It’s fairly common to feel like an alien at times, while living in a foreign country. But now, when I come home to Canada for my regular summer visits, I often feel like a bit of an alien here too. In recent conversations with family and friends at home, I am finding that my opinions and perspectives about both everyday and fundamental issues are differing from theirs, sometimes to the extreme. This has made me stop to consider how my expat life has changed my views on certain issues, and how it may be affecting my various relationships. Being “worldly” and “cultured” are often touted as beneficial, but how does one learn to incorporate such qualities into relationships with those who have lived their entire lives in the land you left?
It seems that I have blogged quite a bit about dogs, here at The German Way Expat Blog (There’s a Dog in the Pub, Moving with Max). The reason for this is because my evolution as an expat in German-speaking Europe, has coincided with my evolution as a dog owner. This is no surprise of course, seeing as how Germany is about as dog friendly a country as you will ever find. But as I have learned, due to very comprehensive federal policies, and thus high cultural standards regarding pets, being a pet owner in German-speaking Europe comes with more responsibility than many North American (or other) expats may be used to. As with all other rules, regulations, and cultural norms, it’s important to make yourself aware of the “German way” (or Swiss or Austrian), if you plan to partake in the world of expat pet ownership.
I pissed off a German today. Such an occurrence is not uncommon. Whether it’s my barking dog, my driving skills, or how I maintain my yard, it seems that on a regular basis I am being told that I’m doing something wrong. In a blog post from years ago (“There’s a dog in the pub!”), which detailed my first experience with the notoriously direct Germans, I told the story of being confronted by a neighbor for doing something he didn’t like, and ending up in tears. At that time, I had only been in Germany for a couple months, and being from Canada, a nation known as the nice guys that say sorry for everything, being confronted in such a way was not only shocking, but very upsetting. Now, over five years later, I have since grown the thick skin and the understanding necessary for dealing with the authoritative German people, without the tears. But, though being scorned may not affect me as personally anymore, I must admit that learning to essentially tell people to (politely) “screw off”, has not been easy.
It’s hard to believe that I have been living in Europe for nearly six hockey seasons. Though, when I think back to my first year in Germany, and how much I have changed since then, it feels like it could be much longer. Of course making the nearly-spontaneous decision to move to Germany was exciting, but that first year abroad was equally as difficult as it was enjoyable. Aside from learning how to adapt to a new culture and language, it was the change in lifestyle that really took the most adjustment. I had been employed, to some degree, since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know life without work. Just before moving with my then-new boyfriend, to this foreign place called Dusseldorf, I had taken on a great new job; the career kind. I had moved out of my best friend’s basement and got a little house all my own. I bought a brand new car, and everything seemed to be heading in the right direction for me. Little did I know then that within only a matter of months I would quit that job, rent out that house, and tarp up that car on my mom’s driveway. I wasn’t aware of the term at the time, but I was about to become what is known as the “trailing spouse”.
My first trip to Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn was a bit of shock. I think I can more accurately call it culture shock now though, as I look back at my reaction to the “sinful mile”. Having only been in Hamburg for a few days, after spending the summer in Canada and living the previous two years in Switzerland, the large German city certainly took some getting used to. Specifically the Reeperbahn, with its boldly lit sex shops and strip clubs, mixed in with typical touristy pubs, theaters, and a cop shop; at first glance it was all both amusing, but also confusing. Amusing were the map wielding, walking-shoe adorned tourists, departing from their musical matinee, gasping at the sight of shop windows decked out with ball-gagging manikins. Confusing were the young women lining the side street across from the police station, each placed perfectly six feet from each other, dressed in hot pink and sporting fanny-packs. “Promo girls?” I asked my husband, assuming they were part of some street marketing team. “Not quite” he replied. No, they weren’t in fact selling any products, they were selling themselves. “Hookers” he explained, “sorry, prostitutes.”
A few posts back I wrote about how being an expat has made me a better Canadian. After thinking about it a bit further, I have actually come to realize that being an expat has also made me a better English and Irishwoman. Now I have to admit, I have never been to the UK, nor Ireland, and would never presuppose to be an expert on either place, so this may all sound a bit whacky. But bear with me as I explain how being an expat in German-speaking Europe has helped me to really discover my Irish and English roots.
Growing up in a multicultural country like Canada, we are taught from a young age to appreciate our own unique ethnic backgrounds. There were “Multicultural Day” festivals at school where students were asked to come wearing clothes that represented their families’ ethnic heritage. Amongst the beautiful traditional Chinese, Aboriginal, Ukrainian, East Indian etc. outfits, I recall going to school on that day wearing a plastic green cap that came as a free gift with a case of beer on St. Patrick’s Day. That was about as close to being “authentically” Irish as my family really was, or so I thought for many years.
I attended a dinner party the other night, at a comfy apartment in a suburb outside of Hamburg. Guests included Canadian (both French and English-speaking), American, and German teammates from my husband’s hockey team, and their spouses. It was a fun, casual evening of burgers and wine. A new woman joined our group that night, having just arrived from Canada a couple of days prior to spend the rest of the hockey season with her husband. It is to be her first time living overseas, and I could see it all over her face. Not only was she still suffering the ill effects of jetlag, she appeared bewildered, confused by the different languages swirling around her, overwhelmed with meeting new people, and uncomfortable in what, for the rest of us, was such an easy setting.
I knew just how she felt.
For many expats, long distance air travel is just a regular part of our lifestyle. Whether you travel “home” sporadically for visits, or if you essentially live between two or more places, overseas travel, and all that comes with it, is just another challenge that we expats must learn to manage. I spend about eight or nine months here in Europe, and three or four back in Canada. This is now my sixth year living this way and have subsequently banked eleven overseas flights so far. If you are anything like me, such an endeavour can really take a toll on your body. That exhausted, jet laggy feeling can ruin the first few days at your destination and can lead to a state of dread regarding all future travel.
Jet lag has always been a problem for me. Whether I’m returning home and trying my best to stay up past 10 pm, or if I’m back in Europe staring at the clock at 4 am, I have always had an issue with time change. Just the process of flying for so long leaves me feeling ill, especially nauseated. Coupled with that “bubble” feeling of jet lag, I end up having what feels like a flu for at least the first three or four days. Long distance travel and jet lag also have a big impact on guests. While some of us may have the luxury of taking a few days to get used to the time difference, people coming in for a week or two to visit, do not want to waste such time. So, over my years of traveling and hosting, I have worked at developing a method for easing the woes of overseas travel, and this year I believe I have perfected it! I gloriously experienced zero symptoms of jet lag this time around, and avoided getting any sort of ill. And so, of course, it is a must that I share this method with all of you.
It seems that every year, as I am doing the last minute prepping for our upcoming move back to Europe (Hamburg, Germany this time around), I get that same sad, longing feeling. Over the years of my on-again-off-again expat life, I have grown ever more fond of my home country, Canada, making leaving it each summer for the next hockey season, harder and harder. This is not to say that I am not also in love with life in Germany and Switzerland, but more so that being an expat has really made me appreciate being Canadian.