Ten Surprising Things About Germany (from an American ​perspective)

I’ve had the privilege of living in Germany, my husband’s home country, for just over two years now. I’ve learned some surprising things about this place I now call home. I had traveled to Germany before, but as most of us know, the way you experience a country as a visitor, and the way you experience it as a resident, are two different things. My list is actually pretty long, but I’m going to share ten of the ones Americans may find the most surprising. I want to add that most of these things make sense once you understand the reasons for them.

  1. Paying cash only at most restaurants: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve enjoyed a nice little meal somewhere, only to be told, ‘sorry, we only take cash’, and then making a run to the nearest ATM. I suppose I’ll eventually get used to it, but I’m having a hard time learning to carry cash around with me. Incidentally, bakeries only take cash as well.
  2. Thirsty? If you dare to ask for “Leitungswasser” in a restaurant, you’ll most likely get a strange look, or be brought a bottle of water that you have to pay for. That’s right, water in restaurants is not free. In fact, you can’t even get tap water to drink (unless you’re lucky). I may or may not have been known to sneak a bottle of tap water from home into my purse, taking a sip when needed. When I forget, I go home parched. Because paying for water at a restaurant to me seems like a waste of money. I have been told by Germans that since going out to eat is something special, people want their water to be special too. German tap water quality is very good, and it’s definitely good enough for me to wash down my food.
  3. Kitchens are like furniture. Apparently, kitchens in Germany are a status symbol. That translates into, every tenant in every apartment has to bring and install their own kitchen. I’m talking counters, cupboards, sink, stove, dishwasher, fridge, and anything else you want. You are presented with an empty room with water and electricity access coming out of the wall somewhere. When you leave, you take it all with you. This creates so much headache and expense for the tenants! You have to look for the words “Einbauküche” or EBK on a rental advertisement if you want the kitchen included. In many cases though, this means you are getting the previous tenant’s throw away kitchen, and the landlord won’t take any responsibility for it. Until recently, tenants were also expected to paint the entire apartment white before leaving. Thankfully, this law has changed, but it can be included in an individual contract.
  4. People trust other parents with their kids. The first time my son was invited to a friend’s birthday party, my husband dropped him off. I had no idea who the family was, and he had only met them once. Likewise, when my son hosted a birthday party, not a single parent stayed to chat or watch their kids play. I had prepared food for them, and I was surprised. It seems that kids’ birthday parties are seen as free babysitting and a chance for the parents to have some time to themselves. Needless to say, this made it harder for me to get the know the parents.
  5. Bombs. WW2 bombs, “Blindgänger” are still a part of everyday life in Germany’s cities. Tens of thousands of them lurk underground, getting more dangerous year by year. Every year, hundreds of bombs are unearthed during construction projects such as building underground parking garages, and an average of one spontaneously explodes. In the destruction of Germany’s cities after the war, buildings were rebuilt by hand (mostly by women) using the rubble that was laying around. In a hurry to build a shelter before winter arrived, thought was not given to what may be out of sight. Unexploded bombs lie beneath countless buildings today. No one knows how many. The American bombs are the trickiest to deal with. Here’s an article on the topic (in German).
  6. Churches (called Gemeinde, not Kirche) that are not part of the State are seen by most as being cultic. I could write several posts on this topic alone, but let’s just say here that even the Baptists are considered to be a cult by most in Germany. Catholicism and Protestantism are part of the regular public school curriculum, but being born again or living one’s life with Jesus is seen as extreme.
  7. Airing out the house. I think this, along with separating garbage, could be given religion status in Germany. It’s included in rental contracts and is one of those things that must be done properly. Forced-air systems are rarely used in German homes, causing a lack of air circulation. The only way to circulate air is to open all the windows (that have no screens). This must be done at least once a day and is called “shock-airing”. Mold is a common problem, especially in the winter and in older buildings. Usually, the tenants are blamed for mold and held liable for it, being told that it’s because they haven’t aired properly. This makes no sense to me. When Germans encounter problems such as this, they usually come up with a brilliant technology to solve the problem or create a law or system to help. In the case of mold, tenants are used as a scapegoat instead of for example requiring apartments to be painted with anti-mold paint (which exists).
  8. Carrots. That’s right. Carrots always come in huge bags. I’m assuming this means that Germans consume large amounts of the vegetable. I hardly ever buy them (because I can’t fit it in my fridge or eat it before it spoils) or I buy them frozen if I can find them. But for some reason, carrots mostly come in 2-kilo bags. That’s a lot of carrots!image
  9. Sundays are different. Everything is closed except for restaurants and some bakeries. If you didn’t buy enough milk to last the weekend, too bad. Quiet is expected on Sundays. This means you cannot do your laundry or vacuum, or drill a hole in the wall. You’d also better not be caught hanging your laundry outside to dry on a Sunday. By many, Sunday is considered a “family day” and they won’t even visit with friends on Sunday as a result.
  10. Teachers cannot be fired. They are called “Beamter” or civil servants, part of a system that was established under Bismark. If a teacher does a bad job, they are re-shuffled and moved to another location. Sometimes, because they are immune to being fired, this gives parents and even the school they work for very little recourse. Here’s a tiny view of this complicated system.

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