On the campaign trail

In case you missed it, there was a general election last week in Germany. Receiving most of the international media coverage was, understandably, the fact that the AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) won just under 13% of the popular vote, making them the third strongest party in the Bundestag and the first far right party in the German parliament since 1945. That, and the global sigh of relief that Angela Merkel, the kind and sensible “Mutti” figure at the head of German politics, nevertheless has won a fourth term in office, remaining a bulwark against the impetuous world leaders who appear to surround her. This is not the forum to give you detailed political analysis of how any of this came to pass; plenty has been written elsewhere.

But what I can say superficially about the election, as an expat, is a word on election posters – by far the most visually striking element of these last few weeks. These posters, promoting both parties and individual candidates, are said to have more impact on popular political opinion than TV ads. When you walk around and see the energy invested in putting them up on literally every lamppost, in defacing them, and in taking them down at the end of the election (a work in slow progress), this seems plausible. There is a practical reason for this: in stark contrast to US elections, there is a strict limit on campaign airtime and campaign spending for all politicians and political parties, which restricts their options. Despite online methods of mobilising voters, the political poster remains a strong and much-used tool. Continue reading

The Truth About Tipping (Trinkgeld) in Germany


Much of the online English-language tipping advice for Europe – and Germany in particular – is wrong. This is understandable when you realize that even most native Germans get restaurant tipping all wrong.

The Myth That Won’t Die
If you ask the typical German about how tipping should work in a German restaurant, the standard answer is to just round off the amount of the bill to the nearest euro. If the Rechnung comes to 33.40 euros, they’ll tell you to round that off to 34 or 35 euros, but never more than two or three euros Trinkgeld. Some Germans are even more stingy with tips than that! They will tell you that wait staff in Germany are well paid and the Bedienung (service charge) is included in the bill. But this is a stubborn myth (and lame excuse) that somehow never dies. Only if the menu clearly states that the service charge is included in the prices (Preise inklusive Bedienung) is that true, and that is almost never the case. But there is also an important distinction between Bedienungsgeld and Trinkgeld, which we will explain below.

restaurant menu

A doorside restaurant menu in Germany. Is a service charge included in the prices? Usually not. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

The Truth
Germans who are better informed will tell you the truth: The wages earned by a Kellner/Kellnerin in Germany are among the lowest of any profession in the country. Food servers in Germany start out at a minimum-wage level of just under nine euros per hour brutto (gross, before deductions). Experienced waiters/waitresses can earn from 10 to 12 euros per hour, depending on the location and the type of dining establishment. A new waiter in Bremen earns on average about 950 euros a month before deductions and tips. The German average is 1,646 euros a month. More experienced Kellner/Kellnerinnen can earn up to 2,400 euros monthly. The average annual wage for a food server in Germany is 18,000-21,000 euros, not including tips. (Wait-staff wages in Austria are lower; those in Switzerland are higher.) Whether experienced or not, a food server working in a German restaurant depends very much on tips from customers to bring their income up to a more reasonable level. If you consider 10 euros an hour, or 18,000 euros per annum “well paid,” then you have rather low expectations. Continue reading

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.

Money
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 $0.14). If you head to Switzerland (not an EU member), you’ll need to use Swiss francs (CHF).

Stockholm harbor

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] Continue reading

New Laws in Germany for 2017


As the new year approaches, many new laws and regulations are about to take force in Germany in 2017. Some of them are welcome changes (no more cell phone roaming charges in the EU), while others don’t make a huge difference (a modest minimum wage increase) or really aren’t all that welcome (higher electric rates).

Let’s start with a new law that most people in Germany will enjoy: a new nationwide holiday!

Wittenberg Rathaus

The City Hall in the Luther City Wittenberg. All of Germany will observe the Reformation Day holiday in 2017. Currently only five Bundesländer observe this holiday. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

REFORMATIONSTAG
For the first time ever, Reformation Day (October 31) will be an official holiday all across Germany in 2017. Currently the Protestant Reformationstag is a holiday only in the German states (Länder) of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen (Saxony), Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt), and Thüringen (Thuringia). Reformation Day commemorates the date when Martin Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg 500 years years ago. Because 2017 is also The Year of Luther (das Lutherjahr), German lawmakers decided to make Reformation Day an official holiday all across Germany for that year, even in Catholic Bavaria. But it’s a one-off just for 2017. After the special nationwide observance on Tuesday, October 31, 2017, the holiday will return to being observed only in the five states mentioned above. Continue reading

Germany’s Cash Culture: “Geld stinkt nicht”


In Germany, Cash is King

North Americans are often frustrated by the lack of credit card acceptance in Germany. Americans and Canadians, so used to paying with plastic, are dismayed to discover that once they stray from the tourist circuit, their AmEx, MasterCard, or Visa credit cards are often useless in German-speaking Europe. It’s another cultural difference, and it’s not a minor one. You need to wrap your head around the fact that cash is king in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. As the Germans say, “Geld stinkt nicht.” (“There’s nothing wrong with money.” lit., “Money doesn’t stink.”)

