An Adventure A Day

Because "life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all" – Helen Keller

Moving to a new area is full of challenges and surprises. Even within the US, moving from state to state often requires a period of some adjustment. Years of experiencing these changes gave me something of a false sense of preparedness when we moved overseas.

I was accustomed to setting up a new routine, seeking out new favorite places, acclimating myself to new local customs, traditions, and norms. It’s the one part of moving that I actually look forward to. I enjoy getting to know a new area, having an acceptable excuse to explore everything. I was definitely looking forward to this exploration phase in Germany.

I knew there would be challenges, there always are. I was expecting to find myself occasionally off center living in another culture. But I was confident that it wouldn’t take me long to adjust. After all, I successfully transitioned between many cultures every day. I moved between military, civilian, and at times academic worlds. I made myself at home in Northern, Southern, and Midwestern cultures alike. I had navigated life in cities, in the country, and on an island. I was ready to attempt international living.

I tried to anticipate the larger issues, language barriers, differing attitudes and expectations. I was ready for immersion into a new language. I studied the culture, I thought knew what to expect of the places I was going, and the people I would encounter. I thought I was prepared.

What I couldn’t prepare for was the business of everyday in another language, in another culture. I’d always adjusted easily, without much of a thought, until I moved overseas. It turned out that the big surprises were some of the smallest things. The things I’d overlooked in the States, because underneath all of the differences, there is an underlying sameness. When you move overseas, no matter how well you prepare yourself, sooner or later, something is going to surprise you. Here are five things that surprised me most when I first moved Germany:

1. That I would feel incompetent all the time

On and off for the first year, I often experienced feelings of overwhelming incompetence. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t speak the language, it wasn’t just the fact that everything was just a bit different, it was having trouble navigating basic tasks. I couldn’t do things that I didn’t even have to give a second thought to in the States. I understood the big picture differences and the impact they would have, but what I failed to take into account was the impact of these differences on the little things that comprise your entire day.

Forget about the fact that I couldn’t have a conversation on the phone in German, initially I couldn’t even figure out which numbers I had to dial to place the call. We didn’t just have garbage, we had levels of recyclables, compost and bottles for deposit. A trip to the Recyclinghof (recycling center) meant that I had to endure the eye rolling of the man in charge as I headed for the wrong container – again.

Forget about knowing the words for the meat in the Metzgerei (deli), I didn’t even know what the cuts were. Although in Germany, there’s at least a 70% chance that it’s some variation of pork. I bought German pudding mix and messed it up, who messes up pudding? Even when I thought I understood things, it turns out I didn’t.

I showed up late to things after having mistranslated the time, showed up to closed doors because the German holidays aren’t listed on the school holiday schedule. I just didn’t know, and it didn’t matter how much I prepared, I wasn’t going to learn until I made a mistake.

2. That I would lose my independence

In the states, I was very independent. I did everything myself. I never had to rely on someone else to accomplish anything that I wanted to do. I wasn’t used to having to ask people for help. Initially, I tried to do everything myself, but I began to realize that I couldn’t. Whether it was talking to the landlord, setting up my utilities, enrolling my children in school, going to the drugstore, enrolling in a class, there just wasn’t a lot I could handle by myself. I had to either let go of the desire for independence and let people help me, or continue to struggle alone and fail.

3. That it would take longer to do everything

I was definitely not prepared for the amount of time it would take to accomplish the things on my daily to-do list. I love a new experience, but when everything is a new experience, it can be overwhelming. It wasn’t just that I had to go to a new store, but I had to figure out which store carried what I needed. It wasn’t just parking, it was navigating the parking garage, or figuring out the parking meter, or squeezing into a miniature parking space.

Not being able to do anything over the phone meant that I had to take more time out of my day to accomplish every task on my to-do-list. When I needed to schedule an appointment for a haircut in the states, I called the salon. In Germany? I had to visit the salon with my phrase book and engage in a complicated pantomime, then hope I heard the time correctly.

The grocery store was another big challenge. Yes, bread, milk, eggs and yogurt all look pretty much the same, but I still needed to translate my grocery list for anything a bit more complicated. The dairy case alone had more versions of yogurt and assorted cream and cheese products than I had ever seen in my life.

4. That everything would be so similar, and so different

The things that most often threw me weren’t actually the cultural differences, but the country differences. It was the non-refrigerated farm fresh eggs, and shelf stable milk at the grocery store. It was the things that functioned differently around the house. The light switches, the toilets, the doors, the windows, they were all different. There are no unlocked doors on German houses. There are no screens on German windows. The Rolladen shutters on all of the windows made me feel like I was living in a tin can when they were shut.

