“Schönes Wochenende!” I said to my friend as we parted ways.
“Huh?” they replied
“Schöoooneeees Woch-en-ende!” I said more slowly.
“What does that mean?”
I tried to hide my puzzled face that was a dead giveaway to my thoughts, how long have you lived in Germany, again? How do you not know this?
“Oh, um… it means have a good weekend, directly translated to “beautiful weekend” in German. It’s a common goodbye phrase to say over the weekend.”
“Right, ok, well have a good weekend,” they said and we parted ways.
I remember the first time I heard that phrase, my heart was thumping a million miles per hour as the line in the super market got longer and longer behind me. Germans were staring at the back of my head. I could feel their judgment boring through me like drills. I was sure they were all thinking, this silly American was holding up their weekend shopping. I dared not make eye contact. They watched me fumble with my produce, like an animal at the zoo.
Wait, I’m supposed to bag my own groceries, in a bag I don’t have? There is no way I can bag this all myself. I should have got half the food. Why don’t I have a bag?
I cut back behind the line to where the bags for purchase hung then fought my way back. I threw the bag on the belt adding it to my items to purchase. I heard mumbling behind me.
What is the cashier saying to me? Omg she probably thinks I am really dim. Close your mouth, Susanna, and stop just staring at her. Just nod or say no, just DO something. Pretend like you know what you’re doing.
Shit, wrong answer, they want a signature. I can’t say no to that, stupid. Shit- they want it on the back of the receipt. How the hell would I know that? Fuck, another question?
Yes, right answer! Woo!
I’m pretty sure I was dropping produce all over and still trying to bag my items when I heard “Schönes Wochenende!” on my way out the door. That was the first pleasant sounding phrase anyone said to me since I arrived in Germany. I wondered what it meant. I went home and looked it up. It became ammo in my slow to increasing German phrase book.
After that experience, it would have been easy to bury my head in the sand. Find a group of Americans to whinge about German culture with, to speak English with and to avoid all the hardships of being an “expat” with. I’m not hating on the people that do this. I get it, life in a foreign country is HARD and no matter what, you always need a little bit of home with you, but this concept of burying my head in the sand wasn’t for me. You can only avoid this for so long, so why not immigrate and integrate, became a Zuwanderer.
Zuwanderer directly translates to an immigrant without German parents, living in Germany. Another word that is more common to use is Aüslander. Aüslander can carry a negative connotation for some and while I stood in the Aüslander line when I applied for my visa, I identify with the word Zuwanderer. Perhaps it is because I myself am a bit of a wanderer.
To start: There is a lot of debate back and forth regarding the difference between an expat and a Zuwanderer. Some divide it between money, jobs classification, the length of stay or if they came by choice or not. I, however, generally group those that are defined as expats into two categories, how small minded of me, I know; Those that are here temporarily (6 mo-1 year) to party or act as endless tourists and those that move indefinitely, but never acclimate to the culture and live in an expat bubble. So, for this post, those are the definitions I go by, to define myself as a terrible expat. If you do not fit into my two categories I would consider you as well a zuwanderer.
Munich is a notoriously difficult place to integrate. The locals are known to be a bit closed off. If you don’t do it their way, you can take the highway. This has understandably created an expat bubble in both categories. I watched groups of expats I know get together and just party every weekend. They would get drunk, rampage like tourists, disrespecting laws, being loud, and invasive. They would complain about needing German language skills to work, that college wasn’t as free as it seemed, there was lots of red tape, the super market, the banking system, the constant judgment from locals, receiving mail in German, finding a place to live… the list goes on. They get trapped in their comfort zone, refusing to learn simple phrases and embrace the negative along with the positives of living in a foreign country. I’ve seen countless people come, call life in Munich too hard after refusing to put in the effort, and leave.
I would meet expats whom would latch on to me, knowing we weren’t compatible enough to be friends, but they were so terrified to go outside on their own, they needed me. They needed someone. They thought they could bring me into their expat bubble with them and we would cling to each other while the world went on around us. All while I was thinking. We have nothing in common, we would never be friends back home, why should we now? Grade A bitch, I know.
Sure, I gripe about some of the above, I mean really, who needs 15 letters a day from their bank, no one, that’s who. And I’ll be the first to admit the first 3 months were hard, really hard. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it and the worst part was not having a support system in Munich. That alone is enough to push anyone into an expat bubble. Having a sense of community and home is important, but, I moved here for a reason and that reason was to experience a different life. I had always wanted to live in Europe, and I was doing it. I didn’t want to live the same life I lived in the U.S., just in another country. So, I picked myself up and tried.
Determined to not be “that girl at the supermarket” I enrolled in intensive German classes. Monday through Friday for five hours a day. For three months I went to German. I wanted to pull my hair out. I wanted to scrape the ridges of my brain off, but I did it. I made friends with people from all over the world. I strived to make genuine connections and develop friendships with a variety of people. However, there were still periods where I felt very lonely and isolated.
I had several people tell me to go to expat meet ups and social events, life would be much easier if I did. My inner introvert shuddered at the thought of going to a place filled with people desperate for friends, desperate enough to put on a mask just to share company with someone who spoke their own language and shared their own culture. This sounded like a terrible group date combining everything I hate about dating and making friends into one awkward sushi burrito. I can find friends with common interests on my own and if I can’t, well then, I am happy doing things on my own!
To this day, I’ve never been to an expat meet up or event. I’m not stating if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s a thing. Maybe I should have gone and pushed myself from my introverted bubble, but I made friends regardless. I do activities regardless. So, I am not sure I missed out on much. And you know what? Maybe the German culture is set up for independent introverts like myself and perhaps I would be pushed into the bubble if I was less confident doing things on my own, but that’s a reflection for a different day.
I still find ways to celebrate my heritage though, as most people do. I don’t deny the importance of this. My partner and I still cook a Thanksgiving dinner with friends and carve pumpkins on Halloween. I celebrate Australia day, with my Australian partner, and we dress up in red, white and blue light up flags on the 4th of July and head down to the river and make a fool of ourselves. When I go out in public I am still the loudest and most colorful person around. I speak English with my English speaking friends, but I also speak German with them. I have friends who don’t speak any English and we struggle through German together. I signed up to volunteer to help traumatized refugees in a program all in German. I watch TV in German and listen to German radio. I go out and explore the culture and surrounding nature on my own. I cut through the red tape with a binder full of official documents and a laugh hidden inside. I think being a Zuwanderer in a foreign country, is about finding that right balance or honoring and preserving your heritage and traditions of home, but getting out of the bubble and embracing your new life to make the best of it.
Overall, I would say I am settling into life in Munich quite well; that I’m a decent Zuwanderer. Slowly over time, my super market trips became easier and while I still get judgmental stares, I can at least hold my own in Munich and most of all I LOVE it here and feel at home, annoying quirks and all.
I would like to acknowledge that I came here by choice and I am aware I come from a place of privilege to easily make the best of life here. I know Germany, in particular, has had a huge influx of peoples who have not come by as free of choice as I have and I respect them and their determination at integrating into life here in Germany, they are doing wonderfully. This post was intended to shed light on what I consider the toxic expat bubble create by others who also come from a place of privilege and move to Germany on their own accord. This post it not meant to pass judgement on lifestyles that vary from my own, but simply to reflect on my own experiences.