A Year in Germany (Part One)
Usually friends find it hard to keep up with my whereabouts when I was still clinging on tightly to my identity as a nomad. Texts and emails that start with, “Where are you now, Ying?” are not unusual. It was always fun,and privileged to say the least, to come up with a different answer each day. Yes, last week I was in Dubrovnik and today I’m in Ajaccio—life rocks as a traveller. Traipsing from places to places had defined me. While others had labels like “The Career Woman”, “The Fun One”, “The Doctor”, I was simply called “The Wanderer”. That suited me just fine.
But these days, my answer to the question above is less exotic. I’ve been answering ‘Germany’ for a better part of the year.
Yes, The Wanderer have been living in Germany for a year. And a little bit more. Apart from a handful of short road trips (I consider 2 days to 2 weeks short), I have been a true resident of the quiet Hermsdorf.
What’s it like to live in Germany?
I’d imagine life in Berlin or Munich to be pretty exciting. Hermsdorf, in comparison, is truly a little town with not much to offer except for its solitude, its tiny-town charm and its lush nature. A classmate once stopped by our apartment for a coffee and in between sips, suddenly asked, “Are there people living here? It just sounds so… quiet.” She’s right, of course.
It is quiet.
Surprisingly, for a city girl like me, Hermsdorf suited me just fine. It offers me peace and very limited distractions. The air here is always crisp and fresh, even during the hottest days of summer. And space — there’s just so much space to breathe and think. Only the Internet and Netflix are the biggest distractions to my writing.
It’s also a 15-minute drive to Jena, the next nearest city, so it’s not like it’s isolated from the world. In terms of grocery shopping, we have everything we need here, including a small shopping center within 3-minutes walk, a few cheaper alternatives within 10, and a large sprawling Globus where you can get everything and anything there.
My days of living in crazy cities like Kuala Lumpur, London and Singapore are quite over. I think I can no longer keep up with the pace. The last time we were in London for Chris’ birthday, the throng of people maddened me. I felt miserable, whooshing through the dreary underground in a crowded Tube carriage.
I won’t lie to you; I’d have preferred it if Hermsdorf is peppered with cafes at every corner and if there are more variety in terms of people and shops, but who am I kidding? That’s never going to happen.
My daily schedule here runs like a clockwork. Chris makes a mean breakfast every morning, so we’d get up a little early to enjoy a proper breakfast before we start our day. I usually take the 7.51am train and get to my Intensive German Classes in Jena by 8.25 am. Then I spend the next 5 hours free-willingly, allowing myself to be bombarded with the German language.
After class, I ride the train home, cook myself lunch, and spend another few more hours accumulating further German vocabulary by reading books or watching Netflix. On rare (I hope it’ll become more regular now) occasions, I write this blog.
Chris had helped me ease my transition here by turning the biggest and sunniest room of our 5-roomed apartment into my office. He’d built a wooden writing desk for me, and then later added a wooden double-tier document tray to complete my desk. A few months later, he then later built me a cute 4-tiered bookshelf that now stands opposite my desk.
When Chris comes back from work, we have dinner and enjoy our quiet evening together. Weekends are filled with sleep-ins, coffee or dinner with friends, lunch with his family and sometimes a trip or two.
Living With Nature
We spend a fair bit of time, walking in the woods, admiring the changing seasons and just learning to embrace serenity within nature. This is something I’ve never experienced while living in a city. The nature I was exposed to are usually just restricted to potted plants or a park in the city centre, which I don’t even visit so often.
Call it a small-town charm but once you learn to slow down and attune yourself to your surroundings, suddenly life becomes complete and harmonious. As I pay close attention as I walk, the walking experience becomes meditative. Details become more elaborate and colours more vivid.
When the right time comes along, we go hunting for wild mushrooms. Chris taught me to recognise the edible mushrooms from the poisonous ones. We would gather so many of them that we offered some to Chris’ parents and cooked the rest for dinner.
During the summer, when the days are the longest and the sun is at its strongest, we have lunches in the garden or just sometimes lie there in the sun, with some coffee and cake. Weekends would revolve around BBQs with family and friends, road trips to neighbouring towns, camping by the lakes, or just swimming in natural lakes. We seldom visit the outdoor pools because why swim in an artificial one when there’s perfectly clear and refreshing lakes that you can swim in?
Almost No One Speaks English Here
I came to Germany without knowing a word of German, except for Hallo and Danke! When I’d expressed my desire to learn the language till mastery (Level C1) within a year, Chris had arched his eyebrows.
“Are you sure?” He sounded skeptical. “5 hours of lessons every day? 365 days?”
I had nodded my head vigorously. I was so full of hope, motivation and desire to make German my second language.
I thought I’d prove to Chris, that I could do this.
Being no spring chicken to learning languages, I thought I could take on German, just like I did with every other language. To date, apart from being fluent in English, I am also conversational in Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, Italian and some French. I thought I could quickly pick up German like how I did with Italian, but unfortunately, German is downright f#$king difficult.
German native speakers somehow don’t repeat words or certain phrases, making it difficult for foreigners to pick up phrases like how travellers would with Spanish or Italian. Or even Japanese. For example, if you watch enough Japanese movies or anime, you’d pick up phrases like, “Oyasumi! Itadaki-masu! Jya ne! Sugoiineh! Nandeska?” but no matter how much of German I listen to, I don’t hear anything.
