Last week as I was sitting in my bra and underwear at the dermatologist’s office after being told to take my clothes off and wait for the doctor I started reflecting on how crazy our last two years has been and what has become normal to me that at first was so bizarre. Like sitting without any clothes on waiting for the doctor. Usually the doctor will be the one to tell you to take your clothes off while they are in the room no matter if you are at the gyno, dermatologist or your GP. While at first I was a bit shocked even though friends had warned me about the “process” I have now become used to it. While it is less awkward, I still get nervous on the drive and am usually in a full sweat by the time I am parked and walking in to the office. I’m sure the doctors are wondering “what the hell is wrong with her”! So many things we have experienced have pushed me way outside of my comfort zone and most I can laugh about at this point….well depending on the day.
When we decided to embark on our expat journey I can now say I was a bit naive about what was to come. Sure! New adventure…let’s do it! We moved before, no problem! While I hands down believe it has been the best move for our family, it hasn’t been without tears shed, major moments of doubt, worry and straight up frustration. These moments, however, have been laced with joy and a sense of accomplishment and pride watching the boys once again settle into a new situation. Not to say there still aren’t trying days, but I do think we have made it through the rough patch. Reflecting on our last two years I’ve been thinking about all of the curve balls thrown our way and mountains we have climbed (some literal). If only I would have known a bit more before we sold half of our belongings and moved our life across the Atlantic…
One of the most common questions I got moving to Germany is do you speak German? Are you going to learn German? Absolutely! I will for sure be fluent by Christmas (we moved in June). Duh. Fast forward and I am still working on my German. I was probably a bit enthusiastic jumping into an intensive language course (5 days/week, 5 hours/day) while I was trying to get our family settled, studying for my driving test and frankly just keeping my head above water. I did that for four months (and met some awesome people) and since then I have done online tutoring as well as in person private tutoring so I’ve given it a good go. It’s a tough language to learn and my brain just does not seem to want to absorb it in a timely manner. I am now at the point I can get by and do find when I make an effort the conversation is more productive. There are still times where a stranger just will flat out not talk to me or wants to correct every mistake that I make. I’ve lost track of how many times I have been hung up on but I am getting better at letting that roll off my back. I am determined while we are here to keep working on it and who knows, maybe by the time we leave I will be able to pronounce those crazy umlauts. Tschüss!
The first six months after we moved I would sit in parking lot of the grocery store giving myself a pep talk before I went in to hunt and gather. Food shopping here is quite the adventure and now I can get in and out of the store in decent time but I had to learn the tricks of the trade in order not to spend half my day trying to figure out what beans I was buying. Here’s what you need to know:
- Everything is closed on Sundays. No quick grocery runs, picking up something at home depot or running out to grab a bottle of wine for dinner. This was a tough adjustment for me and we did run out of milk and bread more than a few times. Now we enjoy the slowness of our Sundays but it did take some time to get used to and better plan shopping in advance.
- You need money to get a cart. While this might seem annoying it is actually very orderly. The shopping carts are all in good shape and nobody leaves them in the middle of the lot. Heaven forbid you walk away without your 50 cents.
- Take your own bags. This should actually be a global rule and it’s really not a big deal. Stores do not provide plastic bags (super great) but do sell paper bags for 15 cents although you kinda feel like a loser buying them and definitely get a few looks. Everyone has their own strategy. The older German women have beautiful wicker shopping baskets that they use to do their daily shopping which they load on to the back of their bikes and gracefully head home. I look at them with awe but check back into my own reality of feeding three growing teen boys and the mass amounts of food needed to keep my tiny fridge stocked. The really seasoned shoppers bag their food as the clerk is swiping in what almost seems like a competition of who can do what more quickly. I have accepted that I am most efficient just putting the food back into my cart and then bagging in the back of my car in the parking lot. I’m definitely not winning any gold medals at the store but it has eliminated my stress of racing the clerk and holding up the line.
- Let’s talk about the checkout line. Fellow shoppers will stand as close as they can to you and start loading their food as soon as there is an inch free on the belt. I’ve learned if I “box out” with body and cart and don’t make eye contact I can buy some time. If someone lines up behind you with fewer items they feel like they should be allowed to go in front. Most of the time this is no problem because it does give me more time to load my groceries, however, once you let one friend go others will follow. I find it best to let one person go if they legitimately have fewer groceries but again do not make eye contact with others behind. I swear they can smell the weak link in the line!
