I wanted to try something a little different today. My son, Scott Finlay, is a software developer who moved from the U.S. to Germany almost a year ago. I asked him if he would talk with me about his adventures, and he said he would.

Hi, Scott! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your decision to move to Germany?

My girlfriend is German (living in Germany) and was still finishing her last year of medical school.

What was the most difficult part of making the move? Is there anything you would do differently now that you’ve been through it all?

Well there’s the same problems you probably get from any long-distance move: a lot of contracts to cancel, new contracts to start, addresses to update, expenses, planning, etc. I’m not sure there’s really so much that I could have done to make it easier.

One major inconvenience though was getting money from my bank accounts to Germany since I didn’t yet have a German account, and the US bank accounts don’t like to do remote transfers. I had to go to the bank and get some paperwork and bring it with me to Germany and once I had my account, I filled out the papers, then mailed it back to the US, then they mailed me a confirmation code, and then I had to call them and provide the code.

You’ve noticed a lot of cultural differences between Germany and the U.S. Can you tell us about some of them?

There aren’t very many major differences, but there’s a lot of little things. I’m still somewhat in the ‘culture-shock’ phase, so most of the differences I point out are more on the negative side. I’ll just list a few:

– No air conditioners. And because of that there’s the term “hitzefrei” which is where people (usually school children) get to go home early due to heat.
– I see a lot more drinking in public. Young people also seem to smoke more. The drinking age here is 16, too, so you see a lot of drunken teenagers.
– People really like ice cream. In the summer there’s an “ice dealer” at nearly every corner and they sell home-made Italian-style ice cream with lots of different flavors (and sometimes weird, novelty stuff like mustard or pizza flavor).
– People tend to be less modest about nudity and they refer to Americans as being ‘prude’.
– In Bavaria people are very Catholic, so there are a lot of Catholic traditions. For example, the church sends kids every winter to write an equation in chalk over people’s doorways which should protect them for the next year. There’s also a lot of Christian holidays here which we don’t have (or don’t really celebrate at least) in the US.
– People are kind of rude. Waiters and waitresses and people working in stores and customer service people tend to be not very polite and they don’t really try to ensure that the customer is happy and satisfied. But people here often say they don’t like the customer service in the US because they say it seems fake.
– Things are really expensive, especially eating out. As a simple example, something at McDonalds in the US that would be about $5 would be here about 6 Euros (and a Euro is about $1.25). Yet people don’t generally earn more here. A drink typically costs about 3 Euros and there’s no free refills at restaurants (except sometimes at places like Ikea or Subway).
– Stores often charge money (or put out a donation plate expecting you to pay) to use the bathroom.
– I was told to expect the workplace to be much more strict and formal than in the US, but that wasn’t the case for me. It was actually less formal than where I worked in America. Maybe it is more formal here, but not in engineering fields it seems.
– Toilets are usually inside the wall and the bowl sticks out and they have a big button to flush them. And for some reason they tend to put the bathroom light switch outside of the bathroom in houses and apartments.
– They make buildings out of stone/concrete instead of wood usually.
– There’s a lot more effort to save energy and to recycle. For example, it seems in the hallways of most buildings the lights turn off automatically after a couple of minutes. And they have something called “Pfand” which is an extra 15-25 cents you have to pay when you buy carbonated drinks and then you have to bring the bottle back to the store to get that money back (to force you to recycle it instead of just throwing it away).

Have you had any humorous experiences or misunderstandings in Germany?

Nothing that I can think of off the top of my head.

Do you have any language barriers? Can you work in Germany with limited knowledge of the language?

I haven’t really had much problem with that so far. Pretty much everyone under about 35 here speaks English (and likes the opportunity to practice their English). Unfortunately, the flip-side to that is that it makes it pretty hard for me to practice my German because, for example, when I go to a restaurant and order in German (and correctly, too, according to my girlfriend), they often notice my accent and respond in English.

You told me about a demonstration near your apartment building that involved police. Can you tell us about it? Was it scary?

There was a demonstration/parade thing from the NDP (National Democratic Party) which is the modern day Nazi party. We saw that there were tons of police cars and officers just down the street from our apartment so we went to see what it was and they told us the NDP demonstration was coming through there and they had blocked off the entire street and forced everyone there to move their cars (which led to parking tickets for a lot of unlucky people who may not have known about it ahead of time).

