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From nudity to sandwiches: The biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

The Local asked readers about the biggest culture shocks they've experienced in Germany - from a lack of soup spoons to stripping off in public. Here's what they had to say.

FKK beach
A naked couple sit on deck chairs at an FKK beach. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

Moving to another country isn’t easy. As well as trying to get settled in your new life, you’re likely to encounter some local customs that may seem, well, a little odd.

Of course, this is totally different for everyone – and many people are surprised just how quickly they end up picking up some German habits themselves that can raise a few eyebrows on their next trip home.

Here are some of the main things that foreigners consider just a little bit merkwürdig (unusual) when they first arrive in Germany. 

The intense staring 

No, you haven’t accidentally left your house in your pyjamas today. What you’re encountering is affectionately known as the German stare, and if you come from a country where it’s rude to stare at strangers, it may feel a little bit uncomfortable at first.

Getting locked in the intense gaze of a German was something that a few of our readers mentioned, and for Sara, 32, from Oregon, it was hard to get used to at first.

“The German stare was really pronounced in Southern Germany and hard to deal with since I have a lot of anxiety anyways,” she said. “It can be hard sometimes, though I’ll do it myself now too.”

READ ALSO: Eight unique words and phrases that tell us something about Germany

A mountain of paperwork

Everyone knows that Germany is a fan of bureaucracy, but nothing quite prepares you for the shock of experiencing it first-hand.

“One of my biggest shocks is how almost everything requires a contract – from cell phones to dating sites,” said Christopher Wilson, 44, who grew up in New Orleans but now lives in Berlin.

“All of these things can be be easily set up and cancelled in the US in a matter of minutes. Here, I’ve learned some very expensive lessons forgetting to properly cancel my contracts.”

Fellow US citizen Nancy Landrum said she was also shocked by the amount of bureaucracy required to get anything done after moving to Leipzig.

“So many hoops to jump through,” she said, adding that the rules in Germany were surprisingly “strict and rigid”. 

… and dark-age digital services

Dealing with a big pile of paperwork is one thing, but sending that same pile of paperwork via fax machine? That’s a bridge too far.

For many respondents, digitalisation – or the lack of it – was a huge shock when they first moved to Germany and still takes some getting used to. 

“Bureaucracy, poor digitalisation, poor online services – I was expecting Germany to be much more efficient on the online services front,” said 37-year-old Michele from Italy. “This includes online grocery deliveries.”

A man with a fax machine

A man from the past (or from Germany) faxes a document. Photo: picture-alliance / gms | Sharp

A lot of people were also surprised by how hard it was to find places that accept card payments, and especially credit cards. 

Siva Prasad Tripuraneni, 28, from India, said he now appreciates the “fast banking system” and “technological advancement” whenever he goes back home, having experienced the complete opposite during his time in Germany. 

Customer service and dining out

Even something as simple as popping out for a meal or heading to the shops can alert people to some striking cultural differences in Germany. 

When Justin, 35, returned to the United States last summer, he found himself marvelling at the fact the restaurants were willing to give him tap water – even though he had been shocked by the lack of tap water given to customers when he’d first moved to Germany. 

For Alison, 54, the bad customer service was one of the first things that she noticed after moving to North Rhine-Westphalia from England. However, the shock of the difference has lessened over time. 

“The customer service is getting better or maybe I can handle it better now I speak German,” she explained. “But the lack of flexibility and willingness by customer service to handle exceptions is still poor in general.”

Other readers pointed out some slightly less obvious oddities in the German dining experience. 

“Has anyone noticed that you can’t get soup spoons in any restaurant?”, asked John Conlon from the UK. “You buy soup and have to use a serviette to wipe it off your chin.”

In this case, the cultural differences led John to an exciting new business idea. “I think I could make some money introducing soup spoons,” he said.  

READ ALSO: Trinkgeld: What you need to know about tipping culture in Germany

Supermarkets 

Think you’re safe from cultural differences in the supermarket? Think again. 

For most foreigners in Germany, the first trip to their local Netto or REWE can be a stressful one, and many people commented at the shock of getting items chucked at them breakneck speed while scrabbling to pack and pay at the checkout. 

