One Sunday, I was visiting my grandparents and, over dinner, I told them the news that I'd accepted a job in Germany and would be moving there the following week.
"Germany?" replied my grandma, as if struggling to match the name to an old acquaintance, "G-E-R-M-A-N-Y?"
"Yes, Germany. You know. Those people who always beat us at foot--"
"But, I don't understand," my grandma interrupted, "what's wrong with England?"
I didn't know something needed to be wrong with it for me to want to leave it. I liked it well enough. It was fine. All I knew, really. I wasn't moving to Germany because I thought it would be better, I was moving there because I knew it would be different.
Now, some ten years of self-imposed exile later, I could list fifty things I find really strange about England. In many ways, this was one of the early surprises about moving abroad: the first thing you discover is not so much a new culture, that comes later. Instead you rediscover your own culture reflected back in the mirror of this new adopted one. Until you move abroad, you never really have enough distance from it. Sometimes a relationship has to end before you have the clarity to see what it was so good, bad, and just plain weird about it. Why do we Brits make so much small talk? What do we drink so much and so quickly? Why are we so in love with subtext? Why can so few of us pronounce “th” correctly? There was suddenly a lot to fink about.
And that same attention you give to your new culture. Lucky for me, it turned out that Germany was not only different, but I also liked it better, on the whole. The experience has convinced me that everyone should try living abroad, should they be lucky enough to have the chance (fuck you, Brexit). Why? Well....
My first year in Germany was easily the best of my life. I bounced around in a happy little foreign ball of well-meaning naiveté. I was always out of my comfort zone. I talked to everybody I met, albeit, clumsily and not always using words they understood. I befriended anybody who spoke to me for more than ten seconds. I needed them; I was lonely. Anytime anyone invited me to do anything, I said yes, because it was better than sitting at home on my own every night. I ended up in all kinds of strange places, some I liked and some I hated, like when I was invited to spend an evening with "sound enthusiasts" listening to the sound of boats creaking, which they had recorded at a local harbour. I fell asleep. Probably someone recorded my snoring for the next week's session. I still cherish all the memories, good and bad, because they're not the sort of memories I ever expected to collect. Instead, they're foreign treasure that I've plundered.
If you live in one place for a long time, as I had in England, you are constantly surrounded by people that speak your language and share your culture, so it’s easy to forget how special it is. You see only its flaws and inconveniences. Or perhaps, even worse, you think that the way you do things there is the right way. That there are normal people, and strange people, and fortunately enough, as chance would have it, you were born into the normal tribe, and all those other people over there, from other places, foreign places, with their strange cultures and languages and dress - those people are the strange ones.
Then, suddenly, you're somewhere else with a completely different idea of normal. You're dumped into situations where you no longer know the default way to do things. Where you are no longer a master of language, a genius of local geography, an expert on the mating customs of your nearby tribe. In the face of millions of people doing and thinking things differently to you, it's only logical to conclude that maybe, there might also be something to their method. That your normal is actually just what you are used to. While it has become your magnetic north, the reference point to which everything else is aligned; it is nothing more than that. To these other people, your strange and often primitive ways are south-south-west.
Over time, you begin replacing words like normal, strange, right and wrong with different. This is not the only thing you learn. As you try and fail to complete even the simplest of tasks - like buying toothpaste at the supermarket, telling the taxi driver where you want to go, ordering that burger, only without the pickles - you realise that while you left to reinvent yourself, the first thing you actually became is a complete child. A time when curiosity and ignorance went hand in hand.
It's magical. The great thing about children is how they are excited by everything. Something as simple as a puddle can give them pure, unrestrained existential delight. There’s no special reason that adults lose this sense of simple joy, other than the specialness of puddles gradually gets bludgeoned out of us by endless puddle repetition. Now, when I look down at a puddle, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a puddle. In fact, it’s probably about the seven millionth time I’ve seen a puddle. I might have been more excited six-million-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine-thousand times ago. By now, I don’t even see the puddle. I see the puddle’s effect on my responsibilities. I see wet socks. I see the end of summer. I see old age. Which is why everyone needs to move abroad, even if it's just for a year. Because...
Immigrants get to experience a unique phenomenon, called Foreigner Vision™. This is like a magical pair of glasses, which you’ll wear each day of your foreign existence. Through its special lenses, we get to peer out at a more interesting, colourful and exotic world. A foreign world. That’s not a puddle, it’s a foreign puddle. Full of special foreign water. Filling an exotic foreign crevice of an interesting foreign street. Stepping in it is not just a mild, soggy inconvenience – it’s an adventure! Expat life is the chance to live a few more golden years of happy, care-free ignorance in a Disneyland of foreign novelty, as sponsored by other people’s culture.
As well as the world becoming slightly more interesting to you from the inside-out, it’s also possible that the world might be a bit more interested in you from the outside-in. Just like children are given special treatment to speak their minds freely, so will you be. After all, you’re no longer just an ordinary Belgian or German or Englishman in a rather cramped pool of millions of others. You have something new to offer the people of your adopted nation.
Now you’re exotic, like a mango.
Suddenly your boring family memories can be retold to your new friends as sprawling cultural exposés. Your simple pub stories can become great, enchanting fables from a romantic, distant land. Indeed, any mundane, seemingly “everyday” detail from your old life could be exciting to someone who doesn’t know it. Soon, you might find yourself enthusiastically recounting the story of Marmite like it’s The Lord of the Rings.
Also, all your previous indiscretions are forgotten. It's like a Get Out of Jail Free Card for your past. You're no longer surrounded by people who know you as the funny one, or the serious one, or the one who wet their pants in science class, aged 10. There's no possibility that, while buying bread in the supermarket, you'll have to meet and make awkward conversation with your old school bully, your lecherous former boss, your ex-boyfriend from age fourteen, who dumped you on the school trip to France and told everyone you were frigid. Demons, as my sister calls them. The longer you stay somewhere, the more demons you acquire. Moving abroad frees you from them. This is why young people like cities. Cities have short-memories. Foreign cities have amnesia. There's not so much safety in numbers, but there is anonymity, and that's more than enough.
For anyone who has the privilege to try it, living abroad can give you the feeling of having a life that's just that little more interesting, more unusual, more exotic. A life that you have really picked, rather than just been born into. It's a chance to understand both your culture better, and learn a new one.
For me, however irrational, living in Germany gives me the feeling that by some kind of mix of bravery and good fortune, I've acquired a life that was not supposed to be mine. A life that would have been beyond the imagination of Younger Me in the small, nondescript market town where I grew up. Today, all these years later, as I'm walking the streets of Berlin, I'll still catch myself thinking “I don't belong here”, and then smiling...
Heard horror stories about people being ripped off by locksmiths? Unfortunately, it does happen as Linda O’Grady, co-author of “From the Bürgeramt to the Bedroom” found out. So that the same thing doesn’t happen to you, read our 4-point guide to finding a reputable locksmith at the end of the article.
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