Life in the fast lane, or How do I survive in Germany?

Originally from the United States, Jerry has been living in Germany for more than thirty years now. Here he shares many of his expat experiences there: from how he came to be living in Germany in the first place, his family life, the cost of living there, and his thoughts on local behaviors and attitudes.

Jerry A. Sumner

-Where were you born?

I was born in the "World" (Spokane Washington), as some American expatriates call the United States.

In which country and city are you living now?

I live in Holzheim/Pohlheim (Hessen) Germany. Which is approx. 45 km north of Frankfurt am Main.

-Are you living alone or with your family?

I and my wife (German) of 38 years; the 3 children and 3 grandchildren have long moved out and make a living on their own.
-How long have you been living in Germany?

I arrived in Germany the early morning of the 28th of November 1971 as a young soldier of the US Army. I returned in 1974 to the States, and returned to Germany in 1978 to stay. Been here since.

-What is your age?

I am now 58 years of age.

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Germany?

We decided to return to Germany after our first child was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming (1974) and two years later our first daughter was born in Denver, Colorado (1976). We returned (and our second daughter was born in 1978) blue-eyed and wet behind the ears, but madly in love and willing to do just about anything legal to make it work. There were other thoughts in the background, the educational system, the health system, the social security system just to mention a few. Job security, and a working public transportation system were also mediating factors.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?

My wife being a "local national" and we being wed made everything work like a piece of cake. The Residence Permit (Aufenhaltserlaubnis) was issued first for 5 years, then extended 5 years twice and finally it was issued (Unbefristet) which means it won't expire. The work permit was applied for and issued. It is also (Unbefristet).

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

In the "world" it was difficult, but once back in Germany I was first covered by my wife and then I was covered as I was employed.

-How do you make your living in Germany? Do you have any type of income generated? 

I started off with employment here in Germany as a fork-lift driver, warehouse worker, unskilled laborer in other words. Germany is a country that has highly skilled employees for the most part. I asked one day at the employment office (Arbeitsamt) for possible vocational training schools in any field. I had to take aptitude tests and I was then sent to a vocational school to learn electronics. It was a two-year full-time school and I really had problems with German, but some of the other students carried me through and helped me pass the school and the licensing tests (without them it would have been a no go). 

I was suddenly a "skilled laborer" (Nachrichtengrätemechaniker & Informationselektroniker) 2 fachbriefe (licenses), and all sorts of job opportunities opened up. I chose a Europe-wide Canon dealership working on photo copiers, faxes and the likes. I switched to computers and slowly worked my way into server management, took tests and got licensed in Windows Servers 2003. The German Stock Market (deutsche Börse AG) took me in for 9 years and I really enjoyed the work and picked up a lot of experience, but as one gets older in Germany some of the German employment  problems pop up. What to do with all the old folks is one such problem.

To shorten the story I do make good money and what else can one say? This I can now add, work for Datagroup Köln / Mainz for the Lufthansa Technik AG at the Frankfurt Airport as an Systems Engineer / in Project Management, with the nice titles of MCITP Enterprise Administrator Windows Server 2008R2 and MCITP Enterprise Administrator for Windows Exchange Server 2010, and MCITP Enterprise Administrator for the SharePoint Server 2010 also have a few other certifications, but enough bragging for now.

Not willing to forget my better half, Esther my wife, is a secretary at the University of Giessen (Justus Liebig University) and earns good money also.

-Do you speak German and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on whether it's important to observe the local customs.

I am fluent in reading, writing and speaking German. It is very important to lean the local language, and customs. As one important Philosopher stated (don't know who it was) "when in Rome, do as the Romans do". The Germans are always polite, but very nerving, as they pick up a "foreigner" very quickly out of a crowd and use a very nasty word to label you with (Auslander). Every time and everywhere one is labeled right off the bat, when you hear the question, "where are you from", they have you pegged already. It is not meant nastily, but it is all the same, as they seem to want to show you that you do not belong.

The Germans can be rude, not in speaking but action. They don't respect a "sphere" or zone around one, the distance one is used to in the "World" as to how close one gets to a person. They will almost run you over and very few say excuse me. They are not ill mannered, it is just so. Germans do certain things just because it is so, it has always been so and will be in the future.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?

Home is were one lays his or her hat (Joe Cocker). I am at home, my three children and three grandchild, all are here in Germany, why stand up in the boat?

-Do you have other plans for the future? 

We have all sorts of plans, put why worry about tomorrow when today has it's own problems.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it? 

We bought many many moons ago, the house (fachwerk) half timber, was built between 1618 and 1648 which was during the 30 years war, we have a Roman wall built in the 12th century right across the street from us. The house and hof cost around 65,000 DM at the time (1976), we have a closed hof, cow stalls, horse stalls, pig stalls, chicken pen and a "mist pit" (manure pit) plus the 3 story barn.

It is quiet here and we have no prying eyes because the hof is closed. During a complete kitchen renovation we discovered a well and it is 1 meter in diameter and 6 meters deep, it was built by the Romans and they used no cement, just perfectly cut basalt stone stacked ever so neatly. Yes we get excellent quality water and we also use the water for the toilets and wash machine, it does save money.

-What is the cost of living in Germany?

