Life and Customs: Germany versus Sweden

Expats living in Europe have a unique opportunity to travel and visit interesting places in many countries. Traveling from Berlin to Stockholm, for instance, is only a 75-minute jet flight – about the same time as flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the USA. If you’re an expat who hasn’t been taking advantage of this, it’s time to start!

Recently, I had a chance to compare some of the customs and practices in Germany and Sweden. I was surprised by some of the differences, but I have written about similar differences before in “Comparing Germany and France and…” Here are a few interesting and practical cultural comparisons between Germany and Sweden.

Living as an expat in Germany or Austria, it can be easy to forget that the EU does not equal the euro. Most of the time it does, but as soon as you venture off to Scandinavia, the UK or eastern Europe, you are reminded that there are still ten European Union member nations (out of 28) that do not use the euro.[1] You are transported back to a time when travelers in Europe had to exchange money at the border when entering another country – back to the days of French francs, Spanish pesetas, Italian lira, and German marks. (Prior to the Schengen Agreement of 1995, travelers also had to get their passports checked and stamped.) Traveling from Germany to Denmark, for instance, means exchanging euros for Danish kroner (DKK, 1 krone = €0.13 or $0.18). If you head to Switzerland (not an EU member), you’ll need to use Swiss francs (CHF).

Stockholm 1

Stockholm’s busy harbor is also a scenic tourist attraction. PHOTO: H. Flippo

Much of today’s money exchange problem is solved by another recent development: the wide use of credit cards, especially in Scandinavia. Need to pay for a taxi? The driver grabs his portable credit card reader and wirelessly processes your card. Any shop, grocery store or restaurant will gladly accept your credit card for payment.[2]

But when you return to Germany, you are back in the land where credit cards are frowned on. When I asked the driver if I use a card to pay for the taxi from Berlin’s Tegel airport, he told me yes, but there was a €1.50 surcharge. Later, when he inserted my chip MasterCard that had worked without a hitch in Sweden, it printed out “Fehler” (error) on all three attempts. As always in Germany, I had my backup cash on hand, but it was frustrating to encounter a hassle I never had in Scandinavia.

Speaking of taxis, I was surprised to learn that taxi rates are not regulated in Sweden. Although the prices are displayed on the rear side-window of cabs, few tourists are aware that there can be vast differences from one taxi company to another. A fellow cruise passenger paid almost double the amount I paid to take a taxi from the pier to our downtown hotel. He paid over 500 SEK ($72), when a much longer (30-minute) cab ride to the airport from Stockholm’s city center costs a flat rate of between 320 SEK ($46) and 530 SEK ($77). In Germany taxi rates are regulated and all cabs in a particular location charge the same metered rates.

Unlike in Sweden, in Germany you can’t just assume that every restaurant will take credit cards. Very few German grocery stores, usually in high tourism spots, will accept credit cards (look for a sign with the usual logos). Even in Berlin, a top tourist destination, only some high-traffic grocery stores, often in shopping malls, allow credit card payment. If you stray even slightly off the tourist circuit into more residential areas in Germany, credit card payment gets very problematic.

Stockholm 2

Stockholm’s popular pedestrian street for shopping. PHOTO: H. Flippo

Alcohol and Systembolaget
Just as liquor laws vary from state to state in the United States, they also vary across Europe. In Germany, as in California, you can buy wine, beer and hard liquor at any grocery store. On my recent visit to Sweden I felt like I was back in one of the US states that only allow state-controlled stores to sell alcoholic beverages.

Sweden has an alcoholic beverage control system that allows only state-owned liquor stores to sell any alcoholic beverage other than the low-alcohol “near-beer” sold in grocery stores. The “Systembolaget” stores that sell normal beer, wine, and hard liquor in Sweden are only open during normal business hours, and are closed on weekends and holidays. Avoid a Systembolaget store on a Friday afternoon! There will be crowds stocking up for the weekend.

