Work, travel, and the meaning of life?! Things I’ve learned from spending a year in Germany

Wow, so I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. My mind has been occupied with other things, clearly.

Big news – I am actually leaving Germany and will be landing back in Edmonton, Alberta on April 17.  It’s been a full year here in Germany, and I am ready to get out.

Why, you ask?  For a number of reasons – my husband and I have both agreed that financially, professionally, and socially, we prefer Canada.  We see a better future there for ourselves.  Alberta’s winters may be too long and cold, but in general, housing is affordable, salaries are good, and people are friendly and open.  I can’t say that any of those things are true in Germany.

So, after a full year spent living in Europe, and since I seem to use this “listicle” thing on my blog a lot, here goes: Seven Things I Learned After Spending a Year Living in Germany.

1. Canada is more awesome than I thought.  I was definitely a proud Canadian before coming here, but a year away has made me appreciate a lot of the things I used to take for granted.  Canadians are friendlier than I realized.  Most people don’t judge you if you are different in some way.  Canadians also laugh and smile a lot more than they do here.  I can think of several people here who I have never heard laugh, despite knowing them for several months.  Not. Even. Once.  As I said to my husband not long ago, “How can you live like that?!”

Canada is also more beautiful than I thought.  Yes, Europe has the medieval castles, older cities, and 1000 years of culture that Canada doesn’t, but Canada also has something you won’t find anywhere in Europe: wilderness.  I love visiting castles and old cities, probably more than most people in fact, but I miss the wild forest, mountains, and the ruggedness of western Canada.

Speaking of “culture”, Canada is also more multicultural and diverse than I thought.  Before moving here I thought “multiculturalism”  was just a meaningless buzzword, but the reality is that multiculturalism is not just something Canadians say.  It’s something Canadians do.  Most large Canadian cities have vibrant communities of people from countries like China, Italy, Ukraine, the Philippines, and so on who make life in Canadian cities richer and more varied in terms of cuisine, culture, and outlook on life.  Germany may have a long history, but it is not culturally or racially diverse.  Germany is surprisingly monocultural, even in its large cities.  If you come to Germany, I hope you like schnitzel, bratwurst, and the German language, because that’s what you’ll get no matter where you travel in Germany.

2. No place is perfect.  I’ll say it again.  No place is perfect.  As I said in an earlier post, people love to complain, and there will always be something to complain about.  Canada is too cold.  Edmonton is too isolated.  Americans are too aggressive.  Germans are too rude.  England is too rainy.  Europe is too expensive.  Italians are too corrupt.  On and on.  The reality is, life is never perfect and it’s better to focus on all the good things you have instead.  Find a compromise that works for you.  For me, the positive aspects of living in Germany are outweighed by the negatives, which is why I’m leaving, but this is not true for everyone.  I’ve known people who’ve moved to Canada/Korea/Europe/wherever and then left in disgust a year or so later because it wasn’t for them, while other people live in these regions happily for years.  We’re actually pretty lucky to have a choice in the matter at all and for me, Alberta is home.

3. Work may not define you, but it is important. When we first came here, I felt super relieved to be free from my boring, 9-5 government desk job.  I kept thinking there was more to life than being in a cubicle, more to life than this fairly conventional road I had chosen.  I wanted to be free to pursue new interests and travel more and have a more flexible schedule.  Well, I have travelled more this past year than I ever could have with a 9-5 office job, and I have had a more flexible schedule that has allowed me spend more time reading, writing, learning another language, and road tripping.
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That’s been nice, but the reality is that I miss work.  A full-time office job is certainly not for everyone, but steady, full-time work also offers a lot of benefits, like financial independence, participation in society, making a contribution to your community, and for some lucky ones, a sense of achievement and even fulfillment.

I realize one can achieve these same objectives without a full-time job, but working is without a doubt an important part of life.  Working outside the home is something women have not had the opportunity to do for very long, and I certainly intend to continue with my career when we return to Canada. I have a part-time job lined up teaching ESL, and hope something full-time comes up soon.  In the meantime, I intend to continue pursuing hobbies like writing, hiking etc. in my free time.

4. Travel is fantastic.  Learning is even better.  Visiting castle ruins and medieval cities in Germany, France, and Italy has been really interesting, and I’ve gotten some nice photos of it all.  But (as my husband would have no hesitation in telling you, *cough*), travelling to these sights can get old.  Really old.  In fact, travelling in general can sometimes be wearying, especially if you are doing the usual tourist thing over and over where you show up, take the pictures, have the beer, then leave again.

I’ve discovered that what is more interesting than travelling (and is also a meaningful complement for travelling) is LEARNING.  You know what I think I enjoyed even more than visiting the Forum in Rome?  Reading I, Claudius and learning about the people who lived and the events that transpired during the early years of the Roman Empire.  If you don’t have the time or budget to travel to Japan (or whatever country intrigues you), a great alternative is to LEARN about its culture.  Read about its history.  Learn about its traditions.  Learn some of the basics about the language on Duolingo.  That way, when you do visit Country X someday,  you will enjoy it so much more because the things you see will have a lot more meaning to you, and you will appreciate their significance more fully.

