When we imagined a sabbatical year in Europe, we pictured something idyllic like this. It felt both far away and that it would last a long time. And yet, here we are, getting ready to leave already. A month ago, we already had to submit printed letters to both my daughters' schools and to the "castle" we live in to give the required three months' notice that we were leaving.
When we got here, it felt like we were never going to leave. Now, we have 58 days left in Europe. (Not that I'm counting.)
So, we've been in Darmstadt, Germany, for half a year now, and it took us almost that long just to live here legally with all of the necessary paperwork filed and to find great schools for both of our daughters.
We joke that we should have lived here longer for it to be worth all of the set-up time, energy, and trees killed, but I don't think we would choose to live in Germany again. And before anyone gets offended, I will say we have learned a lot from living here, have made some lovely friends, and have really enjoyed many aspects of life in Darmstadt.
So, here's our recap of life in Germany:
My partner and I both eat less and more healthily, walk more, and feel healthier than we did in the States. It's nice to not drive/just take public transportation everywhere, too. (Even though I literally spend three hours taking my daughter to and from school each day. Let's just say I'm reading a lot of books on the bus.) Our kids sing German songs and love their schools (which are excellent and cost a small fraction of what we paid in the States). And the German government pays us 380€ a month in kindergeld to help us pay for having two children, even though we aren't German. Plus, everything is cheaper here than it was in California, so even with my partner's half-salary from his sabbatical, we feel richer here.
We then spend all of our money traveling because Frankfurt is a fabulously central hub to go just about anywhere in Europe. Everything just feels so small and close compared to the U.S. It takes four hours to drive to my family in LA. whereas here, we can drive three hours and be in another country. We drove three hours to spend a weekend in Luxembourg with some friends one weekend and drove three hours to spend another weekend in France. And because everything is so close, it's also so much cheaper. We flew to Rome for 22€ and back from Venice for 14€. We even got to go to the Canary Islands west of Morocco for less than 100€. (As a reference, we can't even fly 45 minutes from our hometown in California to L.A. or San Francisco for that, so flying from Europe to Africa for less than half of what those flights cost floored me.)
But on the rough days—when we run out of milk on a Saturday night, and my normally sweet and mellow kids whine and complain and cry for milk until Monday when the stores open again, or when the bank teller is giving me a hard time for not having my passport when I try to give her a 20€ bill and ask for a roll of 50-cent coins so we can do laundry (this is nuts to me and so frustratingly German—I'm giving her a bill and asking for change; WHY would she need any identification at all???), or when I feel like a prize idiot because I can't come up with the simple German words I need to ask for the lost and found to see if they've found my one-year-old's haus shuh (slipper, because children wear slippers/indoor shoes at school) that she left on the bus, and the guy doesn't speak any English, or I just miss friendly English-speaking people and find it too sad and lonely to go through my day without anyone to talk to (nobody talks to you here unless they have to, like the cashiers, and it's usually no more than a perfunctory Hallo and Danke), or I think about the perfect weather back in California and how we're freezing and haven't seen the sun or any blue sky for months here—on days like these, it feels like no amount of kindergeld is worth it.
The best way to explain my experience living in Germany is that it's like eating vegetables. Not always the most fun or exciting but good for you, and I'm really glad we decided to come here. We came to Darmstadt to detox and get rid of excesses in our lives (except for travel because I don't think I can have an excess of travel in my life...), and it's been a good growing experience for us.
We came to Europe with one large suitcase, one large backpack, one small suitcase, and a small backpack for all four of us. We didn't feel we could handle any more while trying to wrangle two kids and a stroller. So, we didn't have much, tried not to buy too much, and our lives have become simpler by not having so much stuff.
Daily life is simpler here, too. Our kitchen is so tiny, it basically fits one person. It doesn't even have an oven. (Shocking for someone who ran a coffee shop/bakery for four years!) And we basically have a hot plate for a stove. So, cooking is pretty basic. Our fridge is so tiny (picture one of those little square fridges you keep under your desk to store drinks), we have to go grocery shopping almost every other day. But that's the European way, and it means everything we eat is fresh. Plus, the stores are all closed on Sundays, so we are forced to have simple family days where we do things like walk through the forest adjacent to our castle to an awesome playground or check out a local farm that is another walk through some fields and a rose garden that has an awesome cafe and play area. Pretty low key and lots of nature, which is great, and I'm sure that I'll miss it once I'm back to driving my minivan (which will seem colossal) down a California highway, wondering where I'll get to see a little patch of green next.
And even though Germans are relatively reserved, people have been pleasant and helpful. Having kids helps. Old people are especially kind, and one German habit I am always surprised by is strangers giving candy or fruit to my daughters. Like the random guy sitting and waiting for the bus who pulled a Clementine out of his pocket and gave it to my daughter. Or the random lady who smiled at my other daughter and handed her a piece of candy from her purse. This would be crazy in California, and I can see people even throwing these treats away. But after it happened again and again, we just came to accept it as normal here.
Regarding friends, I had been optimistic in hoping we'd meet some cool people here, and I figured we'd either make a bunch of friends and have a great social life, or we wouldn't make any and would bond as a family. Fortunately, we've made some really nice friends, and we've also bonded as a family. So, yay for small victories.
