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Six months in: Finding our feet

Six months in: Finding our feet

We’ve been living in Germany for six months now, and it feels like we’re finding our feet. Our son has settled into school well, and the German words are flowing a bit more often (as are his corrections to our German!). Letters from the bank are less confusing, and I’m pretty good when faced with a wall of German signage.

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Our German washing machine

It’s very isolating, walking around and not being able to exchange small talk with the person next to you in any way. I can make my way through most cashier interactions – asking for a bag, understanding how much things are (just about), and saying have a nice day and goodbye. If I have time to plan ahead, I will work out what I need to say but I get flustered very easily. It’s ridiculous, everyone is incredibly patient and friendly about my halting German. More than friendly, nearly everyone seems thrilled I want to learn. Of course, they also want to practice their English, so it can be a battle to get someone to keep speaking German with you.

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As the weather slowly warms up, I’ve noticed the tourists starting to appear. Our little city has nearly 12 million tourists come through every year, so by next month I expect to see many more. We spend most of our time outside the Altstadt where most people go, but it makes me smile seeing people standing on our bridge and taking photos. Even when they back into the bike lane. I swore in German the other day when it happened, so that’s a step forward I suppose!

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Flammkuchen, mid-devouring

The food thing has been the hardest adjustment. German food is very regional, so what you hear about as ‘German’ in other countries is often only a very small window into what’s available. Where we live, there is a lot of Flammkuchen, which you can get in France in the Alsace and Lorraine region as tarte flambé. It’s a kind of flatbread, baked in a wood-fired oven, with creme fraiche, lardons (bacon), and leeks or onions. It can be very rich, it’s not something I eat regularly. There are the sausages, of course, and there seems to be quite a bit of weißwurst around, the Bavarian white sausage. Frankfurt has a vinegary green sauce that they apparently put on everything, I quite like it really. Swabia has its own distinct cuisine, but they are a bit east of us, so I don’t think I’ve had proper Swabian food yet. Because we are so close to France, we get quite a few very good patisseries and cheese shops, one of which he asks to stop at every day on our bike ride home from school. He and I often have a dinner that mainly involves half a baguette each, smeared with good cultured French butter and sea salt, when my husband is away.

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Post-school quarkballchen break at the French patisserie

I end up making a sort of hybrid meal of things I’ve learned here, with what’s available, from recipes I know from living in Canada and the UK. Strange things are difficult to find: broccoli is often sitting yellow on the shelf, and if it is green, it turns yellow within a day when I get it home. The ubiquitous-in-Vancouver kale is not often in the shops either. Cabbage, of course, in many, many varieties, is everywhere and very fresh. I’ve adjusted to using Savoy cabbage in place of kale. We’re on the edge of a wonderful wine region, so I take every opportunity to try out the local product.

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Walking home from school

My son gets a hot lunch served at school, and occasionally I hear reports of potato dumplings or pancakes for lunch with ham and cheese in them. I’m pretty sure he’s had more of the local cuisine than we have.

I wonder sometimes, will he remember Canada if we stay here until he is older? I was keen for him to experience Canada when we moved from London back to Vancouver. We don’t know when we will go back, but I can easily imagine him turning 10 before we do so. Seven through ten are such formative years, how funny to think he will experience them here. As I watch distressing things happening in the news, I think it can only be a good thing to feel yourself a citizen of the world, and meet as many different people as you can when you’re young.

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Three tips for kids learning a foreign language

Three tips for kids learning a foreign language

My son is seven years old, and through various twists of fate he has attended an English language public school and a French immersion public school Canada, and now attends a German/English bilingual private school in Germany. We’ve gone through the language/school transition twice now, both with a major international move and without. While I’m not a speech pathologist, a teacher, or a child psychologist, I have gone through this as a parent a couple of times now. As we adjust to our new life in Germany, I was struck by how many similarities there are between our time settling in to French immersion school and German school.

Here are three things we’ve learned, living through this major change twice now.

