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LIVING IN GERMANY

12 ways to improve your life in Germany without even trying

A new year doesn't have to be all about grand plans and life-changing resolutions. With these 12 steps, you can make a big difference to the quality of your life in Germany without even trying.

Cross-country skiers
Ski tourers climb against the backdrop of the Alps on their way to the Brauneck summit. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Tobias Hase

New Year’s resolutions are all well and good, but sometimes the best laid plans can be hard to stick to once spring rolls around. So instead of overhauling your entire life, why not try making these simple changes which could make a surprising difference to your life in Germany? 

1. Get a bike 

Sure, if you live at the top of a mountain in the Bavarian Alps, this one may not be that appealing, but almost anywhere else in Germany it makes total sense to cycle. With extensive cycle-path systems, German cities are renowned for being well-equipped for cyclists – and if you live in Berlin, you get the added bonus of living in one of the flattest places around.

If you’ve been relying on buses and trains to get you from A to B, you’ll probably be surprised at how efficient it can be to cycle around the city instead. Say goodbye to packed-out trains, missed connections, and endless scrolling. Say hello to feeling like a superhuman and getting your daily workout done while commuting to work. 

READ ALSO: Riding the Radweg: A guide to touring Germany by bike

2. Ask questions 

This is such a simple one, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Living in a foreign country can get confusing and overwhelming – especially if you happen to have chosen one with as many rules and regulations as Germany. Give yourself a break and remember it’s okay not to know everything. Nobody will mind if you ask, and often there’s nothing a local will enjoy more than giving you the lowdown on everything you may have unwittingly been getting wrong. (I believe this is what’s known as “German small talk”.) 

Showing curiosity is also a great way to get the insider scoop on the best places to go in your city or quirky German customs. The more you learn, the more at home you’ll feel, so ask away. And if you can’t find an actual local to answer your questions, ask The Local instead! 

3. Meet the neighbours

Boiler broken in sub-zero temperatures again? Fallen ill while living alone? Council refusing to empty the bins again because they are “too full”? (Yes, this is an actual thing.) 

Knowing the neighbours can be a life-saver in situations like this. Especially in the time of Covid, creating a small community in the building where you live is a great way to ensure there’s someone there to look out for you if you need it. But even in non-Covid times, a fluent German speaker who understands the rules and is on your side is one of the best ways to reduce stress in your life. 

Elderly lady and neighbour

An elderly lady in Essen recieves a delivery of groceries from a neighbour during the pandemic. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roland Weihrauch

So next time you meet one of the other building-dwellers at the postbox or out in the Hof, why not say hello and ask how they are? After a few conversations, you could even set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate complaints to the landlord and borrowing eggs / DIY stuff / Covid tests. Trust me, after building good relationships with your neighbours you may wonder what you ever did without them. 

4. Stay informed 

Since you’re reading The Local right now, chances are you’re already pretty well-informed, so we may be preaching to the converted here. But keeping on top of current affairs over your morning coffee at the end of your working day is a great way to feel more integrated in German society and stay on the right side of the ever-changing Covid rules. 

Even better, you’ll finally have something to yabber about with your German work colleagues at your next Feierabendbier (after work drinks). 

5. Spend time outdoors

Germans are absolutely crazy about the great outdoors, and it’s no wonder: whether it’s the sprawling lakes of Brandenburg, the soaring peaks of Bavaria or the rolling hills of Hesse, Germany has a breathtakingly beautiful natural landscape. 

Snow covered mountains

A car drives through the snow-covered Ore Mountains in Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas

Numerous poets, painters and thinkers have taken inspiration from these scenes and concluded that nature is good for the soul. But did you also know that two hours a week in nature is strongly linked to good physical health and wellbeing as well? The benefits improve the more time you spend in the great outdoors, but it doesn’t matter whether you get your dose of nature in one go or several small bites, so just getting out for 20 minutes a day could do the trick. 

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

6. Find German things you like

Are German grammar books making you want to move to Spain instead? We don’t blame you. The good news is, pouring over endless textbooks may not even be the most effective way to learn German. A better method is what’s known as immersion learning, which is exactly what it sounds like and is how we learn languages as children.

