The German Way: The good, the bad and the ugly (part 1)

The German Way: The good, the bad and the ugly (part 1)

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Love it or hate it? A dissection of German life tackles the good, bad, and ugly side of living as an expat in Germany.

No, I'm not going to discuss Spaghetti Westerns today. I'm going to list some of my expat likes (the good), dislikes (the bad) and major gripes (the ugly) related to living in Germany. Although I'm going to start with 'the bad', you should know that my 'good' list is even longer in length.

There are regional differences for some of the items you will see here. Germany is no more monolithic than the USA. Conservative Munich is not really anything like free-wheeling Berlin. But I have tried to list things that generally apply, and note those things that may be more regional in nature. Everyone's good and bad list will be unique, but there are many cultural things that all expats in Germany can relate to. And I'd like to point out that I could make a similar list for life in the US. In fact, this German list is in part a commentary in reverse on life in the US.

I have travelled a lot all across Germany over the years. But time marches on, and the list I'm making now is not the same list I would have drawn up a year ago or five years ago, much less a decade ago. If you want to see a more neutral comparison of US and German culture, see our six German Way cultural comparison charts, starting with driving.

My list is not prioritised! Item one is no better or worse than item six in the list, whether good, bad or ugly. For that reason, items in the list are not numbered. Okay, here we go with Part 1: The Bad.

The good, bad and ugly of living in Germany

The Bad: Things I dislike about expat life in Germany

  • Sweetness. I usually like sweet things, but not sweet popcorn, sweet salad dressing and sweet sauces. I had not realised how much the Germans prefer things sweeter than I do until I stayed there. Even Asian sauces get ruined here when they cater to German tastes! And speaking of weird food, how about hot chili potato chips and other odd snack foods? Who comes up with this stuff?

  • So-called 'Mexican' restaurants. Why call it 'Mexican' if you serve food that is not even remotely Mexican? Although they are all over the place, I have never found a truly Mexican restaurant in Germany. You'd think they could at least make a decent Margarita, but you'd be wrong. Forget Mexican, amigo! Find a good Italian or Greek place, of which there are many.

  • Almost no toll-free numbers. In Germany they have a great nationwide scam called '14 cents per minute'. Customers have to pay to call their own bank or customer service hotlines – at the usual rate of 14 euro cents (18 US cents) per minute (mobile rates may be higher). Very few firms offer an 800 toll-free call option, but Germans (and other Europeans) just accept this outrage. I had to pay to call my German bank to cancel my debit card after it was lost. I even had to pay for the holding time while I listened to music! (A new law preventing that has yet to go into effect.) Companies in the US calculate their 800-number service as a part of doing business.

  • Graffiti. Yes, we have graffiti in the US, but it usually gets cleaned up or painted over at some point. In Germany, and particularly in Berlin, old graffiti can be seen in public places and on private property for years. In my experience, Rome may be worse, but Berlin isn't far behind. I don't think Europeans even notice it any more. There also seems to be little or no effort to discourage graffiti in the first place. This seems to be a European problem and not just a German one.

  • Unfriendly shop clerks and cashiers. Even the Germans complain about customer service in Germany. That's nothing new. But I'm talking about when you go to the same store almost every day, and the cashier you've already seen a hundred times acts like she has never seen you before in her life. How about even some superficial friendliness for a regular customer? A smile of recognition? Is that too much to ask? Ja.

  • German judges and courts (i.e. beschneidung, circumcision). The German nation is currently dealing with the issue of circumcision as 'bodily harm' that can make parents and doctors subject to imprisonment or fines. Seriously! A German court ruled against Muslim parents who had their son circumcised according to religious tradition (after he had some minor bleeding). Jews and Muslims in Germany are feeling persecuted in this matter and there have been protests. Are Germans not aware that most males in the US are circumcised? Jesus was circumcised! There are some things that governments should not touch, and this is one of them. To Berlin's credit, the city-state has reached an accommodation on circumcision for religious reasons, but the issue continues to be debated.

