Moving abroad teaches you a lot. This post shares things I’ve learned during my time in Germany as an American expat.
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Why We Moved to Germany
A month after Cody and I started dating, I picked him up from the Austin airport after his delayed flight from Germany finally made it back to Texas. He brought me a little lion dressed in lederhosen and promised to take me back to Germany one day.
This began our curiosity for Germany. Initially just traveling there but eventually grew to a desire to move there. All throughout our time dating, we talked regularly about the possibility.
After getting married in 2017, Cody began to pursue the delegation more intently and finally, after much back and forth and wondering if it would actually happen, he received a verbal offer, then a written one.
In October of 2018, my parents drove to the airport and dropped off three foot lockers, four suitcases, and two excited twenty-somethings.
Today, as I write this, we have exactly two more weeks till we board our one way flight back home. We’ve spent two and a half years here.
While we had hoped to be here for more like three to four years, it is clear that it is time for us to go home.
Unfortunately, Coronavirus meant we missed out on a lot of opportunities we had hoped to have while here, but we still count ourselves incredibly lucky and grateful for the experience we’ve had here.
This post is nothing related to classroom organization, but a little deviation sounds fun, right!?!?
Things I’ve Learned While Living in Germany
When I think back to the Kelly who boarded the plane and shed some tears as the wheels lifted off from the ground in Texas to the girl who will be landing on Texas soil in March, so much has changed for me!
There are really big things like learning a new language, growing closer to God, shifting world views, and they way I see the beauty around me.
Then there are some much smaller things like learning to live more in the moment, a much toner butt (thanks to four flights of stairs to get to our apartment!), and how to drive a manual car!
1. A New Language
I suppose we can start with the most obvious. I had to learn German. German is an incredibly complicated language to learn and even after 250 hours of German lessons, I am no where near fluent!
However, I can order anything I want from a menu (but I never ask for substitutions or ask questions because that’s too complicated!) and am pretty good at the grocery store.
I can even understand some conversations going on around me but really struggle with actually communicating back with people. It’s like my brain freezes up.
Moving back to the States will be weird to my ears. For the last two and a half years I have been surrounded by a different language. I have forgotten how to ask for what I want or to make small-talk.
(Like the time we went back to Texas in November of 2019. I went to Target and a random woman stopped me and asked for me help in the store. I almost cringed at the thought of someone talking to me that I didn’t know!)
2. Respect for Language
After learning a new language and watching people communicate in a variety of different languages, I have a new found respect for language. I’m not entirely sure how to describe it.
Back home, people expect everyone to speak English. If someone doesn’t speak English and need to ask for help in their language, we can be so offended that they would expect us to know their language.
It’s the complete opposite here. Every time I try to speak in German, even if I say it all correctly, they automatically switch to English. They tell me how excited they are to practice their English.
My friends here speak multiple languages. At least three. One of the students I tutor is taking English, Spanish, Latin, and French.
What would America be like if we had a healthier respect and appreciation of other languages?
3. The German School System
Before coming to Germany, I was pretty disappointed in the American school system. There are a lot of things I think Germany has figured out better than the U.S.
The school system is not one of them.
Essentially, kids are in “elementary” school until 4th grade. After 4th grade, they get to choose one of three types of schools to go to:
- Hauptschule (this ends up being the school where all the kids with learning difficulties go)
- Realschule (this is for students who want to do a more mechanical type job)
- Gymnasium (this is for students who want to go to University)
This irks me so bad as an educator. I have had students in third grade who struggled academically but then went on to later grades and finally “got it.”
But in Germany, if you don’t “have it” by 4th grade (or have parents that are able to advocate for you), you are stuck going to one of the “lower” schools.
If you want to go to University, you almost certainly have to go to Gymnasium.
Here’s a screenshot of how Germany defines the three school systems.
“For less academic students” Bahhh!!! The human in me finds that incredibly infuriating, degrading, and wrong.
The teacher in me is ashamed that limiting kids at such a young age is even a possibility in today’s world.
4. Better Appreciation for Ancestors
Before moving to Germany, I rarely thought about our ancestors or my small place in history. Now, because it is something I am surrounded by on a daily basis, I think about it way more.
