After living in Germany for 5 years, Simone has decided to repatriate to Australia as soon as possible together with her family. It’s difficult to summarize the reasons why because, as Simone explains, there have been a lot of good but also challenging aspects of expat life in Germany.
Sometimes the reason is as simple as the fact that a dam can break after a million small cracks appear.
With Simone I had the great pleasure of reflecting on her first expat experience, how it has changed her beyond her wildest imagination and discussing everything that led to the point where Simone saw that it was time to move back to Australia.
You can also read Simone’s reflection on participating in this interview and meta-reflecting on how she went about thinking whether to stay or go.
Please introduce yourself to the readers – who are you and where have you lived?
My name is Simone. I lived in my hometown of Melbourne in Australia up until the end of 2015. I had just finished my PhD in cancer cell biology and had found a position as a post-doctoral researcher in a laboratory in Munich, Germany.
I hadn’t really considered moving overseas in any serious way, until one day (in June 2015) my husband discovered an advertisement for a research job in Konstanz, Germany that looked like it matched my skills and interests perfectly.
I applied for the position in an offhand manner, thinking that nothing would come of it, and continued searching for posts in Melbourne. I was surprised when the professor who headed the lab in Konstanz emailed me a few days later wanting to do a Skype interview.
Suddenly I was full of nerves: could I really see myself moving overseas, so far away from my family and friends? I also wondered how complicated it would be to start a family in a foreign country.
Not least, I was (and still am) a shy introvert – the thought of relocating to a completely foreign place where I didn’t know the language, culture, or rules, terrified me.
Anyway, I went ahead with the Skype interview, and after speaking with the (very nice and friendly) lab head, my mind opened up to the possibility that I might *just* be able to do this: perhaps I would get the job, and how awesome would it be to live in a place as beautiful as Konstanz?
The excitement I’d been feeling in the days following the interview quickly vanished when he got back to me a few days later explaining that it had been an “extremely tough decision” but he’d offered the position to another candidate.
After a few days of wallowing, I realised that the disappointment I felt meant that finding a position and moving overseas might be a really good option.
I realised that a lot of what had been holding me back was fear, and I didn’t want to let fear make my decisions for me. Plus, my husband was thrilled with the idea and excited to try out living overseas.
I began looking for more overseas positions and was pleasantly surprised to find there were plenty of opportunities for me in Europe.
To cut a long story short: I had many interviews with many labs over the next couple of months. I almost ended up accepting an offer in a lab in Leuven, Belgium, but something in me said “no, this is not exactly right.” In the end, we ended up moving to Munich.
My position was for one year initially, with possibility for an extension. So, we didn’t really know how long we were going for. But six months into living in Munich my husband decided that the best thing to do with himself was to start a PhD in science.
I knew then that would mean we would be committing to a long time in Germany (perhaps another 4 years!), but it felt right at the time. Since then, we’ve become a family of four and have continued to live in Munich, making it a little over 5 years that we’ve been here.
What has your first expat experience been like?
When we first arrived, we enjoyed everything about living in Munich: the beer, the Brezen (pretzels), Krapfen (donuts that are popular during “Fasching”/carnival). We spent every weekend exploring the city and surrounding towns.
It was winter and it was a snowy one, which was so magical to me coming from Melbourne where it never snowed in the city (you had to specifically head off to the mountains to see snow).
Everything was new and different: we were constantly surprised by everything. It was like being a kid again – I took photos of everything. There were beautiful old buildings everywhere, we saw castles, lakes, mountains.
Every time we stepped out the door, a new adventure would start. I drank it all up, enjoying the contrast of my dream life now compared to the mundane, stress, and study-filled experience my life in Melbourne had become. Plus, now so many different countries were only a short plane or train ride away.
I had come here eager to immerse myself in the language and cultural quirks. But over time, the difficulties of adjusting to life in Germany began to appear:
- Everyone in my lab was very friendly, but they were all German. The fact that they were all German wasn’t such a bad thing for me: I’d moved to Germany and I wanted to experience German culture – what better way than to be surrounded by natives? But I didn’t manage to develop many relationships with my workmates outside of work. All of our other friends are expats that my husband met through his workplace. This could’ve just been a quirk of the group of people I worked with, but developing friendships here has definitely been a big challenge for me.
