Americans in Germany 2: Hometown Locals Part II

The family photo. Left to right: The Sutton Family (Andrew, Camden & Amanda), The Smith Family (Jason & Birgit), and the Krahmer Family (Kristin, Alexis and Brian). Missing from the photo was Clara. Daphne was born a year after this photo was taken.

Picking up where we left off in Part I, the Files’ Steve Schorr takes a look at the four locals from a small Minnesota town of Jackson, who found their place here in Germany. Here are some more questions and some interesting answers from the four:

Question 7a. What are the benefits of living in Germany?

Brian- Another one of the main reasons I wanted to move to Germany are the views on politics, social issues, economic and ecological issues.  I feel life is a lot more calm, safe, and time with family is encouraged.  Very few people work more than 40 hours, and I started this job with 27 days of vacation per year.

Kristin- The benefits for us of living here is quality of life. We find life to be at a more relaxed pace here. The ability to travel and explore is endless. Germany has less violence, better education, healthcare and just all around a better social system. Some people view the high taxes here as a drawback. We don’t really mind the higher taxes knowing that it benefits us directly in healthcare, retirement, education, environment, roads and etc.

Amanda- The biggest benefits that I have enjoyed are ease of travel without a car, wonderful healthcare, and excellent and affordable childcare.  There is a huge network of buses, trams, and trains all around Germany, so it is very possible to live without a car here.  Healthcare is stress free.  Of course it is paid for in our taxes, but if you are sick, you go to the doctor or have whatever medical procedure that you need and do not have to worry about how much it costs because it is either covered completely or very reasonable in cost.  You won’t go bankrupt or have to take out a loan to cover medical expenses in Germany.  Childcare is also very good and affordable.  Finally the bread, so many delicious options baked fresh daily.  Some bakeries are even open on Sunday.  Germans take their bread seriously. If we ever do have to leave, this will be something we will miss the most, after all the friends we have made of course.

Jason- The biggest benefit for me and my family is the possibilities of hiking in the nature and doing sports at places that are conveniently located. We have many bike trails and hiking paths, as well as parks where children can climb up jungle gyms made of wood, etc. There are beaches and other natural places for families to enjoy.

7b. What are the drawbacks?

Jason- My biggest drawback so far has been the job opportunities. Almost every job requires certain qualifications which through training at an accredited institution, takes 2-3 years; at the university, even longer. As Brian and Kristin both mentioned earlier, Germany  is in dire need of skilled workers in many branches, including in my case, teaching as many baby boomers are leaving for retirement in droves. The problem is having to go through the educational training, which in my case means 4-5 years of college, plus a semester practical training, plus an additional two-years of student teaching (Referendariat) and two state exams in order to become a fully licensed teacher. And this despite the very high demand for native speakers of English to teach in school.

It’s the same in other fields, including medicine, law and engineering. In the US, you need only four years and a test for teaching, up to five or six for becoming a lawyer, engineer or doctor. It has created a paradox for in many regions, the shortage is acute and severe, and there are not enough people to fill in the posts left empty by outgoing personnel because of the painful process for the younger people to fill in. While some states are laxing their guidelines, like reducing the two-year Referendariat to only one, as is being practiced in Saxony for teaching, there is still a long ways to go in order for the job market to become flexible like the US and other countries and the empty positions to be filled again.

Kristin- Drawbacks are being far away from family and friends. Learning German hasn’t been a piece of cake either.

Amanda- The drawback to childcare is it can be difficult to find a spot for a child in kindergarten.  Another challenge, more than a drawback, is learning the documentation and paperwork system.  Nearly everything needs some form of documentation and most things also need to be stamped by an authority.  Germans love to stamp documents.  We now find this more charming than a nuisance.

Question 8.- Have you done some traveling since coming to Germany? If so, which places have you visited and which ones would you recommend?

Amanda- Unfortunately we have not really done much traveling.  However, we have been fortunate in the places we have lived.  There is a lot to do and see in both Jena and Potsdam.  We miss the hills and hiking in Jena, but are enjoying the massive Parks and water around Potsdam.

Brian- Since we got here last year, we have visited 7 countries, and while most people have never even heard of Slovenia, it’s really cool and pretty special.

Jason- Since 1999, I’ve been all over the place, both on my own as well as with family and friends. I’ve visited 17 European States and a total of 13 German states, counting the city-states of Berlin and Hamburg, as well as my current home state of Thuringia. My favorite place in Germany has been Schleswig-Holstein because of its rural setting, and the people there are really open and friendly. Plus half of my mom’s ancestry originates from there (near Kiel). In particular, Flensburg (with its rum and handball team), Lübeck (with its marzipan), Kiel (with its historic ships), Fehmarn (with its diverse culture) and Friedrichstadt (with its taste of Dutch culture) are highly recommended.  But one should look at Saxony for its landscapes and Dresden for its architecture. Also recommended are the cities of Halle (Saale), Quedlinburg, Bamberg, and the Rhine Valley corridor between Cologne and Frankfurt. I’ve yet to see more of Baden Wurttemberg, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, but I hope to do that someday.

