What it’s like, living in Germany, a year and half on

Sixteen months we’ve lived here, nearly a year and a half. We’ve acclimatised in some ways, and are still figuring it out in others. I meant to write an update on our one-year anniversary, but it didn’t feel right yet.

I’ll answer some of the questions I get a lot… and you can add any others in the comments below.

The gorgeous Burg Hohenzollern
The gorgeous Burg Hohenzollern

So, are you fluent now?

Ha, no. I can order food, sort out problems with a delivery person, ask questions in a shop, have a short conversation with my neighbours, and give directions. Conversations longer than ten minutes means I am struggling, and I still flounder around trying to respond. I understand much more than I can respond to right now, which is the normal progression of learning another language. Is it hard? No, not really. It takes constant practice and work, and a willingness to learn. There are many things about German that are similar to English. Obviously being in Germany makes it much easier, because I’m hearing and using it all the time.

Probably the biggest difference now, to say, a year ago, is my accent is better and people are willing to speak to me longer in German. I’m in no way coming across as a local, but I think I sound more competent.

My son, on the other hand, is much more fluent. Just the other week he ran up to some kids in a museum play area and spent 20 minutes playing in German. His German reading is great, possibly ahead of his English reading. He has some good friends who don’t speak much English at all, which is a real step forward as previously his friends were all English native speakers. Doing his homework with him has been like another German class for me, as he’s working on a lot of grammar things I haven’t learned yet in my classes. Tellingly, he only knows the names for nouns and verbs in German right now. My favourite things are the words he only says in German: ‘mittel’ for middle, ‘milch’ for milk. Even in the middle of English sentences.

The private language classes that were part of our relocation package from my husband’s company are ending soon, and I’ll be starting some online courses on my own.

Chicken hanging out with some eggs at the weekly market in Mainz.
Chicken hanging out with some eggs at the weekly market in Mainz.

And do you like the food now?

The one thing I mentioned at the six month mark that was not my favourite was the food here. The thing with living in a smaller town is the lack of dining out options. Heidelberg is lovely in so many ways, but the restaurant scene is not all that diverse. There are a few nice traditional German places with Flammkuchen, Schnitzel, and Käsespätzle, a couple decent places to get a burger, some fancier places for a celebratory meal – but outside that, well, it’s not great. That’s been good financially, as it means we’re not eating out constantly, but sometimes I want to have takeout that isn’t pizza.

Finding diverse ingredients is a bit of challenge too. Your average German grocery store in our town is great for cheese, sliced meats, and every kind of preserved vegetable in a jar. Kale? No. Broccolini? No. Fresh coriander? Sometimes. Salsa? One kind. I’m not trying to recreate the cuisine of the old country, but it was a struggle initially recalibrating my usual go-to recipes when any kind of Mexican ingredient requires special ordering online, and all the cuts of meat are not only called something different, but are not the same cuts at all. I do still find it challenging that you can’t buy a package of chicken thighs (quarters only!). Obviously moving from a coastal city to somewhere practically smack in the middle of mainland Europe is a bit of an adjustment too, as I was used to eating much more seafood and fish than I do now.

The cutest shop in Heidelberg – also where I get more unusual spices.
The cutest shop in Heidelberg – also where I get more unusual spices.

So I subscribed to a bunch of German recipe sites, bought food magazines, and learned to make some more local recipes. Pork is everything in this region, which is good because we all like it. We’re right in the middle of lots of farms here, so we can buy straight from them farmers through their shops or their excellent vending machines. Compared to Canada, the grocery prices here are incredibly low. I am buying locally, and in some cases bio (organic) as well, and it’s a third less than I would have paid in Vancouver.

My love for German cakes is never ending, of course. I have always loved a good cream-based cake, and that’s a popular format here. Your average German cake tastes about half as sweet as any North American equivalent, and it is so perfect. I feel like I’m tasting the cream and fruit instead just SUGAR.

Our amazing neighbourhood in Heidelberg
Our amazing neighbourhood in Heidelberg

Have you made friends?

Ah, this is a tough one. I have a few good friends, mostly other parents from my son’s bilingual school and a friend of a friend. But I am pretty lonely. I knew this was coming – when we moved to London it took a few years before we found our people. But knowing it conceptually and dealing with the reality is two different wurst entirely. I am grateful for the community of English-speaking German people on Twitter who are always around for a good chat. This is one of the reasons I am so keen to get my German up to speed, I really want to be able to meet people here and take classes and all that. As we’re here long term, the expat community are not really my speed. They are much more rooted in their home country and talk a lot about when they go back ‘home’, and don’t seem to settle down here much. It’s understandable, they are often only here for two or three years. But we’re just not on the same page at all.

Our neighbours have made a big difference too. We have been so incredibly lucky in our housing situation. Not only did we land in a spectacular neighbourhood just a short walk from the river and one of the best playgrounds in the city, but our flat is huge and super affordable. This did not guarantee good neighbours, and I have heard some horror stories – from both Germans and non-Germans. Both our upstairs and downstairs neighbours are lovely older folks who routinely invite us over for a glass of wine or tea, and they are the sweetest. I genuinely love chatting with them, even if it stretches my German skills to the limit.

I know I will get there and make friends eventually, I just have to hang in there and keep working on my language skills.

Looks like France, but nope - it's southern Germany.
Looks like France, but nope – it’s southern Germany.

Do you like Germany?

