Getting Set-Up, Integrating, and Living in Germany: A Case Study
by Matthew Jorgensen
One way or another, you’ve landed a job in Germany and have an expected date of arrival. Now what? Preparing to move to Germany can seem like a daunting task. For my family and I it was the first time we would live outside of the USA. We had some guidelines from the foundation that was employing me, but they weren’t targeted to people coming from the States so most of the advice didn’t seem to apply. Emails to my contacts in Germany went unanswered for weeks, so we more or less had to figure things out on our own. Here’s how we did it, along with some of the mistakes we made.
Money for relocation was very tight for us.We couldn’t afford to ship any belongings ahead of time, and storing things in the US for an indefinite amount of time didn’t make much sense, so we sold almost all of our belongings prior to the move.
Who could have guessed the freedom we felt after selling our stuff? It was liberating. My wife and I have 2 children who were 4 and 2 years old when we moved. My wife was nervous to fly with the kids by herself, so we came out all together from the beginning. I tracked airfares online for a couple of months to figure out the cheapest way to fly and found that by flying at a certain time in the summer during weekdays, tickets were $400 less per person than they would be just a few weeks later in the year.
We tried searching for apartments close to my work using online listings, but our calls and emails went unanswered. This is probably because we couldn’t speak in German on the phone, the German language in our emails was terribly translated by Google, and the older people in Eastern Germany tend to be very shy about their inability with English. Discouraged, we started looking for help. We found that Dresden, along with many other German cities, has a center designed specifically for helping and welcoming foreigners. The Welcome Center was very kind, and made arrangements for an apartment that we could use. At the same time I was trying to connect with my future coworkers, and one of them connected me with their English speaking landlord who offered us a nice partially furnished apartment (partially furnished means including light fixtures and kitchen cabinets). We decided that the apartment with the English speaking landlord was a better deal, and made informal arrangements via email to ensure the apartment was available on our arrival.
We knew that the German officials would need copies and originals of all our important documents. In preparation for the move, we made sure that we had originals of our birth certificates, marriage license, immunization records, and so on. What we didn’t do is get these documents certified for legal purposes with an Apostille from our home state Utah. An Apostille is a form, physically attached to each of your important documents by a competent authority. This form must be attached when your documents are translated by a certified translator and when they are given to the German authorities for your resident visa (which they call a resident permit). Not having our Apostilles set us back months, because we had to do this via mail, and cost us a few months of kindergeld (money provided by the state to parents).
On the day of our departure we had 4 carry-on bags, 4 bags to check, and $10,000 from the sale of our car and the rest of our belongings. These, along with our documents were all we took to Germany. The carry-on bags were large, because we were avoiding excess checked baggage fees. This turned out to be a terrible mistake because transferring between planes with 2 children and 4 bags was very difficult, and even resulted in the loss of one of our gate-checked carry-ons.
Arrival and Integration
That first night we slept in a hotel right by the airport, because we were too exhausted to do anything else. The next day we rented a car and a couple of car seats, loaded our boxes, and drove to our new apartment. The first few weeks were the hardest emotionally and physically. Even though we had tried to learn some German before we came, what we had was severely inadequate. We had anticipated that everyday life might be different, and so were prepared to be flexible, but with this flexibility came instability and frustration. Many problems came up that we never would have anticipated, stupid little things, and since we didn’t know German we couldn’t just ask people what to do.
For example, when we first got here we really needed garbage can liners, but were so clueless and disoriented we had no idea where to buy them. The little market around the corner didn’t sell them, and we didn’t know the name of a single grocery store. We didn’t have the internet at home (it took 3 months to install), so I went to McDonalds and typed “garbage bags Dresden” into Google… but that didn’t help. In the end, I knocked around on the doors in our apartment building until I found a guy who was willing to share a few bags, and the locations of a few stores with me.
It’s a silly example, but our experience with the garbage bags really characterizes the struggle we had on first arrival and highlights how truly unprepared we were. Just imagine this scenario playing out in a myriad of circumstances.
My wife and I were overwhelmed with the first responsibilities: getting official translations, registering with the city, applying for a resident visa, buying a car (including inspection, registration, plates and all that), buying a house load of furniture from IKEA, starting work, looking for a school for the children, and setting up cellphone and internet plans. At the same time we were fighting with the culture shock of our kids being frowned at in the market, and not knowing German. Not surprisingly this experience was extremely painful and strained our marriage.
Things gradually got better. We connected with the folks at the Welcome Center, and enrolled in German language and integration courses. We made friends with a few English speaking Germans in our stairwell, and read a couple books on German culture and communication styles. A little bit of understanding goes a long, long way.
We found new German foods that we like, and have stopped missing the unhealthy American foods that we left behind. We have started using public transportation a lot more, and traveling by train between cities. Our German is still far from fluent, but we can order a pizza auf Deutsch without any problems.
After being here a year, I can say that my wife and I are happy. We found a great international school for our daughter, who is learning German with English speaking friends. The education is more dynamic and creative… better, than what I would expect from kindergarten in the US. Surprisingly, we find that we are spending less money on groceries than we ever have. We eat out less than we ever have, and feel healthier. It took some time to get used to the directness and honesty found in German culture, but we have come to find it refreshing. Things just work better when people do what they say they will do and show up when they say they will show up.
In the winter, the night is lit up with Christmas markets selling fresh desserts and authentic wooden toys. In spring, everything is green, the air is sweetened by the scent of blossoms, and the locals become obsessed with Asparagus. In summer, just when the heat becomes irritating, a thunderstorm rolls in. When the rain becomes tiring, the clouds break and people return to laying out in the grass by the river. Fall brings many holidays and festivals, with another round of great desserts and pumpkin soup.
Yes, life in Germany is good. We work less hours, but our productivity does not suffer because we are more relaxed from the Holidays. We have more formality, but then we also have more beer. Living here has been a life expanding experience that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone.