How my expat journey began

by Christina Geyer on May 14, 2009 · 39 comments

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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.

Christina in Berlin - 2002

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.

Christina in Potsdam - 2002 Christina in Potsdam – 2002

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?


  • http://tyronestravels.blogspot.com/ Tyrone

    Good article. Best line for me: Germany isn’t better or worse than the US, it’s just different. That’s precisely the conclusion i came to many years ago after moving back and forth between the two countries several times. However it is still a (hotly) debated subject within our family, as some sisters live in the US, and rest of us live here.
    If i had financial freedom i’d live 6 months here and 6 months in the US!

    Tyrones last blog post..Booker T and the MG’s

  • http://tgaw.wordpress.com Vicky

    Nice post, Christina! I always admired your bravery for making such a move. Now even more so!

    Vickys last blog post..Introducing….The Virginia Appalachian Trail License Plate!

  • http://atouchofdutch.blogspot.com Isabella

    Wow! Amazing, Christina! Thanks so much for sharing this. Many points while reading this, I nodded. I had the no-chatting with strangers occur again to me yesterday while doing sight-seeing. It’s something I am not sure I can ever adjust myself to, but at the same time I don’t want to change that about myself. To answer your questions thoroughly, I guess I could write a whole blog entry about it myself and may just do so in the near future 😉 But for now, I do understand very well what you have gone through. Especially language.

    Thanks again for sharing this!

  • http://www.lilacspecs.com Lilacspecs

    I’m an expat living in Belgium (Flanders) and I’ve been here about 17 months now. I took a high intensity Dutch course for 9 months (only 6 months were class…the Belgians like their vacations) but I’ve been struggling to find work and only finally found something a week ago…cleaning houses. I’m not fluent in Dutch yet, hence the job struggle, but it’s coming along. I’m not very happy here, despite the support of my fiance, but your story makes me feel better about the time it’s taking to adjust.

  • http://www.spottedsparrow.com The Spotted Sparrow

    What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been in Germany for 2 years and am still not fluent. You are definitely right about it helping when people refuse to speak English to you!

  • http://dharmmabumm.tumblr.com christine

    Hi Christina!
    Thanks for this great post! It is very interesting, and great to see the journey you took!
    I am studying German this summer in preparation for my move there. I’ve taken seven classes at University, and I have spent a month in Tuebingen last summer. I live with German grandparents in the US, so we will speak everyday with each other. Do you have any tips on good ways to learn? My biggest fear is that I will not be able to communicate well enough :/ It is so impressive you learned in just a year!
    -Christine

    christines last blog post..(via borisjohnson)
    let’s lay on our backs for hours and…

  • http://mariawj.blogspot.com Maria

    I think, for me, I moved in and out of countries relatively easily, delighted in small victories, and had a good time, but I also knew that each year we’d move to the US in spring and back to Europe in the fall. Nothing in my life was set, and because of that, it gave me a different perspective. It also made it harder to become fluent in the languages!

    Marias last blog post..There are no small things in mothering

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    @tyrone: I know plenty of people who would debate which is better. I’ve even got Republican family members who’ve said that if I love Europe so much, I should just stay over here! LOL!

    @vicky: Aw shucks! *blush*

    @isabella: The chatting with strangers thing seems to be a common complaint among expats from the US, so we’re not alone! I’d love to read your story!

    @lilacspecs: Hang in there. I remember how tough it was, and it gets better with time. 18 months in is about the time when I thought changing jobs would help, but it’s just about time and patience.

    @spotted sparrow: I think that, and being in the East, where not as many people speak English, was a big help. Here in Regensburg, everyone speaks English and I bet it’s a lot harder to practice German.

    @christine: It sounds like you’re doing a great job already. I think once you have the ability to get your point across, it’s easy to improve once you’re immersed in the language here. I think it’s those first beginning steps, when you can’t communicate at all, that are hardest to do abroad.

    @maria: I think not knowing what country you’d be in next year would make it really difficult to become fluent! You guys never spent more than one season in the same country, did you?

