What do I need to know about moving to and living in Germany?
January 27, 2010 12:37 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know about moving to and living in Germany?

My SO has gotten a job offer in Heidelberg, Germany (currently we live in the U.S.) and we are considering moving there. The job would last for two to three years. It'd help us out a lot if anyone could answer some general questions --

What's the town and surrounding area like (the arts, nightlife, outdoor activities, etc.)?

Is it easy to travel around town and to other cities in Europe?

How difficult is it to find an apartment?

Is there anything you can think of that we should know about living in Germany in general?

Is there any advice you have about the moving process?

And a couple of specific ones --

What's a good method of learning German relatively quickly?

I currently work from home editing on online newsletter based in Illinois. I get paid by mailed check. Does anyone know how doing this while living in Germany would affect my taxes? Should I and can I set up direct deposit so my employers don't have to use international mail, and how easy is that to do?
posted by kyrademon to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My family lived outside Stuttgart when I was a kid, and I've been going back over the past couple months for my own job.

Day-to-day life is very similar to life in America, with some minor but noticeable differences. Some things that I remember my mother constantly griping about:
-Trash. Picked up biweekly instead of weekly, and you're licensed a pail (as in, you pay a tax for it.) If it's overflowing, they won't take it. If there's metal in it, they won't take it. There are metal detectors on the garbage trucks. Recycling seemed much more religious there.
-Going from the butcher to the baker to the market seemed much more common than going to your local megamart and picking up everything. Fresh, local produce was in abundance.
-Smoking in public is still legal in many places. Some restaurants have smoking bans, but I have yet to figure out if there are any rules regarding it or if it's sort of an owner's decision.
-Homes are much smaller than in America, on average. Kitchens are likewise smaller, so don't expect an enormous refrigerator. Or a garbage disposal (basically unheard of).

Traveling around Europe is incredibly easy and relatively inexpensive. Depending on what town you end up in, there is an S-Bahn system around Heidelberg (more or less equivalent to a commuter rail system, but way better). Deutsche Bahn will get you everywhere else. Most trains allow bicycles.

Speaking of that, definitely bring or purchase bicycles, especially if you're going to be in the city. Germany does have some laws regarding bike equipage (lighting and whatnot), so get some lights for your bicycle. Traffic is absolutely abysmal during rush hours, so public transportation and your own two feet are definitely your best bet.

Towns are zoned much differently in Germany than in America, too. There's not nearly as much suburban sprawl as there is here. Towns tend to be compact and separated by farmland. There's usually a main street that contains the majority of retail (shops, markets, post office, train station are all usually bunched together) with houses and apartments surrounding it. This will, of course, depend on the size of the town. Medium-sized cities (that is, too small to have independent subway systems) usually have bus networks.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:57 PM on January 27, 2010

I'll second what backseatpilot said; I'll also suggest looking into the Goethe Institut language programs- they have compact courses that cover a lot of ground well and quickly. (You'd be surprised what you pick up when you're in a class of 12 where the only common language is German) I took some of the higher level courses to help polish my language, and my friend who joined me living in Berlin started from scratch-- that is, she couldn't count to ten in German and after three weeks, she was able to get around (very basically, but effectively for doing things like going out to theatre/film/public events, shopping, etc).

Also, Heidelberg is a town with a large American (largely military) presence, so you'll find that in the beginning when your accent is most notable, many people will switch to English to showcase/practice their English skills.

I really miss fresh bread/meat/produce every morning.
posted by Seeba at 1:01 PM on January 27, 2010

It's been 20 years since I lived in Germany, but I wanted to put my two cents in.

Most younger (under 40) Germans speak English. However, they may 'play dumb' until you make the effort to speak to them in German. If you walk into a shop and say something like "Do you speak English" they will probably reply "A little" and then watch with amusement while you pantomime what it is you want. However if you walk in and really make the attempt at conducting your business in German (no matter how bad you butcher it) they will usually rescue you pretty quickly. Humility will get you far. From my experiences and conversations, nothing irks people more than when you assume they speak English. Even if they 'rescue' you, try to use as much German vocabulary as you can. The best way to learn is to be immersed in it. (I'm not saying you shouldn't try to learn before you go, I'm just saying you'll get better when you are practicing on native speakers.)

Hiedelberg is a beautiful town. You are really lucky to get to go there. Germany is right in the middle of Europe, so pretty much anywhere you want to go is only a few days away. I highly recommend that you take day trips as often as possible.