This was the case for 35-year-old Sebastian from Australia, who told us he still “gets annoyed” by being rushed to pack his bags while food shopping. 

Netto cashier

A Netto cashier smiles at a customer, shortly before the manic item-scanning begins. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Netto Marken-Discount Stiftung & Co. KG | Netto Marken-Discount Stiftung &

“In general, I find the grocery store compresses many of the etiquette differences between US and Germany into one action-packed experience,” said another respondent from the US. “This sometimes includes being scolded or almost being hit by a car in the parking lot.”

Derald Preston, 55, from Long Island, found himself in an awkward standoff with a cashier at a Braunschweig supermarket as he waited for her to pack his items. 

“She began to give me the death look,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until my colleague told me that I had to bag my own groceries… with my own bag or buy one! How could I be so stupid not to bring my own grocery bags to the grocery store?”

The topsy-turvy world of bread

It’s no secret that Germans love their bread, but the culture around it can be confusing for foreigners. 

“There are a lot of really small things, like not finding a portable container that fits sandwich bread sized sandwiches,” said Sara from Oregon. “They sell sandwich bread, but apparently no one uses it for sandwiches.” 

For fellow American Ben, 25, it’s been hard to get used to dominance of wheat products and the lack of alternatives for people with dietary requirements. 

“As someone who is gluten free, living in Germany in particular has been incredibly challenging,” the Bochum resident told us. “I’ve also lived in Hungary and Austria, and both locations did a much better job of providing gluten free foods. Budapest surprisingly has many dedicated gluten free restaurants, but I have yet to find a single one in the entire Ruhrgebiet.”

Others pointed out that the culture of Abendbrot – having bread for dinner – also seemed strange, especially for people that are used to a hot, hearty evening meal back home. 

READ ALSO: Is Germany falling out of love with Abendbrot?

The love-affair with nudity

Frei-körper-kultur (FKK), or “free body culture”, is a big thing in Germany, but the love of public nudity can be bewildering to foreigners. 

“Why can’t people keep their clothes on?”, muses John Conlon. “One afternoon walking through a park in Berlin I saw a man with a leather jacket, boots but nothing else. I’ve seen a man with his trousers around his ankles, playing the guitar.”

Though the sight of people’s wobbly bits in public spaces does take some getting used to, foreigners who have been in Germany long enough can often come to the conclusion that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.

“I’ve been here long enough now, I actually join in with this carefree attitude to nudism,” John says. 

READ ALSO: ‘I took a deep breath’: An American’s first dip into German nudity

German healthcare 

If you happen to need a doctor’s appointment to process the stress of all these culture shocks, you may be in for a nasty surprise: for many of our readers, the healthcare system and practices was one of the biggest shocks they had to deal with. 

Felicity Carter from Sydney, Australia, described “traumatising” experiences of being ill in hospital and dealing with the far less private body culture in Germany. 

“There were no curtains around the beds, doctors doing intimate examinations of other patients in front of me, a patient with diarrhoea being put on a mobile toilet right in front of my bed, no paper gowns for x-rays or other medical exams, and ancillary staff wandering through the room during diagnostic procedures when I was naked,” she said. 

Doctolib app

A man optimistically attempts to book a doctor’s appointment on the Doctolib app. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Others commented on the fact that women aren’t given gowns to cover up during intimate cancer screenings, while some said the biggest shock was how long they had to wait for an appointment.

Part of getting used to life in Germany is about “developing the confidence that you’ll still be alive when you confirm a doctor’s appointment for 2024 or something!”, joked 42-year-old Prakruthi from India. 

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

Rudeness 

Experiencing the full force of German directness is a major culture shock for many foreigners – almost regardless of where they come from. 

“I find Germans so hostile and rude sometimes,” said 33-year-old JJ from the Philippines. “I’ve never been shoved in the US or in Asia but Germans are willing to shove you out of the way if they think you’re in their way or walking too slowly. I’ve never been manhandled like that before but it’s happened multiple times now.” 