- Google translate is your best friend. For a good while I really didn’t know for sure what I was buying and would be in the spice aisle for hours looking for garlic powder. Now I can read labels of the food and aisles but it takes some time to get there. If a friend offers to take you to the store and give a shopping tutorial, definitely jump on the offer. Markets all offer different products and I find myself bouncing between Edeka, Rewe, Kaufland, Aldi and our local farmer’s market to find what I need and it can be quite an adventure.
- There are completely separate “beverage stores” called Getränkemarkte. They are a similar feel to US liquor stores but quite big and you can buy beer, wine, water, juice, mixers, liquor, soda and snacks. The drinks are all sold in crates and you can mix and match which is a pretty cool way to try out different beers. The Getränkemarkt is also where you can go to return empty bottles and crates in exchange for your pfand or what we know as bottle deposit.
When we first moved I was very self conscious because it is very normal for locals to stare, like really stare. Coming from the US where we are taught at very early age that staring is “rude” this really made me feel uncomfortable. Did I have something on my face? Was my underwear hanging out? Did I do something wrong? Probably yes to all of these things at different times and the locals especially the older ones feel like they need to let you know through their piercing stare. The New York stare is more of a super angry piss off kind of stare and it is quick. The stare here cuts deep as it is with fierce intention. Kind of like the stare that Mothers give in church right before the “church pinch” when their kids are misbehaving. Except for it is from a stranger and that can feel way awkward. Now, if I get one stare a day I feel like that is a win and I no longer want to curl up in the fetal position wondering what I did wrong and why we have chosen to live in such a crazy place. I just shrug it off with the realization that it’s just a cultural thing and perhaps sometimes that stare might be well deserved.
I had been driving for 27 years when we moved. That is over half of my life. That straight up does not matter to the German Authorities. Depending on which state you move from determines what you have to do to get a German license and you only have six months to do it once establishing residency. If you hold a valid drivers license from some states such as Michigan and Arizona you just need to swap your US license for a German license. For other states such as Florida and Missouri you only have to take the theoretical or written test. Boy did we not have such good luck moving with a New Jersey license. We had to take both the theory and practical (driving). This sounds like it wouldn’t be a big deal because basically in the US (or at least when I was a teen) if you know how to parallel park and the difference between left and right you are handed a license. In Germany you have to take a first aid class, pass an eye exam and then study for and take the theory test which consists of 30 possible questions out of 3,000. You can miss up to four and the questions range from speed limits to load capacity to breaking distance and so on. Lots of formulas and memorization. Once the theory test is passed, you move onto prepping for the practical test through a series of driving lessons. My instructor was amazing and taught me well. The road exam requires continuous driving for 45 minutes on the autobahn and through various speed zones while testing knowledge of gears, road signs and the not very often used emergency braking. While it was a super painful experience I do think I am a better driver for it and did pass both on my first try within the six month time period (can’t say the same for Scott but that is a bit of a sore subject). The infrastructure and road system in Germany are top notch, however, the autobahn can be a bit intimidating so I am grateful that I did get professional training to ensure I know what I am doing. Even with all of my studying and training I still am not able to avoid the pesky speed traps that are set up in disguised vehicles. It’s almost a rite of passage here to get your first “mug shot” in the mail. Just a little reminder that road rules are taken very seriously here and you must mind your Ps and Qs.
Organized sports here are a completely different animal. This is a subject I am torn on and can definitely see both sides. In the US kids start at a very young age, are put in every sport possible with hopes and dreams that maybe one kid will be the next Michael Jordan. Family schedules are maxed out and not a minute of time is wasted. US sports are really more about youth play with hopes of making the high school team, perhaps then playing at the collegiate level and then a very small percentage moving onto the pros. My boys actually did great in this system and honestly it was all we knew. Then came our first “club” basketball game here. I don’t know what was more shocking. The kids eating cucumbers out of their snack boxes on the bench or the refs enjoying a few beers before the game. Hold the phone. What is going on here? Most kids don’t even start playing sports (other than soccer) until around 4th grade. They are eased in and it just isn’t that serious. As the boys have aged up we have seen the competition pick up a bit but still nothing like we knew before. The upside is our schedule is pretty chill and we aren’t spending every weekend away at a Lacrosse or Basketball tournament. We do miss those times but have learned to appreciate the balance that we do think is better for our family. Sport is seen as a lifetime commitment and not just a youth activity. There are numerous sport clubs that offer every sport you can imagine (handball, field hockey, tennis, tango dancing, basketball, etc.) for kids up to adults. Since University in Germany is free and very inexpensive all over the rest of Europe there isn’t the push to get the athletic scholarships that unfortunately a lot of kids in the US depend on just to go to college. The access and quality of public sport facilities such as swimming pools is impressive as so much emphasis is put on overall public health. We have three huge pools within five miles of our house that cost around 2€/day. These pools are hands down nicer than any country club I have been to in the US. Lap pools, kids pools, diving wells, volleyball courts, ping pong and of course beer and currywurst. They do it right. While we have adjusted to the new system here we do at times miss our old sporting life and sharing the bleachers with the other passionate sport loving parents. On the flip side it has allowed our boys to dig deep and decide what kind of athlete (if any) they want to be removing us from the helicoptering role and answering the question of: “Who is gaining more from the boys playing sports? Us or them?”.
While we were visiting Germany for our “Look & See” visit where we check out the school, look for a house and that kind of stuff I couldn’t help but notice all of the dogs everywhere we went. Germans love their dogs and I have never seen a dog more well behaved than a German dog. I started to get a bit of anxiety not about the fact that we were moving the boys once again or couldn’t find a house, but more around the realization that our dog Artie just wouldn’t quite be up to par with his dog etiquette. When I say dogs are everywhere, they literally are everywhere from restaurants to beer gardens to malls to shops. They are welcomed with open arms and fresh bowls of water. That is of course as long as your dog “behaves”. The German dogs are rarely on a leash, never a stride ahead of their owner and obey immediately upon command. I would love to say the same thing about sweet Artie but the truth is he just doesn’t have great manners and minds only when he wants to. I take full blame and know it really is our fault as we were a bit lax on his training as a pup. We tried to take him to our local beer garden once and boy that was a mistake. He just couldn’t quite relax and kept trying to get on the table and that is obviously a huge no-no in dog/beer/German culture. He truly embarrassed himself. Don’t get me wrong, we love our little Arts but have found that he is best at home or while out on a short leash. I guess we all know our place, even our furry little friends.
The Love of Nature
Germany is an absolutely beautiful country. I knew this based on past visits but now living here we have really been able to dive into all the mountains, lakes, forest and trails. Our house backs up to a forest with endless trails and is where Artie and I spend a lot of time. When we first moved and knew nobody and the world was spinning I found solace amongst the pines. Germans love the outdoors and protect their green space fiercely. The forests and trails are all clean, well maintained, meticulously organized and usually lead to a beer garden, castle or quaint village. The boys don’t super love all of our hiking adventures but can usually be persuaded to go if a Kletterwald (climbing forest) is included or at least ice cream is part of the deal. We spend a lot of our Sundays finding new adventures and have developed a huge appreciation for the German’s conservation mindset and love of Mother Earth.
The world of waste here in Germany is quite complex and like most everything else very orderly and with a lot of rules. I have three bins to separate general rubbish, bio (compost) and paper. In addition to that we have the gelb sak (yellow bag) which is for specific plastics and glass bins for glass with no deposit. The glass bins are located everywhere you go and are separated by white, brown, green and aluminum. Rubbish and bio go out every two weeks which was a shock considering in Jersey our trash went out twice per week! Paper and gelb saks go out one time per month. Holy moly. There should be a class taught on the rules of garbage because it does take some time to get the hang of it and you will definitely be told when you are not doing it correctly and your bins won’t get collected if they don’t have things sorted properly. Talk about a time with the German stare comes out strong. Don’t even think about tossing your glass past quiet hours or putting the wrong plastic in your gelb sak. Recycling, composting and the reality of global warming aren’t politicized and everyone has access and expected to do their part. The mindset is to keep things in order so that we can all live in a beautiful, clean environment and protect the planet for the next generation. That to me is totally worth all of the sorting and bottle washing and we are more than happy to do our part.
Who knows how long we will be on this wild ride here in Germany. It has taken some time but I now think it is totally normally to have my wallet full of cash instead of cards, always take my shoes off when entering a friend’s home, stand outside drinking Glühwein in freezing temperatures and see grown men walking down the street in their lederhosen. A couple of years ago these things were all a little strange to me. Living as an expat is a constant reminder that what is normal to me may be bizarre to someone else and it’s ok to do things a bit different than what is comfortable. Actually more than ok, it’s what keeps the world going around and things interesting. Germany is a pretty special place that does it right when it comes to quality of life, love of family and of course pretty tasty beer. I am happy to call it home.