I’ve realized that learning and acquiring new knowledge and skills are some of the most satisfying things you will do in life.  Learn to surf, then travel to Hawaii to do more of it.  Learn to ski, then travel to Japan to hit the pow.  Combining travel with your interests is a great way to get the most out of what this world has to offer.

5. Relationships are a key source of happiness. It’s felt pretty isolating being here for the last year.  My husband and I don’t have a lot of friends or family here (his family is small), and the community we had in Edmonton is something we really miss.  Just like so many other things about my life in Canada, relationships with other people was something I took for granted.  You never know the worth of water until the well is dry, right?  Well, even though many people stop seeking out new people and new friendships as they get older, I am resolving to renew old friendships where I can, and make new ones too.  You never know what you might learn from someone, and the memories you might make with them!

6. Everything is a trade-off.  People often talk about “having it all.” Like many people, I want to make time in my life for work, for travel, for study, for having a family, and find it can be tricky deciding exactly when to do it all.  I think Oprah is right on this one.

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Every decision is a trade-off. Do you want a high-flying career, like Oprah? Then you might not have time for a family.  Do you want to travel constantly and see the world?  Then you will probably have to get used to having an unpredictable income and a lack of stability.

I guess these choices are not easy for many of us.  I still wish that my “country count” was higher.  There are so many blogs out there from people who are professional nomads and who travel the world full-time while generating income from a combination of monetized social media channels, endorsements, sponsored content, online businesses, freelance gigs, etc. and their “country count” is sometimes as high as 80 or 100+ countries.  Mine isn’t.  But the question is, do I really want to travel to that many countries?  Making the choice to live this way is a big trade-off.  If I were to live a more nomadic life, that means I can’t work full-time, I can’t buy a house, and I can’t raise a family (unless they are also willing to be nomadic).  I’ve concluded that for me at least, travel is a great hobby, but I don’t intend to make it my full-time pursuit.

I spent my twenties religiously pursuing educational credentials and professional opportunities, rather than travelling.  I guess it paid off in that I enjoyed a stable government job for several years, and hopefully will again, and that I’ve acquired a range of skills that allows me to generate income through other means as well (editing, teaching).  Taking this last year “off” as it were has allowed me to see a lot more of Europe than I otherwise could have, but now I’m ready to go back to the “stable” life I had before, with all the ups and downs that come with it.

question.jpgA question worth pondering for a few seconds at least…

7. Boris was right.  Boris, you were right.  If I see you again when I get back to Edmonton (and I hope I do), I will tell you that you were right.  Boris is a man I knew from my volunteer work with a political organization back in Edmonton.  He and his wife are originally from Russia and escaped to Canada when it was still the USSR.  Before leaving for Germany, Boris told my husband and I that he would never consider going back to Europe and warned us about what to expect.  One reason he would never go back, he said, is because Europe is too crowded and he needs his space.  Also, and this advice was meant for me in particular, he said that I would never be accepted because I am not German.  Well Boris, you were right.  I think Europe is too damn crowded and it is clear that unless you are German, white, have a German last name, and speak German with the correct accent, you will never be accepted by German society.  Remember what I said about Canadians being friendly and open?  Yeah….I miss that.

Goodbye, Germany.  I don’t expect to be returning anytime soon.

 

*Note: For more information about expats’ experience in different countries, check out this interesting report from InterNations: https://cms-internationsgmbh.netdna-ssl.com/cdn/file/2018-03/Expat_Insider_2017_The_InterNations_Survey.pdf.

For anyone who thinks I’m being too harsh about Germany, take note: Germany is ranked 56 out of 65 countries for ease of settling in. The report says: “Expats find Germany a difficult place to fit in. One British expat living in Germany commented that “Germans in general can come across as rude and obnoxious. Although that is a huge generalization.”

See you soon, Canada!

 

Paris, La Ville Lumière

A few weeks ago, we took the train and spent a few days visiting Paris!  I wasn’t really sure what to expect since, like everyone else, I’ve heard about beautiful, wonderful, romantic Paris my whole life and thought that perhaps I wouldn’t really like it, the reality wouldn’t live up to the high expectations, Parisians would be rude/snobby, etc.

WRONG!  I really LOVED Paris, a lot more than I thought I would.  My husband and I agree it is our favourite city in all of Europe (that we’ve seen).  Berlin is very interesting, I loved Rome as well, and Amsterdam is fantastic, but I think I loved Paris even more.  The only other city that rivals Paris in my mind is London, England, which I have visited once and would love to visit again!

The weather was fairly lousy while we were there (like always this winter, it seems) but despite the cloud and drizzle, we had a wonderful time exploring all the many iconic sights in Paris.  We walked up the Eiffel Tower, walked to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, strolled down the Champs-Élysées, spent an entire day exploring the Louvre, went on a short river cruise of the Seine, wandered inside Notre Dame, saw the inside of the Panthéon and the opera house, and visited the Montmartre neighbourhood.  A busy few days!

