Surviving and Thriving in Our First Year in Germany

Turns out, mom was right – time flies as you get older.

It’s been a year since we first stepped into our new home in Wiesbaden, and we’re still noticing some of the nuances of living in Europe.

Even when we think we’ve caught on to 3-hour dinners, 10 pm sunsets in April, festivals celebrating everything from major holidays to asparagus, there is always something new to explore and learn.

Here are a few things I learned, some the hard way, in the past year that I didn’t expect.

Flat and Chunky

In virtually every city (or small village), cobblestone, brick and dirt roads make up most of the terrain. I retired my 4-inch heels and conformed to the world of flats, chunky wedges and boots after my heel got stuck between pavers three times leaving church.

My love of shoes runs deep. At my peak, I owned nearly fifty pair, excluding softball spikes and flipflops. Now, I wear about six or seven sensible pairs – including rainboots and hiking shoes.

Germans love walking and being outdoors in general. They are out walking, biking, playing sports and dining at cafes no matter the weather. Hessen Park, the local living history museum, has an exhibit about their first hiking clubs.

There are some brave souls who strut in stilettos across the rugged and hilly landscapes. Maybe after four more years here, I could be one of those women instead of the one tripping in the street swearing loudly in English.

Pronunciation – It’s everything

Had we known how challenging the German language is to learn, we would have been more diligent in learning the basics before we moved.

However, we’ve found it’s not really necessary to speak German. The locals can spot Americans a mile away. It’s usually our happy smiles and polite greetings to strangers that set us apart, not to mention our delayed attempts at German with choppy pronunciation.

Six months into our journey, I took a German language class on base. The German language doesn’t believe in more than one sound per letter nor in silent letters. Every letter is pronounced in every word and sometimes, words are combined to make new words. Hence, the extremely long and complicated looking words.

German has a lot of fun phrases that don’t really translate well to English. What we call emotional weight gain, Germans call Kummerspeck (grief bacon). A jacket that is too heavy for spring, but too light for winter actually has a name in German – Übergangsschicht (transition coat between seasons).

Pronunciation is KEY in German. I learned that a bit late when our teacher explained how I had been telling a few people good naked (guten nackt) instead of good night (guten nacht).

Of course the way I said good night was also incorrect as that meaning is good night, I’m off to bed vs greeting someone with good evening (guten abend). Luckily the Germans are pretty forgiving and likely mock us in private when we have such blunders.

Sadly, we are no closer to speaking German than we were nine months ago. We have sticky notes all over the house and books with German vocabulary words, but we are far from conversational speaking. Maybe this time next year I can swear in German when I trip over my heels in the street! Small goals are good.

Slow Down – Familienzeit

Wiesbaden is a busy city. Restaurants, beer gardens, museums and shopping areas fill the downtown and suburban areas. Except for Sundays.

Most places of business close on Sunday to ensure people can spend time with their families and loved ones. A crazy concept for us Americans who are used to stores open 24/7 for our convenience, and their profits.

My idea of family time (Familienzeit) used to mean yard work on the weekends and running errands after church. Here, we’re not even allowed to mow the lawn or do other work that could be loud and disturbing to our neighbors on Sundays.

Seeing how much Germans value down time, travel, hiking – anything that brings enjoyment – encourages us to do the same. It has forced us to slow down really explore the possibilities for adventure that surrounds us.

From our house, a six-hour drive in virtually any direction can put us into six of the nine countries that border Germany. Though the girls and I are disappointed we don’t get passport stamps every time we cross a border, the opportunities are amazing.

The girls may not remember every city we visit or museum we tour, but they will remember how we made the most of the time here and together. As our years here slip by, we’ll work keep that love of adventure, outdoors and family time that Germany is teaching us no matter where we land in four years.

Alone, But Not Lonely, for the Holidays

It’s our first Christmas in Germany. 

The markets, decorations and traditional fanfare put us the holiday spirit – not to mention the glühwein. Yet there is something that feels, well, a little different.

We’ve lived hundreds of miles from our families for the past decade. We’re used to missing out on birthday parties, summer picnics and even first Communions and graduations. 

