Life as an Expat in Germany
I often get asked about my life in Germany.
My friends and colleagues in South Africa want to know more about the land of Oktoberfest, Körperfreiheit and Bratwurst. The people known for their love of football, being on time and drinking beer by the litre. The country that provided the world with Einstein, Beethoven and that guy with the funny moustache [sorry - that was Austria].
On my two-year anniversary here, it feels like the right time to reflect on my life in Deutschland.
Here are seven lessons that can help those thinking of making the move here (or any foreign country for that matter).
1. Embrace the unknown
When I first moved to Germany in March 2020, I was stepping into the unknown. I had no friends or family here. I hardly knew my new colleagues. I had to contend with a new city and a new language that sounded harsh on the ear. Before this, I had only spent two days in Germany on a merry, drunken Contiki tour when I was 20. I remember the beer being good.
How did I end up here? In a way I didn't choose Germany, Germany chose me. From the start of my career, I had always wanted to spread my wings and test my mettle in a different country, wherever that may be. When an opportunity came my way to do a secondment in Munich, I grabbed it with both hands.
The unknown was both scary and exciting. A new adventure awaited.
In my first week in Munich I googled “what’s happening tonight”. To my delight, the indie band The National was performing at a local concert hall. I got dressed, found someone selling their ticket on Facebook and jumped on the U-bahn (underground). On the way, I asked a random couple if they knew the directions to the Zenith Musikhalle. Funnily enough they were heading to the same concert. They took me under their wing, introduced me to their friends and invited me along for a number of other shows afterwards.
A week later I was walking around Odeonsplatz, one of the main squares in Munich, taking pictures of the magnificent opera house. Two girls approached me. Their one friend had cancelled at the last minute. Did I want to watch the ballet with them? The show was about to start in 10 minutes. I was wearing jeans and sneakers. I didn’t know them. Sure, why not? The opera house was even more beautiful from the inside. A massive chandelier hung from the ceiling. The Lady of the Camellias, the performance that night, was incredible and I had made two new friends.
Embracing the unknown has made all the difference to my life in Germany.
Fast forward two years and life has smiled on me. In another case of serendipity, I met my girlfriend, Jess, on a hike just outside Berlin. I co-adopted her dog, Pacco [I always say I got the best 2-for-1 deal of my life]. I made incredible friends and I fell in love with Munich and its surroundings. The two-year secondment has extended to three years and beyond.
2. Learn the language
Integrating in a new country can be tricky. Especially if you don't understand the local language.
Learning German wasn’t easy. “Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache” or “German language, hard language” as the saying goes. But it’s been so worth it.
Conversations will often switch to English when the other person sees you’re not a native speaker (the level of English here is exceptional). But the mere act of trying to speak the language shows a level of respect. It shows you have put in some effort. It has led to some fun conversations with strangers and colleagues. It has also gotten me into the good books with Jess’s family. What are brownie points called in German?
Overcoming the language barrier has made me feel more at home on foreign soil. Added bonus: German sounds way softer now that I understand it.
3. Build a bridge from old to new
One of the best decisions I made was joining the local running club, the Munich Running Society.
Not only has running kept me fit (interval training really burns), I've also made a bunch of friends. Some locals and a number of expats. I now have mates I can call up for a Maß (the one-litre beers Bavaria is famous for), a hike in the Alps or a day skiing on the slopes.
By taking something old (my love for sport and people) into the new, my move overseas has been so much smoother. This advice applies to anyone dealing with a transition. You need a bridge from old to new. Until your new environment becomes your new normal, you have to hold onto some threads from your old life.
In addition, my time with the running crew has shown me that Germans are much warmer than the stereotype suggests. They are also quite funny, despite being maligned as the nation with the worst sense of humour.
4. Respect the territory
Rules are rules. It’s a way of life here.
Punctuality is a big deal. In South Africa we have a very loose definition of being on time. You can usually be ten minutes late for a coffee and your mate might arrive another five minutes after you. In Germany, if you’re five minutes early, you’re late. [This applies to everything except trains, which are never on time for some reason.] This rule gets drilled into them from a young age. If Jess ever decides to kill me, it will be because I’m late for the umpteenth time.
The rules are there for a reason. I was called an Arschloch (asshole) within the first month of moving here. I was cycling on the wrong side of the road (taking a little shortcut) and another cyclist blocked me and gave me a stern talking to. Willkommen in Deutschland! If I see someone doing that now, I also get upset. It’s funny how things change.
