Our First Week

Jason here: Moving your family to a new continent is a very effective way to notice everything you take for granted in your everyday life. The past week has been intense, chaotic, and exhausting, but illuminating about how we live our normal lives in Vermont, and how things will be different in Germany.

We left Vermont on Sunday, after a marathon of packing, cleaning, and taking care of logistics to prepare our house for renters. Seeing the majority of things we own crammed into two rooms, while all of our belongings for this coming year fit into around 10 bags and 7 shipped boxes, highlights how our lives revolve around stuff. Our kids stored nearly all of their toys into a lovely wonderland of a closet – perhaps we can hide half of these & dole them out throughout the year we return as surprise “new toys”? Everyone who has spent time abroad with a family says that you should minimize your stuff, so hopefully the kids don’t get too bored with the handful of toys and games we brought – thankfully, most of my toys fit on my hard drive.

The flight to Germany was as smooth as an overnight flight with three kids can be. The kids all slept some, but rarely at the same time, so Ruth & I were awake most of the flight. The only time things got really hairy was when we had to traverse the Frankfurt airport to the proper train track, lugging all of our luggage while one of our kids had a nosebleed. We were all running on fumes, but still running, so we did arrive in Göttingen on time and intact.

From the outside, our apartment building overflows with European charm, with steep red roofs, decorative trim, and the distinctive dual horse heads at the roof peak that offers a memorable landmark for home as we wander the city. Thankfully our apartment is on what we Americans would call the first floor – I suppose in Europe, it would be the ground floor, although it is a half-flight up to the landing. We were met by two staff members from my fellowship hosts, the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, who graciously welcomed us and showed us around the lovely apartment.

While the outside is old-style German, the interior is modern European. 12 foot ceilings with eight foot windows, hardwood floors, shiny stainless appliances, and black-and-white furnishings, with a well-stocked kitchen and pretty much everything we’d need to live. We were prepared to significantly downsize from our sprawling Vermont house, but there’s ample space here for everyone to avoid claustrophobia – and with a minimum of stuff to fill the space, it feels luxuriously open and inviting. It’s really a dream of a homebase to discover Europe for the year.

Aside from the jetlag and general shock of kids waking up in a strange bed/house/country, most of our first week has been spent adjusting to the micro-logistics of everyday life that you never notice in your own home. I’ve moved many times before, including living in London for a semester, but never with three kids who are depending on you to provide the sense of normalcy and confidence that we actually can figure out how to pay for groceries or clean their clothes. Here are a few of the particular challenges we’ve faced in adjusting to our new surroundings:

– Almost no stores take plastic in Germany. In the US, I use almost no cash, paying for virtually everything by debit or credit card. Germany is a cash-based consumer economy, and checks seem absent as well (you pay bills via electronic transfer). I have no idea the history behind this emphasis on cash, but clearly such a system avoids the worst tendencies of American credit driving up debt and destroying savings. However, I do like the convenience of plastic, especially since Euros involve carrying lots of coins.

– Deciphering the German garbage & recycling system is as hard as you might imagine it would be. We’re spoiled in Vermont, both because we can recycle many things and it’s all single-stream – put it in one bin and they sort it all at the recycling facility. Germany has many more categories, requiring more concentration in how you throw things out, but resulting in much less plain waste – you can recycle pretty much any packaging made of plastic or waxed cardboard (milk cartons, clamshells, etc.), and there’s even curbside compost. But learning the system is a chore.

– In Vermont, we live in a pretty little village that requires us to drive nearly everywhere to shop, go to work, take the kids to school, etc. – we actually end up accumulating low mileage each year (a 10-minute commute helps), but there are many short car trips in any given day. In Göttingen, we have no car. Certainly the hardest thing for our kids has been adjusting to the constant need to walk to get anywhere. Even though it’s a compact city & we’ve not needed to walk more than 20 minutes at a time, it’s a major lifestyle shift that will certainly take some time and stamina to adjust to – we get bikes next week, so let’s see how that changes things. Still, the grocery store runs are going to be of a completely different order than our standard supermarket stockpiling in the back of a minivan.

– Nobody here has a Macintosh. I’m on my own for tech support.

– The metric system makes a ton of sense, but at this point I can’t convert easily. Trying to grocery shop while translating German to English, Euros to dollars, and kg to lbs makes things move really slowly. Of all the negative side-effects of American exceptionalism, the failure to metricate may be the stupidest.

Obviously these are all minor matters, as we’re incredibly fortunate to be living in a country with every accustomed amenity and privilege, and to be being treated royally by our hosts. (We have friends spending a year in South Africa volunteering with disabled children, so I’m well aware we have nothing to complain about.) Yet even in these minor matters, it’s enlightening to see what you take for granted each day, and how little shifts in daily routines change your sense of time and space – and how these shifts might linger or dissipate once we return to our real lives in Vermont.

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10 Responses to Our First Week

  1. baerbel79 says:

    Checks were pretty much abandoned by the end of the 1980s, and Germans tend to be very frugal and don’t trust easily, hence the rare use of plastic. Also, the banks charge stores an additional fee for the use of plastic. Therefore, many stores flat-out don’t accept them as to avoid raising their prices to off-set the cost, most grocery stores now do take debit however, credit is less often accepted.
    You may find that German windows are magnificent by comparison however… it’s the little things 🙂
    I hope/swear you will miss many German amenities (like NOT writing checks that only clear three days later, no over-draft fees, no costs for air-conditioning…) when you return to Vermont.

  2. Merri says:

    no plastic? dear friend you have been to the wrong shops, or perhaps the shop-owners were a bit over-suspicious to American cards? surely this could be solved via a German bank account? no macs? wrong people, apparently. very interesting to read your observations of my home country, but i hope you will find out that these particular ones are not generalisable. refreshing to see such a positive attitude to Germany though. good luck with everything.

    • Thanks for the comment. Our Sparkasse account is in the works, but virtually no store we’ve found will take a generic Visa/MC, from big grocery stores to smaller boutiques. In the US, only the smallest independent stores don’t take plastic.

  3. If you find recycling hard, just wait until you have to figure out the washing machine!
    The rest doesn’t look all that different from Middlebury. There are hardly any stores around here that take plastic. I guess small towns have the same hitches everywhere…

    • Corinna Noelke says:

      Oh wait, that’s what I wanted to say! Let’s just say – plan to wait for 2 hours until your wash is done (but it will be cleaner and the cloth live longer)

      • Yes, the washing machine has been a big learning curve. The worst was the night we started it around 10 – it’s outside our bedroom and insanely loud!

  4. Macs: it’s something I keep being surprised about, how few Apple computers there are on the ground in Europe.

  5. Frank Kelleter says:

    just came upon an article about the German cash economy: http://www.faz.net/artikel/C31501/kontaktlos-technologie-bezahlen-in-deutschland-soll-schneller-werden-30486306.html
    It’s in German … but you guys are getting better by the day.
    Most places will accept your debit card (now that you have a bank account)

  6. Frank Kelleter says:

    ps: the article has an interesting (self-explanatory) diagram showing how things have changed since 1994

  7. Pingback: Green Göttingen | Fünf in Deutschland

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