Editors’ note: The “Life in” series provides readers a window into daily life in different places around the world by sharing the stories of women living abroad.
Verily contributor Ana Williams and her husband moved to Germany in 2009 for a yearlong assignment with her husband’s work. They’ve been there ever since.
Meghan Duke: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Ana Williams: I grew up immersed in early American heritage and loved it. I was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims landed, and grew up Yorktown, Virginia, where Great Britain surrendered to George Washington in the final battle of the Revolutionary War. Then, my husband and I met at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson.
MD: What led you to Germany? Was this the first time you’d lived abroad?
AW: A coincidence of our meeting was that both my husband and I planned to study in Europe the following fall semester—I in France, he in Germany. We made the most of it, meeting every other weekend in beautiful places like Bruges and Florence. We also spent an Oktoberfest weekend in Munich, Germany, so we have a photo of ourselves in Marienplatz (the main city square in Munich) years before we knew we would be living here.
I was very poor when I decided to study abroad in college, in debt up to my ears and without much fiscal support from home, and I remember doubting myself, thinking that it was an outrageously unreasonable expense. But I went after all, and it turned out to be one of the most valuable, life-changing experiences I ever had. I don’t know who said it, but I think it’s profoundly true: “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”
After we married, we both worked in Washington D.C. for a few years. But we missed Europe. So we took the opportunity to participate in a year-long secundment—a temporary assignment elsewhere—with my husband’s firm in their Munich office.
MD: What were some of your first impressions of Munich?
AW: A bit hazy. I earned my master’s of education degree, gave birth to our first child, and moved to Europe all within the first three months of 2009. And I couldn’t open myself up to the experience at first. I was too overwhelmed, dealing with a new language, homesickness, and, above all, postpartum chaos. My first thoughts were more like, “Oh fudge (it might not have been so polite), how the heck am I going to acquire diapers?”
A few months after the initial shock, my sister came to help us, and, with someone to share the experience, I began to feel better. We toured castles, hiked mountains, and rode trains all over—with a baby!
Over the years, we’ve stayed for one opportunity or another. Ten years later, I think it would be a shock for the family to leave Germany—where our four kids have grown up and where three were born.
One of the things I appreciate most about life abroad has been the way it has forced me out of the box that I used to think was “me” and redefine myself in unexpected and new ways. Getting out of my comfort zone, especially regarding the language (I’m a writer, and so English and being able to articulate my thoughts clearly was always very important to me!), meant that I had to reexamine a lot of old assumptions I used to have about what mattered and how life works. To break all that down and rebuild it according to a new, more expansive understanding of the human race and how we derive meaning from our existence is a very beautiful thing. Challenging yourself to live for a while in a new country can be fearsome but often incredibly rewarding.
MD: What about life in Munich do you like most?
AW: Munich is the capital of Bavaria, which is distinct from other German states, in its Catholic heritage, traditional values, and alpine culture. Munich was the only city in Germany that decided to rebuild according to historical blueprints after WWII rather than modernizing.
It’s easy to love it here for the obvious reasons: sunny beer gardens all summer, manly men strolling around in lace-knit socks and lederhosen, stunning historical architecture, and the Alps only an hour away. But I also love living here for its quieter advantages. I’ve found that European societies maintain a better collective memory than American society. We Americans think it normal to move across the country, while it’s normal for Europeans to live where their forefathers have lived for generations. It’s changing somewhat now, with more Europeans in transit, but I find their family “root system” is still more intact.
The effect is that cultural events, together time, and other social ties tend to be highly valued. Parents here often take off work for their kid’s birthdays, there are several significant school breaks throughout the year, and it’s expected for families to vacation together for at least two weeks every summer.
Perhaps also connected to the rootedness in place is an emphasis on living well together, call it, “social infrastructure.” For example, early childhood education here focuses on social skills more than anything else, trying to ensure that everyone knows how to get along politely with everyone else. Old ladies on buses have no problem helping your kid find their seat—or chastising them if they’re acting up. It terrifies the kid, but they learn!
