Friday, November 11, 2011

Friendly Friday: Grounded Traveler

Good grief, I finally have a moment to put finger to keyboard. This has been quite a week - I apparently needn't have worried about what I was going to do on my time off between semesters. I'm not complaining about having work to do, obviously, but it does distract me from things like blogging about football matches, my (successful) hunt for bovine kidney fat and spending a hungover Saturday having my German corrected by 8 year old children.

Happily, however, I do have time for Friendly Friday - just! I must apologise to today's interviewee for only just managing to hit the "publish" button now. So without further ado then, I would like to introduce you to Andrew of Grounded Traveler, with whom I wandered the streets of Cologne's gay quarter on the WEBMU weekend last month. I've been following his blog for some time so it was fab to finally meet the man himself. And off we go...
Andrew at Platform 9¾ of Kings Cross Station, London. (Seems to have got his trolley stuck.)
Name: Andrew
About: A man of many many interests. I love how things work and how they are connected. I am interested in how things related to each other. Cause and effect and all that rot. I also find the idea of fear and how it affects someone interesting. I have given it quite a bit of non-academic thought while dealing with panic and anxiety for years
From: I grew up in North Carolina in the south east of the US. I went to university at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg,Virginia, a small university town in the mountains of Virginia
Now in: Freiburg
Since: 1 November 2007

So then Andrew, what brought you to Germany?

I was sick of living the life I had in the US. This is somewhat literal. I have suffered from panic attacks on an off for ten years now. Each time I was able to get over them by planning an extended trip to Europe. I had just finished my master's degree and was already planning to try to live abroad. I always enjoyed travel and was happier abroad than at home. Driving was one of the triggers for anxiety, so the idea of living without a car was appealing. I took a job with a friend of mine for one year. This gave me time to save and get some more tech skills. Then I just booked a boat ticket (yeah, fear of flying another of my anxieties) sold my car and put stuff in storage and just came over. I didn't really know anyone. I had no plan or job. I started applying everywhere in Germany. I ended up taking a job in Freiburg and have been here since.

And why Germany in particular?

I had started with German in high school so this is where I had traveled the most. I had a whole list of places to go if I couldn't find work here.

Ah. Sounds like a sensible decision, then! So, what’s Freiburg like?

It isn't so much different than the places I came from. It is in the south of the country and a university town nestled against the hills of the Black Forest.

I haven’t yet visited it - or its surrounding region, but it's high on my list: I have merely gawped at the breathtaking beauty of the Black Forest through the generous upstairs windows of the Black Forest trainline (the Schwarzwaldbahn)(link in German). Anyway, you’ve been here four years now (happy anniversary!): what have you found most challenging about life here in that time?

The speed of things. Germany is a very stable place and while things are “efficient,” they can be painfully slow. Ask anyone how long it takes to get internet hooked up (answer: about 3 months). Appointments are normal for nearly anything, but are almost always in the middle of the day (who needs work?) and can be many weeks out. This is all doubly true with dealing with workers around the house like electricians.

I have to defend all the builders we’ve had around our flat as they've all been extraordinarily punctual and efficient, but I totally sympathise about the internet - getting that sorted is extraordinarily painful. Is there anything in the way that the Germans function on a day to day basis that you admire?

There is something of a sense that society as a whole matters. It can be a challenge to the individualistic American in me. Though when rules are set up to maintain things as a society such as health care and economic stability at the cost of individual flexibility there is something about that that is admirable.

Where do you think this comes from? Do you think it’s a longing for security that stems from Germany’s "recent" past - by which I mean their experience with unstable democracy and liberalism after the first world war and the resulting strikes, inflation and the rise of extreme parties?

No, I think it is deeper than that. I once read that the longing for security is part of why the history is like it is. If you want to tie it history I would look further back than the obvious last 100 years. I would look to the Roman invasions or maybe more "modern" at the 1600s and the 30 years war. Times of turmoil like that make a desire for order and safety.

The 30 years war - that's a good point - I read somewhere that a third of the German population was killed during that time so in comparison, I suppose, their suffering during the second world war was, in an albeit very different way, to a lesser degree. (Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?) But back to your experiences in Germany today: what else pleases you about life here?

Not having to drive everywhere. I like being able to get to so much of the continent with the train. I enjoy the food and markets with so much fresh stuff. I quite enjoy the idea of being an expat. There is something comforting to me about being an outsider to an extent, even though I integrate pretty well.
The Martinstor, Freiburg, built at the beginning of the 13th century and apparently still in pretty good nick.
This idea of finding comfort in being an 'official' outsider as an expat is one that's cropped up in more than one Friendly Friday to date. Where do you think this feeling is grounded?

I didn't fit in with the US which was odd as I grew up there. I don't fully fit in Germany either, but this is ok because I am not supposed to. There is comfort in this acceptance that I am not required to fit in. And although I do fit pretty well here any oddities can be linked back to that "not supposed to.“

That makes absolute sense. You say you feel you have integrated well into German society: what steps would you recommend that other expatriates take in order to help them integrate into a new and unfamiliar community (and I mean integrate as opposed to assimilate or simply exist there)?

Make contacts in the community. This can be anything from recognizing and talking to the checkout people at the local supermarket to getting involved in local clubs. Of course the more friends native that country you have the closer you will integrate. I spend a lot of time with expats and I find it ok. For example, I know the guy at the bike shop. I know the Italian guy who runs the laundromat. It makes walking around a small city like Freiburg kind of nice because you get recognized and talked to. Especially in Germany routine is important, so going to the same shop every week will let you know the people there. The pasta place knows me and my order. I go into Burger King regularly enough that one of the women there has started giving me 10% discount.