The appliances were also an adjustment. I had a teeny-tiny easy-bake oven in my kitchen, along with a dorm room sized refrigerator – with no freezer. We were able to sign an American sized refrigerator out from our closest military installation. I don’t know how I would have adjusted my shopping to accommodate the small refrigerator. We had a miniature washing machine, I had to do two or three loads where I would have done one. We had a “dryer”, but it functioned more as a clothes dehydrator, it was both ineffective and difficult to clean.

There were the daily quiet hours, traffic circles in the middle of nowhere, things closing in the middle of the afternoon, closing early in the evening, and nothing was open on Sundays. These were all adjustments that I wasn’t expecting beforehand.

5. That I would be changed by the experience

Even after I started to figure out ways to overcome the challenges of everyday living, even after I became comfortable with the language, even after I was able to do things on my own and regain my independence, even after those things I had once considered odd became so common place I overlooked them, I didn’t expect to change. Even then, I wasn’t expecting living overseas to have such an impact on the way I see and react to things, but it has.

Overcoming each of the challenges I faced gave me the confidence to face the next one. Even when I stumbled, and I often did, I was able to continue. There were large victories like having entire conversations in German on the telephone, and small victories like not showing up to the Kindergarten on a German holiday. I have more confidence operating in a new environment today than I did when I first moved here.

I have more empathy for immigrants and refugees today than I did four years ago. I know how it feels to not understand. To not understand what the doctor is telling you, what the teachers are trying to convey to you, a feeling of helplessness that you have when you are afraid that you cannot do what you need to for your children. I had only fleeting glimpses, and I always had someone I could turn to for help, but I will never underestimate those struggles again.

Four years later, and I am fairly at home in Germany and comfortable with the language. I’m not fluent, but I can speak enough to be understood in most situations. I am no longer afraid to speak German, I know I’ll make mistakes, but I also know that the more of an effort I make, the more people will work with me. Early on I adopted an attitude of trying something new every day. This was easy to do in the beginning, because everything was unfamiliar. I think this one small habit did more than anything to increase my comfort zone and acclimate me to my new surroundings.

There are some things that I may never grow accustomed to – not having screens on the windows for example, but for everything else, I’ve figured out how to make it work for me.

What surprised you most when you moved or travelled to a new culture?

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16 thoughts on “Five things that surprised me about living in Germany

  1. Lisa Bracker says:

    I always enjoy your blog, but this post was especially interesting. You summed up so much of what I felt while living in pfullendorf! It really was THE most shocking of all my moving experiences.
    Every time we’ve lived overseas something shocked me;
    Japan- I realized just how young my country really was…also, driving on “wrong side” of the road isn’t as easy as it looks 😉
    Panama- First time living in a developing country. I learned just how “rich” my country was.
    Germany- I’ve never felt more conspicuously American in my whole life.
    Dubai- The level of convenience is shocking and EVERYONE here really does speak English! BUT finding my fav American foods and “booze” (shhh) is always an adventure/sometimes a mission even.

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words Lisa, it really means a lot to me!
      I think it’s great that you’ve managed to gain so much insight from each of your moves, and that you always had the courage to give it another try.

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  2. Hi there!
    I’ve nominated your blog for the Liebster Award! It’s basically an award passed from blogger to blogger, to highlight a blog we find interesting!! Check out what to do on my link below! Congrats & happy blogging!!

    http://alexalardieri.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/the-liebster-award/

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    1. Thanks so much Alexa, that’s so kind of you, I really appreciate your thinking of me!

      Like

  3. storki says:

    Oh how I can relate to this. Moving from my home country of Germany to the UK was my first experience of living abroad and like you, I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for, after all, my husband being English I knew everything there was to know about his country, customs and culture. Wrong! The first thing that struck me was that British people do talk a lot about the weather, and I mean a lot! After having lived in the UK for some years I started to do the same and still do to this day. When we moved from the UK to Canada 5 years ago, again, I thought, having lived here with the British Army years ago we knew what was coming, plus, we spoke the same language, English, so how bad could it be? Well, turns out we speak a different language altogether lol. Aside from the language, it was incredible how things like banking are so different here than in the UK. When we left the UK chip and pin was used everywhere, not so here. This is something that has only really started in the past 3 years or so. I love getting to know different countries, their customs and cultures, but sometimes it is hard going trying to master everyday tasks – so well done you for persevering and not giving up! I might have to learn the Japanese way of living soon, as work might send me to Yokohama for a month or so this year, so that should be interesting, as I don’t speak Japanese, don’t like Japanese food and have never visited there before. So I guess I have a lot of learning to do if this trip goes ahead.

