Category Archives: Expat Advice

I’ve been here long enough, I have wisdom to share…

Did You Know? They Eat Porcupine.

Anyone who has been in an international relationship has had the talk about customs and traditions. It tends to happen pretty early on and is part of the we’re-different-but-maybe-not-really-so-different (ie “How weird are you and can I handle it?”) conversation that hopefully eventually leads to you figuring out that although worlds apart you were meant to be together.

Right? Right.

Oliver and I met in the Fall and that led pretty quickly to talk about the winter holidays and Christmas traditions. With him being German, I wasn’t expecting anything too shocking or different to pop up: some real candles on the Christmas tree maybe (yes), celebrating the evening before rather than the morning of (yes), and not following the cult of the Coca-cola Santa (yep, non-Coke Weihnachtsmann).

Everything was pretty much as expected until he floored me with the following: For Christmas dinner, he said, his family ate roasted porcupine.

“Porcupine? Really??,” I asked (did I hear that right?). Continue reading

Little Black Book (Moving Abroad Pt. 9)

It’s back from hiatus! Bewildered expats out there can rejoice!

(My) Expat Guide to sticking it out (beta v 1.2)

The ninth of my series of 10 ( + 2) nuggets of wisdom gleaned from more than half a decade of trial and (sometimes very humiliating) error.

Guidebooks are heavy and a dead give-away. There is a better way for getting around in foreign surroundings. Are you writing this down?

9. Keep your eyes open and take notes.

Being in a foreign country is sensory overload. So much more information is going in than normal, you are not going to retain it all as well as you’d think. German words, for example, are long and street names can be hard to remember. Hopefully you’re going to learn the language, but you can’t do it all in one day.

Keep it easy. Cheat.

Make a cheat sheet and keep it with you. I personally prefer a Moleskin notebook, but – whatever medium you prefer (PDA, notecards, etc) – start writing things down that you need.

During our visit to China to prep for the move, we started keeping a notebook with phrases and addresses written by the hotel concierge in Chinese with the translation right next to it, creating our own sort of custom pocket translator.

It was more useful than any tour book.

We could quickly point and direct our cab driver or ask our waitress for chilled white wine (without ice…ok well we tried anyway). We flew home with plans to get a Chinese colleague to work on an extended stack of flash cards. We’d found our China hack.

Our move to China fell through but the book was a good idea that stuck. When my parents next came to visit I gave them one for phone numbers, instructions for riding the Sbahn and buying a ticket… notes on pretty much everything including a “If found wandering please return to” page in German (what?). Next time we’re going to add simple phrases so that they can order in German. Depending on what city you’re moving to, Moleskin might have a City notebook you can use for such a purpose.

And we’re still walking the walk , or talk, or whatever, by the way.  As evidenced by this photo taken from our last move to Nürnberg…

Duly Noted: Wine is good and antipasti is tasty.

The countdown is getting thin, we’re getting close to the end of this dragged out line of advice. Any thoughts on what I might still be missing? Expat lurkers, what are your thoughts on Surviving The Big Transition? Tell me.  I’m curious.

Is that a Mars Bar in your pocket or are you just happy to be an Expat? (Moving Abroad Pt 8)

(My) Expat Guide to walking the walk (beta v 1.2)

The eighth of 10 ( + 2) bits of advice on how to “Go West Young (Wo)Man” and keep going until you’re somewhere East-ish.

So you’re moving abroad, trying new things and getting to know a new culture? The proof is in the pudding and, if that’s Jello Brand I see in your cupboard, I think you might benefit from expanding your horizons a wee bit further.

8. Enjoy the adventure and embrace your surroundings. Try new stuff! Don’t try to completely recreate America-away-from-home.

There’s German stuff and American stuff and all the stuff in between. Everyone can argue whether one is better than the other, in the end I think preference is 98% convenience. You like the stuff you’re used to. Period.

Anyone who’s moved abroad can tell you their list of Stuff They Could Not Leave Without. The Stuff that – even if everything else goes wrong – as long as we have that it will all Be OK.

When a friend of mine was moving to South Korea to teach, I helped her pack her ginormous backpack. Several hours were invested in trying to get trim her gear to an allowable weight. The sticking points for her? Continue reading

Moving Is Never, Ever, Easy.

Moving day in Monday, finally. It’s taken about three months to get to this point. Most of this time Olli’s been in Nurnberg and I’ve been here in Munich, with both of us trying to figure out how to get back together in the same place again. It’s definitely been interesting, if not total fun and games.

First, I’m probably more surprised than anyone – especially my husband – to find myself still employed. I worked myself up to getting a meeting with my boss and rehearsed what I was going to say. I went to work that day ready to quit and at the last minute thought, ‘Well, hell, I can him ask him about it first’.

So I just asked him if he had any ideas about what I should do before I made a decision either way. What he suggested didn’t sound half bad with me reducing to a four day work week, splitting the time between home and office down the middle. I walked out of that conversation feeling pretty good.

