A Second Encounter: Returning to Germany to Teach English
| A valley ridge trail offers a glimpse of Eichstätt enveloped in fall colors.
||Every Wednesday and Saturday morning a market is held on the square in front of the town hall.
Thick fog had settled in the Altmühl Valley, limiting visibility, but at my current pace I would have likely arrived late to my morning class. A quick glance at my watch convinced me to pedal faster. Reaching the traffic light I turned to the left and continued on a paved path along the river. The ringing of church bells carried from somewhere behind the gray mist and across the water. This daily bike ride to work, teaching English at a university, and this charming German town had all become elements of my life, indeed, my life itself, and there was no other place for me in the world that could have offered as much fulfillment and satisfaction.
Working for two years as an English instructor at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt (the CUE) was not an opportunity that came to me by accident. During my junior year of college I studied abroad at CUE. Over the course of two semesters spent studying in Eichstätt, a town of 15,000 nestled in the heart of Bavaria, I became enamored with the community, the local culture, and my host country. When I returned to America for my final year of undergraduate studies I desired nothing more than to return to Germany after my graduation. Contacts made among the staff and faculty of the CUE rewarded me with an opportunity: an English teaching position with the university’s Language Center would become available in the following fall, and the university’s application period would soon be opening. After one application and several months of impatient waiting, I had happily advanced to dealing with the practicalities of a move to Germany. I knew better than to expect a carbon copy of my memorable first year in Eichstätt, nor did I hope for such; however, upon returning in the fall of 2008 I soon learned that some conditions remained unchanged.
Bureaucratic Ways in Germany
Most stereotypes originate from some degree of truth, but the popular notion of Germans’ affinity for bureaucracy stems from much more than a mere stretched version of reality. Obtaining a visa or residency permit in general for Germany requires a great amount of patience, and it helps to understand the long process from the beginning. One befuddling problem that seems to rise often is the requirement, with some visas, that the applicant also provide proof of a German bank account; however, most German banks will not allow a foreigner to open an account without inspecting the potential customer’s visa. The authorities’ suggested solution is to open an online bank account for which the customer does not usually need to show a visa. In some cases, the visa applicant must also inform the authorities of his salary. If his monthly income is below what the government determines is necessary for adequate living conditions in that part of the country, his visa could be denied. As said, knowing these requirements and expectations before arriving in Germany will be to any expatriate’s advantage.
The sometimes stressful bureaucracy continues upon obtaining a new job. While the initial paperwork associated with the actual teaching position did not necessarily seem unreasonable, signing general employment agreements, the university teaching contract (Lehrauftrag), and even a form verifying that I had received my office key, other jobs presented an unexpected amount of paperwork and signatures. From time to time I would accept various German-English translation work from the university staff and faculty to earn some extra income. Each individual job required a separate employment contract, as well as other documents, before I could begin the actual work. One example: I left a professor’s office believing that I had signed the employment contract and was ready to begin the job. About a week later an email from the professor notified me that my signature was needed yet again.Back in her office the professor explained to me that the first document merely authorized her and the staff to write the actual contract, which only now was prepared for me to sign. This facet of German society amounted to brief annoyances for me most of the time; however, other common German practices could lead to greater headaches for foreigners attempting to establish a home in the country.
Over the course of my work in Germany I called two apartments home, and, in my case, I was lucky in terms of the search and move. Both apartments were located in buildings actually built to house students of the university, but the property owners were willing to make exceptions. When Germans move from one apartment to another, they often take items with them that to Americans seem like permanent features in the unit. This common practice means that they may literally take everything and the kitchen sink with them. An available apartment may offer little more than a floor, ceiling, and walls. Because my apartments were intended for students, however, they came furnished with kitchen and bathroom features, as well as some basic furniture.While walking through the apartment, a potential renter should confirm with the landlord what will stay and what will go. When moving in, the new renter should then take several photographs of the apartment as it originally appeared at the beginning of the lease period for protection when the time comes to leave—as I discovered.