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    1. Thank you! It seems that you’ve mastered the process of adjusting pretty well yourself!
      I think even at the most frustrating points I was still enjoying myself, so that probably helped with figuring out the day to day things. I also find it interesting to see what it is that actually trips people up. When I was studying, the theories focused on the big picture cultural differences, but it seems to be the small things that have a more direct impact.
      I know what you mean about banking being an adjustment, I get paid in one currency and pay bills in another! It took me a long time to get used to carrying cash around again, stateside I did everything with a debit card – which isn’t done so much here.
      Good luck with your time in Japan, I look forward to hearing about your experiences!

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  4. Follygirl says:

    Das ist wirklich sehr interessant für mich gewesen!
    Lange habe ich davon geträumt in Amerika zu leben.. und stellte mir dann immer vor WIE schwer das sein würde. Vor allem wenn man niemanden kennt der erklärt und am Anfang hilft.
    Ich bewundere alle Menschen, die das so gut schaffen und mit anderen Kulturen/Sprachen/Bräuchen zurechtkommen.
    Ich finde es wirklich ganz toll wie Du das alles machst!
    Liebe Grüße, Petra

    Like

    1. Danke, das freut mich das du findest alles interessant. Ich glaube das leben in ein neue Land ist immer schwer, aber es ist eine Chance zu sehen alles mit neuen Augen. Es war für mich so. Schwer aber gut.

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  5. It’s funny how it’s the small, seemingly mundane things that throw us off more than the larger cultural things. For me I think its because I like learning the large cultural differences (as I’m sure most people who make a big move to a new country do!), but then when it comes to doing daily tasks like going to the grocery store I just want to get them done. Little things like not finding the eggs after wandering around for way too long would set me off much more easily than learning about a new custom. Though I have to say that the afternoon closings and sunday closings here in Spain are super frustrating. I’m still not really used to it after almost 10 months here. I didn’t know they did the same in Germany, that’s interesting.Also agree with you – speaking on the phone in another language is terrifying and so difficult! One day I hope to hold a conversation in spanish on the phone…

    Really interesting post! Fun to compare moving abroad experiences, even from different countries!

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    1. Thanks so much! I love to read about other people’s experiences living in a new culture. I think you can learn so much from what someone else experiences when they move abroad. While the cultural things are usually different, the underlying adjustments are very similar.
      I agree with you, and you make a really good point. It is much more fun to engage in a new cultural tradition than attempting to make major adjustments to your day to day life.
      I think the big thing about speaking on the phone was gaining the confidence to do it. I started small with reservations or making plans to meet up with friends – you’ll get there in Spanish!

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  6. I am very late replying to your blog but I loved it. I moved to Germany at the age of 23 and lived there until I was 40. Although I became thoroughly fluent and completely integrated into the German culture, I can still remember all the feelings of confusion and intimidation. My first emergency room (and only) visit was only trumped by having to take a friend to the emergency room in Greece. Thanks for the memories.

    Now a middle school German teacher!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking time to stop by and leave a comment! I’m so glad that you enjoyed it and were able to relate to my experience. 😊 It sounds like you have a few interesting experiences yourself!

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  7. It’s amazing to me that this post almost had me in tears. I’m an American living in Berlin since 2013, and all of these points really hit home for me. It made me feel relief to read this, because so many people (expats included) talk about living here like everything is perfect all of the time. They downplay the struggles they go through, and that can make you feel like you’re not trying hard enough. So I’m sorry that you had to go through all of that, but I’m glad it changed you for the better. It was a really thoughtful post that I related to on so many levels. Are you still in Germany?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you could relate to this. I appreciate the comments – they caused me to go back and reread what I had written. We’ve moved to yet another new country, and looking back over this article made me realize that it what I was going through over the past year was the same thing I had experienced in my first year living in Germany!
      Sadly, after 5 years, we left Germany and moved south. We are now one year into a three year tour in Rome, Italy – where life is completely different, again!
      Thanks so much for stopping by, I wish you all the best in Berlin!

      Like

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