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?