Posted by: Ken Brown | October 11, 2010

A New Start

Morning in Göttingen. All images are from my Flickr photostream.

Nicht da ist man daheim, wo man seinen Wohnsitz hat, sondern wo man verstanden wird. (Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.) ~Christian Morgenstern

Less than three weeks ago my wife and I packed up our kids and the last of our belongings and flew to Germany. Our flight passed by the arctic circle, which creates a bizarre and unexpected experience: watching the sun set and rise out the same window of the airplane. It was like the whole world reversed its axis while we floated by, and three weeks later we’re not sure we’ve yet found our bearings.

We realized recently that we have either had or been house-guests nearly constantly since the beginning of August. For over three weeks we didn’t have a place of our own at all, and even now we are just in a temporary apartment until January. We have been extremely grateful for the hospitality of family and new friends who have endured our three young children and luggage and jetlag, and made the transition so much smoother than it might have been, but it is hard to live like vagrants for so long. I cannot even imagine how difficult it would have been to move here without their help, and I’m thankful that I did not have to find out.

As it turns out, moving to Europe is nothing at all like moving across the US, or even moving to Canada (which we have done, though before we had children). It is not as though you can simply pile your junk in a U-Haul and take it with you. It can cost hundreds of dollars to ship a single suitcase from the US to Germany, so you can only really afford to bring the essentials. But just getting rid of the old can be a major headache, not to mention the time and expense required to rebuy a whole household. In the end, we spent a couple of months trimming everything down to 12 medium to large suitcases and a handful of carry-ons, which is hardly anything for a whole family of five to live on, yet still proved nearly unmanageable for three adults to move across Frankfurt Airport.

Even more than the belongings that need to be replaced, however, the challenge of a move like this is that it requires one to replace virtually all of the services that make modern civilization run as smoothly as it does. Banking, insurance, credit cards, taxes and more must all be changed over or completely replaced, and neither the American nor German counterparts are much familiar with how to manage that process. There are the visas, residence permits, contracts and countless other documents (mostly in German) needed to make sure you are actually legal to live in the country. I spent the better part of four months trying to figure out what paperwork I might actually need, often finding it difficult, expensive or even impossible to acquire and even now it’s hard to be sure that things are truly in order. There are, of course, dozens of books and websites offering advice on How to Move to Germany, but these have a dismaying tendency to offer completely different lists of the most essential preparations, little of which ended up applying to us in any case. In the end most of what we agonized over proved hardly necessary, yet there were still numerous headaches that came completely unexpected.

Altes Rathaus Göttingen

Rain clouds over the old Town Hall in Göttingen. The new Town Hall is considerably less charming.

Our first taste of this was on the trip over. We thought we were very clever scheduling an over-night flight with a morning connection in Iceland, not realizing that flying out at 4:30pm from Seattle and landing at 7:30am in Iceland didn’t actually mean we could sleep through the night; it meant we would skip the night entirely. 7:30am in Iceland, you see, is only 12:30am in Seattle, so by the time we landed the kids had slept no more than an hour or two, and the whole night was gone. Indeed, between sunset and sunrise there were less than three hours of dark.

Upon arrival in Iceland, we expected to have 45 minutes to make our connection, which seemed tight but reasonable enough in such a small airport (there are only 8 gates), but we discovered too late that arrival time does not account for taxiing from the runway. We may have landed on schedule, but by the time we actually disembarked we only had about 10 minutes to make our next flight. Moreover, because this was our first entry into a Schengen nation, we could not go straight to our gate but first had to bypass through security and passport control. At a mad dash we arrived 10 minutes after our scheduled departure time, but thankfully the airline held the plane for us and we left shortly after finding our seats.

In all of this the children did remarkably well, but we were understandably exhausted by the time we reached Frankfurt, one of the largest airports in Europe. Here things started smoothly. Since we had gotten on last, our luggage was among the first to arrive in baggage-claim and was all intact, and since (we only later realized) we had come in from another Schengen nation, there was no security or passport check, and going through customs was as simple as walking through a big unmanned door reading “Nothing to Declare.” So much for all my worry about how we would get through customs with 12 full suitcases.

But then things got interesting. We had given ourselves 2 hours to make our train (again, not counting on the gap between “arrival” time and disembarking) and would have been fine if we had not had too much luggage to carry onto the train and so had to drop off several bags at a shipping service. This was a fantastic idea (which I owe entirely to our hosts), except that we still had to drag three carts worth of luggage across the airport, on and off a bus, and up an escalator (!), to get the little shipping office, which we then could not find. In fact, we spent about an hour and a half searching for either the office or anyone who could tell us where it was (let’s just say that Germany is not known for its customer service), all while our internal clocks were telling us that it was 4am. I was so tired I couldn’t even figure out how to make a German pay-phone work, failing to notice that the place I was looking for was about 10 meters to my right.

Eventually we did manage to find the place and get the baggage sorted, but needless to say we missed our train and had to buy new tickets for the next one, then wait another 45 minutes at the train terminal hoping we were in the right place because we still couldn’t find a single official to ask. By the time our train finally arrived in Göttingen, our kids were so dead asleep that I had to physically block the train door from closing so we could get them off before the train left for the next stop. Thankfully our gracious hosts were still there–with a warm dinner waiting for us back home–but if I say we slept in ’til close to 11 the next morning, I hope no one will blame us. It took at least a week for the kids to finally get back to their usual nighttime routines, if they have even now.