But this comes with significant advantages as well. The system works. Things are safe. There is a high level of trust between people. People will return your lost keys or wallet. Kids as young as five use the underground.
In my first month, I went for a hike up Baumgartenschneid in the Tegernsee area. [It’s absolutely beautiful. Give it a visit if you’re ever in Munich]. Halfway up I came across a little Alm (or mountain hut). As one does, I popped in for a quick beer. [The beer in Tegernsee is amazing]. When I had recovered my strength and I was ready to get going again, I tried to settle my bill. The friendly waiter waved me away, telling me to pay later. He trusted me to come back down the same way [and have another beer, which I did].
5. Take the good with the bad
Tied in with their love for rules is an affinity towards bureaucracy.
There is a looot of paperwork in Germany - more than I could ever imagine.
I forgot my online banking password a couple of weeks ago. Instead of going through a few standard security questions on the phone, the bank agent sent me a new pin. Via post (!). Apparently this is safer somehow. I got into my banking app two days later.
This spills over into work. In larger companies in Germany, the corporate culture is old school. Decisions are made by committee. It is better to move slowly than break things. Once you understand the rules of engagement, things go much better. Until then, you are swimming upstream.
I had been working for a couple of months, when I received an email in German. After reading a couple of sentences, I realised the email wasn’t for me, but about me. The sender was explaining to another colleague that the new guy (that’s me) didn’t understand how things worked around here. I replied in broken German asking how I could perform better in their environment. She apologised, clearly embarrassed by this Outlook faux pas. On the upside, the incident led to a fruitful discussion and the relationship with her team improved significantly afterwards.
One major benefit of this is the emphasis on a healthy work-life balance. Germans separate their private and work life. It’s frowned upon to call someone after work or on the weekend. It can wait until the next day. On Sundays, all shops are closed apart from restaurants. They take their rest seriously. It’s a day to relax, reflect and hit the mountains.
You take the good with the bad.
6. Hit the reset button
Moving to a new country gave me the opportunity to hit the reset button. My day was a blank canvas that I could fill in the way I wanted. I was starting over without the social commitments and daily routine I had built up back home.
I felt like Dick Whitman who took the dog tags from a fellow soldier who died in Korea and came back to America as Don Draper. With a new life, a new identity and a clean slate. Going on to become the advertising genius we all came to love (and hate, at times) in Mad Men.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful life in South Africa. My friends and I were constantly playing golf, having a braai (the Afrikaans word for barbeque) or watching rugby at someone’s house (South Africans are religious about sport). But life was almost too good. Too full. There was no down time.
One way I filled in my blank canvas was adding writing to my daily routine. I finally developed the writing habit I failed to achieve, despite numerous attempts, before moving here. Writing also allowed me to capture the myriad of experiences that have been new in both large and minute ways. The sights, tastes and smells. The magical feeling of being in a new country.
I think this holds true for anyone moving to a new environment. You don’t need to change countries, but a new setting can signify a fresh start. You can decide to either fill your days with new friends, events and immediate social connection or you can try something completely new.
7. Family is irreplaceable
The main disadvantage of moving overseas is seeing my family less often. When I lived and worked in Johannesburg, I travelled down to Cape Town every other month. Now I see my family every six months.
I knew I was making this sacrifice when I moved over initially. I was exchanging dinners, birthdays and special occasions for the opportunity to learn more about the world and about myself.
South Africa will always be home, but Germany can be a second home. Remote work provides more flexibility. I can see a future in which I divide my time between these two bases.
The best advice I can give someone considering moving overseas is to immerse yourself in the culture and integrate as well as you can. Learn the local language. Get clued up on the country’s history. Invite your colleagues out for a drink. Join a club or society. You will flourish.
As for Germany and Oktoberfest, Körperfreiheit and Bratwurst. No, I still have to attend the fabled event (it’s been cancelled twice due to the pandemic). Yes, the Germans do tan naked. And yes, the traditional food is amazing. Still miss the braais, but this will do.
Luckily, Germany and South Africa are only separated by one overnight flight. Now that travel restrictions are easing up, I can finally get my family and friends to come experience Deutschland for themselves.
Thanks to Jess Schanz, Karena de Souza, Nic Rosslee, Tobi Emonts-Holley, Melissa Menke, Philipp Andriopoulos and Steven Klimek for reading drafts of this essay.