On a February’s day 10 years ago, I landed in Germany on a one-way ticket from Toronto with a suitcase (actually, a backpack) full of hopes and dreams. I vividly remember feeling excited yet nervous when I arrived at the Braunschweig train station. What if I didn’t find a job? What if the relationship I was pursuing didn’t work out?
I never thought I’d spend the majority of my adult life here and move to four very different German cities. I didn’t think I’d launch my career here, tie the knot here, learn to speak a second language, learn to swim, learn to drive a manual vehicle, buy my first vehicle, the list goes on!
Having experienced countless milestones and challenges over the past decade, I’ve come into my own and grown confident and comfortable in my own skin. While it’s tricky to put into exact words, in this piece I take a shot at explaining how Deutschland has shaped me into who I am today.
Identity and quality of life
Naturally, my identity has been shaped by my adopted country. While I believe I’ll always identify as Canadian, in many ways I feel European, and sometimes even German! This is a concept that’s hard to explain, but one I’ve found other foreigners abroad can relate with.
It’s like I don’t feel I fully belong in Canada, even though I was born there. When I visited Toronto for the first time in 3.5 years last Christmas, I felt this intensely. But then again, I don’t feel like I fully belong in Germany either.
Still, after working and paying taxes in Germany for so long, it’s hardly surprising that its society and culture have shaped my world views. I’m the proud owner of a vintage moped from East Germany. I also formerly reported on Germany’s news with The Local in Berlin.
What can I say? I’m a hardcore Germany fan, despite all the things that get on my last nerve about living here (see @berlinauslaendermemes). And I’ve been very vocal about the reasons why I’ve stayed.
The scales are tipped in Germany’s favour when it comes to quality of life. Whether in Passau or Berlin, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the freedom of being able to hop on my bike and ride not just for leisure, but to get to work or run errands.
Workers take their vacation days seriously here and this has no doubt rubbed off on me too. It’s the reason why I cannot fathom how and why the standard paid time off Canadians get is a mere two weeks.
While the work-life balance topic in Germany lags behind Scandinavian countries, it’s still lightyears ahead of North America. Only as a member of German society have I learned how much a balanced life and living to work (rather than working to live) means to me.
Open communication and no longer prudish
Another key way in which Germany has influenced me is that it taught me to communicate openly and honestly with others. Germans are known for their directness. Rather than beat around the bush, they simply get to the heart of the matter – it’s sincere and fine and generally accepted.
But this openness is very different from the culture I grew up in. Whereas my younger self would shy away from sharing my opinions and shove important topics under the carpet, today that no longer aligns with my values. I try to always keep it real with myself and others.
Speaking of openness, I’ve also gotten on board with the German ease toward nudity. Before you get any ideas, let me explain. While I’m by no means an avid sauna goer, long gone are the days I covered myself up in women’s changing rooms.
Growing up in Canada, in changing rooms at gyms and swimming pools I remember people try to cover themselves up as much as possible. The culture is just much more prude. Now, though, I’m used to a society where FKK exists and people are at ease with nudity – and actually find it quite liberating.
The ups and downs of bilingualism
Another crucial change is that moving to Germany prompted me to learn German. The fact that my in-laws don’t speak English was a big motivator in the beginning to learn their language. It was ideal that Braunschweig was the first city I moved to as well, since back then you couldn’t really get by there without speaking German.
After about two years, I’d gotten my German to a level where I could get by in daily life, make small talk and even make friends. Still, even today I have ups and downs with deutsch. And it’s precisely these experiences which I’ve benefited greatly from.
As other language learners know, speaking in any language which isn’t your native one requires vulnerability. At times, too, it can be humbling.
Just the other day at work, I suddenly realised I was the only non-native German speaker in a call. So I pushed myself to speak German, even though I’m used to speaking English in a professional setting. Naturally, I worried whether my colleagues would notice my mistakes.
Yep, I’m still self conscious about my German even after 10 years. On the one hand, I feel guilty for not being at a near native level with it. But on the other hand, my current B2 level is sufficient for living a full life here.
Besides, it must be decent enough if I’m able to learn yet another language in it. Right now I’m taking an A1 Italian course at the Volkshochschule, and the language of instruction is German.
It’s cheesy but true: I’m proud of my bilingualism. Not only has it helped my brain become more healthy, complex and actively engaged, it’s also definitely been the key to connecting with Germans, German culture and ultimately integrating into this country.
Love for sports and the outdoors
Would I have become as active and outdoorsy as I am now had I stayed in Canada, or moved to some other country? I guess I’ll never know. One thing’s for sure, though: of all the German cities I’ve lived in it was in Munich where I truly discovered my love for the outdoors.
I’ve come to feel most at home in southern Bavaria, probably because I’m meant to be close to the mountains. With the Alps less than an hour’s drive away from Munich, during the pandemic lockdowns I went on dozens of hikes in the Bavarian Alps. In the summertime I learned to stand-up paddleboard and paddled in nearly all of the lakes close to Munich.
READ ALSO: 10 of the best hiking day outs from Munich
Now, based in Passau, there are endless opportunities for sports enthusiasts like me, what with the Danube river, the Inn river, Bayerischer Wald National Park and the Austrian Alps all at my doorstep! I know I’m lucky to live so close to natural wonders.
This privilege has actually made me reflect on my childhood and how little time I spent in nature. This explains why, back in December when I visited Toronto, it was important to me to visit provincial parks in the area which I’d never been to before.
The fact that Germany has kicked me in the butt several times has no doubt shaped me. Did I mention I was once literally booted out of the country? Or that I’ve nearly given my left rib to the Ausländeramt so that they could process one of my work visas on time?
Living here as a foreigner isn’t without its frustrations. The country’s love of rules and bureaucracy still has not grown on me, and likely never well. But each hurdle I’ve overcome has made me that much stronger.
Even though I’ve flown back to Germany from Toronto’s Pearson airport many, many times now, each time is just has hard as the last. Although I choose to live abroad, that doesn’t mean it gets easier living so far away from family and close friends.
Another major disadvantage to #expatlife I’ve found has been making friends. Other internationals you meet constantly come and go, and I’m one of them. Loneliness can be very real.
Ultimately, I can’t complain because I’ve chosen this life. And I know both the pros and cons about living here have helped me grow. Germany has made me a tough cookie (on most days, at least).
I don’t know who I would’ve become had I not been in Deutschland all this time. But I do know that I’m happy with (and might I add damn proud of) the person I’ve become. In this way, I’m thankful.
For all I’ve benefitted from living here though, I actually don’t imagine I’ll stay forever. If the day I leave Germany does come, I might just have to write a piece then explaining why and how another place managed to steal my heart.