Edward from Cornwall, England, said the “rudeness” and “bluntness” of some Germans had been hard to get used to when he moved to Berlin – even when he attempted to speak German and be accommodating.

“The worst is checkout staff barely saying hello and throwing my stuff through at lightning speed,” the 30-year-old explained. “Neighbours who just stand and stare blankly and don’t respond to a simple ‘Moin’/’Guten Morgen’ is a close second.”

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germans’ love of criticising English skills is an unappealing national habit

The good stuff 

Of course, living in Germany isn’t all bad. A lot of people actually found they were pleasantly surprised by a lot of things they experienced after moving here, from lower levels of poverty to cleaner, safer streets. 

Dan from New York enjoys how much safer he feels in Erlangen than he does in the US. “I miss the confidence we have here in Germany that there is little to no threat to well being, when visiting from the US,” he said.

Fellow New Yorker Craig, 68, was similarly amazed by how clean, efficient and cheap Germany is. “A public transit system that works, beautiful parks, low cost of living and smooth streets” were all among the positives he noticed after moving here.

Munich Englischer Garten

People bathes in the river in Munich’s Englischer Garten. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

Other Americans pointed out how amazing it was to be in a country with no guns – and how much reverse culture shock they felt when they returned to the US – while some marvelled at the unbelievable amount of paid holiday their German friends were given at work. 

“When I first moved here German friends would say they were absolutely broke then once drunk, after I’ve paid, talk about a vacation they were soon taking to Morocco, Greece, Mexico, etc.,” said Shon Abram from LA. “I was a freelancer and never realised German contracts allow up to 40 days of vacation.”

Chicago-born Emma, 28, said the German work/life balance was admirable but still a bit of a shock to the system. 

“The commitment to their free time is great, but still very difficult for me to fully wrap my head around,” she told us. 

Thanks to everyone who shared their experience with us. Although we weren’t able to include all the submissions, we read each of them and are sincerely grateful to everybody who took the time to fill in the survey.

If there’s anything you’d like to ask or tell us about our coverage, please get in touch.
 

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READER INSIGHTS

‘A megacity on a smaller scale’: An insiders’ guide to Frankfurt

Our readers in Frankfurt shared their insights into what life in the city and surroundings is really like, and revealed their top tips.

'A megacity on a smaller scale': An insiders' guide to Frankfurt

Known as Mainhattan thanks to its impressive skyscraper skyline, and with a bustling jobs scene, it’s no wonder that Frankfurt am Main is a city that many foreigners consider moving to. 

But aside from business, we wanted to find out what else makes Frankfurt – and the area around it – tick. And who better to ask than The Local readers who live there?

International feel, good connections and great nature

Maybe it has something to do with the many flight connections to the rest of the world from the airport, or perhaps it’s the thriving jobs scene. Whatever the case, readers said something special about Frankfurt is that it’s an international city with a small-town feel. 

“Frankfurt really offers the best aspects of a large megacity like NYC, London or Paris on a much smaller scale – so it offers world-class shopping, cuisine and amenities without overwhelming crowds,” said Michael Schacht, 31. “It’s super multinational as a result.”

Richard Davison, 45, who lives in the Sachsenhausen area of Frankfurt, said: “In my opinion Frankfurt is a special city as it is very international. As people come for work, it seems that it is very welcoming as many people are new, or have not lived in the city for a long time.

“There is a wide variety of affordable cuisine, bars and hospitality. It is a big city feel in a small city. What makes it special is the green spaces and surrounding nature: Taunus, Spessart, Odenwald and the Rhine and vineyards. Trains and flights are also so easy from Frankfurt.”

A boat sails across the Main river in Frankfurt.

A boat sails across the Main river in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

READ ALSO: 10 facts you probably didn’t know about Frankfurt (even if you live there)

Tom Boon, 26, who lives in central Frankfurt, said “the diversity” is the best part of life in the Hesse city that’s home to about 753,000 people. 

“It’s also a great place for English speakers to feel comfortable as you can always bump into somebody you can talk to,” he added. 

Laura, 42, from Sweden, said the best thing about Frankfurt is the “diversity” and that it “feels like a village in some parts”.

