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…
Special thanks to Claire who has helped put together these fun illustrations. Check out her comics blog here.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
* * *
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!).
Ah, all so true! I’ve just passed my 4 year anniversary of living in Germany, and I’m still learning things about this country all the time. And things can vary greatly from one part of the country to another. Things that are super strict in Freiburg are a little more laid back in Berlin. The food changes from one region to another. The accents…OMG I got so used to the Badisch accent in Freiburg, and now I’m having to adjust to hearing Berlin and other northern/eastern accents here. Also, our apartment complex doesn’t have a trash bin for food waste…I’m still trying to figure out why not.
Haha, so true about all the regional differences, though there are quite a few universal things as well. The accents are definitely tricky, though! I find it easiest to actually speak German in the north, around Hamburg.
And the trash & recycling issues! When I moved into my new apartment here in Berlin, there were no glass recycling containers with our trash – instead I have to walk across the street and use those big globe receptacles that are for the entire neighborhood…
One thing that still surprises me about Germany is the amount of regional colas and fizzy drinks: Fritz Cola, Club Mate, Mezzo Mix – it’s a really nice part of German life that people don’t seem to talk about. Over a year here and 12+ years of visiting Germany and it still makes me smile :)
Very true John! So many independent cola and beverage companies in Germany!
Another vote for “so true!”- I lived in Germany for 4 years and a lot of this rings really true to me. I always laugh when people say Germans speak English so well…sure, professional proficiency, but you’d miss *so* much if you never learned German. After just spending the summer in Mexico, I kind of miss the Ordnung of Deutschland.
Woot! Thank you Lisa. And it’s funny, I tend to loathe the Ordnung when I’m here and struggling to get things done, but every time I’m away, I end up missing it!
Very interesting article :)
Oh! good to know all these things. I have never been to Germany but it must be a really curious country. And what a disappointment… I though they had good varied food! Have a nice day,
“Visiting all the Amts” – hahaha!
This post actually makes me a bit homesick for Germany right now, being in the UK. I lament not being able to recycle everything here for example…though being able to pay with a credit card EVERYWHERE in London is amazing (though potentially dangerous, because I have no idea how much I’m spending and literally haven’t even touched cash in the last five or so days)!
:) I do miss using a credit card, to be honest – it’s just a good way to collect points and, maybe this is the American in me, I find it easier to track expenses…
Re: the nudity, I remember the shock I had my first time in Berlin. After a swim in my hotel’s pool, I went into the sauna and then these two stark naked ladies walked in. I was embarrassed half to death, assuming I’d gone into some ladies-only area, but that’s just how it is. Now getting naked is kind of a highlight of a trip to Germany :P
Haha! I can relate ;-)
* In Heidelberg, we had all the bins to sort out our crap – massive undertaking that got easier over time.
* Mmmm, fizzy water. I can’t drink Leitwasser any more … gah.
* I’ve become a big fan of the Leipziger fizzy.
* Wheah my Döner Dürüm at?
* And Adam, just how many Amts can a single person pass through?
Döner <3 <3 <3
I am celebrating four years living in Japan this weekend! It’s actually really weird how almost every single one of these points is true for Japan. Especially the garbage and bureaucracy bit… makes me wonder if there were cross-over influences between the two nations.
Hey Kaley – such an interesting perspective! I’ve heard Japan sometimes referred to as the “Germany of the East” – they do have a history!
Droopy boobs and uncircumcised penises in the same sentence meaning you got same reaction to both? I guess Americans are more used to mutilated dicks.
Well, Vlad, I was being descriptive, not judgmental.
but how did you move and stay there?
Hey – I have a the Freelancer visa. Check my blog’s FAQs for more information about moving to Germany: travelsofadam.com/faqs/
I have visited Berlin 5 times since 2007. Love this city! Nostalgic for Tacheles but thankful for St. Oberholz! Tschuss!
hehe I’m SO thankful for Oberholz! I’m there at least a few times per week (sometimes a few times per day!) – If you ever see me there, please say hi!
So funny Adam but so, so true!
I love the fact that Germans love their bikes – so quaint – and the electro music scene. I was very into techno when I first moved to Berlin so I fitted right in. I’m not so sure about The Hoff and Depeche Mode though. I mean, we “let them go” far back in the 80’s but in Germany, you’d think that they were still on the latest charts LOL!
As for nudity, let’s not even go there. The first time I experienced it “full-on” was actually in a little town not far from Dresden. I wasn’t comfortable going for the “all-together” so I insisted on wearing a yellow bikini.
I really stood out as I was the only one dressed and with my colour tone, you could probably have seen me from the moon. Cringe!
Ah cool to hear that you were into the techno scene when you first moved here – didn’t know that! And yeah – with the whole spa thing, you just have to go and do it otherwise you really stand out and *that’s* when people start to stare….
