Dear readers, this week I´m happy to share with you another story from my Blog Series Expat Story: World Through My Eyes. And just in case you´re a new one here – it´s all about the expat stories from all these amazing ladies I met through blogging. Thanks so much to Ava from My Meena Life for being a part of this project and for inspiring us all. Personally, I loved her honesty and as someone who also lived in Germany can definitely relate to some things. What about you?!
I’m Ava Meena, a former chemist turned writer and travel lover after living in Germany. I moved from the USA to small town Germany with my husband and pet budgie for one year. My expat experience taught me that I love to travel (despite my chronic illnesses) and that “home” will never be the same once you’ve lived in two countries.
Germany through American eyes
In many ways, Germany was overwhelmingly fascinating from my American point of view. I was captivated by the historical beauty, particularly the half-timbered homes that would lean precariously into the street. On any given weekend in Bavaria I was likely to encounter Germans boarding a train at the local Bahnhof in their Lederhosen, drinking Bier that hasn’t changed in 500 years and singing their hearts out on their way to a Fest of some kind.
My German friend, Michaela, loved to share riveting tales of local folklore with me when we traveled together to nearby towns. As much as I enjoyed learning, I believe it would have taken years for me to fully comprehend the depth of historical traditions that are the heart of life in Germany.
At the same time, those interesting historical traditions often left me feeling a bit suffocated. Any sort of holiday usually meant that all the stores would close – and they weren’t open very much to start with. I longed for the convenience of America and the ability to celebrate an occasion without halting activity in every other part of my life. I found myself being simultaneously thrilled and exasperated about the ways life is different in Germany. For example, I loved being able to drive fast on the Autobahn, but I was frustrated when my husband, Mr. Meena, was not allowed to commute on it for a work trip. It was against the law to travel for his job on Sundays, so he had to travel all day Saturday instead.
Reality vs Expectations
I didn’t have a lot of expectations about Germany before we moved there. I had never actually considered moving abroad; it was an abrupt opportunity offered by my husband’s company. Our move from Charlotte to Schweinfurt happened quickly and, in our excitement, we didn’t take the time to deeply consider what life would be like there.
I did hope that our time in Germany would be an adventure that changed our lives. I hoped that Germany would give us new experiences and make us different, better people.
Photo by Rebekah Jackson Photography
Looking back, I was surprised by how much we admired the German people that we came to know on a personal level. At first it was difficult to adjust to a vastly different cultural modus operandi, but over time we realized that Germans are the best friends you’ll ever have. They take friendship seriously and you can count on them for anything.
Our first big challenge in Germany was that we simply didn’t know how to do anything. We had to start over from scratch with even the smallest tasks. We didn’t know where to buy contact solution (the pharmacy), how to do laundry, when to say Happy Birthday (never say it early!), or how to pay for parking. It was beyond difficult to have no guiding compass for each task that we needed to accomplish. Fortunately, language wasn’t a huge barrier since many Germans speak English or at least know enough to help. However, we alternated between being thwarted in our efforts to speak Deutsch (because Germans wanted to practice their Englisch) and being scolded for not speaking enough of the German language.
There was one cultural difference that continued to madden us for the duration of our 13 month stay in Germany: the impatient aggression. Whenever we tried to purchase bread at the local grocery store it felt like we were entering a war zone. People would push each other and give harsh glares across the piles of Brot. Getting onto a bus or train was no different, and we eventually found ourselves joining in and shoving our way through the madness. Even walking down the street wasn’t safe – I was consistently elbowed or shouldered out of my walking path. This mentality never got easier for us because, at a basic level, it felt like the strangers were communicating that we were less than them. We didn’t understand why we didn’t deserve a place in line or a chance to purchase a Brezel. We knew that such behavior was simply the culture (and a side effect of limited space in Germany), but that didn’t really make it easier for us to handle.
