When I moved to Germany a year ago, I was equal parts nervous and excited. Nervous because I was leaving the friends and community that I’d made in Portugal, starting a new job, and, for the first time, moving with a partner rather than moving alone. (Although that last part doesn’t seem like something to be nervous about, I knew it would be an adjustment to have to settle into a new place while considering someone else. In the past, I always did my own thing without a single care. The nervousness was whether it would be a success or not, and, thus far, it’s definitely a success!) Oh, and let’s not forget, still moving in the midst of a pandemic.
But my nerves were all trumped by my excitement to return to Germany. I had lived there/here once as a kid, and I had placed the country on a pedestal of The Place I Will Eventually Return to and Live Long-Term. When people asked me why I liked Germany so much, I had a handful of answers: I want to get in touch with my German roots; I love rules and structure; I love sausage; I want to be fluent in German. I would also say that, because I had lived in a small German village as a kid, something about Germany just felt like home. After years of living in places where I not only stood out as an outsider, but also acutely felt like one, I was ecstatic to move to a place where I would fit in simply by being there.
Now, when people ask me how I like living in Germany, I struggle for an answer. “The travel opportunities around the rest of Europe are nice,” I’ll say. “And um…I’ve met cool people. The writing community is nice.” Then I’ll turn to my boyfriend and let him finish answering because, unlike me, he is thrilled to be in Germany and is absolutely basking in the foreignness of it all.
Me, on the other hand, I feel completely let down. After nearly two decades of romanticizing my eventual return to Germany (I tried to convince three previous boyfriends to move here with me and, thank god, I failed), now I’m here and I am spending half of the time wondering how long I have to stay in order to make it seem like I gave it a decent try.
Our Dysfunctional Relationship
A warning: a good bit of this is just going to be a rant. I’ve been trying to write this blog post for over a year, but each time it turns into a rant, I stop. So, now that I am stuck at home with Covid, I am going to embrace the rant to get it out of my system.
Honestly, you cannot have a post about living in Germany without talking about bureaucracy. Germany, as everyone knows from the stereotypes, loves its rules, orders, and due processes. However, the processes in order to follow the rules are usually long, arduous, and, quite frankly, archaic. For example, when I first arrived, a coworker of mine was about to submit his letter of resignation, which you have to do in Germany three months before your last day (and I recently heard of one person who had to do it ONE YEAR in advance). He submitted this letter via email on March 31st and submitted a paper copy on April 1st. In Germany, paper copies mean everything (how can this country claim to be so sustainable when everything requires paper copies??). Because he hadn’t submitted the paper version until April, he had to work an entire extra month because the email copy didn’t count…
My own issues with German bureaucracy have been too numerous to keep track of. First, there was my struggle to get my social security number, which I needed in order to receive my salary. The moment my boyfriend and I arrived in Germany, we headed to the KVR (Kreisverwaltungsreferat/county administration office) to register that we had arrived. My boyfriend has EU citizenship, so simply registering his arrival was enough and he received his social security number within a few weeks. I, on the other hand, had to keep calling and calling. When I finally got through to someone who said I had a number, I asked if he could give it to me. “No, it will be mailed to you by post,” he said.
“But you see the number in front of you?” I asked.
“Can’t you just read it to me?” I had already answered security questions to prove my identity.
“No. It will come by post.”
A week later, a blank sheet of 8×11 paper arrived. Up in the top corner, where usually a page number would be, was my social security number typed in gray ink. Absolutely nothing else was on the paper.
There was also another instance where I forgot to reload my metro pass and got a fine. The ticket person issued me a paper receipt on the train and told me to go to the website when I got home and pay the fine online. When I did this, instead of being able to pay, another letter was posted to me which stated everything that had been on the paper receipt plus a new code that then allowed me to pay the fine.
Germany, honestly, why do you have to take four steps when you could have taken one? And why do you love to waste so much paper? Isn’t this the country that loves to promote using glass during Oktoberfest because it’s green? Is this because you feel guilty for killing half of the Amazon with your continual use of fax machines and odd obsession for EVERYTHING TO BE IN PAPER???
This gets its own section because I am constantly amazed by the attitude of many of the doctors here. Now, before I start, I do want to say that this is specific to doctors in Munich, a notably more conservative area of Germany. If I were in Berlin, I’d like to think the experience would be different, but I’m really not sure.
Munich is the first place where I have started to become wary of doctors. This has nothing to do with their training or expertise (I am sure they are all very qualified), but rather their treatment of people. In Germany, a doctor is more likely to tell you to go home, rest, and drink tea rather than immediately turn to medicine. Okay fine–I get that in the US we tend to rely on pills too much. But, what a German doctor will also tell you, is that you are ill-informed, overreacting, and just plain not smart.
Oddly, this has mostly happened with women that I know here and most of us have complaints with gynecologists, but I’ve seen posts on Facebook expat groups about negative experiences all across the medical field.
My own experience went like this:
I went to a gynecologist for a regular check-up. I brought my paperwork from Portugal and told the doctor that I needed to be screened for HPV because I had tested positive for it in 2020 and was told to keep an eye on it.
“Impossible,” the doctor said. “We don’t test for HPV at your age in Germany.” (I’m 33 by the way. Apparently, Germany only starts testing at 35. Because cancer has the decency to wait until then?)
“Oh…well, I tested positive in Portugal,” I took my papers out of my handbag and held them out to her. “I had to have some biopsies and medication. My last result was negative, but the doctor said to test again in six months to be sure.”
“We don’t test for that at your age.”
I stared at her, still holding the papers. “But…I want to make sure it’s gone.”
