Imagine landing into a new country after having only three weeks time to prepare for your move. You don’t speak a word of that country’s language and once you get off the plane and start asking for directions on how to get into the city, nobody understands what you’re saying. Your mere efforts of pronouncing correctly your destination fail royally. You feel completely lost and end up crying in the airport until you finally wander around and find the bus stop.
This was Courtney Osborne’s first contact with Germany. A native of Pinetop-Lakeside, a community located in the scenic White Mountains of Arizona, Courtney’s wish to see what was beyond her country’s borders came true soon after graduating from Arizona State University. A few years later, Courtney is now enjoying being part of the growing expat community in Bonn, Germany, while developing her career in the mighty corporate world. Without further ado, here’s what she kindly shared with us from her German experience so far.
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Tell us about what made you move to Germany and what you’re doing here.
I graduated from university a little over five years ago. At that time I was job hunting but didn’t find anything that was really peaking my interest. I had always wanted to study abroad but had never really gotten to it because I could never find the right program to suit my interest. I looked into the AIESEC organization which helps place students in paid internships abroad. I decided to just take a look and see what kind of opportunities were available. I submitted my application to a large logistics group in Germany and was called for an interview a few days later. After that, I received a call two days later confirming that I had the internship, and three weeks later I landed in Germany!
Was it your first time abroad?
I had only been to the UK when I was younger and I must say I was very unprepared for Germany. I think – because everything went so fast (three weeks for planning and moving isn’t enough!) – I didn’t properly think about what a big step I was making. I did not speak one word of German nor did I have any idea what I was getting myself into. AIESEC had arranged a flat for me, but everything else I was on my own. For me, it was quite a culture shock moving to Germany.
What challenges did you have to overcome when you moved here?
There are a few challenges to overcome when moving to Germany – especially as an American, since our cultures are quite different.
Language: Obviously it’s difficult moving to a country where English isn’t the first language. However, In Germany it all depends on your luck. I would say that many people understand English, but they are not keen to speak it because they do not want to do it wrong. It’s also incredibly difficult to meet people if you don’t speak German.
Social Environment: It’s not easy to meet Germans. In the USA, people say hi and chat with strangers, but you wouldn’t see that in Germany. I always make the joke that if you put a bunch of Americans on a tram to go from point A to point B, then by the time they get to point B everyone has become friends and have already made plans to meet again. In Germany (well at least in Bonn) you don’t talk to strangers on the tram. Don’t even make eye contact and smile – people will think you’re weird.
I like to compare Americans to peaches and Germans to coconuts. Americans are easy to chat with and you can make lots of acquaintances, however it’s a lot of work to make them true lifelong friends (soft on the outside and a bit hard to get into on the inside). However Germans are like coconuts, really hard to get into but once you’re there, they are the nicest and sweetest people!
Convenience: I would say in Germany things aren’t really “convenient”. The bank is only open from 9-5 and closed at lunch so you have to try and go during the time you should be working and this goes for many places. Everything is closed on Sunday- if you forgot to pick up something at the market on Saturday, then that is just too bad. However, I can say that it has helped me view and value my Sundays more, in a way that I spend time with my friends and catch up on all the things I can’t do the rest of the days. I’ve come to covet my Sundays!
German Efficiency: Germans are very efficient, but it did take some getting used to. The first time I went shopping at the grocery store I tried to pull a cart out but didn’t understand why they were stuck together (you have to put in a deposit of 1 Euro to get a cart) and so I just bundled all the items in my arms as I shopped. When I went to the checkout, I put all my items on the counter and waited for someone to bag my groceries. Not only did nobody bag my groceries, I did not know I had to buy a bag! I had a very angry cashier looking at me as well as an unhappy line of patrons behind me as I realized I had to go back and buy a bag to put away all my items. I can say I am now so efficient with my grocery shopping that I have everything bagged and ready before the cashier even reads me the total! This also goes for catching buses or trams – if they shut the door you will not be getting in. The driver will look at you and then drive away – you missed your opportunity if the doors shut!
How much time did you need to adjust to your life here?
It took me a few months to adjust and then you just take the changes as they come!
How comfortable are you now with the language? Do you need it or are you fine by speaking English in your daily routines?
