Where a House is a Home

I’ve been living in Germany for about two years now. I knew things would be different here, but how things would be different was a big question mark. Although I had visited Germany a few times before, living here is a whole different ball game… as we Americans like to say.

I moved around a lot in the US. That is not so unusual for Americans. I was born in Boston, moved to the San Francisco/Santa Cruz area when I was a child and then kept on moving, but within that same area. Sometimes it was for work, sometimes it was for a better neighborhood, sometimes it was because the house I was in was sold.

When I was in my early 30’s I finally bought my first place. It was a condominium in Oakland, California. It was in good condition but in what is euphemistically called an “up and coming area.” That meant that there were lots of new homeowners and new shops but there was still a high crime rate from when the neighborhood fell on hard times.

Three years later, my wife and I bought a house. This was one was in Oakland, also, but in the hills which is a more established and better area. We stayed for another three years until finally the deteriorating California situation (crime, economy, chronic budget deficits) sent us fleeing. I worked for the public university at the time, so the government budget deficits were a real problem for me.

I lived in more houses and apartments than I could count. Moving was never a problem…. but now I am Germany. Something happens to you when you move to a new culture. You change in ways that are unpredictable. In this case, I changed from a typical American who was friendly, but not intimately so, with my neighbors to a fully immersed village resident.

Here everyone knows me. Here everyone knows what I do. Here I cannot escape the glaring public eye of the village (that is a deliberate homage to The Prisoner, by the way). But something else changed in me… I liked it. Most Americans tend to be averse to such things. I have to say that I feel a real connection to my community here. I had similar feelings in Oakland, but they did not run so deep. It was partially because I knew the area would keep changing, and I knew that I would probably move, too.

Germans don’t move like Americans do. There a number of reasons, cultural and economic. As far as the economic reasons go, when you buy a home in the US, you can sell the home after living in it for two years and you avoid what is called the capital gains tax, which can be quite hefty. In Germany, you can avoid the tax after you live in the house for ten years. Yes… ten years. That discourages the real estate speculation that other nations saw for years.

The famously risk averse Germans are also reluctant to flip houses (as the practice of buying a house, fixing it up and then selling it again quickly is called) due to inherent problems of budgets and long lead times. This kind of behavior is also actively frowned upon by some towns as it disrupts the fabric of the community. A constant flow of different owners through the same home often means community members who don’t feel the need to participate in civic life, since they’ll be moving on. Civic life is big here. From Kirmes (local fairs) to supporting the local schools… people notice when you do or do not show up. When you don’t show up, you make fewer friends. The neighbors will be more reluctant to help you when you need it and more likely to complain when you do something wrong (like letting the grass grow long).

We just bought a new house here. We thought about moving to somewhere where we could get work more easily, but our neighbors asked us to stay here. We do participate in civic life. We are invited to dinners and other special events. We, of course, invite our neighbors and friends over. We all help out at the local school and we all meet up at Kirmes. We do these things because want to and because the community welcomes us to do so.

Our new house is not a place to live… it is our home.