My first impression when we got off the train and entered the busy train station in Paris was a great feeling of relief to be out of Germany.  Sorry Germany, but I have not fallen in love with you.  Seeing French written everywhere (and some English, of course) was a nice change from the German language.  I may not be fluent in French, but it is a much more familiar sight to me than German words, and despite my German lessons I find that I can read French much more easily than German.

We made it to our budget hotel that was just outside of the central arrondissements.  This meant we paid substantially less for our no-frills hotel room, but nonetheless had a clean place to sleep and only a 20-minute subway ride to get to the central areas of Paris.

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The next few days were spent visiting the sights and doing a lot of walking!  Our first attempt at climbing the Eiffel Tower was thwarted due to high winds – the Tower was closed entirely because of the extreme wind that day, so we wandered onto a river boat instead!  A couple nights later we rode a huge Ferris wheel (as seen below, in the background), which provided some lovely views of Paris at night although I was a little freaked out by how high up we were!  Everyone in our compartment laughed at me a little when I breathed a sigh of relief after getting back down to ground level, only to realize that we were going around a second time! Mon Dieu!!

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There were several moments in Paris where I had this feeling of total amazement and happiness – like a scene from a book or movie, except that I was actually in the middle of it!  For example, on one evening my husband and I found a bar on a riverboat on the Seine.  As we drank cocktails, the famous Edith Piaf song Non, je ne regrette rien was played over the sound system.  We were just steps away from the Assemblée Nationale and I could see the lit-up Eiffel Tower in the distance – it felt like such a magical moment where I was truly in the heart of Paris.

The food and drink is another fantastic part of visiting Paris – I ate bœuf bourguignon and a couple nights later, we went for cheese fondue!  I drank so much wine and ate so much cheese – delicious.  At the end of that meal, my husband got up to use the loo and I said Merci beaucoup as the waiter cleared our plates.  He was a bit flirtatious and when I said Merci beaucoup he came over for a kiss!  Ooh lala, I had never kissed a waiter before.

Paris is famous for being the city of love, which I clearly cannot argue with!  But I think Paris’ attraction goes deeper than that – I may be idealizing a bit here, but I think Paris is such a wonderful city because it embodies so many of the greatest and best things in life.  Paris offers some of the best art, the best opera, the best wine, the best cheese, the best culture, the best cinema, the best cartoon art, the best literature, the best fashion, the best architecture, the best philosophy, and the best museums in the world.  Not to say that Paris or France are perfect – assuredly, nothing is perfect and  I know many people vehemently disagree with some of France’s political and economic decisions, for example.

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Me after being in Paris for a couple of days.

Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone can deny that Paris offers some of the best products of civilization, all in one city.  It really felt as if Paris is almost like a modern embodiment of  ancient Rome.  Indeed, the Panthéon itself is an imitation of the Pantheon in Rome, and French is of course a Romantic language that descended from Latin.  Unfortunately modern Rome has become a rather chaotic, corrupt, and poorly maintained city, whereas Paris is cleaner, more affluent, and committed to the concept of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.  Where Italy is Catholic, France is secular – the Panthéon was formerly a Catholic church, but was completely secularized following the French Revolution and now is a mausoleum for illustrious French citizens like Louise Braille, Voltaire, Marie Curie, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others.

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The  Panthéon

Visitors be warned, however, Paris is super expensive.  We stayed in a budget hotel for just a few nights, didn’t go to especially fancy restaurants, and the only things I bought were museum tickets, two books, and a copy of Charlie Hebdo, but even so it was an expensive trip.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve lost interest in learning German but am now keen to improve my French a bit more.  After hearing so much negative press for so many years about the French language (Quebec occupies a *cough* unique political position in Canada), my positive experience in Paris has changed my attitude towards the language. For now, anyway.  I admit I was slightly proud of myself for going up to a store clerk and asking, “Excusez-moi, avez vous Charlie Hebdo?”  Appreciate the little things, right?

So I heartily recommend visiting Paris, and also watching the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris for anyone who hasn’t seen it.  We watched the film on Netflix the night before taking the train to la ville lumière, and it is certainly one of the most charming Woody Allen films I’ve seen.  Marion Cotillard (drool) stars with Owen Wilson in a time-travelling romantic comedy that is really a love letter to the city itself (Allen’s second love perhaps, after NYC?).  One of my favourite lines was when Owen Wilson’s character says:

“You look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafes, people drinking and singing. For all you know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.”

On that note, I think it’s peace out for now.  Adieu!

Is it worth learning another language?

This is a question I’ve thought about a lot since moving here to Germany.  Unlike the English-only environment that characterizes most of North America, Europe is a multilingual region where French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, English, and other languages are commonly spoken.

Like a lot of native English speakers who were never exposed to any other languages in their youth, I’ve often lamented the fact that I’m not fluent in any other language. It sure would be nice to be fluent in German! I also wish I could speak French fluently – despite years of French class in school where we mostly learned the same crap year in and year out (la gomme! le stylo! Janvier, Fevrier, Mars!), I never acquired full fluency.

