If I could give the Anna of yonder (or you, dear reader) some advice before upping and moving to Deutschland, the following culturally quirky FYI’s would be handy to note:
You will get more of a culture shock than you think
Assuming all Western societies are similar is a huge faux pas. Germans speak frankly, they don’t have time for nattering about the weather or your plants, they aren’t easy to make connections or good friends with (but when you graft hard, the results are more than worth it). Different things are considered rude and polite, business is conducted in a far more ordered and ‘field-specific’ manner, colleagues usually just remain colleagues, and are not your friends. These are just the basic mannerisms – in terms of society, hierarchy, cultural events and religion, Germany pretty much contradicts everything about the chilled out Kiwi environment I grew up in.
You will buy a bicycle, and you will ride it
A year ago, if you told any member of my family that I would ever a) own and b) ride a bicycle to get from A to B, they would have laughed in your face. I am now the owner of 2 hot wheels, a flashy, purple bad boy, lovingly christened Bikel Jackson. While I do have a love/hate relationship with old Bikel (I’m still not quite at terms with the road rules and holding my own against aggressive cyclists here), I truly appreciate the ease and efficiency you can get about with just a bit of (wo)man power.
You really need to up your Deutsch
I studied German long before I moved here, and i’m lucky enough to have some German family. I live in Berlin, which could be considered a bilingual city. I have it easier than most, but I still struggle in some settings due to language limitations. The number of expats who move to Germany and expect everyone to be able to communicate with them in English is astounding. Outside of the cities (and even inside some of them) it is not necessarily a guarantee that people will be able to understand you at all. In addition to this, you will find it nigh on impossible to conduct your day to day business, find a decent job, and deal with bureaucracy without some modicum of German – most officials will not, or are reluctant to communicate in English.
Yes German is hard, yes you could deem the grammar to be the theoretical 10th circle of Dante’s hell, but you will find if you make the effort to speak a few words and listen, that Germans are incredibly patient and more than happy to help you out. Plus the language can be super cute with its crack-up literal translations. For instance, do you know what a light bulb is? A glow pear. Do you know what a tyre is? A go wheel. Gloves? Hand shoes! The list goes on and on.
You will get swept up in Bureaucracy
Bescheinigung? Führerschein? Have you got a license for that? A piece of paper in triplicate with one line of text and an important stamp? No? Get out. One thing I love about living in Germany is that there is a place for, and a way to do everything – the order may be banal but it really does make your life far more organised and efficient. The downside? The time spent feeling frustrated with the cycle (you need A to get B, but you can’t get A without first having B), waiting endlessly for appointments at your respective Bürgeramt or the dreaded Ausländerbehörde, the reluctance to conduct any official business in English (fair though) and the inability to do anything unless you have it confirmed on paper, with multiple back up copies. Even the few occasions I have been able to confirm something online, I get a letter, or something I have to print off and post back to confirm anyway (save some trees you Germans please).
You will get fat
Beer. Bread. Cake. Cheese. Christmas. Glühwein. All of these things contribute to German cuisine. All of these things contribute to making your thighs wibbly. All of these things are delicious. All of these things really need to be enjoyed in moderation (whoops).
You will use an actual ATM for the first time in years
Germans historically tend to have an inherent distrust of intangible money – so cash remains king here. A lot of cafes/restaurants, bars and corner stores only take cash, and look at you as though you’ve sprouted a third head if you ask to pay by card.
Your hair and skin will suffer
This is region specific, but Berlin has extremely hard water – this means that the water is chock full of minerals such as calcium and magnesium – as a result, when these chemicals come into direct contact with your skin, they do as chemicals are wont to do, and react. If you have problem skin (me), or curly/dry hair (also me), beware – the water never truly feels wet on your hair, you will get lizard level scaly, and everything above the shoulders will need a solid weekly drenching in moisturiser. If you move to Berlin or Hamburg, invest in a shower filter and some decent hydrating products.
Sunday used to be my day for brunching, cleaning, going to do the weekly shop and getting organised for the week ahead. Not so my friends – Sunday here is a day off for everyone. Every store except the bakery (asking a German to forgo their daily bread is SACRILEGE) is closed. Some exceptions exist in the cities, but in general, Sunday is a day for peace and quiet (literally, it’s a law and you can be fined for playing loud music, vacuuming etc. if your neighbours complain) – you’ll just have to be German and organise ahead of time.
