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'I never thought I'd settle in Germany': The foreigners who stayed far longer than planned

Rachel Stern
Rachel Stern - [email protected] • 29 Dec, 2019 Updated Sun 29 Dec 2019 11:00 CEST
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Whether heading to Germany for love, work or adventure - or all of the above - we tell the stories of internationals who remained in Germany far longer than planned.

Digging through a dresser drawer, Sheryl Bengsch, 68, recently found a return plane ticket from 1981 which she had kept neatly tucked away. That was the year she made her big move: at the age of 31, she left behind her life in the U.S. to take a leap of faith in love and work in Germany.

She ended up not returning - even though that plane ticket remained for many years for safe keeping - “just in case,” she admitted from her longtime home in Frankfurt.

Bengsch’s story shares a similar thread to those of many foreigners in Germany. They came to the country on an adventure, or following love or work - quickly seeing their initially short stints evolve into many years.

We share the stories of six expats - of different ages and parts of the country - on how they unexpectedly planted roots in Germany.

‘I never thought I would move to Germany’

Growing up in Syracuse, New York, Bengsch never imagined that she would spend the better part of her life in Frankfurt. “Growing up Jewish my family didn’t have the best relationship with Germany,” she says.

Her biggest move before had been a hop to her neighbouring state of Massachusetts at the age of 18 for university. She remained there, eventually securing a job with Wang Laboratories, then a major player in the word processing industry.

One business meeting would change everything, though.

It was there that Bengsch met her husband, then the company’s marketing manager for the German-speaking region of Europe. The two embarked on a long-distance relationship for one and a half years until Bengsch decided to make the move to Frankfurt.

Bengsch and her husband at the Palmengarten (Botanical garden) in Frankfurt in 2018. Photo courtesy of Sheryl Bengsch.

Now she’s been in Germany for even more of her life than in the U.S., and feels her identity has been shaped by both places. "I have a bit of the American attitude of being optimistic and a bit of the German attitude of being quite organized and genau [precise],” she says.

During her first few years in Germany, the distance was much more apparent. Due to expensive long-distance calling fees, she could only have a conversation once a week with her mother by phone.

When Bengsch first moved to Germany, her parents were "shocked" but then came to visit regularly. Nowadays technologies such as Skype make it feel like she’s in the same room as the friends and family she still keeps in touch with in the U.S.

When she initially made the jump overseas, she also noticed a lack of woman managers and the camaraderie between them. This has changed, she observes, “but not as much as it should have.”

Still, all the years that she, her husband and their now-grown children have lived in Germany, she's been very happy and "never regretted the decision."

‘I had a romantic notion of Berlin’

Logan Ouellette, 29, from Ottawa, Canada was looking for a one-year adventure abroad when he applied for a so-called “Youth Mobility Visa”, which gives people under the age of 35 the chance to live and work abroad for a year.

Inspired by a friend living and working in Amsterdam, he set his sights on the German capital. “I had a romantic notion of Berlin as an open-minded place,” said Ouellette.

Ouellette had studied film and communication at his university, but realized how difficult it was to snag a spot in the industry. Instead he turned his sights to Berlin’s budding start-up scene.

“I didn’t have much saved up so I jumped into it,” says Ouellette who first took a job as the communications manager for Tech Open Air.

Ouellette at the Café Cinema at Berlin's Hackesche Markt. Photo courtesy of Logan Ouellette.

He spent a lot of time working through bureaucracy and after his second year in Berlin, “I didn’t want to give up,” he says. “I was building myself up personally and professionally.”

Now five years and seven start-up jobs later, he’s by far extended his initial stay, and this year plans to apply for permanent residency.

The permit is available to foreigners from most English-speaking countries who have been in Germany for at least five years, have had a job or jobs approved by the Federal Employment Agency, and have paid taxes, among other requirements.

"In Berlin there's a feeling of permissiveness and freedom I didn't have back home,” says Ouellette, now the Startup Ecosystems Manager at Startup Guide. “Back home I felt there was a common path."

SEE ALSO: How a visit home to Canada made me realize I couldn't move back home for good

‘I don’t connect with German culture, but I enjoy it’

Adriana Kroeller, 45, was used to being from somewhere else. At the age of eight, she moved from Costa Rica to the U.S. And at the age of 38, she decided to move to Germany with her German husband.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just try it out and see what happens,” says Kroeller, who lives in Weilheim in southern Bavaria.

Yet shortly after the birth of her first child, their marriage dissolved. She found herself “shipwrecked in a foreign country,” she says.

