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When Covid-19 Puts Your Expat Life On Hold

Christina: For me, Germany is not the country I want to spend the rest of my life in. I feel very at home in Australia. It was very funny for me, when I flew to Australia, when I actually moved there, and the plane hit the tarmac, and I could feel it in my heart. I was like, ‘I’m home.’

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. The current pandemic has left a lot of people around the world in limbo, and Christina Sinn is one of them. A German expat, Christina ‘should’ be in Australia right now, where she’s been based for the past few years, after living in China and the UK. But she and her partner happened to be visiting Germany when COVID-19 hit its first peak and international borders closed, and now they’re stuck there.

Christina’s going to share the challenges they’ve experienced in trying to get back to their life in Australia, in needing to adjust to their new life back in Germany, and how she and her partner have worked through needing to drastically change their plans.

Christina, you’re an expat currently stuck in your home country. Where are you in the world, and where in the world should you be right now?

Christina: Yeah, so, currently I’m in Germany. I’m in Aachen. So, Aachen is a smaller city, next to Cologne. Cologne, probably people know a little bit better. Yeah. And I should be still in Sydney, or rather [should be] moving up to Newcastle by now. But yeah, it all happened a bit differently, actually, than planned.

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Carlie: So, Germany is pretty far from Australia. As I understand it, coronavirus is what has got you stuck in your passport country. Tell me what happened.

Christina: Yeah, so, my partner and I, we lived together in Sydney, and we also met in Sydney, and, funnily enough, he’s German too. So, he has family in Germany, and so we were on a road trip. Luckily, we had already dissolved our flat, because we wanted to be on a road trip for a couple of weeks and then move from Sydney to Newcastle and establish ourselves there.

And then, in the middle of our road trip, he got some family news, and from one day to another, we basically had to pack our stuff, put it all into storage, and fly over to Germany to sort out what was happening in his family and help them.

So, we actually had planned to fly over quickly, organise stuff and help out, and stay here for a maximum of two months. When we’d been here for two weeks – it was literally just two weeks – the stuff with the coronavirus went to, like, peak season sort of thing. And that was when the really harsh measures started to kick in, and all the countries shut their borders.

I think Australia was one of the countries that closed their borders quite early on. So, we thought, Okay, well, this is now the first step of measures to make sure it doesn’t get worse, and all that kind of stuff. And, We have a couple of more weeks to stay here anyways. So, then the borders will be open again.

But then the weeks went by and the months went by, and we thought, like, What the heck? It’s not getting better. There is no change. The borders are saying closed, and we can’t go over, because …’ For us, it’s also to do with the visa situation. We are in the process of getting PR.

Carlie: That’s permanent residency for Australia.

Christina: Exactly. Yeah. And I think, if we would’ve stayed two weeks longer in the country, we probably would have had it by now, because it was literally just one more paper – send it in, and then done and dusted. But, because we had to fly over, and then they closed the borders, they also closed the processing of all these visas.

Because what good does it do when you have somebody in a foreign country, you process their PR, you give them their PR, and then they come back. So, you have more people, or you have the risk of more people bringing in Covid, right? So, this is not an official statement, but that is our explanation of it all.

There is no processing happening. Yeah. So, that’s why we actually can’t go back. That’s why we’re stuck here. And basically, we’re waiting until Australia decides to start processing visas again.

Carlie: If I wanted to go back to Australia, theoretically, I could apply and probably have a case for going back to Australia at the moment. But that doesn’t apply to you, because of your visa status when you left Australia?

Christina: Exactly. Because we don’t have PR yet. So we don’t count. With PR, you still don’t count as a citizen, but you have about 90% of the rights of a citizen, right?

Carlie: To be repatriated, brought back to Australia, if you’re stuck overseas during—

Christina: So, we would have been able to fly over, but because we don’t have it yet, we’re still in the processing stage, we don’t have anything to go over. You know?

Carlie: So, how can you solve this problem of getting back? Is it just a waiting game?

