Americans in Germany 2: Hometown Locals Part I

Left to right: Jason D. Smith, Amanda (Draine) Sutton, Kristin (Svoboda) Krahmer, Brian Krahmer. Photo taken by Birgit Smith in 2014 in Jena.

There is an idiomatic expression that best describes a well-travelled and open-minded person:  Being a hometown person is good, travelling around is better, being abroad gives you the best.   During the author’s time in Germany, one of the observations that is definitely noticeable in the past decade is that the world is getting much smaller. It has nothing to do with the increase of goods from Germany that can be bought in the US and vice versa, but more to do with meeting people from your college town or even your hometown. During a trip to Flensburg in 2010, the author encountered a person, whose daughter went to high school in Windom, Minnesota as an exchange student! Located 40 km northeast of Worthington, which has an exchange program with Crailsheim, as well as 110 km west of New Ulm, a predominantly German city, it would be considered unusual to have a German visit a small town of 4500 inhabitants for a full year, a third as many as the two aforementioned communities.

However, what would be a reaction of the readers when they found out that four people from an even smaller community- namely Jackson, located 30 km south of Windom- are living in Germany. And all of them have an age difference of only four years?  This is what Jason Smith, Brian Krahmer, Kristin Krahmer (née Svoboda) and Amanda Sutton (née Draine) are doing.  Since 2014, the four people have been living in Germany, and albeit they live far apart, they have one thing in common: Germany is considered home to them. In this series on Americans living in Germany, the Files’ Steve Schorr asked the four people individually about their motives behind moving to Germany and comparing life there to that of their hometown. This will be divided up into two parts due to length and content. This is part I, with part II to follow.  Before moving to the questions, a brief profile of the four people:

Jason D. Smith-  Jason has lived in Germany the longest, having resided there since 1999. He graduated from Jackson High School in 1996. After three years at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, he came to Germany as a foreign exchange student at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena and since graduating in 2001, has been teaching English at various institutions in and around Jena and Erfurt, with the exception of a two-year stint in Bayreuth at the university. He’s currently pursuing his teaching license to teach English, Social Studies and History at a German high school (Gymnasium) and is expected to obtain his 1st state exam in 2016 and his 2nd by 2018. Since 2010 he is also a writer and photographer of two blogs: The Flensburg Files and The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. With the exception of two years in Bayreuth and another two in Erfurt, Jason has been living in Jena with his wife Birgit and their seven year old daughter, Clara.

Brian and Kristin Krahmer- Brian and Kristin are the adventurous type when it comes to travelling, having lived in six different American states before moving to Germany in 2014. Kristin graduated from high school in 1996, Brian three years earlier. Married since 2000 (the same time as Jason and Birgit), the couple have done many jobs in the areas including some self-employment opportunities as carpenter, while Kristin acquired a profession as a massage therapist and Brian has 20+ years’ experience as a software developer. Since coming to Germany in 2014, they have lived in two different places in Bavaria: in Pegnitz (between Bayreuth and Nuremberg) and in their current town of Markt Rettenbach, located between Ulm and Munich near the city of Memmingen. They have a 10-year old daughter, Alexis.

Amanda (Draine) Sutton- Amanda graduated from high school, together with Jason and Kristin, in 1996 and since earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Health in 2007 and a Master’s in Radiological Health Sciences in 2009.  Both degrees were earned at Colorado State University.  After college, she spent one year working on the Hanford Site with Washington Closure Hanford as a Radiological Engineer in Washington state, followed by approximately two years working with SENES/ARCADIS as a Health Physicist out of their Denver office in Colorado before she started her family.  Her husband Andrew completed his PhD in Computer Science in 2011, also from Colorado State University.  Andrew has held post-docs in the Computer Science Departments at University of Adelaide, Colorado State University, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, and Hasso Plattner Institut/Universität Potsdam.  Amanda has lived in Minnesota, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, and Washington.  Since meeting Andrew, who grew up in New Mexico, they have also lived in Adelaide, South Australia and Jena, Germany.  They currently reside in Potsdam, Germany with their two children, Camden who will be three years old in November, and Daphne who is two months old.

And now, the questions:

Question 1: What motivated you to move to Germany?