Haha - I'm hope that I'm on the verge of getting a discount at my local Schnitzel place ;) I absolutely agree that befriending "natives", joining clubs and getting to know people locally are all key in helping one to slip into a normal life abroad, but talking of communities, let's touch on online ones: for those who haven't visited your site before, who do you blog for, and what do you blog about?

My audience is, I hope, people interested in living abroad. Not only to be in the culture, but also to travel and see more of the world. This is what I blog about as well. The German culture as I see it as an Auslander (foreigner). Its oddities as well as its richness. The second half is about travels that I have done around Europe. “Putting down roots and still seeing the world” is the blog tagline, so I hope I keep close to that.

And I believe you do! As well as the themes of travel and local culture that you cover, you also talk a lot about the fears that these have helped you overcome. Do you still have fears that hinder you in your day to day life or have you, if not overcome them, then learned how to cope?

Cope is a good word. The fears are still here. And while they don't nessicarily prevent me from doing things, still make me hesitate a lot. Some days much stronger than others. I learned a number of techniques in therapy for the panic attacks that work fairly well for for generalized fear. Certainly moving abroad helped a lot. Getting out of the stress I was in and the situations that triggered the fear, like driving for example, has helped me get a breather from that aspect and sort out things in my head that were some of the underlying cause. I don't think it is specific to Germany, just being away. For the first year or so I had to work so hard to just live, eat, talk in another culture that I didn't really have energy for fear.

One of my prime fears was that of flight. I moved to Europe on a ship. I started flying again after 10 years just last September about the time I met the woman that became my wife. She has helped me as well to get through a lot of fears.
Andrew on his first flight in ten years... what a grin!
It sounds like you have come a very long way since your boat ride over here four years ago and it's fascinating to learn about what has helped you to cope with your fears and anxieties. Plus you clearly have a wonderful wife! Are there other ways in which you feel you've changed since you arrived here?

I am finally understanding what is actually important to me. I also am understanding where my own problems and shortcomings end and where the situation or environment begins. Building a life up from near scratch again lets you kind of see what is actually important and gives and opportunity to recognize pure habit.

No argument from me on that one: I absolutely agree. Can you put any of these new understandings down to life in Germany in particular, or is it just having started a fresh life somewhere new?

I think for me it was just starting a life somewhere else. In hindsight I might have been better off in England rather than Germany to relieve the extra aspect of language from all of the personal development, but I do like being here. And secretly I like that that language is difficult sometimes. Just sometimes I wish all the noise would stop and they would just speak clearly. ;)

Haha I know the feeling! However, I think if you get fed up of things moving slowly in this country then I think you should thank your lucky stars you didn't end up in the UK!

Andrew thank you very so much for joining in on my Friendly Friday antics and talking so candidly about your experiences, it was fab to have you take part.

You can (and should!) visit Andrew at his blog, Grounded Traveler; on Facebook; and you can also follow him on Twitter. Next week's Friendly Friday I shall be chatting with the brilliantly funny Ian (no pressure Ian) of Letters Home To You, and I highly recommend you pop by for that. I promise it won't be quite so late next week!

I am now going to put down my laptop and spend the rest of my evening with Robert De Niro, a bottle of Riesling and a large bowl of mashed potatoes. Presuming it's as miserable outside with you all as it is with me, I wish you a warm and cosy evening too, and a lovely weekend!


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for doing this interview. It was really great to meet you in Köln.

americanincologne said...

I love your thoughts on how being an 'official outsider'is somewhat comforting. I hadn't sat down and thought of it but it really is a true statement. Something liberating in that, isn't there?

Frau Dietz said...

@Anonymous: I'm not sure which one of us you're talking to, but you're welcome - and I'm sure it was lovely for one or both of us to meet you too, but we can't tell who you are! :)

@AmericaninCologne: It's not something I'd ever considered before either but it's amazing how often it's come up!

The Honourable Husband said...

Hey, guys. Important and substantial stuff you're talking about here, and I was glad to read it. Well done.

Laurel said...

Another great interview. Nice to get to know Andrew better and you've just described my idea of a perfect Friday night.

shoegirl said...

Andrew, I think you definitely hit on one of the reasons so many of us become expats. Being the obvious outsider is, when compared to not fitting in where you're from in the first place, a comforting place.

While I can't speak for Germans, I must say that another of the reasons I left the US was because of the great loss of our culture and societal norms in my hometown. I can see how with their tumultuous past, Germans might want to take a slow down, take a step back and hold tight to the things they value. The fact that they've never been major innovators (in the sense of the Silicon Valley, where I come from) seems to be OK with them. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say.

Great to meet you in Cologne, Andrew and Frau Dietz, another great interview - thanks to you both!

Frau Dietz said...

@HH and Laurel and Shoegirl... a belated thank you :)

Andrew said...

Sorry for the delay on replies. It has been a busy few weeks.

@Anonymous - As Fr. Dietz says, don't know who you are, but I am sure I enjoyed meeting you as that weekend was totally fun.

@Ami-in-Cologne - Yup, there is a lot about it being ok to be an outsider that makes worrying about stuff go away.

@Honourable Husband - Thanks. Enjoyed hanging out in Köln with you.

@Laurel - Thanks.

@Shoegirl - Definitely nice to meet in Köln. I don't know about the loss of culture, but I do enjoy (mostly) the speed of things here. Once the system is set it runs. Change in any form, setting up or changing a running system takes forever and can be frustrating though. Slow is teaching me patience, though I just want my patience now!!