Christina: Basically, yeah. So, we either have to wait for them to start processing visas again – and processing our visa and giving us PR, so that we have the right to fly over – or, yeah, we have to wait until the country feels confident enough to open their borders again. Be it because of a vaccine or medication or whatever. One way or the other, it’s a complete waiting game now. Yeah.

Carlie: You and your partner had packed up your lives in Sydney. You were on an Aussie road trip – the classic Australian road trip – at the time that you had to come to Germany. It sounds like you were preparing for this move to Newcastle. You were in a state of transition anyway, but what did you leave behind? Were you both working in Australia? Is there a life and jobs and things to really get back to over there?

Christina: I worked as a freelancer, so I just contracted in several design studios, and you know how it is with freelancing. You just go in and out, and it’s quite flexible, and you don’t have this one company you’re connected to.

So, there’s not a job waiting for me there, and I’m not risking losing it now. And for my partner, it’s quite similar. He’s a metal fabricator. He worked at these maintenance shutdowns for electrical plants. And so, you go in as well, for a couple of months, and work there, and then you move on to the next thing.

So, job wise, there’s nothing that we’re risking losing. And luckily, flat wise, we dissolved everything and put our basic stuff – the stuff that you really want to keep and that you don’t want to sell – we have a little storage room that we’re renting, where we put our stuff.

The only thing that was a little bit tricky was that we had parked our car on the side of the road when we went to the airport, and the registration went out. Yeah. We had to ship the keys over to a mechanic, and the mechanic was so kind and went and got the car and did the safety and drove it back. And it was like two months’ hassle to get this resolved.

Carlie: So your car is basically homeless in Australia, while you’re in Germany?

Christina: It’s stranded on the side of the road, poor thing.

Carlie: Well, I guess it’s a much better situation than if you’d left, you know, a pet in limbo or something.

Christina: Yeah, and we were so glad that we had already dissolved everything, because, you know, the rents in Sydney are not cheap. And having to pay things for like six months, or maybe a year, ongoing, whilst you’re not in the country, is quite a financial pressure. And so, we were happy that it happened in the way it happened, in that sense, even though it was not—

Carlie: It sounds like a very fortunate situation, by accident, that you guys were in.

Christina: Yeah. Yeah. We were super lucky in that sense. Yeah.

Carlie: So, what have you been doing with your time, now that you’re stuck in Germany, as you put it?

Christina: So, yeah, in the beginning, when we arrived here, like I said, there were some family things we had to take care of that took a lot of time and effort. And then, we have a house here, and so, we had to sort out the house – that was a lot of work as well.

So, I think the first two months were just really organising and sorting stuff. And then, after those two months, we started realising, Oh yeah, okay. Well, this won’t change as fast as we thought it would change. So our mindset shifted to, Okay, we are going to stay probably not only two months. We are probably going to stay until maybe the end of the year or next year in January.

So, we put our minds to this kind of timeframe. So we started with Airbnb to generate a little bit of money, and we caught up with some friends and started to establish a little bit of a life here, instead of just, We’re coming in and we’re leaving quickly again.

It was a little bit of a process to get from being busy and organising things to then realising that we need to stay at least until next year, January. Then settling in a little bit into this coronavirus bubble, and meeting up with friends here and there, and trying to generate a revenue stream, in a sense.

Carlie: To keep your lives going.

Christina: Yeah, to keep something going. Because, in the beginning, you sit here and you think it won’t take that long, and you don’t have that mindset of ‘I’m starting a new life here.’ You’re still with your head and your heart in Australia. So, you’re not really committed to starting something fresh.

And so, you start using your savings, and you think, Well, okay, another month, another month, another month. And then you hit that point where you say, ‘Oh, this can’t go on for as long as this seems to be going on.’ So you have to stop. And you have to be constantly rethinking your plan, in a way. And that, I have to say, I found really exhausting.