All this extra attention to social infrastructure, at least I find, cultivates a level of communal comfort and stability. This stability can also be irksome—causing resistance, for instance, toward new ideas or practices. But I like that most people here conform to a certain level of social etiquette. I find it reduces social stress. For instance, I think Americans are more willing to display their anger in public, which creates a level of anxiety that, for example, I might accidentally offend someone. But here, raising one’s voice, even to correct a child, is viewed as embarrassing.
The German sense of self is also a fascinating aspect of life here. Many of the older generation were children at the end of WWII and remember the intense horror and ruin of that period. Germans tend to be humble about their nation’s history. Indeed, there are few nations in the world’s history who have openly admitted their wrongdoing and repented the way Germans have. The way America mistreated Native Americans, for instance, has never been fully dealt with officially—we still have Andrew Jackson’s portrait on our $20 dollar bill. It’s just something I think about, imagining that it must have taken courage for Germans to come as far as they have.
MD: What were some of the harder things for you to get used to in German culture?
AW: Navigating the German bureaucratic system as a foreigner can be intimidating. They tend to be very exacting about compliance. Getting a preschool spot for our kids, for instance, turned out to be incredibly stressful. I’m grateful that my husband pays attention to the fine print!
As a trained American high school teacher, I find the school system here to be more strenuous than back home—for good and for ill. The kids are sorted into different academic tracks by age ten, which puts a lot of pressure on them (and their parents!) from the very beginning. This can cultivate good characteristics, such as diligence and responsibility, but it can also be brutalizing for a child’s self-confidence. And the grading system here reinforces this exacting sort of super-compliance. Now that our oldest is starting Gymnasium, (which is the nine-year German high school system), we face a long, grueling haul toward his Abitur (the examination German students must pass to be able to attend university).
Another aspect of German life that has been difficult is the absence of a vibrant Christian culture. It’s a bit ironic, because, officially, Bavaria is a Catholic state. We get off for almost all major Christian feast days (St. Martin’s Day is a big thing here for kids, with its own assortment of carols and a procession of lanterns), and nobody works on Sundays (even the grocery stores are closed). But, alas, when it comes to actual faith, Germans tend to be firmly, piously post-Christian. So I worry about the long-term cultural influence on my kid’s faith. For instance, my kids are already astonished when they hear Christian pop on the radio during our visits home.
MD: Has living in Munich made you rethink any of your own practices or opinions?
AW: I’ve learned a lot about parenting here according to German models. It’s quite different from the American way I was raised. It’s hard to describe in words, but I think there are books on the subject (which I haven’t read). German kids often have more freedom and more responsibility. For instance, most elementary kids still walk to school, often without any adults. My kids can run down the road to the bakery and buy incredible German bread for me, which they love doing.
MD: If someone had a weekend in Munich, what are three things you would recommend they do while there?
AW: With kids or without? Our personal favorites are:
Watching the surfers on the Eisbach. There are two places in the Englischer Garten (the large central park here) where the currents swirl and form a continuous wave. Crazy folks surf there practically every day of the year, including in deep winter. It’s fun to watch, but I hope my boys never try it!
Cappuccinos at Cafe Luitpold on Sunday. This is a picturesque cafe in the city center restored to its architectural heyday in the 1920s and named after a good nineteenth-century Bavarian prince (indeed, locals still revere him). Enjoy live music, great eggs Benedict, or for a more traditional breakfast, the delicious Weißwurst (just don’t ask what it’s made of).
Chinesischer Turm Biergarten in summer. Who says playgrounds and beer don’t mix? Kick back with friends, bring your own picnic or buy one there (Germans are serious picknickers, often bringing a special set of cutlery for the occasion!), and share a huge liter of Helles in the golden sunshine as your kids scamper over the non-safety regulated heights of the Klettergerüst.