So you chose Germany to spend your semester abroad. If the first thing on your mind is how you will survive the ice-cold weather and the beer-loving, famously punctual society, you came to the right place. Keep reading to figure out the basics to breaking down the barriers when communicating with Germans.
Let’s go ahead and skip the basics. By now your bags are almost packed, you know your German 101 and know pretty well that hallo means “Hello”, wie gehts? means “how’s it going?” and ich heiße… means “My name is…”. Enough of that.
This guide will take your German skills to the next level. After reading this, you’ll not only understand some essential German expressions, but you will also be in tune with a few cultural customs as well. If you’re heading to Berlin, soon you’ll be strolling in Pariser Platz eating Brezeln or enjoying a Erdinger pint at Brunnenstraße.
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof
I only understand ‘train station’.
There will come a time when you think you already know enough German to get around and find places without Google Maps. This expression may come in handy when the time arrives. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof literally means, “I only understand train station”, though you don’t necessarily have to be talking about anything related with trains.
Whenever someone talks to you in German but you can’t quite figure out what they’re saying, simply answer Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. If you’re talking with a German, they’ll know what you mean.
Kaffee trinken und Kuchen essen
Drinking coffee and eating cake
Let me tell you something in case you’re planning on doing your shopping on a Sunday: apart for convenience stores at train stations and airports, you won’t be in luck. Sunday is the official resting day for Germans.
If you try to make plans with your recent German friends on a Sunday afternoon and they tell you they can’t, it’s not because they don’t enjoy your company, it’s probably because they’re going over to their grandma’s house to have coffee and cake, and every family member’s presence is mandatory. If you want to feel like a true German, try Kaffee trinken (coffee drinking) on Sundays.
Nowadays, most capitals in Europe have adopted this cultural custom from Germany to make big street markets close to Christmas, with shining lights, choral singing, drinks, food and amusement rides. However, nothing beats the real thing, and you’ll know what I’m talking about once you’ve experienced a Weihnachtsmarkt in person.
Whether you’re in a big city or in the tiniest town, you can be sure of one thing: during one whole month, there will be a Weihnachtsmarkt going on. It’s a rite of passage! You’ll be able to try a nice mug of warm Glühwein (mulled wine) and listen to some traditional German Christmas carols.
Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten
Good times, bad times
On air since 1992, I’d risk saying it’s the oldest soap opera running on German television. If you ask any German which TV show they recommend to learn the language faster, they’ll probably say “Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten” (Good times, bad times). The soap opera tone makes it easy to follow the dialogues and learn colloquial German. Besides, you’ll have endless episodes you can watch, so it’s also a safe bet to recommend.
Das ist mir Wurst
That’s sausage to me
Has something serious happened and you couldn’t care less? There’s a very interesting — and certainly German — expression you can use in times when you don’t give a shit. Is there a great party you really want to go to but you only have one pair of underwear left and should really do your laundry? Meh. That’s sausage to you.
Auf den Keks gehen
You walk me on the cookie
A popular expression that means you’re getting on someone’s nerves. If you hear this, things are about to get real. Germans are very good at keeping their cool, but when things go bad, they go seriously bad, and something that might not affect you can bother the hell out of a German. Tip: take special care regarding people’s personal space!
Mit dir kann ich Pferde stehlen
With you I can steal horses
It’s true you may piss off some people while living your semester in Germany, but you will also meet amazing people that will become your friends for life. When that moment comes, you can tell that person: Mit dir kann ich Pferde stehlen, which literally means, “with you I can steal horses”. It’s a common saying between friends which means you can trust and understand each other and have fun together. Just remember you don’t literally have to steal horses with your new-found friend to know your friendship is for real!
Women’s Carnival Day
Something you can do instead, if you’re a woman and it’s Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival Day), is to prank men on the street and cut their tie. It is a strong tradition in cities around Western Germany, like Cologne, Bonn and Düsseldorf. What started as an important religious celebration, throughout history it became a day for women to proclaim their right to celebrate Carnival. Now it’s just seen as a funny celebration.
If you’re a girl and happen to be in Germany while Weiberfastnacht is going on, take a pair of scissors with you and have some fun! Just don’t forget to always ask permission.
Dinner for One
So you’ve heard Germans don’t have a sense of humour? Well, let me tell you, you may not understand German humour every time, but the truth is, they have one. Linguistically speaking, the German language is highly functional, which makes it hard to adapt English comedy, or even any other language, to create puns and second meanings. Do you want proof Germans love a good laugh? Check what’s running on almost every TV broadcast on New Year’s Eve: You’ll likely stumble upon the originally British sketch, Dinner for One.
Thanks for reading this post!
What other fun German expressions and habits do you know? Let us know in the comments. And remember: if you need student accommodation with the best flatmates, you’ll find the perfect student home on Uniplaces.