Angeeka Biswas, 34, said Frankfurt’s positive points include it being “accessible by public transport in almost all parts of the town” as well as the different cuisine available, and the large expat population. 

“Frankfurt has lots to offer and is full of many different shops, restaurants and bars,” said Frankfurt resident Cara Schaeffer.

“Frankfurt is also surrounded by the Taunus mountain range,” said Schaeffer. “However the most special thing about Frankfurt are the people that live there.

“You’ll meet people from all over the world from different cultures, regions and backgrounds. It’s an extremely international city, where more than 25 percent of the residents don’t have a German passport.”

People at Frankfurt's main station on June 1st, the start of Germany's €9 monthly travel ticket offer.

People at Frankfurt’s main station on June 1st, the start of Germany’s €9 monthly travel ticket offer. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

Lots of people said the surrounding nature was a real draw of Frankfurt.

Nichola, 64, said the “proximity to the Main River, access to the Großer Feldberg region with the possibility of cycling in the summer and skiing in the winter,” were some of the best things about Frankfurt.

She also said the airport is “one of the hubs for Lufthansa so it’s easy to fly almost anywhere”.

Where are the best places to go?

Lots of people talked about the food and drink offering in the Hesse city, as well as the landscape. 

Natalie, who lives in Taunus, said: “Explore the Taunus, walk the river, shop on the Zeil (street), eat in Saschenhausen or in Bornheim or Nordend.” 

“Go for brunch,” said Angeeka Biswas. “Bike beside the Main river, exercise or just sit beside the river. It feels so calm inside the chaos of the city.”

READ ALSO: Hesse – 7 maps that explain the home of Germany’s financial hub

Smruthi Panyam said his top tip is to grab a steak at M Steakhouse in Feuerbachstraße.

Simon Slade, 70, in Wehrheim, recommends “the English Theatre, walking or cycling along the river Main” as well renting a car and driving north west to “the Hintertaunus and the river Lahn – you will find stunningly beautiful countryside”.

Slade also said Frankfurt has “numerous organic veggie and vegan restaurants, especially along the Bergerstrasse”.

“If you want real authentic high quality traditional German inexpensive food at half the price of Frankfurt, try the Taunus restaurant in Obernhain.” he added.

READ ALSO: Three German cities ranked in the top 10 places to live

Cara Schaefer’s top tips include going to the top of the Main Tower to view the city, taking a boat tour, and enjoying the nightlife “especially at 22nd lounge, a cocktail bar on the 22nd floor of a sky scraper”.

Schaefer’s top restaurant tips are Saravanaa Bhavan, a vegetarian Indian restaurant near the main station and Ristorante Arte – an Italian in the Bockenheim district.

People toast an Apfelwein on the banks of the river Main.

People toast an Apfelwein on the banks of the river Main. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

Tom Boon recommends that visitors “take the Ebbelwei Expreß, a tourist tram that loops around the city every half hour or so”.

“The ticket includes a drink and pretzels,” he added. Meanwhile, Boon says the best pizza in Frankfurt “can be found at Giulio’s on Wittelsbacherallee”.

Lots of our readers said Apfelwein – known colloquially as Ebbelwoi, is the drink to try out in Frankfurt. 

Boon said: “Apfelwein arguably trumps beer in Frankfurt. I prefer to drink it mixed with cola (it’s much better than it sounds, and popular enough that it is sold premixed in cans), though some traditional Apfelwein pubs will refuse to serve this combination based on tradition.

“I would recommend avoiding the big chain-eque bars in favour of the smaller pubs and beer gardens dotted around the city.”

Others flagged up the architecture and buildings. 

I really love going to the Dom Romer district to see the old city hall and rebuilt square which is really eye-catching,” said Michael Schacht.

“The New Altstadt is also really beautiful. I also like walking along the river bank when the weather is nice, visiting Old Sachsenhausen and Bornheim for a cozier small town vibe. Though a bit on the outskirts, Hochst has a traditional medieval Altstadt that’s worth a stop to see.”

Keep a lookout for our second feature on Frankfurt coming soon.

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