Water in Restaurants
If you want a glass of water in a German restaurant, you have to order (and pay for) a bottle of Sprudelwasser (carbonated water) or stilles Wasser (plain water). Swedish restaurants, on the other hand, are more like those in America. You get a flask of tap water with drinking glasses on your table. Of course, you can order something else to drink, but the water is free. That doesn’t happen in Germany.

Germanic Languages
If you know German, you can recognize many words and expressions in Swedish, and vice versa. German Ausgang (exit) becomes utgang in Swedish. Eingang (entrance) becomes ingang, but also entré in Swedish. German königliches Schloss (royal palace) becomes Swedish kungliga slottet, Platz (square, plaza) becomes plats, and so on. Of course, as with any two languages, there are false friends. German Öl is oil; Swedish öl is beer, closer to English “ale” than Germanic Bier/beer. Yes is ja in both languages, but nein (no) is nej (nay) in Swedish. Guten Tag (hello, good day) is god dag (pron. good daag); guten Morgen = god morgon (good morron). We won’t attempt to delve into pronunciation, but many things are similar in written form. But if you want to learn Swedish, a background in German will help.

Cost of Living
I did not conduct a detailed comparison, but my personal impression was that Stockholm was far more expensive than Berlin. Restaurants, groceries, hotels, taxis and other items cost more in Stockholm than in Berlin. The German capital is one of the best bargains among all of Europe’s major capital cities, much cheaper than Paris, London or Stockholm.

- HF

TRIVIA: Can you name the ten EU countries that do not use the euro? (Before you look at the list in footnote 1 below?)

1. Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the UK are the ten EU countries that do not use the euro. The following non-EU European nations also do not use the euro: Norway, Switzerland.

2. Although I highly recommend the use of the newer “chip cards” in Europe, your old-fashioned US magstripe card will still work in most cases. However, the days of the outmoded, insecure “swipe card” are numbered. US credit card companies are now converting to chip cards, something that has been standard in Europe and Canada for years. A chip card must be inserted into a slot, not swiped. For more about chip cards, see “ATMs in Germany: Chips versus Magstripes,” my earlier blog on that topic.

Keine Gelegenheit versäumen – don’t miss your chance …

Blue notebookI remember that when I lived in Berlin for a year as a student ten years’ ago, I approached every conversation as a language-learning opportunity. Like a hungry caterpillar, I would gobble up more and more words whether talking to taxi driver or a philosophy professor. Earnestly, I would take mental note of unknown words, and later, decipher them with the help of my increasingly tatty dictionary and note down their meaning in a little blue notebook with the dream of my language skills suddenly and miraculously transforming into a beautiful, fluent-in-German butterfly.

But how lazy I have become after nearly five years of expat life. I only noticed this the other day, when visiting my husband’s family in Hesse. For the first time in ages I found myself thinking in the middle of a conversation “what an interesting word.” When looking up said word’s meaning later, it struck me how rarely I get a thrill from simple, but educative and revealing, exchanges. And what a shame that was given that I have a genuine interest in language structure and did study German (and History) at university after all.  Read more »

Pregnancy Scans in Germany

Pregnancy in Berlin

BY: Erin Porter

I am only (only!) 7 months pregnant, but I’ve already seen my baby yawn. At this point, I’ve actually had 7 ultrasounds (Ultraschalluntersuchung) in Germany, including a feindiagnostik (fine diagnostic) 3D scan to get a peek into what is happening in my belly.

How many ultrasounds do you have in Germany?

As this is my first pregnancy, I wasn’t sure what to expect from pregnancy in Germany, the USA or anywhere else for that matter. So I was a bit surprised when I realized that this amount of scanning was unusual for my stateside pregnant mamas. In the US, it appears that a total of 3 scans is considered normal – an early scan to verify dates, nuchal screen at 12 weeks and then a 20 week anatomy scan to check for issues.

