This is the fifth post in the new series called “What’s It Like to Live in .. ?” about expat life in countries around the world. Today we travel to Europe where Elsa shares what it’s like to live in the small city of Bonn, Germany: the challenges of learning German, the German daycare system, tips for visiting Germany, and much more. Thanks, Elsa!
My name is Elsa. I’m a 38-year-old Spaniard. I live in Bonn, Germany with my husband Michael (he is German) and our 20-month daughter Lucia. Before moving to Germany in December 2012, I lived eight years in Miami, FL. I write a lifestyle blog called Café Society XXI where I channel my passion for writing and document my personal experiences and interests. I’m pretty active on Instagram too.
On the decision to move to Germany:
Back in 2011, I spent the July 4th weekend in Niagara Falls. I happened to meet a German guy there. A casual conversation between two solo travelers, turned into a long-distance relationship (Miami-Bonn). After one and a half years of transoceanic trips –usually every three months- and daily calls and chats, I took the leap and moved to Bonn with Michael. I was happy, excited and terrified (I didn’t speak a word of German!).
I decided to maintain a ‘divide-and-conquer’ approach: On one hand I was fortunate to have such a kind, wonderful man by my side. On the other hand, I would have to build my new life from the ground up: new language, new friends, new job… This part could bring frustrations and disappointments along the way which, under no circumstances, should affect my relationship with Michael.
This strategy has worked out for me so far: Michael is my rock, and his support, love and encouragement are everything. As for the second part, of course, there were some bumps on the road, but they have brought us closer as a couple. And at the end, everything turned our just fine.
On first impressions of expat life in Germany (and how they’ve changed):
I always knew that not speaking German was going to make some things harder. But at the beginning I focused most of my energy on other fronts: my relationship with Michael and my job. Moving in together is a huge step for every couple. Imagine for us!
During the first year, I worked as a freelancer for my US employer (I was account executive for an international media agency). On weekends we would hang out with his friends, who welcomed me with open arms, watch series or explore the scenic surroundings with the bikes. Looking back I see the first year as the perfect transition between my past life in the States and new life in Bonn.
The worst part was the isolation and frustration coming from not following conversations in German. I took a few language courses. But it was not enough.
Aside of the language issue, things were looking up for Michael and me.
The second year I landed a job in Düsseldorf, 50 miles away from Bonn. I was commuting almost four hours a day, but it was worth it. My colleagues were terrific too. After a couple of months in the new job, I discovered we were pregnant (!), a dream come true for us. I lived my pregnancy with extreme joy, but also with anxiety –how was I going to be able to keep the work-family balance with such a big commute?!
During the last weeks of my pregnancy, my insecurities about my poor German skills reemerged. I would freak out every time I was missing things on conversations with the midwife or doctors. Our daughter Lucia was born on November 28, 2014. The birth was totally uncomplicated and our baby was healthy. Life was really good.
A few months before the end of my maternity leave, my then company launched voluntary –and quite generous- layoff packages due to internal restructuring. I knew it was the perfect opportunity to focus once and for all on improving my German. And I could spend more time with Lucía. Win-win.
That summer Michael took a three-month paternity leave. We spent one month with my family in Spain, and the remaining two, I took intensive German courses. After two months of hard work (six hours a day), I obtained my B2 certificate. I felt as if my brain was completely reset auf Deutsch. The birth of my daughter and my considerable improvement with the German language made me reconnect with this country at a much deeper level.
As you could gather by now, my biggest frustrations were related to the difficulties of communicating/understanding in German.
On cultural differences:
I can’t think of anything particularly drastic. Lunch and dinner hours in the US and Germany are pretty similar, for instance. I guess that if I had come directly from Spain (we are notorious for having dinner very late!) the adjustment would have been bigger.
On making friends in another country:
I met very interesting people in my German courses. In my former job in Düsseldorf I left good friends too. I engage on friendly conversations with ladies at the gym, other mothers at Lucía’s daycare and at the Spielplatz (playground).
You should put yourself out there. Language courses are a great starting point. And also be patient. Everything takes time!
On daily life in Bonn, Germany:
My typical day has looked very different over the past years: from my home office days, to my job in Düsseldorf or the first months at home with Lucía.
