There’s always one surprise per sabbatical. Contracts are our surprise for this sabbatical.
Avoid signing up for anything with an expiration date while you are in Germany. Because in Germany, expiration dates are purely theoretical. It seems nothing in Germany really expires unless you give notice that you no longer want it, months in advance.
In the English-speaking world, you sign up for something — a train discount card, a magazine subscription, a cell phone contract, what have you — and you know that the membership/subscription will end on the date stated when you sign up. The company may hound you for months beforehand trying to get you to resubscribe, but if you don’t do so, the membership is finished.
Not so in Germany. Major cultural difference ahead: The assumption in Germany is that if you sign up for a subscription or contract, you want it to go on in perpetuity, unless you tell them four months in advance of your renewal date that you don’t want it. Not just the mobile phones or cable companies — even discount programs like the BahnCard. This is just something Germans know, we’ve discovered in talking to friends.
Unfortunately, we did not know this in advance, and we were surprised when new BahnCards and a large bill showed up just before we moved home. We’d signed up for cards that were for one year — the year we were here — knowing that they’d expire right as we went home.
But they didn’t. The Bahn was not sympathetic to the clueless foreigners when we asked to cancel the new cards after we’d received them. It was laid out in the fine print on the documents they gave us when we bought the cards; it just never occurred to us to look for it since at home something like this wouldn’t renew unless we signed up again. Of course the associate didn’t mention it to us at point of sale, either. In reading some of the expat forums, it appears that if you don’t pay, the Bahn has been known to hire collectors in your home country to go after you, or will take you to court if you are in Germany.
This also probably explains why we were automatically signed up for a renewal appointment for our visa. Apparently in Germany the assumption is always that you want to extend. At home, that would be a deceptive consumer practice, but here it’s the standard.
The moral of the story is: If you sign up for anything in Germany, read the fine print carefully or get someone to do so if you don’t read German fluently. And in general, you should make sure to expressly cancel your membership or contract (in writing, by snail mail) at least four months in advance. Best, actually, to send the letter as soon as you sign up.
Photo credit: Deutsche Bahn.