For many other first-time expats, the first few years is a critical time when the question “Should I stay or go?” is most likely to come up.
Steph is originally from England but she’s been living with her boyfriend in Germany since late 2019. It’s already been a journey with many ups and downs for them (not least due to COVID). With Steph I had the pleasure of digging deeper into those early days when the struggle of settling in make it easy for doubts to creep in.
Please introduce yourself to the readers – who are you, where have you been and where do you find yourself now?
I’m Steph, I’m 28 and I suppose I am what they call a ‘trailing spouse’ except that we’re not married. I grew up in a small city called Hereford in England, with a 3 year hiatus in Buckinghamshire for university.
Until 2019, the idea of living abroad was just that. An idea. It’s something I’d always wanted to do but never managed to execute.
In May 2019, my boyfriend got home from work one evening and asked “How would you feel about moving to Germany?” I laughed, thinking we were just joking about and said “Yeah, sure, whatever”. A few days later, my boyfriend told me he was going to Germany to be interviewed for a job. He flew out in June 2019 for that trial week and interview, got the job and precisely 6 weeks later, he moved into our new flat and started a new life.
I had a few more things to sort out from my end so I didn’t join him until September 2019. I also had a lot more people to say goodbye to than my boyfriend so I had to make lots of trips around the country before I could leave.
We now live in a beautiful little town in Bavaria, Germany called Meitingen. We’ve lived here since we moved in 2019 and don’t plan on moving anywhere else in Germany for the time being, mostly because our flat is an absolute STEAL for its size and location!
What’s your personal experience with the question “Should I stay or go?”
The first time this feeling arose was early December 2019, only 4 months into my expat journey. We were due to go home for a week for our “Christmas” visit because we had already booked tickets to events in England before we chose to leave.
On the morning of our departure, my boyfriend got called into work. His boss, who knew that we were about to embark on a 15 hour drive, told him that there were “integration issues” and that they would not be able to continue his contract. He was told not to return to work when we got home.
Bear in mind – they wanted him for his welding and mechanical skills, not his language skills.
It completely broke my boyfriend.
The job hunt had been hard for me too and I was still unemployed. We had enough savings to last us a couple of months, but then we would be totally broke.
And then we had to drive back to England sitting on this news. I septn most of that week at home crying. It was all just too damn hard. It seemed like the universe was against us on this mission.
“Being able to hang out with my friends and be comfortable and safe at home made me think that it wasn’t worth continuing with the rejection and pain we were getting in Germany. Maybe we should just move home.”
What made you stick it out and go back to Germany after Christmas regardless? It seems as if nothing was waiting for you there at the time?
In part, it was the fact that we sort of needed to go back to at least sort paperwork/bills etc. We had signed a minimum 1 year lease on the apartment and we were only 4 months in. Our German friends had also promised us a proper Silvester (New Year’s Eve) celebration so we had something small and fun to look forward to!
The other side to that is that both my boyfriend and I have a complete and total fear of failure. We are both very independent and stubborn. The idea that we would have to admit defeat and end up back living with parents while we started from scratch again was scarier to us than struggling through.
We had spent that week at the end of November 2019 among family and friends, told everyone our situation and got everyone’s opinions (wanted or unwanted!). What we then needed was that time to ourselves over the Christmas period to openly talk about the pros and cons of everything.
I think ultimately, we both did want it to work out, despite the question being there.
Since you’re still in Germany, things clearly worked out. How did that come about?
In January 2020, my boyfriend got offered a new job that meant he would have to work away from home in the week. But he loved it and his new boss genuinely didn’t care about the fact that he was English. In fact, he and the other employees LOVE that he is English!
I had since had two job interviews and a trial shift, but so far no further response from the respective companies. By early February 2020, I was at my wit’s end. My savings were gone.
“I was happy for my boyfriend but my heart physically ached at how much I missed my friends and family. And if I couldn’t even find a job then what was the point? I knew that I could get a job pretty quickly back home. It just made sense.”
One morning, I made the decision that I would go back home for 6 months. I would continue learning German, I would get a job and save my ass off. Then I could come back and try again with a fresh head.