Now, nothing is going to beat speaking and listening with a real native speaker, but the next best thing is finding German culture you enjoy and diving right in. Whether it’s trashy TV, cheesy pop music or point-and-click adventure games, there are no “guilty pleasures” here. If anyone asks, you’re improving your German. 

READ ALSO:

7. Visit a sauna

If the long, hard winters are getting you down, a trip to the sauna could be just the thing you need to rejuvenate yourself. It’s a great way to escape the cold for a few hours and sweat out all those toxins you guzzled over Christmas, while also embracing the German attitude of not really caring if anyone sees you naked.

In the month of punishment diets and guilt over piling on the pounds, a little bit of Freikörperkultur (FKK – free body culture or naturism) could be just the thing you need to feel comfortable in your own skin again.  

8. Switch banks

With eye-watering ATM charges and punitive account fees, banks in Germany can be the complete opposite of consumer-friendly. But studies suggest we’re more likely to get divorced from our partner than switch banks in our lifetime – probably because it’s perceived as difficult.

This is a shame, because the process has become incredibly simple in recent years, and many banks offer attractive bonuses to try and lure new customers. 

Cash machine

A customer makes a withdrawal at an ATM. Cash withdrawal fees can be a major downside of many German bank accounts. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Benjamin Nolte

If you’re stuck with a bank that charges you to use most ATMs, ING-Diba and DKB could be a cheaper route. Alternatively, the mobile bank N26 is designed to be easy and bureaucracy-free for foreigners, but there are plenty of options to explore. 

9. Try something new 

From sampling local food to trying your hand at ice dipping, living in a foreign country is a great opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

Who knows? You may find your new favourite dish or a hobby you never knew you would love – and at the very least, you could make some new friends.

10. Eat seasonally 

In our modern, globalised world, it’s easy to get out of step with the seasons and find ourselves stuck in a rut with our eating habits. One of the great things about Germany is how much of a big deal people make about seasonal produce – just visit any local restaurant during Spargelzeit if you don’t believe me.

By trying to stick to local, seasonal produce, you not only help the environment but you also support your local community. And there’s something lovely about feeling in touch with the changing seasons and having an excuse to switch up your diet and experiment with new dishes every few months. 

You can find calendars telling you what fruit and veg is in season on this incredibly helpful website (in German). 

11. Wear practical clothes

There’s a reason Germans are generally known as practical dressers rather than fashionistas: having an active lifestyle in unpredictable weather generally calls for practical clothes. Whether you’re out in the Ore Mountains in the pouring rain or running to meet a friend for coffee in the snow, there are some absolute wardrobe essentials you can’t do without if you live here. 

Practical clothing

A man walks with his dog in the snow and fog in Bavaria. Germans are well known for having practical clothes in every type of weather – and German dogs are no exception. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

This winter, think like a German and stock up on high-quality gloves, sturdy boots and a warm coat. As the Norwegians love to say (but it could just as well be a German phrase): “There’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing.”

READ ALSO: Five German lifestyle habits you should think about adopting

12. Set reminders 

We’re sure it won’t come as a surprise to you that living in Germany involves a lot of bureaucracy on top of the general hectic pace of modern life. You may think you have the memory of Rain Man, but even he would struggle to remember all the tax deadlines, visa appointments and general admin that daily life in Germany can require. 

Our advice? Set reminders for key dates, appointments and deadlines on your phone. We’re not promising that you’ll complete avoid any angry bureaucratic letters of doom, but for the most part, it should help you keep on top of things. 

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HEALTH

7 things to know about visiting a doctor in Germany

Going to the doctor when you're living abroad is a necessary part of life, but it can feel a little daunting. Here are some cultural quirks to look out for in Germany.

7 things to know about visiting a doctor in Germany

Germany is known for having one of the best healthcare systems in the world. 

But there are some cultural differences that can take a bit of getting used to when you’re not from the country. 

Here’s a look at what you should keep in mind. 