- At the beginning I had been keen to learn German, but struggled to fit it in amongst getting used to a new job and a new life in a new country. All my work was in English, and there was a lot of it. Because most of my colleagues were German, they often switched from English to German when they thought I wasn’t listening. This made it hard to get involved in conversations I wasn’t directly part of, and it also made it difficult to learn from them (I had initially thought that by being surrounded by all these natives, I would pick up German relatively easily). I tried to not let it get to me, but it did and induced a lot of resentment in me. Despite my feelings, I kept on trying. But it was tricky, because as soon as anyone heard my accent or noticed me fumble over a word or use incorrect grammar, they would switch to English: my opportunity for practice was gone and my confidence dashed. As an introvert, this really turned me off and I, sadly, began to stop trying.
- Doing “simple” things that are part of everyday life: like calling someone to fix our broken dishwasher, asking for something specific in a shop, dealing with my son’s Kindergarten, doing taxes, the list goes on. Every “simple” task becomes a “complicated” task that for me requires googling, translating, writing what I’m going to say – all before I even pick up the phone or head out the door. I always feel like there’s something I don’t understand, that I’m missing something, that someone is going to catch me out on a mistake I’ve unwittingly made and I’m going to be in big trouble. It’s a tiring way to live.
- Then there’s the difficulty of knowing how things generally operate and the unwritten social “rules” that are hard to pick up on when you haven’t grown up in a place. Only now, after 5 years, do I feel like I finally have a handle on these things. But then there’s all the things I don’t know that I don’t know. A part of me (and this part has been growing over the last 3 years) is longing to be back in Australia, where I know how everything works, everything is in English, and I don’t have to feel like I’m scrambling to “keep up”.
In the second year here (after we’d already committed to a few more years) I think my husband and I had both basically decided that because of these difficulties (which we may have been able to overcome, and, in some ways, have overcome) Germany would not be our “forever home”.
But we still weren’t necessarily set on returning to Australia after my husband finished his PhD. Despite the difficulties, we were enjoying the expat life.
At what point did the question “should we stay or go?” become relevant for you?
I guess, looking back now, there were niggling thoughts and signs long before the pandemic and lockdowns. But I think the pandemic really became a catalyst in making me realise how hard we’d had it, and decide for certain that I wanted to return to Australia. Of course, a mixture of postpartum hormones, sleep deprivation, and social isolation all played a role as well.
Let me back-up a bit and explain what I mean. My husband spent much of 2020 trying to madly finish his PhD. This has meant a lot of time at the lab and not much time at home. I have been on maternity leave since February 2020, and have been contemplating what I want to do next with my career. My 3.5 year old has been in and out of childcare. Up until about a week ago he wasn’t able to attend because childcare was in emergency operation and I am technically available to look after him (despite the fact that I am “working” to find a job). We cannot go anywhere or do anything and have been going a little crazy.
“I’m beginning to feel so trapped in our apartment: no job, no childcare, no ability to travel, no socialising – I feel like there is no reason left to be here. I know this has been a special (and somewhat limited) situation, but it’s made me realise how difficult we’ve had it – not just during this pandemic period but the whole time here.”
It’s been no small feat to work, and start and begin to raise a family, all in a country where you have only an elementary grasp of the language and no close family around.
Truth is, I miss my family, I miss my friends – friends that have known us since high school and just “get” us, and where there is no language barrier, no quizzical looks in response to a joke. I look forward to being able to rely on other people, to call up family to help out if one of our son’s is sick and we can’t get out of work.
We’ve done so much alone.
This is not to say that I haven’t loved this experience. I don’t mean to give the impression that I haven’t enjoyed this experience.
This time will forever remain as a stamp in my heart: I left Australia as a shy, terrified 29 year old. Looking back on the me that existed then, I realise that I knew nothing.
Germany is the place where I grew up, where I found my creative self, where I became a mother. If you had asked me six years ago when I first visited Munich that in 2021 I would be living in Germany, eating Brezen, and raising a bilingual 3.5 year old who talks about his “popo” (butt), I would have said: “No way!” Because I wouldn’t have believed that such things were possible for me.
“I would not change any of it (not even my experience during the pandemic) because all of these experiences (good and bad, easy and hard) have forced me (willingly or not) to grow up so much as a person – in such a way that would not have been possible had I stayed in Australia.”
