Tag Archives: Moving

Good Neighbours

My weekly German lessons follow a textbook, the current chapter of which is “Nebenan und Nachbarschaft”, or “Next Door and Neighbourhood”. Truth be told, much of my German lesson time is spent just chatting with my teacher and hearing a lot about life in the DDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany). I get a lot of practice listening, and learn about German society and history in the process. Last week, however, a discussion prompt in the textbook led to a discussion of German attitudes towards neighbours in comparison to American attitudes. Two points in particular were striking.


In Germany, people usually stay relatively close to where they grew up. My friends here live in the towns where they were raised, or a short drive (we’re talking minutes, not hours) away. When people move, they make a home for themselves in the new place, but are often already familiar with the area and have networks of people around, either in the new place or close by. This is quite different to the situation in the US, where the touted cultural expectation is often that young people will leave and start their own lives somewhere else, somewhere far away. (Interestingly, though the data do not bear this out, the cultural interest remains.)

Perhaps, my German teacher suggested during our discussion of an audio recording we heard during the lesson, it is this movement between places that has led to connections among neighbours. In my experiences living in the US, people make an effort to get to know each other, they have regular social gatherings, and it is not uncommon to knock on a new neighbour’s door to drop off baked goods and introduce oneself. Whenever I visit my parents, I am stunned by the number of people my mum greets by name when out walking the dog. (A brief anecdote about who they are in the neighbourhood usually follows.)

Although greeting a new neighbour with baked goods is utterly unheard of in Germany, I have found my neighbours to be quite friendly. I know a few names and greet the others around town when I see them. It is common for German neighbours to collect deliveries for each other, and I gave my neighbours the keys once to let in a repair person during the day, another perfectly common interaction. People water each other’s plants, but a social gathering would likely be out of the question, and possibly seen as an affront on much-desired privacy.

Perhaps a different environment is borne from being new to a place, from the need to learn more about the local school district, for example, and find a mechanic as soon as one settles in. German neighbours live side-by-side and are respectful of one another’s space; American neighbours might be looking for community, which Germans already have elsewhere.

Levels of relationships

The search (or not) for community upon arriving in a place might help create different levels of relationships among people. When you’re alone in a place, you need people, whether for social contact, general assistance moving house, or getting to know the area. Perhaps this creates closer bonds from the outset than in environments where people already have social networks, and perhaps cultural expectations about the relationships people have with their neighbours make it easier (or more difficult) to get to know them in some places rather than others.

For example, a friend in Denver has sent me photos of his neighbourhood spaghetti dinners, and a Canadian born-and-raised friend whose mother tongue is Swiss-German lamented how hard it was to make friends during a decade in Switzerland as an adult because people moved in the same circles they had since grade school. Many of the people I’ve met in Germany have known each other since their own school time, and even if they’re no longer close, they greet each other in the street. Perhaps when people have so many connections that stretch back so far, they don’t have the same need to look for new ones.

A phenomenon that I really like here in Germany is that of Mehrgenerationenhäuser, or “multiple generation houses”. This is the idea that people of all ages live in the same house (apartment building) with the intention of interacting with and helping each other. Older residents might provide childcare for the children of working residents, while those working-age residents might help older residents with household tasks. This is a commitment to knowing one’s neighbours in a society where people already have strong social bonds, perhaps indicating that strong relationships between neighbours would not otherwise evolve.

It was an interesting conversation to have during my German lesson, an interesting look into societal differences that tell us something about culture and attitudes. These are differences that might not be obvious from the beginning, but become increasingly so the more one looks around. And like many aspects of society, this demonstrates that there are many ways of being, and that one way is not better or worse than another. Rather, these ways of being create the culture and environment of a place, and it is to this that people adapt when moving across borders.

Different Eyes

“I don’t understand how you live in different places,” a close friend once said to me. “I just feel so much better knowing how things work.”

I can absolutely understand this. Sometimes, it really is tiring to attempt something utterly banal and find yourself needing to learn a new way of doing it. For example, ATM cards in Singapore only work in bank-specific ATMs and those of their partner banks. And I don’t mean being charged a fee – I mean the card actually being accepted by the machine. Just a few months ago, a quick trip to the grocery store for flour turned into a research project about which German flour is closest to North American all-purpose flour. So I completely understand my friend’s comment. Figuring out the intricacies of living in different societies, all the small things that we take for granted until forced to think about them, can certainly be inconvenient.

However, it can also be a phenomenal opportunity to learn that there are multiple ways of doing things; that there is not necessarily right or wrong, but often just different; that people of the world have so much to share with one another.

Life in Malaysia got easier when I let go of expectations for processes and procedures. The thing would happen, just on a different timeline and with more paperwork than I was used to. There would probably be setbacks and changes. No one else was agitated or anxious, so there was no reason I should be. Just because I wanted something and had a picture it my head of what that might look like did not mean it should, would, or needed to turn out that way. Things happened and society functioned. (Full disclosure: Steep learning curve and many tears, but I am far more relaxed about procedures and waiting times than I used to be.)

It’s not only a matter of bureaucracy, though. Being in a new place requires letting go of certain deeply ingrained values, or at least a willingness to look at them carefully. The issue of media censorship in Singapore was particularly interesting to me, as someone raised in American schools in which freedom of speech is touted as the value above all values. Just because I had always understood this issue one way did not mean I should only understand it one way. Just because one society functioned based on a certain set of norms did not mean the other should, or needed to, adhere to the same norms. My understanding of the word “free” has become far more nuanced, and I have a different appreciation for the types of roles that governments take.

