So I have now been here in Germany for one month.
I thought it would be good to offer a quick summary of life for a British person in Germany as I have experienced it. Did it live up to my expectations? Were the stereotypes of life in Germany accurate?
Short answers – YES and NO.
Did it live up to my expectations?
Yes. I’m having a brilliant time, I’ve settled in really well and kept very busy. I’ve also managed to keep up to date with my work which is good – the Internet connection here is reasonable for remote working.
Are stereotypes of life in Germany accurate?
There are certain ideas that people have about the German nation which are pretty familiar to most Brits – Germans aren’t very friendly, they are all law abiding, they are always on time, they drink lots of beer etc. So how did this pan out?
“Germans aren’t very friendly”
This is complete and utter rubbish. And always has been, in my experience.
I have so far (in my one month) only met one German person who was unfriendly (a lady with a dog outside a bakery). Everyone else has been nice, cheerful, helpful etc. And my landlord and landlady and their daughter have been incredibly friendly, making me feel very at home and including me in their social events, plying me with food, sharing sheet music with me in the choirs, lending me their car and more. People have offered me lifts and refused to accept petrol money, taken me out for meals, brought me along with them to events, made me feel at home, bought me cake… the list is endless.
“Germans are all law-abiding”
Although this is generally true, it turns out that some of the things I had been told before I came here weren’t quite accurate. I had heard from many sources as Sunday is a special day there are masses of things you can’t do on Sunday – such as vacuuming, mowing the lawn etc. That isn’t true here in Escheln, as I discovered in the first couple of weeks. My landlady says that the mowing thing isn’t very helpful if you work a full week and then are out all Saturday – maybe Sunday is your only option. Clearly in this little hamlet it’s considered OK. Apart from this I haven’t seen any obvious examples of rule-breaking, although when I gave Lara a lift in the car she commented (afterwards) that at a STOP sign I didn’t let all four wheels come to a complete halt so the German police might have told me off for that (fortunately there were none around at 6am!).
“Germans are always punctual”
This is a tricky one. My experience is that most people I have met are punctual (although this is also generally the case in the UK). However, friend Morten was impressively late for a lunch meetup at the SPEZI Radmesse cycle exhibition. We arranged to meet at midday; at 12:45 when I finally got through to him on the phone, he said he was just leaving the exhibition hall and would be with us in ten minutes. He may be the exception though! And he’s such a nice chap he can be forgiven a slight unpunctuality.
“Germans drink lots of beer”
Probably, although possibly not here in this part of Germany (Bavaria, on the other hand…) On the few occasions I’ve been with German people and they’ve been drinking beer they seem to have chosen non-alcoholic. Fizzy water on the other hand – there’s gallons of that in evidence wherever you go. My request for tap water is usually met with a look of incredulity. The tap water is fine though!
So what has life been like here?
Before I moved to Germany I had obviously visited loads of times, lived here for one month twice and done masses of reading. The forum for English-speaking expats in Germany, ToyTown, was extremely useful. I read lot about people saying “where do I buy…” and asking for English or American food. I wanted to try to immerse myself a bit more and try to make do with all German food (except for teabags – there was no way I was drinking German tea for a year), but I discovered fairly early on that I am more entrenched in British food than I thought. And there are other things that it’s surprisingly hard to get hold of, such as:
• potato peelers (that are good)
• towelling bathrobes (not available in any of the normal shops)
• casserole dishes that go in the oven, not just on the hob
• bank accounts
The Potato Peeler Crisis
I like eating potatoes and was pleased to see two peelers in the drawer in my apartment. But, lo and behold, I seemed entirely unable to peel with them. Then I remembered! Previously in Germany I have also been unable to use their peelers (Sparschäler). I visited several large homewares shops and looked at the selection of peelers – usually five or six different ones – but they were all ‘wrong’, the blades seemed to be at the wrong angle. I did manage to peel a couple of potatoes (eventually) with one of the peelers in my drawer but it was a real mess.
Lara, the daughter of the house, was heading off to England for a week’s holiday so I mentioned the potato peeler crisis to her just as a general bit of chit-chat. Then I received a text from her when she was there – did I want her to get me a peeler? She sent me a link to a peeler on tesco.com which was rather overpriced and not quite the type I like. I sent her a link to the ones I liked and said if she happened to see one, could she get it.
That day I was meeting up with a friend Olaf, a German chap who lives in London. He’d cycled over from Hoek van Holland and we met up for lunch in Orsoy/Walsum on the Rhein. I’d made some quip about peelers to him on Facebook about three hours before he set off for Germany. And, lo and behold…
I texted Lara to say that she didn’t have to find me one now (and found it rather amusing that I had two opportunities to get a potato peeler within such a short time).
When I got back we collected together all the peelers in the house.
My new one is on the bottom right, Gudula (the landlady) uses the one on the bottom left and has done for 20 years, Lara likes the red and blue-handled ones. We plan to have a potato or carrot peeling competition in due course.
