The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Part 1)

No, I’m not going to discuss Spaghetti Westerns today. I’m going to list some of my expat likes (the good), dislikes (the bad) and major gripes (the ugly) related to living in Germany. Although I’m going to start with “the bad,” you should know that my “good” list is at least equal in length.

There are regional differences for some of the items you will see here. Germany is no more monolithic than the USA. Conservative Munich is not really anything like free-wheeling Berlin. But I have tried to list things that generally apply, and note those things that may be more regional in nature. Everyone’s good and bad list will be unique, but there are many cultural things that all expats in Germany can relate to. And I’d like to point out that I could make a similar list for life in the US. In fact, this German list is in part a commentary in reverse on life in the US.

I’ve been living in Berlin for almost two months this year, but I spent almost a year here in 2007/08, and I have also traveled a lot all across Germany over the years. But time marches on, and the list I’m making now is not the same list I would have drawn up a year ago or five years ago, much less a decade ago. If you want to see a more neutral comparison of US and German culture, see our six German Way cultural comparison charts, starting with Driving.

My list is not prioritized! Item one is no better or worse than item six in the list, whether good, bad or ugly. For that reason, items in the list are not numbered. Okay, here we go, first with the bad…

THE BAD: Things I dislike about expat life in Germany

  • Sweetness. I usually like sweet things, but not sweet popcorn, sweet salad dressing and sweet sauces. I had not realized how much the Germans prefer things sweeter than I do until this stay. Even Asian sauces get ruined here when they cater to German tastes! And speaking of weird food, how about hot chili potato chips and other odd snack foods? Who comes up with this stuff?
  • So-called “Mexican” restaurants. Why call it “Mexican” if you serve food that is not even remotely Mexican? Although they are all over the place, I have never found a truly “Mexican” restaurant in Germany. You’d think they could at least make a decent Margarita, but you’d be wrong. Forget Mexican, amigo! Find a good Italian or Greek place, of which there are many.
  • Almost no toll-free numbers. In Germany they have a great nationwide scam called “14 cents per minute”! Customers have to pay to call their own bank or customer service hotlines – at the usual rate of 14 euro cents (18 US cents) per minute.(Mobile rates may be higher.) Very few firms offer an 800 toll-free call option, but Germans (and other Europeans) just accept this outrage. I had to pay to call my German bank to cancel my debit card after it was lost. I even had to pay for the holding time while I listened to music! (A new law preventing that has yet to go into effect.) Companies in the US calculate their 800-number service as a part of doing business. German companies (and phone providers) make extra money off of customers who have a problem. What a racket!
  • Graffiti. Yes, we have graffiti in the US, but it usually gets cleaned up or painted over at some point. In Germany, and particularly in Berlin, old graffiti can be seen in public places and on private property for years! In my experience, Rome may be worse, but Berlin isn’t far behind. I don’t think Europeans even notice it any more. There also seems to be little or no effort to discourage graffiti in the first place. This seems to be a European problem and not just a German one.
  • Unfriendly shop clerks and cashiers. Even the Germans complain about “customer service” in Germany. That’s nothing new. But I’m talking about when you go to the same damn store almost every day, and the cashier you’ve already seen a hundred times acts like she has never seen you before in her life. How about even some superficial friendliness for a regular customer? A smile of recognition? Is that too much to ask? Ja.
  • German judges and courts (i.e., Beschneidung, circumcision). The German nation is currently dealing with the issue of circumcision as “bodily harm” that can make parents and doctors subject to imprisonment or fines. Seriously! A German court ruled against Muslim parents who had their son circumcised according to religious tradition (after he had some minor bleeding). Sometimes the Germans can be illogical beyond belief. Jews and Muslims in Germany are feeling persecuted in this matter and there have been protests. Are Germans not aware that most males in the US are circumcised? Jesus was circumcised! There are some things that government should not touch, and this is one of them. To Berlin’s credit, the city-state has reached an accommodation on circumcision for religious reasons, but the issue continues to be debated.
  • Non-enforcement of laws and regulations. The Germans may not be very good at making some legal decisions, but they are very good at making rules and laws. They have wonderful laws concerning cleaning up dog poop, not smoking in certain places, not making noise at certain times, and banning alcohol/food/drinks on public transportation. But such rules and laws are ignored by so many Germans so often that it becomes a joke. I have seen so many German scofflaws lately, that I may have to reconsider the stereotype of law-abiding, “Ordnung muss sein” Germans. They seem to be disappearing.
  • Paying to pee. I covered this in an earlier blog, but I wanted to include it here. Just to add to what I already wrote: Germany has a long tradition of restroom (toilet) attendants who earn money with tips for keeping toilets clean. There is often a small note or sign with a suggested tip of 30 or 50 euro cents. Pay toilets (with turnstiles) are popular money-makers in train stations and on the autobahn. I think it’s a plot to keep German unemployment figures low. I’ll be glad to get back to the land of the free (toilets).
  • Cigarette smoking. I’ll cover this in more detail in the “ugly” list, but Germans smoke too much and in too many places. I’m lucky to have non-smoking German friends and relatives, but sometimes it seems like they are a tiny minority. Even walking on the street, you can’t escape the cigarette smoke from passers-by who have to smoke even when they are walking (or bicycling) down the street! German sidewalk cafés have become torture for us non-smokers. Since smoking was banned inside bars and restaurants, all the smokers sit outside, puffing away, and the wind always seems to be blowing their smoke in your direction. Health-conscious Germans? Where are they?
  • Lack of barrier-free access. Although this has improved in recent years, barrier-free access to buildings and public transportation still leaves much to be desired. It is no fun to be in a wheelchair at all, but in Berlin it can be a major challenge. Even for people who can walk, but have problems with stairs, or parents with prams, there are still S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations without any elevators or escalators. And even when there are escalators and/or elevators, they are are often kaput – on a regular basis. (The same is true for ticket machines!) The elevators (you have to take two to get to the platform!) at our Frankurter Tor U-Bahn station are out of order on a regular basis.
  • Traffic signals. Why do Europeans put traffic lights on the wrong side of intersections? Can’t they figure out that they wouldn’t need those extra miniature lights if they would just put the signals where they belong in the first place? And those little lights are no help at all when you’re making a left turn, out in the middle of the intersection, and you can’t tell if the light has changed or not. I thought Germans were more logical, but not when it comes to the placement of traffic signals. And while we’re on the topic: Do German drivers really need a “warning” yellow light before the signal turns green?
  • Walk/Don’t Walk signs. The crossing times are often much too short and it is almost impossible to make it across a street with a median strip. You inevitably get trapped in the middle. I also don’t know why the “efficient” Germans can’t have “count-down” or blinking warnings like those in the US. A Berlin TV channel did a report on this. The other big problem cited: Long wait times for a green Ampelmännchen.
  • The weather. Yes, I am complaining about something no one has any control over! Summer in Berlin this year was almost non-existent. While southern Europe cooked, northern Germany in July and August was like fall anywhere else. Some days the “high” was in the mid 60s! And sunny days have been a rarity as well. Someone needs to tell the German weather people that it’s still summer in the northern hemisphere.

