Going abroad, there’ll always be things that surprise you; no matter how well-prepared and informed you are when you arrive. When I came to the US for the first time in 2006, I kind of knew a bit about what to expect because of Hollywood and the general fascination Europe has for American culture and customs. Still, it was weird to see it all in real life. King-size cereal boxes, the not-as-king-size-as-I-expected-but-still-pretty-impressive Empire State Building, and – what startled me the most – yellow school buses! Of course, I’d seen them on TV a million times but somehow I’d believed they were more of a movie prop rather than an actual thing. We even got to ride on one! For the entire ride, I expected a little boy in shorts and a blue shirt standing at the next corner; the bus driver would open the door and say: ‘This is the bus to school.’ And he’d reply: ‘I know. And you are Dorothy Harris and I am Forrest Gump.’ 😀 Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. But it was epic anyway.
Now, the average American isn’t nearly as exposed to European culture as we are to American culture, and there’ll be loads of things that’ll seem a bit odd to you when you first come to Germany. So, to give you a little head start: Here are 5 things that will surprise an American in Germany:
1. Public Transportation
The German infrastructure of public transportation is quite well-developed. The entire country is connected by a more or less well-working railway network that gets you from A to B relatively fast for acceptable prices. To be honest, I was slightly shocked by how poorly developed the American railway network is and by the insane amounts of money tickets cost. I mean, seriously, $45 to get from Worcester, MA to Boston?! A ride that takes less than two hours! That’s ridiculous! You really need to work on that, guys. 😛
When taking a train, make sure to check prices and (if you get the chance) book your ticket online – they often have special offers for online and early booking and the Deutsche Bahn (German Railway) has its website in English as well. You should also check out the ‘Quer-durchs-Land-Ticket’ (Across the country) which is €44 for one and an additional €8 for every extra person. It gets you on all commuter trains in the country from 9am to 3am the next day. Also, check out the special ticket offers for the respective ‘Bundesländer’ (federal states). There’s the ‘MV-Ticket’ in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the ‘Niedersachsen-Ticket’ for Lower Saxony, the ‘NRW-Ticket’ for North Rhine-Westphalia and so on and so forth. For example, the MV-ticket also gets you to Hamburg main station and Hamburg airport but you can’t use public transportation within Hamburg with it. The Niedersachsen-ticket gets you to Hamburg as well and you can use it for public transportation in Bremen.
They are usually ~€25 and get you on all commuter trains (caution: not valid on IC and ICE trains!) and urban public transport in the respective ‘Bundesland’ for the day.
However, beware of trusting the saying ‘Punctual as a train in Germany’ – that’s rubbish. When taking the train, be prepared that delays of 5-30mins happen regularly.
If you don’t wanna take the train, hop on an intercity coach (for example Flixbus). The tickets are usually much cheaper than train tickets, most buses have free WiFi, and they usually depart from and arrive at the main station, too.
Most larger cities have a tram or even a tube. Check whether it would make sense for you to get a day or even a week ticket because they’re usually cheaper than several individual tickets (as everywhere) and be warned: The fines for fare-dodging are quite substantial, and it’s really not worth the hassle. If there’s no tram or tube there will be local buses (even my tiny 20,000 inhabitants home town has a pretty decent network of buses). When in doubt, ask the locals or the people at the information desks and beware of the ‘zone’-system some cities (like Berlin) have. It means you can’t ride all the trains with the same ticket or something – it’s really confusing and I don’t get it either. 😀
2. No Drinking Fountains
In America, you have them everywhere. In schools, parks, theme parks, at the office, the beach or simply by the side of the road. I have to admit, they’re pretty handy. Still, you won’t find public drinking fountains as easily in Germany. Don’t ask me why – perhaps they think it’s not sanitary or they just haven’t had the idea yet.
So, don’t rely on ever-available drinking water when going outside; bring a bottle.
Oh, and as a side-note, it is not customary in Germany to order/drink tap water at a restaurant, pub or club. You will get a very strange look from the waiter/bartender if you ask for tap water and maybe even a snappish comment. They would have to give you tap water for free but it’s just not customary in Germany (perhaps because a lot of Germans like their water carbonated anyway).