But as anyone knows, wanting to achieve something and actually being willing to do the necessary work are two different things. To be frank, I have basically stopped learning German. My “intensive” German class is almost over, and my attendance lately has been spotty. I say “intensive” because once again, I was pretty disappointed with the quality of the class. I’ve heard this from other expatriates and foreign students here – many German classes here are not helpful, and can be really frustrating when you’ve paid good money and feel like you’re wasting your time.

So the class has been disappointing, but the real reason for my lack of improvement is my own motivation – that is to say, I have none. When I completed my TESOL certificate last year, the instructors told us that the single most important factor in anyone’s success in learning another language is their motivation to do it. It’s so true. Case in point: a friend I’ve made here through the Meetup group I created is a surgeon from Iraq (Kurdistan, to be precise). He speaks excellent English, and achieved B2 level proficiency in German within 2 years of coming to Germany. This is a remarkable feat, and shows how dedicated he was to learning German. Unlike me, he had a strong incentive to work at it – German proficiency is essential for his job.

In my own case, I am starting to resent Germany and everything here, and especially since my husband and I have decided that we ultimately want to return to Canada, whatever interest I had in learning German has now fallen off a cliff. I don’t like the way German sounds, the unnecessarily complex grammar annoys me, and – the big one, for us native English speakers – since English is obviously the most important, widely spoken language in the world, I keep thinking, Why am I wasting my life memorizing der, die, das when I already speak English??

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Interestingly, I’m not the only one who questions the value of learning other languages. Recently I read part of The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, an 18th century work that challenges institutionalized religion and the legitimacy of the Bible.  A shocking point of view for his day. Anyway, Paine also addresses language learning and writes that (warning, long quote):

“The Greeks were a learned people, but learning with them did not consist in speaking Greek, any more than in a Roman’s speaking Latin, or a Frenchman’s speaking French, or an Englishman’s speaking English. From what we know of the Greeks, it does not appear that they knew or studied any language but their own, and this was one cause of their becoming so learned; it afforded them more time to apply themselves to better studies. The schools of the Greeks were schools of science and philosophy, and not of languages, and it is in the knowledge of the things that science and philosophy teach, that learning consists.”

He goes on and says that language study is “the drudgery business of a linguist” and that language is simply a tool and has nothing to do with the creation of knowledge. A rather harsh assessment, perhaps, but I think he makes a good point.

I read another, more recent opinion about the value of learning languages in an article on LinkedIn entitled “Why You Should Learn Cultures, Not Languages.” In this one, Ian Bremmer (president of Eurasia Group, a successful political risk consultancy) writes that learning a language as an adult is difficult, time-consuming, and that your efforts are probably better spent elsewhere. He advises people to “learn cultures, not languages. Study other points of view. The more you know about different regions of the world, the better off you are.”

This is not to say that I think complete ignorance of other languages is a good thing. One of my English professors once said that unless you study other languages, you will never understand your native language. This is also a good point, and it’s true that studying German vocabulary and grammar has taught me a lot about the English language.

Learning the basics of another language can be fun, no doubt, especially if you are planning on travelling to a destination where it’s spoken.  That’s what Duolingo is for! I’ve actually become more interested in improving my French, and have started working on the Duolingo French program. But acquiring full proficiency in a language is a major time investment – and without a real incentive to do it, I just don’t see the point.

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Some people really enjoy learning other languages. Another guy I met here speaks EIGHT languages – native German, plus English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Latin (?), and he was learning Russian. Sounds impressive, but honestly I thought, what’s the point?? This guy was in forestry management – a profession where multilingualism is irrelevant. He told me it had taken a lot of work over many years to learn all these languages. I guess he enjoyed learning languages as a hobby, but speaking for myself, I find that learning a language is BORING, not a fun hobby. Grammar is boring, memorization is boring. Which is why, honestly, my interest in learning more French will probably stall at some point.

It’s obviously easiest to learn a language as a child – a few people I know here grew up with one German parent and one French/Italian/etc. parent, meaning they grew up speaking fluent German and French/Italian, then learned English in school. Must be nice. But for the rest of us, it’s a long, hard slog, and the benefits may not necessarily outweigh the costs.

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I may be a little too obsessed with Internet memes.

 

Every time I meet someone who’s German

OK, this doesn’t happen EVERY time I meet someone who’s German, but I swear, this exact conversation has happened multiple times.

German: Where are you from?

Me: Canada.

German: What?

Me: CANADA.

German: Oh. Do you speak French?

Me: No.

German: Oh. So you’re from the English-speaking part?

What I actually say: Right.

What I want to say: The English-speaking part? You mean the part of the country that’s not Quebec? Yeah, I’m from that part. My God, you people know NOTHING about North America. NOTHING.

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Travels in Germany: Berlin, Nürnberg, and others

Happy 2018!!  I’m very excited for what this year will bring and hope it’s a good one.

Over the Christmas holidays I was pretty lucky to go on three short trips: one to Berlin, one to Paris, and one to a trio of German cities – Bamberg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and Nürnberg (Nuremberg in English.  My husband and I can’t figure out why the ‘n’ becomes an ‘m’ in English and since this annoys me a little, I will use the German spelling here.  Sheesh).