German landlords will conduct the move-out inspection very thoroughly, akin to a drill sergeant looking over recruits’ barracks. Should the renter want all of the safety deposit to be returned, which likely will amount to a few months rent, cleaning the apartment should not be reduced to a couple hours of work. The potential for stacks of paperwork and uptight landlords, however, should not prevent someone from taking a job in Germany.
The Office Climate
The first time I arrived for work at the university I was anxious. Although familiar with the German focus on order, I wondered if my boss and colleagues would present a similar air of rigid adherence to rules, policy, and etiquette. What I had also already heard of German office customs did not help. German colleagues supposedly maintain a strict division between professional and social life; the two are not meant to converge. No matter how many years they have worked side by side, Herr Schmidt will continue to call for Frau Schwarz and vice versa, never progressing to a first name basis. Similarly, they will continue to address one another with Sie, the formal version of you, rather than du. Fortunately, what I found shattered some of these German stereotypes and ran counter to what I had previously learned.
While some workplace formalities persisted, the welcoming atmosphere that greeted me rarely allowed these customs to feel oppressive. My supervisor and the director of the Language Center was a friendly and professional woman who from the beginning wanted to hear about my background and travel experiences. Even if we did always use Sie in our conversations, she often referred to me as Nicholas rather than Herr Oyler. My colleagues and fellow teachers in the Language Center were a diverse assortment of nationalities representing the various languages taught at the university.Perhaps it was this international environment that relaxed the German customs of the workplace. Though we never broke that formal “you” barrier when speaking in German, even at the Christmas parties, we were nevertheless interested in socializing with one another and discussing our lives back in our home countries. A supportive handful of American and British instructors were also often willing to provide some advice. In the end, the greatest barrier to me connecting better with my colleagues was not any German custom, but my youth in comparison to most of the other instructors.
Finding friends proved easy because of the university’s strong presence in Eichstätt. The thousands of students presented a large group of contemporaries for me to meet and spend time with. I decided to help out with the international student organization, and met several other foreigners who became good friends. With each semester I enjoyed meeting the new foreign students and assisting them with the adjustment to German life.
While hesitant at first to socialize with some of my students, I came to realize that these German young adults were usually mature enough to distinguish between my identities as a teacher in the classroom and another twenty-something-year-old outside of it. Eichstätt is so small anyway that not a day would go by without randomly crossing paths with a familiar face on the street or in a restaurant.In this sense, interaction outside of the classroom between me and my students was inevitable.
Whether with students of mine or not, new friendships were often founded and strengthened over beer in the town’s many bars and pubs. The most popular of these was the university sponsored student bar, Die Theke, and its popularity could be attributed to one thing—its cheapness.Here students and non-students alike could hand over the equivalence of slightly less than US$2.00 and receive slightly more than a pint (half a liter) of some of Germany’s finest beer. Unlike what one might expect from a college bar in America, the students here did not come with the goal of getting drunk and listening to loud music; rather it was most often a setting of pure German Gemütlichkeit, that warm feeling of coziness and hospitality, where friends came to talk, gossip, and simply enjoy each other’s company.
This was a sensation ever present on the quaint streets of Eichstätt. Perhaps in their offices the locals followed the strict rules of German etiquette, but a more informal character permeated the community. On leafy squares in the shadow of the cathedral friends and families sat on the café terraces, equally as likely to be enjoying Greek or Italian food as German.Narrow cobblestone lanes and alleys wandered through the old town, where beautiful Baroque buildings in pastel shades of blue, yellow, and red reminded one of fairytales heard as a child. Not to forget one’s location, blue and white Bavarian flags waved on the flag poles of many buildings. Bavaria is unquestionably the proudest of the German states. The delicious smells of fresh pretzels and delectable sweets wafted through the air, enticing passersby to enter into the many bakeries spread around town to cater to the Germans’ love for fresh bread. In spite of such enchanting settings, Germans are described as cold and unfriendly; but this stereotype is based on a misunderstood truth.
