Editor's Diary: New arrivals to the expat family

Editor's Diary: New arrivals to the expat family

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David Gordon Smith welcomes two new expat friends to Berlin as another chum leaves.

Expatica Germany has two new readers. My good friends Jo and Martin moved to Berlin from England last week and have already been scanning the pages of Expatica for help with finding a flat and dealing with all the charming German bureaucracy. (I hope their two kids will also become Expatica readers in due course--I will be cultivating what the Germans would call this Nachwuchsleserschaft.)

It is just as well that Jo and Martin have arrived, because my best friend in Berlin also happened to leave the city last week (so I suppose the net effect to the Expatica readership is actually one new reader). He didn't leave because he hates Jo and Martin, I hasten to add, but because the prospect of doing a post-doc at Stanford managed to lure him away from his Berlin life of freelance semi-employment (a livelihood which I'm sure is familiar to many expats in this cash-strapped city).

I don't need to tell Expatica readers that one of the drawbacks of expat life is the continuous ebb and flow of your social network. I remember the days when I had, oh, a good half dozen close friends in Berlin. Now they are scattered across the world, in Edinburgh (hi Ben and Dharshi), New York (hello Tom and Channing), Sacramento-en-route-to-Seattle (Tabitha and Hannes, how are you?) and New Zealand (hi Tanja, I promise I'll write soon). And now San Francisco. I know having friends in attractive cities around the globe is not necessarily a bad thing, but I'm glad that Jo and Martin have decided to move here, otherwise I really would be that sad individual which British people refer to as Billy No Mates.

I have to say I admire Jo and Martin's courage in upping sticks and coming here. When I moved to Berlin at the youthful age of 26, I thought nothing of throwing my possessions into a single suitcase and moving to a country where I knew precisely one person and a dozen words of the language. Now, at the ripe old age of 34 (readers over 50, feel free to laugh at my youthful folly at this point) I find the prospect far more daunting. Move country? Why, how would I transport my books? What about all those newspaper subscriptions and my Haftpflichtversicherung policy? And would my health insurance premiums go up? (Yes, is the short answer.)

At the same time, I am profoundly jealous of both them and the friend who is moving to San Francisco. Nothing compares with those first few weeks and months in a new country. The sense of freedom. The opportunity to re-invent yourself completely. The feeling that your new favourite restaurant or new best friend could be waiting just around the corner. The strangeness of it all, and the feeling of being alive that comes with having everything be new and being able to take nothing for granted. When you're dying to write everything down in your journal, except you never have time to write in your journal because you're so busy enjoying your new life.

The only thing that can compare to it is falling in love. And, like falling in love, the initial period has its shares of lows as well as highs, but it is still exhilarating. As Shakespeare famously said, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. To which I reply: it is better to have lived abroad and been forced to flee after being caught by the German pension authorities, than to never have left the country.

I think for those of us who choose to move to a new country, this experience is one of the main attractions. And, like falling in love, it can be addictive. I've met people, usually career English teachers, who have moved countries several times, never staying in one place for more than a couple of years. And, like those people who are always seeking the thrill of the new in the realm of romance, these country-hoppers often appear to be slightly lost and unhappy individuals.

Even for those of us who prefer national monogamy, this initial stint in the country - it is no coincidence that it is often referred to as the 'honeymoon' period - is one of the most exciting and memorable times of our lives. However, like a honeymoon, it cannot last forever and sooner or later this amazing, thrilling, fascinating new land turns into The Place Where You Live.

Which is the situation I am now in after eight years in Germany. When I'm going about my daily business, I no longer consciously think of myself as living in Germany or Berlin. I am just in The Place Where I Live, which I don't even necessarily think of as having a name, I take it so much for granted.

At the same time, just as a long-term relationship has different pleasures from the inital infatuation, it is also enjoyable to live abroad even once the first thrill has passed. You may not be going around with an open mouth at the strangeness of it all, but at least you can read a newspaper without looking up every second word and hold a conversation with the bloke in the grocer's shop. And you might even feel that you are beginning to understand the country and its inhabitants.

And at least I can share my friends' experience vicariously. As I help them look for a flat and sort out their paperwork, I see Berlin and Germany through their eyes, and, as the famous expat Picasso once allegedly said about the function of art, a little bit of the dust of daily life is washed off my soul. Which I suppose is what living abroad is all about.

David Gordon Smith / Expatica

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