American expat Kim explains how she came to be living in Magdeburg, Germany, and what life is like there

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Kimberley Gutschmidt

July 13 2006

-Where were you born?
I was born in Groton, Connecticut, USA. My father was in the Navy at that time and we moved to Tennessee a few months after my birth. I've never been back to Connecticut, and until I moved to Germany I lived mostly in Virginia and Mississippi.

-In which country and city are you living now?
I live in Magdeburg, Germany. It's a city on the Elbe River about halfway between Hannover and Berlin. Magdeburg used to be part of the former GDR (East Germany).

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my German husband. We don't have any children.

How long have you been living in Germany?
-In November, 2006 it will be nine years.

-What is your age?
I'm 44 years old.

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Germany?
Unexpectedly I met a German man online one afternoon while in an Internet chat room. We became friends, and then after I visited him in Germany we fell in love. We knew we wanted to marry and one of us would have to move to the other's homeland. As my husband is a quadriplegic, I made the decision to move to Germany since it would be impossible for him to get any sort of health insurance in the United States.

-Was it hard to get a visa or working permit?
Yes and no. Paperwork for our marriage in Germany was taking forever and I was living here on a tourist visa -- I wasn't allowed to have a residency visa until we had a wedding date scheduled at the marriage bureau. I would have to go to Poland to get my passport re-stamped every 90 days until I had a residency visa. My first residency visa was for three years and when it expired, I reapplied and was denied a permanent visa. Due to rules for permanent visas, I was denied because my husband didn't earn enough with his disability pension alone to support us both, but the financial formula didn't take into consideration other income sources we have.

It became a sort of Catch 22 situation in that since I was technically eligible for welfare, I couldn't get a residency visa without it but if I applied for welfare, I would lose the other income sources we have, which kept me from needing welfare in the first place! I was given another three-year residency visa and when that one expired, I reapplied. The immigration office reconsidered our financial situation, took into consideration all the income sources we have, and granted me a permanent residency visa. I'm here to stay!

-How do you make your living in Germany? Do you have any type of income generated?
My husband is a quadriplegic and his level of disability is the highest of three levels recognized by the government. This means he has to have constant care and I am his primary caretaker. My husband is given a set amount every month by the German government to pay for his care, and so it essentially pays for me to live. I am also given the benefit that once I reach retirement age, I will receive a retirement pension that's based on me being a caregiver to a handicapped person, and not as a homemaker.

-Do you speak German and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I am probably a bit better than being conversational in German but not good enough to be considered fluent. Since I am at home most of the time, my need for speaking German gets limited to when we have visitors -- which is often -- or when I'm out of the house. When we're alone my husband and I speak English about 75 percent of the time, probably because it's the language we got to know each other through.

I do, however, think it's extremely important for expats to be at least conversational in the local language. There is no way an expat is going to fit in without knowing the language spoken in that area...it virtually guarantees the expat will be isolated.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I miss home and family every day but I will say that the really frequent deep bouts of homesickness went away after my first two years here. I now only become very homesick during holidays like Christmas or when it's Thanksgiving in the US. Since my husband is unable to travel to the US and I need to be here to care for him unless I have made special arrangements, my trips home to see my family are infrequent -- usually every two to three years. I do, however, call friends and family very often since cheap international calling rates can be had in Germany. And of course, they keep up with me through e-mail and my blog.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
Not really. It was enough of a pain for me to get a permanent residency visa...I'm not going to change the course of things now! Seriously though, my husband's disability keeps us from making long-range plans, but that's alright with us since we're quite content with our lives as they are now.

-What about housing, have you bought or are you renting a home?
We rent a 75 square meter apartment that has three rooms, a kitchen, bath and balcony. An apartment like that runs in the neighborhood of 500-600 euros per month, depending on the part of town you're in.

-What is the cost of living in Germany?
Magdeburg has a declining population due to high unemployment, so there are lots of vacant apartments that can be had cheaper than in many other parts of Germany. Food costs are probably a bit higher here than in other parts of Germany, but the cost of services is cheaper. Gasoline prices are terrible, but that's true of most places in the world. I'd say that on average due to where I live in Germany, I live cheaper here than I did when I lived in the US.

-What do you think about the Germans?
This is where I tend to differ with my fellow expats in Germany. I find people here to be quite friendly. Maybe it's because I live in the former East Germany, where people tend to be a bit looser and are a bit more open and friendly since networking with others was critical for getting through life in communist East Germany. I have never been given a hard time for being an American; on the contrary, despite the current reputation that the US seems to have in the world, people in Magdeburg are even friendlier to me once they find out I'm an American.

I can only speak for myself and since I don't look to be anything but German by my appearance alone, I can't readily vouch for how an Asian or African immigrant would be treated. I will say, however, that my particular apartment building has Vietnamese, Turkish, Russian, Polish, Arabic and German families living here and everyone seems to get along well and are friendly to one another. I've never found it to be a problem for me to get along with Germans.

I will also say this about them: while they appear to be dull and unfriendly, they do know how to have fun...they just tend to compartmentalize work time and fun time more than Americans do. They may also smile less than Americans, but at least I can count on the smiles I get in Germany to be genuine. Germans don't tend to smile unless they've got something to smile about.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Germany?

Positive:
~ Good public transportation...if you live in a city, it's possible to live here without an automobile.
~ Good health care...everyone in Germany has access to health insurance.
~ There is more emphasis on families doing things together.
~ Travel to other European countries is easy and Germany has many wonderful places to take vacations.
~ The food is more wholesome...less emphasis on processed/frozen foods, artificial ingredients, factory farming, impure foods.
~ Variety of cultural events.
~ There is an emphasis on being orderly and efficient. Recycling is good.
~ Less violent crime than in the US.

Negative:
~ The weather can be cold and dreary for weeks at a time, even in summer.
~ High unemployment.
~ High energy costs.
~ No emphasis on providing good customer service, although I believe it's slowly changing.
~ The government is slow to come to an agreement on virtually anything.
~ Too much bureaucratic red tape.
~ Graffiti and vandalism.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Germany?
Regardless of the country you've immigrated to, you're not going to do well there unless you begin to integrate yourself into that society. The country doesn't integrate to you, you integrate into the country. It doesn't mean you have to lose your personality or give up all of your own customs, but you need to learn what's customary about where you live and then learn to fit in your own customs around it.

You're going to have to learn the local language -- you can't fit in unless you can effectively communicate with those around you. If you've got an interest in something -- crafts or computers or books, for example -- see about joining a club or group set up around that interest as it's a great way to meet people since you're starting on common ground. Don't be afraid to speak to others...you'll probably find they're friendlier than you imagined. And above all, be positive. It's a lot easier to meet others and fit in when you approach it with a positive outlook.

-Do you have any favorite websites or blogs about Germany?
My blog: Dixie Peach

Other favorite expat-in-Germany blogs:
Mausi
My Euro-American Life