This was quickly damped a bit by the difficulty in finding an apartment. We’d just assumed that Nurnberg, being a smaller, less metropolitan area would have more vacancies, cheaper rents, and a better selection than Munich.

Hear that? That loud braying guffaw out there in the distance is Oliver reading that last sentence.

This assumption of ours turned out to be (excuse me) so fucking not true at all.

Germany may be a renting kind of place, but in Nurnberg, unless you’re looking for a little place to start out in after college, you mostly buy. This we hadn’t expected. After almost three months, we couldn’t find an apartment. We just couldn’t manage to find a decent place anywhere. There were a few good ones available at the beginning, before we were really looking, which may have lulled us in to a false sense of security. But then months went by with only two possible apartments coming into question, both of which we didn’t get.

This was a shock in itself. In Munich – a tough market – we’d never lost one to someone else. One apartment went to someone who was willing to buy more furniture off the departing renter who was buddies with the landlord. It was some pretty awful Italian stuff and a short man’s Ikea kitchen, which he wanted to let go to the tune of 40K+. The other one, well the the other couple got it because the woman was pregnant. In Germany they have a Joseph and Mary complex, show a rounded belly and everyone offers you their manger. Seriously, they consider it part of their civic duty to support those who reproduce, which is all well and good, but come on. We actually had realtors tells us that we didn’t need – read: deserve – that much space. I actually considered some deception to even the odds.

Four weeks ago we were starting to talk contingency plan and I was trying to figure out how long we could co-habitate in Oliver’s little bachelor pad above the butcher shop, surrounded by the smell of meat, before killing each other.

Every free moment was spent looking online, going through the new listings on the phone, me ready to jump the train at a moment’s notice to come look at places, Oliver often ducking out for a quick Go See during business hours. When 9 out of 10 times the apartment you go to this kind of effort to see is a shit hole, this can get old really fast. Olli kindly and practically sifted through most of the crap and then set up appointments for me to see the rest.

Most of those still had a major “But…” included. Beautiful altbau (historic) place with crazy stucco details on all the ceilings with castle-view, but… located on the loudest, busiest street with no parking for blocks; huge altbau apartment with painted stucco ceilings in a gorgeous jungendstil neighborhood, but… no hallway so all the rooms connect through one another (with the bathroom at the very end, giving the added bonus that if you left all the doors open you could see your partner seated on the throne from the front door about a football field’s distance away); beautiful altbau apartment with a working fireplace in a charming building with a little Italian bistro in the ground floor, but… fourth floor, no elevator, no parking nearby, no balcony and the current tenant wants you to buy all his crappy stuff for a small fortune.

I’m cutting a segue of my rant and making it into a bitch post for those who love to read how miserable and expensive renting and moving can be, find it here. For the rest, I’ll cut to the chase. We finally found something just in the nick of time. It’s modern, quite similar to what we have now. It is in a nice old neighborhood near the park. In four minutes I can be at the train station to go to Munich for the two days a week I have to be in the office. We have a parking garage and an elevator. All is well.

Best yet, we’ve more than tripled our balcony space. One off the bedroom, about twice the size of what we have now and one off the living room, which is the same size (or larger) than the bedroom itself. Booyah! Oliver is gleefully looking at patio furniture across the table from me right now.

But… we have to build a kitchen, which meant we had to first buy one. This is a post on its own. For now, two words: not cheap.

About 36 hours to go…

Am I Making Too Big Of A Deal Out Of This? (or is moving really so much harder over there?)

For the Americans, this may all sound like I’m making way too much of a deal out of this. Why not just rent something, see if we can make it work and then if it doesn’t, move on? When I was in San Francisco, it was that easy. I feel like I was moving every 6 – 8 months when I was a student at Berkeley and then young working professional in the City. When I first moved over, I approached the whole moving thing with the same casual Northern California attitude. Silly American, I found out soon how wrong I was to assume that moving in the Western world was the same everywhere.

In SF you accepted and expected to pay a week or two double rent, but tried as hard as you could to reduce that down to a few days. That plus a moving van, or company if you swung for it, was your major moving expense. Here you have the long notice period (3 mos) for moving out coupled with the relatively short notice period ( ave. 1-3 weeks) for apartments coming available which pretty much guarantees that you’ll not be able to avoid paying at least one or two months’ double rent. Add to that the renovations that you have to arrange and pay for in the apartment you’re leaving, including removing any additions that you cannot sell to the next tenant which can range from lighting and curtains (no biggie) to shower cabins, flooring and kitchens (biggie). Don’t forget renovations and additions to the new place which may include any and all of what you just sold or ripped out of the last one. Toss in the normal moving costs for your method of choice (boxes, paid help, beer for unpaid help, truck or moving company). And don’t forget that you will need to put down a security deposit on the new one before you get the old one back, so you need to be liquid enough to cover both.