While some people are concerned about the safety of ultrasounds on their unborn fetus, my research reassured me that the German doctors knew what they were doing and I was pleased to get a glimpse of this thing changing my whole life every time I went in for a visit.

Read more »

A German Epic

Of the many cultural highlights I enjoyed while living in Germany, an Abo (subscription) to the local Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra was definitely one of my favorites. We regularly attended concerts featuring world-class musicians at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, an impressive concert hall with phenomenal acoustic quality. The Stuttgarter Philharmoniker were unafraid to present the audience with challenging works, ranging from traditional to modern, and regularly impressed me with unique combinations of styles during each performance. One of the most memorable performances I attended there was of the music to the 1924 Fritz Lang silent film “Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Rache” (Kriemhild’s Revenge, the second of a two-part epic; part 1 was “Die Nibelungen: Siegfried“; music by Gottfried Huppertz) . The orchestra played the score, mostly in the dark, while the audience watched the black-and-white film on a large screen in front of the auditorium. I was blown away, both by the story and by the orchestra.

Having never heard of this epic tale, I began asking my German friends about it, and many of them had learned it in school. Das Nibelungenlied is an old epic poem, whose manuscripts date back to the 13th century, the authorship of which is unknown. Consider it along the lines of The Iliad and you get the idea. I found the movie so fascinating that I wanted to read the story for myself. While my German is fluent, and I often read German books and regularly read the newspaper and magazines, I knew I couldn’t handle mittelhochdeutsch (German from the middle ages) in poetry form. Happily, there is a contemporary author who has crafted the tale into a novel, and I found his book Hagen von Tronje (by Wolfgang Hohlbein, available at easy to follow and very enjoyable to read.

Another form of the tale which I have yet to experience is the Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, a series of 4 epic operas that loosely follow the story of the Nibelungen. In fact, the German title is Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is another form of the tale that I am not sure I am quite ready to consume, although I might enjoy the attempt.

I can highly recommend either the 1924 silent film or the novel format of the epic as a good starting place for learning this mythical tale. Don’t worry – you won’t feel like you are back in grade 10 Literature class, and there is no quiz at the end. The benefit is in your deepened understanding of German cultural references (Yes! They regularly reference this tale when referring to things like the Nibelungentreue, and have done so throughout history).


Essential Oils and German Sales

For a while now, I have been using essential oils around the house in place of OTC remedies. I got into them through my sister in the US, who was selling them as a sort of side venture. She teaches yoga as her main job. After talking about the oils to all and sundry, and having friends and strangers ask me how they could get them, I decided that I might as well try to make a bit of money to cover my oil “habit.” I have had some success, but I have also learned a lot about how Germans view money, sales, and commitments over the past few months.

I had assumed it would be really easy to get the oils business moving here. People are very open to alternative, natural treatments. My regular GP often offers me homeopathic and plant-based remedies before she gives me the “real” drugs. And it is true, most Germans that I know are very interested in essential oils, especially when they see how well they are working for us. When my older girls had issues with ADD and concentration years ago here in Germany, the therapist (and psychiatrist) quickly offered them various versions of ritalin, which surprised me. We were sort of desparate at the time, but the medicine was not a great choice for either of them. Now we are battling those issues with an oil mixture. I have had huge problems with sleeping in the past year or two. In Ireland the first thing they did was offer me sleeping pills. Here we tried all sorts of other approaches first. When it all failed, I finally was able to get a prescription for Ambien, but only if I promised to take it no more than once a week. I get it. I don’t want to fill my body with chemicals and I certainly don’t want to do the same with my kids. So I am trying something else. And I was never a believer in the homeopathic remedies, for example.  Read more »

Gifts from Germany

A visiting friend from New York asked me for some tips on good gift ideas for her to take back home from their summer in Germany. I love this question as it’s one that I have to think about and refresh each time I go back home. Here’s my list which includes  some expected standards along with some eccentric ideas that have been hits. Read more »