  • http://mariawj.blogspot.com Maria

    Um, well… We were in France two seasons in a row, but it was more like a few months, then home while Kevin rehabbed an injury, and back the next fall. But generally, No. Turkey, France x2, Germany… then I started staying home while he traveled. I did best with German, because I already knew a lot more than I thought I remembered (it was my language in school), but no one wanted to speak much of it to me. LOL!

  • Sonya

    I’m coming up on my 2 year mark of moving to the netherlands. It’s been an hard adjustment at times but now that I look at myself and my two sons..I know this was a good move. We’ll be jumping the border into germany very soon so Im sure that will bring new adventures and before I shrank away from change..but now? Im so ready for anything and everything.

  • Cy

    hi Christina:

    Love your new post!

    I have been in Regensburg for about 9 months. At the beginning, it was tough because:-

    #1. The winter is unbearable (I came from Malaysia where it’s like summer all year long).
    #2. I don’t speak the language, though you said everyone in Rgb speaks English, but my experience suggest otherwise 😉
    #3. Home sick
    #4. The fruits, like you mentioned, suck big time!
    and many other reasons..

    Now I am adjusting better and better. Still a long way to go though. 😀

    CY

  • http://philsblogging.com Phil A

    Thank you for sharing. Your post shows that moving to a different country doesn’t have to go smoothly and can be the reason for a change in your psyche affecting you in all walks of life. My student friends often say they want to leave Austria and move to some place (some want to go to the US) but I’m afraid they don’t consider every aspect of it. Some of which you picked up in your entry.

    What do you think would be different for a German (and since I’m from Austria) or Austrian living in the United States?

    My answer to this after looking into the expat issue: Health care, job, apartment related troubles in the beginning. I guess I wouldn’t have a problem with the people.

    Phil As last blog post..Anna Montana And Other Stuff

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    @maria: Trying to learn a new language every year would be tough, especially if people want to practice their English with you!

    @sonya: Very true. Moving to another country makes you realize that you’re capable of a lot more than you might have thought!

    @cy: The winter here is a lot different from North Carolina too. I think I might need to visit the US in March next year because I’m just completely fed up with winter by then. You’re right, not everyone speaks English, I also think sometimes Germans feel the need to “teach” some foreigners by only speaking German with them until they show that they can speak German, then they are willing to speak English. I think they especially do this to certain foreigners. They were that way with me, but when I ran around with a white American once, who didn’t speak any German, I was really shocked at how much she managed to do in English.

    @phil: Well, I asked Rainer, since he did move to the US for a while, and he said he thinks it’s easier to go to the US than for an American to come to Germany (or Austria). He said Americans are more open, although making friends is probably as difficult there as it is here. He said the hardest part was the little things that you do the way you’d do them in Germany, but don’t realize are maybe rude by American standards, like phrases that are proper in German, saying “Das ist falsch” as “that’s wrong,” which is a stronger statement in English than it is in German (the proper English translation might be more like, “I disagree”). But he says Americans are more forgiving of these mistakes than he thinks Germans are. He says definitely get a book that explains the differences, like in getting health insurance or leasing an apartment or knowing how credit works. He also says the first thing you need to do is get a Social Security Number, otherwise everyone thinks you are a criminal. And know that except for a couple cities, you will need a car to do anything.

  • Amanda

    Hi Christina!

    I love your blog; especially the amount of thought and time you put into it. Thank you!

    I’ve lived in 2 countries outside of the US (only one was a non-English speaking country) and in both cases I was horrified by my fellow country people spending waaay too much time comparing “home” with “host country.” The reason we choose to live abroad in the first place is because we are open to living differently than we were raised. For me, if some spend too much time comparing this and that then they miss what’s happening in their lives at that very moment. Germans, in general, have a reputation for being hard to love, but they are still interesting people and should be accepted for who they are, even if that means checking our sensitivities. Though, I think I’d cry more than once if someone overtly dissed a “good morning” from me!

    Your story is wonderful and I appreciate you sharing it. You and Rainer are a beautiful couple and your wee one is SO cute!!

    PS- With Germans being perceived as so direct, I can’t believe that they’d have any trouble telling the object of their desire that they like them! Paradoxical once again, those Germans! :)

  • ann

    Hey Chrisitina,
    (i looooove those photos.) i’ve hit more of a rough patch recently where things haven’t worked out for me career-wise and so it’s actually much harder for me now that it was when i first came to germany. i had quite a bit of language under my belt and a semester in austria where i think i got the brunt of the culture shock out of the way, though, so ymmv.
    ann
    ps – i think comparisons are fine (it is how the human animal stores information) as long is one is fair and notices the great things, too. i.e. – No screens, but German windows are fabulous!

  • http://www.regensblog.com cliff1976

    And know that except for a couple cities, you will need a car to do anything.

    Can you expand on that please? Perhaps a list of the cities or what you mean by “anything” would be nice.

    Thanks,
    Cliff

    cliff1976s last blog post..Travel deals 26.03.2009

  • http://philsblogging.com Phil A

    @cliff1976: I think what Christina meant with this comment were cities like LA or other widespread areas where you need a car to get around due to a lack of public transport. Getting to your job, dropping off kids at school and shopping for groceries. Living in Santa Barbara or Santa Monica you have virtually no other means than your car to get to downtown.

    I lived with a family in CA for two summers. The dimensions are quite different there. Shopping malls outside of the cities. You can’t help but take a car drive there if you want to get there.

    San Francisco has quite a nice public transport system.

    Phil As last blog post..Finally Up On My Wall

  • Alison

    Hi Christina,

    Loved your post! It brought a lot MORE insight on the person you are – and we love you for it! Thanks…
    As an ex-pat who has been living in Germany for almost half my lifetime now (15 years!!!!! – I still can’t beleive it!), reading about your Journey was almost like my beginning.. mixed in with a lot of the comments from others. I had a German boyfriend, who I met in Florida where I was living at the time. I got a job as an Aupair in Germany to be closer to him and to try it out. Lived in Tegernsee with a family who the parents both lived and worked the whole week in Berlin & Dresden.. needless to say, I didnt stay there that long.. found another family in Tegernsee and went back & forth to Regensburg on the weekends. Left that family and moved in with the boyfriend (who is now my husband.. got a job cleaning and taking care of children and had my intensive German classes (which was fantastic except for the fact that I had a LOT of english speakers in my class and of course you tend to gravitate towards them for friendships – which then leads to the compare and contrast scenario). I was lucky enough to get a company to “sponser” me for a job (the vicious circle here, you have to have a permit to work here yet no one will give you a job unless you have a work permit). So after miles of paperwork and 3 months later I could officially start to work (at Siemens as a translator). I am still at that job today though lots has changed including the company name. During my work life… I became accustumed to the German way of life… 6 weeks paid vacation and the close proximity to the rest of Europe helped. Winters were the terrible homesick times for me… (5 years living in sunny Florida helped make it almost unbearable). I had trouble mostly with breaking into the cliques here.. you see, we Americans are seen here as very “superficial”, (our hugs and how are you’s are mostly at fault for it) though friendly, but not made for the intensive friendships they have here. I don’t agree.. it’s just as Christina said… different. I am now living in a very quiet village 50 Kms away from Regensburg and have totally and completely integrated myself into life here. It definitely helps to have children (I now have 2) and join a lot of the “groups” (Vereine) that they have her. I have quite a few good friends and many aquantainces…(all in German). The whole town knows me (which to some that could be bothersome but not to me… think Theme song to Cheers.. where everybody knows your name…). The only thing that still is troublesome is that I – though my German is very good – still have the expression problem. I once heard an ex-pat on the radio who said “not matter how long you live here, you can never “be entirely yourself” in German. That, I must admit is one of the truest statements I have ever heard. Still today, there is the language/humor/understanding barrier that refuses to be broken. Thank goodness Christina organizes “meetings” for Ex-pats in the Regensburg area.. because there, without the expression barrier, I can be my lingual self… Thanks Christina!

  • http://happylilfamily.wordpress.com Jessie

    I can’t even tell you how much I relate to this story!! Luckily in Munich, the people are a little more open than in the North (or so I hear!) but coming from Texas is really difficult, bc everyone there is so friendly! I had a hard time understanding the idea of “bekannte” – to me, everyone is a friend! When I first met my fiance, I must have seemed so insane to him because I was very obviously flirting Ami style and he didn’t know what to do!! Long story short, I’ve been here for almost 3 years in total and feel pretty well adjusted. It is still hard sometimes, but not near as bad as in the beginning.

    Jessies last blog post..it’s here! it’s here!

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    @amanda: Thank you! That last part of your comment is kind of what Rainer was getting at. There are some things Germans are more direct about, and some things Americans are more direct about, and when you first move, often you don’t know and make a lot of mistakes!

    @ann: I really hope things get better for you soon! I think comparisons are fine too, as long as you find the good things too and aren’t just comparing what’s worse in your new country. And German windows are a good example. No screens, which sucks, but the tilty thing is awesome.

    @cliff: Like Phil said. There are some cities where public transportation is good enough that you don’t need a car, like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, but most places you do need one (Richmond, VA, has a compact enough downtown that you could probably get by with a bicycle- I did it as a college student for 4 years- but the houses in the decent areas cost a fortune- I lived in a really bad area where we regularly heard gunshots, not the place for raising a family). Even when the distances aren’t that great, most Americans aren’t used to looking out for pedestrians and bicyclers, so you’re taking your life into your hands when you’re not in a car. In North Carolina, my gym would have been about a 5 minute walk from my apartment, but I had to take the car because there were no sidewalks. There were also restaurants within walking distance, but I had to cross the entrance to the highway on- and off-ramp to get to them, and there was no traffic light. I did that once and barely made it unscathed! Do you disagree with some part of that previous statement? I’d love to hear your take on it.

    @phil: I agree, especially once you have a family. As a single or couple without kids, you might manage in a larger number of cities with just a bicycle, but it would be a lot harder with taking the kids to school and going shopping when you have more people you need to look after.

    @allison: Thanks for adding your story! You also reminded me that I need to get around to planning another dinner. We’ve been so busy this last couple months that it’s hard to find time!

    @Jessie: I’ve lived in the northeast and in Bavaria, and it is true that people are much more open (and relaxed) down here. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I’d moved straight here from North Carolina, but the difference between Bavarians and Prussians is huge.

  • Cy

    Hey Christina:

    I am highly interested with the expat’s dinner. If you need helps, let me know.

    CY

  • http://www.regensblog.com cliff1976

    I gotta confess, I misread that section of your post originally. I know pretty much exactly what you mean when you say that having a car makes life possible in the USA, for the majority of locales, at least.

    Even when the distances aren’t that great, most Americans aren’t used to looking out for pedestrians and bicyclers, so you’re taking your life into your hands when you’re not in a car.

    I hadn’t thought about that. When thinking about what it would take to change US communities into less car-dependent ones, I usually focus on infrastructure and urban planning topics like “How ya gonna get a usable tram line to run from A to B?” and “Making daily shopping needs achievable on human power means overpasses, crosswalks, and bike lanes galore.” The process of getting car drivers to really expect bikers or walkers to be in spaces occupied in their entire previous life by only vehicles will surely be the dangerous transitional phase, if communities really take the plunge and try to plan themselves around a people-powered transit concept.

    cliff1976s last blog post..I wanted Moldova to win

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    @cy: I just saw that Star Trek is playing in English tomorrow at the Cinemaxx at 8:50pm. I bet I won’t be the only English speaker going!

    @cliff: That will be a dangerous time, but the infrastructure needs to get there first. I hope that happens.

  • Frank

    I am not an expat but my girlfriend is from the US. We met in 2006 when she came to Germany for the first time to improve her German. She was a German major at her university. Since then we managed it to have a long distance relationship. Since we both were students I was able to stay in the US for a long time during my breaks and I could experience the day to day life. To be honest, since then I have problems with my own country. I loved how easy and outgoing Americans are.
    My gf moved to Berlin in September to do a master programme at the Humboldt-Universität. So I experience the city quite often now. I can not believe how rude people can be there. They are even smug about it and think this is the only way how to be. I hate it. I really love Berlin. It is a cheap city with a lot of cultural stuff to do and you can afford it but I could go without grumpy Berliners. So you see even as a German (from the south where people are at least a little bit less rude) it is difficult to adjust to your own country sometimes.

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    LOL, Frank! I have the exact same feelings about Berlin. It’s a great city, except for all the grumpy Berliners. Rainer, who’s from the Eifel, has problems with the Prussians too.

  • http://www.regensblog.com cliff1976

    Rainer, who’s from the Eifel, has problems with the Prussians too.

    Do the Bavarians (Oberpfälzer? Franken?) give him any trouble?

    I observe interactions between different groups of Germans daily at work. Yesterday I worked all day in Nürnberg. Today I’m at “home” in Regensburg. Tomorrow I’ll be in Ingolstadt all day. That’s three kinds of Bavarian right there in three days (and saying that around Franconians can be risky business itself). They all seem desperate to prove how different they are from each other.

    When we first moved here, a local friend of ours originally from the Chiemsee area explained how, for insult purposes, (his kind of) Bavarians lump humans into “Bavarian” and “Saupreis.” The Japanese guy ahead of you in line to park your car becomes a Saupreis Japaner if he gets the last spot in the parking garage, forcing you to back up and look elsewhere. The concept itself — ignoring the overt offensiveness for a moment — cracked us up. Insulting anyone not Bavarian by using the insult normally reserved for Prussians against them seemed just too wacky.

    And then I heard about the traditions of clunking your beer glass on the table before the first sip of a toast (anyone else do that?) and the names groups Bavarians have for each other (Moosbüffel and Beute-Bayern, to name the two I hear most frequently). Around our office, they’re always said in jest, between colleague who know each other well. But I wonder if, under the joke layer, there’s something more serious there (or maybe was, originally). These cultures have had hundreds and hundreds of years to develop near to and yet relatively isolated from each other, so I’m guessing it’s not on the same level as a Kansas-Missouri rivalry or the Yooper-Troll nicknames in Michigan.

    I mostly quietly observe these interactions, but I would like to hear Rainer’s (as a fellow non-Bavarian used-to-live-in-Bonn perseon) and others’ perspectives on these things.

    cliff1976s last blog post..Nürnberg Day Trip

  • Rachel

    Christina,
    I’m so excited I found your blog! I’ll be moving to Augsburg in August. I’ll be teaching at an international school there for at least two years. I’ve already learned so much from reading just a few of your posts. I look forward to reading through the archives.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    @cliff: I talked to Rainer about it and he says northern Bavarians are fine, but he finds many of the southern Bavarians and Müncheners to be a bit pretentious: “They’ve spent too much time looking down on everyone from up in the mountains” is how he described their attitude. He says he gets along great with Rheinländer. Basically the more easy going, laid back folk are more his cup of tea. He also says these are broad generalizations and there are plenty of Berliners and Müncheners, etc, who he gets along great with.

    @rachel: Thanks for the comment. Good luck on your move!

  • Alexandra

    Hi, thanks for allowing strangers read your blog… I read it for the first time today and enjoy it… we just moved to Copenhagen and went to Berling during the weekend, and lately I enjoy visiting blogs of the cities we visit.

    Alexandras last blog post..Before & After

  • http://paddyinba.blogspot.com/ quickroute

    I’ve bounced around many countries and I think it gets easier the more you do it but having a network of friends soon after you arrive is key

  • Betty

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m so glad I found your blog. I’m an American who moved to Germany April 2008. Reading your blog mirrored many of my own experiences and thoughts.

    You have given me hope! I’m still hanging in there. For the past year I’ve truly worked at learning the language. I can manage through daily tasks and basic conversations. But even after a year, I cannot truly express my exact thoughts and ideas in German. This can be extremely isolating.

    Although I’m living in NRW (Germany’s most populated region) somehow I managed to live in a tiny town near the Dutch border where the local dialect is a mixture of Dutch and German. It took me four months to realize if someone was speaking German, Dutch or the local Platt. I thought I’d never learn German :) Got it now!

    However, living in the sticks in Germany is a lot like living in small town USA. The locals don’t truly accept anyone who is not from here – this includes German’s from other regions. If as an outsider you make a cultural booboo there is very little forgiveness. And I must say I would be thrilled if a German acutally just chatted with me about something – anything. I can dream!

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    @Alexandra: You’re welcome! Thanks for commenting!

    @quickroute: Very true. I had trouble making friends here my first few years. I didn’t know the German customs, there weren’t a lot of Americans around… Starting this blog was a big help in finding others in the same situation.

    @betty: Hang in there, it will get better. And at least around here, the atmosphere seems to vary a lot from village to village. We are in a very liberal village, and we were welcomed in pretty quickly (our neighbors were using “Du” within a month or so), but many of the surrounding villages are much more closed off and sometimes even Ausländerfeindlich. In general, I find that somewhere between 1-2 years of knowing you, Germans will start chatting with you. We’re lucky that we had a couple neighbors here who took us on immediately, but as time goes by, more and more people stop to chat with us.

  • Jessica

    Hi Christina!

    Just read your posts by finding your blog after searching about the difference between bilberries (Heidelberren) and blueberries… long ago (almost a decade) I returned to the USA after living for 17 years in Frankfurt am Main. My mother still lives there. I enjoyed your post especially, since few Americans really understand that Europeans, and Germans in particular are not “just like” us! Although very similar there are some minor but significant differences, for one, since I spent my formative years in Germany, when I returned at the end of 2000 to the US, I was very confused about dating… since as you mentioned, German’s don’t date!

    I’m glad that you finally made the transition and now appreciate what Germany has to offer. In retrospect I had a similar transition coming home to the US as it seems that you had moving to Germany. Meanwhile though I miss the little things about Germany, the food in particular!

    I do have one comment from my own experience with Germans. I found that the further south you go the more friendly they are to strangers. I spent several weeks in a border town to Austria when I first arrived with my mother back in early 1984 and many people astonished me by greeting us on the street. I’m a NYer so this behavior obviously disturbed me! On the other hand I also spent time in northern Germany (in a town called Lübeck) and the people would just about push you off the sidewalk if you were in their way!

    It could just be a mentality thing, but I always wondered how the weather influenced German’s “Gemüter”?!

    Thanks for posting your experience! Now I feel a little homesick for Germany (haven’t been back since 2002!).
    Hopefully I’ll make it back before long!

  • http://www.amiexpat.com Christina Geyer

    I have also found that the further south you go, the friendlier people get. Bavarians are much friendlier than Prussians, in general. Not sure if it’s whether related, or religion – it seems Catholic areas are a little more open than Protestant.

  • Malena

    Hi Christina!

    I’ve read your blog from time to time and have really enjoyed it, and I think it’s about time I become a faithful subscriber!

    I really enjoyed reading the story of your transition to life here and appreciate your invitation for fellow expats to write with our experiences!

    I’ve been living in Berlin “on and off” since May of last year and finally decided to apply for an artist visa this June. I still feel like I have one foot on land and one foot ready to escape at any given moment, though I admit I find myself becoming more and more fond of my new “home” and somehow keep coming back to it.

    I especially loved your comments about daily tasks like going to the supermarket feeling like such a chore! How about having to put all your groceries in the bag at the checkout while everyone is waiting in line for you to finish? This is a skill to be mastered. I’m proud of myself every time I come up with a new timesaving shortcut. I also take joy in small things like making my grocery lists in German… tomaten, eier, basilikum, lachsfilet, orangensaft… go me! My German is still at the “beginner” level, though I’ve improved a lot after getting past the initial fear of making mistakes, which I think stemmed from my general feeling that Germans are perfectionists. Funny though, my English has declined also, and I find myself saying things like, “I need to make fitness” and “When will we meet us?” and “I’ll make it like that.” I’ve also noticed here that everything in life seems to fit in two categories: “possible” and “not possible”. Maybe you understand what I mean? :)

    I don’t really connect with the men here, and that’s the main “thing” that isn’t cool with me. I’ve dated German and other international men here and they all seem to have this detached Berlin attitude.

    Otherwise, discomforts and inconveniences of adjusting to a new country aside, I must say I have had more time for reflection, observation and self-improvement here than I have had in my entire life. Being away from all the cultural and societal “ism’s” of the U.S. has allowed me to really spend time focused on regaining balance in my life, spending more time in nature and devoting my energy to things I enjoy doing. I’m realizing how money-focused and FAST my life is/was in the States and how over time, this can lead to imbalance and ill health. I’m so grateful for this time, as I feel I’ve gotten to know myself in a new way and am continuing to let myself learn how to live a calm, happy life free from constant competition and “busy-ness”.

    I’ve discarded about 80% of my previous wardrobe and am living much more simply now. And I enjoy a much more healthful diet and can AFFORD to buy “Bio” fruits and vegetables!

    I would like to see some other areas of Germany as I’ve only ever been to Berlin and Potsdam. I’m curious to visit Freiburg as I hear it has a sort of chill, California vibe about it :)

    I look forward to reading more of your blog. Wishing you all the best!

  • koszczewski

    Read your blog and laughed out loud at your description of Berliners:) It is true. I live in NC and my Mom had her pancreas removed at Duke at the onset of her battle with pancreatic cancer. She lasted 18months. I am sorry about your father. A shared life experiance. A horrible disease. I miss her every day. It never goes away.
    I was born in Zehlendorf and my Mom was born and raised in Berlin during the war. There are 2 Koszczewski’s in the phone book, both my Uncles. I lived there after I graduated from high school, with my grandmother. It was a wonderful time in my life.
    I loved the speisequark, rotkohl and goose at Christmas. The doner’s on my way home from work at Wand und Boden with the pommes frittes mit mayonaise. Walking everywhere did not help with the battle of the bulge!
    I would move in a heart beat but I have heard the unemployment is just as bad there as it is here. I retain my EU citzenship for just that possibility.
    In any case, I enjoyed your story and hope you continue your blog/website. How about an entry on the difference between german and american coffee? :)
    Best Wishes,
    Pamela Koszczewski

  • Maggie McFie

    Hi Christina!
    Your blog is interesting. I was fascinated with Berlin for most of my life, made my first trip over in 2001 and in less than a day knew this was where I was meant to be. After two more trips I was resolved to make Berlin my home. While finishing my M.Ed in Utah I did everything I could to prepare myself to be hired here … still I feel that I was unbelievably lucky to have landed a state contract as a primary school teacher in one of the Europe schools here – English/German.
    My then 3-year-old basset and I moved to Berlin in July 2003. Naturally the beginning is always difficult (uggghhh, the bureaucracy as a single American woman), but I was so happy to finally be here for good it didn’t seem so bad. After about 6 months I began “seeing” one of my colleagues (in secret from the rest of the school, of course!) – less than a year later we were engaged 😀 (major shock and excitement for our colleagues and students alike!).
    In 2007 we bought a flat, in 2008 we were married (my husband is Scottish but has lived here for about 15 years), now our first child is on the way in April 2010 :).
    I just have to say as well that I LOVE the health care system here! My girlfriends in the USA are all so envious, how good I have it for my pregnancy.
    BTW…yeah Berliners seem a bit gruff and rude at first, but I always found it refreshingly honest as compared to the typical American greeting. It’s just a good reason to really try to get good at German (I’m getting there but still need improvement!) – give a Berliner some Schnauz back and then they will back off immediately :). I feel more uncomfortable in the south – many Bavarians were too conservative and snooty, imo :).
    All the best,
    Maggie in Charlottenburg

  • http://www.sovietcity.com Lee

    Hi Christina, just found your blog and I really like this post.
    I feel the same way about my adopted country – Russia, it’s not always better or worse, just very different.

    I know exactly what you mean about trips to the supermarkets, I have the same problem in Russia, the checkout girls don’t expect to see an Englishman in deepest Russia and I’ve had many complete and utter communication failures.
    good luck and best wishes

    http://www.sovietcity.com
    .-= Lee´s last blog ..Homeward Bound =-.

  • http://www.bethjennings.com.au Beth Jennings

    Hi christina, I just came across your site…must be long lost angst or something…I’ve been to Germany a few times now, my last trip last year was awesome, and i hated to leave and promised myself to come back…I think I’ll live vicariously through you and your site for a while, until I get back there again! It’s amazing to think it took you 3 years to adjust completely! The language is tough but you were obviously determined to stick it out…uber cool!!

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