September 10, 2013

8 things I wish I knew before moving to Munich

I moved to Munich two years ago and although I knew Germany (and Germans), to make Munich my new home was not easy. After the painful and stressful process of finding a place to live, a few more surprises came along. Some were good, some not so much.

Click to read about Munich is expensive but safe

Looking back I believe that I would have managed much better at the beginning,  if I had had the experience and information that I now have. So if you are planning to move to Munich or you have just arrived, I believe that my "8 things I wish I knew before moving to Munich" will be very helpful for you.


1) They don't speak English 

You are moving to Germany, where the official language is German, which means that they speak German. The young generations can usually speak English but the older ones don't.

Some Germans have never learnt a word of English, so when you pop in a local Bäkerei or you want to buy cranberries at a street stall or at the market stand, they don't understand you if you speak English.
The German school system is very flexible and offers a high-quality education. (Click here to read about the School system in Bavaria in English). Usually one foreign language is taught since the age of 10. Although these days more and more schools are introducing some lessons in the Grundschule (as of the age of six).

Screen shot: School system in Bavaria. Source: Bayerisches Staatsministerium

In today's schools the most popular foreign language is English. Germans in their late 20s - early 30's have had 8 to 9 years of compulsory English lessons during their school time and so they usually speak English. However older generations studied French instead, which was the primary foreign language back then and as a consequence, they usually won't speak English, or if they do, it will be very basic.

In June 2013 the German newspaper Die Zeit published an article: "Germans speak bad English" (source: Wall Street English school). According to it: only 2.1% of the employees in Germany are business fluent and 65.5% have little knowledge.

2) Everything is closed on Sunday

Sunday is "Ruhe Tag" in Germany, which means that everything is closed. There are however four exceptions to this rule: 1) the churches, 2) the ice parlors, 3) the gas stations and 4) the "Biergarten".

Also a few cafes open on Sunday mostly the ones located in the tourist areas of Munich and a few (very few) bakeries also open and close when they are sold out. 

As a consequence, plan your grocery shopping well, so you are fully stocked when Sunday comes. Otherwise you are left with no options outside the following two stores that open on Sunday and should only be used in emergency cases due to the exorbitant prices and the very limited range: the Minimark in Hauptbahnhof and one Edeka at the airport. (To read more: "the Grocery List 1/2")

3) Recycling is a sport

And you better learn the rules soon otherwise it will cost you money (Germany has a Pfand system to "motivate" citizens to recycle) or you will get reprimanded by one of your lovely neighbors.


4) If you don't have a bike, you don't exist in Munich

There are many European cities where the bike is a popular means of transport. In Munich this has been taken to the extreme: Munich is the "Radlhauptstadt" = capital city for the "Radl", which is the Bavarian equivalent of "Rad" (short for "Fahrrad") so a bike.


My bike: Lola
There are 1200km of bike lane in Munich and parking facilities overall. Besides the taxis and metro (U- and S- Bahn) are extremely expensive. People bike to work; mums bike their kids to the Kindergarten in front and back child bike seats; fathers tow child bicycle trailers across the city etc.,

If you drive a car you'd better grow a third eye on your back and learn the new driving rule, which basically summarizes in: in Munich cyclists ride like they own the city.

I did not buy "lola" (my bike) until a year after moving to Munich and during that initial time I disliked many of those on a bicycle, simply because they don't even respect the sidewalks! 

On my second year here and with "lola", I am now one of them, because at some point I realized that I had no choice: "if you can't beat them, join them".

To read more about bikes in Munich.


5) Get ready to be given a reprimand 

I recently read on a blog/forum about one expat's impression talking about living in Germany. One of the things she said was that every German has a police officer inside him/herAnd I agree. 

