Sunday, May 20, 2018

Tips and traps: how to get the most out of a Germany tour...


It's high time to think about making the most of your time abroad!

Every once in awhile, especially if the weather is grim, I like to offer tips based on my experiences living abroad.  Bill and I have lived in Germany together twice.  The first time we were here, we PCS'd with the Army and stayed for two years.  The second time, Bill took a job with a government contractor.  This time, we're going on four years living near Stuttgart, although Bill did change companies last year.  Besides living in Germany twice, I've also been an Air Force brat in England and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia.  At this point, I've spent a good portion of my life abroad, and I've learned a lot.

Many of my readers are in the United States, finding my posts about what it's like to work in Germany as a government contractor.  I know some of my readers are contemplating a voluntary move to Europe and wanting to know if they can hack it.  I also know there are many excited readers who will be moving to Germany with the military and want to know how to prepare.  Today's post is more or less for those people who are going to be moving to Germany to work for the U.S. government.  It's just a little wisdom I've gleaned after living in this community for awhile.

Tip #1-- Do join a couple of Facebook groups.

Facebook can be an excellent tool when you're abroad.  When Bill and I moved to Germany with the Army in 2007, Facebook was just becoming popular.  I didn't join until we'd lived here a year.  The people I interacted with back then were mostly in the United States.  We lived in a town well away from the military installations, so I didn't really know any Americans, other than a couple of people who had found things I'd written online.  It was kind of isolating living far away from Americans, although in some ways, it was more peaceful.  We had to figure a lot of things out for ourselves.

In 2014, I found several useful Facebook groups started by people in Stuttgart.  They were a wealth of information, especially when we first decided to move.  For instance, the rules regarding pet travel changed from 2009 to 2014.  If I hadn't joined Stuttgart Friends, I would not have known that and it might have complicated our travel plans.  Another great group for newcomers is Moving to Stuttgart. I recommend joining one or both of those groups if you're going to be new to Stuttgart.  You might also join a group related to your hobbies or interests.  They can help you make new friends and gain valuable information.

Trap #1- Don't join too many Facebook groups.

I made the mistake of joining way too many Facebook groups when I moved here in 2014.  I stayed in a few groups for much too long.  It wasn't until last year that I started dropping out of a lot of the groups.  I'm much happier for having left most of them.  Why?  Because when you're in too many Facebook groups, you are more likely to either be annoyed by or annoying to other people.  With every group you join, the potential for getting involved in stupid dramas increases exponentially.  Trust me; I know.  I fully admit that I was involved in way too much of it myself for way too long.

At one point, I was probably in as many as ten groups.  Some weren't a problem because they either weren't that active or they focused on subjects that weren't controversial.  Other groups were problematic because there was a lot of drama, gossip, and petty behavior that ultimately led to hard feelings and precious time stolen.  Living in Germany should be a pleasure.  It's a wonderful opportunity to see and do new things, try new foods, and make new friends.  Being involved in too many Facebook groups can lead to a lot of wasted time online when you should be enjoying Europe.  My advice is to pick maybe three or four groups at the most and, when they are no longer useful, drop out of them.

Tip #2- Don't hesitate to ask for help.

This is another Facebook groups related tip.  Most of the available groups were created with the goal of offering help and support.  There is a learning curve to living in another country, even a place like Germany.  We've all been through it.  So if you have a question about something, don't be afraid to ask for help. Before you ask, be sure to search the group and see if your question has already been answered.  That will help prevent people from getting snarky and causing unnecessary drama.

Trap #2- Don't be too dependent on others for help.

One thing I admire about our first Germany tour was that we had to be self-reliant.  I learned that I didn't need social media to get my needs met here.  Think about it.  Americans have been living in Germany since after World War II and social media has only been around for maybe fifteen years or so.  You don't always have to rely on social media to get an answer.  Sometimes, it's awesome to find your own answers.  It helps you become more resilient and a better traveler.

Tip #3- Do get out and see things on the weekends.

There are so many things to do in the Stuttgart area.  Really... just take a few minutes and look at this blog.  I have written a couple of posts solely dedicated to things to do on Sundays.  You can fill many of your weekends with things to do and not even do the same thing twice for a good long while.  This area is beautiful and very accessible, even if you don't have a car.  Take full advantage of being here.

Trap #3- Don't sit at home on the weekends and watch TV or hang out on the installations.

