Life as an American Expat in Germany


It’s no surprise that lifestyles differ depending on the country in which a person lives. Upon our move to Germany, I didn’t anticipate life to be so different for us compared to our lives in America. I studied abroad in Argentina for 3 months, lived in Singapore and traveled throughout Asia for 6 weeks, and wandered around countless other cities and countries. I’ve found my ability to adjust to the culture serves me a pretty great purpose.

But, I have never lived in another country. I’ve always had contacts in the other places I’ve traveled. Here, in Munich, we are little more off the map. We’ve had to find out several things for ourselves without much help (other than the occasional German au pair blog).

Things we didn’t expect to be so different are. The language has proven to be more difficult to learn than anticipated. (Why are “goodbye” and “excuse me” two of the hardest words to pronounce?! Tschüss and Entschuldigung for those who are wondering.) The people, customs, even the washer and dryer settings (!) are all something to be re-learned.

Here are some of the major differences I’ve found between Germany and the States:

1. Bikes

Mostly everybody owns a bike and uses it here. There are specific bike lanes on the street, and you must not walk in a bike lane! Leading me to point #2…

2. Pedestrian life

Walking the streets of Germany is more popular than driving a car. The public transportation system is great here, but walking (if within a close-ish distance) is the more popular route. I love this because it offers a new view on the city and incorporates some sort of fitness into everybody’s daily routine.

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3. Recycling

Germans and their recycling. I love how serious they are about recycling and making a difference to the Earth, but come on… They will not just separate glasses and paper. They will separate brown glass from clear glass from green glass. And if you don’t? Well, your garbage just won’t get picked up. But, I do love the deposit you get on glass or plastic items at the stores. For example, if you buy a plastic Coke bottle for 1 Euro, you will pay a 15 cent tax (pfand) on it. When you are finished with the bottle, you deposit that (and all of your other recyclables) into a big vending machine type thing and get a voucher for all the money you intially spent. It’s great! A 2 Liter plastic bottle has a 25 cent tax…so if you collect a lot of plastic bottles you can earn a lot of money!

4. Grocery store cashiers

These people are so sweet, but also SO fast. After scanning your food they will push it all down the conveyer belt for you to bag. They do this in about 60 seconds depending on the amount of food you have. And if you don’t bag your groceries quickly enough? Ice cold glares from the other customers in line will cool your red hot cheeks.

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5. Directness (or rudeness?)

Everybody talks about how direct Germans are. It is no joke. They say whatever is on their mind, and while some people appreciate this, I’m having a hard time with it. It takes a bit of a toll when you smile at people and they just give you a glare. No, it is not an indifferent face. It is a cold hard glare. The one story that doesn’t pain me to type is when I ordered a coffee and asked for more milk in it (in German no less). The lady looked at me and scoffed and rolled her eyes. How does one get used to this?!

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6. Manual cars

I recently read an article that said only 5% of cars in the US are manual. Well, in Europe, this fact is very much the opposite. Mostly everybody drives a stick shift. Thankfully, Matt already knew how to drive a manual car otherwise we would be practicing in a parking lot right now!

7. Washing clothes

Mostly every household has their own washer and/or dryer. But, apartment living forces one to get creative. When we lived in Munich, there was a laundromat a half mile away that we used. (FYI: The washing machines fit about three socks in it.) More recently, we moved to Herrsching where there are no laundromats and our holiday apartment complex doesn’t have a unit. Hmm..We finally found a washer AND dryer (that is a big success!) at another apartment complex we can use for free. We got lucky and this washer fits about four socks. 🙂

8. Drinking

Drinking is not stigmatized here the way it is in the States. Well, beer drinking isn’t. The drinking age for beer and wine is 16. People seem to be much more responsible with it. You can have a liter of beer at 10 in the morning and no one will look at you strangely. Very strange for us Americans!

9. Sleepy Sundays

I’ve written about the lull the country experiences on Sundays, but I am happy to report we have gotten better about relaxing on Sundays. We buy everything we may need (food, etc.) on Saturdays if we think we may need to run out the next day to grab something. Germans have a great work-life balance. They allow themselves the freedom to completely relax one day a week.


10. Greeting people

Given German’s directness, I didn’t expect them to be so forward with greetings. When someone enters a doctor’s waiting room, it is expected to greet everybody already seated with a “Hallo” or “Guten morgen.” Grocery store cashiers also say good-bye and hello to everybody. If someone sits next to you at a bar or restaurant, greetings are always exchanged. It is so different! In the States, if someone sits next to me on the airplane or in a coffee shop and says “Hello” I instantly locate my nearest Exit. (Kidding..kind of.)

11. Ca$h is king

This is perhaps the best (depending on how you look at it) thing about Germany. They are so cash-based that if you try paying with a credit/debit card they will look at you twice. The coins carry so much more value than the US. The bills change shape as their amount increases (so nothing will ever really fit in your wallet perfectly). The money is, of course, different, but I had no idea how important cash was here.

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