Yep, we LOVE recycling :D
I know it’s Monday but … you’re awesome!
Ha, well put. It’s always fascinating to take on an ‘outsider’s’ perspective to get a different perspective of one’s own so-called culture. Your observations were not pretty funny and entertaining, but thoroughly true (I admit, I can relate to almost each and every single point).
Pro-tip: add fizzy water to almost everything to make it a ‘Schorle’. ;-)
Thanks for your sharing…
Great Thing, Thumbs Up.
And why being shocked by uncircumcised men?! It is the norm in Europe: no male genital mutilation unless there is a real medical necessity. We live in an intact continent and most of us find the United States to be at odds with the rest of the civilised world in cutting children’s genitals.
Hi Adam, its always fun to read your articles. And this one is really a very good one for people who like to move to Germany. Thank you for your insight look into my home country, into my home town. I am born in Berlin, lived the first 25 years of my life in Spandau before finally moving to Munich. So, yes, you mentioned a lot of the sometimes idiotic or crazy ticks we have such as the regulation by “Ämter”. And yes, we love our liberal style to get either dressed or not-dressed to swim – and especially in the sauna we don’t like clothing at all.
Wishing you all the best and still have a lot of fun in Berlin!
Hope meeting you at the ITB :)
Interesting to read after living in Germany for years before returning to the U.S.
One aspect of German life I would add to your list — don’t forget your “Kaffee und Kuchen.” I often enjoyed this welcome break in the afternoon and my children love when we proclaim: “This is a Kaffee-n-Kuchen day! Hurray!” ;) I look forward to Berlin soon!
Absolutely if you are up to Germany then German language is a must. There is no other options for that.Anyway best of luck mate.
So, I am working on the process of moving to Germany. Luckily, all these things are very familiar to me so at least that aspect should be ok. I’m wondering if you have any helpful information about moving to Germany in terms of how to acquire a visa or any general rules you wish you had known before making the move? Great article!
Hi Lindsay, for more tips and information about moving to Germany, please visit this page.
How funny! I spent two wonderful weeks in Heidelberg, Freiburg, Ulm and Unterpinswang (sp?) in July. I’d been waiting my whole life to visit Germany. I keep telling my friends here in the US almost everything you just mentioned (except the nudity–didn’t go swimming or to a sauna). Loved the Radlers and had the best pizza I have ever eaten. I would really like to move to Germany and teach in an international school. Glad you made it there to live. Good luck!
Aw thanks Jonesy – Heidelberg is really beautiful! I’ve only ever been for a day trip while traveling that part of Germany, but I’d love to get back there.
And Radlers <3
Very interesting information! I am going to study in Berlin. I am trying to research as much as I can. I am so glad that I have found your article. I know German language is very hard task. But I think it will be easier when I am there. Thank you so much for sharing. Best regards!
Hey Darlene – yes, you’re right. It’s much easier to learn German once you’re living here! Good luck with your studies
Thanks for this post. It’s always good to know and to be prepared when going to live in a new country. I’m moving to Germany in six months and it was nice to read from someone who already went through all this and knows for real what is to live there. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Good luck on your move Wanda! Sounds like you’ll be here just after the winter – what a relief!
Four years in Germany! Congrats! I would love to visit Berlin one day, for now I just arrange other people moving there :D For some, it’s the romance and adventure of the unknown; others found a better job, or maybe connected online with someone halfway around the world and decided to go for it. Whatever the reasons for leaving one’s home country for a more or less exotic realm, it’s one of the biggest moves you can make, and success in your new life abroad often depends on how well you plan for it. I’m sure that a lot of people will learn a lot from your experience! Keep posting!
As a German living in the USA it is funny for me to see how it is for an American in Germany. I was never aware that our trash recycling is so extreme. It is just normal for me lol. But the nudity is more in East Germany, don’t try this in Bavaria exept Munich, trust me.
Nudity is fine in the Cologne area.
Haha, thanks for the nudity tip Stefanie! I’d be curious to see a similar article about what it’s like moving to the USA!
Extremely interesting and helpful post! There is a lot of useful information to learn from it, and guides us about the life in Germany. Thanks for sharing:)
Nice blog with some nice product placements/links to other webs ?. Hope you survive, it’s funny and ‘instructice’. I cuold not tell the same storys as a german living in Catalonia, however I love this country. ?
By the way, do you know the word “es ist nicht alles Gold, was glänzt?” This means that many things appear to be something they aren’t.
I’m talking about the recycling. Somebody discovered (another tipical germab hobby) that the Müll we produce a) in the case of bottles separsted by color, sometimes is mixed up when it arrives at the Müllbetriebe or b) they send their garbage to countries in south-east asia for a low fare – problem export. That’s also Germany. Think about all the gold…. ?
