The Expat Crisis

There are typical crises that happen in every person’s life: the identity crisis of the teenage years, the mid-20’s crisis, and the famous midlife crisis. Of course there are also the financial crises. Sadly, it’s common to have more than one of these, but they are good perspective on how all the other crises are sometimes nothing more than blown-out-of-proportion tantrums. But there is a special kind of crisis that does not happen to everyone. It is reserved for those who have chosen to leave their birthplace and while doing so, have put many kilometers between them and their homeland.

I do not believe anybody ends up far away from “home” by accident. Sure, the reasons and motivations for it are as varied as life stories can be, but at the core, there’s always a logical and sensible explanation as to how and why a person ended up quite far away from where they happened to be born and raised. Maybe it all started when they took a vacation, maybe with an ambition, maybe even due to a crisis. Whatever the reason, it happened. You are out of there, far away and you have to get your life rolling at whatever the cost because this was your decision and you will be sticking to it. Continue reading

You Know You’re a Real Expat in Germany When…

Rossman store hours

Öffnungszeiten. Store hours. Never on Sunday! PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

A while back, someone in our Expat Forum posted a clever “You know you’re in Germany when…” I happened to run across that list again recently and thought I’d use it as inspiration for today’s blog entry. These brief “You know you’re not in Kansas any more when…” items often can tell us more about cultural differences than an entire chapter of a book — plus they usually bring forth a chuckle or two.

Here at The German Way we also have our own Cultural Comparison Charts which compare American and German daily culture and customs. Drawing from all of these sources and personal experience, here’s our German Way version of “You know you’re in Germany when…”

You know you’re a real expat in Germany when…

  • you’re used to separating the plastic, paper and bio trash before you toss it in one of the three under-the-sink bins;
  • you know how to type the @ sign on a German QWERTZ keyboard — and you no longer type “zou” for “you”;
  • you no longer take a sunny, blue-sky day for granted – in the depths of a long, gray German winter, or even in the summer;
  • “pay to pee” is just a normal part of daily life — at gas stations/rest stops, in department stores, and sometimes even at a restaurant or bar;
  • you are no longer startled by cars passing you doing 100+ mph on the autobahn;
  • you find it perfectly normal to see nudity and soft porn while flipping through the normal German TV channels (or the local newspaper);
  • you’ve taken so many train trips in Germany and Europe, you lost count long ago (“Senk ju vor träwelling”);
  • you are finally used to the checkout clerk at your corner Drogerie (drugstore), where you shop almost daily, acting like she has never seen you before in her life, but…
  • you exchange good-byes with perfect strangers when leaving an elevator or a train compartment; Continue reading

Expats at the playground – the fun of combining cultural observations

fullsize_dschungelspielplatz_promoter2This blog post could start like a silly joke. A Yorkshire lass, a Scot, a Brazilian, and a New Yorker go with their children to the playground … But, given I’m still working on the punchline, let me provide the context. Today was beautifully sunny. The advent of spring in Berlin means the advent of the after-KiTa, after-school playground season – the season when children of all ages hurl themselves around climbing frames and swings, or dig for hours in the sand whilst parents lounge on benches around the sides. And, of course, on a day like today, we trundled over the road from our international KiTa and ensconced ourselves in a sunny spot. (I’m the one from Yorkshire.) Being there in this diverse expat group was revealing – because, despite our cultural differences, we shared a common understanding of the very Berlin-specific approach to playgrounds. 

Whichever nationality you want to take, we all agreed that Berlin playgrounds are not for the fainthearted. Climbing frames soar high, way up high, over adults’ heads. Monkey bars are far apart even for an adult stretch. Zip wires send children whizzing across the sky. Swings are arranged for maximum excitement. Even the small corner playground, slotted into a former bomb site, between two towering apartment blocks with those tremendous stretches of windowless wall, will have a tummy-turningly lofty tower, complete with risky fire man’s pole. Yes, Berlin playgrounds are adventurous by most international standards. We were, we all said, surprised, often-times seriously concerned, but overall delighted by the daring feats on offer for our children.  Continue reading

Many kinds of noise – “vielerlei Lärm”

Germans don’t mind noise — as long as you don’t make any.

I have no solid comparative data to back it up, but I would rate the German tolerance level for noise (Lärmempfindlichkeit) as among the lowest in the world. This is especially true for Germans living next door to you! German ears tend to be highly tuned to noise (hellhörig), especially what they consider LOUD: loud radios, loud walking, loud talking, loud music, loud lawn mowing, loud children, loud partying, loud sneezing, loud dogs, loud engines, or loud anything. Of course, almost anywhere, one person’s music can be another person’s noise. But in Germany, your music is much more likely to be noise to your neighbor than anywhere else. Continue reading

Garbage in, garbage out: Mülltrennung and Eurotrash

March 2009 news item:

Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, has released the latest figures regarding the waste generation and recycling of household waste among the 27 member countries (EU27). In the EU27 in 2007, 42% of treated municipal waste was landfilled, 20% incinerated, 22% recycled and 17% composted. – The Member States with the highest recycling rates for municipal waste were Germany (46%), Belgium (39%), Sweden (37%), Estonia and Ireland (both 34%). Composting of municipal waste was most common in Austria (38%), Italy (33%), Luxembourg and the Netherlands (both 28%), and not done at all in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania. – Composting and recycling accounted for over 50% of municipal waste treated in Germany (64%), Belgium (62%), the Netherlands (60%) and Austria (59%).
– from eurostat (PDF)

red blue yellow green
Even public trash disposal in Germany
(here at a train station in 3 languages)
asks you to separate before you toss!

Photo © Hyde Flippo

Germany is extremely proud of its claim of being the world champion in recycling and trash separation (Mülltrennung). Germany leads the EU in the percentage of household waste it recycles or composts (64% versus 46% in the USA in 2007). Germans have been practicing and refining the fine art of trash separation ever since the introduction of the “Green Dot” Duales System in 1990. Besides their ABC’s, German children grow up learning about blue (paper, cardboard), yellow (packaging, plastic), green (glass), brown (biodegradable), and red/black/gray (all other waste) trash containers. (The colors may vary by locality, but are usually similar.) Batteries are never just tossed into the household trash, but Continue reading

The Expat Trap

I’ve been living in Germany for about two years. From time to time I meet up with other English speakers in cafes or restaurants just to get that “fix” of speaking my native tongue at full speed complete with cultural references and a chance to drop my guard. Being in a foreign culture you tend to be guarded with respect to things you say and expect simply because people behave so differently in your host country.

In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed something. Generally speaking, there are two types of expats. Integrated or potentially integrated are the first type. The second type are the non-integrated. The first group are difficult to pick out of crowd, by their very nature of blending into their host society.

Continue reading

You Can Du Me: The Du/Sie Question

The question of du or Sie, informal versus formal “you,” is a perennial one for expats in a place like Germany. Many European languages make a linguistic distinction based on interpersonal relationships. These distinctions have fallen out of use in modern English.

Lucky for those learning English. But expats learning the German language and culture frequently struggle with the question of informal versus the formal. When you are in the midst of a strange culture, you are constantly out of your safety zone. Any faux pas, no matter how slight, becomes a major drama in your own mind. Getting du/Sie wrong can lead to self-doubt and undermining yourself as you try to acclimate in a land of strangers who never quite act the way you think they should. Continue reading