Is It Hard To Learn German?

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Image from page 58 of "Henn-Ahn's German ...

“Henn-Ahn’s German grammar” (1888). (Photo credit: internetarchivebookimages)

The question I most wanted an answer to when I first moved here only knowing a handful of German word was ‘Is it hard to learn German?’ After almost four years here I have a definitive answer. Yes and No. Trust me on this, all will be explained.

Firstly, no, German is not hard to learn.  That is it is not harder to learn than any other foreign language.  Every single language has an element or elements about it that are difficult to master and German is no different in this respect.  In fact, English speakers are at an advantage when learning German because of English’s Germanic roots. You will learn lots about English when you start to learn German.

However, yes, German is hard to learn but not for the reasons you might think.  German is hard to learn because any foreign language is hard to learn, especially when you are an adult and are learning your first foreign language.  I was in my mid 30s when I first started learning German and trust me, the adult brain can be quite resistant to learning a new language.

German is also hard to learn because of the amount of time you need to dedicate to it.  When I first moved here I thought that doing 3 hours of lessons a week plus living in Germany would mean that I would just pick it up. That most definitely did not happen. 3 hours of lessons per week was nowhere near enough to get vocabulary and concepts to stick in my mind and just because I lived where German was spoken did not mean I just absorbed it through some osmotic process.  Whilst living in a German speaking country gives me lots of opportunities to learn German, if I don’t actively take up these opportunities and devote time to them, I’m going to learn very little. In order to learn a language you need to fully immerse yourself in it. You need to speak German regularly, watch German TV, listen to German radio, read German books and write regularly in German – and all this takes time out of your daily life. The people that ‘pick up’ the language quickly are the ones who are devoting a large chunk of their day to learning German.

Learning German is also tough on your ego and in ways that you could not previously imagine it would be. You need to be 100% okay with making a complete and utter idiot of yourself and having people abuse you for not being able to express yourself properly.  Don’t think this will not happen to you.  It will and it will happen regularly and it takes a hell of a lot of mental strength to deal with it. You will give up on learning German multiple times. I know I have.  I have gone months at a time without any real effort in learning the language simply because I was tired of having to deal with it all. I wanted and needed to go back to my little English-only cocoon to recover and regroup. The important thing is not to stay in that cocoon forever.

The hardest thing about learning German is not learning the vocab but is devoting the time needed and having the mental fortitude to withstand the frustration along the way. If you can do this, you can master the German language. I know I am still on my way there.  I don’t spend a large chunk of my day doing all the things I should. Yes I do read German books and watch German TV shows, but I don’t do this every single day nor do I speak German as much as I should and I definitely don’t write regularly in German. Therefore after almost 4 years here my German is only in the functional to conversational range and my written German is abysmal. That, however, is all my doing and is not a reflection on how hard German is to learn.  I choose to put in a limited amount of work and therefore I get back limited results.

So is it hard to learn German?  Yes and No.  If you devote a large amount of time and effort to learning it, then no, German is not hard to learn, but if you don’t or if you get discouraged and give up along the way, then yes, it is hard to learn German.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Thoughts On Returning To Australia

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I just recently arrived back in Germany after a 2.5 week holiday in Australia spent visiting my family and friends (photos are coming!).  It has been 3 years since I was last in Australia. Three years in which I have grown as a person and have been changed by living in a foreign country. Also it has been three years since I spent more than 3 days in an English speaking country. Therefore this visit gave me a lot of food for thought. As some of you know, I’m adverse to making set in stone plans for the future, but I’m not against thinking about the future and where I would be the happiest.

I expected to find some aspects about Australia hard to deal with, although some of these where unexpected. I most certainly did not expect to spend the first three days in Australia physically cringing when I heard the Australian accent. The broader it was, the more I cringed. I did expect to find prices expensive but not as expensive as they actually were for certain things. I also did not expect to feel such hatred against the current Australian government. I dislike them but I didn’t expect that I would be yelling at the radio or TV every single day. It was not good for my stress levels.