You will recycle like the world is ending
Germans recycle with joie de vivre – every bit of rubbish gets separated into organic waste, paper, plastic and glass to minimise environmental impact. To mix waste is frowned upon, and can elicit at worst a stern telling off and at least a passive aggressive letter on your apartment door. In addition to this, you can utilise the marvellous Pfand (deposit) system, where you get money back for returning your marked bottles instead of just chucking them (which is excellent – I usually end up saving around 5 EUR a shop).
You will sacrifice a small amount of your soul in taxes and insurance. But the benefits will balance it out.
Living in Germany means a healthy chunk of your pay packet gets snatched before it even trickles into your bank account – you have to pay mandatory general tax, mandatory health insurance, mandatory unemployment insurance, mandatory retirement insurance, (insurance is a big deal here y’all) and if you’re religiously affiliated, wahey they whack on a church tax for your chosen denomination as well. All in all, looking at your first pay slip can be somewhat depressing. The payoff though? You get access to one of the best systems of healthcare in the world and they WANT you to use it (it is extremely difficult to get fired if you are actually sick *cough* United States *cough*). You can be educated at secondary and tertiary level for free. Found yourself without a contract extension? Good guy Germany will cover your rent for a bit, and help you find a new job.
You should not have packed heels
Cobblestones. You don’t want to be the chump doing the ol’ cobble hobble on a night out. Need I say more?
Your contracts automatically renew
Even if there is an end date specified on your nice shiny official piece of paper, unless you ACTUALLY confirm that you want your contract to end on this date (three months in advance minimum), it will automatically renew. This has been learned the hard way.
It will take some time to acclimatise to your new bed
The pillows are large, square and flat (y tho) instead of perfectly plump, medium rectangles. There are no top sheets. If there are two of you, you get a single size duvet each, exposing the vulnerable bottom sheet beneath. Not very pinterest-worthy and sadly not very comfy on the ol’ Kopf.
You will miss spicy food
Maybe this is a result of being a bit spoilt for choice in Oceania with a huge Pacific/Asian influence on the cuisine, but in comparison, German food cannot hold a torch, nay, not even a nubby wick to the gloriously spicy food I used to have access to. Generally, Germans don’t love spice. As a result, even the Asian places are reluctant to lay it on heavy here, for fear of fending off actual paying customers.
You will bake cake for everyone else on your birthday
You read that right. Scene: it’s your birthday. Not only do YOU have to make the effort to bake/bring a cake for all your friends and colleagues to scoff, you also have to foot the bill for any resulting celebrations. Thought going for drinks would be fun? A spa day with the girls? If you’re on a budget – think again, your birthday = your shout. The only good thing is although you may have to do this for your friends once a year, in return you can expect to be ‘invited’ to your friends’ respective celebrations as well.
You will be told off
Germans are direct. If you are putting a toe out of line, you can expect a lecture from a pedantic do-gooder. Things I have been told off for so far include: Jay-walking (you can actually get fined for this), grilling on a BBQ exactly 47cm away from where the designated grill area officially starts (this is not a joke, the guy measured it with a ruler – also who casually carries a ruler in their bag?!), asking for the price of a T-shirt with no price tag, cycling with one broken light even though the other worked, and wearing shorts that were too short for the cold weather – all by complete strangers.
You will pay to access basic human rights
This is a controversial one, but bear with me here. I have spent the majority of my life in New Zealand, and while it is a luxury, I believe that if you live in a country that calls itself first world that you should have free access to clean drinking water, and a toilet. In Germany you have to pay for water at cafes and restaurants (you can of course, ask for tap water, but in the past I’ve been sneered at by the waiter for being cheap (which I don’t really care about), and actually point blank refused (which I do) – dude I can see a tap through your kitchen window). You also have to pay to access a public bathroom if you are not a paying customer – even if it’s an emergency you can’t pop into the loo at Maccas without coughing up first. To be fair, I do get this one – bathroom maintenance costs time and money and some poor sod has to clean it. But going from having the privilege of free water and a free place to pee, to not necessarily having either was a rude awakening.
You will come to realise how diverse Germany really is
Germany is fantastically rich with history and a result, each region has its own equally rich culture and unique traditions. There is a huge divide between North (Hochdeutsch, potato salad with mayo, reserved people, Aldi Nord) and the South (undecipherable accents, potato salad with vinegar, friendlier people, Aldi Süd), and of course the historical divide between the East which spent over 40 years under communism, and the West who interacted freely with the rest of the world over the same period of time. These separations have created a country full of regions so different from their neighbouring counterparts, that occasionally you have to check whether you’re still in the same country at all. When people say that Germans don’t show national pride, I would have to make a counter point and say that they definitely celebrate regional pride – the difference and diversity in culture between them is quite an experience.