Expat Focus: An American Answers Questions About Living in Germany

funny-german-soccer-fussball-fan-drunk
“Ha ha ha! I have no idea what I’m doing!” — Image Credit: Rob124 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/15472273@N07/) — Subject to CC 2.0 License.

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

Interview conducted by Expat Focus

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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.)

funny chocolate easter bunny German
Photo by Duncan Hull (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk/)

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.)

funny Dr. Phil: "You're fat. Don't try and sugar coar it because you'll eat that too."
Image by Duncan Hull (http://www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk/)

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.)

funny scary soccer fan
Photo by Cameron Parkins (http://www.flickr.com/photos/cameronparkins/)

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.

Funny Santa at Christmas with screaming, crying kids.
Image by Scott Clark (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lighttable/)

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.

football punt, kick, field goal
Photo by Paul L Dineen (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pauldineen/)

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48 thoughts

  1. Seriously, have you ever considered becoming an author? “For the love of God and Jesus H. Christ on rice” (to cite your very own words) you are hilarious and you have a brilliant view for all the things we Germans might not realise. And I am quite sure that your humor might touch star-spangled hearts, too. Maybe you can give it a try or just write a single book for me. I’m pretty much cool with both of it. ;)
    Greetings from Kiel,
    Pascal

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    1. Kiel, I cannot thank you enough for your kind words of encouragement. I have thought about writing a book based upon our experiences, and even a screenplay. I’m sure I will someday. And when I do? I will try and find your email address and show you the rough draft.

      Have a great week!!

      Like

  2. Booo about kicking the puppy, hell yes to learning a language of a country you want to live in. You know what helped me with English? 9 years of school, ok, but also books! The radio programme with a lot of English songs (boo to too many German songs now on the radio – no wonder Germans get worse and worse at English – might help YOU though). Passive intake of the language you want to learn helps you get a feeling for that language.

    Like

  3. “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.” — Oh, my, that is my favorite new expression now. I will say, that generally, I found Bavarians a bit less coconut than Berliners….

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      1. No blog, I wish I could write as well has you do. I really enjoy reading about your experience. Nothing has scared me away yet. ;)

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  4. Ha, I had not started reading your blog when you came out with the peach / coconut comparison. You know, these days in Munich I feel like it’s more like this: “Americans are like spoiled peaches (in that you might find a mushy center or a pit), while Germans are like petrified coconuts encased in glass.” Hmm, maybe it’s just the Bavarians. The personality types here I encounter all the time are indifferent, rude, openly hostile, and then just your run-of-the-mill sociopaths. Obviously to meet an indifferent German is a lucky thing.
    -Missing PDX

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  5. Thanks for your marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you might be a great author.
    I will make certain to bookmark your blog and will often come back sometime soon.

    I want to encourage you to continue your great work,
    have a nice morning!

    Like

  6. I’m extremely impressed together with your writing skills
    as well as with the structure to your blog. Is
    this a paid topic or did you customize it yourself?
    Anyway keep up the excellent high quality writing, it’s
    rare to peer a great weblog like this one these days..

    Like

  7. You nailed it! Have you ever noticed something else? Specifically, how Germans (at least in Berlin) love nothing better than to stop in the middle of , say, a doorway to chat, look at their Handy, blow their nose, etc. (rather than actually going THROUGH the doorway and pulling over someplace out of the way? My favorite is when they get off at the top (or bottom) of an escalator and stop, oblivious to the folks behind them, who are being propelled forward at escalator speed.

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  8. Hey, I have to say really well put. I always love reading what you write. It is usually both funny and true, which is your point I think. Keep up the good work man!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic too myself and funny enough quite a few people, both strangers and friends have been inquiring about it.

    Also, a note to commenter Jaton’West: I think stopping in doorways, narrow halls and narrow sidewalks is a German thing. I thought it was only for provincial Germans but if it happens in Berlin that is not the case.
    Additionally, Queuing up also seems like a challenge as does keeping to the right when walking except to pass (like on the escalator). I could come up with many more, but perhaps I should blog about all that myself.

    Like

  9. Hoping things continue to go as best as they can for you. I took the plunge only last September (2013) to Berlin with my wife and son. My wife is from the suburbs outside of Berlin and was living with me in New York for over seven years. I’m going to take an Integrationskurs (I did take German language classes for three years a few years ago) sometime in the near future, when the Amt sends back some paperwork. Getting settled in was a challenge with all the paperwork, packing and unloading our container, as well as a long search for a kitchen (definitely something weird for Americans). As I’ve been telling people who ask me how it is so far, I’ve been coming here for the last 10 years almost annually, so many things are familiar, but there’s always something new everyday. I really enjoy reading your blog and always gives me a laugh.