This is quite a bit more than what you would expect to have to cover for a move in San Francisco, and that is an expensive town.

Last but not least, there’s my favorite expense: the Realtor. Try as you might your chances of getting around this one are low. And this is probably what bites the most, because I am convinced that these people are not worth the money they demand, mostly because they never understand who their customer really is.

This is not the Lyon’s representative you’d expect back in CA, who may or may not be wearing the uniform blazer when they drive you from viewing to viewing of “objects that match your requirements” and walk you through pointing out all the advantages of the place in question. This is what you’d expect from someone you were paying, right? Well in Germany it’s assbackwards.

Instead, the Makler (realtor) kisses the landlord’s ass and treat you like shit, even though you’re the idiot who’s paying them. Yes, the landlord pays them nothing. You fork over 2-3 month’s rent for the privilege of them begrudgingly showing up (astonishingly often unbathed) to unlock an apartment for you to see, judge you, maybe make a few snide comments about the fact that you selfishly want so much space without having kids, poke through your personal and financial history and then pocket your cash and walk away. Pity the fool who thinks they can call said realtor, once the money has changed hands, and get say… measurements of the living room or negotiate a move in a few days earlier. No way.

Ok they’re not all like this, true. Some of then are very nice and efficient in taking your money without really servicing you in any way. But at least half do the same thing rudely, while smelling a bit like old socks with crusty stuff in their beards you don’t want to look at too closely. I’m not exaggerating.

I’ve told the story of the last move and the realtor who, in my opinion, bent us over the table and gave the The Treatment. This same guy stepped up again to collect from the next tenant who, because of a friend in the building, had the same right to pay less and I am sure did not.

Since then who has been the one dealing with her questions about measurements, her need to see it again in “natural light”, to know whether there was an electric outlet on the balcony (“it is so important for me!”) and then see it again with her new subtenant. Right: us. I’m sure the realtor didn’t return her calls.

Not that I can even completely blame him in this case. He’s smart to avoid contact, with this one it’s almost a full time job.

Annoying next tenant aside, moving here feels more complicated and expensive. It probably is because people who live here rent their whole lives and have therefore higher expectations from apartments they really look at as their home and not as that place they lived in in their twenties before they bought their first of many houses. Do this once or twice here and you will want to get your move right the first time and ‘we can always move’ is not something you want to hear your partner say as an alternative or an argument for taking an apartment.

People always ask for amounts, which are hard to share because it can be so subjective. If you keep things as cheap as possible you will still easily find yourself looking at costs climbing towards the 10k mark. Less of course if you’re living in a shared apartment, which can make it much easier to avoid double rents and sell your share of the kitchen to the next guy. But if you an apartment and a few pieces of furniture, you’re quickly in this weight class. And that makes you think twice if not three times about the place you choose to live.

Shopping Arab Style

McCain I could stomach, originally uploaded by meganinmunich.

To get to know a culture some people will go to the ballet or the opera, browse through museums and the like, but me… not so much. Maybe it’s too obvious, maybe I’m just not that organized, maybe I’m just not that into it. What I tend to do instead is go out and walk around with no particular agenda and see what happens.

Inevitably, I end up at the grocery store.

On my one and only trip to Finland, I marveled at the huge variety of licorice and lottery tickets you could get in every mini mart along with the three levels of alcohol in beverages – low, med and super leaded. (The bag of potato chips I walked out of a gas station with had “megapussi” emblazoned across the front, which apparently meant big bag… )

When we were on our investigative trip to China, a grocery store was at the top of my list of places to see. If I felt I could fend for myself in a local grocery store, then everything would be ok.

Tampons (check), cat food and litter (check), red wine (check). Ok I could live there.

I found out that deodorant was hard to find, because the Chinese don’t usually have the sweat glands in their arm pits and regard deodorant as sort of a western body perfume. Expats I went shopping with told stories about importing a year’s worth of supplies at a time. (I also made a mental note on something else I learned: in Beijing you can have your pit glands removed for 150 dollars and free yourself from deodorant forever!).

Abu Dhabi wasn’t any different.

Every time we’re there we head over through the mall to the co-op and browse the shelves for the exotic spices that cost next to nothing; the giant bottles of Tabasco you can’t find in Germany because Germans are such sissies about spice (the arab writing on it earns it the nickname “Terrorist Tabasco” in our household); the massive variety of milk products; the oil aisle with more fat choices than you could shake a stick at.

Obviously, I enjoy it.

We went again this trip, and this time I took a few pictures. Along with the McCain french fried products pictured above, pictures of some other interesting or strange stuff I found can be viewed in the the slide show by clicking here.

I am not alone in this

The things some people have to go through if they don’t come from flat, boring states like Arizona.

Do they get this privilege because the desert is a hard and lonely master to please?

Even if everything goes smoothly driving school and tests suck and can drive you crazy.
Before you move here get a license, from Arizona, I hear they don’t hold that residency rule to be very holy.