Culture Shock 7: An American Expatriate Answers Questions About Living in Germany

Beer on the Maschsee
Oh God, My Wife Is German is an ostentatious and wildly sarcastic blog highlighting the misadventures and near total communication breakdowns occurring between an expat American husband and his German wife as they adjust to life in Hannover, Germany.

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Interview conducted by The Expat Hub
January, 2013

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Where are you originally from?
I’m from the United States. Portland, Oregon, specifically. This makes me a ‘Portlander,’ though I wish with all my heart we were called Portlandians. Or Portlandites. Or Portlandafarians.

In which country and city are you living now?
I am living in Hannover, Germany, which actually feels a bit like Portland. Probably because it’s a big city with a small town vibe and it has a lot of green spaces. Parks and such. Also because I live in constant fear of being run over by skinny people on bikes.

Market Church, Hannover, Germany

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I’ve lived in Hannover since September 1st of 2012. I plan on staying until my wife informs me we’re leaving — the same way she informs me it’s time to do the dishes. Or pay the rent. Or take a shower.

Why did you move?
I moved to Germany in order to be with my wife. She’s hilarious, even when she doesn’t mean to be. For the past few years, I’ve been keeping track of all the funny things she says, especially when they involve German words or expressions translated directly into English. We like to call these quotes “Denglish,” or “Deutsch-English.” Here’s an example:

On December 27th, 2012, The Wife and I were preparing for a visit from one of our close friends from Portland. After we finished cleaning our apartment, it was my task to go to Netto for some extra groceries. I put on my coat and headed for the door, saying, “I’m buying eggs. Should I also buy a 6-pack of mineral water?” to which my wife replied:

“That would be, of course, two flies with one slap.”

Fried and mayonnaise with currywurst at Oktoberfest in Germany

What do you enjoy most about living here?
The thing I enjoy most about living in Germany is the fact that I’m always learning new things. Literally everything is new to me here — the language, the culture, the people — so I’m never bored. I’m forced into a perpetual student role, which keeps me engaged and curious. For example, I often find myself wondering why Germans seem to be in such a hurry all the time. What’s the rush? If you take too long in the checkout line at the grocery store, I promise some jerk behind you will sigh audibly, as if you are intentionally destroying his afternoon. If you are running to catch a subway train that has been stopped for longer than 10 seconds — even if the conductor clearly sees your efforts to reach it in time — you will still find the doors closing right in your face. If you find yourself in a car full of Germans (God forbid) and you hit a traffic jam, you can expect them to flip out about it like a bunch of geese fighting over a bag full of smashed bread crumbs.

What has been the hardest aspect of your expat experience so far?
By far, the absolute hardest part of my experience as an expat has been my inability to understand spoken German. I can walk up to German people, sling a few words around, make general statements and ask obvious questions, but I’m totally lost the second they respond. Here’s an interaction I had with a Rossmann drugstore clerk last week, if you were to translate everything directly into English:

ME: “Please excuse me dearly. I look for toothpaste here in this store. In your store, formally speaking.”

CLERK: “Pardon?”

ME: “I would gladly have toothpaste.”

CLERK: “Oh. Go to aisle four. It’s right there past the cosmetics, on your left.”

ME: “My God you talk fast. I am right now, at this very moment, learning German.”

CLERK: “No problem. Aisle four. Right there, where I am pointing.”

ME: “I get the ‘four’ part, but please, just for me, slowly speak.”

CLERK: “Aisle… four.”

ME: (Blinking twice, looking scared and confused) “Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so hard.” (I then wandered off in the general direction he’d indicated, staggering through the drugstore like an American tourist with blunt force head trauma.)

Hannover Christmas Market in Germany

What advice would you offer to anyone following in your footsteps?
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 depend upon my wife to translate any interaction more complex than, “Would you like another beer, Sir?” “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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61 thoughts

  1. Dude you seem a bit, overwhelmed. Would you at all be interested in an all American weekend complete with speaking English to other English speaking americans, American BBQ and access to, though military, American facilities? My wife and I’d gladly host you. There is a large and diverse American population here and I’m sure both our wives would get along. If you need a bit of a break just say the word. I can promise American conversation, American food, American shopping (at the Army facilities) and German beer.

    Think about spring if you both have a few days off.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. This is a great, half humorous and still serious interview which I appreciate very much! It’s written in your very own special style which I admire. Thanks for sharing it!

