Germany is a place unlike any other. From the soaring Alps in the south to Oktoberfest to the rich history of Berlin, Germany is a country that never fails to amaze me. It’s no wonder that I chose to make it my home while I studied in Heidelberg. But to many Americans traveling to Germany, it can be a strange and foreign land. After living in Germany for nine months, I’ve compiled a list of things that could potentially shock Americans who travel to Germany for the first time.
1. People generally aren’t loud in Germany
The biggest American stereotype in the book (other than being overweight) is that Americans are loud. I wish I could debunk this but it is true. Americans tend to be very loud in public spaces when there is no need to be loud. So if you want to blend in while in Germany, don’t be loud. Speak quietly and you will have no problem looking like a local.
2. Germany doesn’t have strict open container laws
As a twenty year-old studying there with some of my best friends, the open container leniency was always a favorite of mine. Regardless, you usually wont see many drunks out roaming the streets – Germans tend to hold their alcohol better than most. But don’t be surprised if you see people walking around drinking wine straight out of the bottle. They’re probably quite happy.
3. Milk isn’t refrigerated in Germany
This still perplexes me to this day, but for some reason the Germans don’t refrigerate their milk. If you go to a grocery store you will see the milk sitting out on the shelf with things like bread and rice. The shelf life of the milk is much higher than the milk we get in America, so that is a benefit to the room-temperature milk. Sometimes milk can last up to three months! Quite different from the three weeks we have to drink our milk in America.
4. Don’t cross the street when the pedestrian light is red
There is a saying in Germany called ‘red man, dead man”. This is taught to German children when they are growing up and going to school on their own and learning to understand traffic lights. I have never been reprimanded for crossing the street when it is red but I know plenty of people who have. It isn’t uncommon for a German to scold you if you walk across when you shouldn’t. It is especially frowned upon if you cross illegally in front of a child because you are teaching them bad manners. Crossing when it shows a ‘red man’ means that you could become a ‘dead man’!
5. Sales tax is already included in prices
I’ve lived in California my whole life before moving to Germany and have become accustomed to California’s atrocious sales tax. One of the best things about Germany is that the sales tax is already worked in to the price. If you buy some Rittersport chocolate for €1.69 you will only pay one Euro and sixty-nine cents. It makes it very nice to be able to count out your money before you ever reach the cash register.
6. Germany is a very cash-oriented country
Since I’m on the topic of money, it is important to mention that Germany relies very heavily on cash. Lots of places will only accept cash below a certain price and most of the time the only cards that are accepted need to have the chip.
7. There are no such thing as €1 and €2 bills
The Euro currency uses coins for the €1 and €2. Unlike the US, where lots of times our change goes unused, coins in Europe and Germany are used frequently. Your pockets might get a little bit heavier with the extra coins but sometimes you can have a fortune without even knowing it!
8. If a restaurant serves beer on tap, they’re required to let you use the restroom
I haven’t been able to find a definite law that says this is true but many people who I have spoken to verify this. But I do know that I have never been denied access to a restroom in an establishment where they serve beer. That comes in quite handy when you can’t find a public restroom or don’t want to pay to use one. Which leads me to my next point…
9. Some places charge you to use the restroom
Ah, the dreaded bathroom charge. It isn’t uncommon to have to pay to use a public restroom in Germany. Train stations often have turnstiles in the restrooms where you must pay around a Euro or so to enter the restroom. Some restaurants will even have somebody sitting in front of the restroom with a coin dish that you have to put money in before they’ll let you pass. It can make for very awkward situations even if you have enough money to pay.
10. People eat at restaurants for hours
In America, we are used to eating our meals quickly. That’s why fast food is so common throughout the country. However, when Germans go out to eat at a restaurant, they don’t feel the need to hurry. Meals are an opportunity to eat lots of food, have some drinks, and enjoy your company for hours on end. The wait staff do not hurry up the customers for the turnaround profit, they simply keep serving until the customers leave. This is very nice because you don’t feel the need to rush out of the restaurant. Unfortunately, if you are looking for a spot at a crowded restaurant, the host can’t give you a time estimate of when a table will be ready.
11. People park their cars on the curbs
Hundreds of years ago, medieval German cities were designed for foot traffic and horse and buggies, not cars. This creates some very tight spaces for cars to fit in to. Nevertheless, Germans are able to make it work and can park a vehicle in nearly any spot. It is quite impressive. So don’t be surprised or alarmed when you see cars parked on curbs or drive over them like it’s not a big deal.
12. There are no such things as free refills
One of the saddest things about living in Germany is that there are no free refills at restaurants for soft drinks. You can usually choose either a small drink (usually around 0.3 liters) or a large drink (around 0.5 liters) depending on your level of thirst. But be sure to pace yourself so you don’t run out of your drink before you finish your meal!
13. Asking for tap water is impolite
Since we’re on the topic of restaurant taboos, it’s important to know that water isn’t provided for free if you ask. Not only will the waiter think you are crazy if you ask for tap water, they will likely bring you out a bottle of water that you will end up paying for. If you want regular water, be sure to ask for still water. Otherwise you will get sparkling water with carbonation in it that is not delicious (that's my opinion, the Germans love it).
14. Soft drinks don’t come with ice
In true American fashion, I love a little bit of soda with a lot of my ice. Unfortunately, ice cubes are not common in Germany or Europe in general. You can ask for ice in your drink and if you’re fortunate you will be given two or three cubes in the drink. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
15. Always address a police officer formally
Okay, so this is a bit more of a fun fact than something that will “shock” people. In German, you address people using either the familiar “du” form or the formal “Sie”. It is illegal to speak to a police officer and not use the proper “Sie” form. I learned this the hard way one of my first weeks in Germany. I was coming home from my fencing class and saw policemen scaling the wall up to my house. They immediately started speaking to me in German and I panicked. Thankfully I had been taught a few days before about this law so I addressed them using the proper “Sie”. If you ever need to speak to a police officer, just ask, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and they will likely be able to help you out.
16. Be sure to make eye contact while toasting
Germans take their drinks very seriously. When toasting glasses (called prosting), be sure to make eye contact. Not doing so is said to bring seven years of bad sex and nobody wants that!
17. Dogs are allowed in most public places
I love my dogs and consider them to be a part of the family. One thing I love about Germany is that many people think the same thing and take their dogs everywhere! Lots of businesses are very pet-friendly and it is very common to see dogs lounging by their owner’s feet at restaurants. Germans take their dogs everywhere and it always makes me happy to see them walking down the streets.
18. Most stores are closed on Sundays
Sundays are still revered as an important day in Germany and most people take the day off of work. A majority of stores will not be open except for those which cater to tourists. Restaurants are more likely to be open but don’t count on having things open on Sundays.
19. Recycling is taken very seriously
Throwing away your garbage in Germany is a science. Instead of a generic ‘recycle’ bin, they offer ‘green glass’, ‘brown glass’, ‘and a variety of other options. Germans like to abide by the rules so don’t throw away trash in a place where it doesn’t go. If you don’t follow the rules, you’re likely to get some disapproving stares and comments.
20. Germans are not scary!
One of the unfortunate German stereotypes is that Germans are scary and rude. That is not the case at all! Unfortunately, this belief stems from the fact that the German culture is very different from American culture. Germans aren’t rude, they just don’t see the need for useless chit-chat. They aren’t scary, they just have a certain way of doing things. While living in Germany, I have learned that many things I thought I knew about Germany were false. The Germans are lovely people and I will always consider Germany my second home!