Yes, Germans tend to hold back a bit before strangers, but once a friendship or connection has been established they will want to talk, share memories, and have fun as much as any other nationality.I often felt that the Germans’ joy of life easily rivals that of the French and Italians. Eichstätt seemed to find an excuse for a festival or celebration at least every few weeks of the year. During Christmastime a charming Christmas Market would set up on one of the town’s main squares and the townspeople would come together to enjoy warm drinks like Glühwein, sit around bonfires, listen to music performances, and peruse the stalls selling various gifts and trinkets. The summer months were marked by a different festival seemingly every weekend, where young girls would buy giant gingerbread hearts and wear them as necklaces, and proud Bavarians wore the traditional lederhosen and dirndl dresses of yesteryear.A Sunday in any season brought out elderly couples to stroll along the river, up to the valley ridges, or by the shops of the old town.
During my two years of working in Germany I never needed a car. Within Eichstätt my two feet or my bike were all I ever needed to travel anywhere. A supermarket was no more than a five-minute walk from my apartment. Leaving Eichstätt presented no problems either, as efficient German public transportation and the national railway system connected me with every imaginable destination within the country and beyond its borders to the rest of Europe.For me, not driving a car for my every need revealed how much stress doing so could actually cause.
As I pedaled my bike through the fog that one brisk morning, a few weeks into my first semester as a university instructor, I may not have realized it then, but the next two years would provide me with greater insight into German culture. I had returned to Germany already familiar with the country and its culture, but the next two years would strengthen that familiarity even more, and leave room for surprises. One cannot summarize cultures at any scale—national, regional, or local—into simple stereotypes or descriptions because of their depth, intricacy, and ever-changing nature. To truly experience a culture one must live in it. Because of my time as an expat, Eichstätt is now forever a part of my identity.
I left Germany because I felt the time had come to move on, and I wanted to begin my graduate studies before the country seduced me into staying for many more years. That said, leaving my life in Eichstätt was easy. Eventually my studies will be completed, and when that happens I intend to return overseas in search for the fulfilling and satisfying life that I knew before.
Tips for Living In Germany
- Read apartment leases carefully: German leases often contain a clause that obligates the renter to paint the unit before moving out.The landlords of both of my apartments wrongfully blamed me for alleged damages to the units while living there or when I moved out.I had to argue before they ceased holding me responsible.A good understanding of the lease will help the renter to avoid any surprises.
- English is in high demand: English is a required subject for most German youth in school, and those that go on to university will likely take English courses as well.Furthermore, many employers are constantly requiring some of their employees to learn English.This all means that English teachers are in high demand in Germany.Make inquiries at universities and language schools about any openings.A lack of a background in education or teaching may be overlooked with a native speaker of English.
- Learn some German: Though hostility towards foreigners or Americans was rare during my experience, learning and using at least a few basic words of German will create good impressions.Germans will appreciate an attempt at speaking their language.Once they recognize an American accent though, they will likely be eager to practice their English.
- Purchase a BahnCard: These cards are sold by Deutsche Bahn, the national passenger rail carrier.Valid for one year, the bearers of the cards receive 25% or 50% reductions on all train tickets, depending on the version bought.If planning on traveling frequently, these are essentially a gift from Deutsche Bahn.
- When in Germany, Do as the Germans Do: This book by Hyde Flippo provides excellent information on German culture in an easy-to-read format. Any Americans preparing to settle in Germany would find this book a beneficial primer on the country.
- www.howtogermany.com: A website for expatriates in Germany with helpful information on the practicalities of living in the country.
- www.germany.info:This is the official website of the German embassy and consulates in the United States.Available is useful information about the visa requirements.
- Lonely Planet:This series was my travel guide of choice while living in Germany due to its emphasis on connecting with the local culture. A limited amount of the information contained in its books is also available at www.lonelyplanet.com.
- www.bahn.de:The website of Deutsche Bahn offers schedules for all trains in the country and even Europe, and is an essential source when planning travel by such means.The link to the English version is in the top right of the page.