Kroeller decided to stay because her daughter "has an active father" who has remained a big part of her life after the divorce.

As a photographer, Kroeller was used to being resourceful and dealing with many different clients of different backgrounds. Yet, accustomed to the “you can do anything” optimism she often found in the U.S., she found herself up against more pessimism in her new home.

“Germany is not the place that jumps over your advances,” says Kroeller, who blogs about her experiences abroad at As a single mother and expat, “people often say, ‘Oh my god, aren’t you scared?’ but no one is coming to you saying, ‘You got this, you can do this.’

Kroeller at the Ammer river, a tributary of the Neckar, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Photo courtesy of Adriana Kroeller

On the same token, Kroeller has found the friends she’s made in Germany to be “really authentic and hands on. They’re ready to jump in if need be.”

Having moved to Germany in her late 30s, Kroeller admits that, "I don't connect with the German culture, but I enjoy it. If I forced myself [to assimilate] I would hate it'”

She enjoys German holidays and is active in her daughter’s school and friends' lives. “You don’t have to become German just because you’re living in Germany,” she says.

Yet in Germany, she felt her foreign background was more visible than it had been back in the U.S.. “In D.C., nobody ever asked where I was from. I was the invisible immigrant,” she says. “Here I’m constantly asked, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’”

Kroeller found herself answering those questions too, as she worked to rebuild her life and identity - and telling herself she could progress further even when no one else was.

Day to day life in Germany isn’t always easy, but she finds aspects of life she enjoys. “I’ve found my balance...find the things I can connect to and make them mine rather then force myself to be something that I’m not.”

SEE ALSO: Where in Germany do all of the Americans live?

‘Life seemed simpler and easier in Germany’

Sarah Sanchez never imagined that her and her husband’s initial two years in Germany would morph into more than 20.

It was 1982 when her husband was stationed in Fulda, then West Germany until 1984. The two newlyweds thought they were in for a short adventure abroad.

They enjoyed their stay so much that they were ecstatic when they were sent back to Germany, now Darmstadt, between 1992-95. Now they have been based in Germany, also through the military, since 1999.

Originally from New Mexico, life to both “seemed simpler and easier in Germany. Shops were closed on Sundays,” she said. Additionally, coming from an arid place, “we’ve liked having green grass and trees.”

The Sanchez' in Wiesbaden. Photo courtesy of Sarah Sanchez

Their three children also quickly adapted to life in Germany, and when the two returned to the U.S. in 2011, the youngest, then 13, “felt like we were in a foreign country”.

As Americans in the military, the two have not always been welcome - with neighbours contesting to their landlord about renting to them - but as a whole have been widely accepted, says Sanchez. A German prisoner of war on the Russian front during World War II even offered to buy them lunch one time after hearing their accents.

Despite all of their time abroad and owning a house right outside of the U.S. the two would like to retire in the U.S., where they’re from. “The older you get, the more you want something you know, like the language for health care, doctors and insurance,” says Sanchez.

'I put in a lot of effort to learn German': Two stories of moving for work

In 2011, Emily Ryan, 39, thought it would be a fun challenge to spend a year working with her German-speaking team. Even though she didn’t know a word of German.

She moved to Darmstadt, dealt with mountains of paperwork at the foreigner’s office, and started learning German through quiz-nights at the local pub.

Recently hired for a German-speaking position, Ryan now feels settled in the West German city. She has been impressed by the overall well connected public transit and sense of community.

“I find in the US, things are fairly individualistic whereas in Germany people are gathered in common spaces, working for the common good and sharing services together,” says Ryan.

Ryan in Nuremburg. Photo courtesy of Emily Ryan.

Gareth Hackett from Staffordshire, England also moved to Germany for work without knowing the language, and thinking just a short term gig awaited him.

SEE ALSO: In which German states and cities do all of the Brits live?

He headed near Frankfurt in July 1996 on a nine-month contract, with another contract in hand for his return to the U.K. Yet he decided to stay put, and continue with his job in Germany, where he has been based ever since. He's now married with two children.

“I put in a lot of effort to learn German and made a lot of progress,” he says. Like Ryan, he likes how engaged people are, often volunteering or participating in Vereine, or associations which nearly one-third of Germans belong to.

"Overall, I had a positive experience with German people and felt very accepted from early on,” added Ryan, who has still kept her American habit of smiling at strangers alive. “The relationships that I have built here are stronger than what I expected."



Rachel Stern 2019/12/29 11:00

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