Friday, 17 June 2011

Living in Germany, Can I Really Do This?

nicole is the new black with german hat
Living in Germany, occasionally I suffer from bouts of homesickness. Missing home varies from day to day but it's usually tied to an unpleasant experience and how hormonal I am. Today was a day when I thought briefly, I should just pack this whole show up and take my ass back to America.

I had to pay a visit to the local Zollamt (tax office) to potentially pay duties on a package I received from the States. I received a notice because my package was from an online retailer and Germany wanted to collect their VAT (value added tax). Fair enough, I went to the office, with my receipts printed out, listing all the items and their value and knew it would be an interesting morning. Because the Zollamt, or any Amt in Germany, is always an interesting and a drawn out experience.
Long story short I am finally called forward after checking in and waiting with all the other schmucks that don't support the German economy.

The person who has to inspect my package and assess the tax due on my items was some skinny dude with a ponytail, bad teeth and a tooth pick in his mouth. I could smell his tobacco cologne from the waiting room, he didn't look pleasant but I walk up to him and greet him with a smile. He doesn't greet me back but proceeds to rattle off tons of, I don't know, questions in German. I can decipher the German word for receipt and hand him mine. In German I ask him to please slow down because my German is not so good. He doesn't slow down, but continues to ask me questions but just at a louder tone. Sigh. So at this point he is screaming at me, the same sentence over and over, I know some words and I am close to figuring it out but something breaks in my head and I am paralyzed in confusion. Now don't get me wrong, I can handle myself in these situations, I typically ask someone to translate for me or I can call a friend to translate over the phone but I am extra confused because I could have sworn I overheard him talking in English to the person ahead of me.

How could I be so sure he was speaking English? As a person who doesn't speak the dominant language, you get used to not understanding the general ramblings, mutterings, and side conversations of the locals. Everything after a while almost sounds like that “mwa mwa mwa” noise the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoon make. It enables you to be in your own little universe where you can shut folks out cause you don't understand what the hell they are talking about. Once in while you hear English, and it pierces this bubble, it's like recognizing the distinct call of your species in the wild. Depending on my mood, hearing English can be comforting or intrusive because I appreciate the solitude. Whichever way I perceive it, I am certain when I hear it, the English words seem to float above all the other white noise around me and I experienced this just a few moments ago while I was in the waiting area.

Back to the story. Luckily there was a gentleman who was about to leave who spoke English and German and he asked if he could translate for me. So he patiently translated as I described each item in detail, told him there are no shoes or accessories, just dresses, and skirts, I don't intend to resell anything, etc. He calculates the tax I owe, writes it down and I go over to the cashier to pay. I come back to his station and show him that I paid and I am good to go. I pick up my box and turn away and in perfect English, funky ponytail clown says “You can't show up to a German government office and expect everyone to speak English.” He lets out a chuckle while he shakes his head, and gives me that “run along now, little girl” hand motion. I knew it! I knew I heard him talking in English before. I was pissed! Without blinking I said, “I don't expect anyone to speak English, I am well aware that I live in Germany, I just expect you not to be an complete asshole.” I wasn't quiet either, the man who was translating for me almost swallowed his chewing gum. The ponytail clown, embarrassed or simply frustrated, just walked away.

What was the point of his little demonstration, did he think he was teaching me a lesson? Was this his way of helping me? What a condescending blankity blank blank. His exercise cost me time and energy, it even involved a perfect stranger who wasted his time translating for me when there was no need. I was so upset. Why was some other customer worthy of being spoken to in English, but I get treated like an idiot foreigner. Was it because I was American? Was it because I was a woman? Because I was a Black expat in Germany? I will never know. The thing is I am not one of those English speakers who walk around expecting folks to conform to my needs. I know plenty of expats who have no plans to integrate and make no efforts to learn German, I am not one of them, dammit!

In the hours after this experience, I had my usual doubts about living in Germany. Why do I do this to myself, why don't I go back to a land where people understand me, where a simple task like picking up a package doesn't turn into some social experiment. Wouldn't life be easier back home? Wouldn't life in America be better? Me and my PMS were ready to go. Moving overseas can be an amazing life experience but it is also challenging. I am not going anywhere but incidents like these make me question what I am doing here. Can I accomplish my goals Stateside, amongst family, friends and English speakers? Whatever the answer to those questions are, I am not hot tailing it out of Germany because of some unhappy clown at the Zollamt. I will depart from Germany if and when I want, I won't be chased away or bullied. I have momentary doubts when crummy things happen but crummy of a different sort can happen regardless of geographic location.


  1. Sometimes we forget those types of assholes are everywhere. I guess the difference statewise is you have family to vent to after such experiences. Remember why you are there and brush it off. I have been there (2 years) so i can understand. I am back in the states but will make it longer shortly. Looking forward to such experiences again. Go have a nice glass of wine. It solves problems.