3 tips for kids learning a foreign language

Ease into it.

If you have a few months to prepare, use them. Ask the school your child will be attending for some tips and resources in the target language. Download game-like apps to give your child a feel for the vocabulary (we love Gus on the Go in particular). Check the Netflix options for shows in the target language, but look for ones a few age levels younger so the speech is simpler. It’s ideal if it is a show your child likes and knows well already. Pinterest is great for language resources, and so is YouTube (here is my French immersion resources board, and my Learning German board). Obviously don’t throw it all in there at once, but try something every couple of days.

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Support, but don’t push it.

Once they start school, it’s tempting to try and speak to them in the target language (if you know it), or expect them to come home with new vocab every day. Don’t forget how exhausting learning a new language is – and if your child is staring in a new school in an immersion situation, they’re doing a new job in a new language too. Keep things as mellow and predictable as you can at home, and keep the extra curricular activities to a minimum until they settle in. Though, if there’s an activity they really love and feel confident doing, definitely go for that. Learning a new language can be a real knock to even confident kids, so anything that bolsters the ego is terrific.

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Give it time. Lots of time.

It may seem like they will never speak the language, or that nothing is going in, but be patient. With our son, it takes about six months before little words and phrases start popping out at random. If you can, spend some time learning the language too if you don’t already speak it, and ask them to help you. Kids love teaching their parents something. If you’re really concerned nothing is sticking, talk to their teacher. I really recommend waiting at least six months though – and know that speaking the language is one of the last things to come.

Have you made a language transition with your children? Any tips to share?

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Three months in Germany

Three months in Germany

It’s coming up on three months since we moved to Germany. We’re in our proper flat now, and are slowly unpacking, and possibly the more annoying part of the equation, recycling the boxes and paper.

I’m very glad we had moved to the UK first, because seven years there was like a crash course in dealing with bureaucracy. Now that we’re dealing with it here, in a different language, I am not surprised by any delays, or the random hours a given office or bank is open. Thankfully I’m not working at a traditional office job, so I can trundle around to the drivers license place at 10am on a Tuesday, to hear we need an eye test that no one told us about the first time. But at least I didn’t have to wait two hours in a queue to hear that.

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Things are both easier and harder, being in a medium-sized town rather than a big centre like Berlin or Munich. About 150,000 people live in our city, but it’s part of a long stretch of towns and cities around the rivers Rhine and Neckar, along with wineries and farms dotted all over. A smaller city means people are friendlier, but also means there isn’t a big English-speaking community. We’re not really into cloistering ourselves in an ‘expat’ community, though when there is a language barrier, it can be a bit harder to make friends. Our German is improving slowly, even before we’ve started lessons – Christopher and I managed to buy three carpets, and even get a couple cut to size and edged, all in German. Don’t ask me to say my phone number in German if you’re in a hurry though, it takes me nearly 2 minutes to get it all out.

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Expat Tips for Families: Before You Go

Expat Tips for Families: Before You Go

Having relocated to England, moved back to Canada, and now preparing for our second relocation, this time to Germany, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned, though this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. There’s no substitute for talking to other expats about their experiences, so take note of number three and join some online groups!

Expat Tips for Families: Before You Go - Erin at Large

Research schools early – and decide if you’re going international or local

This was a big headache in our latest relocation to Germany. Our son was going into Grade 2 in Canada, in French Immersion. School fees weren’t covered in our relocation package, and the average International School (a school run on American curricula, and entirely in English) costs about 15k-25k a year per child in Europe. However, if your children are young, and you are going to be staying in this new city for awhile it’s worth researching your options. We found a private bilingual German/English school that runs the German curriculum, for a fraction of the cost of International School, plus our son learns German. If they are preschool or kindergarten age, it’s worth going the local (and free) route. Added bonus: they can translate for you in the grocery store until your own language gets up to speed.