During our first tour of Germany, Bill and I focused on seeing major European cities.  We flew to a lot of countries and mostly ignored what was in and around Stuttgart.  When we didn't have a trip planned, it wasn't unusual for us to either park our asses at home and watch Netflix, or go to either AAFES or the commissary and shop.  Please don't make that mistake!  The first time we were here, we had to move after barely two years in Germany.  Although we did see a lot of great European cities, we really missed out on local stuff.  Since we are lucky enough to be here a second time, I've made it a goal to see more of what the Stuttgart area has to offer.  Not everyone gets to come back to Germany, so I highly recommend making it a mission to get out there and explore.  This might be your once in a lifetime chance.  Don't blow it!

Tip #4- If you are going to look for information online, consider looking in places other than Facebook or official military sources.

Yesterday, Bill and I visited the beautiful Burgbach Wasserfall.  Although we ran into a couple of Americans during our visit, I have never seen anyone in the local groups write about that waterfall.  I found out about it by myself.  After we visited nearby Glaswaldsee, I searched the community's official Web site and found out about other things to do in Bad Rippoldsau on my own.

Also, sometimes interacting with people who aren't part of the American community can point you in unexpected directions that will enrich your time here.  When we lived here the first time, we had no local Facebook groups, so I haunted Toytown Germany, which was a great forum for English speakers living in Germany.  It was a fascinating place, since it was populated by people from different areas who were in Germany for different reasons.  I gained  insight into German culture that I wouldn't otherwise have.  For instance, it was on Toytown Germany that I learned that many German men sit down to pee.  Suddenly, the funny postcard that was posted by my landlord in his downstairs WC made perfect sense.  Since many people on that forum are not here strictly to work for the United States, you get a different perspective about life as an expat.  It can also be a valuable resource for finding certain items you might be missing, especially if you don't have access to the facilities on post.

Trap #4- But don't rely on unofficial sources when it comes to your work or any other official business...

This probably goes without saying.  Obviously, you're going to want official information for anything pertaining to the U.S. military or government, or whomever is your employer.  I mention it because some people really are that dumb.  Of course, they probably aren't reading this post.

Tip #5- Consider making friends with a local, even if it's only online.

It's probably obvious, but I spend a lot of time online in different communities around the Web.  I had the good fortune to make friends with a couple of native Germans before we moved here the second time.  One friend is someone I met when we adopted our dog, Arran.  She was married to an American who was in the Army.  She lives in the States, but was very helpful when moved back to Germany.

Another friend is someone I met on a messageboard.  I have never met her in person, but she lives in the area and has been extremely helpful to me since we've lived here.  She answers questions about the culture, suggests places to visit, and even encourages me to learn German.  I don't even know what she looks like because she's a very private person, but she has definitely made our second stint here a lot more constructive.  And she gets a kick out of reading my blogs, too, sometimes clearing things up when I misunderstand something.

We've also gotten friendly with our neighbors, which makes living here a lot easier.  We were lucky enough to find a really nice neighborhood where people are laid back.  More on that in a minute.

Trap #5- But don't forget OPSEC.

This, too, should go without saying.  Make friends, but be careful about what you say and do.  Loose lips sink ships, as the old saying goes.

Tip #6- If you are allowed to live off post, consider living further away from the installations.

Traffic in Stuttgart can be absolutely hellish.  However, if you choose to live a bit further out, you might get more out of your stay in Germany.  Why?  Because you won't be surrounded by Americans or the drama that can come from being around the installations.  You will learn to be more self-reliant, getting the hang of things like shopping in German grocery stores, paying bills, eating in restaurants, and seeing things you wouldn't ordinarily see.

You can typically get more house for your money away from the installations and, with some exceptions, people tend to be friendlier away from the built up areas.  We lived in a friendly neighborhood when we lived here the first time, but it took a really long time before people would talk to us.  I think we may have been the first Americans in that neighborhood.  Since we've been back, we've run into our old neighbors, who were actually happy to see us.  The neighborhood where we live now is even friendlier than the first one was.  Last year, we even had a neighborhood party.  Many neighborhoods outside of the military hotbeds have train stations or offer bus service, which can take some of the pain out of the traffic.

Trap #6- But definitely consider your lifestyle.

Living in Unterjettingen works fine for Bill and me.  We brought two cars with us, so not having a nearby train station is okay.  We also don't have children and we like quiet.  Obviously, some people prefer to be closer to the city for whatever reason.  If that's you, carefully consider your lifestyle before deciding to live way out in the boonies.  It may not work out for you and moving is an expensive pain in the butt.

