Our final musings of a three-part series on the best and worst things about living as an expat in Germany.
Today we’ll finish my list of expat likes (the good), dislikes (the bad) and major gripes (the ugly). In part one, I began with ‘the bad‘, but my ‘good‘ list turned out to be even longer! So long in fact, that I needed to split my ‘good’ list in two. Here I will continue my list of ‘good’ things, and you’ll see my ‘ugly’ list at the end.
My list is not prioritised! That’s why the items are not numbered. Okay, here we go with more of the good.
The Good (continued): More things I like about expat life in Germany
- The social contract. In Germany there is more of an attitude that there is a social contract. This view is in sharp contrast to the Wild West, ‘every man for himself’ attitude often seen in the US. Rather than viewing it as the enemy, Germans think that government’s purpose is to make society better. As a result, Germany’s citizens are more willing to pay taxes in exchange for public services, education, health care and good roads. Germany has become Europe’s most prosperous country based on a social market economy that usually offers workers higher pay and better benefits than the ‘working poor’ in the US. Socialised medicine is not a dirty word in Germany, where everyone has health coverage through a combination of private and public insurance. No, Germany isn’t perfect, but lately it has been doing a much better job of offering its citizens a good life than has the US. Even during the ongoing worldwide economic crisis that began in 2009, Germany also has the lowest unemployment rate of any country in the EU.
- German toilets. They may not have invented this ceramic marvel, but the Germans (plus the Austrians and Swiss) have definitely perfected it! Even in homes, the water tank is often built into the wall, hidden away. Sehr modern! There are usually two flush buttons, one for #1, another for #2 (more water), and they work quietly and well. (Thankfully, the old-style ‘shelf’ toilets are becoming rare.) For good measure, let’s add the wonderful, modern, tiled German bathroom as well. When the toilet is included (not in a separate room), it’s called an ‘American bathroom’!.
- More ecological awareness. In Germany people generally have a different, more positive attitude about ecology than in the US. By law, regulation and pricing, Germany encourages less waste, using everything from bottle deposits (Pfand) to strong recycling programs. German shoppers learn to bring their own canvas shopping bags with them, because they usually have to pay for bags at the grocery store. When in neutral, many cars automatically turn off the engine! (And start immediately when put back in gear.) Waterless, odourless urinals save water in public restrooms. Germany is also a leader in wind and solar energy. When it comes to protecting the environment, Germany is far ahead of the US, while still maintaining a high standard of living.
- Fußgängerzonen. Almost every German town of medium size or larger has a vibrant pedestrian shopping zone. Even in big cities like Frankfurt, Munich and Stuttgart (not so much in Berlin), there are nice, tree-lined shopping avenues without any cars. I don’t know why more US cities haven’t adopted this clever idea. I’m not talking about shopping malls, which Germany also does well. I’m talking about an urban shopping area/street that bans cars and turns the street over to pedestrians only. Even during the long, grey German winter! The downtown areas of many larger American cities are often dead zones, devoid of shopping activity. You don’t see that in Germany – and most of Europe.
- Christmas (Weihnachen). Christmas in Germany (or Austria) is ten times better than in the US. For starters, there are two Christmas holidays (the 25th and 26th), as in Britain. In late November and early December, Christmas markets spring up all over Germany, offering fun for kids and adults. In larger cities, there can be dozens of them. There should be more of these in the US. Many popular ‘American’ Christmas customs originated in Austria and Germany, including Silent Night and the Christmas tree. The Germans really know how to do Weihnachten! (See the GW Christmas pages for more.)
- Greater music variety. Expats already know that jazz is appreciated more in Europe than in its native land. During my recent two-month stay in Berlin I listened to FM radio a lot. You can hear all the British and American artists plus German and other European artists. In the US it is rare for non-Anglo-American artists to get air-time (Nena and the late Falco are rare exceptions). I heard a song in English on the radio that I liked but had never heard in the US. Turned out it was A Night Like This by Dutch singer Caro Emerald, a hit in Germany in 2010. I also heard the more recent hit Tage wie diese by Die Toten Hosen. I was able to buy both CDs at MediaMarkt or Saturn. It’s hard to find equal variety in the US, except maybe online. My only complaints: (1) I never found a country music station in Berlin, and (2) the Germans don’t play enough of their own music artists.
