Software Engineer Expat - Part 5: Stockholm Syndrome

The Beginning of the End

My wife and I both like to describe our time in Germany as repeatedly being punched in the face, but somehow enjoying it. That being said, at some point our resolve started to buckle under the burdens.

The Fridge Debacle

In Germany, many rental schemes are set up such that the tenant "brings their own kitchen." Meaning, in these situations, a tenant has to purchase an entire kitchen setup including all the appliances and maybe even the cabinetry. It was once explained to me that Germans typically rent for a very long time (think 30 years), and they want a kitchen they will be happy in...idk it doesn't make sense to me. Anyway, we searched for an apartment with an included kitchen as we definitely did not want to purchase a fridge, oven, etc. In this sort of arrangement, when the kitchen is included, the landlord is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the kitchen appliances.

On day one of moving in, our fridge was broken. In fact, we had bought a ton of food to put in the fridge, and the next morning we woke up, and it was all spoiled. The problem was that the fridge would get sort of cold, and we expected the temperature to keep dropping, but it didn't. To paint the picture further, my wife and I walked literally uphill and through the rain to get food from the nearby Rewe to stock our new kitchen, and this was after taking two 1.5 hour trips on the S-Bahn to move our suitcases/stuff from the AirBnb to the apartment. Then, after all that, our refrigerator full of food was spoiled.

We let our landlords know ASAP, and they were very kind about the whole situation. On the Monday after we moved in, they took my wife to the local mall to get a new fridge. Unfortunately, due to the microchip shortage, they didn't have any that would fit our kitchen. So, as a stopgap, our landlords bought us a mini fridge, which we used for the first 4 months in our apartment.

On its own, this wasn't a huge deal, and we knew we'd get a normal fridge eventually, but it did suck to lose most of our food. However, recall this was on top of having to live on lawn furniture and sleep on the floor until our furniture arrived.

Sewer Smell

A couple of days after moving in, we noticed that every time we turned the fan on in the bathroom, the whole flat would be filled with a sewer smell. The smell was especially pungent near the bathroom and nearby laundry room. We tried leaving the fan on for a long period of time to see if the smell would eventually go away, but it just got worse. After checking all of the U pipes and anything else we could think of, we let our landlords know. Unfortunately, they were on holiday for the next few weeks so we'd have to live with it at least until they got back. We ended up taping a bunch of garbage bags together and using a dehumidifier in the bathroom instead of the fan.

IMG_9217.jpg Our cabinet shield to help contain the stench.

This fixed probably 75% of the smell, but it was still gross and inconvenient. When our landlords finally got back, they told us that they would have to contact the apartment building's Hausmeister. When we finally met him, we found out that he was just a middleman between the tenants and the plumber/electrician/etc, and he was super unhelpful. After a month of not hearing anything from him, we asked our landlords what was going on (repeatedly saying that the smell was very bad in our house). Turns out, the Hausmeister forgot to call the plumber... We finally got the first plumber out to our apartment a solid 2.5 months after moving in. They told us that there was no problem in the apartment and just left... Obviously, this was unacceptable to us, and we let our landlords know. We repeated this process about 4 more times to no avail. Plumbers tried various things including running an industrial-grade dehumidifier 24/7 for 3 weeks, but nothing worked.

Communication was a huge problem in this situation. None of the plumbers would speak English to us, and our landlords' English was nicht gut. For instance, the landlords believed the issue was a "moisture" problem caused by "humidity." My wife and I kept trying to communicate that "humidity" was not the problem, and the sewer smell must be coming from the plumbing. Nothing ever made a difference though, we had to recreate our cabinet shield (pictured above) every other week or so. I wish I could say that the problem was eventually resolved, but it persisted to the day we left Germany.

The Visa That Never Was

When I first received my visa from the German Consulate in Miami, they told me it would only last for 6 months and that I would need contact the Ausländerbehörde (immigration authority) as soon I arrived in Germany to get a new visa. Easy right? Wrong... I called and emailed at least 100 times, and these people were simply unresponsive. My visa eventually ran out, and there was nothing I could do about it. Now, this wasn't such a huge deal for me because I knew the Ausländerbehörde had received my visa application, and the German law says that I would be allowed to stay in Germany as long as my application is processing. The real issue was with my wife, as she was not allowed to work without having a proper spouse visa.

