Wandering around the United States wasn't sophisticated enough, so I took the plunge and moved to Germany with my antique airplane, beginning another dimension of journeys flying all over the continent with my old airplane and camera.
Where are you from, Garrett, and what are you doing nowadays?
I grew up in the snowy lake region of upstate New York, USA, and subsequently have lived in urban and oceanfront North Carolina, at 9,600 feet (3,000 meters) in the Colorado Rockies, and on a residential airport in Wyoming before coming to Germany. I am a freelance financial consultant and an author, which has allowed me to wander quite a bit in the United States and now here in Europe. I started writing books based on aerial photography taken from my old airplane when I was living in Colorado, and am continuing that here in Europe with the same airplane.
Why did you choose to expatriate to Germany?
My family's heritage is primarily German on both of my parents' sides, and the original immigrant communities in New York retain many German customs and values, yet oddly enough people from my generation simply identify as American and know very little about their heritage (including me for most of my life). An individual bought an old airplane from my grandfather and shipped it to Germany some years ago, and he and I have since become friends. I visited him in Germany a few times and it only felt foreign for the first week. After that, the routine seemed amazingly familiar and predictable (a product of the aforementioned old German community customs), so I decided it was time to make good on my personal desire to spend some time in Germany, and we moved here. It also had a lot to do with that same friend having his house come for rent, and his support and knowledge of how to import an American airplane into Germany and get it flying, as it requires disassembly for shipping and then putting it back together. Another way of putting it is that we did it on a total whim and decided to see how it works out.
What has attracted you to Frankfurt?
We are living south of Frankfurt. The main attraction was the social connection with a close friend and the familiarity with the area. If I did not have such connections, I would naturally gravitate to the highest altitude mountain town in Germany that I could find and hide in the woods with my MacBook, though I must say that I don't know if I would have had the courage to fling myself across the Atlantic without having known someone.
As a US national, what where the procedures you had to follow to move there?
Americans are one of six nations where we can just show up in Germany and apply for a visa once we get here. In my case, because of the massive influx of refugees, I was concerned that the quotas might get used up, so we applied at the consulate in the United States before leaving. Its kind of funny, as the Germans organize each US state and tell you which German consulate you must go to, and you must show proof of US state residency when arriving for the appointment, lest you commit the grave infraction of being at the wrong German consulate. In our case, even though I travel for business to the East Coast quite a bit, we had to drive from Wyoming to Salt Lake City to catch a flight and then apply in San Francisco. The process was straightforward between bloggers posting their stories and the information online. We had to prove historical income and client contracts primarily, get credentials translated, and otherwise, it was a bit of basic paper shuffling. Once we got the initial visa, it was necessary to extend it in Germany, which was a one hour in person appointment which went very smoothly. If a person has a job, or is self-employed and has customers that can be proven, getting a visa is extremely easy for Americans.
How long have you been in the country?
What has surprised you the most at your arrival?
I am extremely surprised at how long it is taking me to learn German. I came to believe I would have a greater handle on the language within a month, and I am not sure where that silly expectation came from. I am fluent in Spanish, and that took years to learn. With the Internet, learning German isn't as necessary as 30 years ago. We watch English-speaking TV via Amazon or Netflix, I work for American clients, I click the "translate" button in Gmail or Google Chrome way too much, and Amazon.de rolled out an English language beta, so much of our purchasing is in English. English is also the international aviation language, so I must admit I have become lazy. Even though many Germans take English in school, the bulk of them do not speak English or it is very limited. To actually interact with humans requires learning the local language. Other than my seeming inability to learn the language overnight, I cannot believe how quickly everything felt normal and how I really don't miss North America at the moment.
What are the local labor market's features? Is it easy for an expat to find a job there?
As I am self-employed, that is not a concern. However, I do know that Germans like job contracts (not just offers, contracts) with long notice periods and lengthy provisions and requirements. I would think anyone seeking a professional or managerial position should be prepared for a negotiation period far longer than American custom. Germans also hold on to their jobs much longer than Americans.
Was it difficult to find accommodation there? What are the types of accommodation which are available there?
We had a special circumstance, so it was easy for us. In general, I have found that the costs can be pricey if in range of public transportation to major cities. If a person lives in a village that requires car ownership, prices drop quite a bit. Housing quality is as one would expect: everything from small places to larger homes and everything in between, and it depends on what you want to pay for. Thankfully, we didn't have to install a floor or kitchen as it came with the house, though I must warn anyone coming to do their research. The house we are in has no closets, because apparently it is customary to purchase them at IKEA and then take them with you upon departure.
How do you find the German lifestyle?
Everything about Germany is very predictable, and I like it. People follow the rules, and once a person gets past the German focus on efficiency and avoidance of small talk, I find that Germans are extremely nice. I find that rules that are deemed excessive in the US might not have a well known reason, so people like to break them, and then the consequences are made severe if the government gets sick of it. Its sort of a social cat-and-mouse game in the US, whereas here in Germany, the rules are part of a whole system, with the intent of everything running smoothly. I cannot believe how fast cars can drive, how many cars are on the road, and how everyone obeys the rules, and there are very few accidents. People cooperate here because its part of making society work, and it makes day-to-day interactions with other people in the village we live in much smoother and easier. The food quality is amazing compared to the US. It is much healthier with more prevalent organic and in season choices, which I love. Aviation is a different animal, as the German custom is far more rigid when compared to the American approach. I certainly prefer the American style of general aviation, though the beauty I can photograph from the air here absolutely blows anything I have seen before away. The countryside and farmland is nothing short of absolutely stunning when compared to the US, a product of how clean Germans keep their farming operations and villages.