Get an after-tax take-home salary estimate from your employer

It’s tough to figure out what your actual take-home pay will be when you’re talking about a country whose tax system you are unfamiliar with. You should be able to get an fairly accurate estimate of your take-home pay from your HR department. Things like pension schemes and mandatory deductions are hard to predict ahead of time. Getting an accurate take-home salary number makes it much easier to budget ahead, and figure out things like what kind of school fees you can afford, what you can rent, and all that stuff.

Don’t just throw out all your stuff

I can tell you from experience, you will end up re-buying half of it on the other side. By all means, do a thorough stocktake, and use this time to figure out what you really love, but don’t go crazy getting rid of everything. If you’re paying for your own shipping, question your shipping company thoroughly about price bands – partial container shipments are available, and sometimes it depends on weight and cubic dimensions, but not always. Sit down and do the math about what it will cost to replace things on arrival compared to shipping it. We have done this process both ways: paid container shipping and paying for it ourselves. In both cases, we wished we had shipped more of our things. If you’re not paying, ship everything you may think you need, even if you’re not sure (except electronics – see below!). It’s worth noting that if you’re shipping your belongings in a container, the shipping people will pack it for you. They don’t want you claiming insurance on broken dishes because you can’t pack well. It’s glorious having them do it though. It will spoil you for intracity moving forever.

Join as many expat groups as you can find

Search Facebook for ‘Expats in xxx’ for local groups, and often your own searches for other things around your new city will pop up with expat forums. A good one is InterNations, they have volunteer on-the-ground reps that organize events in many big cities around Western Europe. It’s a good place to get hooked up with another expat’s furniture as they move to another location.

Start figuring out which of your electronics work

Make a spreadsheet. This sounds ridiculous, but when you start walking around your place and looking at all the things you use that plug in, this rapidly becomes less silly. Check every device to see if it is dual voltage. Most devices with a big chunky block on the power cord are – things like computers are usually dual voltage. Most small kitchen appliances are not. If you’re going from 110v (North America) to 220v (Europe) you will fry anything that isn’t dual voltage. Literally, smoke comes out and everything. You can get step-down converters, which are very different from adapters and expensive, that allow you to get a North American plug straight into a European socket. All of which are different by the way, so you’re going to want to check. Eventually, you can get European power adapters for things like camera battery chargers, computers, and other dual voltage electronics. Big items like KitchenAid mixers and food processors with big motors are a lost cause however. The motor is so powerful, it will need a giant, expensive, and noisy converter to function, and most people say it’s not worth it.

Know some things will go wrong

No matter how many spreadsheets you make, schedules you prepare, and forums you read – things will go a bit pear-shaped at some point. You will sit on the bathroom floor of your new apartment, and wonder what the hell possessed you to move so far away. You’ll have a wobbly in the grocery store trying to figure out where things are. It’s fine. You’ll also have incredible moments when it seems unreal you’re living here. It’s a grand adventure.

Any other tips you’d like to share?

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The next move: Germany

Our amazing neighbourhood in Heidelberg

For someone who doesn’t like to travel, I move a lot.

Back and forth across Canada a couple of times, then to England for seven years, and then back to Vancouver for five years, and in a little over two months we’re moving to Germany.

We’re lucky in that both our move to England and this move to Germany has been through relocation programs with my husband’s company. Though the first time we did this, we were in our mid-twenties. Now we’re older, and have a child. A few more moving parts to the whole thing.

I had never been to Germany when I said yes to this move. After many years in England, I knew a little bit what to expect. And the opportunity to live in Europe again, for our son to live there and gain a wider understanding of the world – it was just too good to pass up. I am again giving up a job and a network. My mum is here. You would think, as a person with anxiety issues, doing something as bonkers as volunteering to move across the world to a country I have never seen that speaks a language I don’t know would be completely off the table.

Trust me, there are moments my anxiety takes over and I think I must be completely nuts to do this. But I think that’s normal human anxiety talking, rather than my extra special brand of worrying.

Somehow, this is okay. More than okay, an adventure. So follow along as we prepare for yet another giant move, and I fill you in on our second round expat journey.

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