The entire sentence sounds like a music piece played in staccato. Zilch. I don’t hear repetitive rhythm or a distinct melody, except that it sounded very much like a music genius banging hard and fast on piano keys.
In the beginning, for at least a month, despite attending classes religiously, my vocabulary was limited to “Hallo, Danke, Ja , Nein and Genau”.
My frustration peaked.
What’s worse was that, apart from one or two friends of Chris’, no one else spoke English. Even the English speakers, would jabber away in rapid German in a group context. The worse part of such gatherings would be when suddenly the room erupts into laugher, and you are there, mute, wondering when the humiliation would ever end.
Chris helped with translations but it wasn’t enough. Being a generally sociable person, I found it very difficult to be reduced to just a smiley-face in meet-ups. I felt very much like a lizard on the wall, observing but not quite part of the group. My presence was superfluous.
With every obstacle that came in my way, after every teary meet-up, I fought hard against the German language. I dedicated almost all my waking-hours to studying it.
As a native English speaker, understanding the grammar was not that difficult. There are many similarities between German and English grammar, but despite the similarities, German has a long list of rules and exceptions that every learner must adhere to–including beginners. Unlike English, which you could use almost immediately from the day you learn it, in German, you just can’t. It’s just not one of those languages where you can let it roll off your tongue.
Say you want to get a coffee.
1) You first must think of the genders of the nouns (if you don’t know what a noun is, then it’s even harder to understand German)
2) Then, you’ll have to decide if the nouns in your sentence would be of the Nominativ, Akkusativ, Dativ or Genitiv case.
3) Then, consider its word order. Is it a Nebensatz or a Hauptsatz?
You couldn’t just say, I’d like a cup of coffee. You can, if that’s all you want to say.
But if you want to say something further, your sentence might sound like this in English literally: “I’d like a cup of coffee because, it to me cold is.”
Know who’s the only other ‘person’ who speaks like that in English? Yoda.
And all that thinking and consideration to just to say a sentence that is in no way profound. Imagine at some point, where you’d like to get to a point where you can actually tell someone something worthwhile?
As time passed, my enthusiasm waned. I was stressed-out and overwhelmed. The words made no sense and the grammar made it difficult for beginners to speak correctly. Short-term gratification was not on offer to fuel my motivation.
But soon, what do you know, within 3 months, something changed. Things started to make sense. I started to see patterns, the grammar rules stick better and I found myself speaking almost decently. I found myself thinking and conjugating the words faster.
I still feel extremely shy to rattle away in German especially in a group setting but I’m getting used to it. It’s finally nice to be able to eavesdrop on conversations and find the right moments to laugh with the rest of the group. Social situations are becoming more comfortable and I find myself getting less anxious to be caught in a conversation with a native German speaker. German TV is becoming comprehensible and I’m now able to enjoy German Youtubbers.
Fast-forward a year later, I feel that German is a subject that should be approached slowly, patiently but efficiently. It is a difficult language to learn and you should kick someone in the shin if they tell you otherwise, but it’s not impossible. You only need time to immerse yourself in the language and whatever you do, just be gentle to yourself.
I don’t find myself fluent in the language yet but I can get around.
What’s Cooking In Our Kitchen Daily
Thankfully, Chris isn’t one of those Germans who expect bread to be served at every meal (there apparently are such people!). Being a world traveller and a food lover himself, he’s flexible with his meal plans so I get to make whatever I want for hot meals. Germany is one of those countries that offer fresh produce for a fraction of the price so planning what to cook is easy. Unfortunately, the place that I live in doesn’t have too many Asian shops around. The closest one is in the next town and even then, they don’t offer too much of a variety.
Still, necessity is the mother of invention. My philosophy when it comes to food is this: if I crave for something from home, then I’ll find a way to make it myself. Even if I can’t find the exact ingredients for Nasi Lemak or Green Chicken Curry, there are other ingredients which can act as substitutes that come pretty close to the real deal. So far, we’ve successfully made Chicken Curry, Masala Vadai, Japanese Gyozas, Hainanese Chicken Rice and so on.
Breakfasts lies in Chris’ domain. After all, he is the Sandwich Meister with years of experience tucked under his belt. From the tender age of 9, he’s been making himself sandwiches, especially right after school. All those years of experience have helped him come up with tones of ideas in terms of sandwich variations.
For me, the only possibility that I see on my bread is butter and cheese. There is never a bread culture in Malaysia and even then, it is just the typical toast and something greasy or sweet to spread on it. If you’ve travelled to a hostel in South East Asia, you’ll know what I mean. These toasts are usually dry and crumbly, and clogs your throat.
Chris fascinates me with the type of bread he’ll get and the combination of spreads, meat and cheese. There’s always a creamy butter base, and then layered with pieces of mild Edamer cheese and Meerrettichsauce spread or fresh greens with cold cuts, or flavoured fresh cheese spread and smoked salmon.
Basically, Chris has got breakfasts nailed down and I’d never dare to interfere. My job is usually to get the coffee machine started and within minutes, we’ll have a delightful spread with piping hot coffee to start the day with.
I’m lucky. I know.
Are you also an expat living abroad? What are your challenges in settling in?