Survival Guide for Foreigners
U.S. Citizen Services in Germany
An American's first impression of Germany may be one of, "well, the street signs are in a different language, and the downtowns look like something out of the Epcot Center Global Village, but this is pretty much like home."
In a lot of ways it is, but if you are aware of certain customs you will not only avoid embarrassment, but you will also make a positive impression on your new neighbors and acquaintances.
The people I have met in Germany have been extremely tolerant of my "American-ness". But there are still three main areas in which I continue to annoy my friends and neighbours. Just to let them know that I do know what is socially acceptable, even if I don't actually do it, I'd like to briefly explain about time, telephoning, and recycling in Germany.
Whether the event is social or business, punctuality in Germany is very important. An invitation for dinner at eight usually means anywhere between 7:59 and 8:00, (between 1959 and 2000 in Germany*). If you are planning a party, tell your German friends the time you actually want and expect them to arrive - don't plan to have that 15 minute American buffer zone to put the finishing touches on your hors d'ouveres. There are reports of a strange "Akademisches Viertel" (Academic Quarter-hour) clause which gets you off the hook if you are less than 15 minutes late. This is not a foolproof excuse and does not apply to dinner invitations.
If you have a meeting or are invited to a social function, and you find yourself running late, do call to announce your late arrival (preferably before the time you were expected).
*Remember that in Germany, time is told on the twenty four hour scale, not the twelve hour one: the rule is to subtract 12 from any number over twelve. So 17:00 becomes 5 pm and 2:00 remains 2 am. Sometimes when speaking, Germans will use the 12 hour calendar. Usually, this does not cause confusion. Very few people in Germany eat dinner at 8 in the morning.
In Germany, even local calls are charged. By using call-by-call numbers you can save on local and long-distance calls. Germans appreciate knowing if they have reached the correct number RIGHT AWAY. Simply answering the phone with "hello" will most likely annoy your callers. The good news is that Germans don't see the phone as a toy or a marketing tool, so it is unlikely that you will receive crank calls or phone solicitations. It is expected that you answer your phone with your last name, ("Smith."), and identify yourself when you call ("Hier ist Smith"). If you are at someone else's house and you answer the phone, the correct procedure is to identify yourself first, followed by the name of your host, ("Smith bei Schmidt").
The German household garbage recycling system is most impressive. A sure-fire way to annoy your new neighbors is to blatantly disregard the recycling rules. Recycling policies and regulations vary slightly from town to town. Brochures are available from your local authority explaining the recycling rules in your town. In general, you can go by the following:
- Most plastic wrappings and containers have a "Grüne Punkt" - kind of like a little green Ying and Yang. These items belong in the yellow trash can ("Gelbe Tonne").
- Paper and cardboard go in the blue trash can (Blaue Tonne or "Papiermüll") or in special paper recycling containers in your neighbourhood.
- Glass goes in a specially marked glass trash cans or in special glass recycling containers in your neighborhood (only during working hours, please!). Sometimes bottles are also separated by color, e.g. green bottles = "Grünglas" and white bottles ="Weissglas"
- Old clothes and shoes are picked up at your curb by various charity organizations on a regular basis (they will announce a few days before). Alternatively, there are containers for old clothes and shoes set up by commercial companies around the city.
- Compostable kitchen waste goes in the (green or brown) Bio-container (Biotonne).
- Garden cuttings go in the Bio-container or into a special compost container (Kompost-Container) to be found somewhere in your area.
- Old batteries are collected in special boxes in many stores. All stores selling batteries must acccept used batteries!
- Broken televisions, old refrigerators, old furniture, ironing boards, etc. are picked up in some cities 3-4 times during the year at heavy trash pickup "Sperrmüll" day. Alternatively, cities set up special recycling grounds where citizens can deliver things they need to get rid of ("Recyclinghof"). Fees will be charged for some items. Locations can be found out from your local authorities or the white pages. Sometimes you can also arrange with the city to pick up heavy things like televisions and refrigerators at a certain date.
- There is even a special Christmas tree pickup day "Abholung der Weihnachtsbäume". Dates will be announced in the newspapers, usually early or mid-January.
- If you have anything left, put it in the dark grey trash can for unrecycable trash "Restmüll" (no hot ashes, please!).
Alles klar? Now, where do you put a used tea bag?