  2. Perfectly put about one of the major frustrations of living in Germany. My husband speaks German so usually I get away without being too confused, but government offices really take the cake on being assholes. Love your attitude & blog

  3. Ugh, what an arse!! I usually have communication difficulties in Hong Kong but I must say that the majority of the time the locals are really friendly and are only too glad to speak to me in English if they are able. Sorry to hear that this person gave you a hard time! Is it possible to report him to somebody like a superior? Would serve his ass right!

  4. good blog. I've been there, done that. After living in Germany for 8 years, I get by no problem. But the first couple years, that is a different story. Hang in there. It does get better.

    Be sure to check out my blog too.

  5. @AOS thanks for checking out the blog. wine does cure many ailment. i just ranted to a few people and posted some angry facebook statuses and i was okay :)

    @iananddebe yeah for offices like the foreigners office i make sure to bring a translators. those people are vultures. i had a bad experience my first time there. but the tax office, to pick up a package. i thought i would be safe since i had been there before. ah well.

    @oneika girl, government workers are a protected class around here and they know it. no reporting, and usually other Germans cant understand. they would be like he is right, you need to learn German. Many people dont mind speaking english and like to show off when they can. But some people clearly resent it.

    @englishTv oooh that sounds like a great title i will check you out for sure. i need to do a post on dubbing in general and why it should be considered the 8th deadliest sin.

  6. Oh dear, there is always one every where you go. The 'know it all' who thinks he is better than those around him.
    There are many people around this world who havent even ventured out side the area they were born. Let alone travel to the other side of the world.
    You are in tune with your varying moods and summed up correctly that you will leave Germany only when the time is right for you.

  7. I just found your blog today (from somewhere in the Twitter world). Love it! Hope you keep writing.

    I have a list of expat blogs I read and I've added you to it. Hope you don't mind.

    Happy travels!

  8. Really interesting story - thanks for sharing! I know it can be tough to be in such a foreign place, but I really admire you for living in Berlin. Awesome city (so far I think!)

    Adam @travelsofadam

  9. Hi Nicole; like your blog! Yes Europe is full of useless, bitter bureaucrats and most of them MOSTLY prefer to torture We Foreigners in Berlin. Please don't think its a black thing, it's a foreigner thing. Not all Germans are Nazi or Commie minions, just the ones who choose public service. ;) A University prof once said that Fascism and Communism are so far apart ideologically that they bump asses. There is no better place than Berlin to witness that ass bumpery. To avoid the stress, do what I do: don't go to any German import tax office. If you order online, have the package delivered to a U.S. address and re-packaged and sent as a gift to you in Berlin. Or have a friend visiting Berlin pack it in their luggage. Why pay bureaucrats to abuse you? This may be technically illegal but it beats the alternative: me losing it and beating some fuckwit bureaucrat to a pulp and languishing in jail. Lesser of two evils.

    -Craig aka dunkin' berliner

  10. @adam yeah berlin is great, just the occasional jackass

    @dunkin meh that seems like so much to go through, shipping and shipping again and unwrapping, my luck i would get caught, i do get stuff brought over when family comes to visit though

    @Peg thanks for adding me to the list, I can add you blog to my life as well

    @nubian, yeah they breed know it alls everywhere, no escaping it. i also know when my hormones effect my overall perception of the world. being a woman is hard :P

  11. Love this post. You accurately capture the frustration, embarrassment, irritation and anger that can result at times from intercultural interactions. Believe it or not, they are often our times of greatest progress. After the dust settles, I'll bet you redouble your efforts to keep learning German (I can relate, I'm learning Dutch) and settling into German society, not for the pony-tail dude, but for yourself. And for the nice guy who translated for you. Just keep reminding yourself that there are plenty of rude, insulting people back in the US more than happy to abuse you in your own language. Then continue rising above, and definitely keep writing!

  12. I just stumbled upon your blog and I feel like you and I will be good friends. I'm moving to Nürnberg in August from NYC, I'm black and I'm a pastry chef and I'm gonna be completely out of my element. So far I've found some other great blogs to describe the experience but this one is just perfect. Thank you!!!!!! I would love to add your blog to mine if you don't mind- I'm . I hope to have many conversations with you. Although right now I'm stressed about visas and finding work but any distraction would help!

  13. This is Germany for you. Nice to see you on Expat Blog. I live in Stuttgart Germany. Happy connecting.

  14. hi fellow bloggers, i will check all your blogs and subscribe to them. thanks for the support!

    @alliedow pastry chef, yum! teach me your ways
    the visa stuff is stressful just because its not straight forward and it seems the experience really depends on which state employment gets your file. hang in there!!!

    @nekky, i swear we need to have a german expat blogger conference. mmmm

  15. Wow! I had a similar incident which I will write about on my new blog. I also decided that nobody is going to kill my expat life. I'll go when I'm ready to go. Hang in there, and try to forget about these a-holes.

  16. Love it ... love that you wrote about the experience! I'm sure we've all had one of those. I especially like your attitude that you do NOT expect everyone to speak English, but only to treat you with respect ... will be back to read more!