But, other than the years our daughters were born, we always piled in the car and took the 12-hour drive to Illinois for Christmas. This year, being more than an ocean away, we’re celebrating solo. Kind of…

Americans are Abundant in Germany

Thousands of Americans are stationed in the Wiesbaden area. Army and Air Force bases populate the country in all directions so we are by no means alone in Germany.

Our girls attend American schools on base. The USO and MWR provide a lot of opportunities to gather and celebrate traditional American holidays. So while we may not celebrate holidays with our relatives, we often celebrate together.

We’re off-post for housing, but the neighbor kids welcomed our girls to the area with playing in their pools and on their trampolines within days of moving in. Their parents offer us tips on which festivals are worth traveling to, and there is always some kind of festival happening, and which are not.

We joined PTAs, spouses clubs, churches, sports and Girl Scouts. We’re active and busy with a mix of American and German groups. We enjoy sitting in the stands with other parents recording soccer games or school concerts so Stateside family can see our children perform. Even when we wish they could be here live.

Surrogate Families are Mandatory for Survival

There are certainly things we miss about living in the States, but the travel and cultural opportunities make up for the lack of Target stores or Chick fil A restaurants.

Most Germans speak English, even if they say it’s only a little bit. They are friendly and helpful when we politely ask for assistance and butcher their language in attempts to blend in. In my defense, good night and good naked are only separated by a hard phlegm ‘ch’ sound.

We’ve been lucky in finding amazing friends as we all try to assimilate to our new homes. The trifecta in parenting – when you, your spouse and your kids all get along with another family – isn’t very common. Lightening hit us multiple times.

Much like our time in DC, these groups of coworkers, spouses and neighbors become our surrogate families for the duration of our assignment. These surrogates carry us through the homesickness, share the holidays and celebrate the milestones with us. Without them, we’d be very lonely.

Opening Our Doors

A few of our voyaging friends and family dusted off their passports over the summer and some continue to book trips in the coming years. We’re thrilled to have a home that accommodates multiple visitors and hope some will consider joining us for Christmas.

A few years ago my husband would never elect to host a holiday event. It was enough of a challenge convincing him to attend the numerous events we shared with family. Yet, this year, he was the driving force of hosting our holiday gathering.

Being a part of the military/federal community means opening your doors to friends and families who are transitioning and adjusting. You are never the ‘new’ kid on block for long and there is always room for one more at the table for any event.

So even though thousands of military and civilian families spend holidays away from their blood relatives, we band together and make a family from what was once a group of strangers.

We Made It

Across time zones, across the ocean and across the street from amazing bakeries and restaurants. We made it.

I had fears how it would work. Our kids were ready to move in with the neighbors to avoid leaving them. I had my ugly cry as we were sent off with a blessing from our church who has been our family for nearly ten years. We said heartfelt goodbyes to family and friends and to the house where our family began.

I had excitement and anticipation. I had doubts and concerns. We faced nearly two weeks in a hotel room before an eight hour flight to another hotel room a world away from everyone we knew and loved. I had pictured the worst case scenarios for every situation.

To my delightful surprise, it went like clockwork. Airport, flight and arrival – smooth. Adjustment to new time – smooth. Starting school and work, making friends and finding a house – smooth. I’ve been afraid to jinx it, but we’ve all adjusted to living in Wiesbaden, Germany pretty damn good.

We’ve only begun exploring our new home and the vast amount of history, culture, fun and adventure that await us. From local festivals and carnivals to farmer’s markets and amusement parks, we’ve loved everything we’ve seen so far.

We’re learning German (very slowly), getting our house in order and collecting tour books for when family and friends visit this summer. We’re tracking the best wineries and beer tours, so let me know if you have any favorites!

I’ve wondered if this was the right choice for our family since we started discussing the option a year ago. I’m sure there will be times I have insecurities, today, I don’t. The girls made friends from the base hotel and school. Our neighbors include children, and bunnies, and a park with a zip line. We have a large backyard and playroom. We have a room waiting for family to arrive.

We have years to explore and enjoy this chapter. I bet will be better than I ever thought.