Being Emily in Bavaria
“If cleanliness is next to Godliness, it's clear why the Pope also comes from Germany,” muses US expat Emily Rasch; just one of her many observations on her integration path into Bavarian culture.
When I moved to Germany, I really had little notion of what life here would really be like. Frequent visits, sometimes for a month or more, hadn't fully prepared me for life in Germany. I noticed then how traditional, conservative, and homogenous the German culture appeared, which became even more apparent when it was part of my daily life. At times it was a struggle --learning the language, finding certain ingredients, making friends, and getting accustomed to being the foreigner weren't so simple.
Navigating the tricky terrain and constantly being critiqued on virtually everything I did was a major adjustment. The locals’ emotional detachment and need to comment on my personal life was odd, especially because I continually tried to do things as they did and in their language. Sometimes it made me to wonder why I was trying so hard to communicate with people who treated me so poorly. I chalked it up to being out of their realm of understanding, because chances were good they had not lived outside their comfort zone; or perhaps they were so unhappy that belittling others made them happy.
Now when I speak German I'm often asked if I'm from Switzerland, which gives me a slight smugness when I correct people. They still don't seem to believe me when I tell them I'm actually American.
Over time, I've discovered shops and restaurants where friendliness and kindness are prevalent and I return again and again. After an extended absence from one of my favorite restaurants, the owner even asked where I'd been. It was nice to be missed. These small milestones make me feel fortunate to have two places to feel at home, both in the US and Germany. I often wish I could meld the two together.
Coming to terms with German culture
It always helps me to cope with my new and changing lifestyle by focusing on things that are in my control. I try to focus on the pretty and curious aspects of the culture and carve out a little place of my own. I set out to make it my personal mission to really grasp the intricacies, oddities, history, and beauty that Munich has to offer. Some days I feel like an anthropologist while I critically analyze the interesting facets of German (and in my case Bavarian) culture. I have a small notebook that I often carry to write observations before they become commonplace, as well as three constantly evolving lists: Love + Miss, Happy to Leave Behind, Looking Forward To. Each category helps me to focus on the positive aspects without glamorizing life in either country, although Germany's sheer amount of paid vacation days and ease of travel has the US beat by a long shot.
In Germany, there are aspects that I didn't initially understand and grew to love--such as stores being closed on Sundays, while others I am still trying to figure out-- like why I've found myself visiting five different grocery stores in one day, because they have such drastically different products. I've also learned how to cook reasonably well and with fresher products since there is a green grocer just around the corner from my apartment.
Sounding out my health
Visiting the doctor was also initially a big challenge and a quick way to experience some strong culture shock. I've learned that, although never having been pregnant, the German medical system loves ultrasounds. I've probably had at least five now. However, it's nice that health and thoroughness can go hand in hand, which is a new concept for me.
Cultural nuances, grumpy old people, and minor faults aside, the quality of life here is outstanding. We have natural beauty, incredible public transportation, more vacation days than most countries ever dream of, fantastic maternity and paternity leave, excellent social programmes, and stellar public health care. And if cleanliness is next to Godliness, it's clear why the Pope also comes from Germany.
Laughing it off
Having a sense of humour about the differences is also important. Sometimes I devise my own social experiments, just to see how people here react. Germans are often stereotyped as being punctual, precise, structured, and having a certain zeal for reserving beach chairs at 6 am while on vacation. There's nothing like making people get antsy by queuing up first to board an airplane or laying the kindness on ultra thick when strangers are so brusque.
I love the challenges I am faced with everyday, because even the seemingly small things turn into a big accomplishment. Each day there’s something new and it's incredible how much there is to learn. I still remember methodically rehearsing conversations in my head and thinking about interactions verbatim after the fact. Now I can be witty and not feel as though I constantly have to prove myself. I don't take things so seriously. In the grand scheme of things I'm dealing with problems of privilege and while not being understood can be difficult, I always remind myself that I'm at least giving people fodder for stories at the end of the day and rarely is it an issue that kindness and a smile can't help.
Emily Rasch is an American expat from Ohio who loves to travel. Visit her blog at http://munichbavaria.blogspot.com/
Photo Flickr © _M-j-H_
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.