Brian-  I had been to Germany 7 times before moving here.  I have always loved the culture, architecture, the autobahn, cars, transport system, the food, and of course, the beer!  The location makes it very easy to travel to dozens of countries as well.

Kristin- For over a decade Brian and I have wanted to live in Europe and we fell in love with Germany the most. I like the German architecture, food, lifestyle, varying landscapes and I admire how strongly Germans hold on to tradition. I feel Germany is a very progressive country when it comes to politics, the environment and education. I think our daughter will have some great options for education here in Germany. Brian and I have always loved exploring new places and Germany is a great starting point for exploring many other countries in Europe.

Jason- There are two people in my life who got me convinced that I should go to Germany: my German teacher in high school, who introduced me to German culture and the language in class, and my wife, who is originally from Germany in the state of Thuringia. Before meeting Birgit, I had thought about spending time in Germany but was hesitant because it was at the latter part of my studies at Concordia. When Birgit came to my alma mater in 1998, my attitude changed and after learning about the exchange program, I took advantage of it and “followed” her back to Germany to Jena. Actually she got me convinced that living abroad does give a person a grand opportunity to learn the language and the culture, and since coming here in 1999, she was right. Otherwise I would not be here today.

Amanda- My husband, Andrew, secured a post doc position as a Researcher in Computer Science with Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.  We moved to Jena in March of 2014.  However the project relocated to Hasso Plattner Institut/Universität Potsdam and so we moved with in May 2015.  He is now a Researcher and Teacher in Algorithm Engineering here in Potsdam.

Question 2. How did you get a place of residency and work in Germany?

Brian-    I probably had an easier time than many, as I work in IT, where Germany has a shortage of workers.  I initially got a freelance visa for one year, and then renewed it for a 4-year Blue Card, which is a bit similar to a Green Card in the US.

Kristin- My permit falls under Brian’s Blue Card as a family reunification visa. Now that Brian has a Blue Card, I am now able to work. When we first arrived in Germany, Brian had a self-employment visa and I was not permitted to work. I did have to complete a 10 month language course to obtain a B1 certificate of German language and take an integration course.

Jason- Being married to a German made it really easy to get a residency and worker’s permit. During the first three years of marriage, I had a temporary residency visa which was converted to a permanent one in the fall of 2003. The reason for that is to avoid “green-card” marriages in Germany, which was common at that time. When I received my temporary visa, I also received my worker’s visa at the same time, enabling me to find a job anywhere.  While obtaining a permanent visa allows you to stay in Germany permanently, the catch is when you are absent from Germany for longer than six months and are either single or divorced. Then you run into a lot of problems getting back in, as many foreigners I know have gone through. The lone exception of course is when you trade in your citizenship with a German/ European one, which can be very expensive but one many expats have risked doing, especially because of tax issues from the US.

Amanda- It took us two months to find our first apartment in Jena because we had to learn both the language and rental process at the same time.  This combined with getting our bearings, figuring out how to properly apply for our residency and work permits, Andrew starting his new job, taking care of a toddler, and a tight rental market made it a challenging experience.  We had to learn very quickly all the necessary steps and hurdles of settling in Germany. Work was through my husband Andrew as mentioned.

Question 3. Was it difficult to get a residency and work permit?

Brian and Kristin- (Brian)- I didn’t find it that difficult to get a work permit or residency, but found it much harder than I expected to actually find a job.  I thought that IT would be an exception to most jobs and that I would be okay without being fluent in German.  The fact I am not keeps me out of most companies.

Author’s note: Both were of the opinion that skills shortage was (and still is) high in Germany, which explains the logic behind hiring refugees in Germany at the moment.

Amanda- Yes and no.  It was not difficult because Andrew had already secured work here, so it was just a matter of going through the process.  However, it was very challenging to understand this process and complete the necessary steps and documentation all in a language we were new to.  All the websites, documentation, and conversations were in German.  The beginning of our life in Germany was therefore quite difficult, as our German was very poor and we had little help in the beginning.  It was a very emotional time.

Jason- Not really as mentioned in the previous question. Yet learning the language is key to navigate through the bureaucratic mess like this one. I was lucky that the process went as smoothly as it did.

Question 4. What jobs have you worked since coming to Germany?

Kristin- I have not worked yet in Germany. I do plan on looking for some type of work in the near future. There are a few things that work against you as a foreigner. Germans have an obligation to fill jobs first to German natives. If they can not find a suitable candidate then they can fill that job with someone else. My career has mostly been a mix of Massage Therapy and odd jobs here and there for extra income. That is what I will most likely end up working here in Germany also. I am also looking into various options to put my English skills to work.

Brian- I’m a software engineer, currently working in the payment processing area.

Jason- Since 2001 I’ve been an English teacher, and with the exception of 2008-12 (when I worked full time), I’ve been working on a freelancer basis, teaching everyone of all ages, regardless of social and cultural background as well as language level. If there was one item that would be mentioned in a retirement party to take place when I turn 75, it would be this: I’ve been around the block, teaching at every type of educational institution, including the Volkshochschule (Institute of Continuing Education), German companies, Gemeinschaftsschule (community private school), Gymnasium (high school), private institutions (some funded by the Job Service Agency (Agentur für Arbeit)), private persons, the German military,  translation offices, and the university. I still have yet to teach the kids in a kindergarten or elementary school, but that will come soon enough. Yet as most institutions have limited contracts and I’m searching for something more permanent, I’m back at the university to fulfill that purpose.  Aside that, I’ve done editing and translating work, plus I’m a columnist for two blogs- a side gig but one I can imagine doing for a newspaper or publisher.

Amanda- Andrew is a Researcher and now also a Teacher in the Computer Science field.  He worked at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena for just over a year and is now working with the Hasso Plattner Institut/Universität Potsdam.  His job has not changed, only the location.  As for me, I am allowed to work in Germany, but at the moment I stay home and take care of our two children, both under three years of age.  My job here is called a Hausfrau.  When I return to work I have interest in utilizing my degree in Environmental Health and/or learning more about Passive Housing and getting into this field.  I would enjoy working in Germany.

Question 5. Many Germans love to stay in one place, yet the trend has pointed to becoming more mobile. Have you stayed in one place since coming to Germany and if not, where have you lived?

Jason- With the exception of two years in Bayreuth and another two in Erfurt (both because of jobs) I have stayed put in Jena because of the small town environment and the beautiful forested hills along the Saale River. Whether we will stay longer in Jena will depend on where my teaching job will be, for regions in the north and east are desperately looking for licensed teachers to fill in the ranks at the schools.

Amanda- As mentioned, we have lived in Jena and now Potsdam.  We only moved because my husband’s job moved.  We would have loved to have stayed in Jena and we miss it.  That being said, we are starting to get settled in Potsdam and are meeting new people all the time.

Kristin- When we first came we lived in a small town called Pegnitz located between Nuremberg and Bayreuth. We chose this area because in Bayreuth there is a great international school in which our daughter to attended the 3rd grade. As parents, we worried about making our daughter’s transition into a new country as easy as possible. This school was very small and most of the teachers knew English so our daughter had support in English when she needed. Pegnitz also fell along a decent train connection for Brian to work in Nuremberg.

We have just recently moved further south to be closer to Munich where Brian is now working. Munich has many more job options for Brian so we want to live as close to Munich as we can but still be in a smaller city. Munich is a great city but we prefer the peacefulness of smaller towns. The area we now live in is closer to the German Alps as well so we are excited to get out and explore. It’s hard to say if this area is where we will plant our feet for the long haul. Anyone who knows the Krahmers knows that we tend to move around a lot.

 Brian- Adding on to what Kristin said, we would like to build a house and settle down somewhere, but land is extremely expensive over here, and you can’t build just anywhere, unlike a few wild places we’ve lived in the US.

Question 6.  In the time you’ve been living here in Germany, what similarities and differences have you seen in comparison with the US, in terms of culture, mentality and the environment?

Kristin-  Some similarities I see are the popularity of supermarkets and other big department stores. While many Germans will also stop by their local butcher or bakery for the best product, many Germans enjoy the convenience of one stop shopping which supermarkets provide. Germans love American entertainment so we hear many of the same music as in the States as well as blockbuster movies. Germany has many American television stations that such as Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Discovery and TLC. It is just translated into German. Germany has become ‘Americanized’ in a sense that many American phrases works it’s way into common every day language. Another similarity is Germans have great pride in their cars just as Americans do theirs. Germans also admire the American ‘Muscle Car’ a lot.

The differences I see are that people here know the value of fun and family time. Germans work less hours but are more efficient. They have many more vacation days and are always out enjoying themselves. Cafes, restaurants, soccer fields, bike trails and swimming pools are always full of people out spending time with friends and family. Stores being closed on Sundays was something for me to get used to and I love it. It forces everyone to just relax and recharge before the start of a new week.

Another difference is driving. Germans have much tougher drivers education and penalties for breaking driving laws are much more severe. Although they drive fast they tend to drive well. It is illegal to pass on the right so it forces people get over after passing immediately. I love the Autobahn not only because you can drive fast but because it is very efficient when everyone follows the rules.

Also housing here is different. For many Germans they will never live in or own a house their entire lives. They will instead rent or own an apartment. What may look like a normal size house to an American will actually house maybe two or three families inside, each living on a different level. Out in the countryside you still see the old barns still connected to the family home as they were hundreds of years ago. They’ve done this for several reasons. One is that their animals are easier to tend to when they are nearby. I have also heard that the heat generated by the animals helps keep their own houses warmer when attached to the barn. We live in an area with many dairy farms and we see milk trucks making daily rounds to collect the milk. Farmers here will still put bells on some of their cows and call them home with Alpenhorns just as their ancestors did.

Views on the environment I find much different. Recycling is serious business over here. We recycle just about everything and packaging is made so that it can be easily recycled. We even have a compost bin that gets picked up every other week as well. When you look out across a typical German city big or small you will see hundreds of solar panels on homes, apartments and even barns. Many people walk, bike or have a fuel efficient car here. The trend for local or organic ‘Bio’ foods is very strong here as it is in the U.S. right now.

Amanda- Culturally, it is different in many ways.  Germans have more social benefits like time off, maternity/paternity benefits, pay, healthcare, and childcare.  They therefore are able to take more holiday time, go on holiday more often, and in general I feel are able to relax more and have quality time either alone or with their families should they choose.  They take time off seriously.  Everything except restaurants and a few shops with permits are closed on Sundays, so no grocery or clothes shopping.  Some places, such as the post office and doctors offices are even closed for the lunch hour every day.  Germans also tend to keep their work life and private life separate.  As a parent however, I see many cultural similarities as well. We all want good healthcare, childcare, education, and overall quality of life for our children and all people.

Germans are very environmental.  Germans love organic foods and recycling.  Organic foods are reasonably priced and can be found everywhere.  Recycling and trash have separate bins for paper, glass, organic waste, plastics, etc., and trash.  Germans take great pride in separating their trash and in particular, glass items are either returned to the store for a cash refund or placed in bins located in the area by color.  They also often walk, ride their bikes, or take public transportation as a means of travel to work, drop the kids off at school, go grocery shopping, go to appointments, etc.  This is more of a cultural than environmental difference, but it is still wonderful for the environment.  Unfortunately, many American cities are designed primarily for auto use, making foot and bike travel sub-optimal or even dangerous.

Jason- Another factor worth mentioning is that Germans love to talk politics without having to bash or even “unfriend” someone for having an opinion. This is something that disturbs me when I encounter Americans and they try to impose their views and ways onto others. Germany has long been known for having a freedom of expression and opinion that is independent of what the media and other people have to say.

Additionally, Germans love to travel- not just to places inside Germany, but also to places within Europe or even America. It’s amazing to hear stories from other Germans of places they’ve visited and seen- not just the popular places like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Hamburg, but also smaller places, like the Rum-Sugar Mile in Flensburg or many tall historic bridges in Saxony. Sometimes visiting smaller places can help you to have a bigger vocabulary as far as culture is concerned.

Brian-  I’ve said for quite some time now: “There’s hardly anything in Germany that’s drastically different, yet almost everything is a little bit different.”  I think that sums it up well, because I could go on for hours about the small differences.

The rest of the interview to be continued in Part II……..

five years flfi

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