February 18th marks my six-month anniversary of living in Germany which has got me reflecting on what it has been like to call the heart of Europe my home. Living abroad has been an aspirational goal of mine for at least 5 years, and now that I am actually experiencing my dream every day, it is sort of surreal. I have these moments, usually when I am running or biking on a sunny day, where I take a moment of mindfulness to appreciate that I am LIVING IN GERMANY right now. It is a pretty spectacular feeling to know that Sam and I accomplished this together.
One thing that I keep saying when people ask me about life in German is that it feels strangely familiar to my life growing up. I never attributed the significant German influence in Wisconsin as part of my US cultural background, but now that I am in Germany, I can feel it. Obviously I didn’t learn German growing up and most of the people who live in Wisconsin are multi-generational American in their heritage. But the German influence remains and things like the food, the complaining about the weather, the quiet humility and the reverence of beer all feel homey to me.
It has made the adjustment process much easier because there is something seamless about dropping into life here. That isn’t to say that everything has been as expected. I think anytime you move your entire life to a new place, there are going to be things that turn out as expected, and there will be some that are totally different than expected. But for me, that is part of the beauty and joy in the experience — this is what true cultural immersion is all about.
This is What I’ve Learned During My First Six Months of Living in Germany
One of the things that Sam and I were most looking forward to in Germany was the European lifestyle. In our minds, this meant more work-life-balance, more walking, more equality, more social support — and so far all of this has been 100% true to our experience. The European lifestyle has really been kind to us and we are not missing a lot of those above listed aspects of American life at the moment (the cheeto-in-chief makes it easier to not miss the US too).
I could go on and on about all the lifestyle things we are loving about Germany, but the things that stand out the most are the little things. I am overjoyed that I get to bike all year round, and my daily commute to school on my bike is so energizing. When I don’t ride my bike, there are 5 different public transportation options within walking distance. I love that we live literally 2 minutes walk from three different grocery stores, so we can buy less groceries per visit to ensure maximum freshness. It is so motivating to run along the Rhine river any time that I want. Everything is closed on Sundays by law, so I can always count on that day to be relaxing.
Even the weather is a better part of the lifestyle! Germans loveeee to complain about German weather, but I don’t even listen to it, because Germany’s weather is such a massive improvement from weather in the Midwest, especially in winter. It hasn’t gotten below 30 degrees here, and it is sunny at least once or twice a week. It doesn’t even rain as much as I expected. These are all improvements in my book!
Punctuality & Rule Following
It is a common stereotype that Germans are always on time, and this has been totally true in my experience. I notice it most at school. The German students are almost always sitting and ready to go before class starts, and if they happen to be late, they are very apologetic. When we hosted our Thanksgiving dinner, the four German people we invited all arrived together about 3 minutes after the stated arrival time.
The same is true with rule following. Germans are quite a law and rule abiding people! This one was a bit more of a surprise to me, especially the casual rule following. NO ONE jaywalks here. Literally no one. It was one of the first things I noticed. In fact, I have even been scolded for jaywalking by a mother who said I was “setting a bad example for society”. lolllllzzzz.
The one place where this punctual and rule-following behavior seems to not be applied is at the train station. I don’t know what it is about the train station, but it is like all German people forget the rules. People will crowd around the doors, run on the platforms, and don’t listen to any of the announcements. It’s a strange phenomenon.
Germans seem to love paperwork. And by love, I mean tolerate. Applying for our residence permit involved four separate trips to the foreigners office because we didn’t have the right documents or they were signed in the wrong color pen or some other seemingly meaningless error. The paper needs to be pristine with no folds otherwise it will be rejected, so you’ll see German people carrying around these little plastic folders to protect their documents. You can tell a German in a line over a foreigner by the quality of their paper!
We get SO much mail, and all of it is relevant mail. It’s not like coupons and spam like I am used to in the US. It is important documents about my school payments or our immigration status or our tax bills. Almost none of it is eligible for online enrollment, and it is all in German so translating it has sometimes been a challenge. But it all fits with my expectations about German bureaucracy.
Take for example when Sam and I opened up a joint bank account here. In order to finalize the account, we each had to receive four individual pieces of mail (so 8 pieces total) sent at different times during the week. The bank told us it was for security, which is fine, but over the next week, we received individual pieces of mail with our online access code, our online PIN code, our ATM card, our card pin code, all of which had to be separate. Overall the security rationale for this type of system makes sense to me, but it took more than 10 business days for all of our bank papers to arrive. Not exactly efficient.
Difficulty Making Friends
This was one of the things that I expected in moving abroad, and I had been properly warned about by many other people I know who have moved abroad. This isn’t specific to Germany, but more to life as an expat. That said, Germans can be a little hard to get to know. Their friend groups are pretty tight, and they can be hesitant about new people, so persistence is key to making friends with locals. I knew it would be challenging to make new friends, and for the most part that has been true. I have a pretty good pool of people to meet at school, but I haven’t quite found “my people” here yet. Me and Sam are spending a lot of time together, and the two closest friends that we have made so far are both American.
