Moving to another country can be intimidating, especially if the local culture is quite different from what you might be used to. German culture is surprisingly unique, even when compared to other predominantly Christian, western countries. If you‘re feeling unsure about moving abroad, this two-part series will help you prepare for your relocation to Germany, and make it easier to settle in once you‘re here.
The German Way
For the love of snail mail and rubber stamps.
Safety, stability, and security are extremely important in Germany, especially where data protection is concerned. This is why they still do a lot of things via post or in person. 99% of the bureaucracy you‘ll need to take care of cannot be done online. It‘s getting better, slowly, but for now, patience will be your biggest virtue in the face of Germany‘s administrative procedures.
As far as paying for things goes, Germany has one foot in the 21st, and the other in the 20th century. Online banking is probably the one area where Germany digitally outdoes North America. Paying bills, rent, and utilities is all done by electronic wire transfer. There are no fees to transfer funds online from your German bank to another German or EU account. You can even choose to have the deposit arrive in the receiver‘s account instantly, for a small fee of 25 cents. That said, keep cash with you at all times. Very few places accept credit cards and not all international debit cards work here. And depending on your employment and work permit situation, it can be tricky to open bank accounts with the usual brick-and-mortar banks. Prepare in advance with international online banking such as Wise (their debit cards work), and have money accessible in different forms — cash, extra space on your credit card (so you can withdraw cash at ATMs), and savings in the bank.
Don‘t take unfriendliness personally, Germans just don‘t make small talk.
Small talk is difficult for many people but nearly impossible for Germans. Asking “how are you” is actually taken as a very personal question, not as filler to break the ice, so starting a conversation can be tricky. Germans generally don’t chat with strangers, like at the bus stop or over the counter in a small shop. They‘re known for being direct, frank, and to-the-point which might seem rude to some. It’s nothing personal, they just don’t like fluff, filler, or anything that seems like a waste of time.
Germans don‘t mince words.
Germans can be quite reserved and conservative but at least you‘ll know where you stand with them. This can be both positive and negative: any hard-earned compliments you get are totally genuine, as is the disapproval from the stranger shouting at you when you jaywalk. In Germany, it also takes longer than you might think to get to know people and develop friendships, but once you have made friends, you know you can count on them.
Expect the Unexpected
Grocery shopping is an Olympic sport.
Bring your own bags, pack up fast and get out of the way! In German grocery stores there‘s no chit-chat, and no messing around. Cashiers scan items at the speed of light, and the counter space is so small that unless you’ve had a few weeks of practice, your groceries will be spilling over the edge within seconds. The other customers will be giving you the evil eye while you frantically try to shove everything into your cloth bags. Try the German way instead: park your cart up against the edge of the counter and just throw everything in. Then, after you’ve paid, go over to the packing table and pack your stuff in peace while your blood pressure returns to normal.
And on the seventh day...
German shops close. Make sure you get your groceries by Saturday, because on Sunday only cafés and restaurants are open.
Everything including the kitchen sink.
Once you get a long-term flat, don‘t be surprised if it‘s empty — literally. There might be no light fixtures, no curtains or blinds, no countertops, sink, or appliances in the kitchen. But this also means that you have free rein to design and install the kitchen set up just how you like it. Just be aware that at the end of the lease you’ll either have to sell it to the new tenant, or you may be expected to remove it yourself at your own cost.
Watch your step.
Stay off the bike path — your life depends on it. Sometimes bike paths are part of the sidewalk, sometimes they‘re on the street. And there‘s no uniform marking for them so keep an eye out.
Queuing: there’s method to the madness.
At bakeries, doctor’s offices, etc. people sometimes form an obvious queue, but more often than not you’ll notice that they don’t stand in a line. This kind of disorder seems very un-German, and can be quite stressful for those of us used to the simplicity of a clearly-defined queue. But there is an underlying order to the apparent chaos: when each person arrives, they take notice of who was there already. You’ll know when it’s your turn (the person behind the counter will ask “who’s next?”) by keeping track yourself, and feel free to point it out when someone tries to jump their spot.
So many bins!
Rubbish separation is a national sport. Get a friend or colleague to give you a crash course in how to recycle German-style. Also, some outdoor beer gardens or event venues charge a small fee (deposit) on the drinks, so that you bring your glass back instead of leaving it around.