I missed my friends more than I realised.  If I lived in my perfect world, I would relocate them all to Hamburg in a heartbeat. My friends can put my shit in perspective more quickly than anyone else I know and without them even realising that they are doing it. I really need to put more effort in staying in contact and sharing the mundane rather than just the ‘important’ stuff and only over Facebook. As much as I love Facebook for staying in contact with everyone, and it does a pretty good job at that, it doesn’t allow the depth of contact and sharing with my friends that I realised was missing.

From sitting down with my friends and sharing the mundane it made me realise that my life is not in Australia. At least not in the medium term. All of my friends are doing it tough in some way despite the vast majority of them being in well paying jobs and with no kids. Hearing what they need to either sacrifice or go through to make ends meet in Sydney made it clear to me that the quality of life I have in Germany is far superior to what I would have in Australia. I knew that on some level but my time there really drove it home. I came back to Germany totally assured that my life is here for the foreseeable future.

That said I do need to go back to Australia more regularly. Three years between visits is really too long.  I’m not sure my bank account could handle yearly visits, but I think every two years is do-able. I have such wonderful and amazing people there that I want to keep in my life for as long as possible. I can’t expect that they can visit Europe so whilst I can afford to travel to Australia every couple of years I need to do that.

I also need to bring some balance between what I see as my Australian self and my living in Germany self. This point is hard to verbalise but I need to have touchstones to my home culture in my daily life to keep me balanced and not feeling so disconnected. By the same token I need to keep putting down more roots here in Hamburg and becoming more integrated. This is not something that is going to happen overnight, but it is something I need to keep actively working on rather than becoming complacent about it. I have incredible people in my life here and I need to keep working on those relationships and strengthening them.

My trip back home was really important to help solidify some of the thoughts that have been swirling around my head for some time and making things seem clearer. I feel I am on steadier ground than I was before I left. Every so often I need a jolt to make me realise the things that are important to me and this trip did that.

 

How Easy Is It To Find A Job In Germany?

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English: Flag-Map of Germany EU

English: Flag-Map of Germany EU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the questions I get asked most frequently from family, friends, acquaintances and readers of this blog is about how they too can come and work in Germany. Considering how much I love living and working here I’m happy to promote Germany as a great country to live and work in but finding working here may not be as easy as people think it is going to be.

Here is my take on how easy it will be for you to find a job in Germany.

Do you speak German?

If you do and you are highly skilled in your field then finding a job in Germany will be relatively easy for you, regardless of whether you are an EU citizen or not.  Germany is very welcoming to highly skilled immigrants, especially those that already speak German and by speak German I mean have at least a business level German or are fluent. If you can only string a couple of sentences together then your German will be deemed ‘not good enough’ and you will need to go and join the English-only speaking folks.

If you only speak English then, unfortunately, things become really limited for you. The huge bulk of English-only speaking expats work as English teachers or in a bilingual (German/English) pre-schools (with kids aged up to 6 years). If teaching English or taking care of kids is not for you, then the outlook looks less bright for you.

Are you an EU citizen?

So you don’t speak German and are not willing to teach English but you do hold an EU passport. Things are a little brighter for you than for the folks that don’t have one. There are jobs around that only require knowledge of English.  These jobs are on the rare side, but since you hold an EU passport you will be a front runner for these positions than those that don’t. It is much easier and cheaper to hire someone who can already legally work in Germany than go through the bureaucracy of getting a work visa for a non-EU citizen.

Are you highly skilled?

So you don’t speak German nor do you have an EU passport, but in your field you are one of the best. Especially if you are an engineer, scientist or IT specialist then Germany wants you and in fact you qualify for a special type of work visa that will allow you to get permanent residency much faster than the average non-EU worker. Jobs may still be hard to find, but if you have the right skills you will find something, but it may take a lot of searching and time. You aren’t going to just walk into a job unless your career field is extremely specialised.

Does your current company have an office in Germany?

Welcome to the world of the internal company transfer. Most English speaking expats that don’t teach English are in this category including myself.  We really are the blessed ones. We lucked out by getting a job in a global firm in our home country and now the company wants us to or are willing to let us work in Germany. We don’t speak German nor are we necessarily from an EU country, but that doesn’t matter.  The majority of the people in this field are on a fixed term contract of about 1-3 years before they have to return back to their home country but some of us are here permanently or until we decide to return back to our home countries.

Don’t fit into any of the above categories?

Don’t give up.  You may not be able to move to Germany in the short term but don’t give up on your dream. If Germany is really where you want to be, you will find a way to make it happen. Start learning German, up-skill and/or look for a job with a global firm in your home country that have an office in Germany and encourages internal transfers. You may need to wait 2-5 years to make your dream a reality, but you will get there. Good luck!

 

The information above comes from my own personal experiences and stories told to me by other expats working here, so I’m willing to bet that not everything here is 100% accurate nor applies to everyone looking for work.  Also, the above is just concentrating on people coming here to work and not those that want to or have studied here or those that come as ‘trailing spouses’ or have married German citizens and are looking for work.  You guys are in a whole different category that I readily admit that I don’t really understand. The best way to determine if you are eligible to work in Germany and how easily you can find a job is to contract the German Embassy in your home country. Those guys are the real experts and should be your ultimate source of knowledge. What I’ve written above is just to give you an idea of what your chances are to find work in Germany.

For those of you already working in Germany, do you agree with my assessment? Or have I gotten something wrong? Please let me know in the comments.

The Most German Thing I’ve Ever Done

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I had been back in the country for just over 24 hours when I did the most German thing I’ve ever done in the almost four years I have lived here – I attended a public viewing of the World Cup Grand Final Match between Germany and Argentina at Heiligegeistfeld. Me, my friends and 50,000 other people crammed ourselves onto the field where they hold the Hamburger Dom Volkfest to watch the match on the giant screen.

An extremely small portion of the 50,000 fans that were there.

We braved torrential rain and idiots that thought that bringing an umbrella to a place where they were barely room to breathe was a good idea, but our patience paid off when the whistle blew and the match began (thankfully the rain had stopped by then).  This was when my education in being a German football fan begun.  I was taught football cheers, what to do during a penalty kick and the importance of knowing everybody’s name on the team, mainly so you can participate in some of the cheers. I learnt the importance of surrounding yourself with good people who are gracious enough to answer all your questions and crazy enough to buy everyone standing around them a beer & then not accept any payment.  Then when the match winning goal was scored, I learnt how to celebrate a World Cup win German-style.  It involves a lot of jumping around, hugging strangers, letting off flares and fireworks and singing this song.

It’s called “Oh wie ist das schön” and the lyrics are really basic: “Oh, wie ist das schön! Oh wie ist das schön! So was hat man lange nicht gesehn, so schön, so schön!” (Oh, how great! Oh how great! Haven’t seen something like this for a long time, so great, so great!).  It needs to be sung about a hundred times with decreasing levels of understandability as everyone gets drunker and drunker.

When not singing “Oh wie ist das schön”, they then launch into Super Deutschland Olé

which has the challenging lyrics of Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Super Deutschland Olé, Super Deutschland Olé, Super Deutschland Olé!

Germans, despite their uptight image, really know how to party and have a good time. Never has this been so on display as it was when the match was ended and the Heiligegeistfeld public viewing crowd spilled out onto the streets. The singing was still taking place and people were randomly congratulating each other and high-fiving passing motorists who were not so much passing as they were crawling down the street which made high-fiving much easier and less of a risk to your life. I must admit I did take part in the high-fiving part of the celebrations and the singing even though I was stone-cold sober thanks to my lovely alcohol intolerance.

I think I choose a pretty good occasion to get into the public viewing of World Cup Football rather than watching it at home or in the pub.  Knowing how much fun it is, I will definitely be going to more public viewings the next time around.

 

Go On, Confuse The Goldfish

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Last week I travelled down to Luxembourg with my fantastic theatre company, Hamburg Players, to compete in FEATS (Festival of European Anglophone Theatrical Societies), a four day one-act theatre competition for English language theatre companies in the EU (except UK & Ireland). This was my very first FEATS and to be honest I’m was not sure what to expect.