It hasn’t been all stress and chaos, however. True, I’ve spent more hours than I’d care to count trudging back and forth (mostly on foot) between the town hall, the insurance office, the bank, and different departments of the university, struggling to get our paperwork in order (for a nation that thrives on Order, the Germans have an awfully ad hoc way of managing documentation). Right now I’m trying not to think about the pile of German paperwork on my desk waiting to be translated. Hopefully none of it is time-sensitive! Meanwhile, our German dictionaries have gotten some of their hardest workouts trolling the aisles of various German stores. We still haven’t figured out how a nation with more bakeries per capita than any other on earth can make it so difficult to find baking powder in the grocery store, but I am proud to say that I made my first purchase at a German flee-market: a used set of the first four Harry Potter books, in German, which makes practicing the language rather more enjoyable than it might be.

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen. Is this what she meant?

This is good, because I’ve got quite a lot of German to do! Even though I am allowed to write my dissertation in English, I have to pass at quite a high level of German to get a doctorate here. This means I’ll be spending much of the first year in intensive German courses (thankfully covered by the research funding!). In order not to waste any more time than necessary, last week I jumped right into the middle of a second level course that started in mid-September. Not surprisingly, I’m finding that my preparation has been far too scattered to fully prepare me for such an immersion. While I can read German better than many of the other students, I cannot hear it any where near as well and my facility with casual German conversation leaves a great deal to be desired. Hopefully 4-hour immersion classes, five days a week, will change that fairly quickly, if they don’t kill me first!

In the meantime, we’ve taken advantage of an unusually warm fall to explore Göttingen, which really is a wonderful city. Just on my way to work I pass through a lovely path bordered by hundreds of private gardens, then down the main road into the old city with its narrow and winding cobblestone streets and traditional architecture (see the picture at the top for an example, and more on Flickr). The university itself is also old, but the buildings are mostly modern, including its main library, housing some 6 million volumes crossing all disciplines (this is not even including the Old Library in town, the Theological library housed in our building, the collection of Septuagint manuscripts, and so on).

Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen

Just a portion of Göttingen’s 6 million volume library.

We’ve also enjoyed traditional German fare (including some delicious wurst and a few German beers), laughed at what is considered “American” in the foreign section of the supermarket, and eaten more than our share of their incredible ice cream and baked goods. I don’t think we’ll ever again be able to stand boring old American white bread for anything other than toast. We’ve strolled the streets of the old city and wandered across the countryside to a 500 year old watch-tower, and we’ve had plenty of chances to try out our German, some more successful than others. You know the feeling when you think of the perfect thing to say about two minutes too late? That’s how nearly every German conversation feels right now. If being “home” really does mean being understood, it may be a while for us to feel like more than visitors here.

As much as we have enjoyed our first three weeks in Göttingen, we are getting to the stage where the differences become more and more apparent. Beyond the language barrier, many of the adjustments come down to a simple matter of space: Everything is smaller in Germany, and quite a lot of it is slower (the Autobahn and DeutscheBahn being the two major exceptions). Cars, beds, groceries, appliances, the cities themselves are all considerably smaller (and generally more environmentally conscious) than their American counterparts. On first glance, much of this is annoying, if not downright puzzling– how can a family survive with such a tiny garbage allowance?!–but in many cases it makes better sense once you get used to it.

I’m about to sound like a typical uppity European, but it really is amazing how wasteful we Americans can be, hopping in our SUVs to drive a mile down the road and filling huge bins with garbage every week. I remember a great commercial aired by Pemco Insurance making fun of those obsessive-compulsive recyclers who even go so far as to wash their tin-foil, yet that and more is simply necessary and expected here. And you know what? It’s actually quite amazing how simple it can be to recycle or compost most of your waste (the city collects biological waste separately from the rest), to hang your clothes to dry rather than use a dryer, to walk or bike around town, and so on. Everything takes longer this way, but it saves a great deal of money and resources, not to mention being quite a bit better for your health. Of course, I say this now in the midst of a relatively balmy early October–ask me again in mid-January and I may sing a different tune!



  1. Thanks for the detailed report about your adjustments to your new home, Ken. There is an enormous amount of puzzlement, confusion and outright discomfort that goes with living in a different culture, especially one that requires learning a new language. Adapting to so many new things is hard work, but in the end I think you’ll all be very glad for the experience and the invaluable opportunity to see the ordinary events of life from the perspective of a different community. Enjoy, and keep us posted. Beautiful photos, btw. Thanks for sharing them.

    • Thanks Charlie!

      For some reason your comment got caught in the spam filter, I have no idea why.

  2. I found this post poignantly reminiscent. About 10 years ago, my family picked up and moved to Prague. Your airport woes are similar to the hells we initially experienced. I can especially identify with your account of gather the required documents and forms. In a post-communist country, the red tape was unbelievable. I remember the romance of first encountering a culture that is half a millennium old. I also remember how frustrating some of the differences could be.

    Obviously, there are differences between Germany and the Czech Republic, but so much of what you just said reminds me of my experience. I’d be happy to talk to you more about it if you want. I’m on facebook as “Davo Hynds” (the only one, I should dare say).

    Good luck. My moniker for the entire experience, what I would chant to myself when I got frustrated beyond belief: “It’s not weird. It’s just different.”

  3. Thanks so much for your comment!

    When I get frustrated, I try to remember the Iraqi woman I met a few weeks ago whose children (US citizens) were kidnapped by her ex-husband and taken to Iraq. She was leaving two days after we did to try and get her children back, facing the very real possibility of murder or worse to do so.

    Moving to Germany has certainly given me a greater sympathy for the plight of immigrants and ex-patriots everywhere, but nothing we have to face comes even close to what she is going through. That worst that is likely to happen to us is to get kicked out of the country, but most immigrants have far greater dangers to overcome, and generally much less support to get past them. I can only hope that in the long run our experience makes us more willing and able to help others in that position.

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