Our first trip was to Berlin to visit an old friend of my husband’s!  We took the train, which was a seven hour journey.  No problem, I don’t mind trains and I’m used to longer trips.  Once I took the train from London, Ontario to Edmonton, Alberta, a journey that lasted almost four days!!  Yikes.  But that’s another story….

Anyway, Berlin is a fascinating city with a unique culture of its own.  I learned that its unofficial slogan is “Poor but sexy.”  This may come as a surprise to some (it was to me), but Berlin is not a particularly affluent city.  Munich has money, Berlin does not.  The reason for this is that Berlin itself is a Bundesland (the German equivalent of a state or province) and consists of nothing much beyond the actual city.   Bavaria, on the other hand (that’s where Munich is), is a very large Bundesland with lots of space for agriculture, manufacturing, etc.  Berlin is a world-class city but it essentially doesn’t produce anything, and so is not as affluent as its southern neighbour.

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No matter!  While in the great German capital, my husband and I managed to squeeze in visits to the Pergamon Museum, Neues Museum, DDR Museum, the Reichstag, Berlin Wall Memorial, the Brandenburg Gate, the Berliner Dom ( pictured above), the TV Tower (also above), and a few Christmas markets.  This was in early December, and the Christmas markets were everywhere!  It seemed like every few blocks, we’d stumble upon another one.  The most beautiful Christmas market was the one in the Gendarmenmarkt, a stunning square in central Berlin that is home to two cathedrals and a Konzerthaus.  So much Glühwein (mulled wine) was consumed.  So much.  On one memorable evening, I found myself consuming three mugfuls of the stuff since my two travel companions, who don’t drink alcohol, had accidentally bought alcoholic Glühwein instead of the alcohol-free version.  Sarah to the rescue.  No Glühwein was wasted.

Berlin has excellent museums, bars, cafés, and a uniquely eventful history.  I would willingly visit again!  No rest for the weary, though, because shortly after we returned home it was off to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bamberg, and Nürnberg.

Rothenburg is a famous touristy town in Germany known for its well-preserved medieval centre.  Many of the buildings in the city are hundreds of years old and still standing.  To be honest, the visit here was a bit boring as we arrived on December 26 and most shops there were closed up, and the Christmas market over.  We wandered around, had a beer, but frankly I was glad to leave the next day.  My Lonely Planet guidebook says Rothenburg can feel like a medieval theme park, and that is exactly right.  The actual modern city of Rothenburg functions entirely outside of the medieval centre, and as a result there is nothing going on in the medieval centre.  It seemed kind of lifeless, except of course for the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks and the usual tourist shops selling overpriced beer steins and cuckoo clocks.

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Of course the buildings were unique and interesting, and I tried to imagine all the stories they could tell.  But, at the same time, I wondered, what would life have been like here five hundred years ago?  I said to my husband, it would have stunk!  Quite literally!  People often romanticize the past (I certainly do this) but in reality, medieval Rothenburg was most likely a town with filth and poor hygiene, full of illiterate folks with no hope of getting any education, travelling anyplace else, or escaping from a life of relative poverty.  As Bill Gates once said, virtually everyone was poor prior to the Industrial Revolution, because it took a while for people to realize that innovation is the key to prosperity.  I’m getting totally off topic, but this subject was explored in more depth in a great book I read last year, Homo Sapiens by Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari. Recommended.

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After a day in Rothenburg, it was off to Nürnberg, which is a much larger and livelier town.  We had a nice time walking around the town centre and visiting the Imperial Castle that dates back to the city’s days as an important centre of the Holy Roman Empire.  Yes, Nürnberg was an important city long before the Third Reich used it to stage Nazi rallies. 

One day was certainly enough to walk around Nürnberg.  Confession: I’m getting a bit tired of German cities.  Most of them are very similar and while the half-timbered buildings and huge churches are cool the first few times, after a while they lose their charm.  Another common element of German cities is, sadly, the fact that many of them were destroyed in the war.  You can see it when you visit Stuttgart, Cologne, Berlin, Nürnberg … their old town centres were essentially obliterated and while in some cities, the Altstadt (as it’s known in German) has been reconstructed, most areas had to be rebuilt quickly.  The result is a lot of repetitive buildings that were obviously constructed hastily in the post-war period.  

We found that the most interesting thing in Nürnberg was actually the Nazi museum.  Its full name is the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds and is easily accessible by tram.  The museum was a very moving, informative, and yes, horrifying experience. We spent three hours viewing photographs and listening to the excellent audio guide before going outside to see the rally grounds themselves.

IMG_20171229_131632.jpgA life-size reproduction of a photograph of the Battle of Berlin. This exhibit came complete with the sounds of bullets and explosions so you almost felt like you were on the streets of Berlin in spring 1945.