Carlie: You’ve lived in a few different countries. So it’s been quite a few years since you have been full-time back in Germany. How has that process been, mentally adjusting? And what sort of perspective do you think you’ve brought back to your home country, after so many years abroad?

Christina: To be honest, for me, it was really hard to adjust. For me, Germany is not the country I want to spend the rest of my life in. I feel very at home in Australia. It was very funny for me, when I flew to Australia, when I actually moved there. The plane hit the tarmac, and I could feel it in my heart. I was like, ‘I’m home.’

So, I have somehow this strange connection to Australia, and I feel really at home there. And even though I was born in Germany and I lived in Germany until my mid-twenties, Australia is more of a home to me than Germany.

So, for me, it was a really tough pill to swallow, to have to come to terms with having to stay here for so much longer than I actually anticipated. On the other hand, I realised the beauty of Germany as well. I’ve made an effort in the time we’ve been here to really discover Germany a little bit more again and to go on little day trips and really look at my surrounding.

And I can see that I have developed a new appreciation for Germany, if I want to say it like that. Yeah.

Carlie: It must be nice to have all this bonus time with family and friends. I know that’s the thing I miss the most, being in France and not being able to pop over to Mum and Dad’s place to have a coffee and puddle around in the garden.

Christina: Yeah. It’s a bit tricky, because of COVID, so that didn’t happen too much. And also, I live quite far away from where I come from originally within Germany. So, there was not more in the sense of physical family time. But what was nice is that you’re in the same time zone for once.

It was so much easier to pick up the phone and just call for half an hour, or just a quick chat on the phone, because you’re on the same time schedule. So that was really lovely. You’re much more likely to pick up the phone and have a quick chat, rather than every month have a five-hour Skype call, where you try to pack in everything that you’ve experienced.

So, you feel a bit more connected in that sense, because you feel like your friends and your family have a closer experience of your life.

Carlie: Yeah, definitely. Christina, I’m curious. You’ve lived in the UK. You’ve lived in China. You’ve lived in Australia. Now, you’re in Germany during the coronavirus crisis. Having lived in these different countries and observing how they’re all handling the pandemic, do you feel like one country is doing better than others?

Christina: Because we are here in our little bubble in the house with our handful of friends, we’re not getting too much in touch with all those restrictions. So, the only thing I’ve really experienced is that I have to wear a mask when I go shopping. That’s basically it for me.

We live quite close to the Belgian border. So, we realised that when the borders were closed, that was a really strange feeling for Europeans. To feel like, Oh, I can’t just cross over to Belgium, or I can’t just cross over to the Netherlands. That felt strange, because I think Europeans are so used to this open border lifestyle.

What I hear from friends in London, and also back in Sydney … It doesn’t seem to be that they are experiencing much different from me. They also say, ‘We have to wear masks when we go shopping’ or ‘we try and keep to ourselves a little bit.’ But it feels like everybody is doing their bit to have that feeling of normality.

Carlie: It really feels like the whole world is just in this holding pattern. So, what does the future hold for you guys? I know there’s so much uncertainty right now, but you were about to make a big change in your lives, moving from the big city lights of Sydney to a smaller, but still significant, city in Australia: Newcastle. What was the plan that you’ll eventually be getting back to?

Christina: So, we had planned to move to Newcastle and get a little bit out of the hustle and bustle of Sydney, and have a little bit of a calmer and more laid back lifestyle. So, we actually wanted to buy a bus and convert it into an apartment, and then live a little bit self-sustainable and flexible, in terms of location and so on.

So, that is now on the back burner, in a sense. I said, ‘I can’t live with the thought of: maybe next month the borders will open, or maybe the next month.’ I can’t live with this kind of thought or mindset in my head.

So, we said, ‘Okay, we don’t know how long it will take until the borders open up again.’ So we have committed now to staying for three years in Germany, and my partner has enrolled in a bachelor’s course to study engineering in renewable energies.