That same afternoon, I got a confirmation letter from one of my interviews that they wanted to hire me and could I start in March. I immediately accepted, because as much as my heart ached to be with my friends, obviously the preferred course of action was to not have to leave my boyfriend for 6 months.
So I finally had a job! And it was a flexible-hours, well paid, super friendly job who hired me because I was a native English speaker. It was for a small subsidiary company of a larger firm who were just starting up so it was really exciting for me to dive straight into something new.
I would be working with international companies so there was hope that it would take me to the UK for work visits.
“Because I would be earning a decent salary, I could finally start planning for friends to come here and for us to go there. This was the perfect balance of the expat life I had dreamed of – finally!”
What a whirlwind so far! But we’re not done yet…
I started my job on 2nd March. By the end of my third week, Germany went into lockdown. Shortly after, Britain went into lockdown as well. Almost all international travel stopped.
Luckily (and this is still something I am incredibly grateful for), both my boyfriend and I were allowed to continue working.
But as it all got worse, it became apparent that the pandemic was going to last at least the rest of 2020 and potentially the whole of 2021, that question creeped into my mind again. Should I stay or should I go? *que The Clash*
England was on lockdown as well, so it’s not as if I could even see the people I missed. But once again, with the added pressure of a global pandemic and constantly changing rules, life in Germany seemed to become way more difficult than I’d ever imagined.
Throughout the waves of this pandemic, and especially over Christmas, this question has been nagging in the back of my mind. I’ve been very up and down with how I feel about it all.
Are there specific things that trigger the “down” and “up” periods for you?
Aside from my boyfriend losing his job, my struggling to find a job and the COVID-19 pandemic, not being able to be there for my family has left me feeling helpless and stranded in Germany.
Furthermore, a friend of mine had a baby in March last year. 3 of my friends got engaged over the summer. Another announced she was pregnant. Another turned 30.
These seem like silly things to get upset over, especially when the likelihood is that I would not have been able to see any of them to congratulate them in person due to Covid.
“With the wonderful, incredible Internet, I have been able to see photos and send messages instead. But it’s just not the same as having a cwtch (cuddle) with a newborn or hugging friends so hard it hurts. I am a big hugger, so not being able to do so during this pandemic has been very difficult!”
To lighten the mood, there have definitely been ups where that question has been removed from my mind completely.
- I have become accustomed to life in Bavaria. Life is much slower here and I have really learned to pace myself, to breathe more. The relationship between my boyfriend and I has grown so much more than I think was ever possible while we were both living our previous lives in England.
- During Summer 2020, we were able to drive down to Italy for a weekend. We took a day trip to Innsbruck in Austria. We strolled around many Alpine lakes near our new home.
- My mind has been split open in a thousand different directions. Having to learn German has made me want to learn more languages.
- I’ve started watching a myriad of foreign television/films.
- I’m forcing myself to learn uncomfortable things in order to help me grow as a person.
- Through the move and me subsequently setting up my Instagram and blog, I have met so many amazing people, particularly women, all of whom are doing incredible things.
None of these things would have happened had I stayed in England or moved back as soon as that question started nagging at me.
What’s your best advice for someone experiencing similar feelings as you?
There are a few things that I definitely wish I would have known when this question of “should I stay or go?” started to pop into my mind:
- It’s not and doesn’t ever have to be permanent either way.
- The worst time to get off a rollercoaster is in the middle of a ride – when your head is twisting and turning, going up and down with how you feel about the situation – that is the wrong time to make a decision. You need to write down or talk about everything you’re feeling until you’re grounded and balanced enough to make an informed decision.
- The grass is only ever greener where you water it – sometimes, the right decision will be to move home. I do think the time will come when I make that decision. But despite that question occasionally popping up to nag me, I definitely want to experience more of life here. It’s uncomfortable, but I am growing.
Katherine is a clarity coach for expats who can’t decide whether to stay or go. She has combined her PhD research on internationals dealing with change, professional expertise in change management and insight from serial expat and repat life into a powerful signature coaching method. Katherine’s mission is to help expats create fulfilling lives that feel both fun and secure (yes, that’s possible!).