In my next blog I’ll cover the “good” things, the aspects of life in Germany that I like a lot. In the meantime, if you think I forgot something important in my “bad” list, please leave a comment.

Also see: Germany-USA Cultural Comparison Charts

9 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Part 1)

  1. I totally agree about the traffic lights! I hated having to watch them while holding my head sideways to see them.

    The reason for the warning light before it turns green is that most Germans drive manual cars…this is the indicator to put the car in gear and be ready to go. I think it is a great idea!

    Hey, quit hatin’ on my Thai Sweet Chili Chips! I was the opposite, wondering why these slices of potato heaven are not in the USA?

    Dont’ get me started on Mexican…my favorite anecdote is when I went to a mexican buffet and had to ask them to put out some tortillas. And their “chili”? Talk about sweet!
    I was very proud of myself when I found some refried beans at the local Rewe.
    I think the restaurants (Greek, Italian, Thai) that are run by people from that country are much better than ones that are not (Mexican).

    • As for sweet chili chips: Jedem das Seine, but not for me. Your point about manual shift (yellow-green) is interesting, but if that’s the case, why don’t some other EU countries do that? I still don’t think it’s needed. It just encourages people to jump the light. — Anyway, thanks for your comments! – HF

  2. I’ll comment a few things. I think the reason there aren’t a lot of toll free numbers (or 800 equivalent) in Germany is (in my opinion) because businesses are conservative. They don’t want to spend a lot because everything costs a lot! I guess they don’t realize the potential that by having a toll free number, one could probably increase sales/revenues if it’s used correctly.

    I agree that some of the shop clerks or cashiers are not very friendly, but there are some that were friendly or even nice to me. I just give a nice weak smile back in return. It’s a hit or miss in this area.

    Paying to use a restroom! This is most common in recreational areas or parks and even in train stations. There is a way to get around this! Some city centers have free restrooms. You might want to check a Kaufhaus (departmentstore), Bibliothek (library), Supermarkt (large one), Krankenhaus (hospital) or even a DM (drugstore).

    One thing that you didn’t mentioned, but I thought it might be worthwhile was when I was living in Germany, I was trying to get a job there, and I noticed there was no volunteering service. I think volunteering for something is a great way to meet people and learn new skills, but this sort of thing is almost non-existent in Germany. Not sure why it’s not common there.