And so much for the modern and efficient stereotype of Germany. I've found it's actually much more old world than I expected and way more low-tech here. The downside is that credit cards aren't accepted in most places (quite an adjustment for someone who never carried cash in the States). You have to fill out paperwork pretty much just to breathe legally here, and while Germany has lots of beautiful forests, it's insane how much paperwork (and red tape) there is. The upside is that sure, people have cell phones (of course), but they aren't all out all the time. And while in some ways, it's annoying that there is all this required face time (meetings for everything) and life feels so much slower, it's also refreshing that human beings do everything, and everything is more personal because of it.
Here is another very German requirement that boggles my mind. If your kid is sick, you (the parent) are called and must come pick them up right away. Fine. But if an adult is sick, you are expected to go immediately to the doctor and get a note and then go in person to your workplace to hand in the doctor's note. I can't imagine being totally knocked out by some bug (stomach flu, for example), and having to schlep around town doing this. How is anyone supposed to get better if they can't rest properly? It seems like it would be preferable to just quit. In the lab where my partner works, they're slightly more lax. You get two sick days before you have to get a doctor's note. But that seems crazy to me, too. If you're so sick that you need to stay home for that long, on day 3, when you might be turning the corner, you're expected to trudge out into the (likely) cold and sit in a doctor's office with (probably) a bunch of other sick people and then get to your workplace (and remember, most people walk, bike, or rely on public transport) before you can go back to the warmth and comfort of your home to rest and recuperate. It really seems like you'd never get better.
For a very rule-abiding and orderly society, I was also very surprised at how little trust people have in each other. (See: sick policy above.) Packages will never be delivered unless you physically sign for them. As if they would immediately be stolen by your thieving neighbors the second they were laid on your doorstep. They have amazon.de here (yay), but you have to be home when they deliver, or you end up having to go to some warehouse or post office practically in the Netherlands to pick up your package (boo). It makes online shopping completely not worth it, whereas in the States, I bought everything online that I could. Free two-day shipping? Awesome. And totally not happening here in Deutschland.
But again, living the old-fashioned life of walking and buying something in a store is kind of nice. Darmstadt isn't a popular tourist destination, so life is pretty easy. Nothing is ever too crowded, buses and strassebahns (trams) are frequent and go everywhere, and even if most people don't speak English (or claim not to), you can generally work things out.
People here are more natural and more relaxed than, say, Paris (women wear less makeup, and people dress more casually here), and in that respect, it feels more like the States. Playgrounds are usually comprised of wooden structures (with metal slides, etc.), and they are beautifully crafted. And another thing that really feels like life from a different era: kids go around on their own all the time. We saw a very young boy riding his tricycle to buy bread at the bakery by himself, then ride off again. Kids walk to and from school on their own with their big backpacks swinging behind them. And it feels like kids get to be kids longer here (maybe I'm just a deluded adult, but they seem more innocent to me here) and not have to rush to be little grown-ups before they're ready.
(Again for comparison: we went to Chicago for a conference a few weeks ago, and we were watching some English TV, which was exciting because we usually are not TV watchers and because it was exhilarating to be surrounded by English again. Anyway, we watched Chopped Junior, a cooking competition with chefs as young as 10 years old. It blew my mind when one of the kids (who was tiny) said he had a food blog where he reviewed restaurants in New York City. And these kids were amazing chefs, too. But they did not feel like "kids" to me. They felt like street-savvy little urbanites who hadn't been innocent in a while. And I know they aren't a representative sample of all American kids, either. But still, it was striking to see the difference.)
So, these are all generalizations from one outsider's experience of living here for six months, and take that as you will.
One last thing. My favorite thing about living in Germany is the trees. They are everywhere, and they are huge and glorious. When we first moved here in October, everything was green, and it was so beautifully lush. In California, in the land of deserts and droughts, the landscape is often concrete or brown. And California is also the land of new construction, so you see a lot of tiny trees put in with the new houses. You have to seek out the old established neighborhoods to see those grand tree-of-life trees. But in Darmstadt, there are towering trees are everywhere, lining the streets, in people's yards, in every direction you look. What I call a forest next to my castle my German friend actually laughed at because he said, "That's not a forest. That's just where they planted a lot of trees." Ha! It's like the trees weren't grand enough or "natural" enough to be considered a forest in the land of amazing forests.
And luftung. It's another very wonderful German habit of habitually opening windows for fresh air. It's even in our rental contract that we are required to open our windows for 5-10 minutes every day.
So, it hasn't been our "funnest" year as a family, but there's a lot of good that has come from living here. We hoped to simplify, get healthier, and bond as a family. Check check check. We hoped to travel around Europe and maybe even get to Africa and/or the Middle East. Yup and going. And I've learned a lot from meeting people I wouldn't have met otherwise. (My German class, for example, was almost all men and almost all refugees. Amazing experience.) I met my first Iraqis, my first Yemenis, my first Syrians, my first Eritreans, etc.
And it's always humbling to be outside of your comfort zone. If anyone ever feels too comfortable or needs a generous helping of humility, I would highly recommend trying to communicate in a language that isn't your mother tongue. Pantomiming and using basic words will get your message across (pointing to your belly and saying, "me hungry," for example), and it's a great reminder that we still have so much to learn in life.