  • Non-enforcement of laws and regulations. The Germans may not be very good at making some legal decisions, but they are very good at making rules and laws. They have wonderful laws concerning cleaning up dog poop, not smoking in certain places, not making noise at certain times, and banning alcohol/food/drinks on public transportation. But such rules and laws are ignored by so many Germans so often that it becomes a joke. I have seen so many German scoff laws lately, that I may have to reconsider the stereotype of law-abiding, "Ordnung muss sein" Germans. They seem to be disappearing.

  • Paying to pee. I covered this in an earlier blog, but I wanted to include it here. Just to add to what I already wrote: Germany has a long tradition of restroom (toilet) attendants who earn money with tips for keeping toilets clean. There is often a small note or sign with a suggested tip of 30 or 50 euro cents. Pay-toilets (with turnstiles) are popular money-makers in train stations and on the autobahn. I think it's a plot to keep German unemployment figures low. I'll be glad to get back to the land of the free (toilets).

  • Cigarette smoking. I'll cover this in more detail in the 'ugly' list, but Germans smoke too much and in too many places. I'm lucky to have non-smoking German friends and relatives, but sometimes it seems like they are a tiny minority. Even walking on the street, you can't escape the cigarette smoke from passers-by who have to smoke even when they are walking (or bicycling) down the street. German sidewalk cafés have become torture for us non-smokers. Since smoking was banned inside bars and restaurants, all the smokers sit outside, puffing away, and the wind always seems to be blowing their smoke in your direction. Health-conscious Germans? Where are they?

  • Lack of barrier-free access. Although this has improved in recent years, barrier-free access to buildings and public transportation still leaves much to be desired. It is no fun to be in a wheelchair at all, but in Berlin it can be a major challenge. Even for people who can walk but have problems with stairs, or parents with prams, there are still S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations without any elevators or escalators. And even when there are escalators and/or elevators, they are are often kaput – on a regular basis. (The same is true for ticket machines!) The elevators (you have to take two to get to the platform) at our Frankurter Tor U-Bahn station are out of order on a regular basis.

  • Traffic signals. Why do Europeans put traffic lights on the wrong side of intersections? Can't they figure out that they wouldn't need those extra miniature lights if they would just put the signals where they belong in the first place? And those little lights are no help at all when you're making a left turn, out in the middle of the intersection, and you can't tell if the light has changed or not. I thought Germans were more logical, but not when it comes to the placement of traffic signals. And while we're on the topic: Do German drivers really need a 'warning' yellow light before the signal turns green?

  • Walk/Don't walk signs. The crossing times are often much too short and it is almost impossible to make it across a street with a median strip. You inevitably get trapped in the middle. I also don't know why the Germans can't have count-down or blinking warnings like those in the US. A Berlin TV channel did a report on this. The other big problem cited: Long wait times for a green ampelmännchen.

  • The weather. Yes, I am complaining about something no one has any control over! Summer in Berlin this year was almost non-existent. While southern Europe cooked, northern Germany in July and August was like fall anywhere else. Some days the 'high' was in the mid 60s! And sunny days have been a rarity as well. Someone needs to tell the German weather people that it's still summer in the northern hemisphere.


In my next blog I'll cover the 'good' things, the aspects of life in Germany that I like a lot. In the meantime, if you think I forgot something important in my list, please leave a comment.

Read the full series on life in Germany: The good, the bad and the ugly.



Reprinted with permission of The German Way.

Hyde Flippo- The German Way:For expats living in GermanyFor 10 years, Hyde Flippo was the Guide for German Language at About.com, a position he left in 2008 to spend more time writing and developing his website, The German Way. Hyde spent some years in Berlin to learn more about German language and culture, and continues to travel with his wife in Europe and German-speaking countries doing research for his books, which include The German Way, When in Germany, Do As the Germans Do, Perfect Phrases in German, and Deutsche Sagen und Legenden (German Legends).

Photo credit: saturn (Berlin), backkratze (Berlin graffiti). 

