Sixteen months we’ve lived here, nearly a year and a half. We’ve acclimatised in some ways, and are still figuring it out in others. I meant to write an update on our one-year anniversary, but it didn’t feel right yet.
I’ll answer some of the questions I get a lot… and you can add any others in the comments below.
So, are you fluent now?
Ha, no. I can order food, sort out problems with a delivery person, ask questions in a shop, have a short conversation with my neighbours, and give directions. Conversations longer than ten minutes means I am struggling, and I still flounder around trying to respond. I understand much more than I can respond to right now, which is the normal progression of learning another language. Is it hard? No, not really. It takes constant practice and work, and a willingness to learn. There are many things about German that are similar to English. Obviously being in Germany makes it much easier, because I’m hearing and using it all the time.
Probably the biggest difference now, to say, a year ago, is my accent is better and people are willing to speak to me longer in German. I’m in no way coming across as a local, but I think I sound more competent.
My son, on the other hand, is much more fluent. Just the other week he ran up to some kids in a museum play area and spent 20 minutes playing in German. His German reading is great, possibly ahead of his English reading. He has some good friends who don’t speak much English at all, which is a real step forward as previously his friends were all English native speakers. Doing his homework with him has been like another German class for me, as he’s working on a lot of grammar things I haven’t learned yet in my classes. Tellingly, he only knows the names for nouns and verbs in German right now. My favourite things are the words he only says in German: ‘mittel’ for middle, ‘milch’ for milk. Even in the middle of English sentences.
The private language classes that were part of our relocation package from my husband’s company are ending soon, and I’ll be starting some online courses on my own.
And do you like the food now?
The one thing I mentioned at the six month mark that was not my favourite was the food here. The thing with living in a smaller town is the lack of dining out options. Heidelberg is lovely in so many ways, but the restaurant scene is not all that diverse. There are a few nice traditional German places with Flammkuchen, Schnitzel, and Käsespätzle, a couple decent places to get a burger, some fancier places for a celebratory meal – but outside that, well, it’s not great. That’s been good financially, as it means we’re not eating out constantly, but sometimes I want to have takeout that isn’t pizza.
Finding diverse ingredients is a bit of challenge too. Your average German grocery store in our town is great for cheese, sliced meats, and every kind of preserved vegetable in a jar. Kale? No. Broccolini? No. Fresh coriander? Sometimes. Salsa? One kind. I’m not trying to recreate the cuisine of the old country, but it was a struggle initially recalibrating my usual go-to recipes when any kind of Mexican ingredient requires special ordering online, and all the cuts of meat are not only called something different, but are not the same cuts at all. I do still find it challenging that you can’t buy a package of chicken thighs (quarters only!). Obviously moving from a coastal city to somewhere practically smack in the middle of mainland Europe is a bit of an adjustment too, as I was used to eating much more seafood and fish than I do now.
So I subscribed to a bunch of German recipe sites, bought food magazines, and learned to make some more local recipes. Pork is everything in this region, which is good because we all like it. We’re right in the middle of lots of farms here, so we can buy straight from them farmers through their shops or their excellent vending machines. Compared to Canada, the grocery prices here are incredibly low. I am buying locally, and in some cases bio (organic) as well, and it’s a third less than I would have paid in Vancouver.
My love for German cakes is never ending, of course. I have always loved a good cream-based cake, and that’s a popular format here. Your average German cake tastes about half as sweet as any North American equivalent, and it is so perfect. I feel like I’m tasting the cream and fruit instead just SUGAR.
Have you made friends?
Ah, this is a tough one. I have a few good friends, mostly other parents from my son’s bilingual school and a friend of a friend. But I am pretty lonely. I knew this was coming – when we moved to London it took a few years before we found our people. But knowing it conceptually and dealing with the reality is two different wurst entirely. I am grateful for the community of English-speaking German people on Twitter who are always around for a good chat. This is one of the reasons I am so keen to get my German up to speed, I really want to be able to meet people here and take classes and all that. As we’re here long term, the expat community are not really my speed. They are much more rooted in their home country and talk a lot about when they go back ‘home’, and don’t seem to settle down here much. It’s understandable, they are often only here for two or three years. But we’re just not on the same page at all.
Our neighbours have made a big difference too. We have been so incredibly lucky in our housing situation. Not only did we land in a spectacular neighbourhood just a short walk from the river and one of the best playgrounds in the city, but our flat is huge and super affordable. This did not guarantee good neighbours, and I have heard some horror stories – from both Germans and non-Germans. Both our upstairs and downstairs neighbours are lovely older folks who routinely invite us over for a glass of wine or tea, and they are the sweetest. I genuinely love chatting with them, even if it stretches my German skills to the limit.
I know I will get there and make friends eventually, I just have to hang in there and keep working on my language skills.
Do you like Germany?
This is a hard one, because the longer I live here the more layers I find to this country. From the outside looking in, we tend to think things or foods or people are ‘German’, but in reality, this is a very fractured and very young nation. The regions have identities that are so strong, internally they can override national identity easily. Bavaria, for instance, was a kingdom unto itself for hundreds of years before there was a Germany, and they have their own Bavarian language, which is technically a German dialect but… yeah. This is not even taking into account the more recent split of West and East Germany, which also carries with it massive differences in culture and behaviour. So, do I like Germany? Yes, I really do, but I only know my little south-western corner of it, living in a mid-sized university town. I don’t live in the Bavarian heartland of Munich, nor am I up north in complicated and cool Berlin. It’s a massive country with so many fascinating distinct identities within it, I feel saying something like ‘I don’t care for German food’ is doing an incredible disservice to this place. We are starting to explore further and further afield here, and we’re enjoying it so much.
There are little things I love, like the way loads of people bring beautiful wicker baskets to do their shopping in – not just at the weekly markets but also in the grocery store, the corners of farmers’ fields dedicated to pick your own flowers, the prevalence of farm-side vending machines for everything from fruit and vegetables to jam and milk, and the fact that I see 75-year-olds cycling around with their newspaper clamped on their rear rack, a beret on their head, and a pipe in their mouth. Literally, there’s a guy in the neighbourhood who does this.
Tell me, what do you want to know about living here?