Getting to Luxembourg was an ordeal, 13.5 hours in a mini van with a bus driver whose driving skills were questionable at best and so unfortunately we missed the first play on the Friday night. Our late arrival was to have ramifications further on down the line that resulted in half the group’s tickets being cancelled for the following 3 days of performances for reasons that weren’t really explained. The whole organisation of the festival was not the best and lead to some incredibly frustrating experiences. Fortunately the wonderful people I was with have a way of transforming negative experiences into things you can laugh about, this included the renaming of the Hospitality Desk to the Hostility Desk thanks to the rudeness of the staff when the desk was actually open. Then there was the official FEATS party on the Saturday night which was held at a tennis club that could only be accessed by a non lit pathway. To help the party goers stumbling around in the dark find the place, they put this sign on the pitch black pathway.

Actual size

The only reason we even saw it is that a bunch of us had our iPhone torches turned on. This sign became a running joke of the rest of the festival.

The plays performed at FEATS were a real mixed bunch. Half of the twelve entries were self-written and most, unfortunately, failed to make the desired impact. The saving grace of the event was the adjudicator. After every night’s performances she would read out her thoughts and comments on the night’s offerings. She was blessed with the gift of making great constructive criticism about even the weakest of the plays and often pointed out elements that I missed or would not have thought to describe in the way she did. It was an absolute pleasure listening to her and I learnt so much about stagecraft.

Our group didn’t perform until the last night which made a somewhat nerve-wracking wait. Our entry was the European premier of David Auburn’s newest play Amateurs. Even though I am most definitely biased, the performance was truly amazing and I was very honoured to do my small part as the sound technician. We came away with 1st place and also Best Actress, making it a very successful FEATS.

I can’t wait for next year when FEATS will be in Hamburg and hosted by my theatre company. We have so much work to do before then, but I can’t think of a more awesome group of people to do it with.

*Post title comes from my favourite line of dialogue of the whole of FEATS from the play The extraordinary revelations of Orca the goldfish

Planten un Blomen

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I took advantage of the nice weather we are currently having in Hamburg (a rarity it must be said) and once again took my new camera out for a test drive – this time to the park Planten un Blomen. On the way there, I was lucky enough to see this mother swan and her babies swimming down one of the many canals in Hamburg.

Mother and babies

My goal at Planten un Blomen was to practice landscape and nature shots.

Deck chairs

Ball of flowers

Lake at Planten un Blomen

But when I got to the lake a Toy Boat Enthusiast Club were there showing off their boats and I couldn’t resist capturing them in action.

Toy Tugboat

Toy Sailboat

Toy Boat #2

After shooting the boats for almost an hour, I wandered over the tranquil Japanese gardens

Japanese Pergoda

Japanese Gardens

This photography thing is becoming rather addictive and honestly is a really enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.  I ended up taking 439 photos of which only 30 were, in my opinion, worthy enough to be uploaded to Flickr. I still have so much to learn about photography, which I’m starting to think that like learning German will be a lifetime endeavour.

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Himmelfahrt at Ohlsdorfer Friedhof

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Today is Himmelfahrt (Ascension Day) which is a public holiday across all of Germany. Himmelfahrt also doubles as Father’s Day which men (fathers or not) celebrate by wandering around the woods with their friends getting drunk. Since I’m not male, I decided to spend my Himmelfahrt wandering around the Ohlsdorfer Friedhof to test my brand new camera, a Panasonic Lumix FZ200. Ohlsdorfer Friedhof is the world’s largest park cemetry and covers a massive 391 hectares. It is is so big that it has two bus lines to help people get around. I spent 4.5 hours there and only saw a very small fraction of the cementry. However, it was a fantastic location to play around with my new camera and I can see myself spending much more time there in the future.

Just look how gorgeous it is (click to enlarge the photos).

Graveyard

Group of graves

On my wanderings I ended up at the Kinderbegräbnisstätte (Children’s graveyard). It was the most depressingly beautiful part of the cementy and the place I took, in my opinion, my best photos.

Bears on a child's grave

Sleeping angel child

Toy dog on a grave

Child's grave #4

Toy cars on a grave

I have many more photos over on my Flickr page.

After playing around with my camera all day, I am beyond pleased with it and all it can do. It will be a great camera for me to learn more about the art of photography and hopefully improve my skills. Also, it has some really lovely in-built creative retouches so that you can make your photos look like this, if desired.

A wreath on a grave

 

 

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The End Of An Era Of Sorts

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One of the very first things I did on arriving in Germany was enrol in German lessons.  For the past 3.5 years every Tuesday and Thursday evening I have been in German class. But last Tuesday evening was my last class….. for now. The next 3 months are jam packed for me and unfortunately don’t allow me to attend class regularly.  I could have kept going to class when I had the time but after continous classes for the last 3.5 years, let’s face it, I was due for a break. I have gone from a raw beginner who couldn’t even string a basic sentence together through to being conversational. However, my German is far from perfect or even remotely fluent, even though technically I am at the end of C1.

To be honest, I find it a little daunting to no longer be going to class.  It has been a routine and a structure for pretty much my entire life here in Germany. I’m sure I will definitely notice its absence when my life settles down, which should be around August. I’m going to have to keep up my studies so I don’t lose what I have gained.  Some of that will be just keeping on doing the things I already do like reading books in German, watching TV in German and having regular conversations in German, but I will need to get strict with myself and force myself to do grammar exercises regularly. I’m also hoping with some more free time I’ll be able to do more activities like getting back into my martial arts, which will, of course, be done in German. I guess this is the stage where I move from focusing on learning German to just using it in my daily life.

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The Truth About Customer Service In Germany

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Credit: : zachtrek

Customer service in Germany gets a pretty bad rap.  There are thousands of blog posts, forums posts and social media updates about how terrible customer service is here and how rude everyone working in any customer service position is. From my experience, the truth is far different. I feel that these negative views about customer service come mainly from Americans who haven’t experienced customer service in any other country but here in Germany and in the US. American customer service is far different from the customer service in my home country of Australia and that I’ve experienced in my travels around the world. People working in customer service in the US are desperately trying to prove that they are providing good customer service that they go a little overboard.  As soon as you walk into a shop you are besieged by someone whose face is plastered with a huge fake smile asking you a million questions about what you are seeking.  I find it extremely overwhelming to be honest. Here in Germany, people let you shop in peace.  If you want to know something, you find someone and ask. That tends to be perceived as bad customer service by those knowing no different than the US model.

To be honest, and again these views come only from my personal experiences, customer service in Germany is pretty good.  Yes, of course, you encounter a whole range of people working in customer service from the extremely helpful and friendly to the downright rude and insulting but that is the same as in any other country. On the whole, people here are willing to help you if you don’t be demanding or rude. There is some negativity if you refuse to speak any German and insist on only speaking English. But let’s be real here, would you expect in the US a minimum wage worker to be able to speak a second language? Then why do you expect it here in Germany? Yes, kids do get taught English at school but it doesn’t mean that they actually learn how to speak it with any great deal of confidence, if at all. Use what German you do know and try and laugh off your mistakes or at least don’t get visibility upset or stressed about it and the customer service you get back will be a thousand times better than if you insist on speaking English. Hell, I even had a running joke that lasted for months on end with my local bakery staff that stemmed from my colossal language fuck-up when ordering one day. Germans get how hard their language is to learn and they will, on the whole, give you a lot of patience and understanding (and sometimes help) if you just give speaking it a go. If you are a regular there, they will also remember you, especially if you are the only one who speaks German with an accent and you can build up a really friendly rapport. I have inadvertently trained four different sets of bakery staff over the years to remember my breakfast order including the current dour-faced grumpy one who will even grace me with a rare smile that the German customers most definitely do not get. Seriously, a smile and a friendly attitude will get you better customer service than a frown and being a bitch will.  Germans service staff are not required to be nice to you like the poor sods working in the US are.  If you treat them rudely they will not hesitate to do the same.

Ok, one last story cause this really blew me away. Just this week I dropped a prescription to the pharmacy and one of the drugs I required was no longer available.  Not only did the pharmacist ring me to tell me, they also called the manufacturer of the drug, who was located in Austria, to find out why they were no longer making the drug and then, unbeknownst to me at the time, also called my doctor to let him know. Therefore when I turned up at the my doctor’s all ready to explain the whole story, he was already in the know and had a solution ready.  Now that is beyond good customer service.