You can see that the angles of the blades are wrong on all of them except for the John Lewis’s one. Unless you are German.
I’ve eaten lots of food in Germany of course (and one or two cakes!) but haven’t really had a long period of catering just for me and I’ve found myself struggling at times to eat the variety of dishes that are available in the UK. The oven here is a bit slow and it appears Germans tend to cook most things on the hob (no casserole dishes in the apartment, for example, and they seem almost impossible to buy as well at a sensible price). There’s an absence of things like Chicken Tonight (which is very useful for a quick meal) and also the choice of curry sauces was extremely thin and pricey – 3€ for a jar that would be £1 in the UK. On my next trip to the UK I expect to bring back some jars of sauces and also some naan breads as I haven’t found any yet (though I did manage some poppadums).
Rather than glass jars of sauces as we have the Germans tend to use packet mixes (apart from pasta sauces which are in jars). I’ve bought a couple which I will try in due course but I’ll be cooking 3-4 portions and freezing the remainder for another day.
Another noticeable difference is that there is fresh lasagne in the supermarket but only frozen pizzas, not fresh ones (or very rarely anyway), even in places like Aldi that sell them in the UK. But there are zillions of frozen pizzas, freezers full of ’em. I like pizza though so that’s good!
I like to eat fresh baguette or rolls rather than sliced bread so that’s OK. There is some sliced bread in Germany (that they call Toast Brot) which is alright for toast but not very nice for sandwiches. It also seems to last a remarkably long time without going mouldy – I have no idea what’s in it. I have only eaten two loaves in the month. The other unusual thing is that you don’t get the two crust ends on the bread.
The selection of cakes and chocolate is of course marvellous. The cereal selection has improved (I have got weetabix, bran flakes, crunchy nut cornflakes, shreddies and some nice muesli). Crisps are still mostly paprika-flavoured but we shouldn’t eat so many packets of those anyway. Vegetables seem generally the same although we’re in the middle of Spargelzeit (Asaparagus season) at the moment so asparagus is everywhere – mostly the white version. And there are fresh strawberries available from the farm shop 100 metres from my door – yummy!
Somehow I don’t think I’ll starve.
As might have been expected, Germans are keen on their paperwork. And their civil servants have special protection in the law against you insulting them etc. There are lots of things that you have to do (or that you are strongly advised to do) that aren’t necessary in the UK, which is why I did so much planning and checking.
When I arrived I had to register my address within a week – called Anmelden. This I did and was given a special bit of paper (an Anmeldebestätigung) which is vital for lots of things.
I had to get a tax number (Einkommensteuernummer) which is mine for life. This came from the Kempen Finanzamt after I filled in a complicated form.
I had to get a freelance tax number (Steuernummer, different from the above) which I have to use on all my freelance work invoices.
I also had to get health insurance as this isn’t part of taxation in Germany and is mandatory.
I also got Privathaftpflichtversicherung: sort-of like public liability insurance (very, very important here)
I also got Tierhalterhaftpflichtversicherung: liability insurance for the dog (also very important, and slightly more expensive than for me)
I also paid the Hundesteuer (dog tax) and Poppy got her tax disc:
I also tried to open a second bank account (I already had one from Deutsche Bank which I had had since 2007) but was refused. It turns out I don’t yet have much of a credit rating in Germany. Probably in a month or two the Deutsche Bank credit history will be part of their system (called SHUFA) and I might have more luck, but in the meantime Deutsche Bank have relented and given me a debit card which makes it much easier to buy things in shops. Amazon.de have also given me a credit card, not that these are used much in Germany except for online shopping.
I think I’m there with the paperwork now. Well, I could get the special green disk for the car that allows me to drive in Köln or Krefeld but as I’m not expecting to drive to either of those I doubt it’s necessary (it’s only 5€ so not a major deal).
Before I came to Germany we bought a couple of UK multiway adapters and James put German plugs on them. This meant I didn’t need adapters for my 3 pin plug chargers/computer etc but could just run them from an extension lead. And this is working fine.
I also, of course, have some items with German plugs like bedside lights, standard lamps, iPhone charger etc.
And I have discovered that I really don’t like the German sockets without the on/off switches. If you want to unplug your television, for example, or the DVD player, you have to physically pull the plug out of the socket. And it’s usually hiding behind something or low down to the ground.
Fortunately in the second week I was Aldi did some socket switches for 1.79€ so I bought several.
And here is one I use for the lamp in my work area. Much easier to just flick this switch than pull the plug out or slide the sliding slider thingie for the lamp’s brightness to ‘off”.
I think this is just a hangover from our British socket system with switches on the socket. We’re really good at turning them off at home and I don’t like to think of things drawing current (however minor) when not needed.
Our postman in the UK (Roy) is extremely friendly and helpful. Lo and behold the postman for Escheln is also friendly and helpful.