I walk down the small alleyways in the Altstadt and will often think about how many people have walked down this little alleyway before me. (And how many people likely died in this alleyway).
Being surrounded by history and old buildings constantly reminds me that I am just a blip on the radar of Earth.
Recognizing my tiny little time here on Earth has also allowed me to be more mindful of the impact I have on the Earth.
Before we moved, I tried to recycle and became really mindful about fast-fashion. But it often felt useless. I was doing my part, but did it really matter?
Then I moved to Germany where recycling is a staple. There are:
- Glass recycling stations on every block
- Compost/Organic waste trash bins on every corner
- Three different trash bins at every home (paper, plastic, and general trash)
When we moved into our apartment, there was a built in trash drawer. Inside the drawer were three bins, two small and one large.
I, of course, thought the large was for our trash so I bought trash bags big enough for it. But I was having to take trash out before the bin got full simply because it smelled bad.
Once I learned about “Gelb Sacks” which are BIG yellow trash bags for plastic waste, I realized that one of the two smaller bins was actually for the trash (at least in our house) and the big bin was for plastic waste.
If you saw our little trash can, you would be appalled out how tiny it is. And the fact that we take trash out only once a week.
6. Appreciate the Beauty Around Me
One thing I hope to take back with to the States with me, is my appreciation of the beauty around me.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think Texas (and the United States) is beautiful. But I took it for granted. I see the Hill Country every day and so it becomes less inspiring.
Being in Germany and surrounded by so many different types of architecture and tress and flowers, I see so much beauty every where I look!
I want to continue seeing this beauty at home. Even in my master-planned community.
7. Work-Life Balance
I first want to state I recognize that this knowledge comes entirely from a place of privilege. It also is two-fold.
First, when we moved, I obviously left my job in teaching. I also left my church, organizations I volunteered for, friends, and family. I moved to a new place with zero obligations. There was no expectation for me to get a job because it wasn’t possible for me to get a teaching job here.
However, I took this opportunity as my chance to go all-in for The Simply Organized Teacher. And I did. I worked (and continue to work) daily. I worked on the weekends and into the evening.
One of my priorities when we moved, was to establish a healthier and less workaholic way of life. But it was hard. Even though my workload (and volunteer load) completely diminished, my work was now in my house. Which meant I could work whenever I wanted.
Secondly, I’ve been in a country for two years now that values time. Cody was given thirty-ish vacation days + 15 or so state holidays. That’s 40 days of time off in a year!
The country is also very highly unionized (which I was always taught was a bad thing!) and I now see as so beneficial.
In America we prioritize innovation, money, and “success.” This means people work late, over 40 hours a week, and don’t get compensated for it. It’s almost expected that you work more than 40 hours.
Just a few weeks into our time here, Cody was still working in his American work habits and was creeping up to more than 40 hours a week for a few weeks in a row. This is a big no-no in Germany! His boss told him to take time off!
Now, if it’s 11 AM on a Friday, and he’s had a busy week and already worked his 40 hours, he ends work at 11 AM on a Friday and there’s no question about it.
I know it’s not ideal to think that this would ever happen in America. And maybe it shouldn’t. Part of what makes America great is all the innovation. But I’m not sure that for me, or for our family, I want to return to the American lifestyle of work, work work. If we can help it…
8. Better To-Do Lists
Like I said above, finding a better work-life balance was important for me here. But I really struggled with it.
Inside my free to-do list training, I share about how I left everything I had and moved away thinking that would make all my problems go away. Specifically, my Sunday Scaries and constantly feeling behind. LOLOLOLOL
That’s the problem with workaholics, we will always find something to be a workaholic about. It no longer was teaching but now was The Simply Organized Teacher.
I finally realized that I was creating a “to-do list” each week but really it was a brain dump. I was expecting every item on my brain dump to get done. And it never was.
I would end Friday afternoon feeling so deflated by seeing all of the items I didn’t check off my list for the week. This then caused me to start having Sunday Scaries on Saturday night because I was already feeling the pressure of being behind from last week and all I had to get done in the new week.
I learned how to create actual to-do lists (not brain dumps) and get everything checked off my to-do list by the end of the week. This has been life changing, not only for myself but for Cody because he no longer has to deal with a grouchy wife on Saturday nights!