Tip #7- Consider buying personal liability insurance.

Trust me, it's not a scam.  You may also want to consider pet liability insurance, legal insurance, ADAC (or another auto club), and joining your local "Mietverein".  Bill and I have all of these resources at our disposal.  They don't cost much and provide great piece of mind.  Our liability insurance has already paid for itself.

Trap #7- Don't rely on American insurance to cover your needs.

I'm being very serious.  Germans can be very litigious.  Chances are good that if you have a mishap while you're here, whatever USAA offers is not going to be enough coverage.  Talk to Gerhard Koch. He's in a lot of the local Facebook groups and he can hook you up.  His English is perfect, too.

Tip #8- Do consider bringing your pets.

Pets can be wonderful companions when you're a long way from home.  During our first tour, our dog Flea was singlehandedly responsible for getting our neighbors to talk to us.  Our current dogs, Zane and Arran, have helped me make friends with people in our neighborhood and provide incentive for me to get off my ass and take walks in the nature park near where we live.  They also make good watchdogs and discourage people from breaking into your home.  Most of the burglars in these parts don't want to hassle with houses where dogs live because they make too much noise.

Trap #8- But again, consider your lifestyle.

It is becoming more difficult to travel abroad with pets (Lufthansa for the win, if you're allowed to fly with them).  Some German landlords don't like to rent to people with pets because they can make messes and too much noise.  And, when you want to travel, it can be a pain to either find someone to take care of them or travel with them.  However, while we did often use a dog pension the first time we lived here, this time, we have learned to travel with Zane and Arran.  It's very doable in Europe because Europe is very dog friendly.  I think it's best to bring pets if there will be someone available to be with them during the day.  Germans don't like it when you leave your pets home alone for too long.  Also, indoor cats are not really a thing here.


One of our neighborhood cats, just hanging around...

Tip #9- Look at real estate ads to get a feel for what houses are like here.

German houses are different than American houses.  While the military provides a fairly generous housing allowance, not all contractors do.  The contractor that initially hired Bill only gave us enough money to ship 5000 pounds of household goods.  We already knew from the last time here that we wouldn't necessarily end up in a tiny house.  On the other hand, we also knew that we could end up in a place unlike our first house (and we did).  So look at pictures to get a sense of what you should bring with you and what could be left in storage or disposed of in some way.

Trap #9- Don't try too hard to househunt from the United States.

The real estate market here is CRAZY.  While I understand how tempting it is to househunt from the States, whatever you find while you're there will probably be long gone before you get to Germany.  German landlords are allowed to be more discriminatory, since it's fairly hard to evict people here.  They'll want to meet you and your family and any pets before they turn over the keys to your home.  Most people end up in temporary housing when they get to Germany.  It sucks, but it's part of life.  So embrace the suck and don't waste time trying to find a house before you move here.  Chances are good that you won't succeed, unless you have a lot of help from someone who is already here.

Tip #10- Consider staying in a long term apartment instead of a hotel room when you first get here.

The first time we lived in Germany, we lived in a very simple German hotel for about six weeks.  Living in a hotel room with two dogs gets very old.  Since our return, a number of short term apartments have become available and there's also Booking.com and Airbnb.  This time, we spent a week in a hotel and then moved to an apartment, which wasn't ideal, but was a lot better and more cost effective than the hotel was.  Check Stuttgart Bookoo for leads, although be aware that the site is closed on Sundays.

Trap #10- Don't be too picky about housing, but also don't be too quick to lease.

Remember, you're hiring a landlord.  Some landlords are awesome and some are nightmares.  Bill and I tend to be too eager to sign leases.  While I do like our neighborhood, I don't necessarily love our house.  Sometimes, I wish we'd held out a little longer.  But then I remember that real estate is CRAZY in Stuttgart and thank God that we did find a place that has most of what we need and landlords who are basically decent folks.  Some people look for months.

In conclusion...

I could probably go on with more tips and traps, but I think this post is long enough for today.  I may write a follow up at a later time, depending on how well this post is received.  I do hope that if you're reading this, you find this information helpful.  And if you're thinking of taking a contractor job, allow me to offer some encouragement.  Bill and I have loved most every minute of our time in Germany during both tours.  We see the opportunity to live here as a tremendous gift.  And even if we didn't like it here, we know that living here might make us appreciate the United States more.  At the very least, it's really broadened our perspectives in so many ways.  So try it... you might like it!

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