Germany was never a place that I thought that I would live.
My dreams of moving to Europe most often included fantasies of working in publishing and riding the underground daily in London, working at a bed and breakfast and eating pasta every day in Italy, or maybe even running an animal sanctuary in Greece. Germany— the supposed land of bratwurst, beer, and of course with an infamous history— never really crossed my mind.
Then I fell madly in love, and here I am.
Coming from Hawaii to Germany is perhaps one of the biggest jumps a person can make, culturally and physically. It’s taken some definite adjustments. Here are some of the major changes or thoughts I’ve encountered in my daily life since moving here.
Basic Geography: Where is the ocean?
Most of Germany is surrounded by other countries, with the exception of part of the northern coast. I’m currently living in the south, the saving grace of which is Lake Constance, a large body of water that separates Germany from Switzerland. Of course there are various rivers running through the area, but being from Hawaii, I need a large body of water nearby not to feel like I’m utterly lost.
In Hawaii, a person’s sense of direction has much less to do with the cardinal directions and much more to do with landmarks and of course, the sea. On the island, I have a general idea of where things are based on if they are mauka (towards the mountain) or makai (towards the sea). When we were driving towards Frankfurt recently, I realized that if I had needed to find my way home I probably would have died in the forest somewhere. It’s a strange feeling coming from somewhere where the chances of getting lost and staying lost permanently are rather slim, to being in a place where hundreds or thousands of kilometers could theoretically stand between me and civilization.
Of course, I’m also just a water baby, meaning that water is my safe place. Coming from a culture that is based in an appreciation and acknowledgement of the sea, to a place where the drowning statistics are often reported on the news during the summers and the water is heart-stoppingly cold for much of the year, is a serious adjustment for me.
So those stereotypes: Lifestyle Changes
There is a general idea in America that Germans are very orderly and somewhat gruff in nature. They are portrayed as annoyingly efficient and sticklers for the law. This is… a stereotype that is not necessarily completely true, but may hold some serious weight. If you spend an hour in a German grocery market you’ll see what I mean. The most poignant example of this that crosses my mind is their seriousness about recycling. Other countries in Europe may also have a similarly stringent recycling process, but all I can say is that in Germany it is serious. Plastics must be recycled separately from natural products and paper is also recycled on its own. The recyclables are then picked up once every week or every other week, but if you do not separate your recyclables properly then they will refuse to pick them up. A stray bottle or banana peel in the wrong bin could leave you with overflowing trash and recyclables for several weeks. I think that this is great in theory, if a bit intense. If the whole world was so serious about recycling, then maybe our pollution issue would be a fraction of what it is now.
This general way of being— and by this I mean the actual existence and enforcement of laws and social rules— is a very different experience from being in Hawaii. Most laws in Hawaii are viewed more like general guidelines and over all people are pretty laid back. Island life, beach culture, whatever you want to call it, does not put an emphasis on one’s ability to follow the rules.
I’m conflicted about this. I’m a rule follower, but only when the rules make sense and are ethical. Hawaii and Germany are on completely opposing ends of this spectrum. In Hawaii I wished people were more capable of following basic laws and social expectations, while in Germany there have been some cultural or legal rules that have me wondering “why would anyone abide by this?” So I’m still working on finding my balance.
Multiculturalism: Where are all my brown people at?
I am thankful to say that I have been treated very kindly by pretty much everyone I’ve met since arriving in Germany. That being said, it’s odd going from a place brimming with people of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds to being in a predominantly white (European) country. Of course, there is diversity present. Germany has brought in many immigrants and there is also a large Turkish presence here as well. While this is great, it has also served as a source of contention for some of the more “right wing” groups— much like how it has in America.
I have been fortunate enough to grow up in a place where I didn’t have to spend too much time thinking about my skin color or the ideas that may come attached to it. All I can say is, so far so good! I feel much more accepted here than I do in mainland America, even if I do occasionally wish to see more than one other brown person in the supermarket.
Language: Why didn’t I learn German?
I do not speak German. I had a sucky American public school education (which left me with next to no options for learning another language proficiently) and that aside, I never thought that I would need to know German. French, Spanish, maybe. German? It never would have crossed my mind. And yet again, here I am, in Germany, wishing I had learned some German.
I am fascinated by language. I have studied English in depth my entire life (I even went to university for it). I have to say, I love English. It’s messy and the rules don’t always make sense, and it’s a little presumptuous, but I like English. It’s the sound of home and my inner monologue. So I have to say, German is kicking my butt. There are sounds my mouth literally refuses to make. ( I’ve got the scratchy hacking sound down though.) I will see words and memorize them only to realize they are pronounced nothing like they are written, and then I feel like I’m starting from scratch again. German is a language that sounds strong and sturdy until someone uses the slightest negative tone at which point it sounds immediately like a dastardly threat. It’s a difficult language to read through tone alone, unlike the “romantic” Latin based languages which seem to make so much more sense to my brain. English is mainly comprised of two branches of language— the Germanic and the Latin. That’s why we have words that are so similar to some German words, like apothecary (apotheker) and others that are more similar to languages like Spanish, such as collection (colección). Of course, language is much more complicated than that, but those are just some general ideas that I’ve noticed in my attempts to learn another language.
I also have to mention that there is also the process of learning not only the literal language but also the common language— the terms, sayings, and the words that have evolved past their textbook definition to mean something completely different in everyday language. The learning never ends! (In short, I need to get back on my Duolingo game!)
There have been dozens of little changes that I’ve had to adjust to since moving. Everything from speaking and being misunderstood, to realizing it’s crazy difficult to get English books here, to trying to figure out the ingredients in something in the market when nothing is in English, to learning how to use the super European washing machine with too many buttons, it’s all been a learning experience. Sometimes I feel really stupid. Sometimes I feel a little frustrated that my brain and my education have failed to make this experience more seamless for me. Sometimes I get really excited about learning a new word and go around babbling it like a child. Sometimes I get to see something I’ve never seen before and just feel overwhelmingly thankful.
It hasn’t all been easy, but I have loved my time here. I feel like I am learning and improving in some small way every day, and I’m happy to do it in a place where I am safe and loved.