The German immigration system is an utter train wreck. In the US, I cannot fathom contacting a federal office over the course of 6 months and never receiving a response. One of the hallmarks of a first-world country is that, generally speaking, its institutions work. From firsthand experience, I can tell you that the immigration system in Germany does not work. The craziest part is that when I let my HR and boss know about the issues I was having, they were shocked! Although, my coworkers that came from outside the EU corroborated my experience. In the end, nothing was ever done, and my visa expired without ceremony.

Die Arbeitssuche meiner Frau

Recall that before we moved to Germany, we had been living in England. Due to the transient nature of my work (and other factors), my wife was unable to find full-time work in England, although she did work a couple of part-time gigs. This meant that she was 4 years out of grad school and had minimal work experience to show for it. Putting her in this position is my biggest regret about joining the military (spouse/dependent culture in the military is abhorrent, IYKYK). So, she was already at a marked disadvantage in the job market, and her prospects in Germany were limited due to the language barrier. She applied for literally hundreds of jobs in and around Frankfurt over the course of about 6 months. In total, she received 3 callbacks, 2 of which rejected her after a couple of interviews and the third she missed because of our internet issues. This was pretty devastating for the both of us. Her confidence was very low, and she wanted more than anything to join the workforce.

The Breaking Point

Every day, I would come home from work to an unhappy wife and a house that smelled like shit. My wife had applied to hundreds of jobs with nothing to show for it, and we'd had several plumbers over, none of which could fix the smell. Plus, even if my wife got a job offer, she couldn't accept until the Ausländerbehörde gave us proper visas. This was no way to live, and the burdens were too much to bear; in the end, we lost hope that things would get better. Some more thoughts we were having at the time:

  • From a financial perspective, I knew I was making literally half of what I could make in the US, and I had a government security clearance (easy ticket to big $$$) that would expire if I stayed in Germany. The difference in earning potential was something that nagged at me.

  • I don't believe I had much upward career mobility in Germany. I would need to thoroughly learn German, which would take years, and even then I would still be a foreigner to the Germans. I think this would make advancing my career way more difficult that it should be.

  • I had made good friends in Germany, and it was hard to leave them behind. To put that in perspective, making friends in the military was very difficult due to the rank structure and rules about fraternization. So, the friends I'd made in Germany were the closest in a long time.

In the end, it was a fairly easy decision to leave Germany. Although it had been my dream for years to become an expat, life was simply not good for us. We could have persevered more, but we both felt it was the right choice. A final anecdote about leaving Germany:

  • In addition to getting an Anmeldung when entering Germany, when leaving you must get an Abmeldung. After all the trouble we had getting the Anmeldung, we thought getting the Abmeldung was going to be a nightmare, especially given our visa situation. Fortunately, it wasn't, and we walked into the Bürgerbüro (citizens office) without an appointment, signed some paperwork and officially deregistered from Germany. As soon as we left the Bürgerbüro, a brilliant rainbow appeared in the sky and we walked home underneath it...seriously, this actually happened.

Stockholm Syndrome

I'm finishing up this post about 6 months after returning the US. It's been the quite the adjustment. My scenery has gone from this:

signal-2022-06-13-230834.jpeg View of Frankfurt from the banks of the Main (taken by some random German engineer...)

To this:

stroad.jpeg Typical American stroad

I know I'm cherry-picking, but you get the idea. Life is very different in the US. We can't really walk anywhere without looking crazy, and public transit is nonexistent. This means we have to join the masses in their massive vehicles on the stroads. I could go on... My point is, our sensibilities/lifestyle expectations have changed, and we miss living in Europe...a lot. Despite having a pretty awful time in Germany, we can't help but be drawn back. Maybe not to Germany, but there are other (easier?) places to try.

German Phrases Blazed Onto My Heart

  • Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut...sprechen Sie Englisch?
  • Wie bitte?
  • entschuldigung, ENTSCHULDIGUNG!
  • Wo ist der Geldautomat?
  • Ich möchte einmal schwarze Kaffee und einmal Bretzel
  • Die Toilet ist kaput
  • Das ist alles...Tschüss!