Hello everyone! It has been a couple of months since my last post, and a very strange period in my life. I have been adapting to life back in Hamburg (Germany) after a year away. For those of you visiting my blog for the first time, my boyfriend and I went backpacking around Asia from October 2019 to April 2020. I then spent the next six months dividing my time between Hamburg and my home city, London. Now I am back teaching after a long hiatus, catching up with friends and refamiliarising myself with the city. I thought it would be a good opportunity to tell you more about my experience living here. In this post, I share 12 things I wish I’d known before moving to Germany.
In no particular order…
1) Germans have no issue with telling strangers off if they break a rule or make a social faux pas. In England, we are much more likely to judge them silently or quietly tut (once the offender is well out of earshot!). Here in Germany, strangers will confront and scold each other for the most minor of offences. I have seen people be told off for opening windows on buses or accidentally playing loud music through their phones (even when they immediately silence it). The worst are the cyclists, who aggressively ring their bicycle bells if you place one foot into the bike lane. Some of the lanes are very faded and difficult to distinguish from the regular pavements, but they don’t want to hear your excuses and will ding-ding-ding you with all their fury.
2) Although tap water in Hamburg is perfectly drinkable, a lot of restaurants are extremely reluctant to give their customers tap water with their food. Instead they try to persuade you to buy bottled water at daft prices, like €5 per 75ml. Did you know it is often cheaper to order a beer in a restaurant than a bottle of water or soft drink? If you can’t beat them, join them! Prost!
3) Speaking of water, there are three varieties here in Germany. Still, sparkling and something called ‘classic’ which is like a gentler version of sparkling water. Still sparkling but…less so. Germans love sparkling water and often mix it with fruit juice; it’s called Schorle and you find it on menus all over the country. They do the same with wine, probably to reduce the alcoholic effects but it just waters down the flavour. I’ll take my wein undilated, thanks.
4) German is not an easy language to learn, even if many English words closely resemble German ones. To overcomplicate things, there are six words for ‘the’ (Der, Die, Das, Dem, Den and Des – why!?) and multiple words for the simplest of words, such as ‘bag’ and ‘receipt’. Really confusing when you first arrive and each supermarket cashier seems to be asking you something different.
5) Don’t underestimate German bureaucracy. After almost four years here, I have a folder of paperwork I carry from apartment to apartment, full of official forms and stamped letters full of words I can’t understand. There is a lot of red tape and a lot of governmental appointments to schedule. When you first arrive, you must officially register at a specific address (ideally within two weeks of coming to Germany). You then need to inform the government every time you move to a new address. These updates must be done face-to-face and cost €12 at a time (for a government employee to simply input a new street name onto my record. Grumble grumble…).
6) Recycling is serious business in Germany and in some ways, it is very efficient. I like the Pfand system, where you pay an extra €0.08 to €0.15 every time you buy a bottle of wine or beer. Once finished, you can take the empties to any supermarket and receive a voucher to use in store (equivalent to the € you’ve accumulated). However, not all bottles can be returned for Pfand money, so the rest have to go to a bottle bank. Annoyingly, you can’t recycle everything into one place. I have to walk 10 minutes away from my house – in different directions – to recycle various bits and pieces (as many things can’t be recycled in my household bins).
7) The complete lack of spontaneity was a surprise, especially having moved over from Italy where things were very last-minute and impulsive. Germans love of planning and organisation means that spontaneity really doesn’t exist here. Even making a social appointment for the following week can be seen as frightfully short notice. Calendars fill up fast, and you’ve got to get plans in there early.
8) Germans really don’t like using credit and debit cards and a lot of places are cash-only (even bars and restaurants). I’ve asked my German friends and students about their attitude towards cash and cards. Some say they don’t like the government having a record of their spending, others are convinced credit cards lead to debt and many insist that they manage their money much better if they use cash rather than cards.
9) Finding an apartment in Hamburg is a complete pain and there are so many things I wish I’d known about this arduous process before moving over! One of the most baffling things I’ve learned is that tenants strip their apartment of almost everything when they move out. Furniture and other belongings are to be expected, but it is common for people to take curtains, blinds, light fittings and shelves with them. Some people even go to the extreme and take the radiators or floorboards with them(!). You have to be very careful when you view a new apartment – how it looks at the viewing might be very different from how it would look on move-in date. We have prioritised fully-furnished or semi-furnished places as a result, as the thought of getting an electrician in on your first day to wire up the lights sounds like too much aggro.
10) You must pay extra to have your hair blow-dried in a salon. This one is so strange for me. Haircuts aren’t cheap, ranging from €30 – 80 depending on what you have done. It is an additional €20 – 30 if you want the hairdresser to blowdry your locks for you. Some salons do have hairdryers on hand if you want to do your own (for free!), or you can walk home with damp hair and hope you don’t catch a cold.
11) I was shocked by the lack of digitalisation here. Everyone from doctors to dentists to government officials prefer phone calls and letters to email. Documents must be posted, signed and returned by snail mail, which can be painfully slow. One of the most surreal moments was when the receptionist at my doctor’s surgery asked if they could fax a receipt to me. I was dumbstruck and explained that I don’t actually own a fax machine and haven’t used one in a decade! Luckily they agreed to email me the invoice instead.
12) It is illegal to download or upload films, music or TV series in Germany – and by illegal, I mean illegal illegal. Not just supposedly illegal or frowned upon like in other countries. There are specific German companies who spend their working hours tracking down people who have downloaded or upload media and sending them hefty fines (around €800-1000 for a first offense). There are also specific lawyers who will help reduce your penalty, for a fee of course.
Have you moved abroad and if so, what do you wish you’d known in advance? What cultural differences did you find? What’s the biggest culture shock you’ve ever had?
If you enjoyed this post, check out some of my others about Hamburg:
All The Unspoken Rules I’ve Broken Since Moving To Germany
A day in the life: An English teacher in Hamburg
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow