I’m an American living in Freiburg. I’m married to another American, and we have three boys (6, 4, and 1). Many moons ago, I earned a degree in art history, and then I spent several years planning travel as a profession. Now, I’m the chief travel officer for our family, finding ways for the five of us to explore Europe on the cheap. I write about our expat escapades at Thrifty Travel Mama.
In short, my husband finished his doctorate in the throes of the US recession. No one was hiring; in fact, many companies were firing. We found out about an opportunity for him to do a post-doc in Germany, and it seemed like a dream come true. We had always wanted to live in Europe in order to travel, learn from other cultures, and study a foreign language.
Americans are notorious for being Anglocentric. I wish I could say I’ve risen above that. Alas, I’m still only fluent in two languages – English and bad English. German is the third foreign language I have studied (the others are Spanish and Russian). As with any foreign language, the more you use it, the better you are at it. My opportunities to speak German are limited to my interaction with the teachers at my sons’ kindergarten and everyday activities such as making appointments, grocery shopping, etc.
Two things that surprised me about Germany: superstition and precision. Germans aren’t very religious; if they are, they’re usually Catholic or Protestant. But, I found it quite interesting to know that it was considered bad luck to wish someone a happy birthday before the actual day. And if you want to celebrate early for convenience – say your birthday is Monday but a party on Sunday makes more sense? Well, that is just not done. You won’t find anyone wishing you a happy early birthday. Second, it’s no secret that Germans are extremely precise. In most instances, like train arrivals and departures, I chalk this up as positive. Unfortunately, this exactness causes a lot of problems for foreigners. For instance, say you are in need of a toilet for your child who needs to go right now. Naturally, you might ask a German, is there a toilet here I can use? If there’s not, they’ll simply say no. What they won’t do is offer additional information such as, “There’s a toilet in the cafe next door that’s free to use.” Why? Well, because you didn’t ask if there was a toilet in the cafe, only if there was one here. You will always receive a direct response – but you must take care to ask the right question.
My advice to current and future expats is to be fully present where you are right now. Living in a foreign country – even one as clean, safe, and modern as Germany – is hard. If you always have one foot in your host country and one foot in your home country, you’ll constantly be torn. Do your best to stop comparing. No two cultures are the same; and one is not better than the other. Choose to appreciate the positive elements of the new culture and view the not-so-good aspects as just part of the adventure. That is why we’re expats, right?