It’s been nearly nine months since my family relocated to Germany for my husband’s one-year job assignment. In these nine months, we have traveled to seven countries, seen dozens of castles and palaces, eaten all different types of foods, been on the top of the Eiffel Tower, in front of Big Ben, next to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, sunbathed on the Mediterranean Sea, driven through the Alps, and zip-lined across the Indian Ocean in Singapore. It’s been the most amazing year I have ever had, considering I never had a passport until this year…
I have three more months of living in Europe, and as I reflect on lessons learned here, I know I will return back to New York a changed person. This time-out I’ve had, will most definitely change how I look at life. Taking a year off from my busy job as a kindergarten teacher, I was able to really have a year of rest and relaxation—My own Eat Pray Love.
When I first moved to Germany last summer, I was immediately aware of how small things are: little cars, little houses, little apartments, little refrigerators, little grocery stores. Life is simple. For every 100 cars that drive by my cozy apartment, I see only two or three mini-vans. People have Smart Cars, and there are as many bikes traveling on the cobblestone streets, even in the winter! Our apartment is small and cozy. My son and daughter share a bedroom with a bunk bed. They are learning to share and are becoming closer in their new roles as roommates.
As for me, cleaning takes minutes a day. I can find my husband or children in seconds without having to yell for them. We are closer as a family, literally, because of our new living arrangements. We are tighter and enjoy our family time together. We’ve learned to lean on one another, especially the children. They have a real bond through this experience. Lesson learned: I don’t need a huge house, with a huge car. Stay simple. Family time needs to continue, despite our busy American schedules and demands.
Europeans don’t drive as much as Americans. Many people here walk, bike, or use public transportation. My German teacher joked with me one day about how much Americans drive their cars and I reflected on her statement for days after. I noticed that people in my German city of Dresden are active. Surprisingly, people even ride their bikes in the snow and ice. Women ride their bikes to work wearing their work clothes and in high heels. It’s truly amazing to see the various ways in which Europeans get around, especially to work. Lesson learned: I’m really going to continue to walk places or bike. I haven’t driven a car in the nine months I’ve been here. I am more physically active living in Germany. I am determined to ride my bike to work, and to the grocery store that is a few miles from my house; to stay active. I don’t need to drive my car places within miles of my house.
The first time I went to a swimming pool here in Germany last summer, I was in awe. Men with speedos, almost every woman in a bikini, no matter what body shape. Here I was, at the pool, in my typical suburban mom swim suit: a suit with a skirt. I am learning some valuable lessons from these European women. They simply don’t care. Good for them! Europeans like to be naked in public places too—I ran into a shirtless woman on a hiking trail once. I won’t be taking lessons from the naked people here, but I love that body image isn’t a big deal here. We are going to Greece in April, and I plan on buying a bikini. I haven’t worn a bikini in nine years, since having children. I haven’t looked in the mirror in a while, and thought, “Do I look fat in this?” On the contrary, I hardly glance at myself, and when I do, I’m happy with what I see. Lesson learned: I am happy in my body. There are other things to be consumed with, right?
When I first learned we were moving to Germany, I knew the Berlin Wall was brought down when I was 19, but I wasn’t fully aware of the ramifications. Now, living here, I am much more aware of global issues, different cultures, and just how lucky we are to be Americans. My year living here has been one big, long history lesson. Walking the streets where the French Revolution occurred, touring the London Tower, seeing the remains of the Berlin Wall, visiting Mozart’s home in Vienna, and learning about WW2 and the destruction it brought throughout Europe…being in these cities, with all of their history and past, makes you feel a little humble. Lesson learned: I will never take freedom for granted. I am experiencing nationalism in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time. I am more aware not just of what is happening in our country, but also around the world. When back home, watching the nightly news and hearing about worldwide events and news, it will be different for me.
We haven’t watched TV this whole time! My daughter, a first grader, has been reading books like The Little Princess and Judy Moody, and The Rainbow Magic fairy series. She always has a book with her, on the long tram ride to school, and on vacations. One day when I dropped her off at school, she cried and didn’t want to go. Minutes later, she told me she just wanted to go home with me and read her book. We have to tell her every night, “Just one more chapter, then go to bed please.” The lack of a TV with English language stations, has been enlightening for all of us. My son, a third grader, has found his passion with writing. He is currently writing on three blogs! While Maggie is reading in the bunk below him, Riley is often writing in his journal. Lesson learned: The TV doesn’t have to be on all the time. Hopefully, we won’t get back into bad habits with the television on all the time.
My German friend, Mona, and I had coffee one morning together. I like to talk to Mona, because she is one of the few non-American friends I have here. Mona told me all about her schooling, and the educational schooling here in Germany. By the end of the fourth grade, German students are placed in one of three programs: The Hauptschule (the lowest program), the Realschule (the middle program), and the Gymnastium, which is the highest program. Only those that are placed in the Gymnasium are able to study at universities and colleges directly from high school. It is only through the Gymnasium program that one earns a high school diploma.
Mona was placed in the middle program, and it saddens her that she never attended college. After completing the Realschule/middle program, she still hadn’t received her high school diploma, and was not able to go to college. It was after completing the Realschule/ middle program, that she was finally granted to study in the Gymnasium program. While working and in the Gymnasium program part-time, she finally was able to receive her high school diploma at the age of 22. But by that time, she was offered a job as a manager in a retail store and made the decision to enter the workforce instead of continuing her studies and entering college.
Attending college, for Mona, was not an easy path, like it may be for us in the U.S, where we graduate from high school, and college is the next natural step. Mona’s daughter, Mali, attends the International School with my own kids. Dresden International School does not follow Germany’s educational practices, so I find that many German children are part of the international experience, more so because many German families are not in favor of the current system. Can you imagine, at the end of fourth grade, it being determined that you are not college material? Although students can be moved from the middle program to the high program while in high school, Mona explains to me that it’s often hard to do. Parents need to be vocal. Lesson learned: Wow! We can make our own choices if we want to go to college and be whatever we want to be! Talking to Mona makes me feel very lucky. I was a late bloomer, and always had trouble in my elementary years as a student. I never would have been given college as a choice, if I lived in Germany as a ten year old. This fact saddens me. As an educator, it makes me feel proud that I never give up on my students.
This year, I’ve gained a new independence and self-confidence. I’ve been forced to adapt to a new country and culture, in a city where not many people speak English. I have survived grocery stores, ordering food at restaurants, going to doctors, and even a hospital visit. I’ve learned to get around the city without a car, using trains, trams and buses. With my husband busy at work and finding he couldn’t take as much vacation time off, I decided to take the kids, alone, to Vienna and Paris. I have found a new sort of independence. Lesson learned: I can do anything I set my mind to. I am now a risk-taker.
Some things about Europe I will not miss. Paying for bathrooms, the lack of ice in soft drinks, no refills on drinks in restaurants, visits to doctors and not understanding German and not being able to read environmental print. All minor things, but I will never take what I have learned for granted once I’m back in the U.S. When we took trips to Singapore and London, it was such a relief not to be so worried about the communication gap.
When I move back to upstate New York, I will miss the sausages, the narrow cobblestone streets, all the traveling. I will miss the simplicity, the relationships that I’ve developed here with friends, and beer gardens. I’m now wondering if I will have culture shock when I move back.
Stacey Walz has been writing about her year in Europe for Woman Around Town. To read her other stories, click on her byline.