I would say I have learned a bit of the language. I understand it very well (I should after 5 years) but my spoken German isn’t very good. I know enough to make doctors’ appointments, get around town, order food at a restaurant and all the important things to survive in Germany. But I really wish I spoke it better. At work we only speak in English and all of my friends speak English so it is really hard to push myself to practice German. Plus, it’s just not an easy language to learn. For a culture that prides themselves on rules and order, their language is the complete opposite!
Did you make friends among the locals or are you mostly hanging out with other expats?
I hang out with both expats and locals but it has taken a very long time to get to this place. I actually met my closest German female friend at a bar because my brother was visiting and tried to flirt with her! I would say, as a woman, it’s very hard to meet other German women to make friends with because it‘s easier to talk to a guy at a bar than a girl (obviously), and I would say they are a bit more reserved.
I have dated a few German men and have met their friends, but that’s not very easy as well because they have usually been friends since childhood and are very tight groups, and thus it’s not easy to feel like part of a group.
Having expat friends is just part of the life of living outside your country. Everyone is drawn to each other because we are all “loners,” if you will, in a new country. You also learn so much about other cultures because the expat community is so diverse, so you constantly learn something new about traditions and values of the people around you.
What did you learn from your German experience so far (in terms of people, work, culture, life)?
Besides the above challenges I mentioned earlier, I can say that living in Germany has been a rewarding experience. It’s so different then living in the USA and I really found joy in understanding these differences and adapting them into my life.
It’s been a huge learning experience for me when it comes to understanding different cultures. Being from the USA, I used to believe I was very accustomed to diverse individuals. However, I really began to understand the meaning of diversity when I moved to Germany. For example, my current work team is made up of a South African, a Belgian, a German, a Romanian, a Turk, a Spaniard, a Kiwi and myself. We would make a great study on different cultures working together for a common goal!
What do you miss the most from back home other than family and friends?
Besides friends and family (whom I do miss dearly) I can say that I just miss the little things. I miss the food the most. I miss all my favourite restaurants and fast food joints. I am also a foodie who loves to cook and try new things and I miss the convenience of finding American ingredients. I am always saying how much I miss Root Beer! I can also say I miss the holidays in the USA. Halloween and Thanksgiving are some of my favorite holidays, and it pains me every year when I don’t get to celebrate them with my loved ones. All the traditions and activities we have surrounding these holidays are such fun… I really missed going to the pumpkin patches for Halloween this year!
What do you like the most about living in Germany and the least?
One of the things I love about Germany is how easy it is to travel around and visit new places. I can take a car ride and in just a few hours be in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and dozens of more places! How can you top that experience?
I also love some of the traditions in Germany – during the winter you will find me every night at the Weihnachstmarkt and I celebrate every day of Karneval [the Rhenish Carnival in the west of Germany]! I believe Germany is wonderful when it comes to traditions and activities, and they are spaced out perfectly during the year.
What I like least about Germany is that it really is just so hard to meet people. I am a very social person and after a while you feel like you live in a bubble. Without properly speaking the language it is very difficult to socialize.
You traveled quite a bit in Europe, US and Asia. Any place you’re particularly fond of?
I am very happy with all the experiences I have made during my travels. I found Asia to be very interesting and a unique experience. I love Asian cuisine so I am always in Paradise when I am there! I don’t know if I would want to live in Asia, but I am always happy to visit!
I am also very fond of Holland – if I had to move to any other European country it would definitely be Holland. The people are just so friendly and I love the atmosphere. I find it a very idealistic place to live.
When I move back to America, I will either move back to Arizona or I would move to San Francisco. San Francisco is one of my favorite places because the people are so laid back and it’s a gorgeous area. However, I will most likely move back to Arizona just to be closer to my family.
What advice would you give to anyone who would like to move and work in Germany or anywhere else for that matter?
First of all, I would say go for it! It’s such an amazing experience to live abroad. You can truly only understand cultures by living in the country. My advice would be to start learning the language as soon as you arrive and also make a conscious effort to put yourself out there to meet the locals. There are tons of organizations to help you meet locals and expats, and I would encourage that you find these groups and attend their events.
In addition, I would also recommend reading up a bit on the culture before you move and find out how it varies from your own culture, so that you are better prepared to understand the differences. This will make it easier to accept why people act a certain way and it won’t feel so personal.
Lastly, just enjoy the experience! You have a once in a lifetime opportunity and it will truly change you as a person. Just enjoy the ride!
Photo Courtesy Courtney Osborne