    • I just think German companies are cheapskates and just don’t get it when it comes to 800 numbers. – I’ve also had positive sales clerk experiences in Germany. It does happen, but I was talking about the lack of even superficial friendliness when you go to the same store almost every day. – You can’t avoid paying (tipping) in a department store — unless you just ignore the restroom attendant (which I have done). Even at the large Alexa mall in Berlin, it was pay to pee. Sorry, but I’m not going to go to a hospital to avoid paying! Most restaurants have free restrooms, but not all. My point was that Germany has a (tip the) restroom-attendant tradition. – Actually there are volunteer opportunities in Germany, at least in larger cities. A Berlin newspaper even has a feature on people who do “ehrenamtliche Arbeit” (volunteer work). It’s true that it’s not as common as in the US, but that’s because Germany has a far better social safety net than in the USA. – HF

  3. The flip side to the unfriendly shop clerks is that they usually at least know what they are talking about. Back in the land of friendly customer service (which I am enjoying every single minute of!!), I find that most shop employees are painfully uninformed and don’t know anything about the products they are selling or the market in general. Makes me wish I had some unfriendly shop clerk who knows a thing or two… it’s funny what you end up missing once you leave!

  4. The hypocritical quality of the train system here.
    The world outside Germany always associate the idea of a state-of-the-art train system to be the German train system.

    Wrong.. At least three times (in my short 8 months living here, and I don’t go out that often), I was travelling less than 300km on the train, and the train broke down, with no remedies for the stranded passengers.

    We had to wait up to 2 or 3 hours, there was no refund/compensation/alternative transport arrangements, and if we wanted we could do a detour that would add another hour or so to our journey time, hardly a good option.

    p.s. When I was in Sydney and the train didn’t function well or had to go under maintenance over the weekends, the passengers were provided free bus service along the same route. Not the same speed and efficiency, but it shows respect that life must go on even if the train is not running properly.

    • pps. In 2010, I was travelling from the south of France to Paris, the TGV broke down due to heavy snow and had to get off and switch trains near Lyon. (The transfer took only 30 minutes, though.) The SNCF credited a full refund and apologized in letter for the ‘poor service’. Needless to say, I was impressed.

  5. Not all graffiti you see on the streets of Berlin is illegal. There are quite a few property owners who pay graffiti artists do put a beautiful piece of art on their walls. Or the owners allow the artists to use the wall for free. Then there are walls issued by the city of Berlin to spray on legally, for example in skate parks.

    Circumcision is a permanent body modification, just like tattoos, tongue splitting or scarification. It’s barbaric and immoral to do this to kids, without even getting their consent, regardless of the type of body modification. I’m shocked there is even a discussion about this in Germany, because it shows state and church are still not separated.

  6. Great Article, Although as a German there are some things where i think it just a cultural difference or trade-off, not a real downside.

    1. Traffic Lights: You are probably right that i would have been more logical to place them on the opposite corner, but now we all have gotten used to it and its no bother anymore. Just dont drive so close to the line that you cant see ’em anymore.

    2. Pay-per-poo Toilettes: When they first started to spring up i was just as angry as you are now, but over time i realized that i like it better to pay and then get a very clean toilette than to have a free toilette where i am afraid to sit down. Of course free and clean would be best but at least in public places with no entrance control that is just unrealistic in my experience.

    3. Graffiti: There are two different Graffiti’s. One is the ugly, pseudo gang type stuff. (because there are no real Gangs in germany). But the other is the very artistic stuff, that is actually encouraged. I completely agree that it would be ideal if there was no first type and it would be overpainted. But on the other hand: Those Jerks love nothing more than to spray their BS on freshly painted Walls. so I think the communities just gave up. Also it would be highly illegal to overpaint a privatly owned Wall, even if it would look better afterwards.

    4. Mexican: Its just not something that Germans know or like. Thats why we will never know the difference. We just dont go there.

    5. non-enforcement: Thats a delicate one (and especially frustrating for foreigners). Its just the opposite side of the coin of living in an overregulated society. So we have informal leeway on certain subjecs because its accepted by the people. Some kind of gentlemans agreement that something is generally wrong but not really, really wrong. One good example would be Marijuana (Cannabis). Which is, strictly speaking, illegal in Germany, But where its common knowledge that under a certein threshold no one cares. Even if you would get caught the case would be dropped because of “unimportance”.

    6. Circumcision: We dont allow everything, just because some religion thinks its ok. And sometimes Kids have to be protected from their own parents. Personally i dont care much either way but “because its their religion” is not a good argument for “abuse of those in a
    dependent position”. You are not allowed to do whatever you please to your children, just because you think its ok. Whats next ? A religion claiming God wants them to amputate their childrens legs ?

    Also: Germany is a christian country and our church doesnt think ciscrumcision is necessary. If you dont like living in a christian country, dont come here. Sorry but you have to draw the line somewhere. The question wether or not we should allow muslim “yelling towers” just because we have loud church bells falls into the same category.

Leave a Reply