Great article, luckily for my music taste found out that Berlin actually has a big hip hop scence and clubs. You dont have to hear techno if you dont want to. I have been here more than 5 years and have to explain a lot of this to my visitors, now will just send them this blog.
Definitely true! I’m from New Jersey and have been living in Germany since August 2015. I can definitely tell that this article is more skewed to Berlin. I live in Munich where food pretty much IS just wurst and beer (not that that’s a bad thing)! I also think the elektro-music scene is definitely more prevalent in Berlin. You have to go slightly out of your way to find it here.
Most Americans tend to assume that everyone in Germany wears lederhosen and dirndl while listening to Blasmusik and eating Spanferkel but this is pretty much confined to Bavaria and Austria :)
Me as Berlin girl (eine waschechte Berlinerin) I like your article. Just one note when it comes to nudity: Here in Berlin and the Estern (former communist) part nudity isn’t a big deal. When you come to the Western part, it is indeed an issue. And when you go to the South like Bavaria or Swabia, people are as shocked as you were then… ;)
Don’t listen to uninformed Katrin who claims that nudity is a big deal in Western and Southern Germany – it isn’t. Well, or not everywhere at least. The English Garden right in the heart of Munich is famous for its nudists, as is the city of Freiburg i. Br., where people swim naked in the River Dreisam. Places that have strong Protestant/Pietist heritage such as Stuttgart are, alas, generally more prudish, but even there you will find designated “FKK” (nudist) beaches and meadows.
I miss (holy) Currywurst and Döner. Schrippen, our public transport. But I think, its gonna be a whole novel when you write about everything. Greets from Wedding <- another curiousity ;-)
The debit card thing is now out of date. Accepted almost everywhere.
Adam, you nailed it!
If you travel in an other little City, like Kassel, you’ll see a very different world. And if you live in a little village, you’ll maybe hate Germany ;)
Every City and every size of it, makes it different. :D
Love this article ;p
Grüße aus dem strengen aber netten Nordhessen ^^
haha yes that’s all very true Vicky. Thanks!
Oh my the memories!!
We moved to Germany in 1999 and it was a massive culture shock for us. It was like stepping into It’s 1950’s America where the men worked and the wives stayed home to raise the kids. Come 6pm (1pm on Saturday) the stores close and the sidewalks get rolled up.
Shopping was another culture shock, small stores with limited selection and bare shelves were the norm. Some days it felt like East Germany all over again. It took me years to understand why, but due to shortages and space limitation after the war discounters like Aldi dominate. Stores would get stocked up twice a week and you got used knowing when your local store would get stocked up. Eggs and milk are kept on the shelf not in the refrigerator. Yogurt and milk are sold in reusable/returnable containers.
Catalogue shopping (remember this was pre internet and Amazon) was the mainstay of the housewife. If you’re home all day be prepared to take packages for all you neighbours.
Smaller stores and the post office shut for lunch!!!
Customer service, what the fuck is customer service????
Fuck – Germans think it’s a nice word to use
Cash is king, other than gas stations, and briefly Walmart nobody accepted credit cards and often times not even debit cards. A few months after we arrived I went to the bank to get a loan to buy a car. Borrowed 20,000€ and after signing the paperwork the manager went to the cash window and counted out the money which I then took to the dealer, via bus, and paid for the car cash.
Phones: local and long distance didn’t exist, instead you paid by the minute with local being cheaper and long distance being more expensive. Smaller companies would not call handys (as cell phones are called in Germany) as it was super expensive, about 5 times the cost of a local call.
Every office and factory had a work canteen where you could order a hot meal along with a beer!!!!!!
You can order beer with your bratwurst at the autobahn rest stops or take one to go.
You could order beer at McDonalds drive through though although they only served the alcohol free stuff.
We then moved to Spain for 7 years and the transformation was night and day.
-Discounters still dominate but it’s rare this days to see empty shelves. ALDI ACCEPTS CREDIT CARDS, not only do they take Mastercard and Visa but contactless payment. I never thought I’d see that happen in a million years. Everywhere accepts cards now.
-I almost never use cash anymore.
-Bacon, sour cream, hamburger hot dog and loads of other things now exist.
-Customer service seems to have improved
-Flat rate phone calls now are the standard (we can call Europe Canada US free)
-Cell phone plans are now all flat rate. Costs 14 cents a minute to call a cell phone from a landline.
– McDonalds no longer serve beer (bummer eh)
Ahhhh I see nothing has changed in 30 years. Lived there at 18 yo and would go back in a heartbeat. Even did my university degree in German. At least now you have the Internet and social media. It must help with not feeling so “isolated”. The mailman became my best friend back then hahaha. Enjoy! Love it, live it!