Seconding what backseatpilot said about the bikes. They will be much more useful than a car. The town we lived in had really great bike lanes, I'll bet Heidelberg will be the same. You do have to have lights, and you have to use hand signals so you might want to read up on those.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:12 PM on January 27, 2010

I lived in Germany this summer with my non-german speaking girlfriend. She found the Rosetta stone program to be immensely useful. We were in the area, and finding an apartment was not too difficult, even in English (I had some high school german, but google translate and the wide knowledge of english will go a long way). For most landlords, you will need a residence permit or visa, a local (german/eu) bank account for them to draw from, and will need to register with the police department within i think 10 days of arriving?

I can't offer any Stuttgart specific advice, but the one thing that was most jarring for me was that you don't really smile at anyone on the streets. They think you're creepy and weird, ESPECIALLY if you say hi to their dogs.
posted by CharlesV42 at 1:14 PM on January 27, 2010

P.S. Heidelberg is a college town, so I don't think you'll have a problem finding nightlife.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:15 PM on January 27, 2010

Re: Smoking is now prohibited in all public places in Germany and can only be allowed in restaurants etc. if they have a separate smoking area/room.

I've never been to Heidelberg, but it is one of the major tourist magnets in Germany, and the surrounding area is really beautiful. As mentioned above, the location is quite central in Europe. If you don't have a car, day or weekend trips by train are also a possibility; the German train system is much better than the one in the USA. If you travel by train often, buying a BahnCard can be worth your while. They also offer cheap tickets for traveling in Germany on Saturday or Sunday or for traveling in just one state for a day.

I could go on and on about ideas on where to spend a day or a weekend, but I'm sure there are quite a few AskMe threads that are already covering a lot. Let me know if you have any specific questions, I've lived in Germany all my life. ;-)
posted by amf at 1:44 PM on January 27, 2010

I recently traveled to Germany.

1. Buy a shopping bag. Supermarkets do not necessarily supply you with bags.
2. You can travel anywhere without a car easily using public transportation.
3. Everyone uses bicycles.
4. Shopping for food and cooking will take up more of your time. However, food will be better.
5. Portion sizes are a lot smaller than in the states. You'll learn to like this.
6. Everyone bikes. Cities are quiet.
7. Many are out of work and on the dole. There's no stigma attached to this.
8. Dogs are welcome anywhere without a leash.
9. Smoking is allowed everywhere.
10. Taking a German class is a great idea. You'll quickly make friends.
11. Apartments are small. Fridges are the size a small chest.
posted by xammerboy at 1:51 PM on January 27, 2010

A good friend of mine moved there from England without any German language skills whatsoever. He said that everyone he met and worked with spoke really good English. He gradually picked up enough conversational German to get by in shops, on trains, etc.
posted by vickyverky at 2:07 PM on January 27, 2010

Germany legislation has improved (well, depends on your perspective) in terms of non-smoker's protection. Most restaurants are smoke-free today, except for very small bars or restaurants with designated smoking rooms (closed doors). Open-air restaurants usually are smoker-friendly. As these laws differ from state to state, there may be minor variations in one or the other direction. The laws are under heavy discussion every now and then - but most people, including me as a smoker - enjoy their meals and drinks without smoke nowadays.

Regarding travel, you have to know that gazoline is rather expensive in Europe (around EUR 1,40 per Liter here in Germany), but most cars are smaller and consume less energy (~ 30 mpg) than the average US car. If you like to drive fast, you will love German Autobahn highways with their missing speed limits on many routes. Perhaps it will stress you in the beginning, but you will get used to it. And you have to take into account some extra EUR as an express fee resulting from lower mpg of course ;-)

Heidelberg itself is nice! It is a must-see-location on many Europe-trips. American population has been mentioned (largest US proportion from all cities in Germany, IIRC), but it also has a university - so expect a lot of young people (~40.000 students) and high prices for small flats.
posted by cwittmann at 2:15 PM on January 27, 2010

Get your US checks paid into you electronically if at all possible. A US-issued cheque will be near useless to you and can take like 6 weeks to clear. If you can us a debit card on that account that will be easier than taking out euros from cash machines and the rate is better.

The moving process will be vastly simplified if you understand that 99.9% of flats and houses you can rent will be furnished and that therefore, storing rather than moving your stuff will make your life infinitely easier. Most places are furnished to an acceptable adult standard and it's 2 - 3 years, you'll be fine.

Shopping in the European fashion generally means a large weekly shop for pantry goods and a daily shop for that night's meat and maybe vegetables. That's why your refridgerator is the size of a small dishwasher and you now own a foldable, re-useable shopping bag you take everywhere out of habit.

Your new bank account, though called a cheque account, is unlikely to come with an actual chequebook. Electronic bill payment is the norm in Europe, to a way bigger degree than in the US.

