I moved to Munich from London in 2000 and to Cologne in 2003. It was the usual story: I fell in love with a German, had kids and at some point Cologne started to feel more like ‘home’ than London did.
It was hard to settle in. I had severe culture shock. I missed the friendly easy smiles you get used to in the UK. I missed the humor and the banter. I was massively offended by the rude sales people in shops. I was completely freaked out by people who told me off in the street for unknown misdemeanors – like crossing a completely empty street when the pedestrian light was red, or cycling on the pavement. It was only when I’d learned the language that I started to feel comfortable. And I learned a handy retort to being told off in public by grumpy Germans (Blödmann).
I wouldn’t say I’m completely integrated into German culture. I’m an ‘in-betweener’: not fully at home in Germany, nor back ‘home’ in London. When I’m there I feel like a hillbilly from the sticks. I don’t get the jokes anymore, the language has changed, I’m overawed by the brash, new, glittering skyline. But I also don’t recognize aspects of society anymore because of Brexit.
I came from a multicultural city, and went to a state school where just about every nationality was represented. I always felt that if you were born there, you were a Londoner first and foremost, no matter what your roots. But now there’s an insidious racism and xenophobia, which no doubt always bubbled under the surface, that’s out in the open and being incited by the press.
Saying ‘no’ to Brexit Britain
Even if I could go back – if a job and my kid’s schooling allowed it – I don’t know if I would want to live in Brexit Britain.
What tips would I give to newcomers to Germany? Learn the language as quickly as you can. You’ll feel more comfortable, you’ll make new friends and ultimately you’ll be happier. At the beginning it will drive you crazy. Actually, it will always drive you crazy because unless you grow up here you’ll always question the logic behind Deutsch. Why is a table masculine and a chair feminine? Why is it ‘das Mädchen’ and not ‘die Mädchen’? Why Is Everything Capitalized Godammit?
How do you learn the language? Immerse yourself in it. Listen to German radio, watch German TV shows with the sound up loud – especially funny stuff. Anke Engelke made me laugh before I even knew what she was saying. Read German children’s books. Take a lot of courses. Find people willing to put up with your crappy German and spend lots of time with them.
Not an expat anymore
It will get better. But Germany is not a soft landing. There’s no secret to success, it just takes time. Becoming a German citizen helped me a lot. I felt a bit abandoned by my birth country. The UK has made no contact with me whatsoever since I left, which was especially hard during the Brexit vote. As one of the people most affected, I had no say in the matter.
I hadn’t even realized I felt abandoned until the ceremony the city of the Cologne laid on to commemorate me, and another 10 people, becoming German citizens. As the city representative shook my hand and handed me my citizenship certificate, I felt truly welcome in my new ‘home’ country – and they seemed genuinely pleased to have me on board. Unlike the UK which seems to be genuinely ambivalent about where I am and what I’m doing.
So I’m trying to embrace being Deutsch. I’m wearing my Birkenstock’s around the house – with socks if course. I’m swearing in German – and I’m managing to say ‘das’ in the right place around 85% of the time. It’s taken a long time, but I think I can finally say that Germany is ‘home’.