I would advise Americans moving to Germany to try to find potential friends before you move. Getting to know Germans on a personal level will help you to feel more included. You can ask them for help when you have a daunting errand you can’t figure out or when you need more practice speaking the language. It can be especially difficult to find friends in smaller towns; it took us about five months. Try using InterNations, reddit, Facebook groups, or simply googling “expat resources in [town]” to get started with your search.
Only in Germany
One of my favorite things about life in Germany was that every locality was interesting. No matter how small a city was there was always something worth marveling over. Even the tiny family restaurants had a special recipe or story to share. One example is the town of Ochsenfurt – a place we visited twice and loved even though it’s not on a typical tourist’s radar.
Another thing we loved about living in Germany was the higher quality of life compared to the USA. My husband got 30 vacation days with his German work contract and enjoyed lots of holidays in Bavaria. He wasn’t even allowed to work before a certain hour in the morning or after closing time in the evening (without special circumstances). He was protected from burnout and encouraged to relax. This is – by far – the thing we miss about Germany the most; we can no longer stomach his current allowance of 10 vacation days.
Of course, we can’t forget the food in Germany. No one does beer, bratwurst, or bread quite like the Germans. Where else can you order a Maß filled with beer that hasn’t changed in 500 years? Or devour a delicious Drei im Weckla from a street vendor for only three euros? And those delicious, crusty bread rolls you can buy fresh at the grocery store for 15 cents! Between the culinary masterpieces and the multitude of historical breweries, you will likely be inspired to visit (or move to) Germany just for the food. While there were times when I found the German diet to be a bit heavy (or strange), I was always able to find something delicious to eat.
Photo by my friend, Michaela
I’ve actually written a post about a day in my life as an expat in Germany, which I’ll summarize here. A typical day (for me) in Germany included:
- Walking everywhere: It was common to walk at least three miles just to run errands, and I often walked up to seven miles on a busy day out.
- Eating bratwurst or schnitzel: Don’t worry, there are enough varieties of bratwurst and schnitzel that you won’t soon get tired of it.
- Encountering history: I would pass the Rathaus (town hall) in Schweinfurt nearly every time I went out. It was built in 1570 and is considered one of the most important profane Renaissance buildings in southern Germany. I also frequently walked on or past the old city wall (from the 1200s).
- Being surprised or seeing strange things: My town’s mascot was a Schwein (pig), so there were large, colorful, fiberglass pigs placed throughout the city.
- Going to the store: Germans have small refrigerators and like to have fresh food, so they usually make small trips to the grocery store several times a week.
- Meeting a friend for Kaffee or Eis (or Eiskaffee): You’ll definitely want to spend time with your German friends and meeting for Spaghetti-Eis or a cappuccino is a great way to do so.
- Following the rules: Crossing the street? You must wait for the green Ampelmännchen! If you find yourself breaking a rule then you will likely be confronted and corrected by the nearest German.
Before and After
The chance to live in Germany was the gift of a lifetime. It changed my life profoundly by removing my template for how the world should operate. Before, I didn’t realize that people could live so differently from the way I lived or that they could be happy doing so. Now I have a deep appreciation for the way cultures all over the world can be beautifully different.
Germany also cultivated a new love of travel for me and my husband, one that has stuck around even after being home for a few months. We loved discovering new cities in Germany and Europe and still hunger for those experiences. I think we will always miss Germany and find ways to remember it – like how Mr. Meena pronounces “sure” and sometimes tries to cut in line at the grocery store.
After coming back home I’ve noticed the little conveniences more, such as being able to use my credit card instead of cash. I’m very grateful to have personal space and to wait in lines patiently with other patient people. But I’m also more aware of the worst aspects of my home country and I’m less complacent about them. I get frustrated by the healthcare system, the lack of recycling, and the issues with maternity and paternity leave. I’ve found that the conveniences of America can’t replace the quality of life we enjoyed in Germany.
Overall, the difficultly of leaving Germany took me by surprise. I would have welcomed another year or two in Deutschland. Living abroad taught me more about who I am than any other experience could have. Germany was an unparalleled adventure and, although we certainly had our differences, it will always be a place I call home in my heart.