I could write a lot more about this topic, but the shortened version is that the German academic system is very different than the US system. Pretty much everything about the masters experience here has been different than my expectations of a masters program. Maybe that is my fault for not adjusting my expectations, but here are just a few of the things that I didn’t expect. I take 10 classes a semester, so I have a wide breadth of knowledge but not a large depth of knowledge. I do barely any reading or homework. Last semester, 7/10 of my classes were graded 100% based on the final exam. Passing is considered a 50% here, and I can retake my finals 3 different times without punishment. I am the oldest person in my program at 30 years old, and my colleagues can be kind of ageist. Fellow students don’t seem to think a masters is quite as big of a deal here, which probably has a lot to do with the significantly lower cost.
I feel like I have learned as much about my school subjects as I have about being a student in another culture. I am find myself using a lot soft skills, such as adaptability, cultural understanding and deduction because most of these differences were not explained to me at the outset of my program. Germans don’t know what is weird about the German system to foreigners, so I spend of a lot time asking questions and being confused. I knew that it would be different to learn outside of a US classroom, but this has been a much larger disconfirmed expectation than expected for me. I definitely do not regret doing my masters here and overall I am happy with my program, but managing my expectations about what a masters degree looks like and means has been an important part of the adjustment process to life in Germany.
I am convinced that German efficiency is a myth. Germans are efficient, yes, but you have to be German to understand how it is efficient. The German way is not inherently the best or most efficient way to do something. It is simply the German way to do it, and often that way is completely incomprehensible to any non-Germans. There are SO many examples I could use to talk about this. Since I’m sure people will have strong opinions about this disconfirmed expectation, I’ll use three examples to demonstrate what my experience with “German efficiency” has been.
- At my university, I have had to turn in my admissions paperwork and enrollment documents to three different departments — the students office, the admissions office and the examination office. When I asked why I had to keep turning in the same paperwork to different people, the answer I was given was that this is most efficient for the departments to have access to the information. When I asked why all the departments don’t use the same database, I was told that “they just don’t.” Ok, cool sounds efficient and not at all annoying for me.
- At the foreigners office, which is an inherently stressful place, it is like the wild west. There are no lines, you seemingly can’t make an appointment ahead of time, there is a series of different offices and people you need to talk to, there is nowhere to get accurate information, there are no signs, etc. Keep in mind, everyone visiting this office is not a native German, hence why they are at the foreigners office, so some structure might be simultaneously beneficial for visitor and staff. I can’t tell you how many times I watch some frantic visitor opening different doors and asking a million questions about the process to a frustrated staff person. In an efficient German system, you would think there would be an individual line for each available service and individual offices to perform those services, or maybe some sort of numbering system to keep track of people in the queue, but no. They literally take your passport and then shout your name when they’re “ready” for you to come in, and then the person who called you in isn’t even the person that you can do said service with. There are no stated times for the queue, so you could be waiting anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours (we were literally there for 3 hours and spoke to 3 different staff members in different offices). This was definitely the most stressful of the bureaucratic processes we went through, and it could be easily made more efficient but the Germans don’t seem to have any issue with it.
- The fastest way to get a German riled up is to mention the national train company, Deutsche Bahn. In a country known for its engineering and efficiency, you would probably expect a great rail system? Nope. Deutsche Bahn has a terrible reputation because of their slow service, frequent delays, mechanical issues, the list goes on. By train it takes almost 5 hours (without delays) to get from Cologne to Berlin, a distance that the French company TGV can do within their own country in 2 hours. Coming from the US, I personally don’t find Deutsche Bahn to be so bad because I appreciate that rail options exist at all, but this is definitely not what I expected the national German train company to be like.
Things I’ve Learned About Germany
Car Culture is a Real Thing
Coming from the US, I know what it is like to be surrounded by a car worship society — people love to drive and their car is often one of their most important possessions. However in the US, this car culture is more out of necessity than pride of ownership in my impression. There are people who are proud of their car, but most people have a car because they need a car, not because they necessarily want a car.
In Germany, I think it is the opposite. It is quite easy to survive without a car here, yet a majority of people still own a car and a majority of those cars are German made. I have found that many Germans see cars as a foundational part of the German identity, in a way that feels more distinct than in the US. A large portion of the German workforce and economy is dependent on the auto sector, so this association makes sense; but in an intangible way, it feels like more than an economic force that drives this car culture. The storied autobahn, the immaculate road conditions, and the high quality engineering are sources of national pride, and I think that Germans care about their automobiles and the lifestyle of driving.