- Kids go everywhere. Some people say Germany is not kid-friendly, but in Berlin you see prams (including lots of double ones) all over the place! Public transportation allows extra space for it on buses and trains. Kids can be seen in restaurants and other places much more often than in the States. The negative side of this is that the youngsters also must share the copious amounts of second-hand smoke from their parents or other patrons (outside).
- Frugality and debt avoidance. Coming from a credit-card, debt-oriented culture (the US), I sometimes get irritated about the lack of credit card acceptance in Germany. But the mortgage crisis that struck the US, the UK and some other countries could never have happened in Germany. Getting a mortgage in Germany requires a substantial down payment. Germans have a high standard of living, but they generally don’t squander their money. ‘Plastic money’ is rare. They refuse to go into debt for houses, cars or luxury items in general. Germany is a ‘cash-on-the-barrelhead’ society. Even a German ‘credit’ card is not really like an American credit card. If you charge EUR 1,000 on your German card, the bank will automatically withdraw EUR 1,000 from your account at the end of the month. It’s really more like a debit card than a credit card.
- Public transportation. Even smaller cities in Germany have good, reasonably priced public transportation. Smaller towns have buses and/or streetcars. Larger cities add the S-Bahn (commuter rail) and U-Bahn (metro/underground) to that, plus regional rail. You don’t need a car in town at all.
The Ugly: My major gripes about life in Germany
Originally, I planned to cover the ‘ugly’ things, the aspects of life in Germany that I take a particularly dim view of, in a separate blog, but I have decided to do that here, in more abbreviated form. It’s really not a long list anyway, and ‘ugly’ may be a slight exaggeration for this list, but here goes.
- Overregulation. Americans have no idea what real ‘overregulation’ is – unless they have spent some time in Germany. In Germany (and the EU), there are rules and regulations for almost anything. Designed to protect workers and consumers, this penchant for regulating almost every aspect of business and daily life can impact everything from when you’re allowed to mow your lawn to the shape of bananas! In most of Germany (Berlin being a rare exception) it is almost impossible to buy anything on Sunday. You have to go to a train station, airport or a gas station mini-mart to shop on Sunday. The idea to is protect family life and workers, but most Germans would prefer fewer restrictions in this area. Neighbouring France has no such Sunday restrictions, but the German-speaking countries all do. Regulation in Germany also affects the color of the roof on your house and what kind of light bulb you can use in your house. But I admit I have mixed feelings about all this. Sometimes in the US we go too far in the other direction. Do we really need to turn Thanksgiving into a shopping day? Nothing is sacred anymore. And the recent US presidential election campaign definitely exposed the downside of too little regulation!
- Smoking. As I pointed out in part one, Germany has actually improved in this area. An American expat who recently moved from Spain to Germany (jobs!) also reminded me how much worse the smoking situation is in Spain, compared to Germany. (I remember travelling in a ‘non-smoking’ car on a Spanish train and being choked by all the cigarette smoke.) Austria is also worse than Germany when it comes to smoking. However, smoking is one area in which Germany still has a lot of room for improvement.
- Subscriptions. In the US, if you want to cancel a magazine subscription or a service, you just let the publisher or provider know, or just don’t renew. That doesn’t work in Germany! A subscriber has the obligation to cancel, and it better be in writing! Otherwise the subscription continues, even if you don’t want it to – and by law you have to pay! You also have to give enough advance notice. If you miss the cancellation deadline, you can still get stuck with the bill. German law often favours a company over the consumer. Buyer beware! This ranks right up there with having to pay to call a business to solve a problem they caused! (Mentioned in part one.)Dog poop. For a country that puts great emphasis on cleanliness, it can be a very unpleasant surprise to see how much dog doo-doo there is on sidewalks and in parks in Germany. Yes, there are regulations and laws calling for owners to clean up after their pets, but most owners ignore the law, and there is little if any enforcement.