One of the reasons I left Asia for Europe was for a better work-life balance, but I admit to uncertainty over what that actually meant. I knew I was looking for something, but I couldn’t articulate precisely what it was. Nevertheless, stating this as a reason for moving in job interviews always led to vigorous nods. Clearly, the work-life balance in Europe was better – but what would that actually look like?
I have often found it hard to judge the amount of “work” I do in the different contexts in which I have taught, not only in terms of the country or age group of students, but also in terms of my career experience. I remember individual lessons taking hours to plan when I was a new teacher, a time commitment that decreased sharply with each lesson under my belt, but twelve years in, I still consistently find that marking a single essay takes about fifteen minutes. As it has been throughout my career, sometimes it is necessary to work late or at home, and sometimes this is a choice. I am juggling arguably more hats now than ever before, but also finding myself less bogged down by minutiae. And after a dozen years in this profession, I continue getting to school early enough to have 40 minutes of prep time before the students arrive – time to drink my coffee, read over my notes, clear my head, and time just in case.
So while I cannot say that my work habits have changed in this search for a better work-life balance, I have sensed a difference in how time is treated. Working in Singapore, the (un)spoken expectation was that people were busy all the time, including on the weekends. In Germany, despite how busy one might be during the week, weekends are a different time and they are meant to be enjoyed. This is not only clear from conversations with colleagues, but also through interactions with students. Rather than asking me if I’ll be available via email over school holidays, my current students ask if they can email me as questions arise and hurry to clarify that they are not expecting answers. I was profoundly touched the first time a student said, “It’s your holiday, too.”
Recently I’ve been talking with a friend about how people in German and American cultures spend leisure time. My American friends often refer to “being productive” or “adulting” (a term I loathe) and my German friends tend to speak in snapshots of specific moments rather than painting a general picture. Unlike when I lived in New York and felt under constant (and unaffordable) pressure to always do something, preferably something new, living in Germany has taught me that all days have something to enjoy, whether they are work days or weekend days. After all, the park is always pretty, even when cycling to work in the rain.
Something I’ve really noticed, however, might have more to do with living in a small town than living in Europe, though I’ve not lived in small towns elsewhere and this is my first time living in Europe. My work-life balance is doubtless better because it only takes me seven minutes to get to work by bike. A trip to the grocery store after school puts me in reach of all other stores I might want to visit, and I’m only five minutes from home. The minimization of commuting time is doubtless significant and provides much more flexibility during the day than I have previously experienced. I do miss certain aspects of life in a big city, but not enough to want to move back to one.
Before moving to Germany, I had a highly romanticized vision of living in Europe in mind: Sitting in the town square and drinking coffee, strolling along cobblestone streets, travelling by train and staring out the window at a green, rolling landscape. After over a year and a half here, I’ve learned that the picture wasn’t too far from accurate: We have cobblestone streets and four town squares, and I have spent time in all of them, sometimes with a coffee; travelling by train is indeed an opportunity to experience a lovely landscape, but also an exercise in patience with delays and missed connections; our park has featured much more in my life that I would have thought before moving here, and just as much as I knew it would upon seeing it for the first time.
While there are certain measurable differences in my daily life now compared to living in Asia, I think there is mostly a different feeling. The expectation of society is not that one works all the time, and the amount of work one does is not a measure of worth, whether self-imposed or through public pressure. This change in attitude has given me space to breathe, to rest, to relax. This is deemed normal, expected, and an important aspect of one’s life rather than a luxury or “waste of time”. There’s balance rather than constant motion, moderation rather than extremity. And perhaps this is what my interviewers with their vigorous nods knew about living in Europe – that I would not find just a work-life balance, but rather a different way of looking at life itself.