9. A More Minimalist Way of Living
When we emptied out our home in Texas we sold sooooo much stuff. I was appalled, embarrassed and ashamed of all the little trinkets I had accumulated over the years. Cody and I vowed to never live like that again. The amount of decoration, junk, and trinkets from Hobby Lobby or Target that I got rid of grossed me out.
Before moving into and furnishing our house in Germany, I knew we would likely be moving into a small home and I wanted to be really mindful about how I furnished our home. I read the book Cozy Minimalist and it completely changed my way of thinking about how to decorate a home.
Now, I decorate with things I actually use and with natural items from outside that go with the season.
When we move home, we are planning to (and want to) move into a smaller house than we have here in Germany and definitely smaller than our home in Texas.
This might seem crazy to most people, but to us it seems right.
A smaller house means less space to store things that I may or may not ever need. It means I will be more intentional about what comes into my home. It also means less house to clean.
Living here and seeing how much smaller people live- in their homes, in their belongings, in their expectations has really challenged me to live differently. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people here who hoard and have tons of stuff in their houses!
But for a lot of people I’ve interacted with, especially friends my age, their homes are tiny. We have friends whose entire houses would fit inside the kitchen in our home. I’ve watched friends have babies without baby showers and without tons of stuff and still be great (and prepared) parents. I’ve survived two years without a car and if I could, would not have one when we move home.
I’m much more into the less is more way of life I’ve seen here.
10. Government Social Programs
Watching my friends have babies and be provided for by the government has been both encouraging and infuriating.
As a teacher, I’ve been keenly aware of the lack of maternity leave for women. It’s also always irritated me that we say we (as a country, and even as an education system) value family, yet we make it incredibly complicated for women to have children!
When we moved here and I learned about government paid one-year maternity leave, I was shocked. My friend’s husband was able to take off three or four months of paid paternity leave when their daughter was born. By law, companies are required to hold a job for a woman on maternity leave for three years after she has the baby!
Learning more about maternity leave, unions, and healthcare have caused me to look at my politics differently.
That, combined with my two trips through the Bible from front to back during my time in Germany, I see God’s call for His people, more specifically me, way different than I did before I lef the States.
For Christmas in 2014 my parents gifted us with a trip to London the following summer. This was our first ever international trip and we were ecstatic.
Two of my sisters and my dad were all hobbyist photographers and I decided I wanted to try my hand at it. So for my birthday that year, my dad bought me my very first DSLR camera. (And I suppose my only one…I still use it today).
I took some photos on that trip but mainly in automatic mode and once we got home I put the camera down.
When we moved to Germany, I decided that I wanted to learn how my camera worked and actually start shooting more regularly. I took three courses from my favorite photography teacher, Courtney, during my time in Germany.
I learned how to create and tell a story with my photos and I have enjoyed using this creative outlet to document our time here in Germany.
12. How to Drive a Manual Car
Most of the cars we’ve rented in Germany have been manual. I’m not sure why, but that is what most Germans drive. Why they wouldn’t switch to automatic is beyond me!
This hasn’t been one of the most successful things I’ve learned here. But, Cody said he wanted me to learn in case I ever had to drive one in an emergency.
So, I learned how to drive a manual car. I couldn’t tell you how many times I stalled out or how many horns were honked at me because I couldn’t figure out the balance of letting the clutch out while bringing my foot off the gas. The number is beyond me.
(So is the number of fights Cody and I had while practicing.)
It’s Time To Go Home
I’ve been hesitant about leaving.
So much about me has changed in the last two years and there is so much uncertainty awaiting us in our return.
But I have seen nothing but God’s grace and kindness as we have prepared to move home. Six months ago I couldn’t even talk about moving home. I was so sad and upset that this chapter was coming to a close.
Slowly, but surely, my heart has gotten the closure it needs. Today, fourteen days before our plane takes off, I am ready.
My dogs are already back in Texas. I miss my parents and sisters. All but one member of my family will be fully vaccinated by the time we touch down in Texas.
I didn’t think I would find closure this side of the Atlantic, but I have.
It’s time. And I’m ready.
Until next time,
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