The Quiet of Sundays

I love lazy Sundays. Yesterday it was stormy and rainy outside, so I spent most of the afternoon with nice hot tea, reading and taking care of the things I never have time to do during the week. The cat slept in her cozy chair and everything was quiet.

Many of my American friends or the expats in my trainings comment on Sundays in Germany – though it’s the lack of Sunday shopping they mention. “Everything is closed on Sunday!” they say, wondering whether they’ll be able to adjust to how they’ll organize their shopping. Now, shop opening hours in Germany have always been a big topic.

Germany has more than 8,000 laws, so you probably won’t be surprised to hear that there is a special law regulating shop opening hours, the Ladenschlußgesetz. Until a few years ago, shops were open until 6.30 pm in the evenings from Monday – Friday and until 2 pm on Saturdays (with a ‘long Saturday’ once a month when shops were open until 4 pm). In 1989 the ‘long Thursday’ was introduced – against strongest opposition from the unions, salesclerks and shopkeepers, who feared longer hours without an adequate rise of business. On the long Thursdays shops were open until 8.30 pm. I remember the first long Thursday, there was something of a party atmosphere, with everyone rushing into the city center to enjoy the feeling of shopping after 6.30 pm on a weekday. Gradually, the shops were also allowed to open longer on Saturdays and at some point certain cities even kept their shops open on selective Sundays.

After several more years – and of course after endless discussions – shops were finally allowed to open until 8 pm on every weekday and in 2003 shops were also allowed to stay open until 8 pm on Saturdays (even though not all shops do, many stores stay open until 6 pm). After that innovation came through, you could hear and see excited ads in the radio, TV or in newspapers where shops proudly announced “At our store you can shop on Saturdays until 8 pm!” The latest change came in 2007 – now shops can open until 10 pm on weekdays. This, however, is only applied in shopping areas of major cities, in malls and large supermarket chains. Interestingly, there was far less excitement about this than in 2003.

Smaller shops and shops in small towns still keep the tradition of closing at midday, either between 12 pm and 2 pm or between 1 pm and 3 pm. Many of them might also close between 6.30 and 8 pm. If you live in a smaller town you should make yourself familiar with the shopping hours there as they will generally be more restricted than in cities.

Sunday is still mainly off-limits for shopping and I don’t think it will change much. A while ago, the German Supreme Court ruled against a bid for a twenty-four hour shopping rule that was brought in by a major German retailer. The only shops not required to stick to these shop opening limits are petrol stations, shops in railway stations and airports or shops that mainly sell tourist items. Still, more and more towns offer the occasional “verkaufsoffener Sonntag”, where shops are open on a Sunday.

A friend of mine lived in Germany for five years and never adjusted to the fact that on Sundays, no shops are open, not even bakeries. She thinks the Sunday atmosphere in German cities and towns is dreary. An expat from Australia pointed out that the national holidays are very much like Sundays and she is right. Sundays and national holidays are meant to be spent with the family. People sleep longer, have an extended breakfast together and indulge in leisure activities like walking, swimming, going on day trips or just relaxing. Town centers often look deserted and even in a big city like Frankfurt you will have a feeling of emptiness. I am always amazed at how different the Frankfurt city center can look on a weekday with masses of people bustling through the streets and on a Sunday or holiday with only a few pedestrians sauntering along (though Frankfurt is special: only about 700,000 people actually live there, many more live in the surrounding towns and just come to Frankfurt to work – around 350,000 on every weekday).

It is slightly different in the summer, of course, when ice cream parlors, beer gardens and cafés are open and people rush out to enjoy the weather, but a markedly quieter atmosphere is created by the simple fact that shops are not open on Sundays. Whereas many expats I know consider this annoying, I wouldn’t even say it is a bad thing. Now that shopping hours are relaxed enough to offer working people a chance to get their shopping done without having to constantly rush, I think it’s quite nice to have one day in the week when businesses are closed and people have time to really relax.

There are some “quiet periods” in Germany, which means that no excessive noise is allowed during certain hours of the day, this includes using a drill or an electric lawn mower, playing very loud music or doing any construction work. The quiet periods are between 10 pm and 7 am on weekdays (this includes Saturdays) and between 1 pm and 3 pm (not quite as strict as the night quiet period). Sunday in general is a quiet period! Therefore, you will see no construction work going on Sundays (unless the workers have a special permit).

I quite enjoy the quiet period and don’t find it difficult to adhere to it. It also depends on your neighborhood how strictly it is followed, so as always, it is advisable to watch and learn. One expat friend has also seen the positive side to it and says, “The quiet period is okay with me. When we were moving in it was hard to suppress my need to hammer and make noise on Sundays, because I wanted to get set up quickly, but I respected it. In the end, I find we have more family time on Sundays because more stores are closed and we can’t make noise at home, we have to be quiet. I like it.”

Me too.

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