Now that I have officially registered as living in Germany I am able to get a Maestro card (debit card) and also a German credit card. The Credit Card was arranged through Amazon.de and they sent it to me but they also have to do this proof-of-address procedure which usually involves me going to a post office with my passport and Meldebescheinigung, a proof of registration in Germany (a very important document that lots of people want to see). But it turned out that the Amazon card uses the postman – when he delivers the card he checks the details.
I wasn’t sure when it would arrive so I left my passport and Meldebescheinigung where the family below could get them if the postman arrived whilst I was out. And, after several days, he did.
He checked all the details, filled in the form – but needed my signature. And I wasn’t there. So he delivered the credit card anyway and left the form with a note for me to sign it and stick it half in/half out of our letterbox; when he came past the next day he’d collect it. Which he duly did.
The local community
I live in the hamlet of Escheln (probably 150 houses) which is one mile from the large village/small town of St Hubert, which is two miles from the main town of Kempen. All the addresses round here (whether Escheln, St Hubert or Kempen) have the same postcode and say Kempen as the post town. However St Hubert seems to function pretty well on its own as a town.
My landlady seems to know most people in Escheln and the neighbours all seem very friendly. I thought there might be issues with my car being parked outside someone else’s house but it all seems OK. I’ve met several people out on dogwalks and they generally chat for a little while. I think I’m fairly well known now because of the velomobile.
St Hubert is a lovely little town with five bakeries, an Aldi and another supermarket (Edeka), a couple of clothes shops, key cutters, bank, travel agent, chemist and most of the other things you’d need. There also seems to be a fair amount of local pride in the town – lots of the local cars have a sticker saying “I like living here” so I have bought one to affix when I get an opportunity.
St Hubert has a large catholic church as its main feature which can be seen from quite a way away. I gather that most of the people in the town are catholic (at least nominally) and the local evangelical (Lutheran) church that I have started attending has far fewer people.
Escheln is on one of the cycle routes that cross Nordrhein-Westfalen and bikes are a very common site – not, generally, cycle tourers but just people going about their everyday lives. Lara has several friends who often come to visit and they all come by bike.
St Hubert has also recently invested in some electric bike charging points which are situated right outside the very nice café/konditorei.
The place is generally very dog-friendly too with dogs allowed in a lot of places that they would be excluded from in the UK (although not in bakeries and supermarkets – Poppy has got used to being tied up outside whilst I go and do my grocery shopping).
I have joined two choirs since I arrived.
The first is the local Da Capo choir, affiliated with the evangelical church in St Hubert. It’s a group of friendly people who sing together mainly for enjoyment but who occasionally contribute to a church service. We sang on Easter Sunday, will sing this Sunday at a confirmation service and also at the wedding of the son of one of the choir members in August. They sing a mixture of music including Taizé music, well-known folk songs and more. They’re more into enjoyment than technical skill and there was no audition which means all levels and abilities are included.
The Willicher MusikProjekt Chor sings more traditional music (Beethoven, Haydn etc) and I had a short audition for that. It’s a four-part harmony choir which practises a couple of times per month in one of the three churches affiliated with the Emmaus-Kirchengemeinde Willich. The director, Klaus-Peter Pfeifer (who has his own Wikipedia page), is also an organist and one of those all-round musical chaps who are always impressive to know.
I’ve been to a couple of practices of each of these and am enjoying them in their different styles.
This is where I’ve so far been rather unsuccessful. There is a cycling group in Lobberich (with whom I cycled once last year) but it’s short distance and slow, for pensioners. There are possibly some fast cycling groups for MAMILs in this part of the world but I am too slow for that. The sort of groups that are often around in England – 10mph average rides of 20 miles or less including a cake stop – don’t seem to be available round here. I have been given several cycling magazines by friend Anja, some of which are more local-based, so I need to check those more thoroughly, but it looks as though I may have to make my own cycle rides. Which is OK but it’s fun to meet with other people, even though it’s hard to ride alongside an upright bike if you’re in a velomobile or trike as the speed profiles are so different.
There is a German velomobile forum which I am a member of and I’ve already met one member of that forum for tea and cake. There are a few other trike riders in the general area of Viersen so I might be able to meet up with them in due course. There is a bit trike gathering in Schwalmtal over the Pfingsten weekend at the end of May so I will be attending the bits of that that I can (as the dog will probably be left behind) which should be good.
So after a month here I’ve settled in, I’ve kept up with my work, met lots of nice people and taken doggy on lots of walks. The landlady and her husband and daughter have also taken Poppy out walking and cycling so she’s having a brilliant time. Just last night I went to the cinema with them in Kempen to watch the Nelson Mandela film; we went by car and were able to park, free of charge, about a 2 minute walk from the cinema which is right in the centre of town opposite the Town Hall. I can’t imagine that in the UK!
So I’m looking forward to the next months and longer here and to doing some longer cycle rides as I get more used to Penelope the velomobile. And, of course, meeting more people and sampling more cake!