In Munich strangers have given me more than one reprimand over the past two years. In some cases with a reason, in some others just for the pleasure of reprimanding someone. For example:

  • on the street, when I happened to accidentally wait for the traffic lights on the bike lane;
  • in the supermarket, when I forgot to use plastic gloves when selecting the fruits and vegetables and
  • at a cash register, when it was taking me more than a minute to pay, because I could not find my purse.
There are also situations when strangers have given me a nasty look. For example: 
  • in some cafes or on the train when I spoke louder than a regular German or my mobile rang longer than 10 seconds and
  • when my friend's baby started crying non-stop and loud in a store.
There is also a worse case scenario, which is when you get both the look and the reprimand, together with a phone call to the police. For example: by parking if you accidentally touch the car behind you. Then all the strangers that see you, will suddenly stop and dedicate their full attention to give you the look and start calling for a traffic officer.


6) German is difficult and it will take you years to be fluent

Many people think that with online courses or weekly lessons, they will speak fluent German in a year. Some are even more optimistic and they expect to reach that level in 6 months. Well my friends, this won't happen. German is a very difficult and complex language and it takes time to learn it.

When I started, I learnt fast and the feeling of achievement was immense. During the A1, A2 and B1 level, I even got the impression that German was going to be" easy" for me. Well, it was not.

When I completed these first basic levels, I then started level B2 and it was then when things got really complicated and my motivation diminished. But since I had no other option, I kept on. For me to jump from the B2 to the C1 level required a superhuman effort. But to move up from C1 to C2 was stressful and painful. 

If you are not familiar with the standard levels when learning a language check the European Framework of Reference for Languages.


Screen shot of Global scale. Source: Council of Europe

Also a recent article of the German magazine PM reporting on the most difficult languages in the world states that:

  • English-speakers need at least 750 class hours to reach an intermediate German level. This means that even if you had 3 hours of German every day, every week during a single whole year, you still wouldn't be intermediate.
  • German needs more hours of study than the Danish, the Swedish and the Norwegian languages.

In my experience the best you can do is to be aware of the difficulty, accept that it won't happen tomorrow and keep going. Determination and persistence are key to master the language.

If you get depressed in the process (and unfortunately you will) I suggest you order a copy of "The awful German language" from Mark Twain


Screen shot of Amazon.de
To read more about this topic: check


7) There is a different between a Bier- and a Wirtsgarten

A Biergarden is an outdoor area attached to a bar or a restaurant, set with approx. eight seat wooden tables and benches without a back that has a self-service area. In a Biergarden you are allowed to consume outside food (for example brought from home or bought in a close street stand). 

A Wirtsgarten, on the contrary, is set with table cloths and waiters or waitresses get the table orders and all you eat and drink should be ordered there.

Wirtsgarten in Munich city center

8) Surviving the Oktoberfest

The Oktoberfest is fun and so good for the books of the city and local businesses … But the truth is that living in Munich, life must go on no matter what: you still need to get up early to go to work; you still need to do the weekly grocery shopping and you still want to enjoy life in this safe, clean and cozy city that is usually ranked as a top place to live because of its quality of life.

Unfortunately during the Oktoberfest your quality of life in Munich will be diminished.


Photo of the Oktoberfest parade of tradition costumes
Above all if you live in the city center or close to the Oktoberfest, mainly because the Wiesn means for you that:  
  • the streets are not as clean and safe as you are used to; 
  • the supermarkets and shops´ shelves are emptier than usual;
  • there are longer queues everywhere, including in the U/S-Bahn stations; 
  • your bike is no longer safe without a lock while you pop in that store;
  • and if you decide to go for a walk in the park on the weekend, you will hardly enjoy some quite time with the kids/family/boyfriend because the green areas (unless it's raining) are full with tourists drinking or sleeping on their hangover. 

I am not an old cranky lady, I am just describing what I see and experience myself in Munich and through my friends´ eyes.  I know some people who make their holidays outside Munich coincide with the Oktoberfest, so they can scape the avalanche of people.

I am not saying that you need to run away like my friends, you can stay and enjoy the festival, but if you do, just remember to be more careful and more patient than usual. After all, during the Oktoberfest Munich receives an influx of over three times its population in tourists.


Are you from Munich or have you been living here for a while? what other things you wish you knew before moving here?