Landeskunde for Expats

What is “Germany”? When most English-speaking people think of Germany, images of lederhosen, the Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle (the “Disney castle”), and Oktoberfest are probably the first things that pop into their heads. Of course all of those things are Bavarian, not German. If they happen to think of German cars (Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche), they’re still in southern Germany (except for Volkswagen in Wolfsburg). And then there’s historical stereotype number one: Adolf Hitler, who was Austrian and liked to hang out in Bavaria.

So for many people Germany = Bavaria. That’s like saying Texas is the United States of America. Oops.

Porta Nigra detail 2

Trier’s landmark Porta Nigra gate. Trier is Germany’s oldest city, but it’s not in Bavaria. Learn more about Trier. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Most people who have never been to Germany, Austria or Switzerland have no idea how regional those countries are. Germany has about 80 million people, most of whom have much more of a regional identity than a national (or a state) one. Germans live in regions with names such as Allgäu, Schwarzwald (Black Forest), Eifel, Franken (Franconia), Harz, Oberbayern, Ruhr (Ruhrgebiet, Ruhrpott), Rheinland, Schwaben (Swabia), and Taunus. There are over 50 different named regions in Germany, few of which correspond to the 16 Bundesländer (states).

Austrians sometimes claim there are two regions in their country: Vienna and everywhere else. Of course it’s more complicated than that. Austria may only be the size of South Carolina, but its 8 million citizens live in nine provinces and regions from the Danube in the east to the mountains of Vorarlberg in the west – all with different dialects, geography, and customs. Continue reading

Krampus, the Christmas Devil of Alpine Europe

Much of Europe has a venerable Christmas or December tradition that pairs the good bishop-like St. Nicholas with a demonic, nasty character known as Krampus (and various other regional names). In Alpine Austria and southern Bavaria, this wintertime good-cop/bad-cop routine often exhibits aspects scary enough to put the fear of the devil into adults, not to mention young children. As St. Nicholas Eve (December 5) approaches, youngsters in Austria and Bavaria begin to have serious thoughts about whether they have been naughty or nice. They know Krampus is coming, and he’s definitely not nice.


This antique greeting card depicts one version of what Krampus looks like. He has a basket to take bad children away with him. The German text reads: “Greetings from Krampus!” PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to an appearance in local family homes, usually along with St. Nicholas, Krampus and his cohorts also gather to put on a wild show in the streets of many Austrian and Bavarian towns. The “show” is known as a Krampuslauf (Krampus run). Customs vary by locality, but the tradition goes back hundreds of years, and far, far beyond a mere lump of coal in a kid’s stocking. An American witness to several Krampusläufe in Austria writes: “The ability to be genuinely frightened of someone wearing a costume is often left behind in childhood, and as an adult it is a bizarre experience. Fleeing from a person wearing a wooden mask and brandishing a bundle of sticks is terrifying but also exhilarating.”

The writer, Michael Karas of The Record newspaper in New Jersey, continues: “While being relentlessly pursued through the snow by a horned beast dead set on punishing the wicked may seem like an unorthodox path to embracing the holiday spirit, the lashings were an immediate catalyst for introspection, after which I found myself silently promising to become a better person in the new year.” Continue reading

Eggs on trees – 5 favourite German Easter traditions

Osterglocken - daffodils in English

Osterglocken – daffodils in English

I love Easter in Germany. It’s full of decorations, rituals and get togethers – almost like a mini Christmas but with better weather promising the arrival of spring.

It is a bigger celebration than anything I experienced in the UK. This could be because in my childhood we were not frequent churchgoers, but I don’t think it’s just down to that. At nursery and school we didn’t do much for Easter either – the odd Easter egg competition but that was that. Mostly, we were concerned with chocolate.

But as at Christmas, the Germans, whether actively religious or not, stay loyal to older, family-oriented traditions, which start before the official Easter-time from Good Friday onwards begins.

1. Blowing Eggs 

The first Easter-related activity is decorating eggs. This takes place a good couple of weeks before Easter and involves blowing out the contents of the egg through a tiny pin prick in the bottom and top. The egg shells are rinsed and left to dry. They are then carefully painted by children and grown-ups alike in a cacophony of colours. Continue reading

American Expats, the IRS, FATCA and Other F-words

Besides “IRS,” Americans can now add another item to their list of ominous acronyms: FATCA. Like most things related to income taxes, the FATCA issue has a lot of people in a dither. As if US tax law wasn’t already complicated enough, along comes FATCA to gum up the works even more, especially for US citizens living overseas and earning income from a non-US source.

