March 02 2007
-Where were you born?
In Canada, on the Prairies; I grew up in Toronto.
-In which country and city are you living now?
I live in Stuttgart in southern Germany. The city is a well-kept secret, only fans of the German auto industry have heard of it.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
Alone but for (at last count) four computers. I run a software business from home via e-mail and websites.
-How long have you been living in Germany?
Coming up to thirteen years.
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Germany?
I left Canada after high school to study in England, intending to do a five-year course and then return, but ended up living in London for seventeen years! I loved being in Europe, being able to go to Paris for a weekend, hearing a half-dozen languages spoken in the street…well, OK, you get that in Toronto too :-)
But in the end I got tired of living in London, it was too big, too dirty, too expensive, too difficult to get around. I wanted to get away to a smaller city with cleaner air. I had been looking around at other cities in England and abroad (Holland, France) and even considering going back to Canada. I found myself returning to Stuttgart, where I had friends from university days (an exchange programme), and the more I saw of the city and its location, the more I liked it.
Right at the point when my dissatisfaction with London peaked, I got a call from some of those university friends who were setting up an office together in Stuttgart: “Would I like to install and manage their computer system?” I said “yes please,” and was here within two weeks.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
Doesn’t apply; my father is English so I have dual nationality. As long as England is part of the European Union I can live and work anywhere I want. It would have been difficult but not impossible without that.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
No, it’s quite easy: you throw a bag of money at them and they give you an insurance card.
-How do you make your living in Germany? Do you have any type of income generated?
I came on the basis of being offered a job, and still work there part-time. I tend to get work by word-of-mouth: client A recommends me to B. And I have several websites for software projects that I’m running, which bring in a steady trickle of fun money (i.e. not to live on).
-Do you speak German and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I started learning German in England years before I thought of moving here, purely out of curiosity and affection for the films of Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, taking night courses in the Goethe Institut which I can warmly recommend – outside Germany! G.I. courses in Germany are horribly expensive – but it wasn’t until I’d lived here for several years that I really became fluent. My German is accented and somewhat idiosyncratic, but much better than the English of anyone I meet.
I would recommend learning the language, if you are serious about being in a country. Apart from the politeness and usefulness factors, it’s simply fun to be able to eavesdrop on people on the train or in a café.
Do you need to learn German? Not really. Every German of our age speaks at least some English, so you could probably get by with that; but you won’t get far socially or professionally unless you do. Learning the language is worth the effort, just do it.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Yes of course. It tears at my heart to hear friends say “I’m going to see my sister on the weekend,” I would love to be able to do that.
I miss the emptiness and quiet of the Prairies. Germany is a very densely settled country: no valley without a town in it, no mountaintop without a panorama restaurant or a ski chalet. It is almost impossible to be alone in Germany.
I imagined when I moved here, that I would be able to go cross-country skiing every weekend in winter. Wrong! In twelve winters it hasn’t once snowed enough for skiing (not near Stuttgart, anyway).
-Do you have other plans for the future?
Yes, indeed. The best thing about being in Europe is how close together everything is, and how easy to get around: it’s farther from my sister in Saskatchewan to my parents in Toronto, than from Stuttgart to Moscow! I can be in Paris in six hours by train, or in Milan in eight. Integrated public transport systems are a wonderful thing.
I shall be in Spain in May, in New York in July, in Saskatchewan in October, possibly in Venice in September.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I’m renting an apartment (half of the second floor of a six-storey building, which is fairly typical of the size and situation of German housing; there are neither forty-storey towers nor buildings that cover a whole block here, and only a small minority of the population lives in individual houses). It’s 78 square metres (780 square feet) with a balcony on the back (east) side. It costs 550 Euros in rent and a further 150 Euros or so in gas, electricity and water per month; this is very cheap for Stuttgart. It would cost roughly a quarter-million Euros to buy an apartment of this size & position, but few people do buy. Renting is the normal thing to do.
One of the advantages of Europe generally and Stuttgart in particular, is that the cities are very dense. I can walk downtown in twenty minutes (and do at least once a week), or in the other direction I can walk out of town into the forest in twenty minutes. Stuttgart has a half-million population, but is about the same physical size as Prince Albert, Sask., which has only 35 thousand or so.
-What is the cost of living in Germany?
Relative to what? Stuttgart is expensive compared to other German cities (but less expensive than Munich and Berlin) but much cheaper than London or Paris. Food is absurdly expensive by North American standards, expect your grocery bills and the cost of eating out to triple at least when you move here. On the other hand, the quality of food is much higher, and did I mention the beer? Gas is roughly twice the price of that in North America.
The quality of service is miles above anything North America could dream of. No untrained, bored fifteen-year-olds behind the counter here! The Germans expect to be given informed advice when they go shopping. You can’t just work in a bookshop, for example, you need a two-year college course. I love it, and am infuriated by the lousy so-called service in North America when I go back now.
-What do you think about the Germans?
I like the locals and get on well with them. It’s odd, the rest of Germany says that the Schwaben are dour, withdrawn, silent types; but my experience has been the opposite. Stuttgart has the soul of a small town, everyone knows everybody and you cannot walk the length of the Königstrasse (pedestrian shopping street) without meeting a half-dozen acquaintances.
Leaving aside the 2% of the population (every population) which is composed of violent, drunken arseholes who hate the whole world, I believe that you get out of society what you put into it. I expect the people I meet to be friendly, happy, generous and talkative and almost without exception they are so. Even the famously taciturn Stuttgart taxi drivers chatter like magpies when I get into the cab.
The Germans are easy to get along with if you keep your nose clean and your voice down: “work hard, play hard, mind your own business” is the order of the day, and they apply it to themselves too.
Stuttgart has a strong economy (the lowest unemployment rate in Germany) and is the most ethnically mixed city after Hamburg: 25% of the population is not ethnic German. There has been a significant increase in the number of African and Asian faces on the street during the time I’ve lived here, and I have never seen or heard of any problems. Would things be different if the economy turned sour? Yes, very likely.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Germany?
There’s only one negative that comes to mind: the smoking. 99.3% of Germans smoke. I am often the only non-smoker in a group. Because everybody smokes, there is of course no need for non-smoking sections in restaurants, etc.; and where a non-smoking section is marked out, people often ignore the signs and smoke there anyway. It’s utterly disgusting.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Germany?
Try to get out to the country and smaller towns. Big cities are all of a muchness, Berlin is not really that different from Paris or London or Chicago.
Vegetarians will have a hard time eating out in Germany: “food” means “sliced pig” here! My sister and BIL ate Italian or Indian when they visited.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Germany?
My own blog is An Udge and a Wink, but I seldom write about Stuttgart as such. The city has a website, and there are dozens of links to blogs and other webthings at Stuttgart Blog (most of them in German).