Kristin- We’ve traveled over the years around Germany and 15 other countries in Europe. I have loved every place we’ve visited but some of my top favorites are Barcelona, Paris, Ljubljana, Bern, Innsbruck and Amsterdam. We spent some time north of Amsterdam in the spring and enjoyed the quaint country side with all it’s windmills and canals. Eastern Europe is also a wonderful place to visit. We enjoyed our time in Slovakia and Croatia. It’s like stepping back in time a little bit in those old Communist countries.

Question 9. Name one memorable and one not so memorable experience that you had since coming here.
Kristin- At the moment I am still in awe that I am actually living here so for me everything tends to be a memorable experience. I suppose the not so memorable moments have involved silly situations when the language barrier comes into play.

Brian- Test-driving cars on the Autobahn at 125mph (legally!) is pretty exhilarating.  Going 300kmh on a train while having a beer and enjoying the scenery was also pretty memorable.

Jason- I’ve had my share of memorable experiences as far as biking is concerned. But I have to agree with Brian with the driving part. I had to take my driver’s training in 2002 in order to convert my driver’s license in the States to that of Germany. There I was amazed at the amount of space I had to maneuver while driving, which is half of what it is in the States. The fun part was parking on the hill while putting on the hand brake, which I practiced many times. Yet I also learned how to cuss while driving because German drivers are very impatient and they love to complain about other people driving. In one instance, on my first day at the wheel, my driver’s trainer had to roll down his window to cuss at the taxi driver for cutting in front of me at an intersection even though I had the right of way. I still remember his comment to this day: “Er hat Vorfahrt, du Heinie!”

But one sad experience was that I had to stand trial as an eyewitness to a car-bike accident in 2005. There I learned firsthand how the judicial system in Germany works in comparison with the US: one judge, several jurors asking questions, but very few people in the court room. Discreet but better that than a frenzy of media hoarding the courtroom, as we see many times in the States.

Amanda- One of the best things that has happened here in Germany other than making new friends, was having our second child born here.  Often feeling lost and alone in the beginning is something I wish I could help others who are new here avoid.  Germany is a wonderful place to live, but the initial steep learning curve to learn the processes for getting settled in a language that was initially foreign to us was a bit overwhelming to say the least.

Question 10.      Many people are of the opinion that making friends with Germans is very difficult because of the different perception of friendship. Was that the case with you? Did you make friends with foreigners more than with Germans?

Amanda- This can be true to some extent.  I think Germans are very friendly, but it can be a case of ‘once you get to know them’ and it just depends on the individual person and circumstance.  As a mom to a young child and having just had a baby here, I’ve made friends with other parents in similar situations through the kindergarten, birth classes, and just seeing the same people around town.  I made two really good Germany mom friends, as well as another foreigner friend from my German class in Jena.  Here in Potsdam, I’m starting to make some new German friends as well.  At the moment it is other moms in similar situations.  We all have the same kinds of questions and concerns with our children.

Jason- Actually if looking at it from an American perspective, I’ve made as many friends with Germans as with foreigners, and they come from different areas of interest, which is a lot. Part of that has to do with the willingness to speak their language and exchange some interests and thoughts on things. However, the friendship process with Germans varies based on personality, age and the willingness to open up. I’ve discovered that the younger the generation, the more likely you will connect with them more quickly than with the older generation. However, there are still quite a few coconuts who are not willing to be open and flexible, which bucks the current trend. I had one instance with a student colleague, who was so stiff as a board when communicating with her, that we actually got into conflicts because of different perceptions of even working together. And this with everybody in a project we were working on, who were also German, which is not typical of the stereotype. After finishing the project, we stopped talking to her because of such an impasse, but I learned a very valuable lesson which I can give to anyone living in Germany: The Germans are the hosts, you are their guest. They will open up to you when they feel ready. If not, leave it. Either they will move on or they will open up when the coconut ripens. And while Germans are really willing to help you, even if you are a stranger, beware that you need to spend time with them before you can befriend them; that is if they are willing to befriend you. In that perspective, I’ve long since gotten accustomed to that and have made many friends with Germans and foreigners alike.

Kristin- This is one of the stereotypes of Germans I dislike. While typically Germans don’t bother with every day small talk with strangers, they are very nice and love to laugh. I have met some very wonderful German friends and a German friend is a friend for life. I have also become friends with people from all over while being in my language class. It’s taught me a lot about other cultures and also how those other cultures perceive the U.S.  I have had many laughs at how without even speaking, I have been asked if I am American. They tell me it’s because I am smiling or look happy.

Brian- While I have got to know a lot of people that I currently work with really well, none of them are from Germany.  They are from Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Russia, etc.  I think the stereotype about making friends with Germans is correct.  I don’t find Germans rude at all, but it can take a long time to make friends with them.  But what they call a friendship is much more than what Americans call friendships.  We’re talking going to the end of the earth to help a friend type of deal.