All US citizens or resident aliens living abroad are obligated to pay income taxes to the US Treasury, even if they haven’t lived in the United States for years, have no intention of returning, and even if their income comes solely from foreign sources. The United States of America is the only modern, industrialized nation that taxes the worldwide income of its estimated six million citizens who live abroad, even if their income is generated in a foreign country and they never return to their homeland.[1] Continue reading

Expatriates and the cost of living in A, D, CH

Expatriates don’t always have a choice of where they’re assigned to work, but they definitely need to know the cost of living in their assignment location. If your salary is paid by a US company, for example, that salary might put you at a huge disadvantage if you are working and living in Tokyo, Japan, which happens to be the most expensive city in the world for expats. (The news for Germany is much better.)

Companies with employees assigned to overseas locations usually offer some sort of cost-of-living allowance to supplement the increased costs. So even if you are going to an overseas location by your own choice, without company support, you need to know how the cost of living there compares to your current or home location. But how do you get that information? One excellent source is the website, from which we derived the rankings discussed here.

It may surprise you to learn that, except for New York City, Honolulu, Anchorage, San Jose and San Francisco, most cities in the United States of America have a far lower cost of living than places in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America – and even Canada! My own hometown of Reno, Nevada ranks 455th out of 780. Most places in the southern states of the US rank much lower than that. Continue reading

Comparing Germany and France and…

There was a time when I thought certain practices and cultural quirks were uniquely German (or Austrian or Swiss), but as I traveled around Europe more and more, I realized that some “German” things are actually European things. The fear of a draft or breeze, for instance, or tense and aggressive driving, and other cultural traits that differ from those in North America.

And yet there are also some interesting differences among the people in the various European countries. I was just in France for about a week. (And mostly without internet access in a remote area, which explains why this blog is a day late.) My wife and I drove across much of Germany, but as soon as we crossed the German-Belgian border (which is barely marked, by the way) I noticed a difference in driving styles on the autobahn (or whatever the Belgians call it). Since, unlike in Germany, there is a speed limit on freeways (130 km/h, or 80 mph) in Belgium (and most European countries), you don’t have to worry about someone suddenly coming out of nowhere in the left lane, doing literally 100 mph (161 km/h) as they zoom past you like you were standing still. In Germany you really need to look twice before venturing into the fast lane! Continue reading

Germans: We don’t need no stinkin’ apartment numbers

It never really dawned on me that the Germans don’t use apartment numbers – until I lived in a German apartment house. The only way the postal carrier (Postbote/Postbotin) can deliver mail to the correct apartment in even a large apartment complex is by the surname on the mailbox. In my case, not even my own last name, but that of the people I was subletting the apartment from. And my apartment complex in Berlin even had a Hinterhaus, another building facing a courtyard behind the front building, and all of them were five stories high. Yet the only numbers in sight were for the floors.

My first reaction to the lack of apartment numbers (Wohnungsnummern) was, “How ridiculous is that?” But then I remembered that the Japanese don’t even have street names in most of their cities (except in Kyoto and Sapporo). They use block section numbers in a confusing (to us Occidentals) address system that makes the Germans look like the height of logic and reason. The Japanese also write a postal address in the reverse order of most of the world: starting with the geographic location and ending with the name of the recipient. Continue reading

Cow Parade

I’m on a bit of a tourist kick at the moment. For my last post, I wrote about where to take visitors in Swabia. This week’s topic: the cow parade. I had never heard of this tradition until last year, when colleagues of mine included it in their hiking weekend. I immediately thought “hey, I bet my boys would love that!” and my husband disagreed, saying they were too little and would be scared. Of cows? Please. Although, the bells are indeed very loud, and cows are kind of big. So we waited another year and just last weekend, I experienced the Viehscheid in the Allgäu (which follows the the Almabtrieb in Germany and Austria, known in Switzerland as the Alpabzug) This refers to the process of bringing the cows down from the alpine meadows, and returning them to their owners to spend the winter in barns. It involves a parade of cows decked out with flowers and wreaths, oom-pah-pah bands, traditional celebration food, beer, and cow bells. Lots of cow bells.

My first encounter with cow bells was while hiking in the Alps. The Alps are glorious for hiking, and on a leisurely stroll above the clouds one day, I found myself transported to a magical place. Continue reading