You might have to pay at the doctor

People used to a healthcare system that’s free at the point of contact, such as the NHS in the UK, may be a little confused if they are asked to pay money at a doctor’s appointment. 

But the fact is that certain things will not be covered by your health insurance in Germany, and some optional extras could require that you have to dip into your wallet. 

For instance, many gynaecologists may offer to carry out an optional pelvic ultrasound check during a Pap smear test. If it’s not covered by your insurance, they will state in the appointment that it is an extra cost so you can decide if you want to pay for it or not. 

You should also ask if you have to pay for it upfront at the practice or if it will be sent out as a bill. 

Similarly, other specialists may also offer extra services that you could pay extra for. 

READ ALSO: ‘It works’: Your verdict on the German healthcare system

You’ll get different types of prescriptions

Another point to watch out for is that there are different kinds of prescriptions. A prescription (Rezept) given out on pink slips is usually given to people on statutory health insurance. People have to pay a reduced contribution – usually around €5-€10 – when picking up prescription medicine at the pharmacy. 

Patients with private insurance in Germany are more likely to be given a blue-coloured prescription slip. Private customers have to pay for their medicines in full before their insurance company reimburses them. You can also be given a blue slip if your public health insurance doesn’t cover the treatment.

Green slips include treatment that the doctor recommends. Meanwhile, yellow prescriptions are issued by the doctor for special controlled substances and are only valid for seven days. 

Polite waiting room etiquette

Germans may not be well known for being super friendly. But there are a few unexpected spots which are very welcoming. And one of those places is the doctor’s waiting room. 

Yes, it can be very surprising for foreigners when they are greeted with a little “Guten Morgen!” or “hallo!” in the waiting room when someone arrives. It’s customary for patients to give a polite hello and goodbye in the waiting room.

A person being vaccinated against Covid-19 in Hamburg in 2021.

A person being vaccinated against Covid-19 in Hamburg in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

… But you may face a stern receptionist or doctor

Ask a group of international residents about their experience of going to the doctor in Germany – or indeed other German-speaking countries – and you will likely hear about how the bedside manner is “different”.

This is because some doctors, and even receptionists, have a stern and direct approach when dealing with patients, which can be intimidating for newcomers to the country.

It can also be a little weird if you have to take some clothes off for an examination. You probably won’t be handed a gown, towel or even asked to undress behind a curtain. Everything is out in the open in Germany!  

Don’t worry though – none of this is personal. It’s just a different way of doing things. 

If you do come across a grumpy doctor, the best way to handle it is to either accept it or find a different doctor.

Be prepared to wait

Most Hausarzt (GP) practices in Germany operate on a drop-in basis during set times, known as Sprechstunden (consultation hours).

This means you can simply pop in during a two or three-hour window. During these times, it’s also first-come, first-served.

The advantage of this system is that it’s possible to see a doctor, for example, on a Wednesday morning without an appointment, as long as you have time to wait.

But if you are in a rush, or have a strict schedule, then the drop-in approach can be time-consuming. Depending on when you arrive, it could mean a short wait of several minutes or up to an hour.

The best advice is to arrive just as the doors open to secure a place near the top of the queue.

You can also book an appointment or Termin. But even if you book, you’ll probably still face a wait of at least 15 minutes. 

You are usually referred to a specialist

In Germany, if you are covered by public health insurance, you usually have to visit a GP to be referred to a specialist doctor.

There are exceptions in some cases, such as for gynaecologists and ophthalmologists where you can make an appointment without a referral.

If you have private insurance you can book appointments with specialists more easily.

READ ALSO: How to get a faster appointment with a specialist in Germany

Visit (or call) a GP for a sick note

If you’re sick from work then you have to get a sick note – Arbeitsunfähigkeitsbescheinigung or Krankschreibung – after three days of illness to give to your employer. Some bosses may require this sick note earlier, so check your contract or ask HR. 

Generally, you have to visit your doctor to get this document. But during the pandemic, people have been able to get a sick note over the phone from their GP for mild respiratory illnesses, including Covid-19. 

READ ALSO: The 10 rules you need to know if you fall ill in Germany 

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