This is a hard one, because the longer I live here the more layers I find to this country. From the outside looking in, we tend to think things or foods or people are ‘German’, but in reality, this is a very fractured and very young nation. The regions have identities that are so strong, internally they can override national identity easily. Bavaria, for instance, was a kingdom unto itself for hundreds of years before there was a Germany, and they have their own Bavarian language, which is technically a German dialect but… yeah. This is not even taking into account the more recent split of West and East Germany, which also carries with it massive differences in culture and behaviour. So, do I like Germany? Yes, I really do, but I only know my little south-western corner of it, living in a mid-sized university town. I don’t live in the Bavarian heartland of Munich, nor am I up north in complicated and cool Berlin. It’s a massive country with so many fascinating distinct identities within it, I feel saying something like ‘I don’t care for German food’ is doing an incredible disservice to this place. We are starting to explore further and further afield here, and we’re enjoying it so much.

There are little things I love, like the way loads of people bring beautiful wicker baskets to do their shopping in – not just at the weekly markets but also in the grocery store, the corners of farmers’ fields dedicated to pick your own flowers, the prevalence of farm-side vending machines for everything from fruit and vegetables to jam and milk, and the fact that I see 75-year-olds cycling around with their newspaper clamped on their rear rack, a beret on their head, and a pipe in their mouth. Literally, there’s a guy in the neighbourhood who does this.

Tell me, what do you want to know about living here?

PS – I wrote about how we’ve changed since moving to Germany, and if you’re moving abroad, there are a few things you can do to hold on to your sanity

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14 thoughts on “What it’s like, living in Germany, a year and half on”

  1. That spice shop <3 OK, when I studied in Heidelberg is was usually in there for the chocolate but everything just looks so lovely in there 😀

  2. Such a great post! Love the answer to the last question in particular. The layers are so, so true. I’ve heard people say that Germany can be a bit boring, a bit predictable, but it seems like there is always another layer to peel off. Always something new to see, a new tradition to encounter, another odd working law to take into account. Keeps things interesting! 🙂

  3. Hi! There’s a little shop in Tübingen called Cosita Bonita – https://www.cositabonita.de/ They’re currently working to establish an online shop, according to their website. It’s right in the middle of the Tübingen Altstadt and sells Mexican food stuffs, art etc. We happened across it when we visited my cousin there in January. We got blue corn meal from them, because there’s no way you can buy a decent tortilla in a store, not even here in Cologne. My wife is American and misses authentic Mexican food SO MUCH.

  4. For me as a German it’s a bit funny to read about Heidelberg as a “smaller town”… It’s the 50th biggest city in Germany with a population of 160.000, in a region with a population density that is probably one of the highest in all of Europe, and with many cities quite nearby like Mannheim (a tram ride!), Darmstadt, even Frankfurt or Stuttgart. Granted, this doesn’t help much with food delivery services, but for a fun night out, a little bit of travelling is maybe required to avoid the two curses of Heidelberg (students and tourist groups).

    1. Well, I suppose it’s all relative size-wise… my last two homes were in Vancouver and London, so it feels quite small to me!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing Erin! You write so well. Cheers from this PNW’er Erin living in Denmark. 4 years on here and so much of this rings true for me too. There are some differences though of course. Food and housing MUCH more expensive than I’m used to, but variety better than your Heidelberg it sounds like as we’re in a capital city. Language has been a battle as Danes speak excellent English and flip over quite quickly. But like you – I understood way more than I can respond back. Pronounciation is very challenging for me and has to be perfect before being tolerated I feel sometimes. The friends thing definitely more difficult, but does happen. Cheers to more Germany exploring!

    1. Thank you Erin! I’ve heard Danish is challenging in the pronunciation department. I should really write an update on this post now…!

  6. Heidelberg very beautiful city, (dorf ) last year I visited with my parents …was the most beautiful city I have visited in all over the World …N my dream is to visit one more n spent a night out in Heidelberg..
    Super super super

  7. Hey, I’m just over 1.5 years now in East Germany, and I couldn’t agree more with you about the different layers. Having the 30 year anniversary of the Mauerfall and the peaceful revolution (October 9 – and this one it seems most people in the West aren’t even aware of) has been such an interesting learning opportunity!
    I just had a Geburtstagfeier on the weekend with about half Germans and half Internationals (Brazil, Venezuela, Lithuania, Italy, and my husband and I from Canada) and it was kinda cool because everyone was switching between English and German conversations.
    Seeing as your post is nearly 2 years ago, I’d love to read another update on adaption and such.

  8. Howdy Erin. I’m not so far away, just in the Pfalz. When I want some “big city” foods (lol), I hop on over to Mannheim for some tasty things and more cuisine choices, since German food does not excite me. For example, Bustan, a Persian restaurant between the HBF and Wasserturm, is good, and there’s a decent Afghani restaurant, too.

    I’ve really started to learn how to to cook for myself and consider myself lucky that I have friends and acquaintances who are from other countries and have shown me their cuisines. Now I totally get the statement about wanting to eat at home because it’s better than many restaurants! Also, especially for some Mexican or TexMex dishes, I’ve learned how to create my own spice mixes. A lot of Asian markets can be helpful for that. I have an Indian friend who was thrilled about the Mexican restaurant we visited because some of the spices are used in both cuisines (though I will say that Kaiserslautern area “Mexican” restaurants need to STOP putting curry powder in their food!).

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