"I speak no Germany" – the art of surviving in a foreign country

  • 2020-09-25
  • Guest contribution by alumna Justyna Michniuk
  • Comment
Berlin integration

© Getty Images/franz12

Around 21.2 million people in 2019 and thus 26 percent of the population in Germany had a migration background. Many of them arrived without any German language skills. Although that is not the only difficulty to be overcome. German customs and mentality can also be a challenge to those newly arrived in their adopted country. Even though I left neighbouring Poland to come to Germany, and had visited the country many times before, my start here was not easy.

Visits to authorities and institutions are necessary when starting your life in another country. The resident's registration office, immigration office, etc. are places where your is put to the test. One thing you need to know: there is a major difference between German as a foreign language and German in everyday use. On top of that there is the administrative language... instead of asking for instance where and when I "graduated from high school", I was asked about "achieving my higher education entrance qualification". And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Germany is the world champion in bureaucracy

Germany is a country in which you need a form for everything, even if it's to obtain permission for a campfire on your own property. You may face a heavy fine if you ignore authorisation requirements. Otherwise, depending on the federal state, a lovely evening with sausages cooked over an open fire could cost up to 5000 euros.

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." (Benjamin Franklin)

The world of taxes also holds many secrets. Who would have thought that a tax on sparkling wine still exists in Germany today? It was introduced by Wilhelm II in 1902 to finance the imperial navy. That of course no longer exists, but the tax remains in place in Germany to this day – even if most people aren't aware of it. Cat lovers are lucky: there is no cat tax in Germany, whereas dog owners often have to pay dog tax of over 100 euros per year.

German Business-Etiquette

German Business-Etiquette
German Business-Etiquette ©

The mysteries of job hunting

What also really surprised me in Germany are the offers you frequently receive from the . When I was looking for a job, I received the strange suggestion of working for a company that required Turkish language skills. I could just about say Hello and Thank you after a holiday in Turkey. But I applied anyway. You have to prove you're doing everything you can to no longer be unemployed. Of course I didn't get the job – and I still can't speak any Turkish.

Flip-flops in the office?

I am still sometimes surprised by the and when going out in Germany. Where I come from, it would not be permissible to wear flip-flops in the office and when you meet in the pub in the evening the women are always dressed as if for a wedding and most of the men wear a smart shirt and definitely long trousers. Here I've seen men sitting in bars wearing comical t-shirts and Bermuda shorts. They would probably not be admitted to many clubs in Poland. 

There does have to be a little bit of fun

Germans are rather more reserved than Eastern Europeans. We once met with some Polish friends in our favourite pub; we were wearing funny hats and were talking loudly as usual. The waitress immediately asked if we were celebrating a stag party. When we said no, she was just as surprised as a couple of other guests who had overheard.

By marking "guest article", we indicate that the author is not a member of our editorial team. Guest articles are usually written by alumni and alumnae from our community and may contain personal opinions. These do not always have to correspond with the opinion of the editorial team.

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