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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

‘Seven complaint emails’: My four-month ordeal renewing a UK passport from Germany

When The Local reader Michelle Jung applied to renew her UK passport from Germany, she had no idea that the process would take months on end. Here's her account of the ordeal - and why she is concerned for other Brits abroad.

'Seven complaint emails': My four-month ordeal renewing a UK passport from Germany

Michelle Jung runs a childcare centre and lives in the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) area. She moved to Germany from the UK in the mid-1990s.

There are many ways to increase your stress levels. Some all-time favourites of mine are trying to rebook a flight and telephone banking. But of all the memorable, blood-surging and heart muscle-tightening moments that I have experienced, nothing can top the interlude I have had with the passport office in the UK these last months. For those Brits living across in Germany who would also like to increase their stress levels, please read on and hear my story.

Earlier on this year I discovered that my British passport needed to be renewed at the latest in September. Being the efficient and foreseeing person that I am (well partly) I decided to get on with the procedure quickly, leaving plenty of time for unexpected difficulties. As an expat living in Germany and extremely far away from the British Embassy, the only possible way to go about my passport renewal was to do it online. I read up beforehand and collected all the necessary documents to send away. It all seemed relatively straightforward and I was confident that I would soon be holding my newly issued passport in my hand (small break for a chuckle).

READ ALSO: How foreigners can get fast track citizenship in Germany 

‘Queezy feeling’

I hit my first obstacle at the local passport studio where a kind but over-challenged – and probably not the most cosmopolitan photographer in the world – told me that he doesn’t offer digital codes for international passports. He said he’d heard of something of the kind as if he were saying, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that rare breed of Mongolian wild horses.” Not to be discouraged, I phoned around various photo studios in the Black Forest. I was slightly perturbed to find that no photo studio in this region offers this service. 

Passport control lines at Hamburg airport.

Passport control lines at Hamburg airport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christian Charisius

Never one for being put off lightly I went back to the UK passport website and discovered that I could install an app on my phone to take my own passport photo. The App is free and seemed user friendly. It’s not possible to use on your own, but hey, why have we got husbands? My husband and I went through all the steps thoroughly and managed to take what I thought was a jolly good passport photo. The photo cost five pounds to submit but at least I now had everything needed for my passport renewal.

According to the passport website, all documents needed to be sent to Durham, England (which I assumed was a kind of passport office headquarters in the UK). I had a queasy feeling sending my original British passport off in the post but apart from it getting lost what could go wrong? Just to be on the safe side I sent everything as registered mail. As I have dual citizenship (thank God) I also needed to send a copy of my German passport. The £150 fee was transferred with online banking. After everything was submitted I smugly rubbed my hands with glee and ticked off point “renew passport” on my to-do list. Shortly after, I received a mail from the passport office to confirm that they had got my application. That was May 29th. 

Two weeks later I received a kind and quirky mail from the passport office informing me that my passport photo didn’t meet the requirements and a new one was needed. I wasn’t too unsettled and since I didn’t technically take the photo and could put all the blame on my husband I was optimistic enough to think I could send another photo via the app. Together we thoroughly examined the instructions in the app and after what seemed like a two-hour photo session we came up with an extremely professional-looking passport photo. The photo was submitted on the same day – with another five pound payment – and shortly after we received a  confirmation from the passport office.

Two weeks later we received the same friendly and slightly quirky mail informing us that the photo didn’t meet up to required standards. In the meantime, I received a separate mail from the passport office informing me that I needed to send a copy of my German passport to the Liverpool passport office. Now I was at a loss. How on earth do I get an accepted photo sent across? And why do I suddenly need to send a document which has been sent to Durham to Liverpool?

Communication breakdown 

Since all previous mail from the passport office was written anonymously and in an aggravatingly machine-like manner, I decided to try my luck with the customer service hotline to sort out these problems. If you have money to waste and bags of time during the day you might want to try this hotline yourself. It’s a simple procedure really: you dial a number, go through a series of standard questions (don’t forget to say that you don’t want the call in Welsh), wait half an hour listening to Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, get through to someone who, after hearing your story tells you he can’t help and will put you through to someone else, wait a further half hour with classical music in the background before getting someone new at the other end.

At this point of the procedure the call can go in three different directions (I’ve experienced all three of them). Firstly, the person can say they can’t find your application in the system and you burst dramatically into tears. Secondly, the person can listen patiently to your story and tell you how terribly awful you have been treated and encourage you to write a cover letter (despite the passport office sending mails informing all recipients NOT to send a cover letter). The third response can be for a person to note down everything you’ve said and promise to pass on the information to the relevant department with an assurance that your case is now a priority and someone from the passport office will be in touch. Now it gets interesting. I was asked to give a phone number so that someone could speak directly with me. The only snag was that you could only give a UK number. Yes, you have heard right. A government body dealing with passports for people living overseas will only speak to them on the phone in the UK. Now I had to get my mum into this mess. She had just as much success as I had.

At the end of July I sent print photos taken at a passport studio with a cover letter to the Liverpool office. (Incidentally, during one of my many expensive phone calls I found out by chance that the Liverpool passport office was now responsible for my case). I got a confirmation that the photos had arrived but unfortunately my status in the application procedure never changed and I was still stuck in “waiting for approval”. Whilst out visiting my family at the beginning of August I decided to go to a photo studio and send a digital code to the passport office since I had received no approval from the print photos. The code was submitted but my status still didn’t change!

I sent seven emails of complaint. I’d like to think that I am a patient, friendly and articulate citizen who deals with all correspondence in a courteous and professional manner. But it became almost humorous when, after explaining in detail all the mishaps per mail, I then received the reply: “We are happy to inform you that your application was submitted on 29th May and is waiting approval.”

In the week beginning September 19th (so four months after my application was submitted) I finally received my new passport. After opening up my passport I couldn’t believe my eyes! The first photo which I took with the passport app and was officially rejected from the passport office was used for the printing of the passport. I don’t know whether to cry or laugh.

Michelle Jung with her British passport.

Michelle Jung with her new British passport. Photo courtesy of Michelle Jung

I have always been proud of being British and I have never ever contemplated the idea of giving up my British citizenship. But I have had several moments during the last months where I have seriously considered giving up. I sincerely hope that other readers have had better experiences than myself. However, I doubt it. After phoning up the British Embassy in a moment of desperation and hearing how they have received hundreds of calls like mine I can only assume that cardiologists all over Germany are being inundated with stressed-out, palpitating Brits needing heart surgery!

The Local got in touch with the UK Home Office to let them know about Michelle Jung’s account and ask them about the delay.  A spokesperson from the HM Passport Office said: “In light of the difficulties in providing replacement photographs that were explained to us by Mrs Jung, her previously submitted photograph was reconsidered.

“This photograph was accepted as meeting the required standard on 29th July and, following the completion of our checks, Mrs Jung’s passport was issued on 8th September.”

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