Here’s a little insider tip: If you’re out in town during the day and find yourself in desperate need for a drink, go to a dm store. It’s a mix between drug and convenience store and they usually have free water in the form of dispensers.
3. Store Closing Times
I’m gonna be frank with you: I think having shops open 24/7 is insane and inhuman. Think of those poor unfortunate souls at the checkouts! They deserve some time off, too.
I personally don’t want to have the infinite possibility to shop; sometimes, I just want the decision to not go shopping being made for me by the mere fact that all shops are closed.
Luckily, I live in Germany, and supermarkets are usually open from 7am-ish to 8 or 9pm-ish. Some close later, some open earlier, depending on the size of the city/town. You might find some 24h-places in Hamburg or Berlin, but those are absolute exceptions.
It gets even worse: On Sundays, everything (apart from bakeries, gas stations, some restaurants and newspaper shacks) is generally closed. And when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING.
So don’t forget to do your weekend shopping on Saturday or else you’ll be living on toast and Nutella on Sunday. 😛
Oh, and you also shouldn’t engage in any DIY work at home on Sundays or do anything noisy anywhere near other people. If you do you might disturb their ‘Sunday peace’ and they could actually call the police. Just so you know. 😉
Here’s yet another free supermarket tip: In Germany, the cashier does not bag your items for you. You have to do that yourself, and you better be quick about it if you don’t wish to earn yourself another round of strange looks and snappish comments. Also, shopping bags aren’t free so either bring your own (which is completely normal) or pay for one (~€.20).
4. Public Drinking
Now, most Americans are going to know that the legal drinking age in Germany is 16 for beer and wine and 18 for liquor. That’s why all your high school graduates are so desperate to go on a Eurotrip – just to get legally wasted; and to get wasted on something that isn’t an abomination of nature like Bud light. Ugh. Seriously ‘Murica, get your sh*t together. Even you can’t call this gnat’s pee that smells (and tastes) like lighter fluid mixed with whatever drips off the ceiling of a New York subway on a hot day in July a beer.
But it’s not only the seemingly young (but totally normal to us) drinking age which draws young and young-at-heart tourists to Germany. It’s also the fact that public drinking is usually a totally OK thing to do. We don’t bashfully wrap bottles of booze in brown paper bags (I mean, c’mon, who do you think you’re fooling?), we proudly present them to the entire car park of the liquor store! JK, it’s not that bad. But, as long as you’re not gagging up your insides on the market square at 9am on a Monday or chugging down an entire bottle of vodka, the odds are high that nobody’s gonna care whether you drink in public. You might want to refrain from day-drinking hard liquor in public but having a beer is always acceptable. Or hide your liquor in a juice bottle if you can’t go without it. 😉 Just watch out because certain train and tram companies do not allow drinking in their vehicles and you can get fined. We really love fining people. 😀
Talking about fines – don’t jaywalk in Germany. Germany is probably the only country in the world where you can drive along a lonely country road in the middle of the night, there’s no one around for miles and miles, just you – and that guy waiting for the traffic light to turn green even though no car has come by in the past 15mins. Yes, we actually do that. That’s basic decency, folks.
But in all seriousness, you shouldn’t cross on red if there’s children around otherwise it’s your own fault if you get yelled at by an old lady who saw you commit this unspeakable crime.
We love the little man on the traffic light. We love him so much, you actually find souvenir shops in Berlin solely dedicated to the East German ‘Ampelmännchen’ (traffic light man). If you travel both the East and the West of Germany you’ll see that there are two different figures on the traffic lights. But no matter whether it’s the hat-wearing East German Ampelmännchen or the bare-headed West German one – we’d never disobey his redness!
Particularly policemen in Rostock get touchy when they catch someone jaywalking. Not that I can speak out of personal experience – I’m a good German; I’d never jaywalk! – but I’ve heard stories and rumours… ;P
To be continued…