Expat Life Advice: Fill Your Tank

I have written a few posts about homesickness here at German Way, not because I am constantly homesick, but because it is a major theme in an expat’s life. The first wave of cultural euphoria keeps you riding high in your new surroundings for about 6 weeks, and then you suddenly begin to crave familiar people and places. The valley of your first intense homesickness is usually around 3 months, and by the end of 6 months most people have largely adapted to their new way of life.  The wave continues like a sine curve, its magnitude (and your respective strength of emotion) getting ever smaller. According to the experts, it tends to level out slightly above “normal” for most people. This means that most expats are, on average, happier as a result of going abroad.

In my many years of experience as an expat, the model described above fits remarkably well. Even watching others as they arrive and go through the stages, it is the 6-month mark that is crucial to adapting. Also, beware of going home or receiving visitors during that 3-month valley, or you can set back your own adaptation process and start all over again (so I’m told…)
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Auf Wiedersehen, tschüß, Bis dann!

So goes the life of an expat hockey-wife, I am once again preparing to move to a new land. This move is one like no other as it is taking my husband and me to the most foreign place we will have ever lived: Russia.

After six years in Germany and Switzerland, I really feel like I am leaving a home. Though I have lived in three different cities over that time, the constant German-speaking bubble that I have traveled within has provided me with a level of comfort, continuity, and confidence that I grew very fond of. Now I am again starting at square one. I will once again be the new kid on the block, the one who will need help with everything, who will be nervous and unsure, and at times frustrated and embarrassed. I will once again feel that gut-deep feeling of homesickness, but this time it will be for two homes; one I know I will be returning to as I have each summer, and another, my German-speaking bubble, which I may never return to again.

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Don’t Get Too Comfortable: a cautionary tale

Admittedly, after six years I felt pretty savvy with the whole expat thing. I had lived in two major German cities (Dusseldorf, Hamburg), spent two years living near Zurich, Switzerland, and had travelled to ten other European countries. I even felt comfortable go at it alone, having hiked nearly twenty Swiss Alpine peaks, solo. I offered newbies advice on how to adapt and stay safe, and had loads of tips and tricks for them, requested or not. I even wrote about expat life here on this blog. Oh yeah, I was a real pro.

And then, it happened. I was ultimately humbled in the most direct, even cliché-like, manner. Like some common tourist, I was pickpocketed on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

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Expaticus germanicus: An Expat Species Catalog

A few years ago our co-blogger Geoff wrote about two types of expats: integrated and non-integrated. Those who adapt and blend in, and those who don’t. And for the point he was trying to make that was quite adequate. But in the meantime I have discovered a much wider scope of types or subspecies under the species we shall call Expaticus germanicus, aka the expat in Germany.

Of course there are as many kinds of expats in German-speaking Europe as there are expats. Every expat situation is unique. However, that won’t stop me from identifying various types of English-speaking expats in Germany by various characteristics. But before I begin, I want to quote one of my favorite German authors, the Berlin-born satirist Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935):

Neben den Menschen gibt es noch Sachsen und Amerikaner, aber die haben wir noch nicht gehabt und bekommen Zoologie erst in der nächsten Klasse.” (“Besides human beings, there are Saxons and Americans, but we haven’t had them yet. We won’t cover zoology until the next grade level.”) – from “Der Mensch” (1931)

Tucholsky wrote “Der Mensch” as a schoolboy’s essay that begins: “Der Mensch hat zwei Beine und zwei Überzeugungen: eine, wenns ihm gut geht, und eine, wenns ihm schlecht geht. Die letztere heißt Religion.” (“Man has two legs and two convictions: one when things are going well, and one when things are going badly. The latter is called religion.”) For some reason this short essay by Tucholsky popped into my head when I began to try to classify expats. Unfortunately, I’m not as good a writer as Tucholsky, but I’ll do my best. Continue reading

How being an Expat has made me Weird

First off, I should probably give myself a break, “weird” may be a bit harsh. What I mean to say is that over these six years living in Germany and Switzerland, with intermittent summer visits home to Canada, I have realized that my social skills have become a little altered, that I have become a bit quieter, which is not the norm for me.  As someone who had the adjective “bubbly” appear on (I’m not even kidding) each and every school report card growing up, it’s odd to have become this lone observer, rather than the joiner. Through reflection I have concluded that my evolution into this type of person is as a result of my time living overseas, that being an expat has in fact, made me a bit weird.

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Incorporating a New Worldview, Into Your Old Life

It’s fairly common to feel like an alien at times, while living in a foreign country. But now, when I come home to Canada for my regular summer visits, I often feel like a bit of an alien here too. In recent conversations with family and friends at home, I am finding that my opinions and perspectives about both everyday and fundamental issues are differing from theirs, sometimes to the extreme. This has made me stop to consider how my expat life has changed my views on certain issues, and how it may be affecting my various relationships. Being “worldly” and “cultured” are often touted as beneficial, but how does one learn to incorporate such qualities into relationships with those who have lived their entire lives in the land you left?

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Freezing days in Berlin

It is very cold in Berlin; that sort of startlingly cold that seeps into your bones immediately on being outside and stays there for hours. This being my fourth winter in Berlin, I half-expected on that first frost glistening morning to be acclimatised – not so. For North Americans and many Continental Europeans, my complaints will fall on unsympathetic ears. It’s only minus 6C, they will say mockingly. But being a sensitive English rose, I find the cold makes going outside feel like an arctic mission rather than a free and easy, pleasurable way to break up the day, and this troubles me each year.

Of course, we had snow in my childhood, but it was that mild, wet, English snow which stays only fleetingly on the ground for no more than a day or so – and falls biannually at most. Instead those English winters consisted of short, dark, grey days, smattered with chilly rain and the odd early morning frost. A woollen jacket and closed shoes were guaranteed to see you through winter’s mildest and chilliest moments. And though I do miss those days, for all my chilblains and chapped lips, these real Berlin winters have been an educational experience, making me both wiser, and in a funny way, possibly a more considerate mother. Continue reading

The “Trailing Spouse”

Photo: George Mavitzis

It’s hard to believe that I have been living in Europe for nearly six hockey seasons. Though, when I think back to my first year in Germany, and how much I have changed since then, it feels like it could be much longer. Of course making the nearly-spontaneous decision to move to Germany was exciting, but that first year abroad was equally as difficult as it was enjoyable.

Aside from learning how to adapt to a new culture and language, it was the change in lifestyle that really took the most adjustment. I had been employed, to some degree, since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know life without work. Just before moving with my then-new boyfriend, to this foreign place called Dusseldorf, I had taken on a great new job; the career kind. I had moved out of my best friend’s basement and got a little house all my own. I bought a brand new car, and everything seemed to be heading in the right direction for me. Little did I know then that within only a matter of months I would quit that job, rent out that house, and tarp up that car on my mom’s driveway. I wasn’t aware of the term at the time, but I was about to become what is known as the “trailing spouse”.

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