Five culture shocks I experienced as a Serbian in Germany 

A tower of chocolate. Sanja was surprised at how cheap food - including chocolate - was in Germany compared to Serbia.
A tower of chocolate. Sanja was surprised at how cheap food - including chocolate - was in Germany compared to Serbia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Monika Skolimowska
Around 300,000 to 500,000 people of Serbian descent live in Germany. Here are some of the culture shocks Serbian writer Sanja Dordevic found during a stay in Berlin.

There are lots of people from Serbia and the Balkans who come to live in Germany, usually in order to work. But, how hard is it to assimilate? As a Serbian myself, here are five things I struggled to get my head around when I arrived in Germany for the first time.

Not many luxury cars

I live in the Serbian city of Novi Sad and I’m originally from little town in the east of the country. Usually, when our “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) come home from Germany, they do so with expensive cars, like a Mercedes or BMW. I thought that was the standard for high-income countries but I was shocked to see that people here actually drive normal vehicles.

A friend had this explanation for me: German residents can afford to buy luxury cars, but it’s expensive to fix them in Germany, because you have to go to an official service station to get your car on the road again. In the Balkans, you have your local mechanic who can fix anything for a low price, or even for free at times. Perhaps that explains part of the cultural difference. 

People drive on the Autobahn near Hamburg. Sanja expected more luxury cars in Germany.
People drive on the Autobahn near Hamburg. Sanja expected more luxury cars in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Pedestrian and transport habits

I was really confused about where to cross the streets in Germany (I’m based in Berlin) because there are very few zebra crossings. If I cross randomly, do I get priority against the cars or a ticket? I know there are traffic lights for crossing the road, but in Serbia, there are a lot more zebra crossings, even on small roads. But pedestrians don’t get tickets in Serbia in the same way I’ve heard that people in Germany get fines for crossing the road at the wrong time. I even heard one story about a guy from London who crossed the street at a red light in Berlin, and a mother covered her child’s eyes.

READ ALSO: Is it ever acceptable to cross the road at a red light in Germany?

And in Berlin, there are too many cobblestones. Sure, it looks nice but it feels jumpy while riding a bike or scooter. Speaking of riding a bike, before I came here I thought the Germans loving their safety was just a stereotype. Oh, how wrong was I! I’ve never seen as many reflective vests and helmets in my life! 

You’d also expect that the traffic jams would be awful in a city with more than 3.5 million people. But, no. People use electric scooters, bicycles, and public transport to get around, not just cars. And here we come to the next thing – you can rely on public transport. It’s common when you go by train in Serbia, that it would be very late. As a train lover, it’s not a problem for me to prolong my arrival for a few hours. I understand there’s been trouble in paradise with strikes recently, but I guess, back home, it’s a bit like there’s a “strike” all year round.

A passenger enters an S-Bahn train in Berlin
A passenger enters an S-Bahn train in Berlin. Public transport (mostly) works in Germany (or at least it’s better than in Serbia, says Sanja). Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

Food price differences

You might expect high-income countries like Germany to have high food prices – at least I did. But no! Food is cheaper than in Serbia, even for the same brands. For example, you can get 100g of Milka chocolate for 70 cents, and they sell us 80g for double that price! There is even 100g of proper quality chocolate for as low as 49 cents! On the other hand, prices of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes are much higher in Germany, as they should be. 

READ ALSO: Why everything is suddenly getting so expensive in Germany

Love for recycling 

When I arrived at my Berlin apartment, the landlord explained to me how to separate garbage. I know a lot about recycling because I am an ecology enthusiast, but in Serbia, it’s not mandatory to do that. You can choose to separate your waste in Serbia, but then you have to make the effort to carry it to special NGOs who deal with that. As recycling is really hard to do, nobody really does it. Here in Germany, it is easy and it seems like every household recycles. 

READ ALSO: The complete guide to recycling in Germany

A paper recycling bin in Munich.
A paper recycling bin in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Covid registration

I knew that the Germans loved their rules and order. But I couldn’t believe it when I found out you have to register before entering the museum, gallery, or even a club. I guess it’s a sin if you don’t have an internet connection to register for all the stuff you want to do. Of course, it makes sense because Covid restrictions should be strict. People in Germany also wear high-protection Covid masks all the time. I guess I just come from a place where everything is a bit too relaxed (and maybe that’s why we are experiencing such a high number of Covid cases back in Serbia).

READ ALSO: 13 things foreigners do that make Germans really uncomfortable


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