Question 11.   Are there any aspects that you miss about the US? If so, which ones?

Brian-  I miss some of the foods, cheap fuel, and my Colorado sunshine.

Kristin- What I miss most are my family and friends. I also miss certain foods a lot. I miss not being able to talk to everyone in English. I am not fluent yet so if I need to speak with someone, I must always stop and think about how to speak in German and if I make sense.

Jason- Apart from family and friends, I miss the road trips going cross-country with a good camera in the hand, and some historic bridges of iron and steel, many of them are dwindling in numbers every year. Otherwise,  there are really no good plausible reasons to even think about moving back to the US, not after all these years here.

Amanda- We miss our family and friends, as well as specific places we’ve been in the US, but otherwise things here are just as good, and sometimes better.

Question 12. Do you still follow the events in the US from Germany, both news and sports? What are your impressions compared to Germany?

Brian-  Unfortunately, I still thoroughly follow news in the US, mainly involving finance and politics.  One important thing I would note about Germany’s politics is that we have about 6 major political parties that make up our ‘congress’, and the system forces the parties to work together.  There’s no massive money involved, and it’s a lot less about popularity or beauty contests.  I really wish the people would push for massive reforms.  While middle-class wages have been flat in the US for the last 30 years, they’ve more than doubled in Germany.

Jason- I have to say, I’ve also followed the events in the US via internet and public radio, and picking up where Brian left off, I have to say that German news sources are much more neutral and thought provoking than those in the US, where networks tend to lean either to the far left or the far right. It was never like that when we grew up in the 1980s and 90s. However, since the four key networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) have been taken over by corporations in 2001, public television has been manipulated through funding by big corporations, and NPR is constantly being put on the chopping block for funding cuts and begging for money from listeners, there’s really no real news network that has taken a neutral stance. In fact you will never find this with German news media, like ARD, NDR, ZDF and others, but this is because we have to pay annual fees (the GEZ) to fund them. Although it is a pain, but better that than to have the corporations put their thick greasy hands into a well-designed wedding cake.

Kristin- I still follow U.S. news via the TV and will watch CNN. I also check in on various websites. Germany has many news stations on the TV from small area news from different states of Germany and then big network news channels such as CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle. I find American news stations to be comical and annoying at times. It’s so full of half hour opinion pieces and every little thing is blown out of proportion to make it seem news worthy.

Amanda- We do follow events in the US a bit.  Andrew reads the news and keeps up on things more than I do, but we both listen to National Public Radio (NPR) when we have the time.  I can’t really compare properly, as I listen to radio for US news and watch Deutsche Welle (DW) videos on YouTube for German news.  Both seem to do a good job for the stories that they cover.  At the moment, with an 8 week old, I can’t properly keep up with either.

And lastly, Question 13.  If you have some advice to give to someone wanting to relocate, what would you give them?

Amanda- Learn the language and documentation process, including what original documents to bring with you, before you arrive for a more seamless move.

Brian- I wish every person could choose whatever place in the world that they wanted to be.  However, if one is relocating, I highly suggest doing extensive research about every aspect, and thoroughly understand the culture before moving.  I pretty much did that, and have had nearly no surprises or bad experiences.

Jason- Apart from language and research, sometimes connections with people over there are useful. It makes the transition to a new environment go much smoother. This was the advantage that Brian, Kristin, Amanda and Andrew had with us when they moved here and I had with Birgit and her family when I first came to Germany.

Kristin- Reach that goal! It won’t be easy but it’s worth it. Life is too short for regrets! Do your research to learn as much as you can about the place and the culture. Learn the language!! Whether relocating is temporary or for the long haul it will be an experience to last a life time. You will learn so much about people and yourself.

FAZIT:

The last sentence mentioned by Kristin is what sums up this interview. How will one know himself if the person is not abroad? A chance like this is once in a lifetime. While leaving friends and family behind is tough, it is a way of life and they will all envy the person taking that step. And while having four people from Jackson, Minnesota collect their experiences for their families and friends back home (let alone the local newspaper) is an unusual phenomenon right now, as globalization continues to progress, more and more people will take that chance and spend at least a large portion of their lives abroad, exploring new worlds and learning the culture, thus making the world become one and smaller. That is why it would not be surprising if just as many people from a small German town, like Glauchau, Husum, Tängermünde, Bingen or even Heringsdorf were to explore the US and even such a small town like Jackson, Minnesota. It’s for the experience, one of which will most likely be shared with others beyond the media perspective.

Can you imagine such a scenario like the one here? 🙂

FF 25 Logo

Author’s Note: Steve Schorr is a freelance writer, working for several newspapers in northern Germany, including the ones for SHZ, based in Kiel. He was asked by the author to write this as a guest columnist for the Files’ to be granted the spotlight for one article, at least. He resides in Rostock. 

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