We were in Hamburg the bulk of the time and Berlin for 10 days, but I was also able to squeeze in some day trips and visit the Saxony region for a weekend, too. Here’s what surprised me most about the country itself:
CASH REALLY IS KING
Most large chain stores do accept credit card (and if you do use credit card, you will have to sign, and make sure you have the back of your card signed! They often checked me for this and I had forgotten, so I had to show my ID with my signature on it), but many smaller ones, restaurants, bakeries, etc. do not. Even the doctor’s office I went to in Berlin only took cash!
And make sure to get the Charles Schwab debit card before you go so you don’t have to pay those pesky ATM fees.
NAVIGATING THE HEALTHCARE SYSTEM IS EASY (& CHEAP!)
I had to go to the doctor while I was there, and it was sooo cheap and easy to deal with as compared to the US! Each visit was never more than €100 (and often much less than), and you paid right then and there. No surprise bills later on!
It was also suuuuper chill. Like I was never weighed/had my blood pressure checked, and the room you saw the doctor in also felt like it doubled as their personal office. Some of the doctors were even wearing regular street clothes!
NORTHERN GERMANY IS RELATIVELY FLATWhen I picture German countryside, I think rolling hills and castles perched on cliffs. However, Northern Germany is actually pretty flat!
I hiked to the top of the highest mountain in Northern Germany (Brocken!) and it’s only 1,141 meters (3,743 feet). It’s half as high as Half Dome in Yosemite to give some perspective. All the rolling hills and giant castles are found in the central/southern part of Germany.
THE CHEAP FOOD (& ALCOHOL!)
Seriously – even when we went to a small organic specialty store it was way cheaper than in the US (or at least in the Bay Area, where Whole Foods has taken over the world). This is something I’ve consistently noticed, though – groceries are pretty damn cheap here! Like I think I spend about €50 a week on food from the grocery store here (and that’s even with buying some organic stuff), whereas I’d spend about twice that back home.
And alcohol is sooo cheap. Like beer is often cheaper than water at restaurants!
THE VARIETY OF BREADGermans are INTO their breads. You can find a whole aisle of different kinds of bread in the store. They’re also really obsessed with protein, I’ve noticed, and have this ‘protein bread’ that people love to eat.
And they put all kinds of toppings on bread – yes, the traditional butter and jam (which they call ‘marmalade’), but also fresh cheese, cottage cheese, pesto, honey, peanut butter, hazelnut chocolate, quark (like a combo of cheese and yogurt?) – there are literally a million different spreads you can put on them.And the bread is a huge staple of a German breakfast! And it’s not just wheat toast or English muffins that we eat in the US – oh no. That’s a disgrace in Germany. It’s hearty, fresh-baked bread often decorated with a variety of nuts and seeds. And yes, it really is as good as it looks. One person we house sat for said that if she ever left Germany, the delicious bread is what she’d miss most.
I don’t think I’ll be able to look at another pathetic piece of soggy sliced sandwich bread the same when I return to the US.
…AND CHOCOLATEGermans are VERY serious about their chocolate (which I deeply appreciate) and have aisles dedicated to it in stores! And there are soooo many varieties. The Ritter Sport and Milka chocolate brands have like 20 different flavors commonly sold in stores. It’s basically heaven.
THE OBSESSION WITH SPARKLING WATER
You have to be specific and ask for it “still” or “without gas” here, or else they’ll probably just bring you sparkling water.
Even though Germans love their sparkling water, kombucha hasn’t yet seemed to catch on. I only found one brand of kombucha commonly sold in stores, and there were 3 varieties to choose from. This was quite a disappointment to me as a kombucha lover, and I’m counting down the days until I can return to Whole Foods and buy a whole bag of GT’s.
HOW EXPENSIVE WATER ISAnd going off that, water is so expensive when you go out to eat! It’s ridiculous. I combat that by bringing my reusable water bottle with me EVERYWHERE. Beer is often cheaper (although there is a law where there has to be at least one drink on the menu that’s cheaper, be it juice or water), so many people just get that instead.
They don’t seem to have many water fountains, either. I don’t get it – is everyone here just extremely dehydrated?? I drink so much water throughout the day, and am used to having access to free water at restaurants and numerous drinking fountains back home in the US. I don’t really remember ever having to search for water like I do here. It boggles my mind.
I even tried to ask for tap water when I went to one restaurant (this trick usually works in other places in Europe, like France) and the waitress just stared at me, confused as ever. One of my German friends confirmed that no, no one gets tap water here.
EVERYTHING IS CLOSED ON SUNDAYS
I think this goes for a lot of Europe, but all the shops are closed on Sundays! Large chain stores will probably still be open, but most shops are closed. This is weird to me since back home, Sundays are usually “errand day” for myself and most people I know. And especially shitty if you arrive somewhere on a Sunday and can’t do any grocery shopping!
THEIR LEVEL OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Almost everyone we met that was around our age (mid- late-twenties) either already had or was working on their Master’s. I honestly can only think of a few people I know from back home that have their Master’s, and I know many who don’t have their Bachelor’s either!
I think this is due to the cheaper cost in higher education in Germany. In the US, it’s soooo expensive to go to school, so many people just don’t. Here, it seemed like the norm. HOWEVER, I have heard that they pay for it with their taxes, so it’s not technically “free” – BUT I think the fact that it’s already taken out makes you more likely to go? They also apparently get money back if they study abroad, again because it had already been paid in taxes earlier.
THE ‘HONOR SYSTEM’ ON THEIR TRANSPORTATION
All of their trains and buses seem to operate on the “honor system”. You’re SUPPOSED to buy a ticket, but they only actually check every now and then (and then you pay a fine, I think €60, if you don’t have one).
It’s so interesting to me as at least in California, they definitely want to MAKE SURE you’ve bought a ticket. The honor system doesn’t exist haha.
ALL THE MOVIES/TV SHOWS ARE PROFESSIONALLY DUBBED
If you go on German Netflix, you’ll find popular shows like “Modern Family” BUT WITH GERMAN VOICES. LOL WUT. It’s the strangest thing to see actors/actresses you know from the US with slightly different voices and a sudden amazing German tongue. They do a really really good job, too!
THEY ARE SERIOUS ABOUT RECYCLING SEPARATIONUsually in the US you just have one container for all recyclables and one for trash; here you have one for paper, plastics, colored glass, white glass, compost, etc. And you have to get it right OR ELSE.
THE DRINKING AGE IS 16
And they literally NEVER check ID’s. Which is so, so weird to me! In the states, they always check everyone’s ID.
And I’m still in shock that the drinking age is 16 (!!!!). However, they can only drink beer/wine and not hard liquor. That’s reserved for you once you turn 18 lol.
THEY LOVE THEIR SAUNAS
I thought the sauna obsession was mostly just a Scandinavian thing, but nope, it’s a huge thing here, too! And everyone goes naked! Such a weird thing for my American brain to wrap my head around.
THEY ARE VERY SERIOUS ABOUT BIKE LANESSimilar to Amsterdam (once my friend accidentally walked in the bike lane and a very unhappy older man scolded her that “This isn’t Disneyland!!”), they take their bike lanes VERY SERIOUSLY. And they’re often not marked (at least in Hamburg and Berlin) but rather are just different colored bricks in a line on the sidewalk. We didn’t realize this (in the US the words “bike lane” are spray painted on the path with a picture of a bike so there’s no room for error lol) and got reprimanded in Berlin. And people bike FAST, so you’d better look around and make sure you’re not accidentally standing on the path!
HOW MUCH THEY KNOW ABOUT AMERICAN POLITICS
Lol I am embarrassed to say I pretty much know jack shit about Germany and their politics. But this also goes for American politics. I got schooled by Germans multiple times. #embarrassing
HOW MUCH I LOVED HAMBURGI did not expect to care for Hamburg at all, really. I looked up photos online and it just looked like another big city to me. I was like eh.
But I really fell in love with it! It’s got lots of interesting neighborhoods, has a lot of fun stuff going on but still doesn’t feel too overwhelming, is really pretty, public transportation is great, it feels super safe, lots of green spaces within the city itself, I like the weather, lots of fun places to go out…To be honest, it pretty much fits the bill for everything I want in a city!I think the only thing that’s missing is its proximity to nature NATURE. Like yes, I love all the parks, but city parks are very different from NATURE if you know what I mean. And I’d love it if there were more hills/mountains – it’s relatively flat, and I’m used to having mountains after growing up in the Bay Area. But otherwise it’s pretty much perfect. Ah Germany, you shall be missed. I’ll probably be back – I’d love to explore more of the south/central region! Because, as mentioned before, CASTLES. And there are more mountains, too. And apparently I have some family in a couple places in the southern regions that I’ve never met, so there’s that (my grandpa on my dad’s side is German). Also, German CHRISTMAS MARKETS. I would love love love to be here for Christmas!
And then there’s that German freelance visa that I’ve heard about. Granted, I’d need to become a bonafide freelancer first, but, you know…Small things…