And I have committed now to finding a job in Germany as a creative director. We’re trying to establish our lives here now for, let’s say, the next three to four years, probably. Because we reckon that that might be actually a pretty realistic timeframe.

Carlie: That’s a significant change of mindset, isn’t it?

Christina: Yes. And that didn’t come easy, and it took several months to get to this conclusion. Of course, that’s the problematic thing. Let’s say that in six months the borders actually do open up again and we do get our visa. Then we have to switch our mindsets again, probably.

But the thing is, at some point, you need to find a point where you say, ‘Okay, I commit now to this.’ And you frame your mindset around that, because otherwise you’re constantly in between and you dabble around in a couple of little things, but you don’t commit. So nothing happens.

My partner, he read some articles, where Australia was asked, ‘Do you think that next year, in July or August, you will open your borders again?’ And Australia was like, ‘Well, this would be nice, but probably not likely.’ So, this would be another year. So we said, ‘We have to change our mindset and commit now.’ Because what do you do? You can’t live through years in an in-between state.

Carlie: Yeah, it’s not healthy for anybody.

Christina: No.

Carlie: And just finally, I’m curious, if you’re committing to three years in Germany, whether it takes three years or not for borders to open up again – fingers crossed it’s a little bit sooner – does that change your visa status in Australia at all? Does it put you at the back of the line for permanent residency, or will the time you’ve spent in Australia count, and continue to count, in three years’ time?

Christina: That’s another thing we don’t know, really. If Australia would really give us the visa, let’s say in three years, then we would see what the requirements are. If they say, ‘Oh, well, it’s now taken so long that you have to go through the procedure partially again’or if they just put a stamp on and say, ‘You’ve got your visa now.’ We just don’t know.

And that is the whole bottom line of everything: we just don’t know. And if Australia would open their borders or give us the visa within a year, then we would have to think then, in that moment, What are we going to do now?

And then, again, adjust, and maybe then fly over and sort out our stuff over there and get the visa kickstarted, or at least activated, in that sense. Because I think you have to be in the country to get it activated. And because we still have stuff in Sydney, that would be a good chance to sort that out.

But, as I said, with every new piece of information, with every new opportunity you get, it might literally shift your entire life plan completely around again. So, yeah, it’s not an easy time.

Carlie: You said you’ve really had to change your mindset in the last few months to really think about being in Germany for the next three years and to provide yourself some anchors and a base and a way to move forward. What’s your best advice to people that might be stuck in a similar type of limbo right now, about how to really ground themselves in the situation they’re in and make peace?

Christina: Yeah, I think making peace is really important. And what helped me was to really focus on the things that I can control. I can’t control what Australia does with its borders. I can’t control how the COVID situation develops, and I can’t control what Australia does with my visa. So there’s no point in focusing on that.

The thing I can control is my situation here in Germany. Do I catch up with my friends? Can I recharge my batteries by talking to the people that do me good? That’s helped me recharge. What do I want to achieve now for me? For me, it was: I don’t want to sit at home all day long and drain my savings. I want to go out there and find a job.

So I put all my efforts in that now. And, for example, for a short-term solution to generate revenue in a quick way, we opened our house up to Airbnb, and we have now quite constantly guests staying with us. You just need to really look at what you can do to help yourself in the situation.

Really focus on that, rather than on where you wanted to be with your original plan, which didn’t work out, because it didn’t work out, and you can’t change anything. There’s no point in dwelling on it, in that sense.

I know that is not an easy shift to make, because initially you want to cling onto that original plan. Give yourself that time to still hope and cling on to that plan, and when you’re ready to let go of it or make baby steps towards letting go of it, then focus on the things that you can do now in this framework. Focus on that.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have questions for Christina or want to share your own experience, head over to expatfocus.com. At the bottom of our homepage, you’ll find links to our Facebook groups.

Be sure to check out our other episodes. We interview expats and experts on all aspects of life abroad. If you like what we do, please leave us a review on your favourite podcast app, and I’ll catch you next time.

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