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.