There are many things that expats miss when they leave Germany. I wrote about that in 10 Things Expats Miss After They Leave Germany. But today we want to focus on the reverse: things you won’t find, or rarely find in Germany.
Americans, Canadians, and other English-speaking expats living in Germany (and Austria, Switzerland) suddenly discover one fine day that something they take for granted in their homeland is not found in Germany at all. Or it may be almost impossible to find. As the German saying goes: “Other lands, other customs.” (Andere Länder, andere Sitten.)
Sometimes it may be a favorite food item (Cheerios, real salsa). Other times it may be a service (toll-free calls, Uber) or a medication (cough syrup). One day it dawns on you: I’ve never seen an in-sink garbage disposal in Germany! (Against the law or discouraged in most of Germany.) Or comes the day when you realize something you use all the time costs more in Germany than back home: contact lens fluid (only available from the Optiker, for a pretty price). Below are some examples of common things NOT found in Germany, divided into three categories: 1. Never or Almost Never; 2. Rarely, Once in a Blue Moon; and 3. Sometimes, Depending on Your Location. Okay, here we go, starting with things you’ll never or almost never find in Germany.
CATEGORY 1: Never or Almost Never
The following items, in no particular order, are either non-existent in Germany or seldom seen. Some you notice right away, but for some you may have lived in Germany for months or even years before it dawns on you: The Germans don’t do/have that!
Additional Sales Tax (VAT, Mehrwertsteuer, Umsatzsteuer)
In Germany, unlike in the United States, a price tag shows what you’ll actually pay. You won’t be surprised at the checkout counter by added sales tax or VAT. It’s always included in the price. The price you see is what you pay. The only way you can discover the tax amount is to examine your sales receipt (Beleg, Quittung). Germans visiting the US for the first time experience reverse cultural shock: Why am I paying more than what the price tag said?
Discounted Book Prices
Want to buy the latest bestseller? You’ll pay full retail price in Germany. Germany has long had a law that protects publishers from cut-throat competition and discounted book prices. Yes, Amazon.de will offer discounts on many books, but not on anything released in the last 18 months or less. Germany is one of many nations that have what is known as a “fixed book price agreement” (FBPA). The UK repealed its FBPA law in 1995, Australia in 1972. North America has no FBPA tradition, but in Germany the practice dates back to 1888. It was only legally formalized as das Buchpreisbindungsgesetz (“fixed book price law”) in 2002. Before that there was a long-standing traditional agreement between German book publishers and booksellers that prevented discounted pricing. Only after a book has been available for at least 18 months, are booksellers allowed to lower a title’s sales price, and then only if the publisher grants permission. There are other exceptions for damaged, used, series, older titles, but not for ebooks, which are also subject to the fixed-price law. Austria has a similar law, but in Switzerland things are more complicated, as the laws vary by language region. Since 2011, fixed book pricing now applies only to the French-speaking region of the country. Many other countries have FBPA by law or custom: Argentina, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, South Korea, and Spain, to name a few.
New expats in Germany are often surprised by several things they encounter during grocery store check-out. For one thing, the process can be harried and tense. You are expected to be proficient in (1) getting your items on the conveyer belt, (2) bagging them, (3) paying (cash or EC card), and (4) moving the heck out of the way. North Americans used to a more leisurely process at the supermarket can find this intimidating. It takes a bit of training to get this all down the German way. It doesn’t help that customers are expected to bag their own groceries – and not dillydally about. The checker (seated and comfy) and the customers in line behind you are not likely to be patient. Whew!
Germans and most Europeans regard a draft, as in wind blowing through a window, with the same dread most other cultures reserve for a knife-wielding monster. This German phobia often surprises North Americans, who are oblivious to the threat of the killer draft. But expats soon learn that Germans, normally fresh-air fanatics, would rather suffer under sweat-hut conditions than allow outside air to blow directly on them. “Es zieht!” (“There’s a draft!”) is a terrifying utterance in Germany.
Refills (coffee, soda, etc.)
North Americans, used to cafes, diners and restaurants where the food server refills the coffee cup every ten minutes, soon learn that in Germany you pay for every cup of coffee and every cup of Coke. Warm-up? Refills? Nein.
Free Drinking Water in a Restaurant
Unlike in many countries (Sweden, Canada, USA, etc.), if you want water in a German cafe or restaurant, you’ll have to order it and pay for it in the form of a bottle of mineral water. But be sure to specify whether you want the fizzy variety (Sprudelwasser) or plain (stilles Wasser). Related: drinking fountains. You can find Trinkwasser from a drinking fountain in Germany, but they are much more of a rarity than in North America – even in airports.