I feel a little apprehensive in disclosing this, since I’m not always one to talk candidly about emotions, but spending three hours in this museum actually made me angry.  My husband said so too: both of us kept thinking, HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED.  How could Germany’s political problems in the early 20th century escalate to such an insane degree as to cause a massively destructive world war that ended the lives of millions of people, a large portion of them civilians??  You see the picture above of Berlin?  It looks like an apocalypse.  Horrifying.  Well, Germany paid a massive price for starting that war, and is still paying the price when you see what the country lost and how in the eyes of many, Germans and German culture are still stigmatized, seventy years on.

We visited a cozy Irish pub two nights in a row while in Nürnberg.  I love Irish pubs – they always feel like a home away from home, even though I’m not even Irish!  It seems like every city here in Europe has one, and the staff almost always speak English, as do many of the customers.  We also spent a morning wandering around Bamberg, and after realizing that it was a lot like Rothenberg, headed to a nearby spa to spend the rest of the day in the sauna.  

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I was going to write about Paris in this post too, but I think it warrants a separate one!  I’m still interested in visiting a few more European cities like Vienna and Prague, but for now, I think I could use a break from visiting museums and old buildings.

 

Every time I meet an American here

American:  Where are you from?

Me:  Canada!

American:  Oh.  Where in Canada?

Me:  Alberta.  Well, originally Ontario.

American:  Oh.  <Pauses awkwardly>

American:  Where’s Alberta?

Me:  In western Canada.

American: <Stares blankly>

Me:  Above Montana.

American:  Oh.  <Pauses awkwardly again>

American:  Is that near Ontario?

Me:  No.

Adventures on the Autobahn

Oooh, the AUTOBAHN.  For many people this word conjures up images of shiny German Mercedes and Audis flying down a highway at speeds of 200 km/h or higher, something unheard of in North America unless you want to get your car impounded and your license revoked.

Before coming to Canada, several people asked us about the glorious AUTOBAHN and what it’s like, if it’s hard to drive on, if my husband routinely drives at 200 km/h when he’s in Germany, etc.

Since moving here, I’ve obtained an international drivers’ license (only $25CAD, thanks Alberta Motor Association) and drive regularly here.  On more than one occasion someone I know here has reacted with surprise when they find out I can actually drive here.  “REALLY?” they say, their eyes widening.  “You DRIVE here??”

Okay.  I too was intimidated by the idea of driving on a German highway at first, and wasn’t sure how it would be driving in another country.  But as usual in life, reality does not match the fantasy.

Driving in Germany is really not a big deal.  It’s not that different from Canada.  If you can drive on the QEII in Alberta, you can drive on the Autobahn.  And if you can drive on the 401 in the Toronto area, you can DEFINITELY drive on the Autobahn.

REALITY CHECK #1: “Autobahn” is just the German word for highway.  There isn’t just one “Autobahn” in Germany.  Like any other developed country, there is a network of highways connecting all the different cities and regions.  Some sections of the Autobahn do not have speed limits, true, but a lot of the time there IS a speed limit, usually 110 or maybe 120 km/h.  As you would expect, speed limits are common on the highway sections that pass through cities, where there are a lot of exits.

REALITY CHECK #2:  Most people don’t actually travel at 200 km/h, or anything close to it.  As I said, many sections of the highways here actually have speed limits, and there are speed cameras here.  But even in areas where there are no speed limits, most people just travel at 100-120 km/h anyway, for the same reasons as anywhere else: travelling at high speeds is expensive and uses a lot of gas, and most vehicles are not designed to maintain speeds exceeding 150 km/h.  The little car I use to get around certainly isn’t.  Plus, the Autobahns here have all the usual characteristics of highway driving: construction, poor weather conditions, heavy traffic, and curved roads that twist and turn and where, for most drivers, it probably isn’t advisable to travel at 200 km/h.

REALITY CHECK #3: Yes, Germany has bad drivers too! I’ve heard that Germany takes drivers’ education more seriously than in Canada and that it is harder to obtain a license here because standards and expectations are higher.  I can’t say myself since I have no experience with getting an actual German license (my international license is good for up to 3 years here), but I can well believe it.  Nonetheless, drivers here sometimes do all the usual things that drive other motorists crazy, like travelling under the speed limit, occasionally hogging the left lane, and occupying two parking spaces because apparently some people are unfamiliar with the concept of dividing lines in parking lots.  One thing I’ve especially noticed is people here hardly ever use their turn signals.  On the highway, at a T-junction, I’m usually left guessing as to whether they are going to turn right or left or make a lane change.  This happens in Canada too of course, but I would roughly estimate that Canadian drivers use their turn signals like 75% of the time, whereas German drivers use their turn signals only 40% of the time.

REALITY CHECK #4: Yes, there are a few differences between Germany and Canada. The biggest difference is that most vehicles here are manual, NOT automatic.  In fact I don’t think I’ve seen an automatic car since we came here.  In North America, automatic has become the norm for some reason and most people cannot drive a manual/standard.  Fortunately, this was not a problem for me as I learned to drive on a manual and my car back in Canada was also a manual.  I really prefer manual and don’t understand why automatic has become so popular in North America.

