Returning to Germany to Teach English
A valley ridge trail offers a glimpse of Eichstätt, in Bavaria, enveloped in fall colors.
Thick fog had settled in the Altmühl Valley, limiting visibility. Yet, at my current pace, I would have likely arrived late to my morning class. A glance at my watch convinced me to pedal faster. Reaching the traffic light, I turned left and continued on a paved path along the river. The ringing of church bells carried from behind the gray mist and across the water and was soothing. My 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. There was no place for me in the world that could have offered as much fulfillment and satisfaction.
A market takes place every Wednesday and Saturday morning in the square before the town hall.
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 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 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, I soon learned that some conditions remained unchanged.
Bureaucratic Ways in Germany
Most stereotypes originate from at least some degree of truth. Yet, 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 Germany requires tremendous patience, which helps to understand the long process from the beginning. One arcane problem that often arises 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. Sometimes, the visa applicant must also inform the authorities of his salary. The visa can be denied for the applicant if their monthly income is below what the government determines is necessary for adequate living conditions in that part of the country. Knowing these requirements and expectations before arriving in Germany will benefit 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 job requires a separate employment contract and other documents before I could begin the actual work. One example: I left a professor's office believing I had signed the employment contract and was ready to start 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 that the first document merely authorized her and the staff to write the actual contract, which they were finally prepared for me to sign. This facet of German society often amounted to brief annoyances for me; however, other practices could lead to more significant headaches for foreigners attempting to establish a home.
Living Arrangements in Germany
While working in Germany, I called two apartments home. I was lucky in terms of the search and move. Both flats were in buildings built to house students of the university. Regardless, the property owners were willing to make exceptions. When Germans move from one apartment to another, they often take with them items that seem like permanent features in the unit to Americans. This common practice means they may take everything and the kitchen sink. An available apartment may offer little more than a floor, ceiling, and walls. Because my apartments were for students, however, they came furnished with kitchen and bathroom features and 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 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 thoroughly conduct the move-out inspection, akin to a drill sergeant looking over recruits' barracks. Should the renter want their safety deposit back, which likely will amount to a few months' rent, cleaning the apartment should not be minimized. However, the potential for stacks of paperwork and uptight landlords should not prevent someone from taking a job in Germany.
The Office Climate in Germany
I was apprehensive the first time I arrived for work at the university. 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 typically do not 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 soon discovered shattered some of these German stereotypes.
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 initially wanted to hear about my background and travel experiences. Even if we always use Sie in conversations, she often referred to me as Nicholas rather than Herr Oyler. My colleagues and fellow teachers in the Language Center were of diverse nationalities, representing the various languages taught at the university. 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 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 most significant barrier to connecting better with my colleagues was not German customs but my youth compared 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 with the international student organization and met several other foreigners who became good friends. Each semester, I enjoyed meeting the new international students and assisting them with adjusting to German life.
The author enjoys a typical evening with friends in a restaurant.
While initially hesitant to socialize with some of my students, I realized 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 that no day would go by without randomly crossing paths with a familiar face on the street or in a restaurant. In this sense, interaction between me and my students was inevitable outside the classroom.
Whether with my students 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 was because it was cheap. Here, students and non-students could hand over the equivalence of less than US$ 2.00 and receive 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 to get drunk and listen to loud music; instead, 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.
The same atmosphere was pervasive on the quaint streets of Eichstätt. Perhaps in their offices, the locals followed the strict rules of German etiquette. Yet, 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 the many bakeries spread around town to cater to the Germans' love for fresh bread. Despite such enchanting settings, some perceive Germans as cold and unfriendly, though fundamental misunderstandings are part of this stereotype.
Yes, Germans tend to hold back a bit before strangers. Still, once a friendship or connection develops, they want to talk, share memories, and have fun as much as any other nationality. I often felt that the Germans' enjoyment of life 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. The townspeople would come together to enjoy warm drinks like Glühwein, sit around bonfires, listen to music performances, and browse the stalls selling gifts and trinkets. The summer months include a 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 elderly couples to stroll along the river, up to the valley ridges, or by the old town's shops.
I never needed a car during my two years of working in Germany. Within Eichstätt, my two feet or bike were all I needed to travel anywhere, or purchase anything. 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.
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 give me 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 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 forever a part of my identity.
I left Germany because I felt the time had come to move on. I wanted to begin my graduate studies before the country seduced me into staying for many more years. Eventually, I will complete my studies, and when that happens, I intend to return overseas in search of a fulfilling and satisfying life.
Tips for Living In Germany
Read apartment leases carefully: German leases often contain a clause obliging the renter to paint the unit before moving out. The landlords of both of my apartments wrongfully blamed me for alleged damages to the apartments 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 avoid surprises.
English is in great demand: English is a requirement for most German youth in school, and those who attend university will likely take English courses as well. Furthermore, many employers constantly require some employees to learn English. All this 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 less critical when you are 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, they will likely be eager to practice their English.
Purchase a BahnCard: Deutsche Bahn, the national passenger rail carrier, sells a variety of discount BahnCards. Valid for one year, the bearers of the cards receive 25% or 50% reductions on all train tickets, depending on the version bought. If you plan on traveling frequently, these are a gift from Deutsche Bahn.
How to Germany: A site for expatriates in Germany with helpful information on the practicalities of living in the country.
German Missions in the United States: The official website of the German embassy and consulates in the United States with helpful information available about the visa requirements.
The series was my travel guide of choice while living in Germany due to its emphasis on connecting with the local culture.
Some of the information contained in its books is also available on their extensive and slick website.