  17. American black women in Berlin ... I'm starting to think we should actually form a LinkedIn or Facebook group so we can get to know each other's works and struggles in this fair city. Perhaps there's one already and I am behind the curve?

    I have been living and working in Berlin myself since 2006. Perhaps we both arrived in that crazy-deep winter? Or did you arrive when the WM turned Germany into the Happiest Country in the World? Those were good times.

    Stumbled across your blog (and your Zollamt experience) when I was searching for content to add to the American English Writers & Speakers in Germany group on LinkedIn. While my own last visit was rather pleasant (no cigarette-n-ponytail-haired dude for me), I have had too many brushes with German bureaucraZy than one should ever have.

    That said, I believe that it's the ways of bureaucracies the whole world over to elevate the few to trash the many.

    Glad you called him out!

  18. @viajera i look forward to checking out your blog

    @delhibound thanks for joining the family :) i am slowly learning German but its taking longer than expected. In the meantime I just need a bit of patience from the natives LOL

    @tammi not sure about a linkedin group, i am not on there that often. i arrived in 2009 and before then i lived in london. we should get together and have meetups. it would be cool. i just met another woman who moved here from atlanta with her hubby and 3 kids. she has a blog as well

  19. Oh dear, the trouble is that in such situations in Germany you still have to keep your cool and not call the official names or swear at him/her or used unpleasant gestures with your fingers.

    Otherwise it might be classed as "Beamtenbeleidigung", which according to law § 185 StGB can land you with a fine or up to 1 year in jail (2 years if it gets physical).

    [Not that this is to be considered legal advice in any way, you understand...]

  20. I love that I found this blog. I am a black woman living in Berlin and it is rewarding as well as hard. I have a little blog about it here I am all about meeting up and supporting each other. Yes Tammi we should form something.

  21. Great post.

    While I agree with some of the comments above, that the Germans aren't alone in staffing their public offices with douches, I have found the Zollamt to be the worst. It's like they're trying to catch you out as an illegal importer rather than the clueless shopper you probably are.

    And it's made doubly frustrating by the fact that, learn as I might, my German will never be good enough to deal with anything complicated or official - but the places where you do easy stuff like order a coffee are staffed by fluent English speakers.


    Still, I think life here is relatively stress-free, all told.

  22. This is truth that whenever you do move to some place then you have to feel this panic feelings so it might be a bit difficult for every one to live at a new place in start.

  23. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  24. I lived in Paris for nearly 2 years and really miss what you describe as, " to be in your own little universe where you can shut folks out cause you don't understand what the hell they are talking about. Once in while you hear English, and it pierces this bubble, it's like recognizing the distinct call of your species in the wild." I had to consciously listen to French to understand and so, when I didn't want to make the effort, it was like being on a mental vacation.

    I miss it!

  25. All of you should check out Share your story with the world through the Women of Color Travel Project.

  26. Perhaps we both arrived in that crazy-deep winter? Or did you arrive when the WM turned Germany into the Happiest Country in the World? Those were good times.i arrived in 2009 and before then i lived in london. we should get together and have meetups .Believe it or not, they are often our times of greatest progress. After the dust settles, I'll bet you redouble your efforts to keep learning German (I can relate, I'm learning Dutch) and settling into German society, not for the pony-tail dude, but for yourself .

    Memphis Gym

  27. I haven't spoke German since I was four and most likely a friend of a family would have been there to cuss him out in German.

    Anyways the US box is not all that difficult really. I have one and it is really simple. GO to and it is like $60 a year and you can add a friend if you wanted to split the cost. They encourage you get free shipping from whomever and have tons of coupons. I have one since I live in Korea. They email you when they get the package and you tell them when you want it shipped. They will even repackage and combine packages for you and take care of customs.

  28. As I read this post I kept thinking on how hard it was when I moved to the US. I didn't speak much English but I knew enough to understand if someone was making fun of me. I knew a few words and always tried hand gestures or writing down questions. Many people were friendly and helped or called someone to translate. Others just probably enjoyed that i was struggling. It is hard. People expect that you learn the language bc u are in their country. You will eventually learn it but it wouldn't hurt to be treated nicely in the process. At least in germany they speak German and English. In the US if you don't speak English, that's it!! Good luck w this new adventure. I would love to visit Germany one day.

  29. Love that you wrote about the experience! I'm sure we've all have our share of those, what I call 2-percenter. I especially like your response showing the dude his place. I am originally from Germany, but have lived in England and the U.S. for over 15 years.....during my earlier years as an expat's wife.

    I have come to realize that it is the lack of leadership that allows people like that brainless dude to sink into a social wasteland at his job.

    Will be back to read more!

  30. Thanks for sharing . I am going through a similar thing in Rwanda. It is a great experience, but I wonder if I can GET the same thing in the US.

  31. i want to know how can i live in German.i like to German so much.i want to stay here

  32. Thanks for taking the time and effort to rite this blog. Add me as a fb friend if you are interested in reading some of my experiences of living in Germany (similar to yours). Are you still here btw? If so, which city? Best wishes, shameem wagner