it down in the toilet than risk it oozing out of your trash bag.
Flipping The Middle Finger
No matter where you live, flipping someone the bird (Stinkfinger) is considered offensive, but in the US, it is quite common, especially when road rage is involved. In Germany, it’s illegal to flip the bird or any other form of offending someone in public due to a 19th century law that is still in place. While it has been known to happen, most Germans absolutely shy away from flipping the “Stinky Finger” for fear of ending up in the prosecutor’s office and having to explain the reason behind it or you may have to pay a a hefty fine. It is so serious, that the person offended will remind you it’s illegal. Don’t ask me how I know…
Writing a Check
One thing many Americans will be likely to be thankful for once moving to Germany is that they’ll never need to whip out their checkbooks and write someone a check nor run to the bank to cash or deposit one. Nope. Germany is a check-free country and all payments and deposits are automatic. So automatic, you can not even apply for an apartment or job until you have a bank account because all transactions come in and out automatically. For a country that is a “Cash only” country, it’s surprising that automatic payments play such a big role in the every day lives of Germans. This makes it much harder for people to “live off the grid”. Throw away that pesky checkbook!