I would never dissuade anyone from moving to another country if they expressed that desire: I would just say that it can be hard but (as I heard somewhere, but can’t remember the source!) “hard isn’t always bad.”
Tell me more about those “niggling thoughts and signs long before the pandemic”?
The real niggling thoughts started accumulating and tipping me over the edge back in 2018, after we had gone and visited our friends and family in Melbourne for Christmas.
It was the first time we’d been back to visit since arriving in Europe at the end of 2015, and it will most likely end up being our only visit back before we head home for good.
My husband and I hadn’t consciously talked much about it before we left for the trip, but I now see that we were using that visit as a test:
- Did we like the “new” Australia after being away for 3 years?
- What was it like being back with family and friends now having changed (by living abroad and having our son)?
- Could we really see ourselves leaving the life we’d built in Europe, coming back and sort of starting again?
It was a great trip: 3 weeks of sun, fun, and being surrounded by people who loved us. I quickly saw just how much everyone had missed us, and realised that we’d left a hole in a lot of people’s lives – I hadn’t realised how much of an effect our move had had on our friends and family.
Everything in Australia was easier: there were a few bureaucratic type things that I needed to organise while we were there and I managed to accomplish all of them in a couple of hours. In Germany, the same number of errands would have taken me weeks, if not months to complete with my lack of knowledge on how all the systems work, and my inability to properly speak the language.
When we came back, we went from a breezy summer in Australia, to a snowstorm in Munich. And it was a big shock. I had a week off work to readjust to the time zone and unpack, and I stayed home most of that week because there was so much snow everywhere. It felt really strange to be back “home” in Munich, but so far away from all the people we’d just left in Australia.
“We had spent the last three weeks constantly surrounded by people and always doing something, and now suddenly I was alone at home with my son, with only a handful of people who even cared we were back in the country.”
From there this niggling feeling of alienation began to grow. I ignored it a lot through 2019, being too excited about becoming pregnant with our second son. But then I went on maternity leave (and knew I wouldn’t be going back to work), our son was born, and the pandemic hit.
From then on, these niggling feelings have grown into deep longings and I’ve been feeling a strong desire to get back “home” to Australia.
What’s it been like having decided that you’re going to be moving back?
I’m a mix of all different emotions regarding our forthcoming move back to Australia. Yes, I’m excited to go back, but I’m trying not to get too excited until we have a solid plan in place. Organising exact details has been impossible so far for a couple of reasons.
- My husband will need to submit his PhD thesis, the examiners will need to read it, and then a date for his defence will be set. We are hoping that all this will be able to happen in the first half of 2021.
- The pandemic and all the constant rule changes, plus tightened regulations in general, is making it difficult to fully start planning everything. Reading about the severe reality of repatriating during a pandemic has made me realise that it’s not going to be smooth-sailing – in fact, just getting physically back to Australia is going to be a difficult and costly venture.
“So, I’m excited, exhausted, happy, sad all rolled into one. I’m also scared about the challenges that we will inevitably face in getting back.”
I’m sad that we probably won’t get to do all the travelling that we wanted to do in the last year we spend living in Europe, and that will have to be bookmarked for a future time. I’m sad that we won’t get the nice welcome home that I’m craving: we will have to endure two weeks essentially “locked up” in a room before we’ll be able to see our friends and family.
I’m also worried that I’ve been viewing Australia with a “grass is always greener on the other side” type mentality.
“What if we’re making a mistake? What if it would be better and easier to stay in Europe for the time being, rather than attempting to go back during these uncertain times?”
I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that we’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Germany. We’ve come to know this place so well and now we’re going to give it all up and for what?
We don’t have a “home” in Australia, we don’t have jobs, our kids don’t have friends. I know that repatriating in Australia will be hard (if not harder) than expating in Germany.
Another worry I have is that people will treat us like the people that left. I think, especially with some people, it will be a bit of a battle to truly “show” them that we’ve changed, we’re different. Perhaps we don’t think the same things as we once did. I know that I’ve wildly changed my views on a lot of major things.
“But, that being said, I know I’m stronger now than I once was and I truly believe that Germany and Europe has left an impression on me that can never be erased. I’m looking forward to bringing Europe to my Australian life.”