At the moment, the alarm clock goes off at 7am and we get ready for the day. Michael and Lucía usually leave at 8am and he drops her off at the Tagesmutter (day care). I do my online course as Online Marketing Consultant at home from 8:30am to 12:30pm. I pick up Lucía at 2:30pm and then we run errands, go to the playground or hang out at the house. A couple of days per week, when Michael leaves the office, we meet in the city for coffee and then I head to the gym while he goes home with Lucía. Her bed time is around 7:30pm. After that, Michael and I have dinner and watch TV or I work my blog. We usually call it a day at around 11:30pm.
On the best things about life in Germany:
Germans are in general very outdoorsy and athletic. When the weather is nice, a lot of people can be seen running, riding bikes or in-line skating along the Rhine. That’s inspiring! Bonn surroundings are also pretty scenic too: vineyards along the Rhine, forests, mountains or middle-age castles peppered all around. They make for great weekend getaways. Also Cologne, one of the biggest cities in Germany, is only 20 minutes away by car. Most of all, I love the family and life that Michael and I are building together, along with our daughter Lucía.
And the challenges:
The language is my number one challenge. I’m already ahead of the curve, but still, it’s a work in progress. Conciliating motherhood and the pursuit of my professional ambitions is quite daunting too. But I’m optimistic. Things have always worked out.
Surprising things about living there:
- In our region North Rhine-Westphalia, Karneval is a really big deal. There are parades, music and beer everywhere. Everybody hits the streets wearing customes and sing karneval songs.
- Christmas markets are very pretty. They look like there’re straight from a fairy tale. I’m not sold on the Glühwein (mulled wine, warm wine) though.
- Germans are very good at drinking water, especially sparkling water, and recycling bottles. You get a 0.25 Euro-refund for each empty plastic bottle returned at the supermarket.
- The social security system is very strong: maternity/paternity leaves can go up to two years per kid (the first 14 weeks are fully paid, and then you can get 65% of your paycheck during the next 12 months, or half of that if you decide to extend it another year).
- I’m learning to appreciate German beers too. I enjoy a good Kölsch, a beer brewed in Cologne, especially after long bike rides.
On raising kids in Germany:
I’m really enjoying our time as family of three. With a 20-month girl, you see the world a bit through her eyes, I guess. The children day care situation in Germany is a little hairy though. The kid is entitled to get in on a public kita (Germany’s Kindergarten System) if they already turned two years old by the time the school year starts (August). Lucía will turn two in November this year, which means we have to wait until August 2017 to get in.
A great alternative to a Kita is a Tagesmutter-vater (German for Daymother-father). These people take care of a maximum of five kids each at their places. The system is run by Caritas and works really well.
We found a Tagesmutter for Lucía very fast. I like to call it a “kita boutique”: Two Tagesmutter work together in a 80 square meter apartment with a little garden. There are a total of ten kids between 7 and 30 months. Lucía started there a few weeks before turning one year, being the second youngest. The kids stay there from 8 am until 2.30pm. Lucía is really happy there. We hit the spot!
There are also so many playgrounds and parks in the city, that it’s really easy to get kids entertained on weekends. We can also chat with other parents. It’s nice and convenient!
What tips can you offer us for when we visit?
For culture, museums like Bundeskunsthalle for artistic exhibitions, Haus der Geschichte (Museum of History) and a tour of Beethoven’s house are a must-do. Bonn’s Opera presents great spectacles all year round. Eating in a real Brauerei, like Bönnsch is quite an experience too.
I love walking along the Rhine (a Rhine cruise is fun too!) and the Rheinaue (a huge park overlooking the river, which also makes for a perfect picnic location). The Kirschblüte Festival in April is fun and picturesque.
For hiking, the Siebengebirge, a hill range overlooking the Rhine, is perfect! We celebrated our wedding brunch at the Ölberg, the highest hill. You might want to drive to Köln to visit the jaw-dropping Kölner Dom (Cathedral) and do some shopping in Schildergasse, Ehrenstraße, Südstadt or the Belgian quarter.
On what’s next:
I’m excited about the future! Seeing our daughter growing happy and healthy makes everything so fun and interesting. I’m getting my IHK (Germany’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce) Certificate as Online Marketing Consultant next month and I’m considering some work projects. I’d like to keep growing my blog too.
Leaving Germany is not an option for us. We cannot wait to visit the States again, though. I have so many good memories from my time there. And friends and family too! My American Dream led me to Germany and I couldn’t be happier about how everything has worked out for us.
Thank you, Elsa!