Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Top 5 “so I live here now” moments

Recently I’ve been exchanging emails with a new friend from the States who’s getting ready to hop the pond to come live in Germany. Chatting with her has got me reflecting on all of the prep work that goes into such a big move and on the adjustment process that starts when the plane touches down.

While I have to say that I’ve not really experienced a huge cultural shock (having moved from one globalized western country to another), there are a few differences…some for better, some that make me want to do this:

1. Check your voltage before you buy it or move it overseas. Sounds obvious enough, but when Thomas and I were inventorying our electronic treasures, we were operating under the false assumption that high-ticket items would be flexible enough for U.S. or German voltage. Wrong. The $14 hairdryer proved smarter than the $500 vacuum.  

2. So where do I hang my clothes? Germans are known for their efficiency – a stereotype that doesn’t seem to extend to interior architectural design. In the U.S. you’d be hard-pressed to find an apartment without built-in closets. But in Germany, it’s typically BYOK – bring your own Kleiderschrank (the German word for a wardrobe or otherwise external closet).

Then again, there is some benefit to buying your own – you can add all sorts of cool organizational features like IKEA’s PAX system. No, I don’t get paid for that reference. But, yes, I use PAX and love it!  

Part of my IKEA closet with PAX organizers
3. Need a light…or 10? And while we’re on the where’s the…?? topic, if you’re renting (or buying) a German apartment for the first time, you might want to stock up on some of these:

Lovely, isn't it?

Otherwise, you’ll probably find yourself sitting in the dark, trying to play [insert the latest boring solo game of your choice here] for awhile…which could lead to rumors that you’re in some vampire movie-inspired cult or just woefully unprepared. Or maybe both.

Why the lack of innate lighting? Germans tend to see lighting as a form of creative expression. In the U.S. most apartments come with standard, bottom of the line ceiling lamps that you only notice when a bulb burns out. Germans, on the other hand, prefer selecting their own deckenleuchten to compliment their décor. Here are a few examples of just how creative they can get.

Overall, not a bad idea, but a bit inconvenient if you’re shy a few dangling light bulbs in the first few weeks. But then again, it makes sitting in a lit room feel luxurious. 

4. Buying groceries. Boring sub-head, I know. But it’s better than my first idea: “buying items of food to feed your face.” Yeah, let’s just get on with it.

Remember to bring your own bags, cash and a translator/pocket dictionary (if you’re not already super-fluent in German). Not for communicating with the cashier, but to translate ingredients on packages. Otherwise, your coconut curry might end up being seasoned with minced horseradish instead of minced ginger.

While many larger grocery store accept EC cards (similar to debit cards in the U.S), carrying cash can help prevent awkward moments at the check-out…not that I would know anything about that, of course.

Bringing your own bags to the grocery store is a trend that’s starting to catch on in many U.S. cities. But in Germany, if you don’t bring your own, be prepared to fork over a few Euros for plastic ones at the check-out. But why not help Mother Earth – and your pocketbook out a little and bring your own reusable ones. Here’s a link to one of my favorite brands (which you can easily clip to your purse).

5. The quiet game. No, it’s not like the movie the Crying Game. Wow, where did that reference come from? Yikes. Sorry about that...

It’s more like back in elementary school where I had a potentially hung-over teacher say she’d reward the quietest student with a piece of candy at the end of class. Only with German Ruhezeit (literally “quiet time”) no one will give you candy for your adherence. Unfortunately.

I’ve blogged about Ruhezeit once or twice before, but it’s a pretty important rule that’s worth mentioning again. During this time, you’re not allowed to make noises that would disturb your neighbors. The quiet hours vary depending on the apartment building, but it’s generally every evening/night through early morning. It also applies to Sundays (all day) and to lunch time (daily).

Ruhezeit is actually a nice concept for people who don’t want every evening of their lives filled with incessant hammering, drilling or loud music. But it can be a little challenging to work around when you’ve just moved in and need to drill into the ceiling to install those 10 lamps as mentioned above.

Of course, I’ve only been here for two months, so this is in no way an exhaustive list. It’s just what I’ve experienced so far. What differences have you found between your home country and where you live now?


  1. We had bare bulbs in our first apartment the entire 4 years we lived there because they were about 30 feet high. Thankfully they never burned out :)

    Another big one, even bigger in my mind than no closets (which is definitely a good reason to purge the stuff you don't wear before you move over) is NO KITCHEN! That's a big upfront cost that you have to keep in mind. Very few apartments can be rented with a kitchen and IKEA will no doubt be your best friend. BTW, never try to put together an IKEA kitchen yourself...we're done it and consider ourselves IKEA pros...but the kitchen building sucks. Not to mention I would not want to be held responsible for correctly hanging the cabinets in the wall :)

  2. @Tiffany - Yes, the kitchen! We were super lucky to find an apt that came with a brand new one, whew! But yeah, having to buy and install your own kitchen in place you're just renting really sucks. But as Thomas likes to point out, Germans don't move as much as Americans and could end up renting the same place for the rest of their lives. So I guess from the standpoint of wanting a customized home, it makes sense. But still, if I have to buy a full kitchen, I want to own the place, haha.

  3. Before we moved into our apartment years ago in Karlsruhe, we were suspicious when we were asked if we wanted to buy the kitchen cabinets from the previous renter. When we got there, it was much worse than feared - there was absolutely NOTHING in the kitchen, but some pipes coming out of the wall and electric wires hanging from the ceiling - no, we did not even get a lightbulb! So, we had to order a whole kitchen, which came a month later. In the meantime, it was a lot of eating out and washing glasses in the tub (which I do not recommend, because they shatter if they fall on the ceramic bottom!). Luckily we had someone to build our kitchen, however, for some reason we had to buy the sink faucet separately and it turned out to be the wrong kind. The builder refused to come back and put in the right one once we had acquired it, and calling businesses cold out of the yellow pages was not a successful nor friendly experience. Finally, we mentioned the problem to our landlord and he had his own handyman come by to install the faucet AND put in a ceiling lamp for us. We were definitely lucky to have a competent and friendly landlord!

  4. Well, since we're sharing stories... ;)

    ...B and I moved into our flat with absolutely nowt in it as well - well, we had a bathroom and with us brought a mattress and an outside lamp with a very long cable that we had to carry from room to room... and when B tried putting lightbulbs in, two of the ceilings actually started to fall in: a couple of the electrical points still don't work at all.

    I did the washing up in the bathroom basin every day for WEEKS until we got our kitchen, which I then very proudly built almost entirely by myself having got totally overexcited discovering power tools, but we got the Ikea chap to come in and fit them to the walls, we wouldn't have known where to start with that!

    We didn't get a washing machine for six months, either, which nearly killed me; and I got very bored of trying to cook on a portable electric oven with two hobs on top that only worked when the oven was switched off. Funny now of course... less so at the time! Glad to hear I'm not the only one who was doing this sort of thing!

  5. So glad to have found your you, I married a German guy, we lived for the last two years in Florida, and six months ago made the move to Germany. I have had a great time reading through your blog because I can relate to a lot of it....especially the problems with shopping for food and lack of closet space.:) Best of luck on your journey!

  6. @Yozhuk and @Frau Dietz - Wow, I feel very lucky we moved into a kitchen-included apartment, especially after hearing about your experiences! It also took us a little time to get a washer (but only about a month, which already felt like an eternity!). But at least we could cart our laundry to my in-laws' place on our bi-weekly trips. Sort of felt like being in college again, haha.

    @americanincologne - Thank you! :) And good luck to you as well!