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    1. Oh man I hope so. I am learning steadily, but it’s tough to learn while you’re trying to get things done, you know. Like, I’m not thinking about my grammar or pronunciation while I’m looking for a good doctor or trying to enroll in a class or something. I default to basic, childlike language skills at these times.

      You know what actually works pretty well though? When I speak in my broken German and the Germans speak back to me in English! It’s a clumsy loop, but it kinda works! (Like a car limping along on 5 cylinders instead of 6.)

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  3. I laughed so hard I almost cried – Thank you for posting this! Sounds like it’s a lot of fun living over there, but I’ve heard the economy is pretty bad. If I may ask, have you found it challenging to adjust financially? Did you have to save up a lot before you moved?

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    1. I’m a freelancer working for American clients, so I haven’t experienced what it’s like to work for a German company. From what I can see, the economy here is doing just fine.

      It TRULY sucks converting American dollars to Euros though. Oh my God it’s so painful.

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  4. Haha great post!!! :-) especially with the flies haha I found myself looking for the same expression the other day. My bf is doing the same from english into german and holy s*** that’s when I burst into laughter :-)

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  5. So you were running to catch the under/overground train, were you? What’s the rush? Is the German rush catching on?

    Although I have to admit that driving in Hanover makes me a wee bit antsy, too, because traffic lights there have the scientifically proven tendency to turn red exactly the second I am approaching. No other city does that to me!

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      1. Oh wow, really? A1.1? Hopefully that’s just a Bavarian thing. :)

        Congrats on completing the A1!

        I will start my integration course in March. I have to take a placement exam though. Not sure where I’ll land. :)

        Have a fantastic day!

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      2. Yesterday it was a bit sunny, which was a relief after all the grey fog we have had for weeks. Today we must have the rain you had yesterday. We clearly didn’t move to Germany for the weather! Have a nice day.

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      1. I presented your post to my students at my new conversation class. They all loved it and literally tried to figure out the actual dialog at the Drug Store buying toothpaste.
        Similar to your experiences, one of my students told me about:
        “Nothing For UnGood: Deutsche Seltsamkeiten aus amerikanischer Perspektive (German Edition) ” and
        “And Good Is: Amerikanische Seltsamkeiten aus einheimischer Perspektive (German Edition)” by John Madison. I bought the kindle version and fell off the chair laughing after reading the first few pages.

        LG Anja

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      2. That’s awesome, Anja! Thank you for sharing it!

        Yeah, if you search through all your lowest forms of German vocabulary, you can totally figure out what I was actually saying. Like a map of miscommunication…

        I will check out those books as well! Great finds! Thank you!

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    1. Oh totally. When you have to stop and translate each word in your head, you never have time to catch up with the conversation. I look forward to someday being able to understand German without internal translation of any sort. I hope it’s possible. :)

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  6. Hi! Your blog is hilarious! I totally relate to this very specific post as I spent one year in Germany myself without speaking German (and without a German partner unfortunately for my learning of the Deutsch) and had the same exact problem with spoken language. I could read and talk simply after weeks of intensive classes but every single time they answered I would feel my heart pounding, my cheeks flushing and my brain shutting down. It was HARD!

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  8. My husband was stationed in Germany for eight years, he learned german from watching cartoons and movies that he knew in english. Oh and of course just by hanging out with germans ( and trying to order a Döner at 2am after a fun night out, those Turks will teach you some german lol)

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  9. “That would be, of course, two flies with one slap.”
    this is so freaking funny, because i just do exact the same thing. people look at my sometimes like i am from mars, but when my husband is with me most of the time he can translate what i mean. he has a nag to understand my warped denglish. it got much better, but i still prefer, do not talk to people on the phone much……….lol

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  10. Several years on from your post, but I just read it while looking up info on life in Hannover. My (German) husband has a job offer there. (München is also a possibility.) We currently are in Leipzig and I’ve been working in an English language environment, which hasn’t helped my German at all. It is just as you say. Wherever we end up, I won’t have a job and so will immediately enroll in one of those super intense German language classes. Love the German version of killing two birds with one stone. Have you heard their version of “kick the bucket”? Den Löffel abgeben! To give away the spoon! It makes as much sense as kicking buckets, I suppose.

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