More recently, a comment to a friend that came as naturally to me as breathing has given me pause. I listened for a few moments and responded, “Sounds like a productive day,” something I’ve said without thinking in response to many descriptions of many days. And then came the reply: “It was a nice day. A good day. It didn’t have to be productive.” Oh. Right. (I knew I moved to Europe for a reason.) We went on to talk about productivity as an American preoccupation, one used to judge how worthwhile our lives are. A few years ago, I wrote about the problems that lie in looking to be, and claiming to be, constantly busy. I argued then that we can choose differently. In my own life I often do, but there’s clearly a deeply rooted cultural understanding or expectation of which I was unaware.

It is interesting to have this pointed out, and confronting in that it requires me to look into myself and at how I am made. We are all shaped by our experiences, and I find these compelling to dissect. This does not mean discarding all of the “old” in favour of the “new”, but rather understanding the influences I want to maintain in my current worldview and those that might benefit from revision.

As I see it, cultivating open-minded curiosity about the world around us is how we grow. This is what I have learned in my journey through the world, and this is what I hope to continually learn as the journey moves forward.

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

Six Months and One Year

I arrived in Germany six months ago. This is significant because six months is generally my benchmark for how I feel being in a new place. In the past, it has taken me six months to adjust, to feel comfortable, to feel like I know how to live wherever I’ve landed. It was like this in Malaysia, in New York, and during both of my stints in Singapore.

Interestingly, it has not been like this here. I’ve been here six months but I’ve felt right about being here for much longer, right in that the world I am living in makes sense to me. It’s been a while since I’ve known this feeling.

Certainly, it took time. July in particular was a rough month, one of those times I expected but for which there is no way to prepare, and my chest tightens just thinking about it. School started in August, which meant I had a purpose and a schedule, responsibilities and things to do. I met some people, started climbing in earnest again, met some more people. I felt and continue to feel incredibly fortunate.

Time moved. The weather changed. Days and weeks found a rhythm, the weather changed again, life took on a new pace. I learned to let go a little, to walk a little more slowly. I have become more comfortable focusing on walking rather than arriving, being rather than doing. Questions that had once been scary seemed not as scary, and the things that keep me awake at night (I’ve never been good at sleeping) have shifted in form and morphed in time.

The first time a friend said, “Welcome back,” I really was glad to be back. That has been true each time since.

If I’m honest, I am surprised and it’s a lovely feeling.

I had hoped for this, even as I tried not to have expectations. It would be nice to rest for a while.

It has been a year since I knew I was moving to a town in Germany that I needed a map to place. A year since the pressure of finding a job morphed into the anxiety of actually moving. A year since almost everyone, laughing with me, asked, “Are you sure? What are you going to do there?” The comment that reassured me was a simple one: “You’re not really a city girl,” a friend said. “You’re a kopi at the hawker girl. You’ll love it.” (I’m not though I’ve tried; I really am; I think I could.)

One year ago, I couldn’t sleep because of all the silly but critical things that ran through my mind once the big things were decided and then immediately put on hold. I was preoccupied with a concern that, once raised, became a focal point, a representation of simple things that become difficult when life changes. How was I supposed to get a driver’s license?

Where do we go for answers in the modern age? Google. And then down the rabbit hole. Past midnight, of course. (My mum always told us that nothing good happens after midnight, which reverberated in my sore head as I opened tab after tab.) I read this page and then this page.* And then I read them again. I sent a panicked message to a friend and kept reading.

The problem is that my driver’s license is from a US state that does not have reciprocity with Germany. At that time, a year ago, I knew the German words that everyone knows (Guten Tag, Auf Wiedersehen, Danke) and I knew that there was no way, absolutely no way, that I would be able to pass a written driving theory test in German. Now that I’ve been learning German for a year, I’m a lot more optimistic that this would one day be possible. I have also since learned that this test is available in English, though I don’t know whether this is also the case with the practical exam.

Six months is important in the world of foreign driver’s licenses, which brings us to the present. In many countries, including Germany, you are allowed a foreign driving license for six months. (In Malaysia, by contrast, I owned a car and drove on an International Driving Permit for a year.) I haven’t yet driven here, but I did get very, very lucky. In the end, I converted my US license to a Singapore license because I could easily manage a written test (available in Singapore’s four official languages), photocopy, passport photo, and several fees. Singapore has reciprocity with Germany. More copies, official translation, passport photo, more fees. Give up the Singapore license and collect the German license.

Moral of the story: Always look into the process of getting a driver’s license wherever you happen to live, whether or not you plan to drive. You never know when it will come in handy.

Six months and one year later, and my world has taken on a form I haven’t known. An adventure, they say, a journey. It is and it continues to be.

I have often returned to a line from Coldplay’s “The Scientist”: Nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be this hard. We played it over and over in high school, and it got old to the point where people would leave the room when a certain friend sat down at the piano.

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was right. To live (and this is a verb) a life is not the same as letting life pass by. It is not the same as passively accepting whatever comes because that is what has come. But it is also not about fighting. In many circumstances, though certainly not all, to live is about the attitude and behaviour with which we walk through the world. It is about open-mindedness, curiosity, flexibility, and being part of what exists around us.

Six months and one year later, I can say that it is not easy and sometimes, it really is hard. But I can also say that I am at peace with the choices I have made. This in itself has a been an adventure and continues to be a journey.

*I include the German Way blog not because I get any kickbacks – I do not – but because it was helpful to me and will hopefully be helpful to others.