When we heard what it was we went back to the apartment building and pulled some pieces of cardboard out of the dumpster and wrote some things like “Pro Tolerance” and “Anti Nazi” and then went back over to the blocked off street and held up our signs as they came by. It was a pretty pathetic demonstration, though, because there were only about 15-20 NDP people and about 40-50 cops (many of whom looked very glad to see us there with our signs).

One thing that was pretty dumb about it was that we saw a man with his little kid who were forced to stand and wait for the parade to clear by before they were allowed to go back to their home which was along the street that was blocked off.

The driving laws are quite different from the U.S. from what I hear. Have you seen many accidents on the autobahns due to the high speeds?

I haven’t really noticed many accidents, but the drivers are pretty crazy in the Munich area. The streets within the city are extremely narrow and there’s always cars parked on both sides of the road, yet the people drive really fast. And if you slow down for any reason such as to park or to wait for a person crossing the street the drivers get mad and start honking.

On the autobahn people drive often more than 200 kph (125 mph). And sometimes I’ll even see a motorcycle speed past us when we’re going at that speed.

You spent Christmas at the Bodensee near the Austrian and Switzerland borders. What did you do there? Were the holiday traditions different?

We visited a lot of little villages and visited Schloß Neuschwanstein. The holiday traditions weren’t so different, but apparently it’s tradition on Christmas and New Years to dress up very formally. Also, in the US we generally celebrate on the 25th and call that Christmas Day, but in Germany the main holiday is the night of the 24th. Also, there’s a kind of mushroom that’s red with white spots and that’s apparently a Christmas decoration.

The fireworks on New Years Eve were pretty spectacular, too. Even just in this tiny village of Isny there was about 30 minutes straight of fireworks. When we got back to Munich there was trash everywhere (used fireworks and streamers and confetti).

You’ve toured some castles in Germany. Do you have a favorite? Did anything unusual happen on any of your tours?

We saw a lot of what I refer to as the “Schloßy” castles (because a Schloß is a more luxurious, peacetime castle), and a few “Burgy” castles (because a Burg is a more barren, wartime castle). I personally find the Burgy ones much more interesting. They’re generally older and have a lot of interesting history with them. One interesting detail I noticed in the older castles is that the doorways are all very short because people used to be much shorter in medieval times.

My favorite castle is the Burg Kufstein in Austria. It’s a pretty cool looking castle, and we always passed it on the way to Innsbruck and decided to stop and take a look. It’s up on a small cliff in the middle of the city and the castle is integrated into the rock. In the beginning we took the elevator up to the castle and looked at the main towers which have a lot of historical information about the castle which was pretty interesting, but not really spectacular. Then, since it was a really nice sunny day we decided to walk back down instead of taking the elevator and we discovered that there was a ton of stuff still to see in the castle. There was a giant well that went so far down that you could barely see the bottom even though it was lit, and there was a cool network of underground tunnels which were so old that there were cave formations on them and all sorts of moss and lichen. There were also some nice gardens in the castle with apple trees and flowers.

What is the public transportation like in Germany?

They have a really nice network of public transportation, but in my experience the buses come at totally random times. The subways and trams are pretty reliable, though. I was kind of surprised, though, to find that the public transportation costs more than it did for me in the US. I had assumed it would be cheaper since the government wants people to drive less. The train network is pretty nice, too, but it actually costs more to take a train a somewhat long-distance than an airplane.

Have you had a chance to visit any other countries since you’ve been there?

Only German-speaking places so far, which aren’t so different from each other. I’ve been to Salzburg and Innsbruck, Austria along with a few smaller cities between Munich and Innsbruck. I’ve seen a couple of small Swiss cities near the border. I visited Liechtenstein for a couple of hours (it’s a pretty tiny country; the whole country has fewer people than the university I attended). I also went to a couple of cities in Südtirol (South Tirol) which is in the northern part of Italy (but it’s called South Tirol and people mostly speak German because it used to be part of Austria in the state of Tirol).

Thanks, Scott!