    Like

  10. My spouse and I stumbled over here from a different web address and thought
    I might as well check things out. I like what I see so now
    i’m following you. Look forward to finding out about your web page for a second
    time.

    Like

  11. I hope this comment cheers you up a bit after the recent dental mishap! So I’ve been following this blog for something like seven months now, and I must agree with the other commenters here and applaud you on being absolutely hilarious. (Totally down to buy that book if you ever write it, by the way.) I, too, will probably be spending between two and three months in Mannheim over this summer – although now I’m a little terrified, as my German vocabulary consists of about thirty words and aural comprehension of those thirty words is a whole different (nonexistent) matter. I know a couple of months is probably short enough for me to get away with completely relying on English and hand gestures, but that feels pretty lame and like a waste of being in the country. With just two months left till the summer, though, what would you suggest for a complete newcomer to both German and the culture? (Also, German grammar: ????)

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  12. My wife and I are contemplating a move to Germany and it was beginning to really freak us out, then we came across your blog and have almost wet ourselves laughing. It some how made the massive task of relocating seem achievable, Thanks! I have now subscribed so I don’t miss future posts keep up the great work.

    Like

  13. Love your post! I feel the same way. In order to be an expat you have to live the life of the locals and look beyond the facade. Thanks for sharing. Your posts are really funny and very tongue-in-cheek LOL!

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  14. Loved the article. Me and my wife will be moving to Germany from Chicago after 25 years of living in the States. I practically call it home now. But we have traveled Europe few times and realized that we want to go back and raise our kids over there. 5 weeks vacation, excellent healthcare, close proximity to other countries, cheap good education. I work for one of the Universities in U.S and if I wanted to put my kids through college in the future I would need to sell my kidneys on the black market :) And the cost of healthcare and education are still on the rise in U.S. People don’t usually talk about those things until they are forced to face the reality. Fortunately we both were raised in Europe so we are able to balance the good and the bad things about both continents and at the end choose the one that will bring better quality of life and security for the future. So Germany it is for us. I agree the language is the number one step to be assimilated into society. When I came to US I never spoke English and now learning German. :) I guess you learn all your life. The only stress is finding employment we will be staying in Berlin. I just love this town. One of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen and I have been to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Spain and many American cities. Thanks for the blog I really like to read about your experiences as an American expact because that’s what I consider myself as well.

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  15. I was raised in Poland. So was my wife, our son Josh was already born in U.S. He’s still 2.5 years old so he’ll speak German without an accent. Unfortunately I was already older than him when arrived to U.S so I’ll never loose mine :). I’m already trying to send out resumes and have been getting few responses, however language is the greatest barrier. I know the culture, the cuisine as it is very similar to the Polish culture. Think of Germany and Poland as Australia and U.S. Australia is a better version of U.S just because it offers the same great things that Germany does as I have mentioned in my previous post. It regularly scores high on the high quality life index such as healthcare, education, proximity to nature, cleaner cities etc. And better climate. For us this is basically one way ticket because we realize that if we will not going to go for it now, we probably never will. I just don’t see ourselves spending $4,000 every 2 years to go visit our parents still living in Europe. Plus kids would have grandparents and be exposed to a different kind of life. You know what I mean. If for some reason we will not be able to make it (which I really don’t think will happen) there is always America. And finding a new job is always less risky than in any European country.

    Thanks for the blog again and Take care.

    Rob

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  16. Good stuff. Enjoy your work. I came to the U.S. from Germany as a baby, but have been back there a few times. Once when I was in the U.S. Army, thankfully I got stationed on a German Army Kaserne. Anyhoo…A bunch of Siemens guys from Germany were at my company in Kansas City to install a electric system for our new KBA presses and I made friends with one & took him over to my Mom’s house for some old-school Rouladen & Knodl’s. He loved the food & spent way too much time talking with my mom. His said he loved her “Old German”. I said wtf is that? He said it’s very rare to hear anyone speak the language like she does. She also made it clear that Munich is where real Germans are from. Maybe they put a-hole in the water there. All my relatives are from the Munich area & they’re all a-holes and my mom fits right in. They also love alcohol.

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