Travel by train within Germany and by plane within Europe is really easy and you get to do wonderful things like go to Amsterdam for the weekend and enjoy your wife's new, four-week annual vacation.

Warning: you may not want to repatriate :)
posted by DarlingBri at 2:47 PM on January 27, 2010

Don't be surprised by the German shelf toilet.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:28 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is it easy to travel around town and to other cities in Europe?

Yes, of course. The national railway is the best in Europe, although express trains are expensive.

How difficult is it to find an apartment?

Since you don't speak German, you'll probably be relying on an estate agent (a "Makler") who will charge you a lot of money for doing absolutely nothing, but it's pretty easy. Take a look at ImmobilienScout to get an idea of what prices you'll be paying. Be aware that many flats don't come with light fixtures or kitchens, so tick the "Einbaukuche" box on the search page if you're not bringing yours along.

Is there anything you can think of that we should know about living in Germany in general?

It's a fantastic place to live and I would be very unhappy if I were forced to move back to the US, but you really need to be flexible and optimistic to not go crazy here before you learn German. Contrary to what a tourist will tell you, many Germans do not speak English, and even when they do, sometimes the companies they work for forbid them from speaking English (like when you call Deutsche Bank, for example). So learn German quickly and accept the fact that you'll be immersed in a different culture with different rules of behaviour.

Is there any advice you have about the moving process?

It's a pain in the ass. Pay a proper moving company if you have more than a box full of stuff, as it will take some time to get your flat sorted out.

What's a good method of learning German relatively quickly?

Volkshochschule Heidelberg probably has intensive German courses where you go for 5 hours a day for several weeks. It's the fastest way to learn German, and it's much cheaper than a Goethe class.
posted by cmonkey at 11:58 PM on January 27, 2010

I went through this exact thing a few years ago (just across the border in Switzerland). It was a fantastic experience, I absolutely recommend it if you get the opportunity. Living in another country for a few years is much deeper experience than visiting for a vacation or even a summer.

You should track down some books on living and working in Germany, I'm sure there are some on Amazon.

Oddly, the biggest problem that I (and my other expat friends) encountered was the whole trash pickup thing. You can't just throw whatever you want into the trash - in Germany there are different colored bins for different kinds of garbage (food/paper/metal), and you have to sort it correctly. You can get yelled at or fined if you don't do this right, and your neighbors will be pissed at you.

Your SO's company should provide some kind of relocation services to help you with the move - be sure you ask about that. My SO's company even provided a guide for our first day there to help us out with official stuff like government paperwork/work permit and setting up our phone/internet and finding a flat.

If you can, get your SO's company to provide accounting services to prepare your taxes. It's really complicated because you'll be filing both in the US and Germany and there are crazy tax laws in both countries involving international income. We still had to deal with this even after two years of being back in the US.

You should be able to keep your US bank accounts, and you can do banking online or by mail. Also, if you plan on keeping a house or car in the US, check with your insurance company to see if you are still covered while out of the country.

It will be helpful if you can find a local American club where you can meet other American expats - they should help a lot with the transition and help you if you get in a sticky situation. Of course, you should also make friends with some locals.

The German train system is great, especially the high-speed ICE train (DO NOT LOSE YOUR TICKET, though!) However, for vacationing trains are too expensive and slow, unless you're travelling locally. The cheapest way to travel is discount airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair. You can fly almost anywhere in Europe in less than two hours. I once found a flight from Zurich to London for the equivalent of $8.

If you want to rent a car you can, but you might have to know how to drive a manual, as automatics are fairly uncommon. Also, Germany has lots of crazy rules about driving, and biking for that matter. You'll probably want to buy a cheap used bike when you get there. Most people ride simple city/comfort bikes around town and not mountain bikes with the suspension and everything like you usually see in the US.
posted by kenliu at 8:00 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just a quick tip on language learning - I just tried the Pimsleur Italian Complete course to brush up on my Italian, and I think it's great. Check your local library to see if they have Pimsleur German CDs.
posted by kristi at 2:51 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding grocery shopping: be prepared to bag your own! It can be a bit hectic if you aren't expecting it and suddenly have backed up the entire grocery line.

Drink refills for soda are NOT free as in the US, and are generally smaller sizes.

Also when eating out, if you ask for water you'll usually receive mineral/sparkling water. Be sure to ask for " Wasser ohne Kohlensäure" (water without gas) if you want just tap water.

Don't bring up topics such as WWII, or stereotypical things like Rammstein, Oktoberfest & Lederhosen.

Uni Heidelburg has an International Summer School for language acquisition.
posted by Etta Hollis at 11:41 AM on August 8, 2010

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