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5 Comments To This Article

  • Gustav posted:

    on 24th June 2016, 09:01:55 - Reply

    Im a 25 year old German who has lived 2 years in London, 3 years in The Hague and 4 years in Dubai. In Germany I have lived in Hamburg, Berlin and Bremen (northern cities) and Freiburg, Munich and Regensburg (south).

    Yes. I have moved a lot.

    The reasons you listed here are why I left Berlin. It was my dream to study and build a life and career there, but being the unusually objectifying and rational thinking guy that I am, I couldnt help but see that Berlin is probably one of the worst places to live in Europe, it definitely is a one of a kind in Germany. All of this comes from the Berlin 'laissez faire' lifestyle. I will never forget getting caught taking the tram without a ticket and not being fined for it. I was happy that second for sure, but in time realized that this had not been an isolated incident. It is the whole Berlin culture that does this, is against rules, order, beauty and business, basically anything and anyone trying to improve something. It is not liked.

    When I first came to bavaria 4 years ago (age 21) I was absolutely stunned how different it is here compared to the rest of Germany, especially the northern states.

    The people here still care for themselves and their surroundings.
  • Miguel posted:

    on 3rd February 2016, 23:34:24 - Reply

    I have been living in Germany for over four years, and I think that the police as well as the traffic system needs a major overhaul. Most car drivers dislike sharing the roadways with cyclists and pedestrians. Even at the zebra crossings I have had motorists speeding past and swerving to avoid me so that the don't have to stop when I have been half way over the other roadside. Also unless at a major roadway intersection after 9pm the traffic signals are switched off so the pedestrians now have no red or green walk signal. Then I also find many motorists with high performance tuned engines driving two to three times the posted city speed limits. This is something that happens almost on a daily basis. the speeding can be seen as well as heard, but no action from the police departments, and I'm sure that they know about this, but don't seem to do anything to improve peoples safety. I also find more drivers racing to an intersection to avoid getting a red light and having to wait. When I ride my bicycle on the roadways many motorists will honk their horns just before passing me, and if there is a pedestrian walkway or cycling path they will honk their horns as well as often slowing down and yelling at me to get off the street. What they don't realize is that many walk-cycling paths along the roadways need major repairs, and that often a person can ride at slower cycling speeds than when using the street pavement
  • nevillescollop posted:

    on 13th July 2015, 09:10:51 - Reply

    You pay to pee to stop bums and junkies using WCs as their doss-house and shooting gallery.

  • HarryR posted:

    on 6th February 2014, 12:27:23 - Reply

    I'm a Brit and have been in Germany for a total of perhaps 5 years over several stays. *Sweetness. The people in the US are infamously fat and recent research I read put this down to food manufacturers adding corn syrup to absolutely everything. Germans, generally look athletic in comparison. THe fat ones probably drink too much beer and eat too much fast food. Like many Americans. *So-called 'Mexican' restaurants. All over the world commercial orgs sell what sells best, changing a product to suit local tastes as required. The American hot dog bears little resemblance to a bratwurst, or Budweiser beer to Czech Budvar. Not everything is the same everywhere in the world. *Almost no toll-free numbers. I've used 0800 numbers here. Not often but then I do everything over the net for free. Different countries have diff regulations, technical landscape that companies need to work within. Or perhaps Germans culturally believe absolutely everything has to be paid for. But that's more a loony Tea-party philosophy, I think. *Graffiti. All graffiti in the US is quickly cleared up? Perhaps in the sanitised Starbucks-dense areas. There was no graffiti in the DDR. A graffiti covered Berlin wall was an oft photo'd icon of the free West. Graffiti in Berlin is variable, some of it very impressive. Generally it tries to make a statement not just sprayed swear words that is the vandalism-motivated graffiti in the UK. Collectively it adds to the sense that you are in Berlin rather than elsewhere. An entire sub-culture of graffiti art has developed over the years. There also seems to be a code whereby if a wall is painted with a mural, the graffiti-ists do not just spray over it. *Unfriendly shop clerks and cashiers. OK. The Germans are often brusque and unpleasant to people they haven't internally recognised as friends, although there are many exceptions to this. I rationalise that the intention is not to be rude just that the threshold of rudeness is configured differently. Conversely, Germans can regard the open friendliness of strangers as fake and therefore suspicious or presumptuous. I very much prefer the open friendliness a la Americain. But people are not obliged to talk to you if they don't want to. *German judges and courts (i.e. beschneidung, circumcision). Your complaint is an odd rant. Circumcision is very clearly an irreversible assault on a child who has no say in the matter but who could decide for him/herself as an adult. The objection to circumcision of a child has evolved directly from the same humanistic concern about human rights that has changed so much of the legalistic framework since WW2. For the better we all think as we keep electing govts that make the laws. The religions no longer get a free pass for the rituals they impose to enforce the power of their clergies. The Catholic church is having real trouble and losing influence and failing to get everyone to ignore the child sex abuse scandals, and circumcision of children demanded by religion is not justifiable for any non-religious reasons. And the German courts should not consider this issue because most US men are circumcised? What on Earth does that have to do with anything? And the huge majority of those US men were circumcised at birth as an imposed standard medical practice, not because of any choice they made. What's your view about female circumcision? This is not a rebirth of Nazi ideology seeking to destroy the jews as some have claimed in lieu of a viable argument. Every year chldren die or are maimed due to botched attempts at ritualistic circumcision. To turn a bind eye would be a dereliction of duty by the State. *Non-enforcement of laws and regulations. Berlin is definitely less anal about rules than other cities. But I still see people waiting to cross an empty road at 3am because the red man is showing. The rules of smoking have been greatly toughened and they are universally kept to. There are smoking and non-smoking bars and cafes and no one smokes in the non-smoking ones. Yes, they smoke outside, like everywhere else. *Paying to pee. I also find this odd. It's not universal but some very nice bars/cafes with above avg prices will not pay someone to keep the toilets clean, instead having a freelancer to sit there for hours and providing her ( almost always a her) own cleaning materials in return for 50c per visit. Maybe they prefer it as they earn more from tips? *Cigarette smoking. THe Germans are sporty and active, much more so that the Brits who tend to follow US trends over time. Sport is greatly encouraged at school. It's always surprising to a non-smoker that anyone smokes. More people who really should know better smoke in Berlin than elsewhere. Perhaps there are more people who don't smoke very much? It seems that everyone smoke if only occasionally - or claim to do so. Plenty other countries have many smokers. *Lack of barrier-free access. I haven't considered this directly but I have been struck by how visible handicapped people are in Germany compared to the UK. This seems to be because they are provided with motorised wheelchairs that are actually useful for getting around with. Access to buildings can be iffy, true. Still, better than Brussels where I saw right next to the European Parliament building the broken flagstones made a mockery of the handicapped access from the underground train. *Traffic signals. I have driven in Germany and just adjusted to the street furniture as required. Yes, some things were different such as driving on the wrong side of the road but I reasoned that as everybody else was I should, too. If you can't work out why something isn't being done the way you got used to it being done in the US, perhaps you are not including some important consideration that you are unaware of that the designers did need to cater for. Traffic seems to work ok, tho, despite your complaints that they haven't simply adapted the US system. *Walk/Don't walk signs. Walk signs should be ignored. Cross only when you are confident that it is safe to do so while looking in all directions as you do so. Waiting for the green man and then just stepping on the road without looking will get you to hospital or the morgue. Motorists rush the lights, cyclists flip from sidewalk/pavement to the road and back at whim. [Edited by moderator]
  • Kevin posted:

    on 5th February 2014, 04:17:44 - Reply

    Minor bleeding? The boy almost died!

    Circumcision is genital mutilation and amputated significant amounts of erogenous tissue from the penis, including the most sensitive parts. The effects can be devastating, and botch jobs are even more gruesome.

    This is why Americans are abandoning the procedure en masse (less than half of US baby boys are cut today).

    Anybody who likes genital cutting is free to have their own genitals cut apart as an adult.

    I applaud the German court for its decision.