This autumn marks my four year Berliniversary—four years living in Germany. Oh mein Gott. Though I’ve lived abroad a few other times as a student and a “slow” traveler, this has been my first real experience living abroad. Without question, it’s been a learning experience and I’ve come away with a lot of great stories. Everything from the process of moving to a new country, embracing a new culture, learning a new language and a million other things.
I never expected to live in Germany, but four years on, here I am. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way…
What I Wish I’d Known Before Moving to Germany
When I moved to Germany, I didn’t know a lot. I came here with exactly four German words in my vocabulary (Bier, Hallo!, dankeschön and Kindergarten… I am not counting words like Nazi and Führer). While I was able to move here kind of on a spur-of-the-moment decision (what means war with the Ausländerbehörde), there are a lot of things I wish I’d known before making such a big decision…
Learning German is Essential
While it might seem like a monumental task at the beginning, learning the language will make your life easier and way more fun while living in Germany. Sometimes you find yourself in a club and the guy on the dance floor next to you whispers in your ear. This is an instance when knowing German is helpful. (Trust me: this comes from personal experience!)
Of course, the language is also important for finding jobs, getting visas, visiting all the Amts and dealing with the bureaucracy of living abroad. Even though people in bigger cities (hallo Berlin!) tend to speak English, it’s not always the case. Plus, a language that has a word like bitte which can be used for just about any situation, it’s really not that difficult to pick up essential words to know. It’ll help you get further in your expat experience.
Related: 15 Fun German Words to Know
In every city across Germany you’ll find Volkshochschule which are local community schools which offer classes in everything from art & web design to language classes including German. Another good way is to attend language exchanges and meet-ups. The InterNations website organizes regular meet-ups in most major German cities, making it a good way to try out your language skills—plus meet other expats. Otherwise, in Berlin, I co-host a series of “Make Friends in Berlin” events. Find those here.
Germans Love Their Bikes (and So Should You!)
Germans are avid cyclists, and for a reason. The city infrastructure is usually built with cycling in mind, meaning bike lanes can be found almost everywhere. When moving to a new city, cycling is usually the best and the cheapest way to get to know your surroundings. Used bikes aren’t usually expensive, and several cities have bike-sharing services where you can use the public bikes for a small annual fee. Bonus: they’re emission free and will help to burn those extra calories from all the beer and sausages you stuff in your mouth.
Cash is King
Do not ever assume that your card will work at any shop, restaurant or ticket machine. No matter if it’s credit or debit, German or international, most of the time it just won’t be accepted. Many places don’t accept EC (electronic cash/debit) below a certain amount (usually 5€ or 10€).
Grocery stores are one of the few places I’ve found where credit cards are almost always accepted for any amount.
Electronic Music Is All You’ll Hear
Germany is famous for its techno music scene. You might think it’s a stereotype, but I dare you to go out to a club in Berlin and not hear some form of electronic music. Even smaller clubs tend to have at least one night a week with techno, but really: it’s the bigger nightclubs that you’ll want to experience for electronic music. I don’t know why electronic music is so popular in Germany, but it is. Maybe it’s the country’s history, or the fact that so many of the world’s best techno DJs have come out of Germany (sorry, Bristol).
Even if electronic music isn’t your thing, give it a chance. In the right club atmosphere, you’ll find yourself swept away by the beats and the crowds.
German Food is More Than Just Wurst & Bier
Saying that, as an expat, at some point you’ll probably start to crave your favorite foods from back home. Luckily, Germany has a relatively diverse cuisine—more so than you might initially expect! Even if you can’t find your favorite international foods quite as easy, there are specialty food shops and international supermarkets (plus more than a few online services) to get what you might miss from home.
In Germany, though, you’ll also find a lot of Italian and Turkish food options. American-style burgers are currently all the rage throughout the country, as is vegan & vegetarian food. And even when you’re craving German food in Germany, know that your options extend beyond sausages, beer and potatoes. Käsespätzle is a sort of mac & cheese perfect for the winter (or as a vegetarian option in most German restaurants) and the huge variety of meats make it easy to try new foods.
