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 $0.14). 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]

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 shopping street

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.

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.

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