Love it or hate it? A dissection of German life tackles the good, bad, and ugly side of living as an expat in Germany.
Today I’m continuing my list of expat likes (the good), dislikes (the bad) and major gripes (the ugly) – all related to living in Germany. In part one, I began with ‘the bad,’ but my ‘good’ list has turned out to be even longer!
Good and bad lists
Before we start, I of course consider that 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, as I pointed out in my first section, I could make a similar list for life in the US. In fact, this German list is also a commentary in reverse on life in the US.
If you want a more neutral comparison of US and German culture, see our six German Way cultural comparison charts, starting with driving.
The Good: Things I like about expat life in Germany
- Not needing a car to do everything. In Germany it is usually easy to walk or bicycle to shops, restaurants, the bank or whatever. Other than in New York City and some other big American cities (definitely not Los Angeles), you need a car to do just about anything. My wife and I just spent two months in Berlin – without a car. Between public transportation and the neighborhood shops and restaurants, we never really needed a car. (We rented a car for trips.) There were only a few times I wished I had a car, and I did miss driving after a while, but it’s not a hardship to live carless in Germany. This is also the case even in smaller German towns. Rush hour in my relatives’ small Bavarian town means lots of bicycles!Sales taxes are included in all prices. What you see on a price tag is what you pay. It definitely makes the 19 percent German sales tax less painful than if it were tacked on at the cash register, as in the US. Most Americans have no clue as to what ‘high taxes’ really are. The only instance in the US of a tax included in the total price is the fuel tax at the pump. (In the good old days, it was in the total air fare as well. Now the federal tax for an airline ticket can be even more than the cost of the ticket.)
- The Autobahn. This is a mixed thing actually. When the autobahn is working as it should, it’s really fun to drive on. But it can also be a huge headache when it gets jammed up; many German autobahn stretches are only four lanes when they need to be six (three in each direction). I even know some Germans who refuse to drive on the autobahn because it scares them (as it should!). But our own Interstate highway system was inspired by the German autobahn, and I have to put the autobahn in the ‘good’ category.
- Bread! This is slowly improving in the US, but Germans have an incredible variety of great breads. The French may have their cheese, but the Germans win when it comes to bread. There are over 200 different kinds of bread in Germany, and it plays a primary role in German cuisine – and that’s not even counting the many delicious pastries. When you return to the US from Germany, one of the first things you notice is how bread-deprived we Americans are. I even miss the great German white toast bread.
- German three-way windows. These well-crafted wonder windows function three ways: (1) closed tight, (2) open wide horizontally or (3) tilted slightly inward vertically. Ingenious! Of course, they are also double-glazed for sound and weather insulation.
- Election campaigns. As the Democrats and Republicans (and their PACs) squander millions and millions of dollars on their campaigns, and bombard TV viewers with mostly negative political ads, it is instructive to see how the Germans do it. First of all, there is a ban on political TV ads until six weeks before the election. (In the US that’s called ‘restricting free speech,’ but I think most Americans would love to copy the German example.) Most of the funding for political campaigns in Germany comes from the parties (and membership dues), not the candidates. All of the parties combined (five major ones) spent USD 70 million in a previous national election. In 2008, the Obama campaign alone spent USD 750 million, over 10 times as much, and that doesn’t even count outside money. (Remember, Germany’s population is only about four times smaller than that of the US.) Yes, Germany has had its share of political funding scandals over the years, but they amount to a pittance compared to the US. Two lessons to take away from this: (1) spend less money, and (2) spend less time!
- No artificial coloring or dyes. By law, Germany bans artificial coloring in foods and candy. Yes, it makes them a little less colorful, but it’s more natural. If you’ve ever seen Gummi Bears in Germany, you probably noticed that they don’t have the same bright colors. Even Asian food takes on a different color: sweet-and-sour sauce in Germany is not bright red as in the US.
- Beer at McDonald’s. I don’t often eat at McDonald’s in Germany or the USA, but you can get a beer at any McDonald’s in Germany. (In France they serve wine.) And McCafés also serve darn good coffee. As in the US, McD gives Starbucks some serious competition.
- The honour system. Unlike in most countries around the globe, including the USA, there are no ticket turnstiles for the U-Bahn or S-Bahn in Germany. Anyone who has taken the tube in London, the subway in New York, or the metro in Paris finds it very refreshing to travel on the German equivalent. You can board a streetcar or urban train without anyone checking your ticket or having to insert your ticket in an automatic turnstile. (When you board a bus, you can buy a ticket from the driver in most German cities.) The Germans use an honour system for public transportation that can be described as ‘trust but verify’. After almost a month of using Berlin’s widespread system, I began to wonder if they still checked. Then it happened. Two guys in plain clothes in our U-Bahn car flashed their badges and shouted, “Fahrkarten bitte!” My wife and I had our validated tickets, but one unfortunate fellow across from us was escorted off the train at the next stop and had to pay a fine of EUR 40. I have witnessed several such surprise checks over the years, and almost always everyone has a valid ticket or pass.
- Dogs. Germany is a dog-lover’s paradise. You see well-behaved, well-trained dogs in restaurants and public transportation. US dogs are barbarians by comparison. Germany is far more dog-friendly than the US, partly because they have a different approach to ‘man’s best friend’. They believe that dogs should be well-behaved enough to go out in public. The only negative is all the dog poop that owners rarely pick up, even though the law requires it. It should be noted, also, that Germany has strong laws banning so-called ‘fight dogs’ (Kampfhunde, pit bulls, dobermanns, etc.) considered too vicious.
- Fewer insects. There are no bug screens (fliegengitter) on windows in most of Germany because they really aren’t needed. Unless you’re near a farm or in a rural area, flies and other insects are rare. The tiny gnats that like to swim in your glass of wine are only a mild nuisance. There are regions where mosquitos can be a problem, but not in most German cities. The worst pests are the bee-like wasps (wespen) that like to join you when you’re eating outside.