Freedom to Do Household Chores When You Want
Germany is a nation of rules and regulations. It all has to do with population density and German sensitivities. If you forget that fact, a German will soon pop up to remind you. You could also be fined. Want to mow the lawn on Sunday? Nope. Too noisy. And don’t even think about running the clothes washer after 8:00 pm! Between the house rules in your apartment complex and local community regulations, you need to think twice before you do anything that could disturb German peace and quiet!
Free Public Restrooms
Once you leave the airport, you’ll almost never find a public toilet in Germany where you don’t have to pay to pee. There are even restaurants in Germany that charge customers (!) 50 euro cents to use the facilities. Even at autobahn rest stops you have to pay 50 euro cents (although you sometimes get a coupon that’s good in the cafeteria). Even when you find a “free” restroom, such as in a German department store, there’s an attendant who expects to hear the clink of at least a couple of 20-euro coins in the saucer before you leave. Sometimes you even have to pay upon entry.
Until this year, it was possible to watch German television (Fernsehen) with an over-the-air antenna for free – other than the German broadcast/Internet GEZ fee that all households are supposed to pay. But a new 2017 digital TV broadcast standard put an end to that. Viewers will now be able to get a high-definition digital HDTV signal over the air, but older TVs and converter boxes will no longer work. Although most Germans watch television via cable or satellite, those used to free terrestrial TV are now also forced to pay a monthly fee (tax) even to watch the commercial-laden junk from RTL and ProSieben. (ARD and ZDF are still “free.”) That’s on top of having to pay for a new TV and/or set-top box.
A German church wedding is only for ceremony. The legal process of tying the knot in Germany takes place at the Standesamt (registry office) in the local town hall. A government official conducts the short service, similar to a judge-conducted marriage in the US. Although many German couples opt for a big church wedding with all the trimmings, it’s strictly for show. Only the Standesamt wedding is the official, legal one.
Outdoor Smoke-Free Zones
Over the past couple of decades Germany has improved immensely in the area of no-smoking zones. (Austria still has a lot of work to do.) It is now illegal to smoke inside bars and restaurants. Your hotel breakfast room is now smoke free. Airports and train stations are also largely smoke free. The problem arises outside in the fresh air that Germans are supposedly so fond of. Since smoking is prohibited inside, the smokers are all sitting outside at the tables in front of the bar/restaurant. I remember when a sidewalk cafe in Germany was a thing of joy. Now it’s often a smoky affair, with cigarette smoke drifting about. (The breeze always seems to be blowing in your direction.) Cough!
CATEGORY 2: Rarely, Once in a Blue Moon
Yes, you will experience air conditioning (Klimatisierung) in Germany in certain places at certain times, but it’s rarely there when you really need it. (A hot July day!) Budget hotels almost never have it. Movie theaters and shopping malls do, but the German/European version of air conditioning is usually a pale imitation of A/C in the US. (German A/C is too warm; American A/C is too cold.) One area of improvement is automobile air conditioning. A German rental car almost always has A/C these days. Many Germans also have it in their own cars now. That way they can avoid “death by draft” by not having to open the windows. (See “Deadly Drafts” above.) These Germans can be a funny lot.
Cold Drinks – Ice Cubes in Your Soda
Order a Coke at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut in Germany and you will almost never find ice in it. You have to ask for crushed ice or ice cubes, and even then you may or may not get it. The drink will be cool but not ice cold. Germans believe that ice-cold drinks are unhealthy. Even on a hot day in Germany, finding a truly cold can of soda can be a challenge.
Residential Smoke Detectors (Rauchmelder)
Germany has been very slow to adopt this life-saving device. Contrary to what some expats think, German houses and apartments can burn. They need smoke detectors! From my blog post on new German laws in 2016: “Northern Germany took the lead in 2004. Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein were the first Länder to require smoke detectors in new construction. Hamburg and Hessen followed in 2005. By 2010 only Berlin, Brandenburg, and Sachsen were without any building code requirements for smoke detectors. As of 2016, Sachsen (Saxony) joined Bremen, Niedersachsen, and Sachsen-Anhalt in requiring homeowners and renters to install smoke detectors in bedrooms and hallways.” So it depends on where you live, but smoke detectors are still rare in some parts of Germany.
Germany does have its Autobahnpolizei, but even if you’ve driven many kilometers on the autobahn, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever seen the German version of the highway patrol. Unlike in the USA, the highway patrol in Germany keeps a low profile. They tend to drive in less conspicuous cars that you may not realize is a police car until it’s too late. German highway enforcement is also more passive than active, making heavy use of radar speed cameras, for instance. Your speeding ticket may arrive in the mail!