Here is an example of what I mean. In an intercultural leadership class I took last semester, we went around the room and said what the hot button issue in our native country was — basically name an issue that EVERYONE in your country will have a strong opinion on. For the US, I said abortion and gun rights, while an Indian student said the Kashmir land disptue, while a British student said Brexit. When we got to a German student, they said putting a speed limit on the autobahn. All the non-Germans started to chuckle, saying “No way, it has got to be something else” and immediately all the other German students chimed in saying “This is totally it.” A 20 minute debate about speed limits ensued. For me, this was such a quintessential cultural moment because it perfectly captured how paramount cars are to German culture. I also found it kind of charming that the most hotly debated issue facing Germany right now is a highway — this is a good place to live.
Germans are (Quietly) Proud
Half a century of being (rightfully) seen as the world’s villain has definitely taken a toll on the modern German psyche. One thing that I sense here is that many German people are uncomfortable about national pride and are hesitant to express any pride in their Germanness. I totally get it. This makes sense to me but I find that Germans are their harshest critics, quick to complain or disparage things about their country. If you talk to foreigners living in Germany now, they tend to have really nice things to say, myself included. Of course this wasn’t always the case, but I am impressed about Germany’s ability to acknowledge and discuss its dark history, in a way that I don’t see as remotely feasible in the United States when discussing historical events like Native American genocide, Japanese internment camps, or institutionalized white supremacy.
It’s only once you talk to Germans for a little while that you can get a sense of the things that are important to their identity. You can tell that there are things that Germans are really proud of, like their economy or their beautiful nature, but they are so quiet about it. I think this subtle paradox of wanting to be proud but never wanting to be seen as too proud is a major reason why Germany is bad at marketing itself outside of Germany. They don’t know how to talk about their country effectively and they don’t want to sound to braggadocious if they do talk about Germany, when in reality…
Germany Has SO Much to Offer
In my opinion, Germans are pretty bad at marketing themselves, especially in the tourism context, which is inextricably tied to the point above. But it means that there are so many awesome things to do here that non-Germans just straight up don’t know about. I get frequent messages on social media saying things like “wow, I didn’t know Germany had stuff like that” or “Germany has really shot up on my list of places I want to go after seeing your photos”.
This has been one of my best discoveries of living here — Germany has SO much to offer a tourist. Me and Sam planned to do a lot of traveling around Europe when we moved here, but honestly we have spent most of our time in Germany thus far, because we keep finding more and more places we want to visit. And we don’t even live in the most “touristically” popular corner of Germany! We love visiting the nearby city of Dusseldorf, we had a fantastic anniversary trip staying in a castle hotel on the Rhine, and we died over all the Christmas market cuteness. There is genuinely such a big opportunity to travel in Germany, and I can’t wait to write more about Germany on this blog to encourage more people to discover some of the cool things to do here!
Other Random Tidbits About Life in Germany
Germans love house plants apparently. There is a garden or flower shop every few blocks. I have three within a 5 walking distance from my house.
Germans are pretty into wellness. It is common to see families out running or biking together, there are spas and thermal waters in most cities, and wellness tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of travel for Germans.
Germans travel more than any other European people, both inside and outside Germany.
Germany is still a pretty cash dominant society. A lot of places will accept debit cards, but credit cards are uncommon, and it is not strange to see “Cash Only” signs at a lot of businesses.
Overall Conclusions of the Last 6 Months in Germany
I can unequivocally say that moving my little family to Germany is the life accomplishment that I am most proud of. I think Sam would say the same. It took a lot of work for us to get here and it didn’t come without sacrifices (I miss living in the same city as my family a lot), but it has been 100% worth it. Each day has felt like such a treat, and it is not uncommon for Sam or I to say to the other “I just love living here.” Sam and I are genuinely so happy to be in Germany right now, and it is really starting to feel like our home.
There is so much about Germany that feels familiar to me, and yet every day there is something new to discover and learn about. I feel like we have only scratched the surface of our experience here, and I cannot wait for the rest of our time in Germany to unfold in front of us. This has been such an adventure so far, and I have no doubt about all the fun memories that lie ahead.
Prost to you Germany. You’ve been the most welcoming new home I could ever imagine.
I stumbled upon your blog when I was looking to find articles on how to move abroad with your fur babies. I love it! Your article with Loki and Odin, it said you guys moved from Chicago to Germany. I am also from Chicago and looking to move abroad. May I ask, what made you guys want to move to Germany, was it career-related? Were there other countries you were considering moving to?
Thanks for your kind comment Shannon! It sounds like we’ve got a lot in common with the cats and Chicago. I hope you’ll be able to make moving abroad a reality too! We moved here so that I could pursue my master’s degree, since a student visa is a relatively simple legal pathway to living in Europe. I had applied to three different universities in Europe (in Austria, Germany and Switzerland) and we decided on Cologne after visiting the three campuses. It just felt like the best fit for us. Because we were married, my husband was able to get a spouse visa (technically family reunification visa in the German system) which allows for work status. He was able to find a job about 8 months after moving here & learning some German, so now he is our primary visa sponsor since I graduated.