Good customer service exists in Germany but you have to be a good customer in order to receive it.  Remember always be friendly, patient and understanding to the person behind the counter. Yes, this is just common decency but you would be surprised at the number of people who forget to do it. Speak as much German as you able to and don’t get upset if you screw up. In fact laughing at your mistakes will more often than not earn you a friend behind that counter for as long as you shop there. Yes, the level of customer service you receive here may be different to the level of customer service you get back home, but it is just different not worse.  Also, keep in mind that assholes exists everywhere in this world and are not confined to a certain nationality.

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How I Got Here or How Not To Move To A Foreign Country

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Coat of arms of Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg

Coat of arms of Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I realised that on this blog I have never done a full detailed explanation of how I ended up living and working in Hamburg, Germany.  Sure, I’ve had that conversation a million times in real life, but never bothered to put it all down in written form. So here it goes.

Way back in July 2010 I had a 10 year relationship come to an end and at that time I decided to do something that I had wanted to do my entire life which was to live and work in a foreign country.  I was fortunate that I worked for a global company so I had the option to request an overseas posting if one became available and I did just that.  I fully expected to hear nothing back from my managers for a good 6-12 months, if ever. Therefore, I was blown away when I was asked the following day if I would be willing to move to Hamburg, Germany.  I was departing a few days later, coincidently to Cologne Germany, to compete in the Gay Games so my company gave me the 3 weeks I was away to think about it.  When arrived back in Australia at the end of August 2010, I told them that I was willing to move.  If my company had had their way, I would have been on a plane the following week, but since I was going through what essentially was a legal separation (ending a decade long relationship when you have shared assets is a messy thing), I asked them to give me 4 weeks in which to wrap things up and uproot my entire life.  BTW, four weeks is nowhere near long enough to do that, but in my nativity I didn’t know that.

I did all the things they tell you not to do when embarking on your expat journey. I didn’t do much research on the city I was moving to before I committed to moving there – what I knew about Hamburg was only what was on Wikipedia.  I didn’t bother learning the basics of the native language spoken there before I departed and my firm did not organise my visa before I left my home country (okay, that wasn’t my fault) but fortunately as an Australian citizen I could apply for a German work visa whilst in Germany, but the whole visa thing was touch and go and only got approved 4 days before my 3 month travel visa was set to expire.  The whole visa problem was why I spent my first 6 months in Germany with only the things I could fit in the one single suitcase I brought over with me.  The rest of my belongings (well 5 boxes of them containing mostly books and DVDs) were only shipped over once my visa was approved.

Because I was doing the whole solo expat thing, I had no support system awaiting me in Germany – no helpful partner who could tell me how things work or help me navigate through the challenges of living in country where a foreign language is spoken nor an fellow ally to join me on my journey of adapting to life in a foreign country.  If I wanted to know how something worked, I had to find out by myself.  I will be eternally grateful to my German boss at the time for picking me up at the airport and taking me to the supermarket before dropping me off at my temporary accommodation, even though one’s first expose to a German supermarket should not be immediately after getting off a 26 hour flight. And to the wonderful WEBMU gang on Twitter for answering the thousand and one questions I had about German life and for helping me get health insurance when my company refused to offer any assistance claiming it was a ‘private decision’.  You guys did and continue to make my life here so much easier.

Despite this chaotic and ill-prepared start, my life in Germany has been one of the best experiences of my life.  Almost four years on, I feel I’m finally starting to get the hang of things here and I have no plans to move on. However, I did get lucky. Things could have (& perhaps should have) gone very wrong. That’s not to say things here have been easy.  These last 3.5 years have probably been the most challenging years of my life, but my determination not to throw it all in and return back to Australia is paying off. In fact, I think I would find a life that was easy quite boring now. I rarely have a single day where I am not doing or learning something new, whether that is trying to explain a complex medical issue in German or trying to work out how to negotiate a new cultural situation or learning that my dishwasher was supposed to be regularly topped up with salt for these past 3 years (whoops!).

Expat life is exciting, challenging, chaotic and exhilarating and is most definitely not for the faint hearted.  I would recommend it to anyone who wants to experience a new way of living their life.  However, don’t go about it the way I did.  Learn from my mistakes.  Actually do some research and preparation before you make the leap as it will make for a softer landing.  Then again, if you want to challenge yourself, then I can totally recommend my way of doing it.

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