I’m a former globe-trotting backpacker who lived in a work-travel-work-travel cycle for 5/6 years before eventually putting on the brakes in Germany. I originally lived in Hamburg for 2 years but I never really settled in the Hansestadt and so eventually moved to Italy. In 2013 I came back, but I now work in Lübeck and live next to some cows in Mecklenburg Vorpommern.
What brought you to Germany?
The first time was probably to learn the language. I studied history at university and so the idea of living in a giant history book was also appealing but really I was fed up of only being able to speak English. I also knew the only way I could learn a second language would be by throwing myself into the country and doing it the hard way. I’d had 4 years of German at school, which in reality amounted to about 8 seconds of conversation in the real world, but I needed to start somewhere.
What was the biggest struggle when you moved?
There were obvious linguistic problems and a few bureaucratic hurdles but the thing I struggled with most was the distance between people in Hamburg. The people are friendly but actually building real friendships I found really difficult and after a while quite disheartening. I spoke with quite a few folks about this while I was in Hamburg and came to realise that a lot of other newbies to the city had the same problem. The locals just aren’t as “inclusive” as in other parts of the world. And the fact that my 3 main friends by the time I left came from Cologne, Bremen & Copenhagen maybe says something about the Hamburgers…
What is it that you like/dislike about your life in Germany?
That’s actually a really difficult question to answer without having a beer in my hand and half an hour to warble about German culture and society 😉
But if we micro-analyse life in Germany down to my little experiences then for me one of the great pleasures is the patience and effort German people put in to understanding what the hell I’m trying to say through my butchering of their language. And staying on linguistics for the flip side, I’m not a big fan of how direct, and sometimes rude, the language can be. I’m much more comfortable with the British-English idea of saying one thing but quietly implying something completely different…
Any funny, cross-cultural moment/blunder?
I make linguistic blunders on a daily basis and on hot summer days I usually describe the weather as homosexual (schwul) rather than “humid/sticky” (schwül). The only other mistake I can remember was trying to make a sandwich using German blackbread… That was tough going… I almost gave up after 25 minutes of chewing…
Germany is definitely a multicultural country. Whether or not all of those cultures are integrated is something else but you can find faces/cuisine/music/language from all over the world in most towns and cities. Compared to Scotland it’s probably a wider spectrum of cultures but I think the migrants who call the Scottish drizzle home are more integrated.
Do you feel integrated yourself? What does it actually mean?
I’m probably semi-integrated. I speak the language, I’ve learnt to only eat one slice of blackbread at a time and I’m fully immersed in the bureaucracy. But at the same time I live in a Russian bubble completely detached from the country… When I first arrived in Hamburg I made an English-speaking bubble for myself and my wife’s family (all Russian) have done the same on a much more permanent scale in Lübeck. From the TV/newspapers at home to the people they spend their free-time with, everything is in Russian. And so I actually got a “two for one deal” on the living abroad experience by marrying into a Russian family in Germany!
But really integration depends on the person, how willing are you to get involved with the local culture/customs etc. or how much do you want to cut yourself off from the place that you live by holding on to things from back home?
Has any of the stereotypes been confirmed about the Germans?
Coming from Scotland, our perception of the Germans is largely framed by the UK/English media and it’s quite a negative picture they paint. Unfriendly, cold, rude and über-organised people… I’ll admit that they are ridiculously organised, sometimes to a level that can leave you immensely frustrated but on the whole they’re an extremely friendly and helpful bunch.
I think they’ve been burdeoned by history which leaves them sometimes sceptical of how others perceive them, especially when they go abroad, and this contributes to the idea of cold and distant Germans. But really they’re a lovely Volk 🙂
What is it that still strikes you here?
It still amazes me that in 90% of German shops, the people working there are experts on what they sell. The German education/training system tends to produce people who are highly trained specifically for one job, even to be a shop-assisstant. For example, if you ask the same question to someone who works in a coffee shop (not a starbucks branch but a local place) in Germany and someone in Scotland you’d get very different answers. For example, “where does your coffee come from?”, in Germany they’d respond by telling you the country, the region, the name of the farmer and the yearly production levels from that coffee plantation. In Scotland they would say “from a packet…”.
Anything else you wish to add to our interview?
You should never try to make a sandwich using two slices of blackbread. It will break your jaw…