Berlin, USA

12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Berlin

May 27, 2015
German Bread courtesy Alexander von Halem

In the just over a month that I’ve been here in Berlin, I have found this city to be a fun, vibrant, diverse city. In some respects, it reminds me of Philadelphia in that each section of the city has a distinct personality to it, economically and culturally (with the big exception being that it seems hardly anyone is actually from Berlin whereas in Philly, pretty much everyone is from Philly.).

As I continue to get to know Berlin, getting out of the mindset of “visiting” and actually living here, I have found some things that would have been helpful to know before arriving. I won’t include the whole supermarket experience since that has already been covered. But in no particular order:

1. Pfand. This is basically what we call deposits for bottles in the US. The big difference is, here they actually return them. In the US, we put our plastics in the correct recycling containers and smile with self-satisfaction, knowing we did our part for the environment. Here in Germany, they have these monstrous machines in the supermarkets where people queue up with their empty bottles, stick them in a giant hole where they are scanned and eaten, and then a receipt is printed where you turn it in to the cashier for cash. I, of course, had no idea what this thing was and thus forfeited some change when I first arrived. However, and I know this is a bit of horror for many in the US, but the tap water here is really good. Since I pretty much only drink water and coffee, I have had no need for the pfand machine. And when I do, I’m sure there will be a YouTube video for that as well.


2. Bread is awesome. As I became more carb-conscious over the past couple of years, I gradually decreased my bread intake in the US. With some exceptions, I never found the bread in LA to be all that great, so it wasn’t a huge sacrifice. Enter German bread. Damn you! I should have known to avoid it! Bread is a part of life here in Germany and there are so many different types. Even the bread in the cheap markets is great. However, I am convincing myself that the bread here is healthier (and much of it is made with whole grains) than in the US so that hunk of bauernbrot on my kitchen counter will make me feel less guilty. Until I give it up again. Which I will. Eventually.

German bread

3. No one says “awesome”. In the US, everything is “awesome” or “amazing.” They are used so much that these words have lost their meaning. “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m feeling awesome today.” Okay, if you are Superman, maybe so. But just because you did a mile on the treadmill, it does not make you awesome. Say it to a German and you will get some strange looks.

4. No small talk. In addition to not really being awesome, what we Americans consider to be small talk or idle chatter is not very common in Germany. When we greet someone in the US, we tend to say, “how are you doing?” In Germany, people will take that literally and wonder why you are asking how they are and why do you care. It’s considered to be superficial and a waste of time. I actually appreciate this and have had some great conversations. And none of it concerned the weather (okay, some of it did).

5. They are behind the times and ahead of the times. It’s a weird dichotomy. I’ve had several people here tell me that it takes two years for some new technology to get to Germany after it’s everywhere else. Like the whole credit card thing. I can only hope for the day I can use Apple Pay again. And paperwork. There is lots of paper used that could be done electronically. And yet, there are things that are more advanced than the US. I love that I can use a mobile app to plan and pay for public transportation. Want to ride Septa from the Philadelphia airport to center city? Better have cash on hand to pay the conductor, who gives you a huge paper receipt. Can’t do it on the LA Metro either. There’s a Metro in LA? Exactly.

And then there’s banking. There is no such thing as a written check here. Everything is electronic. Banks have self-service transfer machines where you can do electronic money transfers that look like ATMs (note to self: if it doesn’t say “geldomat,” don’t stick your ATM card in it). Of course, people are still walking into banks to use machines when there is online and mobile banking. So not everyone is ahead of the times.

Finally, I’m looking forward to my first experience with a Packstation. Isn’t it fun playing “catch me if you can” with the UPS or FedEx driver when you have a package delivered? Only to end up having to drive a long distance to pick up the package because they never come when you’re home? Here, they have pack stations where you can pick up a package any time of day or night from an automated station. Put in your card, hit a few buttons and a door magically opens with your package inside.


6. Train strikes. There have already been two train strikes since I’ve been in Berlin. Apparently they can happen at any time with little advance notice. Which can really suck if you don’t have a car. And don’t read German newspapers.

7. Holidays. There are lots of bank holidays. There have been three in the month of May alone. Which is great for workers and various festivities. But unlike in the US when a holiday is an excuse for stores to have another sale (don’t get me started on the Black Friday sales that start during Thanksgiving dinner!), everything here is closed. So if you haven’t done any grocery shopping on a Saturday and there is a holiday on Monday, better dig deep for that can of tuna to hold you over until Tuesday. On a positive note, it’s a great time to walk around the city as everything is much quieter.

8. Following rules. Not that I’m a rebel or anything, but everything here is done by the book. There are a lot of laws and a lot of rules. Want to cross the street when the signal is red? You do it at the risk of admonishment. Which is better than in LA, where you risk getting something like a $500 ticket.

9. Everyone speaks English except when they don’t. For the most part, English is very prevalent throughout Berlin. I’ve heard of expats who never bothered to learn any German (which, to me, is so wrong). But there are times when I’ve been in stores and other business establishments where they have only spoken German. Let’s just say I’ve perfected my “deer in the headlights” look. Which is usually followed by the other person’s “never mind” look.

10. Cyclists are crazy. I’ve always known Amsterdam to be a bicycle haven. I didn’t know that Berlin is as well. It’s easy to get used to the bike paths when walking through the city. It’s not easy dodging the bike riders who don’t use them.

Biking in Berlin

11. Bar glass deposits. Going to a large beer hall or an outdoor drinking establishment? When you buy a drink, you usually pay an extra euro per glass that gets returned to you when you return the glass. Sometimes you get a token to bring back with the glass, sometimes not. I didn’t get the concept the first time. So I didn’t get my euro back.

12. Empty flats. Okay, so this one I didn’t need to know when first getting here because I rented a furnished apartment. But, hearing how difficult it is to find rentals in Berlin I’ve been checking listing sites. It seems unfurnished apartments pretty much give you walls. Okay, walls and a bathroom. And a ceiling and a floor. And doors. Alright, enough. The point is, there is no kitchen–no stove, no sink, no refrigerator, and sometimes no cabinets. This is not a concept I like. Do people move all this to their next apartment? I’ll stick to furnished for now.

Have any to add? Let me know below.

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  • Reply Linda May 27, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Great post, Mike. I will say though that we had those recycle machines in NY State. Wegmans had them and you could use you receipt toward your grocery purchase! Looking forward to your next post!

    • Reply Michael May 28, 2015 at 1:24 am

      Thanks Linda! And of course if any supermarket were to be ahead of everyone else it would be Wegmans!

  • Reply Dan May 28, 2015 at 3:52 am

    Awesome post 🙂

    All so true. I’m sure you are already learning to be a better prepared, organized and rule abiding citizen.

    • Reply Michael May 28, 2015 at 3:56 am

      Of course! And thanks, Dan!

  • Reply maxholidayseo August 7, 2015 at 5:18 am

    Nice article, it has actually wide open up learning space for me about Germany. I definitely will move to Germany one day thanks for the tips.

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