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Expat Focus: An American Answers Questions About Living as an Expat in Germany

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Expat Experience Q&A with
Oh God, My Wife Is German.

Interview conducted by Expat Focus
December, 2013

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Who are you?
I am an American expat from Portland, Oregon, now living in Hannover, Germany. I am a freelance graphic designer and copywriter, and an avid blogger of all things humorous (though I most often take aim at subjects like Germany, expat life, culture shock and my beautiful — and unintentionally hilarious — German wife.)

Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I moved to Germany in September of 2012 in order to be with my wife. If she’d been from England, I would have moved to England. Had she come from Italy, I would have moved to Italy. Had she been from Siberia, I would have said, “Sorry honey, but I’m sure there’s a very nice guy for you in Siberia. Probably the quiet type, because he’s frozen to death.”

What challenges did you face during the move?
My wife and I lived together in Portland before we moved to Germany, and in that last year, we were both working full-time jobs, planning our destination wedding, arranging for my wife’s future career in Hannover, and worrying about how I was going to continue my own career in Germany without speaking the language. It was probably the most stressful year of our lives thus far, and we dealt with it by eating cake, pizza and drinking copious amounts of beer. (My wife looked amazing in our wedding pictures. I looked like a bloated veal calf.)

How did you find somewhere to live? (e.g. how did you locate a suitable property? what was the buying/renting process like?)
Our location was determined by my wife’s job; she’s a Gymnasium teacher (and a fantastic one at that), and she landed a job at a school in Hannover. Finding an apartment in any German city can be stressful, and we were prepared to hire a broker if necessary. Luckily, we knew a friend of a friend in Hannover, so we were able to figure out the kind of neighborhood we wanted and what we could afford. But finding an apartment is rarely a pleasant experience, and no matter the country, moving sucks.

Are there many other expats in your area?
Yes, there are actually quite a few expats in Hannover. There is even an expat group called Hannover4EnglishSpeakers, which meets up a few times each month for drinks, sporting activities and to watch movies in English. (I think they even have a group for expat parents, so their little English-speaking trolls can roll around in the mud together and give each other the flu.) There are expat groups like this in every major city in Germany, and they can be very useful for things like making friends, getting recommendations for doctors and dentists, buying and selling furniture, and complaining about how the German language uses gender-based articles. (Seriously. Every noun is either a ‘he,’ ‘she’ or an ‘it.’ (And all added together, between the 4 cases, Germans use a total of 16 definite articles. Sixteen.)

What is your relationship like with the locals?
I work at home in front of the computer all day, which makes me both a geek and a shut-in. And like the rest of my pale-skinned brethren, I only leave my coffin when the bloodlust takes me and I am forced to venture out into the night to feed. Just kidding. We have a lot of friends, and I’m also taking a German language class, so we mingle with the locals quite a bit. (Though never with drunken soccer fans. Those guys are scary.)

What do you like about life where you are?
Germany feels safe. I like the pace of life here. And Hannover is similar to Portland in that it feels like a big, little city. Or a little, big city. However you say that. Also, as an expat, you’re always challenged. The people, the culture, the godforsaken and unnecessarily difficult language — everything is new. You’re like a perpetual student, so there’s no time for boredom or plateau. You gotta get up every day and launch yourself into that alien landscape like an astronaut about to pee in his space suit.

What do you dislike about your expat life?
Having two families on either side of the globe. You’re always bouncing between them for the holidays, and one side always misses you while the other gets to bask in the radiant splendor of your company.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
Customer service. In America, strangers are sickeningly sweet to you, especially in places of business or over the phone. Sure, the person being nice to your face might actually loathe you right down to the very marrow in your bones, but at least they ensure a smooth, professional transaction. Not in Germany. Oh no, here, customer service falls into two main categories: standoffish and downright abusive. Naturally there are exceptions to this rule, but even my wife agrees, saying, “Americans are like peaches and Germans are like coconuts. Americans are sweet on the outside but hard on the inside, and Germans are hard on the outside but sweet on the inside.” (While I try not to take offense at the notion of having a foreign object at my center that is stone-like and unfeeling, I think she makes a fine point.)

What do you think of the food in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
Traditional German food is heavy, fatty and served with beer. I love it! I am gleefully eating and drinking my way toward my first heart attack.

Photo by Reiner Kraft (http://www.flickr.com/photos/reiner/)

Photo by Reiner Kraft (http://www.flickr.com/photos/reiner/)

What are your plans for the future?
I plan to ace my B2 level German language exam, which will certify me to work as a graphic designer for a German agency. I will then leave my home office and rejoin the lemmings on their great but inevitable plunge into the quagmire of despair that is working life. I jest, but I will miss making a living in my underwear. (Wait, that made me sound like a stripper, didn’t it.)