Germany is not any more expensive than the "World", if one has a job and knows how to handle a pocket book, then one should not have all that much of a problem making ends meet, plus a little more. Germans are great savers, and watch what they purchase, they don't go into debt all to easily.

-What do you think about the Germans?

The locals, are the locals, rude, impolite, but very lovable. One does not "greet one another" on the street or in any place else for that matter, no good day, or how's it going, or excuse me after one gets rumpled. They just never learned it.

Germans are very closed up to outsiders, but very honest. I have been invited by Americans in the States to drop by the next time one came through, I have twice, just to be sure about this, but the people just didn't remember me or my wife and we were turned away. The difference is this, a German will not make such a statement unless they mean it. When you take them up on it the doors are opened wide and they are really happy that you did not forget them! So, as an American or any other national, do what one says one will do, honour that which one lays out, or again, as one important Philosopher stated (don't know who it was) "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"!

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Germany?

The positive aspect of living in Germany as another national is that one is an ambassador from the country one comes from, they watch and listen, so be polite, quiet, and gentle and you should have no problems with the wild ones (Germans).

The negative aspects have really disappeared over the last 10 years or so, I can now poison myself at Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, and Subway's plus I can purchase some "American" foods, original also, although expensive sometimes, and steaks, Porterhouse, T-Bone, and Rib Eyes have really gotten better over the years.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Germany?

If you are new to the country, get out and rub elbows with the natives, learn food and culture, and please be ready for the culture shock of your life, but it will go away and after the dust settles, enjoy the Gastwirtschaft of the German Nation, they have much to be proud of, help them and enjoy!

Pick up a good book called "Culture Shock!: Germany (Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs & Etiquette)." It is written by an Englishman (Richard Lord) and is really interesting to read as one gets to know how the Germans tick on certain aspects of life, and with a good portion of English humor while you read this book. Google or Bing it, get it and learn and enjoy!

Hate to make a plug for them but here goes: Ryanair offers cheap flights in Europe. Choose from over 145 European destinations, once one arrives in another foreign country there are all sorts of possibilities to find a place to rest ones head and to eat!

As an American I do take a little pride in being willing to just dive into the cold water by Binging it or Googling it, finding places to stay with the natives (bed & breakfast) and off we go for a couple short days somewhere over the rainbow! Hate to say this also: But "Just do it"!

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Germany? 

  • =  Ryanair offers cheap flights in Europe.
  • Esslingen am Neckar

    hherbert's picture

    I just returned to my home in Arizona after renting an apartment in Esslingen for the past three months. I can attest to the facts as described by Jerry Sumner. Even though I am retired and did not have to get a job I was prepared for German life and did not experience any culture shock. Esslingen is a small city (there is a historical difference between towns and cities in Germany) south of Stuttgart on the Neckar River. It is an old city with modern shopping facilities and, like all of Germany, a wonderful bus and train system. It is full of wonderful restaurants and great computer stores. I traveled all over Germany, France, Luxomberg, Belgium, and England by train. I went on an all-German tour of Sud Triol in the Italian Alps and greatly enjoyed the long walks. Esslingen is a walking town that is built on rather steep hills. Wonderful for developing your leg muscles and relaxing with some wonderful wines and Kessler Sparkiling Wine. If you have any questions contact me at

    Renting an Apartment in Germany

    hildegard2009's picture

    I would like to rent an apartment in Germany for a month or longer. I would appreciate if you would tell me how to find a quality rental. I am especially concernd about personal safety and would want to be sure that the neighborhood is safe. Thank you in advance for any advice you can give me.

    rent an apartment in Germany

    Quarterbloodcherokee's picture

    Dear Hildegard2009,
    Where in Germany do you plan on staying in?

    Great that your integration

    dennygg's picture

    Great that your integration worked out so well, and you didn't run into any issues with getting a work permit. I was looking into an MCSE qualification myself. Do you recall how much you had to pay for it? and how many exams you had to it?

    MCSE qualification

    Quarterbloodcherokee's picture

    Hello dennygg,
    You need these Core Exams
    Managing and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Environment: Exam 70-290
    Implementing, Managing and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure: Exam 70-291
    Planning and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure: Exam 70-293
    Planning, Implementing and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Active Directory Infrastructure: Exam 70-294
    Installing, Configuring and Administering Windows XP Professional: Exam 70-270
    Designing Security for a Windows Server 2003 Network: Exam 70-298
    Elective Exam
    Installing, Configuring and Administering SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition: Exam 70-228
    That makes 7 exams, nothing shorter.
    MCSE qualification schooling runs around 2,500 € for around 25 days of Boot camp. It's hard with all these exams within 25 days. You can only go this route with 5 or more years of "hands-on" experience, on the job so to say.
    The easiest way: purchase a sever (1,400 €) and then the original books (Hard-Back) from Microsoft press (you get them over "Amazon" and you get evaluation software with most of the exam books. Then learn by doing! Take the exams when you're ready, testing centers are "World Wide", 400 €/exam no matter how the exam comes out, pass great, fail 400 € retake. Some discounts in the books, use them.
    Good luck and be blessed.
    I took the last route! Total costs you can add up yourself, no retakes! Books run about $60 each. Go the Enterprise route!