“We don’t test at your age,” she said again. “You cannot have received that result.”
“I didn’t receive that result here. I got it in Portugal.”
“Maybe you should go back to Portugal.” She said this in that biting tone that really says you don’t belong here, go back to your country.
“But I live here now? And I’m not even Portuguese?”
“Europe isn’t one country. Maybe that’s how things are done in Portugal, but this is Germany.”
To this, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t figure out if I was offended by her tone that implied that Portugal was some backward country where you got a PAP-smear in a back alleyway or her implication that I was stupid enough to think every EU country was the same (although I did expect to get a normal PAP like I would in any country, so I suppose that was my bad).
I ended up leaving that doctor’s office in tears because the woman got even more aggressive and told me to come back once I could provide better paperwork (LOL like that will actually happen). Instead, I wrote my first ever Google review warning other women to stay away.
This may sound like a one-off, but I know of several other foreigners who have had similar experiences here. And, to be frank, as a white female, I cannot imagine what someone of color goes through here because I am sure it is ten times worse. In addition to this lady, I have had just one other rude doctor experience and then a smattering of language barriers. All of which I never experienced in Portugal or Thailand, so it was not a hurdle I expected to face in Germany and has since made me incredibly hesitant to go to a doctor.
German is not an easy language to learn, but that’s not my gripe here. What gets me is the lack of translated materials, even when dealing with the foreigner’s office. Many contracts, such as with banks, a housing lease, my work contract, etc, do not have an English option. When I try to use the KVR’s website to renew my visa, the page glitches whenever I use Google translate and selecting the EN option on the website actually brings you to an entirely new page than the one you were just on.
I do understand that I am in Germany and therefore need to learn German, but can’t webpages at least stop crashing when I select the EN option? When the foreigner’s office sends me an email, can’t it be in something other than German since, as a foreigner, it’s reasonable to assume that German may not be my native language? Why else would I be doing anything through the foreigner’s office? My boyfriend and I have also had opposite experiences where a lot of people are happy to speak English with him, but get offended when speaking it with me. I am not sure if it’s because they think I am faking not being able to speak German or maybe my bf has more luck than I do.
This is obviously not Germany’s fault, but it is a factor of why it’s been a bit more difficult for me to really connect with the country. As I mentioned in this blog, I lived in Germany with my dad when I was kid. After we left Germany, that shared experience and our German heritage was something Dad and I always bonded over. Dad liked to speak random German phrases with me, talk about his love of German food, and even drank water or iced tea out of a glass bierstein.
One of the reasons I moved away from the US was to escape any memory of Dad after he died. I know now that that’s not how grief works and that you can find the memory of a loved one anywhere, but in Germany, Dad is much more apparent. In fact, I think Germany is forcing me grieve in ways I had been avoiding the past five years. I find myself wanting to share more with Dad and get his advice on what he experienced when he moved to Germany solo with just a toddler and a dog. What did he think of German bureaucracy? Did he find it hard to make connections with other people or was he too busy to care? Did he feel more in touch with his German roots or did he feel more foreign than before?
Okay, the Ex isn’t That Bad
I’m not sure if I’ve chosen the right analogy by calling Germany my “ex.” I did live here once and I liked it, but I was also a child. My memory of that time is decades old, and kids always have an easier time than adults.
The better analogy is probably to say that living in Germany now is like having had a crush on someone for a long time. Then, once you finally get to date them, you realize they aren’t as great as you imagined. You get to know them more intimately and see their flaws, but you’ve built them up in your head for so long that you don’t want to throw in the towel so easily.
There are things I do like about living in this country. Although the language is a struggle, it has been a lifelong goal of mine to get better at German, and the only place where that will happen is here. And, while the travel opportunities may seem like a throwaway perk, it’s not nothing! I feel really fortunate to live in a place where I can easily drive, fly, or take a train to nearly anywhere in Europe because Germany is practically in the center of the continent. (I learned recently that London is only an hour and a half plane ride away!)
The work/life balance in Germany is also something that continually astounds me. For example, it’s illegal for your company to contact you outside of work hours. Why? Because you’re not supposed to be working! If people have a headache, a stomachache, or anything that makes them feel like they need to rest, then they call in sick to work and absolutely no one bats an eye. I have had countless coworkers take full weeks off of work, which is 100% their right and they should do whatever is in the best interest of their health. In the US, this would all be unheard of. Pre-Covid, I know I am not alone in saying I often went to work with a fever or a migraine or any number of ailments simply because I didn’t have another choice. I would also drop everything to respond to a boss or coworker even if it was outside my normal work hours (and let’s not even get started with the inappropriate behavior I put up with from management at my previous job). I think it is amazing that Germany has these boundaries in place and that people take the time they need until they are a-okay to work again. I can see how even this one perk can outweigh a lot of cons here.
Also, it should be noted that both my boyfriend and I have great career opportunities here. We both have positions and work for companies that challenge us in a good way and it feels like we both have the opportunity to grow in our careers here. For someone like me, an English writer who is not bilingual and wants to continue living outside of the US, Germany is one of my best options.
Learning to Live Together
This post has largely been a rant, but I don’t want to give the impression that I hate Germany (dear KVR, please renew my visa and don’t take this personally!). I don’t. I’m just not as thrilled with the country as I expected to be, and that is a hard pill to swallow. When I used to dream of moving to Germany, I expected to love it so much that I would either never leave or I’d leave after a decade or longer. Now that I’m here, I am stuck with a bit of so now what?
Because of mine and my boyfriend’s jobs, I know we will at least be here for a few years. Maybe by then my thoughts will have changed. Or maybe they won’t.