It was 7 years ago today that I first stepped off the plane at Berlin’s Tegel airport and started my life as an American expat in Germany. I don’t think I’ve told my whole story on the blog, so I thought I’d share the beginning of my adventure with you today.
The story actually starts a bit before my move. Rainer and I met in the statistics department at Duke University. I was a PhD student, and he was a visiting professor (that was Duke’s fancy name for a post-doc). We were friends for a long time. I knew he liked me, and I just waited and waited for him to make a move. This was our first culture clash. It seems he was making moves, but they were German moves and Americans do things much more overtly.
One example is when he threw a party. While discussing it, I mentioned that I don’t like the taste of alcohol and only drink it in mixed drinks. He went out of his way to make me a special punch, which I didn’t drink, and didn’t realize was especially for me.
You see, German’s don’t date. They just kind of go out in groups and a couple wanders off together at some point in the evening, and then they’re a couple.
Anyways, eventually I got a little fed up and made the move myself. I emailed him, wrote that I liked him, and asked him on a date. Things went well after that, but soon his time in the US was up and he got his dream job back in Berlin. We decided to date long distance. We planned visits and spoke every day on the phone.
A couple months after he left, my father passed away of pancreatic cancer. Rainer flew over for the funeral, and we realized that we wanted to be together.
Since my life was the more flexible one, and I thought it would be a nice adventure to move to Europe, I went over the Christmas holidays to visit Rainer and his family. I had my first surprise, Rainer told me he was going to take me to the top Berlin opera house for an opera, so I went shopping, bought a beautiful ball gown and shoes, which I towed with me to Berlin. Surprise, surprise. Germans go to operas in jeans and t-shirts. I was a little overdressed. Also a little disappointed, but I got over it, and decided I liked Germany enough to consider moving.
Ready for the opera – 2002
I sent out job applications, and came back for a longer visit, about a month, in March. I knew I wanted a job lined up before I came. I couldn’t imagine staying at home, figuring if I did, I’d be miserable and it would end up destroying the relationship. I went on several interviews, some with companies, some for PhD student positions at various universities and research institutes in Berlin. Rainer asked me to marry him, and I accepted a job at a pharmaceutical company.
I went home and prepared for the move, selling off as much of my stuff as I could. In hindsight, since the company was going to pay for my move, I should have brought most of it. I thought my DVDs wouldn’t play (you can buy region-free players), and I thought it wouldn’t cost much to replace all those little things, like mops and brooms and night stands and shoe racks (all those little things add up to a lot of money).
The first few months were difficult. I had a very full plate. I worked full time, was planning a wedding, was taking 9 hours of intensive German classes a week in the evenings, and we were looking for a bigger apartment. I studied hard, and within 6 months I’d gone from Grundstufe II (beginner level 2) to Oberstufe I (advanced level 1). I was burned out at this point though and quit the classes. I kept up practicing (many of my coworkers refused to speak English with me after the 6 month point) and within a year I was fluent. Looking back, it was probably good for me that so many spoke only German with me, but at the time it added to my homesickness. I felt I couldn’t really communicate exactly what I was thinking or feeling and it made me very unhappy to be at work.
I was desperately homesick.
Before the move, I lived in North Carolina, where things moved slowly, people chatted up strangers, and I got delicious fruit off the back of a farm truck that would park in front of my gym every Saturday morning. Contrast that with Berlin, where I once made the mistake of saying “Guten Morgen” to a guy on the street, who flinched before moving as far away from me as the sidewalk would allow. Berliners don’t apologize. Everything is your fault, even the stuff that’s really their fault, and they’re happy to give you an earful about how whatever you’re doing is wrong. And the fruits and vegetables were bland and tasteless.
I went from a high fiber, high vegetable content diet, to eating a ham and cheese croissant for breakfast on the way to the office, having coffee and cake with my coworkers every afternoon, and grabbing pizza or Döner for dinner on the way to German class. I almost doubled my dress size that first year.
I missed my father, I missed my family, and I missed a life where I knew what to expect from people and I knew how to get things done. I missed a life where a trip to the supermarket wasn’t a difficult chore. I hadn’t expected Germany to be as different as it was.
I tried to blame this all on work, and left the company to do research. Unfortunately, the only position was in Rostock, two hours away. I moved to Rostock, and Rainer and I would spend weekends together. Things didn’t improve. In fact, they got worse as I started having serious problems with my health. I spent hours waiting in doctors offices, learning German medical terms and customs. Eventually, I decided I had to quit working altogether and focus on myself.
I took up genealogy as a serious hobby, spending hours online tracing my family tree, and we got a dog. I got exercise and made friends walking the dog. Things started to improve. I focused on making a life for myself here and learning to be happy, and slowly I started to enjoy Germany more and more.
It took me three years to start to adjust to life here. As negative as this post might sound, I love my life here now and no longer want to move back (or at least I would expect a long adjustment period until I was happy in the US).
Germany isn’t better or worse than the US, it’s just different. Once I started to appreciate those differences, instead of being irritated by them, I learned to love my new home.
Are you an expat? How is your adjustment going? Was it difficult or did you settle smoothly into your new home? What are your thoughts?