Fizzy Drinks Are Awesome
I’m not 100% sure why, but Germans have a fixation with carbonated drinks. Water is always sparkling, unless otherwise specified. When you want to order water without the bubbles, ask for stilles Wasser (or Leitungswasser if you want it from the tap—but be warned they might not offer it to you for free!).
I won’t lie—I didn’t like sparkling water or many fizzy drinks before moving to Germany, but now it’s a staple of most of my meals out. Germans don’t just make their water fizzy, though. It’s also in their beer. Beer in Germany is generally excellent, perhaps predictably. Even the smallest village seems to have their own brewery. And in the summer, nothing is better than a Radler (a mix of beer with lemonade) or even a Diesel (a mix of beer with cola). There are also a variety of hipster soft drinks of every stripe available. Try the German brand Fritz Kola, out of Hamburg but widely available in Germany (and even across Europe).
Everything Can Be Recycled
Germans have a predilection for Ordnung, or order/discipline. And anyone who’s been to Germany will attest to the fact that everything can be organized—especially the trash. Glass bottles are separated by color. Organic waste goes in its own special bins. Paper and electronics are separated. Everything has its place. All the grocery stores have places to deposit bottles where you’ll get change back, ranging from 8 to 15 cents. In some cities, it’s quite common to leave beer bottles out on the sidewalk for the homeless and other bottle collectors to pick up.
The longer you stay in Germany, the better you get at organizing things. It’s actually quite a comforting thing—knowing that your trash is going to be recycled. You will be a fan of green energy too, it is simply contagious: I am nuclear-free. Plus, wind turbines are an essential part of Germany’s landscape, and you will love to see them from your train or your bus while crossing the German countryside.
There’s a Place for Everything
It’s not just your plastics and papers that can be sorted, but just about everything else in Germany has its own special place and rules. You might think the stereotype of German bureaucracy & paperwork is a myth, but it’s not. Rules are followed to the letter in Germany. There’s an Amt (office) for everything—from registering your address at the Bürgeramt to dealing with the Ordnungsamt.
The rules go so far that even jaywalking is considered a serious offense. Trust me: try to cross an empty street when the Ampelmännchen is red. Just don’t tell people I told you to do it! (I have seen people screaming “children killer!” to someone who crosses the street with a red light, because in good German logic, children see you breaking the law and will follow your example.)
Related: Hipster Guide to Berlin
Social Media Will Always Help
I don’t think I could’ve effectively made Germany my home without a network of friends, those people that had moved here around the same time, or those long-time locals who I was lucky enough to meet in my early days living here. Starting out in a new country, you usually don’t know many people in the beginning. I came to Berlin and knew no one.
And while Germans can be a bit formal, it’s definitely possible to break through those tough exteriors. If you’re relatively social, using social media you should be able to connect with new people wherever you are in Germany. Facebook and meetups connect you to local events, and through them it’s easy to find out about cool things to do. I’ve also found it helpful to connect with other international people living in Germany—those that are in similar situations and probably have dealt with the same issues of bureaucracy. I couldn’t have made it here so long without a strong network of other expats. Free networking websites like InterNations make it pretty easy to connect—they’re one of the biggest expat communities worldwide and a good resource for asking questions. Sign up here for free and maybe see you at one of the many Berlin meet ups!
Get Comfortable in Your Birthday Suit
There’s a stereotype about Germans and nudity (and a more free-spirited approach to sexuality—but that’s a different story!) and I can tell you after living in Berlin for four years, it’s definitely true. Nudity just isn’t an issue in Germany. That first summer when I went to a lake for a day of suntanning, the crowded beach was a bit of a shock: there were a lot of droopy boobs and uncircumcised dicks. Quite a shock for this American!
But after that initial shock, I’ve come to realize the Germans really know what’s up. Nudity shouldn’t be an issue—when you separate clothing from sexuality, it’s actually incredibly liberating.
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I can write lots of other stuff that you need to know before moving to Germany, from the (self-)imposed silence in public transportation to the surrealism of German television (and their weird taxes). I believe that Berlin made it easier for me to move here because the city is truly international. There are always lots of different people around. I sometimes dream of moving to a new city, a new country—somewhere like Barcelona or London, but I sincerely think I would miss Germany. Once you get in tune with the mood and the German-style, you can conquer the world (metaphorically, of course!).