In most places in Germany, Sunday shopping only happens during the four Advent weeks leading up to Christmas. Most German towns and cities resemble a ghost town on Sundays. If you want to buy anything on Sunday, you head to a gas station minimart or the nearest train station. Some bigger cities, especially Berlin, have verkaufsoffene Sonntage, Sundays when shopping centers, department stores, and other stores are open for business from 1:00 to 8:00 p.m. By law these are limited to eight Sundays per year in Berlin. It is a voluntary thing, and not all stores participate. In other German cities, some stores may also offer special shopping Sundays a few times a year.
Germans do not take kindly to disruption. Uber is a big disrupter, and not only that, they can’t even spell their “German” brand name correctly. (It should be Über, which would be much cooler, with the two umlaut dots.) Labor unions are strong in Germany, but they were just one factor that has prevented Uber from fully operating in Germany and some other parts of Europe. The situation in Germany is spotty, with UberX (specially licensed drivers) now offered only in Berlin and Munich (but not UberPop). Time to call a taxi! Besides, you’ll enjoy riding in one of those cream-colored Mercedes cabs found all across Germany. Round off the fare to tip the driver about ten percent.
Toll-Free Calls (800-Numbers, Freephone)
It’s hard to believe, but Germans think it is perfectly normal to pay 14 euro cents per minute to call a company when they have to contact them about the company’s service or product. Toll-free 800-numbers are rare. (The old German toll-free 0130 prefix was abolished in 2000.) So you usually have to pay to contact what is loosely called “customer service” in Germany. Toll-free numbers do not work for international calls. If you need to call a US 800-number from Europe, your call will go through, but you will have to pay (a fact usually announced before the call is completed).
Window/Bug Screens (Fliegengitter, Fliegennetz)
Window screens or bug screens are rarely seen in urban areas. Even on a warm summer evening in Germany, there will be very few bugs flying around. (Nothing like in many parts of North America.) Hence there is little need for bug screens. However, in rural areas, especially near a farm, there may be a need for a Fliegennetz, and you can buy them online from Amazon.de: Klemmfix Fliegennetz Fenster Aluminium Rahmen.
CATEGORY 3: Sometimes, Depending on Your Location
What expats can or can not find in Germany often depends on where they reside in Germany. If you live out in the country, you may have to go to your nearest big city to find certain things. On the other hand, what you can find or do in Berlin may not be the same as in Düsseldorf or Stuttgart.
Germany has no 7-Eleven or Circle K stores, but Berlin has the Späti. The “Späti” takes its name from Spätverkauf (“late sale”). Berlin’s 900 or so Späti stores, as the name implies, are open late, sometimes even 24 hours. Largely unique to Berlin, the legal status of Spätis is a grey area. Some of the stores and their owners have been fined in the past. There have been several failed attempts to legalize their status, but Berlin’s unique convenience stores are still popular and thriving. The Späti first arose in the 1950s in East Berlin’s Pankow district, serving night shift workers. After the Wall fell, Späti stores also began popping up in former West Berlin. Today Berlin is home to Germany’s version of the convenience store. – In the old days, the mom-and-pop corner shop in Germany was known as a “Tante-Emma-Laden” (aunt Emma store). These have largely disappeared in most places, and those that remain are now owned by corporate retail chains, and are open only during normal German shopping hours.
Credit Card Payment
Germany has a cash economy. The average German only uses a credit card for trips abroad. Many German restaurants do not take credit cards at all. (Always ask first. Always carry some cash.) As long as you stick to the tourist circuit in Germany, credit cards will be okay. but if you find yourself living on the local economy, credit cards are far less welcome. Part of this has to do with the fact that a German credit card does not allow the bearer to carry a monthly balance. The entire card balance is due at the end of the month, and will be paid automatically.
Germans do smile, but not needlessly. Anglo-American types may find Germans dour and unfriendly, but it’s all a matter of perception. Some people think Bavarians and Austrians are friendlier and more likely to smile than their northern brethern, but that’s not always true. For more about this topic see this blog post.
No, we have not exhausted this topic of things NOT found in Germany, but we have run out of room. For more, see the related links below.
- Cultural Comparisons: The USA vs Germany
- Expats All Over Again: 10 Things I’ll Miss (and 10 Things I Won’t) About Germany – A blog post by Sarah
- Foods That Are Hard to Find in Germany
- Items You Can’t Find in Germany – From Alie’s personal blog
- Tips From an American Expat: Everyday Products You’ll Miss After Moving to Germany – From the OhGodMyWifeisGerman.com blog
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