Also here in Germany, you cannot turn right on red (boo), and – my biggest pet peeve – the stoplights are all located next to the stop line at intersections, instead of across the intersection WHERE THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO BE.  One of the first times I drove here, I approached an intersection and was frantically looking around for the stoplight.  Was it green?  Red?  Did I have the right of way??  Where is the freaking, f#@&ing stoplight??  I concluded that this stupid intersection must not have a stoplight and, since I didn’t see any approaching traffic, I simply entered the intersection and made my left turn.  I still have no idea if I ran a red light or not.

People here might say that I was looking in the wrong place, but no, OBVIOUSLY the STOPLIGHT was in the wrong place.  Who puts stoplights next to the stop line? If you’re first in line, you have to crane your neck and practically stick your head out the window to see when the light turns green.

I still look across almost every intersection I approach when I’m driving and think, Fuck, where is the stoplight?? Oh yeah….

REALITY CHECK #5: The Autobahn is a great highway.  For realz.  It’s well-maintained, usually not too congested, and has good signage.  The craziest highway I’ve ever driven on is still the horrible 401 highway in southern Ontario where the volume of traffic, constant lane-changing, number of huge transport trucks, inconsistent speeds, and sheer number of lanes (I think they have up to 12 or more parallel lanes going in both directions in some sections near the big T.O.) make it way more stressful than driving here in Germany.

The Autobahn can be frustrating here too though, my worst example being when I got the brilliant idea of driving to Luxembourg City for a day trip and then leaving the capital at 4:30 p.m..  You know, at the same time as approximately 1 billion other commuters.  What should have been a 1.5 h return trip back to Germany took 3 h instead.

Me when I finally got out of Luxembourg, only to discover the Autobahn in Germany was closed for tunnel renovations and I was going to have to exit and drive through several small towns instead.

 

Bitching about Germany

How’s that for a positive headline?  Right, but at least it got your attention.

My last written post was about staying positive, but today I’m going to talk about some of the things I don’t like about Germany.  Yes, the coffee and bread and chocolate are nice, being able to visit castles is kind of cool, but there are a number of things about this country I am starting to resent.  And I know I’m not the only one, so let’s talk about what I mean.

Disclaimer before I start bitching: these are of course my own subjective opinions based on my experiences so far.  I think we can all agree Germany is an advanced and civilized country with many advantages.  These are just some of the things I’m noticing that really make me miss Canada.

Second disclaimer: people love to complain.  I know it, you know it, we have all been the complainer at some point.  I’ve lived in several different regions in Canada and people often complained about any or all of the following, in no particular order: it’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too windy, too isolated, too crowded, too expensive, too far from X or Y, too close to X or Y, the people are snobs, the people are rednecks, there’s nothing to do, etc etc etc.

Complaining is not an attractive habit and one I try to avoid.  But on the flip side, if there sincerely is something about a particular place that people don’t like, talking about it is the first step to actually DOING something about it and changing it.  Weather we can’t really change, but social and economic factors are things that we CAN impact.

So.  Things I don’t like about Germany:

1. Germans are not as friendly and open-minded as Canadians. 

This is a very broad generalization and (do I really have to state the obvious here) I’m not implying that ALL Germans are unfriendly and narrow-minded.  Clearly, unfriendly and narrow-minded people can be found anywhere.

And yet, I’m seeing a pattern here where many Germans only want to socialize with other Germans.  I was warned before coming here that I would never be accepted by German society, even if I do learn German.  I’m starting to think that this is true and it makes me seriously question the viability of staying here long-term.

In fact, Germans are so cliquish that they reject other Germans simply because they are from another part of Germany.  Apparently the Bavarians are notorious for doing this.  If you were not born in Bavaria and have an accent that is not obviously Bavarian, you are considered a tourist and will never be able to fully integrate in and participate in society.

Um, wtf??  WHAT THE FLYING FUCK.  Can you imagine someone from Nova Scotia coming to Alberta and complaining that he or she will never be accepted because they are not from Alberta?  Of course not!!  Even someone from Alberta coming to Ontario (yes, it’s true many Ontarians have negative attitudes about Alberta and think Albertans are all “rednecks”) will not have a problem becoming part of the community.  I know this firsthand.

Granted, this attitude has deep historic roots here, as Germany consisted of dozens of small kingdoms and principalities for centuries before becoming a modern nation state. In contrast, newer countries like Canada are made up of immigrants from all over, and I think there was just never time to develop these deep regional identities.  But my view is, get over it already.  It is not the Middle Ages anymore.  It’s the 21st century, and our world is much more globalized than ever before.  Get used to it.

2. I mean, Germans can be downright xenophobic. 

Canada is so multi-cultural that most people don’t blink when they see Canadians whose ancestry is Chinese, Indian, Filipino, German, Hispanic, African, Irish or wherever else in the world.  Here in Germany, people notice if you are not German and it seems to be a big issue for many of them.  One of my English students here, for example, is Ukrainian and has lived in Germany for 20 years.  Twenty years here, she speaks German, and she says Germans will not accept her because she is Ukrainian.

Another anecdote: a Chinese lady I’ve befriended here told me that her husband (a financial manager who is also Chinese) was once asked in a job interview how he thought his foreigner status would affect his role and how he would handle this situation.  Um, excuse me???  That would be a highly inappropriate question to ask someone in a job interview in Canada.  In fact, I feel confident in saying such a question would never be asked of a job applicant.  I’m not what anyone would call a “bleeding heart liberal” but I find this question offensive, not to mention irrelevant.  Does the candidate have the skills to do the job?  That’s what is important, not nationality!!  ^%$?$#!@#@#??!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

3. Volunteerism is not a thing in Germany

I think this is a real shame, to be honest.  I’ve been an active volunteer for many years and found my involvement in non-profit organizations to be rewarding and fun, and also beneficial both for me, the volunteer, and the community I’m a part of.  Win-win, right?  In Edmonton, I volunteered at the opera, at an English language school for immigrants, with the ski patrol, at various festivals, Toastmasters, a political party and so on.

Here in Germany, nobody volunteers.  When we were still living in Canada, in fact, my husband commented more than once how odd he thought it was that Canadians were so giving of their time without expecting payment.  Here, many tasks that would be performed by volunteers in Canada are instead performed by paid employees.

So, job creation is always nice, but having a strong volunteer base creates a better community, if you ask me.  Remember the reaction in Edmonton when Fort McMurray burned down?  They were turning volunteers away at donation centres.  People were lining up around the block to donate and to help sort donations for families who lost everything in the wildfires.

I think Canadians are in general, very caring and generous people who want the best for their community.  In contrast, Germans are apparently not as willing to give back to their communities and spend time helping others without expecting money in return.  Germany is the worse off for it, in my opinion.  Even blood donation here in Germany is paid, not voluntary.

4. Germans are more judgmental and can have rigid expectations

Remember in an earlier blog post when I mentioned that I’ve previously worked as a reporter, editor, English language teacher, and policy analyst?  Yeah, in Germany, apparently this is not the way it goes.  You train for a profession, and you work in that profession.  For your life.  Have fun with that.

Germany’s unique apprenticeship system has many advantages – I’ve read in numerous articles that Germany has avoided this army of underemployed BA grads that plagues North America by instead implementing a system where young people actually receive hands-on training for professions that are in demand.  Students develop skills in trades, the service industry, professional jobs, etc. and are highly qualified in their chosen field.  However, this also leads to lack of transferability.  Making career changes here in Germany is nowhere near as common as it is in Canada.

This is a big concern for me, as is the fact that women with small children are not expected to work.  Germans seem to disapprove of women who have families and a career.  Is it the 1950s here?  Have I been transported back in time??  Some women prefer to stay home with their children, others prefer (or have) to work.  Let people decide for themselves!!  How is this personal decision anyone’s business or anyone else’s place to judge?? Goddamn.

Germany is so well-ordered and has rules for everything.  Society is stable and organized, but so RIGID.  I prefer not to live life in a box of other people’s expectations.

5. Their formality is annoying

Germans don’t use first names as readily as we do in Canada and are sometimes offended if you use a first name instead of “Herr Schmidt” or “Frau Schwarz.”  OK, not a big deal, until you consider the utter hypocrisy of this attitude.  I can imagine some Germans’ internal monologue going like this: “We’ll ignore you and shun you if you are not German or speak German with the wrong accent or were born in the wrong place, and ask you inappropriate questions during job interviews about your ethnicity and its impact on your ability to do your job, but GODDAMN we will address you by your surname the whole time!! Jawohl!!”

A Canadian may address you by your first name, but I would argue that he or she will treat you with respect, not judge you, and probably even invite you out for a beer later.

Has anyone seen the original Judgment at Nuremberg film from 1961? If not, you should watch it.  It’s an excellent film with Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, William Shatner, and a whole lot of other famous actors.  There’s a scene at the beginning where Tracy (playing an American judge) and Shatner (playing an American officer serving in the American zone of Germany, post WW2) have this exchange:

ST: “What’s your first name?”

WS: “Harrison. Harry.”

ST: “Well Harry, all this formality kind of gets me down, not to say it puts me ill at ease. Do you think it’d be too much of an infraction of the rules if you would call me Judge or Dan or something?”

WS: “OK. Judge.”

This difference between stiff German formality and North American familiarity hasn’t changed much, I see.

You can actually watch the film here (warning, low quality upload): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8wipF1sqkY

6. My front door

You see this? See anything weird about my door? That’s right, THERE’S NO DOORKNOB!! This door is literally impossible to open unless you have the key.  If you simply close the door behind you, and you left the key inside the apartment, you are locked out.

OK, it makes it harder to break into, but these German doors are one more small thing I don’t like.

 

So. That was my bitchfest.  In case I haven’t made myself clear, this Canadian girl is struggling.

And as I said, I’m not the only one – I found this (unintentionally) hilarious blog written by an American woman who REALLY, I mean REALLY hates Germany.

giphy

Oh boohoo, Germany sucks

I don’t regret leaving Canada for this adventure, and in fact my experience here so far has made me appreciate my home country all the more.  Someday I will probably go back, and in the meantime I will continue enjoying everything Deutschland has to offer.