Euro banknotes

Euro banknotes range from five to 500 euros. Notice that, unlike US bills, euro banknotes also vary in size. PHOTO: ECB

The Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, recently estimated that 79 percent of financial transactions in Germany are settled in cash, while in Britain and the USA that figure is under 50 percent. A typical German walks around with the equivalent of about $123 in cash in their wallet, nearly twice as much as Australians, Americans, the French or the Dutch typically carry. There is little talk of a “cashless society” in German-speaking Europe.

Many people have searched for an answer to why Germans (and the Swiss and Austrians) are so much more in love with cash (Bargeld) than most other nationalities. The use of cash for most transactions seems to be deeply ingrained in the German psyche. Children grow up in Germany’s cash culture, and as adults they think nothing of paying a bill of 500 euros or more with paper money. And they can do that with a single banknote, the 500-euro bill that was created as a concession to Germany to ease the pain of giving up the Deutsche Mark (DM). The 500-euro note, worth about $570 today, replaced the popular 1000-DM bill. Switzerland still has its 1000-franc (CHF) banknote, the largest denomination bill in the world, and today worth just a little over 1000 US dollars. We’ll discuss more aspects of these giant banknotes below.

Possible reasons for the German passion for cash vary from the German love of privacy and anonymity to the historic encounters with hyperinflation in the Weimar era, and after World War II. Germans also claim that by using cash, they are better able to keep track of their finances and avoid debt. (The German love of using cash is countered by an intense hate for debt.) Other observers claim cash offers a good way for Germans to avoid taxes with off-the-books cash transactions. Continue reading

From Smoke Detectors to Electric Cars: New and Revised Laws in Germany for 2016

Sometimes it’s surprising how a modern nation like Germany can lag behind in certain areas. A good example from the past is smoking. While the US and many other countries long ago banned smoking in restaurants, the workplace, and other public areas, Germany was slow to do the same. After an initial period of voluntary restrictions by some businesses, Germany began to regulate smoking in public places. (Austria, on the other hand, still has a lot of work to do on public acceptance of smoking bans. Cough! Cough!) While non-smoking areas in Germany were once a rarity, today German anti-smoking laws are similar to those in the US in most cases.

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As of 2016, some German states require the installation of smoke detectors (Rauchmelder) in existing homes. PHOTO: Feuerwehr e.V.

Another area where Germany was lagging behind was smoke detectors. As with many things in Germany, this is an area left to each of the 16 Bundesländer (states). There is no nationwide law. After a slow start beginning around 2004/2005, almost all of the German states now require smoke detectors in new houses and apartments. As of 2016, only Berlin and Brandenburg still lack any smoke-detector requirements (Rauchmelderpflicht). Some Länder now also require smoke detectors in older, existing living quarters. Continue reading

Moving to Germany: The Top 10 Things to Consider


Moving anywhere is a challenge. Even a short move across town can be problematic. An international move presents additional complications, but a little preparation will mean fewer hitches. Even if you are fortunate enough to be using the services of a relocation agent, you should be aware of the following ten factors to consider when moving to Germany.

Berlin apartment parking

Having a car in Germany can be a mixed blessing. Here: apartment parking in Berlin-Friedrichshain. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

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1. Get Oriented
By “get oriented” I mean get to know the culture, the language, and the place where you’ll be living. This may seem obvious, but I am constantly amazed by how many new expats fail to do this. You’re moving to a new country with a culture and a language very different from what you’re used to. Don’t arrive in German-speaking Europe without at least some basic preparation. This is what our German Way site is all about! You’ll find all sorts of help here, and here are a few tips on what you need to learn: Continue reading

January 2015 in Germany: New Year, New Laws, New Rules

2015 ushered in new laws and regulations in Germany. Our overview of new things that expats and travelers need to know also reveals a lot about daily life and customs in Germany.

If you drive a car, use public transportation, rent a place, watch TV, take out the trash, get paid in euros, or use the post office in Germany, there are changes that can affect all expats and travelers. We’ll start with one of the more bizarre things that the new year introduced to German law and life (and it’s not the precipitous fall of the euro). Continue reading