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Learn the language of the county in which you plan to live. I feel so passionate about this, I must repeat myself:

For the love of all that is holy. For the love of God and Jesus H. Christ on rice, learn the language of the foreign country in which you plan to live. Every single word you learn, written or spoken, will make your life easier. Be glad you are starting now, rather than later. Feel angry you weren’t born a native speaker, but be grateful you can learn to become fluent. Learn as much of the language as you can before you get there. Keep on learning while you’re there. If you return to your home country, keep on learning it anyway. Throw yourself into that language like a fat kid at the deep end of the pool.

I took classes, bought books and software programs, practiced with my wife and taught myself as much German as I possibly could before I moved here. This added up to exactly 1.5 years of language training, and I still depended upon my wife to translate any interaction more complex than, “Would you like another beer, Sir?” Answer: “HELL yes.”

If I could download the entire German language into my brain like in The Matrix, but it would cost my entire life’s savings, I would do it. I would do it right now. If I had to pay my entire life savings and then kick a puppy too, I would hand over the cash and punt that little doggie like a football.

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The Batshit Insane Ways Germans Tell Time (And Why I Hate Them For It)

crazy confusing clocks

“What time is it? Time to give up.” — Photo Credit: Richie Diesterheft http://www.flickr.com/photos/puroticorico/ — Subject to CC Generic 2.0 license

As you probably know, I am an American expatriate living with my German wife in Hannover, Germany. I am enrolled in an A1-level intensive German language and integration course, and you know what we just started learning the other day? How to read clocks and communicate time. How do Germans tell time, you ask? I have no idea. Apparently, they use unbreakable cryptography while dropping fistfulls of acid.

Here’s the deal — in America, we typically use the 12-hour clock to relate time. (Americans who use the 24-hour clock are either, A: In the United States Military, or B: Trying to act tough because they have little wieners.) When speaking to one another, Americans discuss time in terms of 12-hour cycles, specifying a.m. and p.m. for Ante Meridian and Post Meridian. This is why we say things like, “That filthy bum was drunk at 8:00am!” and “…but so was I, so I sat down next to him and we partied until the cops made us leave at like 6:00am the next day. Those dicks.”

Predictably, Germans use a more complicated and entirely counterintuitive system for relating time to one another. They use either the 12-hour clock or the 24-hour clock in conversation (it’s not always the 12-hour clock, no matter what your German teacher tells you), so you never know which one you’ll get. Also, they use a totally backwards, Caligula-insane way for expressing half hours. They say “halb,” meaning “half,” but it does not mean 30 minutes past the hour; it means literally half of the hour before. So, taken all together, when someone says the time is “halb drei,” they do not mean the time is 3:30pm — they mean it’s 2:30pm (or 14:30, if they want to make damn sure you walk away confused).

headache funny kid with sword through head

“Just tell me the time, man. Don’t church it up.” — Photo Credit: Wapster (http://www.flickr.com/photos/wapster/) — Subject to CC Generic 2.0 license

The German language uses words like “vor,” “nach” “kurz” and “viertel,” much like the English words for “before,” “after,” “shortly” and “quarter,” respectively. So, with the 24-hour clock and pre-half hour in mind, let’s take a few examples and translate them directly from German into English:

“zehn vor halb drei” = “ten before half three” (2:20pm)
“zehn nach halb fünf” = “ten after half five” (4:40pm)
“zehn nach halb vier” = “ten after half four” (3:40pm) …which is also…
“zwanzig vor vier” = “twenty before four” (3:40pm)
“kurz vor halb sechzehn” = “just before half sixteen” (between 3:26pm and 3:29pm, but not more than 5 minutes before the half hour)*

So, in my tiny little walnut brain, I have to translate these German words and numbers into English, convert everything from the 24-hour clock into the 12-hour clock, then decipher the monkeyshit-tossing logic behind the German half hour.

funny depressed monkey

Pictured: American tourist in Germany immediately after asking for the time. — Photo Credit: Beatnik Photos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dharmabum1964/) — Subject to CC Generic 2.0 license

Now, I agree the 24-hour clock makes more sense than the 12-hour clock in terms of logistics and scheduling. What does not make sense, however — in English or German — is speaking about time in relative terms, what with all the “half before” and “quarter after” tomfuckery going on. So, when it comes to speaking informally about time — between two thinking, breathing human beings — I have developed a beautifully simple solution which will solve the problem worldwide: just say the exact time, to the minute, every time.

Just say the numbers, man! No tricks. Everyone gets along fine. There won’t be any fights before snack-time because everyone knows it starts at exactly 10:35. DING DING! Milk and cookies for everyone.

*To be fair, a German probably wouldn’t say this to someone on the street unless they were being a total dick.

Click here to learn more about the term “Culture Shock.”

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