Have you been able to adapt yourself to the country and to its society?
Yes. Occasionally, we run afoul of some German custom or procedure, though we tend to just laugh, admit to being dumb Americans, and ask what the rules are, and the Germans gladly will educate and provide an initial free pass from whatever minor infraction occurred. Just don't break the rule again.
What does your every day life look like in Germany?
I work from the house, so the day-to-day routine tends to sound a bit boring, working with my finance clients, and then as the late afternoon arrives, I sit outside in the sun (if there is any) or head to a local coffee shop to work on the many book projects I have going. If the haze is low and the sun is out, I run over to the airport and go flying somewhere, with is absolutely thrilling and amazing, and then when it rains or is hazy, its back to the office. Since mid-March, I have been traveling extensively, going to book fairs around Europe and meeting with people on the publishing side, and it has been very interesting to take what in the US are moderate-distance business trips, except here I am in a new country each time.
Any particular experience in the country you would like to share with us?
The best experience actually happened outside of Germany, and is telling as to how living in Germany affected us. We drove to Bolzano, Italy and made the mistake of actually listening to Google Maps to drive to a restaurant in the middle of the city. In Germany, pedestrian-only zones are literally blocked off with something physical or a loud sign making it clear that only deliveries can go there. Italy doesn't really do so hot of a job making that clear, so as I drove our oversized SUV (Yes, we bought an SUV, we couldn't help it) down this tiny street, it kept getting narrower with people and bicycles everywhere. People were spilling around the car, and I was squeezing between patrons dining at outdoor cafes and parked bicycles, barely able to fit, trying not to run anyone over, getting scowled at by everyone. I eventually just shut the car off and my wife went to ask someone how to get out of the mess. While I sat with the vehicle, the hordes of Italians went back to eating, ignoring my presence, the entire time both of us being convinced the Polizei were going to come and ticket the snot out of us. Well, that would have happened in Germany. In Italy, nobody cared, it wasn't illegal, and we wedged ourselves another half mile down the road as people pulled their chairs closer to tables while eating so we could drive by. Such lack of order is inconceivable in Germany, and in just a few months, its hard to believe how I find myself thinking like a German already.
What is your opinion on the cost of living in Germany? Is it easy for an expat to live there?
I think the cost is lower, if you just want to live in a small place and not own stuff. If a person adds horses, boats, cars, airplanes, actually owning a home (instead of renting), or having a lot of space, costs go crazy. If you're content with a basic amount of space, no car or a small car, and forget the American lifestyle of owning lots of stuff, its extremely easy to have good food, travel around, have good health coverage, and not have it break the bank. Many things here are actually cheaper than in the US, or least how we lived in the US. Taxes are a much bigger part of life here. If you're concerned about cost, do not, under any circumstances, bring an airplane here.
How do you spend your leisure time?
Flying and writing.
What do you like the most about the country?
I like that its a new experience, that I am a guest, and that I can spend each day asking questions about how things work, instead of the dull boredom of life being ordinary. I absolutely love learning something new constantly and having little in the way of expectations.
Your favorite local dishes?
German pretzels and roulade, which is a cabbage dish. While the food quality is good, the local recipes and customs aren't overly noteworthy. I stumbled across smoked salmon with mustard ice cream and alfalfa on top (yes, on top of the fish) in France, and it was surprisingly good. For some inexplicable reason, I took French for one year in 1992 in grade school and I could translate that on the French menu, yet I still can't figure out basic things in German, except Wienerschnitzel, which is not good at all.
What do you miss the most about the US, your home country?
I miss the rich, vibrant smells that herald new seasons or the changing of natural cycles. Whether it was leaves in autumn in upstate New York, the salt air of the North Carolina Coast, the pine trees and fresh snows of Summit County, Colorado, or the sagebrush in Wyoming, the smells in North America are powerful and are a direct connection to nature. Europe, at least in the 4 months since we have been here, seems to have the most sterile air I have ever come across, and I am still trying to figure out why. The only place I found living air was the border of Austria and Italy at 5,000 feet above sea level.
Would you like to give any advice to soon-to-be expatriates in Germany?
If this is the first time someone is moving out of their home area (not even just country, home city or state), my suggestion would be to keep expectations low, don't take yourself too seriously, and take life as a journey. If someone has been around their own country or to other countries extensively, Germany is quite easy to get used to. I think the biggest takeaway from interacting my other expats, and from my own experience, is that being a guest in a foreign country is a perfect place to face ourselves and grow into the people we want to be without the pressure and influence of home customs and social rigidity. Each state and now country I have moved to has flushed out things I have wanted to improve, and given me the ability to question things positively. I would tell anyone to roll with it and do everything possible not to resist the inevitable personal growth that will happen. Even if a move to a foreign country turns out to be a mess, there is almost always something to gain from the experience.
What are your plans for the future?
We plan on staying put for now, continuing to learn German and photograph everything I can for some book projects from the airplane. The future is probably going to be written by the publishing industry, and I have learned to quit trying to predict where I will end up or when, because it turns out to be wrong almost 100% of the time. At the very least, I plan on seeing as much of Europe as I can, and getting the airplane down to Morocco and possibly Turkey at least once. I don't believe in bucket lists, though I do believe in avoiding regret, so the goal is to make sure we go about our time here in a way that we can look back on it without regretting that we didn't experience something while in proximity to it.